After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the sack, we headed to the train station. It was chaotic – mad crowds at every turn, trolley bags knocking on my ankles, people elbowing at my side in a hurried puff, the air was still and incredibly humid. We had to find the station’s entrance, but all signs were in Chinese. Then we spotted a queue with some Western travelers in the line. We promptly asked if they were heading to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia capital and they said, “Yes”.
The line steadily snaked in going through security and then into a large waiting hall. It dawned on me that this is IT! We are really getting on a train starting our Trans-Mongolian railroad adventure! One sure sign was seeing other western travelers with their huge backpacks and hiking boots on – the look of rugged travelers ready to embark on a great adventure.
The gates opened and there before us, the familiar green train with the famous red star on its side. I’ve seen this train in pictures after many months of researching prior to the trip. We were on the right track. I looked around and saw people taking selfies. There was a tangible mutual excitement that lingered in the air – an anticipation that was almost forceful enough to push the train along with a chugga-chugga.
Our train attendant was a stalky, middle-aged friendly chap. He checked our tickets and waved us in. This was the first overnight train of many to come as we were headed west straight to Moscow in the next few weeks. New to the whole train scene, we got into our cabin of four, with two bunk beds on each side, a small table next to the window and enough for two adults to stand side by side.
We stored our luggages under the bottom bunk bed and stowed away our small backpack. Surprisingly, although the cabin may seem small at first sight, after keeping our bags, there was enough room to sit comfortably, even with legs outstretched. Every space and fixture in the cabin has been thoughtfully positioned – we had hooks for small towels, hangers for clothes, a little rack for phones or small items and in each carriage had two power sockets and a samovar for hot water anytime of the day. It’s especially convenient for making instant noodles and coffee.
Since we bought second-class tickets, our carriage did not have air-conditioning. And the worst part was that the windows in our cabin was faulty so it couldn’t be opened. The small fan helped with circulation, but since it was summer – it got a bit hot and stuffy in the afternoon. We would escape to the first-class carriages (two beds per cabin with a cushy seating space) to enjoy some cool air. But as soon as we received stern stares from the train attendant, we exited promptly. We did this several times until the afternoon heat simmered down.
One of the best things of train travel is meeting new friends. Stuck in a small space, we’re forced to forge new friendships. We shared our cabin with Samantha, a young British girl who was also headed for Mongolia and she was going to spend a month in the country before moving onto South Korea. We exchanged travel stories and shared umpteen snacks.
Not long after we departed, our train attendant (each carriage has one attendant) knocked on our doors and gave us clean bed sheets and duvet covers. Then he gave us two red and green tickets for lunch and dinner – we couldn’t contain our excitement! No where in the ticket did it say lunch and dinner was provided. We did not catch this information on any of the guides we have read – so it was a pleasant surprise.
What we found out after the whole TransSiberian experience was that Chinese trains offered the best food. Who can fault a Chinese cook with a belly sticking out and a towel around his neck? There was a fully equipped kitchen in the dining carriage and the wok was fired up at full steam. We had rice and celery chicken for lunch and rice and meatballs for dinner. Sadly we were too enthused with the food to take any pictures. It didn’t stay long on our plates.
Eight hours down, 20 hours to go! We’ve explored different carriages, visited the loo several times, read a few stories to Seth, finished a few chapters in our books and popped way too many raisins and nuts. Surprisingly, we were not bored (yet). The novelty of sitting on the train still gripped us. I kept taking out my phone to capture the ever-changing scenery. The train meandered past valleys with towering mountains on both sides, farmers were seen herding cattle and sheep in wide open plains, we saw modest Chinese homes with unmistakable a-framed tiled roofs clustered in small communities and we tunnelled through mountains – and each time we did, the cabin was pitch black. Seth’s favourite was going through tunnels. He would exclaim, “Mommy, where are you?” with hands outstretched, “Daddy, are you there?” groping in the dark. He would snicker as soon as we exited the tunnel.
Changing Bogies At The Chinese-Mongolian Border
Whether you’re a regular train passenger or not, one of the more unusual experiences happens at the Chinese-Mongolian border – Erlian. Here, the train’s bogies (wheels) have to be changed due to the different track gauges used by Mongolia and China railway networks.
We arrived at 940pm at Erlian, immigration officers entered our carriage to carry out customs and immigration checks. They take our passports and ask us to verbally state our names while looking at us with a steady glare. We were given a choice to remain on the train or alight at the station. Once you get off the train, chances are you will not return until after the bogies have been changed – the whole process took about two hours. Terence went down to get some snacks and ended up waiting. At the station there are proper toilets, an ATM machine and some shops for drinks and snacks. Most people alighted, but I stayed since Seth was fast asleep and I had secretly wanted to see how the bogies were changed.
Our train wheeled into a shaded platform where each carriage was raised, one at a time during the bogie change. Toilets on the carriage were locked and electricity was shut down. The bogies are then removed and new ones are replaced. Every time an existing bogie was removed from a carriage the entire train would shake violently. There was a lot of banging and knocking involved too! At some point I thought Seth would wake up crying because of the loud clanking but he slept through, even snoring at some point.
After an hour and more of ground shaking activity, the carriages are lowered back onto the track and we headed back to the station to pick up the other passengers. It was another 30 minutes wait before we got our passports back and then we finally bid goodbye to China.
An hour into the ride and just as we were about to settle in for some slumber, we arrived at Zamyn Uud the Mongolian border. Our jarring cabin lights flicked on, a smart looking lady officer with strong perfume and brightly coloured nails motioned for our passports. We handed it over and she stamped our customs declaration forms. The wait continued – another two hours on a stationary train waiting for our passports to be cleared. Alas at 315am, about six hours since Erlian’s border crossing, the officers returned to the train and handed back our passports. Our train chugged away into no man’s land and we sank straight into bed.
Good Morning Mongolia!
The air was cool and arid, our cabin door was still shut but outside I could hear children from the other cabin exchanging notes on Mongolia, “Dad, can we ride a horse? Do they have camels too?” “What do people in Mongolia eat?” “They look like Chinese, but they are not.” I chuckled under my sheets and thought, what an amazing country Mongolia is – even children are genuinely curious about her.
The scenery had changed dramatically. I saw horses galloping afar, random gers dotted in the field, and we even passed some grazing camels. The morning has broken and the skies were the brightest blue with stark white clouds and the occasional majestic eagle circling the sky.
We made our way to the dining carriage to grab some breakfast and I was completely spell bound when I opened the carriage door. The dining carriage must have been changed at one of the border crossings and I was now staring at a Mongolian-furnished dining hall. Wooden furnishings of Mongolian instruments, bow and arrow and other hunting paraphernalia. Faces of ancient gods were part of the fixtures too. I could tell that every person who walked in for the first time was equally surprised. They had that “Wow” look on their faces, almost gawking in disbelief. We had some hot goulash and buns for breakfast and immediately missed the great Chinese food the day before.
28 hours after we first boarded the train, we arrived in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The day was incredibly hot, but a new country awaited us. We alighted with our bags and toddler in the sack and was greeted by a cheerful welcome from our hostel host. I love this country already!