Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia was one of the major reasons why I chose to travel to Asia, and the trans-Mongolian was a definite must-do on my visit to Mongolia. Although the train isn't cheap, it is significantly cheaper to buy the tickets yourself than to go through an agency—and it's not like the limited flights into Ulaanbaatar are exactly cheap, either. While you can cut costs even further by taking local trains to Erlian/Erenhot on the Chinese border, crossing the border by car, and then taking local trains from Zamyn-Uud on the Mongolian border to UB, this is a real hassle and not a great introduction to Mongolia (I did this on my return to China, and I can confirm that it's not much fun and would have sucked even more if it was my introduction to Mongolia).

Ticket classes and buying them in Beijing

Chinese, Russian, and Mongolian trains operate the trans-Mongolian. The Russian trains are part of the Moscow-Beijing network, while the Chinese and Mongolian trains run exclusively between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians run the same rolling stock as the Russians, while Chinese run a different set of carriages.

Ticket classes

Russian-made Mongolian trains have two classes on the Trans-Mongolian:
  • Spalny Vagon (SV): two-berth compartments. No showers, and toilets and hot water at end of carriage.
  • Kupe: four-berth compartments. No showers, and toilets and hot water at end of carriage.
Chinese trains have three classes:

  • Deluxe: two-berth compartments with a shower shared with the neighbouring compartment. Toilets and hot-water dispensers are at the end of the carriage.
  • Soft sleeper: four-berth compartments that are slightly nicer versions of the four-berth hard sleepers, at a much higher price. No showers, and toilets at the ends of each car. Hot water boiler at one end.
  • Hard sleeper: four-berth compartments with doors that close and lock (i.e., not your typical Chinese hard sleeper). The cheapest type of ticket, and the best value. No showers, and shared toilets at the end of each carriage. Hot water dispenser at one end.
Hard sleeper/kupe is the best value, and the Chinese-only soft sleeper would be the worst value.

All compartments have doors that close and lock. Safety is unlikely to be a problem as almost all passengers are tourists and/or relatively wealthy, as the train is much more expensive than local trains. Only passengers who are crossing the border are allowed on the train, so you do not get local traffic; locals will cross the border by bus/jeep and take the much cheaper local trains.

The second-class compartments do not appear to have air conditioning (at least my Russian/Mongolian rolling stock didn't), but this was not a problem despite it being the height of summer.

I bought my tickets in Beijing. Despite it being the height of the tourist season and despite taking the train scheduled to arrive on the first day of Naadam, I had no problems booking my ticket only a few days before departure, and there only ended up being one other person in my compartment. You probably don't have to worry about booking your tickets in advance, and you can save money by booking in Beijing.

Schedules

The Russian trains, running between Beijing and Moscow, leave Beijing every Wednesday at 11:22 am and arrive in UB at 2:20 pm the next day. heading towards Beijing, they leave UB at 7:15 am on Sunday and arrive in Beijing at 11:40 am on Monday. Because UB is an intermediate stop on this train, it is more difficult to book a ticket leaving UB on this train, and you may not be able to book it more than 24 hours in advance.

The Chinese and Mongolian trains are more complicated, and for two reasons: first, they run one weekly UB-Beijing service year round, and add another weekly service in the summer; and second, they switch who runs the year-round and seasonal service every May, and also switch the days on which they run them!
  • Until May 2015
    • Year round service: operated by Mongolians. Leaves Beijing on Saturdays at 8:05 am and arrives in UB at 1:20 pm the next day. Leaves UB on Thursdays at 7:15 am and arrives in Beijing at 2:33 pm the next day.
    • Summer service (late June-early September): operated by Chinese. Leaves Beijing on Tuesdays at 8:05 am and arrives in UB at 1:20 pm the next day. Leaves UB on Fridays at 7:15 am and arrives in Beijing at 2:33 pm the next day.
  • May 2015-May 2016
    • Year round service: operated by Chinese. Leaves Beijing on Tuesdays at 8:05 am and arrives in UB at 1:20 pm the next day. Leaves UB on Thursdays at 7:15 am and arrives in Beijing at 2:33 pm the next day.
    • Summer service (late June-early September): operated by Mongolians. Leaves Beijing on Mondays at 8:05 am and arrives in UB at 1:20 pm the next day. Leaves UB on Saturdays at 7:15 am and arrives in Beijing at 2:33 pm the next day.
As always, seat61.com has comprehensive coverage.

Where and how to buy in Beijing

Tickets are sold not at the train station, but at the CITS (China International Travel Service) office in the Beijing International Hotel, which is a few hundred meters north of Beijing Station (where the trains actually leave from).


Prices are as follows, and only cash is accepted (there is an ATM in the hotel).
  • Deluxe/SV: 2241/2202 yuan
  • Soft sleeper: 2056 yuan
  • Hard sleeper/kupe: 1430/1472 yuan
It's pretty painless to buy your tickets. Simply go into the Beijing International Hotel, and look for the CITS office on the ground floor. Show them your passport and purchase your ticket. It takes maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and they speak English.

Scenes from a train

Between Beijing and Datong the scenery is peppered with small, rocky, and arid mountains. After Datong the train heads north, and soon you're on the Inner Mongolian plains.

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Entering the Inner-Mongolian steppes.

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Taking a curve.

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There's no air conditioning, but it gives you an excuse to stand by the windows.

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A dusty sunset as we near the Gobi. For much of it's territory, the Gobi isn't so much a desert as an arid grassland, and only 3% is covered by sand dunes. It didn't feel that dusty, but after this I had to clean lots of dust from my lens.

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Sunset over wind farm.

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Even after the sun goes down the light lingers, as we speed on.

Erlian (aka Erenhot)

The final stop in China is Erlian. Actually, the city is known as Erenhot, even though the name of the station is Erlian—search for Erlian on maps, and you'll find nothing, but search on train schedules for Erenhot and you'll also find nothing.

Anyway, there's a long stop in Erenhot/Erlian. Your passports will be collected for customs, and then you'll have the opportunity to get off the train while the change the bogies (wheel sets) from the Chinese gauge to the Russian gauge. This takes a few hours, and while you can stay on the train durting this process, almost no one does. There's a supermarket-style shop in the station where they sell lots of snacks at low prices (sometimes even cheaper than in normal Chinese and Mongolian shops), but make sure to save some yuan if you're returning to China as you may need some to pay customs fees if you re-enter China via car.

You can get out and walk around the station, and I spent some time walking a few blacks away to see a bit of the city.

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KTV: everyone loves karaoke.

Mongolia

It's well after midnight by the time the bogies are changed and you can get back on the train in Erlian. Get settled in and wait to get your passports back, and it will be after 1:00 in the morning before you get to sleep. I need my eight hours, so it had been light for a while by the time I was up and about. And while the Mongolian plains may be pretty featureless, I love prairie and steppe.

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Road along the Mongolian steppe. Almost none of Mongolia's roads are paved, and the first paved road from UB to China wasn't completed until 2013!

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A Golden Eagle, or just a hawk? I don't know, but it kept the train company for a while.

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Two-humped Bactrian camels.

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Closer to Ulaanbaatar the landscape is greener and lusher than I expected.

I was surprised to find that Mongolia was very similar to China in one unexpected way: the amount of garbage strewn next to the train tracks. This was unexpected not only because of the relative paucity of train traffic, but also because I had imagined that the Mongolians, who are deeply connected to nature and the environment, would be better environmental stewards than the urbanized Chinese. Not so.

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Gers, horses, and a truck... but no sheep or goats in the vicinity.

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Green hills and bush. The grass everywhere is short, but I didn't see any herds of mammalian lawn-mowers along the way.

Ulaanbaatar's train station isn't in the greatest location, as it's a fair ways west of the city center and south of the major east-west commercial thoroughfare of Peace avenue. I had booked into the nearby Idre Guesthouse, mainly based on its location, as it is a short 10-minute walk away; I was off the train, checked in, and ready to start exploring the city within an hour.

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