Epic train journeys – they’re the stuff of many true travellers’ fantasies. I know I have always wanted to do one of those mega-trips, the ones that you read about in the travel section of the Sunday papers and think ah, one day….But actually are they a bit over-romaticised? I’m sure if you’re willing to take out a second mortage on your house, you can still pay for one of those ultra-luxury Orient Express affairs and traverse the countryside in proper style. But how about doing one of those famous trips without the four-course dinners and the viewing lounges? What is it really like? For the latest in my Memorable Journeys series, we hear from Rachel of Persephone’s Blog – who actually wrote this half way through her amazing trip from China (where she has been teaching) to the UK.
Travelling from Beijing, China, to Ulan-Bator, Mongolia, could have taken a few short hours on a plane. However, myself and the two friends I was travelling with decided that a trip on the Trans-Mongolian Express train would be a better idea.
I know it’s a long way, but I think calling it ‘express’ is being a bit overambitious.
We were picked up from our hotel at 9.30am by the tour guide and driver who had been organised by the company we’d booked our travels with. The guide seemed nice enough but also didn’t seem to pay any attention to what we said to him. He started explaining that we would have to walk to the end of the street as the driver couldn’t drive up such a narrow street; we told him we’d been there for three days and were dropped off in the same place when we arrived so we knew about walking to the corner, but he paid no attention, even to me saying, “We know. We know. We know!” In the end we just let him talk. It was easier.
Arriving at Beijing Train Station we had to queue for about 15 minutes for our passports and tickets to be checked before being allowed through to security for our bags to be scanned – just like at the airport. We then had to wait for our guide to be allowed through (as he didn’t have a ticket), even though by the time he caught up with us we had found out where we needed to go and which platform our train was leaving from. Not that difficult, really, if you know your train number and time of departure.
After picking up a few snacks and drinks for the journey, we got to the platform entrance only to find that the platform wasn’t open yet and many other people were also waiting there with suitcases, rucksacks and random boxes. So began the first of many periods of waiting on our journey.
The platform was opened after a while and we eventually found the carriage and compartment that were due to be ours for the next 28 hours or so. Luckily for us, no one else joined us in the tiny four berth compartment, which gave us a little more space. We departed promptly at 11.22am, Beijing time.
Once the train had got going, one of the guards came to our compartment and gave us tickets – for food, we discovered – lunch and dinner, which was a nice surprise. Lunch consisted of rice, cabbage and some kind of meat with carrots in a nice sauce – much better than many meals I’ve had on flights and the like. We were lucky we went straight to lunch as soon as we got the tickets as otherwise we wouldn’t have got a table. There was really not enough space for everyone that wanted food at the same time. In some ways this ended up being a good thing, as then we started chatting with some of the other passengers.
The afternoon consisted of reading (I finished my book), looking at the passing scenery, taking occasional photos and chatting, until 5.30pm came around and it was time for dinner – which was very similar to lunch. However, this time we had wine with our meal (Great Wall wine which cost £4.50 a bottle and we had to add coke to, Spanish style, to make it drinkable). We chatted with a few more people and ended up ordering another bottle of wine (plus three cans of coke) as we watched the beautiful colours of the sky as the sun set over a vast plain.
Our conversation was only interrupted by a guard coming to tell us that we were nearly at the Chinese border and we had to go back to our compartments (in broken English, “Now, border, go,” with accompanying hand gestures). We shortly arrived in Erlian, had our passports and departure forms collected and then had another passenger told us we should get off the train as we would be stopped for hours with no available toilet. Accordingly, we disembarked and went into the main building… only to watch our train disappear down the tracks with all our luggage and passports and the doors be locked behind us. Slightly disconcerting.
I checked with one of the staff and she told us that the train would be back at 11.45pm as the wheels were being changed (due to different gauge tracks in different countries). The time then was about 10.40pm and we’d already waited almost an hour, so we decided it would be a good idea to go to the shop and buy vodka to keep us going!
The train eventually reappeared around midnight. We piled back on, got our passports back, were given another form to fill in for Mongolian customs, waited for ages then set off about an hour later on a short journey (about 20 minutes) to the Mongolian border. More officials then walked the train, checking and collecting passports, disappeared while the train moved backwards then forwards, backwards again, forwards again then stopped. We got our passports back with a small green stamp on a random page at the back. All this time we couldn’t use the toilets, and by then it was 2.40am. Sleep? Who needs sleep?! Thankfully, we didn’t have to get up at any particular time as we wouldn’t be arriving in Ulan-Bator until after 3pm the next day.
Around 3am we finally got to sleep, lulled by the rocking of the train. To be honest, I didn’t sleep that well but that was due more to the hardness of the bench I was sleeping on than anything else to do with the train.
After a few false starts, I awoke properly just before 10am. The landscape was dramatically different. We’d been talking the day before about the changing landscapes we went through and whether Mongolia would look significantly different to China – and it was. Before we’d travelled through mountains, past lakes, through cities and past agricultural areas, all overshadowed by a misty sky the whole day. Mongolia was a vast, burnt umber plain disappearing into the distance as far as you could see, with a few cows grazing here and there, surmounted by clear blue skies with not a cloud in sight. It was breath-taking.
A few hours later, spent mostly reading and snacking on the random junk food we’d picked up, we arrived in Ulan-Bator. We were finally in Mongolia, the second stop on an epic summer adventure. The next day we would go to visit and stay with a local family for two nights, sleeping in a ger out in the countryside. I couldn’t wait!
Thank you Rachel for sharing what certainly must have been a very memorable journey – I hope the rest of it went well (and maybe we’ll hear about the second part of your trip in a future post!). Remember, you can check out oter posts in my Memorable Journey series by clicking on the tag below – and do let me know if you have a Memorable Journey you would like to share with me and my readers!