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Review: Trans Mongolian Railway

Specialist Holiday - Rail travel

Irkutsk, Russian Federation

Trans Mongolian Railway - Irkutsk to Beijing

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2259 reviews

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  • Apr 2008
  • Husband

47 people found this review helpful

This started as a grand idea to travel by train from Scunthorpe to Beijing. We’d always been intrigued by the thought of the Trans Siberian Railway. However the more we thought about it the more we decided it would be a long time to sit. We began to rework our plans. Michael had always been fascinated by the thought of Lake Baikal. Mongolia was a place that had been accessible in our youth but was gradually appearing on the tourist radar. The pictures we’d seen of it looked like the kind of place we wanted to visit.

We decided to fly to Irkutsk and spend a few days around there and Lake Baikal before catching the train into Mongolia and spending a few days there. From there we would use the train to get us to Beijing for a few days. At this point enthusiasm took over and we spent 4 weeks travelling the Silk Road across China into Kyrgyzstan and fly back from there.

We knew this was not the kind of holiday we could arrange ourselves and decided to use Audley Travel in Witney.  We went to see them and spent the best part of a day talking to their specialists to decided what was possible. They produced a draft itinerary for us which was amended until we were completely happy with it.

We enjoyed traveling by train. There are two attendants in charge of each coach who are responsible for looking after passengers and cleaning. They were always pleasant and helpful although the level of English was variable. The train was cleaned frequently and although toilets were basic they were kept spotless. There were western toilets as well as squat.

There is a coal fired water heater at the end of each coach, useful for making hot drinks and rehydrating pot noodles. These are standard food and supplied in many different flavours and not bad as long as you ignore the contents of the little sachet of ‘flavourings’. The main problem was lack of English on the label so it was pot luck what variety you picked. A large vacuum flask was provided in each compartment for hot water. At stations the coal wagon would trundle down the platform and fill up the coal bunker in the coach.

Tickets were collected when boarding and a voucher issued, which was exchanged for our tickets before getting off (attendants give you advance warning). Compartments can be locked by you but only opened by the attendant. At no time did we have any concerns about safety of belongings.

On Train 4 between Irkutsk and Ulaan Bataar we had a two-berth compartment with armchair and a shared washroom with our neighbours.

Train K24 from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing was similar but older. This time we were in a four berth carriage which we had to ourselves. This did not have a washroom attached, so we used the one at the end of the train. There was space for luggage under the lift-up lower bunk and above the door, but there would have been little space if there were four passengers with more than one suitcase each.

Sheets and a towel and small bar of soap each are provided.

The train runs on ‘Moscow time’ and this also applies to serving meals in the buffet car. At border crossings, the buffet car is removed and replaced by one from the country being entered. We didn’t use the buffet car, having gone prepared with bread, pot noodles, biscuits and fruit.

We left Irkutsk early in the morning before dawn. The train is now several days into its journey and social groups were well established among our fellow travellers. There were those who stood looking out of the windows, those who sat quietly reading in their compartment and a group of 4 who spent all their time playing cards in a darkened compartment.

The train follows the new line inland which runs inland from Irkutsk rejoining the original line at Slyudyanka. It was beginning to get light. The station was quiet with few people around. From here, the railway runs along the shore of Lake Baikal for several hours. It was a glorious sunny day. The lake was still frozen.

We left the shores of the lake and ran across flat steppe land with birch forest. At the end of April, the grass was still dead. We passed small scattered settlements of wooden houses surrounded by small vegetable gardens. some had a small station. Rubbish disposal seems to be a problem and in many places it is dumped at the outskirts of the settlements. There seems to be no recycling. We saw polythene bags blowing across the steppes hundreds of miles from the nearest civilisation.

We picked up the Selanga river valley as we began to climb to Ulan Ude. We were passed by several goods and passenger trains. These were very long, with many locos pulling them and could take several minutes to pass.

Ulan Ude is a large modern town where the train stops for 15 or so minutes. The station buildings are large and well cared for. There is a steam engine engine at one end of the platform, a turntable which still looks to be used and a wood carving of mother and baby bear.

The railway follows the broad river valley and runs along the side of Gusinoye Ozero (Goose Lake). In the distance we could see the mountains rising above the steppes.

It takes about 12 hours to the Russian Border town of Naushki. Again this is a splendid station building with wide platform.

RUSSIAN /MONGOLIA BORDER CROSSING This can take six hours. BE WARNED, the train toilets are locked just before border crossings and only unlocked when you are well into the next country.

It took four hours to get out of Russia. Passports were collected and taken to an office. Passengers were free to wander off the station to sample the delights of the town of Naushki. Toilets on the station were not used by us but reported by fellow passengers as very clean (charge). The whole train was thoroughly searched inside and out by both Customs and Immigrations. Two of our suitcases were opened by Customs. They looked underneath and unscrewed everything they possibly could looking behind all the panels. This was going out… We think the old Stalinist Russia may still be alive here.

A Cautionary Tale – Don't Mess Around With the Russian Authorities… Two young Germans who had travelled from Moscow had visas that had expired. They were removed from the train, fined 2,000 roubles each and told they could not leave Russia without a valid visa. This couldn’t be done at the border town and it was now about 10pm. A helpful taxi driver miraculously appeared who for $500 would put them up for the night, drive them back to Ulaan Ude the next day (4-5hour drive) and help them sort their visas. They would then have to make their own way back to Irkutsk to get a flight to Beijing to pick up their itinerary again.

We eventually moved the ten miles across the border, where there was a brief stop for external examination by Mongolian army and onto the Mongolian border town of Suche Bator. Passports were collected by Mongolian officials who were relatively laid back compared to their Russian colleagues. Nevertheless getting into Mongolia took two hours. Young Mongolians worked the train offering to exchange roubles for Mongolian currency. As this is not available outside Mongolia, it is worthwhile to get rid of roubles here. We weren’t sure how their rates compared with hotels or banks in Ulaan Baatar. We suspect they may not be as good.

We awake early next morning on the steppes of Mongolia which were every bit as good as the photographs. Open grassland stretched as far as the eye could see rising up into the distant hills. There was no settlement just grassland. As we got closer to Ulan Baatar, we began to pass a few small settlements of low houses as well as a few gers.

We left Uaan Baatar after breakfast. Gradually the steppe is left behind and the train runs across the Gobi Desert. This is flat, arid, with virtually no vegetation and dusty. There are very few settlements and these seem to be associated with the railway.

It is a long, hot run to the Chinese border. Even with windows closed the dust gets in everywhere.

MONGOLIA/CHINA BORDER CROSSING – 6.5 Hours Again this can take several hours. Be prepared for toilets to be locked for about 7 hours. Getting out of Mongolia was comparatively easy, just one hour at Dzamyn Ude then a few minutes to the Chinese frontier at Erlian where the fun begins. China railways run on a different gauge.

After passport collection the train is shunted out of the station, split, and then propelled into a shed. Here the coaches are uncoupled and jacked up. Russian/Mongolian gauge bogies are rolled out and the standard gauge bogies for China rolled in. The coaches are then lowered onto the bogies, re-coupled and taken back to the station. Eventually Customs and Immigration arrived, processed us and left.

We had read that it was possible to get off the train at Erlian until it returned after the bogie change. However on this evening nobody left the train. Whether it was actually forbidden we don't know, but suspect it was.

By now it was late and we were ready for bed. We woke next morning to China. We had left the Gobi behind and were travelling through a mountainous landscape of valleys, water, trees and small farms. Fields were tiny and every available space was used for growing crops. Buildings were made of sun dried bricks and we could see great gashes where the mud had been dug out. We dropped down off the high plateau through deep river gorges.

The train passed through several towns before eventually arriving in Beijing.

It had been a journey to remember – but we were glad we hadn’t gone all the way from Scunthorpe.

Photos of the train journey can be seen here

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