My Epic rail journey – Part 1

After years of pondering and months of preparation, a friend and I finally hopped on the train from Beijing to Moscow and traveled a total of 129 hours, 7,300 kilometers across 3 different time zones.

“Why take the train when you can fly?” It puzzled many, even some of the locals we’ve met thought we were insane, but the longest continuous railway line across Russia has that mysterious allure and we just had to do it for the experience and adventure.

The Beijing Central Railway Station where we boarded the the K3 to Ulan-Bator.
The Beijing Central Railway Station where we boarded the the K3 to Ulan-Bator.

With a length of 9,289 kilometers linking Moscow to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, it connects to Europe at one end and to China on the other via two routes, The Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian. We took the most popular and scenic route on the Trans-Mongolian to Ulan-Bataar and then on the Trans-Siberian to Moscow breaking our journey with a few nights in Mongolia, Irkutsk, Ekaterinburg. L1120812

Travel times between our destinations were lengthy at 25 to 44 hours on each leg and after a while I settled into a certain rhythm of life on the train watching the world go by, sleeping and taking pictures.

Most passengers in the Beijing to Ulan-bataar train were tourists who took turns to get a decent photo through the only window that can be opened.
Most passengers in the Beijing to Ulan-bataar train were tourists who took turns to get a decent photo through the only window that can be opened.

We traveled second class all the way and it was comfortable even if we had to share compartments with strangers. We were also lucky to have been paired with very nice people.

The Second Class life

L1120578
The tiny center table on our compartment served as a dining table, a working table and had pretty much anything and everything on it all the time.

Also known as Kupe, there are 9 compartments in a coach with two toilets and washbasins on each end of the corridor. In a compartment are 4 berths and a tiny table at the center. Storage space for a small luggage or a backpack can be found under the beds and over the cabin door.

Storage space under the bed or seat of the chinese train.
Storage space under the bed or seat of the Chinese train.

All the trains have Provodnisks (male) or Provodnistas (female) who check the tickets, do the cleaning, take care of the samovar and distribute fresh linen, blankets and a small towel shortly after departure.

The Provodnista of the Golden Eagle train. The hotel on wheels ; a luxurious way to travel the Trans-Siberian
The Provodnista of the Golden Eagle train. The hotel on wheels ; a luxurious way to travel the Trans-Siberian

It is safe. Cabins can be locked from the inside, but during the day, passengers often left the doors open.

Some of the trains we took were newer and a little more spacious than the others, one provided an amenity kit and a snack box. One of the trains had a flat screen TV in the compartment. Most had dining cars and I learned that there are trains that have a service car with showers, but the ones we took didn’t have it.

Linen, towels and amenity kit at the Russian train. This was on the Ekaterinburg to Moscow train
Linen, towels and amenity kit at the Russian train. This was on the Ekaterinburg to Moscow train

Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan-Bataar on Train no. 3

Tourists rush down to the platforms as soon as the gate opened at the Beijing station. Our train is the one on the right.
Tourists rush down to the platforms as soon as the gate opened at the Beijing station. Our train is  the one on the right.

I got excited as soon as I saw the logo of the iconic Beijing to Moscow Train. L1120185

The Chinese train ticket conveniently also in english
The Chinese train ticket conveniently had English translation

We were pleasantly surprised to have the entire compartment to ourselves all the way to Mongolia.

The four berth Kupe on the chinese train.
Our compartment on the Chinese train.
There are a lot of developments happening in towns along the Chinese railway.
The view in China. There are a lot of developments happening in towns along the Chinese railway.

We didn’t know that our ticket came with free lunch and dinner on the first day until the Fuyuwuan or attendant handed us stubs. L1120204 Meals were simple but tasty. _BCL0137 We got to interact with other passengers who were mostly tourists at the dining car but there were not enough seats for everyone, so we had to leave immediately after each meal. _BCL0127 The hallway of the second class carriage had bright interiors. All the carriages had samovars are located at one end. _BCL0106 L1120283 The first class carriage had a different interior and each compartment had only two berths and a small sitting area.

By 10:00 in the evening our train arrived in Erenhot or the Erlian Station near the border with Mongolia where immigration procedures took place.

The train had more than 30 carriages. This was during the stop an Erlian and before the wheel change.
The train had more than 30 carriages. This was during the stop an Erlian and before the wheel change.
Erlian Station
Erlian Station. Our carriage Fuyuwuan watched as our windows get cleaned.

It was very late and I was so sleepy when the transfer of railroad wheel-change operations also took place but I didnt want to miss it. The change was necessary because of the different gauges used in Mongolia and China. L1120266 L1120262 The train wasn’t equipped with retention-toilets so the toilets were locked while we were stuck inside the carriages during the entire time the wheel-change and immigration procedures were happening.

Good Morning Mongolia!
Good Morning Mongolia!

By almost 2:00 am, our passports were returned by Mongolian immigration officials and at 4:00 am, it was already sunrise. _BCL0259

_BCL0284
In one of the stops in Mongolia

The landscape changed and suddenly it was grasslands. We were definitely in Mongolia. _BCL0287 The Steppes switched from golden to green the as we got nearer Ulan-Bataar. L1120292

L1120305
This was just a few minutes away from  Ulan-bataar

We got our packs ready when we started seeing houses bordering the railroad tracks. By this time also, the Fuyuwuan collected the linens and returned our tickets. L1120309 The train arrived on schedule at the Ulan-Bataar station at 14:00 hours.

Ulan-Bataar Train station.
Ulan-Bataar Train station.

We survived the first leg !

Coming next, Part 2 the unexpected illegal passage to Russia

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From Swerve of Shore

A Blog by Photographer Aaron Joel Santos

The Smart Way Round

Travel blog of two overland adventurers and now family travellers. Just because you have kids doesn't mean the adventure stops.

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