Our adventure on the Trans Mongolian Express would take us from Moscow to Ulaanbataar to Beijing. The actual time spent on a moving train would be 6 days, 2 hours and 13 minutes covering 7,622 kilometers and 5 timezones. We would be going on a 2 day excursion/break from the train in Mongolia, but besides that, we would be confined to the narrow aisles and to our small berth for nearly a week. We’ve spent some long hours on vehicles, like 23 hours on a bus in South America, but this train ride is in a league of its own.
I am a bit claustrophobic and I can rarely sit still for very long, so on paper, the Trans Mongolian Express looked like my worst nightmare. It turned out to be one our favorite travel experiences. It’s not because any major events occurred, or something we saw was particularly mind blowing, it was just the fact we were on a train going across such a large expanse of land, simply traveling. There’s something special about overland travel, watching the landscape slowly change, falling asleep moving, waking up moving, going from point A to point B. I’m no Paul Theroux, so I would recommend reading his famous novel The Great Railway Bazaar or one of his many other travel books, he has an amazing ability to describe the mystique of train travel.
I have a feeling that this experience is impossible to replicate. You could go on this train ride every year and have a very different experience each time. We ended up on a train car full of Mongolian merchants, something we were not expecting. Each berth was packed full of the most random products imaginable. One guy was selling cheese. His buddy “George” who could speak English, explained that he had roughly $5,000 in cheese under his bed. Others had curtains, shampoo, clothing merchandised on mannequins, purses, shoes, electronics and more. All of them were relaxed fun-loving people while the train was moving, but stressed and pushy when the train was stopped. Understandably, as they only had at most 15 minutes to hop off the train, sell as much as they could to the local Russians and then jump back on.
At one stop, the Mongolians actually dragged their goods across the tracks in front of another moving train to get to the other platform. The train would usually start moving before they would jump back on. After they were safely on board, they would throw change owed to their customers out the windows to outstretched arms. The legality of their profession was not completely clear to us after seeing them getting chased by local police, we didn’t ask questions.
After getting to know our Mongolian train mates, we settled into life on the train. I thought it would be an issue for me, but being idle for so long in our little cabin was no problem for me. I think it was because there was no other option, I was confined to the train and I accepted it. Meggan and I simply let time go by. We read books, played gin rummy, listened to music, napped and that’s really about it. With so few activities, food and beverages became highlights to each day. Food and drinks can be acquired in a few different ways. The primary way was to take advantage the the water boiler on the train car. We had bowls of instant noodle soups and oatmeal packs that we bought in Moscow. We also had snacks like nuts and non-refrigerateable cheese and crackers to snack on. If I knew we’d be next door to the cheese baron, we would’ve bought some of his contraband.
Another way to get food, and a lot more fun, is on the platforms. Local Babushka women make food from produce they grow at their homes and sell it on the train platforms. Most of their food was potato based like mashed potato pancakes, potato dumplings and boiled potatoes with dill. They also had homemade pickles and meat pies. Everything we tried was really good, not to mention really good with beer. We would get a selection of their food with a few local Russian beers for less than $5 for both of us.
The last way to get food is on the restaurant car. We did this just once, just to say we did it. With one restaurant car for about 20 passenger cars, the law of supply and demand is reflected in the prices. To keep the restaurant car from an endless waiting list to feed passengers, the prices are high enough to turn the majority of the people off from going to the restaurant car. The good news is that you can find a table whenever you want to eat. The bad news, you pay about 10 times more than the platform for food that’s just so-so.
Another thing that kept us occupied was trying to figure out what time it was or at least what time we wanted to be on. It’s not as easy as you think. Going through 5 timezones some while you’re awake, some while you’re not is a little confusing. The handy thing is that the train quotes the stops by Moscow time no matter what time zone. What we did, which worked pretty well, was to leave Meggan’s watch on Moscow time so we knew when the train was stopping and we moved my watch an hour forward every so often to ultimately get our body clocks on Beijing time. With our time system, we never knew what the actual time was, but that was okay with us, we had the Beau and Meggan timezone. By the time we made it to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 5 days later we were in full train mode. It was strange getting off the train for more than just a few minutes. We spent 2 days in the Mongolian countryside in a ger ( the next 2 posts). During those 2 days, we still had the sense of movement while we slept and woke up in the middle of the night thinking we were on a train. After our little break, we were anxious to resume our lives of constant motion on the train.
It took a full day of travel to get to the Chinese border. This was a very lengthy and bladder testing experience. Chinese customs are very thorough and strict. To add to the custom delays, the wheels of the train cars have to be changed because the Russian train tracks are wider than the Chinese tracks. Each car is put on jacks while they remove the wheel carriages and replace them with the narrower Chinese wheels. This whole process took nearly 6 hours, in which we were not allowed to leave the train. The bathrooms are locked during all train stops to avoid turning the train stations into sewage dumps. We were prepared for this though, we didn’t drink much of anything before or during this stop, a really good move. We arrived Beijing by morning the next day concluding our ride on the Trans Mongolian Express. It was hard to believe that our train journey was over and how far we traveled. Over the 7,000 kilometers we saw Russian villages, the endless pine trees of Siberia, the water of Lake Baikal stretching to the horizon, the nothingness of the Gobi desert, the vast plains of Mongolia and the dense civilization of China go by through our window. Like in Ulaanbaatar, it took a while to feel like we weren’t moving. Surprisingly, we also had an urge to get back on a train. Over the course of the week, we were transformed into train people.