Trans Mongolian Railway - old style luxury travel
Jan 30, 2010
Sep 12, 2010
In these days of cheap airline flights, it's relatively easy to zip around the globe, hopping from one city to another, sometimes with a brief view from the window. Perhaps we forget that this has only been the case for 30 or 40 years, before that long distance travel was the domain of the train. In South America we found train travel to have gone the way of the dinosaur, abandoned tracks still dotting the landscape, but a complete absence of working lines. However, in some parts of the world, long distance trains still exist, the most famous being the Trans Siberian Railway and it's offspring the Trans Mongolian. The latter can take you direct from Beijing to Moscow, a distance of 7,850km [4,900 miles], through China, Mongolia and onto Russia.We took the first section of this route, travelling just 1,550km [1,000 miles] from Beijing direct to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Although 'only' 1,000 miles, this journey takes 31 hours, including most of the night spent at the China/Mongolia border. Boarding the train in Beijing went very smoothly; we were surprised how quiet the main railway station was, especially in comparison with just a few days earlier when Annet had been pushed over in a crazy crowd rushing and jostling for the train to Chengde (& a fight had broken out at the security checkpoint). We were greeted by our conductor and shown to our soft sleeper compartments (we had splurged for the best seats on the train), adjoining compartments just for the three of us. Each coach was ornately built from wood veneers and was clearly from a past age (no sign of chrome or plastic here), but in a great mellowed condition. Oliver explored every nook and cranny and tested every switch, lock and connivance and suitablely impressed, we all settled in to watch the landscape roll by, as we headed out of Beijing, north towards Inner Mongolia and to the Mongolian border at Erlan, 800 km away. We travelled from the industrial cities around Beijing and through mountainous regions until we entered Inner Mongolia several hours later, where the landscape changed to flat desert and the air started to clear of the thick haze/smog we had seen for the five days we had spent in Beijing. We reached the border at 10pm and then spent 5 hours navigating the Chinese and Mongolian border procedures, including a complex wheel changing operation (the tracks in Mongolia and Russia use a broad gauge vs. the standard gauge in China, just 3" wider yet enough to make this change necessary) - each coach is lifted into the air, the bogies (wheel units) are rolled out, new ones rolled in and the coaches lowered again. Having First class sleeper tickets, we were allowed to stay in our beds the whole time, but were roused many times for passport and customs checks.Finally leaving the border at 3am (2 hours late) we headed into Mongolia, catching up on our sleep with the aid of the rythmic motion of the train. Dawn came early and we sat and watched the flat Gobi desert roll slowly by (not a tree or shrub from horizon to horizon, just a little grass and the occasional few horses and gers (round felt tents in which the herders live). Our time was taken up with games of bongo, reading and eating in the adjacent dining car. In the night the dining car had changed from the Chinese one (with simple, very cheap fried dishes) to a very ornate Mongolian one (with tastier but much more expensive dishes).After just 31 hours (for in fact the time seemed to pass very quickly), our train rolled gently into Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia and we disembarked from a remarkable train journey, a glimpse into a past age of glory of long distance train travel. If only we could get Russian visas, the track towards Moscow (6 more days away) beckoned us onwards.....