When planning our trip, the mystique of the Trans-Siberian railway captured Chris’ attention. I was a little less enthused after watching the movie Transsiberian on our flight home from Argentina. Filled with murder and mystery, the movie did little to make me want to rush out and take the Trans-Mongolian train. It was something akin to Open Water for us fellow divers. I quizzed Chris with all sorts of questions—what if we have smugglers in our cabin? what if someone wants us to smuggle something for them? what if we get drugged?!? Chris, in his usual manner, gave me the knowing glance that these were all just rhetorical questions and turned back to his book. I continued to let my imagination roll; this was six months before ever stepping foot on the Trans-Siberian railway, mind you.

So, when we finally stepped foot on the Trans-Mongolian train you might think I was a bundle of nerves—but I wasn’t. We were super excited to finally be setting off on our next adventure. I’d all but forgotten any anxieties over smugglers and what not, which looking back is pretty ironic. Ironic because on two of the three legs of our train ride, smugglers abounded. They’re really nice people, I might add. But, more on that later.

When the day finally came for us to embark on our journey, we set off from Beijing to Ulan Baatar aboard train K23. We’d spent plenty of time zipping around China on their trains, but this one held a different sort of allure—it was a Mongolian train. As it turns out though, it wasn’t much different than the Chinese trains. It had a samovar for dispensing hot water for tea or cooking instant noodles (the meal of choice aboard trains); the provodnitsa looked after her carriage with pride and always kept the bathrooms clean and the samovar fire burning; and the dining car remained elusive.

We settled into our 4-berth, second-class cabin along with an Italian couple. This was their first train ride in Asia, so they were a bit surprised by it all. Even more surprised when they couldn’t find the dining car. Ah, it made us feel like old hands. We offered up some of our instant noodles, but they turned up their noses. Twelve hours later though, they’d purchased their own instant noodles and coffee and seemed to be settling into their predicament.

Instant noodle cart for any hungry traveler

In the berth next to us, two lovely French and German gals tried to bide their time with an obnoxious American. We later ran into these traveling pals on the train from Irkutsk to Moscow and utterly enjoyed tipping back the vodka with them. On this leg though, we made niceties but sort of kept our distance due to the know-it-all American in their berth. We kept our distance for fear we might get dragged into one of his conversations and then by merely being American ourselves be cast in the same light forever. It’s happened before, trust me.

The train ride itself was pretty uneventful until we reached the border town of Erlian. A few kilometers before reaching the border, all sorts of rummaging began. With all the shades drawn, our carriage mates started shifting all sorts of boxes around. We just watched from our cabin perplexed at the number of items exchanging hands. Holy cow, I thought, we’re on the smuggling carriage! Where these boxes came from is beyond us. Where they ended up? Well, we’re going to remain mum on that subject. But boy, that carriage was packed to the gills with boxes getting shifted all over the place. Was it illegal stuff? No, we don’t think so. Toyota filters and other innocuous items were the only things we saw exchanging hands.

The Trans-Mongolian Train K23 to Ulan Bataar

The Trans-Mongolian Train K23 to Ulan Bataar

With the goods secured well away from peering eyes, we crossed the border. When crossing the border from China into Mongolia (or vice versa) the bogies need to be changed because Chinese and Mongolian trains operate on different gauges. While this is occurring, passengers can opt to visit the duty free shop or stay aboard the train and watch the bogies get traded out (usually a 4 hour process). As we’ve seen more than one duty-free shop and never bogies being exchanged, we decided to stay onboard. From the best we could tell, each car was unhitched and raised by hydraulics. We watched as the hydraulics lifted up the carriages (including ours) and the bogies were detached and rolled out to be replaced by another set. This process seemed to carry on for quite some time, but we stopped watching after about an hour. I fell swiftly asleep and was only roused now and then when the other passengers returned or the border control guards woke us here and there. I think we finally crossed the border around 2am or so.

Changing the bogies

We awoke the next morning to the vastness of the Gobi Desert. Sand stretched as far as we could see. The first spotting of camel herders and gers peeked everyone’s interest. You’d think we were on some sort of safari the way people exclaimed if they happened to see something except a sea of sand. We passed by seemingly vacant train stations, and spent countless hours staring out the window at the Mongolian landscape, which shifted from desert to steppe.

Nearly vacant train station

Nearly vacant train station

We studied up on our Mongolian and practiced it with our train mates. One of the Mongolian mates knew excellent German and so on occasion our German pal, Anita, became a translator. Somewhat like the telephone game, the Mongolian-speaking provodnitsa gave instructions to the German-speaking Mongolian who in turn spoke to the English-speaking German who translated it all for us English-speakers. Unfortunately, the Italians were left out. I spoke broken Spanish to them in the hopes some words were similar; it seemed to work but not without a lot of laughter.

Eventually though our train ride ended; we arrived in Ulan Bataar 30 hours after departing Beijing and set about on our Mongolian adventure. Stay tuned tomorrow for the second leg of our journey on the Trans-Siberian railway from Ulan Bataar to Irkutsk.

2 Responses to “Trans-Siberian railway: Beijing to Ulan Bataar”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    You’ve got me all excited to take Mongolian trains! So, what’s the deal with the dining car?

  2. Jodi says:

    For part of the trip, the dining car was part of the quarantined section. Oh yes, we had a swine flu scare aboard the train. And then, it got moved to another section but the operating hours were crazy. We walked through it at some odd hour and went back at a normal time only to find it closed. Throughout the trip, we’d often speculate with other travelers as to its hours and location on the train!