Go There & Back Dave & LeeAnne Travel the World in 2007

Life on the Trans-Mongolian Express

A Thriving Mongolian Community
A Thriving Mongolian Community

When young Mongolians ask their parents where white people come from I’m sure many are tempted to say “From the Trans-Mongolian Express”. After being a pair of white dots in a sea of Chinese faces for over a month it was a little shocking being in the majority on this train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. We boarded early on Monday morning at a crowded train station in Beijing – nothing new there – but it was unusually easy to find our platform, as soon as the station attendant saw our faces she said “Ulaanbaatar?” and pointed us to Track 2. There we boarded the train with a ridiculous number of other backpackers, some headed to Mongolia, others headed on to Moscow or other parts of Russia.

The train is called the Trans-Mongolian Express, but I would suggest “Express” is used very liberally here. These trains are slow, old and Soviet. In fact they were the first trains in China we’ve been on that didn’t have AC – that’s because they’re not Chinese trains, their Mongolian – it’s not because you don’t need air conditioning on this 30 hour train ride that crosses the Gobi desert, it’s because they are old Soviet trains. I take it back, there is AC on the train, there are two classes – Soft Sleeper, and Deluxe. In Soft Sleeper you’re in a compartment with four berths and nice soft wide beds, but no AC. In Deluxe you’re in a compartment with two beds, your own personal shower and AC.

It landscape changes quickly on the train from massive smoggy Cityscape to rolling countryside, then you pass through the Great Wall into the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. By night-time you’re at the Mongolian border and your thinking “Hey, not too bad!”, then you sit at the border for about five hours as the train changes it’s gauge and your passport gets processed on both sides of the border. All of a sudden it’s close to 2AM, where did the time go?

Surprise! It’s dusty & hot in the Gobi, and unfortunately for us, we were in a car without AC, so your choices are sit and sweat it out in the compartment with the windows up, or put them down and eat dust all night. We chose to sweat it out. When you wake up the green is all gone, the landscape is flat as a pancake and you are definitely in the middle of the desert. By lunchtime the green has returned the land starts to undulate again and there are even a few trees around – you are nearing your destination: Ulaanbaatar.

You can tell you’re nearing civilization again as the amount of litter outside the train increases. On our approach to UB as it’s known in there parts Ulaanbaator was confused for a large parking lot – I am not making this up. Actually, it was an easy mistake to make, the outer “suburbs” of town are mainly Ger (Mongolian tents) cities, so it’s easy enough to confuse the two, but the UB is a whole other entry.

Despite all the heat, dust, boredom at the border, and the dining car running out of food, I have to say that we did very well on carriage-mates. We met an English couple named Sam & Dave on the platform in Beijing and as luck would have it they were our Carriage mates on the train, and great company. They’re taking the train all the way down the line to St. Petersburg, good on ‘em I say. Their good humor made the trip much more bearable.