Wednesday, August 30, 2017

TransMongolian Rails Part I - Beijing to the Mongolian Border and Beyond

This rail journey was truly a trip of a lifetime, and we'd been wanting to do it for a long time. It required a lot of planning and was, frankly, easy to put off. But the more we learned, the more it became clear that not only could we plan it, we could afford it. We were going to have to do a lot of legwork and research though. As always, the man in seat61 was an invaluable resource. We made some big decisions early on - we knew we wanted to do the Mongolian route to and then on through Siberia rather than crossing the entire continent starting from Vladivostok. While I'd love to do that trip too, I really wanted to visit Mongolia, and the idea of moving across the Gobi desert on a train was irresistible.

The Gobi Desert, by rail.

We also decided to make the long plane ride first (though of course, it ended up being the shorter trip because it was a direct flight and our journey home required a layover). We went from East to West, and decided on a shoulder season - it gets busier in May. I was into the idea of going when the days would be longer, but we wouldn't have to deal with as many people. The other plus is that if something went wrong, booking an alternate trip wouldn't be difficult. I booked the flights first, we knew we would have to jump through a lot of hoops to get our Russian visa so there was no reason to put it off when I saw a deal. After the tickets were bought, we had to put everything else in place.

Our friend in Beijing

It was going to be 5139 miles from Beijing to St Petersburg, by land. Everything from Beijing to Moscow was booked in advance, and we put off booking the last leg to St. Petersburg until we were there, to allow for flexibility. We used a service to get our tickets from Beijing to Irkutsk.

The Beijing Railway Station

There's no way to get them (that I know of) otherwise unless you physically go to the train station which of course wasn't an option for us; we didn't want to put it off until we arrived of course. It was easy; our tickets got delivered to our hostel, an awesome little place pretty close to the train station in Beijing.

Beijing Railway Hostel - a nice place with a lot of lovely plants.

Tea and sweets in a Beijing mall
The vehicles of Beijing are varied

Scenes from outside the Forbidden City

We had some time to kill and wandered around Beijing so we wandered over to the Forbidden City for a bit before heading on to the train station. It was a really nice day, a sharp contrast to the last time I was there, a smoggy winter day. It was a shame we didn't have more time to linger in Beijing, where there is so much to see and do and eat. But we had a long trip ahead of us and it was only just beginning. We headed for a supermarket before making our way to the train station, which is a bit of a mob scene. You show your ticket at a gate out front, while everyone pushes and shoves to get inside, and then you go through security. By the time it was all over we had a pretty short wait before boarding and I was glad we'd gotten there when we did. Next time I might not cut it so close.

All was well and we easily found our train, which was staffed by friendly conductors who had a limited bit of English skills and could communicate with us. The excitement was building, it was hard to believe that after talking about this journey for so long, the time was here. A lot of people were making their journey of a lifetime... 

We'd splurged and gotten a nice room. We wandered around and checked the place out. The train was nice. We spoke with a few other passengers, mostly Westerners from Europe.

It was easy to enjoy the scenery from the many windows on the train, whether sitting back in the cabin or walking the aisles.

After awhile it was time to make our way to the dining car for our meal. The car was nice, the place was clean, and the waiters didn't speak a lick of English. Being vegetarian, I was served the same as everyone else - chicken with green peppers and a side of rice. It was ok. I was prepared and we had our groceries and meal bars I'd brought along, and of course I ate the rice.

The scenery stayed lush and picturesque for a long time. We passed through small towns and a few cities, and the evening stretched on. 

Things were quiet on the train and it was a smooth ride. It was easy to kick back and relax.

As we moved on through China, making one or two stops along the way, the scenery began to change, and the landscape got progressively more arid.

It started to feel like we were getting deeper into the continent.  The sky stretched out.

Still, though, signs of civilization remained...

One last stop for us before the sun set on our first day on the train. It was a good feeling.

Finally, we got to the border. We would spend several hours here and passports were checked, and the gauge of the wheels on the train was changed.

We were finally on our way once again....

The sun rose over the Gobi Desert, and I was entranced. We felt a long way from home, and from everything.

Eventually, we hit our first town in Mongolia, a small place indeed.

It seemed a bit lonely out here, but was a very interesting place to pass through.

I took a short walk to photograph the statue below and was quickly beckoned back to the train.
Eventually, we got on our way and spent the rest of the day watching Mongolia go by.

Above, a statue of the first Mongolian cosmonaut.


  1. You got some really good photos in here. I learned that the statue in Mongolia, that you guys got a photo of, is the first Mongolian cosmonaut. Pretty cool.


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