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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan-Bataar on Train no. 3
We were pleasantly surprised to have the entire compartment to ourselves all the way to Mongolia.
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. Meals were simple but tasty. 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. The hallway of the second class carriage had bright interiors. All the carriages had samovars are located at one end. 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.
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. 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.
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. The train arrived on schedule at the Ulan-Bataar station at 14:00 hours.
We survived the first leg !
Coming next, Part 2 the unexpected illegal passage to Russia