When Di and I set off on this adventure, travelling from Beijing to Moscow and then onto Estonia, by train, was always going to happen – it was my must do experience; travel The Trans Mongolian Railway. Di and I had been debating about when was the right time to leave Asia and head for Europe. I wasn’t enthusiastic about travelling through Mongolia and Russia in winter, why? Well they are two of the coldest places on earth, and the words minus 40 Celsius are not very good selling points. Thus, we would have to travel through this area either Septemberish or late Marchish. I was happy to wait for March and have more warm Asian weather, but Di was ready to move on, so we moved on.
It is a little tricky getting through Russia and the main problem is you need to be sponsored from within Russia. The easy way around this is to get a travel company to sponsor you; this means you book everything through the travel company. We booked through Real Russia, which is an English company.
You need three visas; Russian, Mongolian and Chinese. The Chinese visa we got in Hong Kong for a fee of AUD$120each, but that was the urgent fee, so you should get it cheaper. The Russian Visa is a bit tricky to obtain, whilst you are travelling, and if you can, get it in your home country. For the Russian Visa we tried to get one in Vietnam but were refused because we did not have a 90 day visa for Vietnam and only had the standard 30 day visa. Luckily, we came back to Australia to surprise my son for his 21st birthday and were able to get an urgent Russian Visa then.
Thus, you submit your Letter of Invitation from your sponsor and a detailed itinerary of your time in Russia as part of your visa application – you work this out with your travel agent sponsor. The itinerary is a bit frustrating because you have to detail when you arrive, where you are going, how long you will stay at each place, how you will travel about, when you will leave and book all your accommodation accordingly. This removes any possibility of staying in a place you like for a little longer or heading off to somewhere you hear about during your travels. You need to plan your itinerary carefully – we were unsure if we would like Russia and only went for three days in Moscow and Saint Petersburg each – then five days on the train – we could have stayed longer in both places and, perhaps visited other places too, as we enjoyed Russia so much, but we were not to know when setting the itinerary. The Russian Visa cost us AUD$270 each, but that was for an urgent one, you should get it cheaper.
We obtained our Mongolian Visa in Beijing the week before we departed. This was a pretty simple process but if you have time you can easily obtain it in your home country. To get to the Mongolian Embassy in Beijing, catch the subway to Yonganil metro station. You use exit A1. As you walk out of this exit continue down the road and take the first right turn, then the next right turn, go down the street and the Mongolian Embassy visa widow is on the left. The visa window is at the rear of the embassy so do not go to the front of the building. The visa window is open from 9am to 12. You submit your paperwork at one window and then move to the next window and pay the fee.
The visa takes two clear full days, i.e, we dropped our passport in on Monday, then two full days, Tuesday and Wednesday, we picked our passports and visa up after 4pm Thursday.
The cost of the Mongolian Visa in Beijing was AUD$80 – I am told the same visa costs over AUD$200 when obtained in Australia.
The train is not cheap. Di and I went First Class all the way. At our age we were not keen on sharing our room with others, so there are cheaper options. This basically is how our completed itinerary looked like from Beijing through to Moscow, then on to Saint Petersburg and Tallinn.
Day 1 Depart Beijing at 11.22am overnight on train.
Day 2 Arrive Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at 4pm.
Day 3 Ulaanbaatar
Day 4 Ulaanbaatar
Day 5 Depart Ulaanbaatar at 11am overnight on Train
Day 6 Train
Day 7 Train
Day 8 Train
Day 9 Arrive Moscow at 2pm
Day 10 Moscow
Day 11 Moscow
Day 12 Depart Moscow 11am and arrive Saint Petersburg at 2pm.
Day 13 Saint Petersburg
Day 14 Saint Petersburg
Day 15 Depart Saint Petersburg at 6.30am Arrive Tallinn, Estonia at 2pm.
The cost of the train was 375 pounds Sterling from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar each. From Ulaanbaatar to Moscow 430 pounds sterling each. Moscow to Saint Petersburg 50 pounds sterling each. Finally, Saint Petersburg to Tallinn 120 pounds sterling each. Total 975 pounds sterling each. The cost in Australian Dollars for both of us was AUD$3,137. I repeat, that is for First Class, private rooms all the way; you can get it considerably cheaper if you are prepared to share. This did not include any meals or any hotel accommodation it was just for the train fare. Throw into this nearly a thousand dollars for the visas for two people and the price begins to tally up. We paid in pounds because we were dealing with a British travel company that specialised in Russian travel.
We arrived at Beijing train station to the usual hive of mass human activity. The signage of where to go for our train was a little on the vague side, so after stumbling around confused for a few minutes we found the way in, basically head to the middle of the vast courtyard in front of the station and there you will see the entrance to the trains.
You go through security and then head for designated waiting rooms. Our waiting room was sparsely occupied. Di and I sat down and the Chinese people in the next row turned around and started to watch us – well the watching became a long stare – we smiled at them but they just continued to stare – so we moved. The area in the waiting room we moved to was called the ‘Love Service Area’ – I sat there confused for many minutes trying to allocate meaning to this.
I then discovered I was sitting in a Love Seat – I seriously hoped that nothing would pop up!!!
Eventually the train staff came and opened the door leading to the train and I sat back in the ‘Love Seat’ in the ‘Love Service Area’, expecting to see a stampede of Chinese towards the train – nothing happened, literally no one moved. Di and I were the only people sitting in the ‘Love Service Area’ on a ‘Love Seat’, so it was not that other travellers were having a love seat moment!! We then saw a western family of three head towards the train, then a western male and then two Chinese men, that was it!! So Di and I headed out of the ‘Love Service Area’ and went to get on the train.
I first heard of the Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian Railways back in 1982 – these trains, back then, travelled across hard-line communist countries and I never quite got around to having the journey. The desire though has lingered and I was thrilled to be finally achieving a lifelong dream and crossing half the world by train.
Two charming Mongolian ladies welcomed us on board – they looked like they were auditioning for roles as Thunderbird pilots – remember the old puppet TV show with Virgil, Parker and Lady Penelope, of course you do!! Anyway, one of these ladies spoke reasonable English. We entered the carriage and went to our room and awaited the arrival of the other people in our carriage.
The room was very nice. It had bunk beds, a small table, a lounge chair and bathroom in the room that we shared with the next room. The train attendant brought us a flask filled with hot water and we settled in for a cup of tea as the train commenced its journey right on time. It was then we discovered we were the only people in our entire carriage.
For the first couple of hours we sat and watched as the train went through some very scenic mountains. We followed rivers, went through tunnels, went over bridges, through forests, etc, it was oh so lovely. Without a care in the world I sat back and watched the world go by.
Eventually I set off to find the restaurant car on the train and headed towards the end of the train. It was whilst walking from carriage to carriage it became somewhat spooky – all the carriages were empty …………., was it a Ghost Train!!!
Eventually, I came across the western family we saw in the waiting room. They were Jeremy, Hannah and their son Christopher from London. They were also the only ones in their carriage. They actually laughed and said, because there were three of them and they did not want to share with a fourth person they purchased all four beds. Then they get on the train and find they have the whole carriage to themselves!!!! After chatting with them I continued on in search of other passengers.
I reached the Restaurant Car and I found an Italian guy there, who spoke perfect English. He said ‘call me Jerry’, as his Italian name was difficult for English people, he told me his Italian name, I cannot recall what it was but I had no idea how to pronounce it, so Jerry it was. There were several Mongolian Train staff in the Restaurant Car who were celebrating leaving Beijing and were having a happy old time. Jerry told me there were only two Chinese men on the train, the English family, Di and I and of course himself – that was it. The train must have had over a dozen carriages.
I rejoined Di and we watched the world go by. In Beijing I bought a bottle of terrible Chinese wine to celebrate the train journey. The wine was called Great Wall so it had that Chinese culture feel to it. I opened the wine, let it sit for a few minutes, poured some in a paper cup, tasted it, let it sit a bit longer, tasted it, let it sit even longer, tasted it …………………… letting it sit and oxygenate was not going to help, so I gritted my teeth and started to drink the wine, in between shudders I watched the world go by.
That evening we joined Jeremy, Hannah, Christopher and Jerry for drinks and to tell tall travel tales and true. Surprisingly Jerry lived in Beijing and spoke fluent Chinese.
This was a great help when the waitress brought the menu out and the whole menu was written on a scrap of paper with some English words thrown in. The waitress then showed us the breakfast menu which was written in better English on a different piece of paper. We were going First Class all the way!!!!!!!!!!
For dinner I had fried chicken and rice for 50 Yuan (AUD$10) and Di had sweet and sour chicken and rice for 40 Yuan (AUD$8). I had three 500 ml bottles of cold Chinese beer, which was not bad, for 15 Yuan each (AUD$3 each). Di had a green tea for 5 Yuan. That was dinner. It was okay.
We arrived at the Mongolian border at 9.30pm. The Mongolian border officials were very nice and politely came around and processed our passports. We then had the option to get off the train and wait in a cafeteria on the platform or we could stay on the train as it went through the wheel changing process. Wheel changing you ask? The Chinese have different train tracks to the rest of the world – of course they do, why make life simple!
The train moves off to a large hanger and for the next two hours we experienced a bumpy and noisy wheel changing experience. Luckily, a train arrived from Mongolia just before us and we were able to watch the wheel changing process of their train in great detail. The whole carriage is unhooked, the wheels are unhooked, the carriage is lifted up, the wheels slide out, the new wheels slide in and it is all hooked back up together.
After the wheel changing experience we then proceeded to Chinese immigration. We again stayed on the train as the border officials came through the train. This whole process was over by about 1.30am and I must admit the wheel changing process was very interesting.
It was then off to bed.
The train was pretty noisy throughout the night and it bumped about a bit but we managed to grab a few hours sleep.
The next morning we were greeted by the flat plains of Mongolia – not a tree in sight!!!
Di and I both decided we could do without breakfast and settled for tea and coffee. Please note, we had our own mugs and supply of tea, coffee and creamer – the attendant brought us boiling water in a flask.
The train stopped at several stations but no one seemed to get on or off until we were near to Ulaanbaatar when a few people started to get on the train. At some of the stops we had the chance to walk around for a few minutes and Di bought some dumplings with pork inside at one of the stops.
The scenery was unchanging, there was hardly a hill. We saw the occasional herd of horses, or cows, or goats, or sheep. Hannah said she saw camels and there were some Yaks about. Looking through the train window we generally only saw flat land with nothing on it stretching off into the distance, mile after mile.
It was peaceful though sitting sipping coffee and staring out the window. It became a big deal when we started to make some turns and once we had to weave around a small hill.
Then it was back to the flat never-ending plains. As we got close to Ulaanbaatar there were a few more hills off in the distance and we started to see Gers (local round tent houses). What was amazing was the just complete lack of trees – it must be torture for dogs!!!
As we enter the outlying suburbs of Ulaanbaatar it started to rain and the closer we got the harder it rained.
Ulaanbaatar is the capital of Mongolia and is by far the biggest city. In fact, 50% of the Mongolian population of 3,000,000 live in Ulaanbaatar.
As we made our way through the city suburbs it was fascinating to see the colourful houses but also that many houses had a house and a Ger. They lived in the house in winter and the Ger in summer.
The train arrived at 4pm and the rain was belting down. We said our good byes to the few who had made the journey with us and set off in search of a taxi.
Now please remember that Di and I had endured two years of constant summer – the temperature in Ulaanbaatar on this day at the end of summer was a very chilly 10 degrees Celsius and pouring with rain. It was a huge shock to our system!!!! #$#@#$ it was cold!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
We changed money and then looked for a taxi – there was not a taxi in sight. There were of course shady looking men lurking around whispering ‘taxi’ but no official Taxis. We bit the bullet as we were cold and wet and did not want to get colder and wetter and went with one guy for the fee equivalent to AUD$13 for the twenty minute journey to our hotel. We made it through the dense traffic and our Mongolian stopover was about to start.
The adventure continues……………………………