the Trans - Mongolia railway

Trans Mongolia train sign

The Trans Siberia Railway is one of the greatest rail journeys one can make, and the subject has filled many books. The 'true' Trans Siberia runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, but there are two other routes one can follow to get across Siberia. One is the Trans Manchurian Railway, which runs from Moscow to Beijing through Manchuria, and the other one is the Trans Mongolia Railway. This line leaves the Trans Siberia at Ulan Ude, and heads south through Ulaanbaatar and the Gobi to Beijing. We took the train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar last December, and in April we embarked in Ulaanbaatar, and headed for Eindhoven (Netherlands). This 7-day trip comes highly recommended.

On this page I show a few pictures of the Trans-Mongolian to whet your appetite for this great journey. Once you have caught the bug and want to hop on the next train, you can refer to one of the many books on the Trans Siberia and and Trans Mongolia Railways which describe the practicalities of the journey in detail. The best of these books is the Trans-Siberian Handbook, by Bryn Thomas, Trailblazer Publications. Be sure to also check out the Silk Route by Rail, by Dominic Stratfield-Jones, Trailblazer Publications as well. It describes the route from Beijing to Moscow via Urumqui and Almaty. These two train trips would make the ultimate round trip through central Asia!  For a compilation of on-line resources on the Trans-Siberian make sure to check out Herbert Groot Jebbink's website, http://herbert.groot.jebbink.nl/tsr/.    http://www.trans-siberian.co.uk has a variety of resources on the Trans Siberian Railroad as well.

Loading up at Ulaanbaatar Station

Loading up at Ulaanbaatar Station

In early April there are still relatively few travelers getting on, especially on the Chinese train. There are three trains from UB to Moscow, a Chinese, Mongolian, and Russian train. The Mongolians prefer to travel on the Mongolian train, the Russians on the Russian train, and the Chinese on the Chinese train.

Why the Chinese train is the Way to go... Why the Chinese train is The Way to Go...

First Class Deluxe is the answer to one's worries about traveling across Siberia.Shower in Chinese train An easy chair, a table, two comfortable bunk beds to the right outside the picture, and best of all, the door on the left leads to a small shower, which you share with the cabin next door. And yes the water in the shower is hot! There is always boiling drinking water at the end of each carriage to make tea and food with. The carriages are new, German-made. The Mongolian Train now uses the same new carriages, but I don't think they have First Class Deluxe.

Note the food and drink spread on the floor. This is a must even on the Chinese train. They change to a Russian dining car at the Russian border, and although the menu looks good, the crew tends to sell their food to the locals on the stations, so that the quantity and quality of food severely deteriorated as we neared Moscow... One can get fresh fruit and veggies, bread and sausages at the stations though. So a good supply of instant noodles, a pot and some cutlery is all one needs.

Samovar

Samovar

The saviour for Trans Siberian travelers. This intricate piece of machinery is present in every car. It provides boiling hot drinking water 24 hours a day (well, as long as the conductors stoke up the fire...). You'll find these on Mongolian trains as well, so you can make you own dinner on those trains too.

Why the Trans-Mongolia is so popular in Siberia...

Why the Trans-Mongolia is so popular in Siberia...

Most of the passengers on the train are Chinese traders, who travel to and from Moscow every month. They carry an amazing variety of goods, including jackets, sporting outfits, and even plastic flowers.  Some had made makeshift store-displays!

What to do on a Sunday morning in Siberia...

What to do on a Sunday morning in Siberia...

Shop 'till you drop. The Train is a major source of entertainment  in Siberia, with much of each town coming out to see what's on sale this week. For 15 minutes it's pandemonium on the platforms, with salesmen doing brisk business, and locals running back and forth to compare deals. There is little time to try on anything or check for quality, because the train leaves without any warning. As the train pulls out, the last Rubles change hands and the locals are left to check out what they actually bought. Two days later another train will come by, and the scene will be repeated again.

It's this human element that makes the trip so memorable.

Red Square, Moscow

Red Square, Moscow

End of the road for the Trans Mongolia. Once one crosses the Urals into Europe, the stations are quiet, and there is a lot less trading. Yaroslavskii Station is not much different form any other European Station. Here the traders pack up what's left of their wares, and try to sell some in the city. They'll look for some things to buy to sell in China, but at the moment there are few things which are cheaper in Russia than in China.

Dawn over GermanyDawn over Germany

Many people stop their Trans Siberia journey in Moscow, but the train on to Berlin well worth the time too. Okay, so the facilities are a cut down from the Trans Mongolia , as there is no shower, no easy chair, the cabins are much smaller, and there are no traders to liven up the journey. It's still a good trip.

You leave Moscow's Belorusskaya Station at midnight in a comfortable Russian Sleeper Car, and arrive at the Polish border the following day. Here the bogies of train are changed to fit the European track size. The Trans-Mongolian goes through the same routine at Erlian, on the Chinese-Mongolian border.

From here you cruise through Poland on to Berlin, where you arrive the following morning at the crack of dawn. From there it is a short eight hour ride to the Netherlands.

If you have time, patience, and you love traveling, then this is the way to go. It beats air travel by a long shot.

Some tips:

  • When to go: Try to travel in the off-season (fall, winter, spring). Then the Trans Mongolian is nearly empty, and you'll have much of first class to yourself.
  • Make sure to try and book the Chinese train which go once a week. They leave Beijing on Wednesdays, UB on Thursday. They get to Moscow on Monday afternoon. Check with a travel agent for the Moscow to Beijing schedule.
  • Regular First Class is hardly worth the money; you still have four berths, and no shower. So you might as well save and take second class.
  • If you are alone, you may want to travel second class, with the traders. Much more of a cultural experience, but you will have a hard time getting in and out of your cabin because of all the goods the traders manage to stuff into the cabins. No showers either.
  • Bring one good book, but no need for a lot. There are enough stops, people to talk to and things to see to keep you busy for five days.
  • Food: Bring Chinese noodles, some drinks, a pot, and some cutlery. Armed with those you'll be set for food. Make sure to get some Rubles, from the train attendant for example, for quick shopping sprees at the stations.
  • Be aware: whistles are a foreign concept in Siberia, so the train leaves each station without any warning! A couple of us were nearly left behind in Novosibirsk when the train suddenly started to pull out. Good thing the train has manual doors, so a quick sprint and a jump made sure we didn't spend an unplanned holiday in Novosibirsk.
  • Safety: getting to know your train attendant and some of the traders helps. I think the Chinese train, especially in the off-season, is much safer than the Russian ones in the high season. But still be careful, and keep a close eye on many and valuables at all times. The new cabin doors can be locked quite effectively from the inside.

    Enjoy your trip!

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