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Riding the rails: Beijing to Mongolia

February 20, 2013 - Jo Lane

THE Trans Mongolian runs between China and Russia via Mongolia. It is one of the world’s epic train journeys with images of desert, vast steppe, wilderness and great cities all from the comfort of the rail carriage.

The section outlined here is the first part of the journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, a trip that takes 35 odd hours and runs on Tuesday and Wednesdays departing around 8am and arriving 1-2pm the day after. Traipsing from the might of the Chinese capital through the Gobi desert and across the steppe it is a good introduction to central Asia.

Ulaanbaatar-Beijing train. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Beijing (China): 0 km


Beijing is the capital of China and a great place to start, or end, your journey with plenty to see, do, eat and marvel over. It’s also where you can procure train tickets either via an agent or directly from the CITS (China International Travel Service) in the Beijing International Hotel, near the main railway station. The train departs Tuesday and Wednesdays from Beijing Railway Station. There are three classes of tickets to purchase, but even the most basic comes with a sleeping berth, sheets, blanket and towels. There are toilets at the end of the carriage and a dining cart to purchase your meals. Stops are intermittent and short, but long enough to jump off and stretch your legs, buy something on the platform or smoke if you feel the need.

Carriage on the train. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com
Great Wall: 295-272 km


This is perhaps the most memorable part of the journey before you reach the Mongolian border when the train travels along the Great Wall. Make sure you have your camera handy.


Mongolian border Erlyan: 842 km


The border crossing between Mongolia and China is a long procedure but actually quite interesting. Your passport details are checked on both ends of the border by some rather unsmiling guards – the first at about 8pm at night. In between each border the bogeys of the train are changed as the two railway lines have different widths. The whole procedure takes several hours. You can leave the train during some of it – it can be pretty cold out on the platform. The fun is usually over around midnight when the train shunts off again into Mongolia.


Changing the bogey at midnight on the Mongolian-China border. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com


After the border the train enters more inhospitable regions and the Gobi desert. During this crossing you can be showered with sand even within your sleeping compartment. While this part of the journey is through the wee hours of the morning it’s worth taking a look outside from time to time – a vast ocean of sand will greet you; particularly beautiful on a moonlit night.


Camels in the Gobi desert - photo taken on the return journey. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com


Once the train leaves the desert and enters the steppe in the morning light it becomes more picturesque. There are also some twisting sections where you can take great pictures of the landscape and train. Here you’ll also see views of nomads living in gers (tents) with their livestock and plenty of animals herds. These groups seem to grow more regular until small townships emerge and finally the outer parts of Ulaanbaatar.


Common scenes as the train nears Ulaanbaatar. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com


Ulaan Bataar: 1500km


The capital of Mongolia is the final stop on this leg of the journey. The town dates back to 1639 when it formed part of the great tea route between China, Russia and Europe. There’s a foreign exchange here on the platform if you need cash for an ongoing journey, and plenty of food options if you’re heading onto Moscow (another five days). If you’re not going onto Russia, it’s definitely worth spending some time in the city. Ulaanbaatar might seem like it’s in the middle of nowhere but it has good restaurants, banks, museums, art galleries, theatre and is the best place to plan trips further afield – to Erdenet, Terelj National Park or anywhere else.

See seat61.com for lots more details about train travel in this part of the world.

Mongolian carriage guards. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Riding the rails: Beijing to Mongolia
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