Trans Siberian Railway: Part 1 - Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
The Trans Siberian Railway
Here I will be presenting a series of three articles that share my experiences of travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway. As you maybe aware, the traditional route of this epic journey starts at Vladivostock in the far eastern corner of Russia and runs for a bewildering 9,288km across the expanse of Siberia before arriving in Moscow six days later. There are, however, a couple of other routes: a trans-manchurian route and a trans-mongolian route.
For my journey I decided to do the Trans-Mongolian route. I split my journey into three parts:
- Part 1 - Beijing (China) to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)
- Part 2 - Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk (Siberia, Russia)
- Part 3 - Irkutsk to Moscow (Russia)
So, through this series of articles I will share my experiences of these railway journeys and also offer practical tips and advice for anyone considering planning their own Trans Siberian Railway adventure. Enjoy reading!
Trans Siberian Railway: Trans Mongolian Route - Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
We had planned our journey at least 6 months before we left home. Research indicated that tickets for the train leaving Beijing had to be bought from a China-based travel agency. The most highly-recommended agency was the Chinese International Travel Service (CITS). I contacted Mr Liu Jun who was incredibly helpful. He offered me the prices for the travel options available. I wanted to take the train on a Wednesday which is the K3 train. There is also a different train that runs on a Tuesday.
Trans Siberian Ticket Classes
There are 3 types of ticket available on the K3 train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. These are: Hard Sleeper (4-berth sleeper); Soft Sleeper (4-berth sleeper but with slightly wider beds and slightly more comfortable than hard sleeper); and Deluxe (2-berth with a comfortable armchair). The price of a deluxe ticket is approximately double that of a Hard Sleeper ticket and I was informed that the difference in comfort/quality between the Hard and Soft Sleepers was minimal. So, we decided to take our chances and book the Hard Sleeper for this journey.
Getting the Tickets
Mr Liu Jun from CITS was very helpful and his instructions were clear in his emails. He would purchase the tickets for me as soon as they were available and I would need to collect them from his office in Beijing before my departure. The CITS office is easy to find as it is close to a Metro stop and close to the central Wangfujing area. I was due to arrive in Beijing four days before our train was to depart so we had plenty of time to make the pick up. But you do need to plan accordingly as their offices are only open Monday to Friday and so you need to plan for when you collect your tickets.
Beijing Railway Station
The K3 train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar leaves Beijing every Wednesday. The train used to depart at 11.14am but a change to the timetable in Spring 2018 means that the train now departs Beijing at 7.27am. It arrives in Ulaanbaatar at approximately 2.15pm the next day. The journey takes around 30 hours with around 6 hours spent at the border as I shall explain later.
I would advise that travellers arrive to Beijing Railway Station around 1 hour before departure. The station here is unlike Railway Stations in the West in that you have to line up at a booth outside the station to show your tickets and passport before entering. Once through this you then need to go through a security check before entering the building - it's all a bit like going through an airport. Once through the security you can find your train on the departures board and go and wait in the waiting area (again, similar to a departure lounge in an airport).
When it's time to board, the attendants will line you up at the gates and check your tickets before allowing you to walk down to the platform. Once at the platform you simply find the carriage number that is written on your ticket and hand this to the attendant for your carriage (each carriage has it's own dedicated attendant who will look after passengers and the facilities). The Attendant will keep hold of your tickets but don't worry you'll get these back later.
K3 Hard Sleeper Class
We found our compartment and quickly settled in while we anxiously waited to see who was going to join us in our 4-berth cabin. We were pleasantly surprised when it got to 7.27am and no one else had joined us. Bonus. In fact on our whole carriage there were only us and a couple from New Zealand in the compartment next to us. It stayed this way until we reached the border with Mongolia when a load of Mongolian people got on the train and joined our carriage in the middle of the night. Still, both us and the New Zealand couple had our compartments to ourselves.
We had a similar experience on the next journey too i.e. having a 4-berth compartment to ourselves. It makes me wonder if it is a policy of the agents/railway to try to keep foreign travellers separate from local travellers and where possible to allow them to have the compartments to themselves. I could be completely wrong about that of course!
So, what's hard sleeper class like? In a word: Awesome! Not long after we left Beijing the attendant came to deliver our bedding and also meal ticket vouchers for lunch and dinner. This was an unexpected bonus as we hadn't anticipated having food provided. Our meal vouchers gave us allocated times in which to go to the restaurant car and have our meals. This was only a half hour window.
After a short, but much needed nap, we headed over to the restaurant car to enjoy our first meal of the day. We were promptly served a dish of rice, beef and spring greens and had the opportunity to buy coke, beer, water etc. The food was fine but the restaurant car was very hot so we didn't hang around after eating - although this was a good place to meet and get to know other passengers.
Essential Travel Items
After eating lunch in the restaurant car we had around 6 hours before our next meal so it was time to chill in our compartment. Apart from watching the scenery roll by there isn't a great deal to do so you'll want to pack accordingly.
For me, I was quite happy to read books (I downloaded loads of books to my Kindle before coming away) and listen to music on my phone (again, I downloaded loads of new music before the trip).
I tried to read books that reflected the country in which I was in. For the China leg of the journey I read books by a Chinese author named Yiyun Li (The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl - both excellent books).
As well as packing items to keep you entertained you would be wise to also pack items to keep you fed. Each compartment on the train is equipped with a samovar (an instant boiling water dispenser). This makes it very easy to make hot drinks and instant meals. Whilst in Beijing we bought some fresh green tea leaves from Ten Fu's Tea in the Wangfujing. This place comes highly recommended and the tea was excellent.
We also went to a supermarket while in Beijing and bought a stash of instant noodle pots and fruit. And before we left home we packed a few packets of instant porridge oats to eat for breakfast and also some sugar-free energy/protein bars.
Ten Fu's Tea Shop in Beijing
Mongolia Border Crossing
We approached the Chinese border town of Erlian at around 9pm. At this point the Chinese border officials boarded the train to check our passports (which they took away with them).
I was tempted to get off the train while we were at the station in order to stretch my legs, however my understanding was that we were supposed to remain in our compartments until the passport check was completed. I did see some other passengers out on the platform and later learned from them that the train started to move after they alighted and they were not able to re-board for 5 hours - more on that below!
After passport control we felt several large jolts as if something was banging into the train. Next thing we knew we were moving and had moved into a large train shed. A few minutes later some train carriages pulled up alongside us and we waved to the other passengers while wondering what was going on. It was then that we recognised one of the passengers and realised that these carriages were from our train!
The train appeared to have been split into several sections with each section lined up side by side in this large train shed. The reason was clear enough: this was where the bogies of the train were to be replaced with the bogies to fit the Mongolia tracks.
Changing the Bogies at the Border
I'd known that this was going to happen but had no idea how they were going to do it. Before long our carriage had been raised about 10 feet in the air. We couldn't see what was going on below us but all the passengers in the carriages facing us were taking pictures and video of whatever was going on.
Then it was our turn to watch as the opposite carriages were lifted in the air with pneumatic arms. The old bogies were shunted out and the new bogies shunted into place.
We fell asleep at this point but we reckon that the border crossing (including the bogie change) must have taken around 5 hours in total. This was obviously the reason that those other passengers were not able to re-board - they were kept locked in the station building at Erlian for 5 hours! When we awoke the next morning our carriage was suddenly full of a lot of Chinese and Mongolian people who must have boarded the train once we got to the first stop in Mongolia.
Changing of the Bogies
Travelling Through Mongolia
So it was day 2 and we were in a new country and travelling through the Gobi desert. We even went through a sandstorm and whilst this was a cool spectacle we did end up getting loads of sand blowing in through the gaps in the windows!
There were a couple of stops in Mongolia where we were able to get off the train for a few minutes and stretch our legs. These stops were the first time that we would encounter locals trading goods on the platform. Unfortunately we had no Mongolian currency at this point but there was nothing we particularly needed anyhow as we had our provisions and the restaurant was still available to us.
Cruising Through the Gobi Desert
Practical Information and Advice
- A Hard Sleeper ticket for this journey costs $240 and can be arranged through CITS
- The journey takes approximately 30 hours
- The border crossing takes around 5-6 hours through the middle of night
- Check visa requirements with your embassy
- Pack snacks, books and music
If you have a weak bladder beware! Each carriage on the Trans Siberian Railway has it's own western-style toilet but the carriage attendant will lock these when stopping at stations and for up to 30 minutes either side of stopping. The worst of these 'lockings' was during the border crossing. The toilets were locked for 5 hours! So be careful how much you drink. My advice would be to go as soon as you need it and don't put it off!
Make use of the samovar. This is great and will enable you to eat hot meals (porridge, noodles etc.) and stay well hydrated with hot drinks.
Be careful when opening windows! At first we were really pleased that we could open our windows but before long, after leaving Beijing, our compartment was full of tree pollen and we were sneezing like crazy. Then a while later we opened the windows again to get some fresh air and before we knew it we realised that the cabin was full of fine sand (we were travelling through the Gobi desert)!
If you enjoyed reading this practical travel guide to journeying from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar on the Trans Siberian Railway please consider taking the time to leave a comment in the space provided at the bottom of this page. If you would like to read further articles about other legs of this journey and other famous train journeys please click the links below.
- Trans Siberian Railway: Part 2 - Ulaanbaatar to Irku...
This is the second of a three-part series of articles describing my Trans Siberian Railway journey between Beijing and Moscow. I will share my experiences of the trip and offer practical advice and information to anyone who may be planning a similar
- Travelling on the Indian Railways
The Indian railway network is cheap to use and very well-organised. Use of the railway in India is extremely popular and using a train in India needn't be something for a visitor to fear.
- Travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway: Irkutsk to...
This is the third of a three-part series of articles describing my Trans Siberian Railway journey between Beijing and Moscow. I will share my experiences of the trip and offer practical advice and information to anyone who may be planning a similar t
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Matt Doran