Trans-Siberian: Leg 3, Ulaanbaatar – Beijing

After our Mongolian homestay, and short visit to UB, we definitely felt sad to be leaving. We might not have seen that coming after our intimidating pre-dawn arrival in the same mutton-smelling waiting hall just a few days before.

Our final stretch on the Trans-Sib took us through the widest range of landscapes, across the ancient Chinese-Mongolian divide of the Great Wall and into the capital of the most populated country in the world. It’s either irony or just bad planning that we chose aircon cooled carriages in Siberia and picked a train with just a clunky fan to take us through the Gobi desert.

The Train and Cabin

Back in the relative luxury of first class, we had a cabin to ourselves again for this 30hr stretch between the two capitals. Having planned to take the first two legs in Russian and Mongolian trains, this time we were in a Chinese carriage on the 004 train (once again as advised by Seat 61). The layout was slightly different this time; one bunk on top of another, an arm chair (ish) seat, and… a shower!!!

…ok, so it was more of a dribble than a shower.

Though a bit frayed in places, it was by far the most ornate of the trains we’d taken (though only half of the 2nd class carriages were in the same style). The dark wood panelling, red velvet, and Persian rugs were very Hogwarts Express, though the smoking carriage attendants barging about shattered that illusion pretty fast.

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Eating and Drinking

Heading for lunch after leaving UB, we discovered the fanciest carriage of all: the Mongolian dining car. The same can’t be said for the menu, sadly, and the intricate wood carvings and gold decorations were a mere distraction from Marinated Tripe Salad or Grilled Liver and Fat. We skipped those in favour of the trusty platform vendors at our first stop. Tripe and Liver Fat were immediately replaced with a feast of Kimchi Noodles and Chocco Pies (which we’d never heard of, but are a kind of Wagon Wheel – Teacake hybrid and seem to be available all the way from Moscow to Beijing).

By the time we ventured back to the dining car the next morning it was on the promise of a free meal. Two meals, in fact, if you were able to cram in breakfast between 6:30 and 7am, and then lunch from 9-10am. Unsurprisingly, we were not. We showed up for a leisurely lunch at 9:45am to find that the carriage had been swapped overnight at the Chinese border crossing. We’d lost the fancy wooden carvings but had gained an edible menu and were given rice, pork dumplings and cabbage. This had the first, and very welcome, hit of spice since leaving the UK.

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Stations and Scenery

The scenery changed so much more in this journey compared to the other two legs of our Trans-Sib journey. Leaving UB, our view of the rolling Mongolian steppe flattened into the vast plains and then into the Gobi Desert as the temperature rose.

Passing through the steppe and Gobi Desert, signs of life are few are far between but we did see packs of wild horses, a group of gazelles running over the horizon and, at a rare watering hole, some camels.

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We crossed the Mongolian border into China that evening and, after our four hour wait at the Russian-Mongolian border, were prepared for the worst. It was actually over very quickly with an seamless procession of Customs Form Guy, Where Are You From Guy, Search The Cabin Lady and, finally, Arrival Card and Passport Guy all coming past our cabin. Whilst we had been stopped at the border station we were treated to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ being played from the speakers on the platform. As you do…

Once this was complete, it was on to the main event for the evening’s entertainment: The Changing of the Gauge. The Chinese train tracks are narrower than the Mongolian ones so before the train can cross the border it has to be rolled into a warehouse, winched a few foot into the air and have the wheels removed and replaced. With us all still on board!

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The next morning the scenery had changed again. Over our delicious free breakfast we looked out at tall forested mountains, some lakes and bright blue skies. Skies which quickly disappeared under smog as we reached the suburbs of Beijing.

To see how and why we chose this route, check out: Trans-Siberian: Planning Our Route

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