Trans Siberian Railway: Beijing To Ulaanbaatar

Beijing was the beginning of our Trans Siberian Railway journey. After plenty of research, we’d decided that the Trans Mongolian route was the best option for us. We flew from Melbourne to Beijing via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific for a short two night stay before our first train leg.

We stayed at the Howard Johnson Paragon in Beijing. We chose this hotel for one main reason – it is located across the road from the train station. The staff spoke reasonable English, the rooms were clean, and it was connected to a shopping centre.

Hotel view from Howard Johnson Paragon Beijing
The view from my hotel room – the train station we’d be leaving from tomorrow morning.

As we’ve been to Beijing before, sightseeing wasn’t a huge priority. Buying supplies for the train was our main focus. We woke up bright and early and went across the road to one of the many nearby Starbucks for a flat white (cup of warm milk) and croissant. We had planned to go straight into the connected shopping centre, but it wasn’t actually open yet. So instead we decided to go to The Place, another giant mall that has Marks and Spencers and other western stores. The map we had made it look like it was probably only a thirty minute walk. It was much further than that. After a detour through a huge park  and down many different streets and alleyways somehow we actually made it there. Honestly it’s still a miracle to me that we found it at all.

At Marks and Spencers we bought some cakes and cups of instant porridge, had a coffee at Costa Coffee and looked in H&M and all the other stores we’ve seen in every city in the world. After we got sick of this we grabbed a taxi and went back to our hotel. This time around we went into the connected shopping centre and stocked up on instant noodles and more food for the train. We weren’t really sure what we would need, and we also thought that we might be able to buy something in the dining cart or on the station platforms during our journey. There was a very well stocked supermarket in the basement of the shopping mall where we were able to pick up supplies.

Since we were in Beijing, we thought we should probably go and do something vaguely cultural instead of only looking in shopping malls. So we got a very dodgy taxi to Tiananmen Square. On arrival the driver attempted to jack up the price and didn’t want to let us out. Eventually we threw some money at him and basically jumped out.

Tiananmen Square
I only took iPhone photos in Beijing!

We’d been to the Forbidden City before, and Mao’s Mausoleum wasn’t open, so naturally we decided to walk to Wangfujing Shopping Street to look in more shopping malls. Beijing really knows how to do malls. We were on the hunt for a hat and gloves which we eventually found after looking in approximately 100 stores.

The next morning we checked out of our hotel and carried our bags across the raised walkway that took us to the train station. So convenient. We joined a crush of people who were going through a security check, and then found ourselves inside the train station lobby where we eventually located our platform. After a short wait we realised our train was on the platform, so we made our way downstairs and boarded. There was hardly anyone else around, but we were pretty early and we assumed we’d be joined by a few others before departure.

Train station in Beijing

We had a first class two-bed compartment on this train, as we did on every leg of our journey. We were on train K23. We’d done a lot of research into the different types of trains, and most people agreed that first class carriage on the Chinese train between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar had a shared bathroom between each compartment. So imagine our surprise when we discovered we had our very own bathroom with toilet and a weak shower that was most definitely not shared with anyone else! The compartment also contained the bunk bed and chair set up we’d seen photos of online. We made sure to document every aspect of the cabin for other future travellers.

Beijing to Ulaanbaatar train 1st clas k23

features in first class cabin k23
Above each bed was a reading light and a little netted compartment to put your things. There were also power sockets under the table.

1st class k23
Our glamorous bathroom and the carriage hallway.

Pretty soon the train was pulling away from the station. And that was when we realised we were the only people in our whole carriage. Every other compartment was empty. Over the next 24 hours we would occasionally see another traveller walk past our compartment, and there was an attendant hiding in a little room somewhere in our carriage. But it appeared that we had almost the entire train to ourselves.

We spent a lot of time looking out the windows, reading books on our iPads/Kindles and eating food. We ventured down to the dining compartment pretty early on to check out the menu. It seemed that all the train staff were hanging out here, probably because their carriages were empty and they had absolutely nothing to do. After an awkward cup of tea that was mainly leaves, we headed straight back to our compartment where we stayed for the rest of the journey.

Late that night we reached the town of Erlian at the Chinese-Mongolian border. A group of officials boarded the train and came around for a customs and immigration check. They took our passports and disappeared for a while. I don’t recall this taking too long, probably because there was no one on the train! Then it was time for the famed changing of the bogies. Because China and Mongolia/Russia use different sized train tracks, each individual carriage has to be moved onto a different set of wheels. You technically have the option of getting off the train before this begins, but there was no way we were going to sit on a station platform for several hours. Instead we stayed inside the carriage and watched as we were lifted into the air. It was a very noisy process and there was a lot of banging around. After several hours we were on our way, and we were just drifting off to sleep when the Mongolian border control team entered the train for a second round of passport inspections. Finally once that was done we were able to go back to sleep.

We woke up to big wide empty landscapes dotted with the occasional ger. We were definitely in Mongolia!

Mongolian Steppe

At one point we stopped at a station in a tiny little town, and out of nowhere several women pushing shopping trolleys filled with snacks and bottles of coke appeared. My mum purchased a bag of piping hot dumplings from one of these ladies – they appeared to be lamb (or to be honest, mutton).

Mongolian supermarket

Just after midday we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, where we were met by the manager of our hotel. He confirmed what we had thought – the train was ridiculously empty. He’d seemed surprised by just how few people got off!

Next, our time in Ulaanbaatar.

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