I’m on the trans-Mongolian train right now heading from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. I was both excited and nervous about this journey; excited because I love train journeys and this is one of the most famous, but nervous in case I was put in a cabin with three burly drunk Russians.
As it happens, the Saturday train leaving at 7.15am is a seasonal train and starts in Mongolia rather than Russia, so it’s mostly tourists, Chinese and Mongolians, and I’m in a cabin with a Dutch lady and two Chinese men who all seem nice and well behaved.
I’ve settled down with tea, cake and a book – life is good with these three things. There’s a free hot water dispenser in each carriage and a power socket in each cabin so I’m all set up for the next 36 hours. I went a little overboard on the snacks though and pretty much only bought chocolate, sweets and crisps.
We’ve stopped a couple of times now and it’s quite hot outside – I expected a cool breeze forgetting that we’re going south.
I like it when we go around bends so I can see the rest of the train out of the window.
The Dutch lady has cracked open a beer for us to share and I’ve eaten Pringles, snickers, jelly sweets, nutella bread and at least 8 mini cakes so the food baby is growing rapidly.
The landscape is sandy and barren now. There are wild camels and bleach blonde horses sharing the dry tufts of grass.
You’d think I’d be sick of all this time spent staring out of the window after 2 weeks of it but I love it. I can quite happily daydream for as long as it takes.
Just had to help an old lady with her pot noodle – the first in her life by the look of it. She was worried she’d emptied the sachets in the wrong order and didn’t know how much water to put in.
7.15 – 9.45pm Border Crossings
The train stopped at the Mongolian border and officials boarded to check passports, documents and to glance at our bags. Meanwhile the train was shunted back and forth multiple times. No Man’s land between Mongolia and China lasted for longer than I expected and once again, officials boarded and took our passports at the Chinese border.
9.45 – 11.30pm The Changing of the Bogeys
Russian/Mongolian train tracks are different in width to Chinese tracks so every carriage must have its wheels, or bogeys, changed. While the train is stationary the toilets are locked and the Dutch lady just told me she needs “a number 2, and when I have to go I have to go.” TMI lady, TMI. She was eventually allowed to go as soon as we left the bogey warehouse, but the toilets were locked again straight after.
11.35pm – 1am
I would have loved to go to bed around about now but we pulled into a main station straight after the wheel change and the sink/toilets are still locked. I was shouted at by the megabitch on duty when I went near the sink so I had to wait. I’m sure I could have found a toilet at the station but I had no idea how long we’d be here for, and being on my own I didn’t want to risk the train leaving without me.
8am the following day
Woke up to grey industrial China. Not a bad night’s sleep though, probably the best I’ve ever had on a sleeper train thanks to some ear plugs the Dutch lady donated to me (the best gift a traveller could ever receive). I could quite happily stay on this train for days and I’m looking forward to reading for a few hours.
We’re now cutting through a gorge with steep red rock mountains emerging from the mist.
The Dutch lady just handed me a pair of tweezers and asked me to pluck the hairs from a mole on her neck. Yuck.
Arrived in Beijing!
Tips for the trans-mongolian railway:
* Bring toilet paper, ear plugs and a cup with tea bags/coffee for refreshments.
* My carriage had a shower, sink and two toilets, though I hear some aren’t as nice.
* If you need the toilet, just go! At major stations the toilets are shut 30 minutes before stopping and opened 30 minutes after – and stops can be over an hour long!