The Trans-Siberian & Trans-Mongolian (UK to Japan overland)

The sun hanging low over Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal, Siberia

At first I was going to write a ‘how to do the Trans-Siberian’ page, but really what’s the point? The internet has this pretty much covered – seat61 is of course the go-to for practical info on rail travel, and has a solid Trans-Siberian page with information on the trains & classes, how to book, etc. So it’s probably more useful for me to just describe how we did it and what our experience was like, and then outline the options for routes & stops and how to tie the Trans-Siberian in with a wider Europe – Asia overland trip (if you want to jump straight to the bit about routes & stops without reading the waffle about my own trip, click here)

The Trans-Siberian Railway

The Trans-Siberian railway is one of the world’s classic overland adventures, conjuring up images (for foreign tourists, anyway) of Dr Zhivago landscapes and the romance of old-fashioned long-distance rail travel… to the majority of the people using it, though, it’s nothing of the sort – it’s a practical matter of getting from A to B, and something that you’d be crazy to pay money to do from end to end just for fun. The vast majority of journeys on the railway aren’t end-to-end, but start and/or end at intermediate stations and are taken by people only going to the next city, or who couldn’t find a cheap flight, or whose company sent them on a business trip but wouldn’t cover the airfare (as one of our cabin mates explained was the case for him), and so on.

Being a three and mostly travelling in the 4-berth cabins we usually had a spare berth with a revolving cast of characters (sometimes having the cabin to ourselves), and they and our fellow diners in the restaurant cars all (those that we were able to converse with anyway) thought we were mental to be travelling across Russia by train on purpose.

My route from England to Japan overland

In high school I studied Russian for a few years, and our teacher once treated us to a video for the final lesson of term, a Lake Baikal documentary; watching the footage of cars dancing in formation on the winter ice, I swore I’d go there one day. A decade or so later I did exactly that, though unfortunately at the wrong time of year to go driving on the ice (if I ever go again, it’ll be in midwinter!), and those GCSE Russian lessons finally came in useful.

St Petersburg

I did the Trans-Siberian (and Trans-Mongolian) with my good friends and regular travel companions Mike and Ross. For them it was a month-long trip through Finland, Russia, Mongolia & China as an adventure in its own right; for me, it became part of an overland route right through from the UK to Japan. I was already planning to head to Japan to spend the approaching ski season in Hokkaido, so when they invited me to join them from Helsinki to Shanghai a plan came together – I’d leave 10 days ahead of them and bus it across Europe to rendezvous in Helsinki and travel with them to China, and after they flew home from Shanghai I’d continue overland to Japan via Korea.

England to Finland by bus, train, and ferry

So, setting off from Leeds it was a bus down to London connecting to a night bus to Poland – 36 hours all in from Leeds to Krakow. A few days there taking in the marvels of the old town and the Wieliczka salt mine, and in starkest of contrasts the horrors of Auschwitz, and then it was on to Warsaw by train and then by bus through the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

In Vilnius I caught up with a friend I’d met while doing a ski season in New Zealand the year before, and went along to her boyfriend’s sister’s birthday party. As the only foreigner present I was treated to the kind of hospitality that feels more like challenge, or punishment; it’s nice when everyone wants to do a shot of vodka with you, but not so nice when you repay their hospitality with vomit! They did a number on me alright…

Other than the party in Lithuania though, that initial week or so of the trip in eastern Europe was one of those solo travel weeks where you see some cool places but don’t end up meeting anyone you really hit it off with; a shame, but it happens. The one other sociable occasion was after visiting Auschwitz with a group from the hostel; we all needed a stiff drink after seeing that and got fair drunk in a Kraków nightclub, but the conversation degenerated into political arguments and the night ended on a sour note when a couple we were with had a full-blown fight with each other.

Riga and Tallinn were oh-so-pretty, though wandering those fairytale streets alone was somewhat lonesome (the Tallinn hostel was populated by a loud pack of Aussies telling what I assume they thought were hilarious stories of their drink-driving escapades in Europe), and then with a short ferry ride I was in Finland bang on time to meet Mike & Ross.

Helsinki to Moscow by train

After a couple of days of reindeer steak, pickled herring, and vodka in Helsinki, we were up at the crack of dawn for the (then) 6-hour train ride to St Petersburg (these days it’s only 3.5 hours, thanks to the high speed line which opened in 2010). It so happened that we were doing this on Mike’s birthday, and it so happened that we sat next to a group of Finnish businessmen who jumped off the train to stock up on tax free champagne at the border, leading to a rather early start to the birthday celebrations… end result was a very drunk birthday boy throwing pizza slices across the bar in a fancy St Petersburg restaurant that evening while I apologised in slurred and broken high school Russian to the deeply unimpressed staff. Birthday boy also got a bit of his hair shaved while sleeping, and a little toothpaste in his hair for good measure… (good thing we had a 3-bed private and weren’t in a dorm)

Birthday champagne on the train to St Petersburg

An early start to the birthday celebrations on the train to St Petersburg

The following night we befriended a local student at the bar who took us along to meet her friends at a night club with some crazy thrash metal band providing the music for a full blown skinhead mosh pit, and she met us again the next day and gave us a guided tour of Petersburg’s main sites. It was really sweet of her and the combination of her kindness and the two lively nights of drinking ensured that Petersburg was the most fun we had in Russia.

An 8-hour night train later (now doable in under 4 hours on the new sapsan bullet trains) and we were in drab and taciturn Moscow, which though unquestionably grand and impressive felt harsh and unfriendly in comparison to St Petersburg. We wandered around the sites, chatting to the England and Russia football fans in Red Square (they played a Euro qualifier the day we left, which we’d considered planning our timings in order to attend – glad we didn’t, as England lost!), and visited the preserved body of Lenin. This is a most bizarre experience; he lies there in a dark room in a glass case, bathed in a red light which all makes it look a little like a cheap Hammer Horror set. And it’s nothing like the mausoleum of Mao in Tiananmen Square with its legions of flower-throwing pilgrims; Lenin seems almost forgotten, his mausoleum a curio for tourists rather than a place of reverence (though one thing they do have in common is both looking like wax figures).

Lenin's tomb in Moscow

Football fans mingling in front of Lenin’s tomb, Red Square, Moscow

The coolest thing in Moscow, for me, turned out to be the extravagant art deco subway stations with their sculpted light fixtures and bronze statues that commuters rub for good luck – just don’t get in anyone’s way while you admire them, as you’ll be unceremoniously shoved aside.

Statues in a Moscow subway station

Riding the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Irkutsk

From Moscow our Tran-Siberian journey proper began, with a 20-hour train ride to Perm. Our first cabin mate was the above-mentioned businessman on a company trip to Nizhny Novgorod, a poker-faced man who spoke excellent English and explained to us that we were crazy to take the train for fun, and amongst other things that the UK would soon be an Islamic republic and that another great war was coming to Europe… steering the conversation away from politics, he was an interesting chap and very informative about Russia.

Our first cabinmate on the Trans-Siberian

Our first cabin-mate

At Nizhny Novgorod his berth was filled by an endearingly over-excitable fellow who spoke exactly like Borat and was absolutely over the moon to find three foreign tourists in his cabin. His English was also decent (the Boratisms notwithstanding) and talking to him was a great laugh, going something like this:

“Oh, hello… NICE TO MEET YOU! YES!! Where you come from?”

“Hi, we’re from England”

“OH YES, ENGLAND”, clapping loudly, “VERY NICE, VERY NICE!! Why you come Russia?”

“Well, to ride this train, and…”

“WHAT? HAHAHA! WHY? VERY NICE!!”, clapping, “but where do you go?”

“To Lake Baikal, and then China”

“But you should fly… WHY YOU TAKE THIS TRAIN?!!”

“Well, just for fun really, and to see…”

“HAHAHAHA THIS IS CRAZY, I LIKE YOU, VERY NICE!!”

…and so on. Okay, so this happened almost a decade ago and the above snippet of dialogue isn’t verbatim, but you get the idea – it really was just like talking to Borat, and I think the actual conversation was funnier than any fictional version I could make up. The guy was awesome, but his tendency to yell every second sentence and clap with joy at our answers to his questions resulted in the carriage attendant paying several visits to tell us to pipe down as it was late and people were sleeping. The cabin babushkas generally look pissed off at basically all times, but this one was getting near the end of her fuse so we went to bed, and our hilarious friend was gone in the morning; sadly we never got a photo with him.

A few hours later we also disembarked, in Perm – a major industrial hub which was closed off to outsiders during the Cold War years (due to its importance in producing munitions and who-knows-what else). Having experienced rapid growth in the Soviet era, Perm showcases the most brutally monolithic architecture you can possibly imagine – none of the grand facades and onion-domed churches here, just concrete hulks looming over concrete squares, and we checked into a concrete block hotel which smelled like the 60s. Despite the spirit-crushing appearance, though, Perm is actually a well-moneyed city due to its industrial importance, and thus boasts plenty of nice restaurants, bars and shops… we went to one place that served wild boar, where Mike donned a Russian army helmet (part of the decor) while I gave a little Beethoven rendition on the beat-up old piano in the corner (all with permission, of course – this was no repeat of our St Petersburg behaviour).

Mike in his soldier's hat, Perm

Anyway, the reason we’d stoped in Perm was to visit the Perm-36 Gulag prison camp, located over a hundred kilometres from the city. The Gulag was the Soviet system of forced labour camps, located in harsh and remote areas from which escape would be futile even if possible, where political prisoners and the undesirables of Stalin’s purges were sent to labour their lives away in miserable conditions (Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are well worth checking out for further reading); most of the camps were dismantled on the dissolution of the USSR, but Perm-36 was preserved as a museum and memorial.

The Perm-36 Gulag labour camp

Unfortunately the information is all in Russian only, so unless you can read it (at better than my GCSE level!) the most you can do is take in the forlorn atmosphere of the camp and its surroundings. Furthermore there has apparently been a drive under Putin to rehabilitate Stalin somewhat, and operation of Perm-36 was taken over by the authorities recently and the references to purges and political prisoners removed, so unless you’re a serious history buff it probably isn’t worth a visit for most.

The hotel arranged a car and driver for us for the day (to visit both the Gulag and also the nearby Kungur ice caves – buses do exist to each but to visit both in one day you need a car), and the most memorable thing about the day turned out to be not the (rather underwhelming) caves, not the Gulag, but the car ride itself – due both to his terrifying driving and also the bizarre scene we passed of a dead body (traffic accident? mafia execution?) in the road. We still refer to it as the Death Taxi, and you can read the full story on my Russia page.

Our next stop after Perm was supposed to be Irkutsk (for Lake Baikal), but due to England having reached the final of the Rugby World Cup we had a change of plans. Having managed to watch the semi-final victory against France at an Irish pub while in St Petersburg, we decided to take the train as far as Yekaterinburg and get off there for a few hours to (hopefully) watch the final, then board another train to Irkutsk.

Due to the tight schedule we were on (their flights were booked and they both had work as soon as they got home, and we had a lot of ground to cover) we’d pre-booked our Russian train tickets in advance; but we discovered in Perm that it’s actually very easy to change things up as you go. We had no trouble cancelling the Perm – Irkutsk tickets and booking separate Perm – Yekaterinburg and Yekaterinburg – Irkutsk tickets the same day, with just a small cancellation fee involved; and for the train to Yekaterinburg we ended up in 3rd class, which was actually a lot of fun. Rather than the 4-berth cabins with doors, it’s open plan bunks and reminded me of (a much more orderly version of) riding the trains in India; people dig out their snacks and vodka, play cards, chit chat and pass the time, the Tatar passengers rolling out their prayer mats at the appointed times, and it made for an interesting snapshot of Russian folk using the Trans-Siberian to get from A to B.

This section of the line, between Perm and Yekaterinburg, crosses the continental divide between Europe and Asia in the Ural Mountains – though the views of the mountains from the train were disappointing (perhaps due to the gloomy weather that day); once across the Urals, you’re officially in Asia and Yekaterinburg is the first major city.

We got off the train, checked our bags in to left luggage, and took off to find an Irish pub… as they seem to exist in every corner of the earth, it was no surprise to find not just one but a handful of them, but alas none were showing the rugby. So we sat with pints of Guinness watching Premier League highlights while my brother texted us updates of the rugby score – but it was to be South Africa’s day, and England finished as tournament runners up. So with that, we raced off to have a quick look (in the dark) at the Church on Blood standing at the location where the Romanov family were massacred (ending the Russian Imperial line), and then got accosted in a dark street by a gang of youths; we weren’t sure if they were simply curious or actually looking for trouble, but it felt sketchy and we had a train to catch so we hightailed it out of there and flagged a car down – we wanted a taxi of course, but a random guy pulled over for us. Turns out lot of drivers will do this in Russia, just pick up random people looking for taxis and take them (for money) on a freelance basis (perhaps not anymore I suppose, with the advent of the likes of Uber), and while it doesn’t sound particularly safe it seemed safer than staying in that street at that moment and the guy drove us to the station for what seemed a fairly standard fee, and then we were on our way to Irkutsk.

This was the longest single stretch we pulled, 50-something hours from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk (due to the late hour we boarded, we had 3 nights onboard with a morning arrival in Irkutsk). We had a few cabin mates, but no-one as interesting as the earlier characters; one old chap with skin like leather rode with us for hours without saying a single word or making any eye contact with us or making any kind of acknowledgement whatsoever, but he had a well-practised action for jumping up into and down from his upper bunk without using the footrests or touching anyone else’s bunks – a true veteran of the Trans-Siberian

So we all got stuck into some serious reading for a couple of days, while the endless birch trees of Siberia rolled past the window, ramshackle wood hut villages here and there, as we crossed the mighty Irtysh, Ob, and Yenisei rivers, jumping off for fresh air on the train station platforms of the main Siberian towns like Novosibirsk and Omsk.

The impressive facade of Novosibirsk station

Novosibirsk station

Typical view of Siberia from the train window

A typical view of Siberia through the window

Birch trees in Siberia

You’ll see lots of birch trees in Siberia

Factories seen from the Trans-Siberian

…and lots of heavy industry in the Siberian towns

We also got stuck in to some bottles of vodka, and the large bottles of Baltika beer from the restaurant car; mealtime visits and beer runs to the restaurant car are a break from the monotony which become a highlight of the day when on you’re on the train for several nights.

Passing the time with a few bottles:

Meals were also a chance for me to try out my Russian with both staff and fellow diners – although the long-dormant GCSE Russian was coming back surprisingly quickly with use, Ross got so used to hearing me say one particular phrase that he was able to reproduce it perfectly himself after a while, but he wanted to know what it meant…

“Si mate?”

“Yeah?”

“What does ‘ya nye panimayu‘ mean?”

“Oh… haha… it means ‘I don’t understand'”

…which illustrates how well my attempts at Russian conversation were generally going! But at least I could decipher the food menus and train timetables, so those high school Russian lessons were finally useful for something.

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal, the Jewel of Siberia

After three nights it was a relief to finally get off that train in Irkutsk; a rough and ready place, it wouldn’t be much of a draw in its own right, but Irkutsk is located a short distance from Lake Baikal, the Jewel of Siberia. At this point we made plans to split for a couple of nights, with Ross and Mike intending to head up to Olkhon Island while I was planning to do a dry suit diving course and go scuba diving in the lake. But when I called the guy and realised the price for doing this by myself, I decided not to bother and wished I’d gone with the others to Olkhon – only for them to turn up again an hour later having missed the bus after Ross fell on a patch of ice and twisted his knee. So in the end we just made the short bus ride to Listvyanka on the lakeshore, where you can eat smoked omal (a fish endemic to the lake), freeze your balls off (temperatures were getting down below -10 at this point, i.e. October in Siberia), and take a short ferry ride to over the river mouth to nearby Port Baikal. To be honest this was all a little disappointing, or at least it wasn’t quite the Baikal experience I’d dreamed of after watching that documentary in high school, but still the lake and distant mountains were beautiful we had an interesting enough day. I do definitely recommend making your plans around a trip to Olkhon Island for a few days, though, which is probably the best way to get the most out of a short visit to Baikal.

Clambering on the old locomotive engine parked at Port Baikal

This old locomotive engine is parked up at Port Baikal

Anyway after that we were pretty much done in Irkutsk and decided to leave a day early in order to gain a free day in Ulan Ude, which wasn’t in the original plan; unfortunately on this occasion we couldn’t change our tickets because none of the trains had berths available that day or night. They did say we could cancel the tickets at any station though, as long as we did so before the departure time (the following day), so we decided to try and bus it to Ulan Ude and cancel the tickets there (and if we couldn’t work the bus out, we’d just stick to the original train tickets) – this worked out fine, and we got refunds on the tickets with just the small cancellation fee as we’d done in Perm. However, the ‘bus’ ride from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude turned out to be an adventure in its own right, for we took a marshrutka rather than a bus.

Like sardines in a Russian doll (Irkutsk to Ulan Ude by bus)

A marshrutka is basically a minibus which does runs from A to B, departing when full, usually running a fixed route between two main bus or train stations. Marshrutkas serve as cross-town public transport in the big cities, and in more remote areas they also provide intercity transportation to destinations many hours away. In the case of Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, it was a full 10-hour drive with a couple of rest stops; when we went to the bus station in Irkutsk we were pointed us to a marshrutka with an Ulan Ude sign in the window. Three very round and very jolly elderly Buryat ladies were already waiting so we loaded our bags in the back, but there was still a long wait until the driver was happy he had enough passengers. We were evidently of great amusement to our Buryat babushkas and though I didn’t understand most of what they said I could answer some of their questions, and when conversation broke down it was replaced with their raucous laughter.

Now, the word marshrutka is pretty similar to the word matryoshka, which are those Russian dolls that open up to reveal a smaller one inside, which opens to reveal another, and another inside that, and another and another… I initially thought it was actually the same word employed humorously, as you pretty much feel like a Russian doll when you’re crammed into a marshrutka! The driver’s idea of ‘enough passengers’ was my idea of sardines in a tin can, and I literally couldn’t even shift my weight or move my legs (and had my luggage in my lap); it was a bloody uncomfortable, backside-numbing 10-hour test of physical endurance. Yet it was also kind of fun – we got some decent views as we rounded the southern end of Lake Baikal and later of the moonlit mountains we passed near Ulan Ude, our driver gave a skilful (or lucky) display of driving without chains on a mountain road in a blizzard, our cheery babushkas gave a virtuoso display of non-stop talking (when they weren’t snoozing), and we watched some ridiculous action movies about a Russian Rambo-type hero who lived with his dog in a cabin in the woods, running around bare chested, shooting all his food and washing himself with handfuls of snow. I certainly wouldn’t want to travel the whole way across Russia like that, but it was fun to do so for a single leg of the journey – even if it did take a full day for my backside and legs to recover.

The huge Lenin statue in Ulan Ude

Mike and Lenin, Ulan Ude

That 10-hour beast of a minibus got us to Ulan Ude a day ahead of schedule, so rather than just checking in to the hotel and then leaving early doors on the bus to Mongolia, we had a full day to check it out. Mike and I got up in the morning to go and cancel the unused train tickets before their departure time, and stopped off at the giant Lenin head statue on the way back, and then we all went out to the Ivolginsky datsan (monastery) for the afternoon. This is the largest Buddhist monastery in Russia and makes for an interesting day out, being a 20km bus ride out of town past wooden villages and (at the time) frozen rivers, and on the bus back to Ulan Ude I found myself sat next to another cheery Buryat, this time a portly gentleman with a smattering of English; between that and my smattering of Russian we had a lively old chat, and he was a really amusing bloke. I wish I could remember what was being said at the moment of this photo:

Jolly chap we met on the bus in Ulan Ude

…but I’m pretty sure it was funny!

(I also had a moment of personal triumph on the last night in Ulan Ude – I went into a little supermarket to pick up a few odds and ends and was able to ask the single staff member for whatever it was I was buying, and make a little small talk while conducting the transaction all in Russian, and she rewarded my efforts by telling me I spoke well… and that felt good… but it didn’t last; a few months later in a Sapporo nightclub I got chatting to a few Russian guys and gave it my best shot in Russian, before one of them leaned over and informed me in Russian (before turning his back on me), that my Russian was shit… don’t think I’ve spoken a word of it since!)

Ulan Ude to Ulaan Baatar by bus

And that, finally, was the end of our Trans-Siberian travel – from Ulan Ude we were heading south, following the Trans-Mongolian branch of the railway via Ulaan Baatar to Beijing. However, the train takes a full 24 hours from Ulan Ude to Ulaan Baatar (apparently due to a very long stop at the border), but the bus does it in ‘only’ 10 hours; hence the decision to stop in Ulan Ude (from where a daily bus runs to Mongolia around 7am every morning).

View from the bus window, northern Mongolia

The best of a poor bunch of bus window photos I took in northern Mongolia

We did have train tickets booked from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing a week later, though; and it was a pretty cool bus ride down through northern Mongolia from the border to the capital, with great views of the scenery from my front row seat (pretty useless photos though unfortunately) and a fun stop at a roadside eatery where Mike ran around buying whatever grilled animal parts and yak butter tea he could get his hands on.

A week in Mongolia

Horses at Gorkhi Terelj

Mongolia’s a place of vast open spaces and few people, and a place that’s ripe for DIY adventures – to visit much of the country you need to hire 4WD vehicles and drivers, and the agencies and hostels in Ulaan Baatar are well-practised at arranging this. Unfortunately we only had six nights in Mongolia, which limited what we were able to do; we did consider getting a vehicle and taking a two day drive out to Khovskol Lake for a night before turning round and heading straight back, but in the end settled on something a bit less ambitious (in order to actually have time to enjoy it) with a visit to Gorkhi Terelj national park, located a short distance from the capital.

Scrambling up the bluffs in Gorkhi Terelj

This involved staying in a ger, the traditional round tents used by nomads in Mongolia and Central Asia (also called yurts in some languages), and we spent our time there hiking and scrambling up the nearby bluffs… and riding horses. I can’t say any of us were natural horsemen – I much prefer a snowboard which does exactly what you tell it to, as opposed to a horse which has a mind of its own (and in my case pretty much decided it didn’t give a shit what I thought we should be doing) – but not falling off was success enough, and anyway these were the relatively small Mongol horses so it wasn’t too much of a white-knuckle ride. We did get a good bit of speed up at times though, and we rode through some awesome scenery. I think our man (the husband of the family that was doing the hosting duties) was genuinely a horseman, and we were accompanying him to round up his herd that he’d sent out to graze overnight. Our horses were pretty much just following his lead I think, and after riding for a while we eventually found the herd and drove them back to the camp. Something like that anyway – we were just concentrating on trying to ride.

Settlement in Gorkhi Terelj

Once back at camp, we settle in for an evening in the ger. Our ger stay probably wasn’t exactly the ‘authentic’ nomad experience, as it appeared to be there on at least a semi-permanent basis and there was a more permanent-looking one next door with power lines where our host family stayed, but I don’t think they actually lived there. When we left, it looked like another family came in to take care of the next batch of guests, i.e. the hosts appear to change over with each guest group (at least at that particular camp), perhaps because they are in fact still living nomadically; but when you stay there you’re not really experiencing the nomadic Mongolian life yourself. With that said though, how could you expect to in just a couple of days anyway? It is a tourist experience, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless – it’s still pretty cool to be staying in a ger out in the middle of all that beautiful terrain even for just a night. In the evening our hosts brought over several plates of simple, hearty food, and shoved a bunch of logs into the ger’s central fireplace each time they popped over.

Ger camp, Gorkhi Terelj

The ger we stayed in

Now, this is a kind of black iron stove set up in the centre of the space, with a chimney carrying the smoke out, and when you shove a full batch of chopped wood in it gives off a huge amount of warmth – so much so that we had to escape out into the -25 degrees air outside for a bit to get away from the initial blast of heat… the cold air feels great at first, but then of course it quickly gets too cold (I could actually feel the moisture in my breath instantly freezing in my moustache hairs, giving me a literal stiff upper lip) so you go back inside where it’s now nice and toasty… but then she pops over again and shoves another full load of logs in, and you have to run outside again! This went on all evening, our requests to only have one or two logs dismissed each time, until we thought they’d turned in for the night, after which we decided we’d just add one log per hour as there were only a few left and we weren’t keen on the furnace conditions… but they weren’t done and the husband came over one final time, made sure we were all tucked up in bed (under the many layers of blankets and furs), and then shoved the biggest load of wood yet into the stove. It was ridiculous! We were sweating our balls off and had to retreat into the cold again for a while until it cooled down enough to be able to go back in… but of course, despite our complaints, they knew what they were doing… we fell asleep, the fire died down, and gradually the residual heat was lost to the freezing air outside. I’ve never woken up colder than I did that morning, despite all the blankets and all the heat built up in the ger, and if we’d done it our way we’d have been frozen fair solid by morning.

Gorkhi Telj, horseman

This chap and his wife fed us and kept us warm!

We were picked up and taken back to Ulaan Baatar, where to Mike’s great delight we managed to find a restaurant serving the stuffed-horse-intestines-cooked-on-hot-rocks he’d been searching for (I have to say that on the whole Mongolian food isn’t my cup of tea – my favourite meal in Mongolia was at a Korean restaurant in Ulaan Baatar, which was my first experience of Korean cuisine and the start of my love affair with it), followed by pints of Guinness in yet another Irish pub; and with that, it was time for the final leg to Beijing.

Riding the Trans-Mongolian from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing

Trans-Mongolian train in the Gobi desert

Crossing the Gobi on the Trans-Mongolian

We were up early doors the next morning, heading to Ulaan Baatar station to board a Trans-Mongolian train; this took us across the Gobi, with views of sand dunes and camels and the desert sunset, and involved a long stop in the midle of the night at the border while they changed the bogies for the narrower gauge in China.

Sand dunes in the Gobi desert

View of the Gobi from the train window

Camels in the Gobi desert

Camels in the Gobi

Changing the train bogies at the Mongolia / China border

Changing the train bogies at the Mongolia / China border, for the narrower gauge in China. This operation takes hours, in the middle of the night, but is quite interesting if you’re a bit of a geek

I remember we’d been a bit daft and ended up without enough food or money on that train (having wanted to avoid making a Mongolian Tughrik cash withdrawal on the day we were leaving and then having to convert most of it to Chinese yuan), and the restaurant car prices meant we couldn’t afford much with the little cash we had – we rationed out a stash of Kit Kats, and then at the station (Erlian) on the Chinese side of the border when all the Chinese passengers charged off to a little shop to buy their favourite Chinese brands of instant noodles to make on the train, we followed them and followed suit! Those noodles tasted fantastic.

The restaurant car on the Trans-Mongolian

The restaurant on the Trans-Mongolian (I think we could only afford soup!)

The morning saw us completing the final stretch, coming down through the dusty and dramatic Taihang mountains of Shanxi & Hebei provinces to Beijing’s urban sprawl… the mountains gave way to row upon row of monolithic cookie-cutter tower blocks, the same enormous apartment building design replicated over and over in a seemingly endless line alongside the railway tracks, and I remember Mike and I watching through the vestibule window somewhat awestruck at the sheer scale of the city we were rolling into… and we rolled right into one of the most madcap travel weekends I’ve ever had!

Passing through the Taihang mountains on the Trans-Mongolian

In the Taihang mountains, nearing Beijing and the end of the line

Resources and Useful Links for a Trans-Siberian Adventure

See my Trans-Siberian route planning page

If you’re starting from / continuing to Europe, see the official websites for the Interrail pass & Eurail pass

Don’t neglect to take out a suitable travel insurance policy; World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas. This can be a key point, as most travel insurance policies are not valid if you’ve already left your country when you purchase them (I found this out the hard way when my camera was stolen in Bangkok).

Lonely Planet: Trans-Siberian Railway

The Man in Seat 61

(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you follow the links from this page to Interrail, Eurail, World Nomads, Amazon, or Real Russia and make a purchase, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them. This commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you; I’m recommending these companies, products and services because I know and trust them from personal experience, and thank you in advance should you choose to use them via the above links!)