One of our most exciting Bucket List items was to travel from Beijing to Moscow via the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian Railway. It truly is the quintessential journey of a lifetime and a unique way to traverse Asia into Europe.
The Trans-Mongolian Line is the famous branch off the Trans-Siberian Main Line which links Russia with Mongolia and China. Following the old tea caravan route between Beijing and Moscow from the 18th and 19th centuries, it is 7865km of scenically beautiful landscape that slowly evolves before your eyes as you gaze out the train windows.
Heading westbound, it starts from Beijing Station, a bustling crowded centre of activity. Although a short walk across the open plaza from the subway exit, the steaming morning temperatures ensured we were drenched in sweat in no time at all with our heavy backpacks on. Once through the long lines at the front (not clearly signed at all in English) we passed through the cavernous station, stocked up on drinks then entered the epically expansive platform. Wow! So much space for no apparent reason.
At the platform waited our fourteen carriage Mongolian Train K23.
Our Trans-Siberian Railway adventure was about to begin!
At 11:22am, we pulled away and rolled through the bustling metropolis of high density residential buildings, highways and bustling commercial plazas. Slowly but surely the concrete jungle eroded away to clusters of farmland and decaying empty building shells.
Our second class 4 berth cabin was quite nice, clean and comfortable. We would share with Matt, an Australian high school teacher from Traralgon. A fellow Victorian like us! What were the odds? With just three of us, we had heaps of room to stretch out, chat and watch the scenery roll by as we shared our life stories!
Once into the countryside, long dark tunnels broke up the next hour with bursts of sunlight emerging on ruins of the Great Wall amongst the increasingly mountainous terrain. Crossing the San Gan River, the rocky hills gave way to dry tablelands dispersed with industrial coal towns.
Past the main train junction at Jining, more prosperous farmlands appeared with rolling green hills and epic fields of corn. Suddenly you realise; for this amount of corn, I don’t remember seeing corn on any Chinese menu anywhere. Hmmmm.
Now in the so-called autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, the train entered the Gobi Desert. Expanses of flat dry land with no signs of civilization as far as the eye could see. And you really notice it here, since this far out of Beijing, the monotonous smog of heavy pollution that hangs over everything has finally cleared away revealing clean blue skies.
Like many train travellers, we used the free boiling water to cook some 2-minute noodles for lunch. We were loaded with snacks and sandwiches for the many hours of sitting and gazing out the windows.
We pulled into one station and noticed a convoy of army vehicles on a train heading the way we’d come. Don’t see that everyday.
Matt later introduced us to Rachel, a Brazilian woman whom he had shared a taxi with that morning. She had lived in Australia for five years and was two months pregnant and brave enough to continue travelling the world solo! She was a cooking/travel blogger and photographer with a website of gorgeous looking desserts she excitedly showed us on her laptop. She was a free spirit and the four of us laughed over a semi-tasty dinner in the rear dining carriage. Check her out at www.theuntamedcook.com.au
After a late summer sunset, we reached Erlian at 9:40pm, the final Chinese town at the Mongolian border crossing. We handed our passports (begrudgingly) to the Chinese customs officer who boarded the train and soon enough the Mongolian train attendant pointed outside saying “passport”. We exited the train along with most others and filed into the station/customs building. No sooner had we bought some food supplies from the upstairs convenience store did we realise that they had locked us all inside! We watched helplessly as the train rolled away. It was heading to the shed for the carriages to be changed to different rolling stock, since the railway track gauge in China was different to Mongolia and Russia.
We were stuck in the sitting room for 2.5 hours! It turned out there were even more Aussies on our train! We got talking to a group of 5 who were taking the “Vodkatrain” tour package with more Aussies. There was also an Australian father and son retracing the footsteps of their family’s Siberian past. After what seemed like an eternity, we boarded again at 1am and soon crossed the border and stopped at the first Mongolian town, Zamyn-Uud. Passports were handed out again to the Mongolian customs officer and we waited inside our cabin this time.
With Lakshi and Matt asleep, Andrew (patiently) stayed awake until we got our passports back and we departed again at 2:50am. Awaking to the rhythm of the rolling train wheels, daylight brought the dry, arid no-mans land of the Mongolian desert.
Flat expanses of nothing stretched to infinity. Suddenly, wild herds of horses and camels would break up the somewhat alien vistas. As the terrain evolved into more rolling hills, we had entered the Mongolian steppes and it began to sink in that we were really here doing this incredible journey into Mongolia.
The plains became more lush, purple and blue desert flowers sprinkled across shrub-covered terrain.
Settlements with traditional gers and fenced in homesteads stood out amongst the empty fields surrounding it.
Then a massive colourful settlement would spring out of nowhere as we rolled by.
By now the excitement level in our carriage had peaked as we all gathered in the hallway, cameras glued to the windows. We found a new friend, an 8 year old girl from USA travelling with her family, who couldn’t contain her excitement and stuck with us until we reached Ulaanbaatar. Pulling in to the dusty station at 2:20pm, we had finally made it! The first leg of our Trans-Siberian/Mongolian journey was done.
Travelled 2nd and 3rd August 2014.