Wednesday 4th September: Trans-Mongolian – China
Ticket: 1st class 4 berth – US$925 bought 3 weeks before through http://www.cits.net
Scheduled departure/arrival times: 08:05 to 13:58 Monday 9th
Actual departure/arrival time: 08:05 to 13:55 Monday 9th
Train K3 departed from Beijing Main Railway Station at 8:05 on its 7862km epic route across 3 countries, 2 continents, 5 times zones over 6 days. I got down to the station by taxi on a grey, drizzly morning the suggested hour early. Then had a minor panic as my bank had decided to block all my cards. I had no cash or idea if the stations would have ATM’s. Banks seem to always chose the most unhelpful time to do this, especially irritating if you already told them your route and not to block them, CITIBANK! A couple of frantic phone calls and that was sorted.
The station was mammoth and had crowds of people arriving and departing. The normal x-rays are required to get into the station. I found my way to the waiting area and picked up a couple of last-minute bits from the shops inside after stocking up on six days worth of noodles, dried fruit, coffee and other snacks the evening before.
I made my way down to the platform and caught sight of the dark green carriages that would be home for the next 5 nights. I found carriage 8 and the conductor showed me to my 1st Class 4 berth compartment (I’ve been told that they are compartments on trains not cabins. Cabins are on ships). I had one other person sharing the compartment with me, Hinke a Dutch lady heading to Mongolia for a holiday.
We set off on-time, the Trans-Mongolian is one of three main routes that can fall under the title Trans-Siberian. The Trans-Mongolian is the most popular for tourists offering the greatest variety of landscapes and cultures across three very different countries. The Trans-Manchurian also links Beijing and Moscow but avoids Mongolia. Finally the Trans-Siberian which stays in Russia, running from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.
We spent about 30 minutes heading through the Beijing suburbs before we hit the mountains. It was an extremely misty morning which reduced visibility greatly. After a couple of hours we had passed through 60 tunnels, after each one we were greeted by a new view of a mountain, valley or river.
After the mountains the landscape became flatter and flatter with occasional stops at cities. Not that anyone new seemed to get on or off the train, it was a chance to stretch the legs. Also the grey cloud cleared and the haze from Beijing was no more, leaving clear blue skies.
All the tourists were given a free lunch and dinner pass which no one was expecting. So at the appointed time we all went to enjoy some extremely salty celery and chicken in the modern Chinese Restaurant car. There were not many people on the train, most were going to Ulaanbaatar or Irstuck, not all the way through to Beijing.
I found the Japanese chap called Jun again, who I previously met in Vietnam. He was passing the time making origami birds. Nice to see a familiar face.
By the middle of the afternoon we were travelling across flat grass plains offering some great views. It was getting sparser and sparser as we got closer to the Gobi desert.
By 19:00 the sunset was setting, a very colourful end to the day.
At 20:30 we had arrived at Erlian the Chinese border town where are passports were taken by the border officials. We were warned this border takes a long time, the warnings proved correct. We spent about 4 hours on the Chinese side.
A couple of those hours were spent changing the bogies of the carriages in a long shed. Mongolia and Russia use a 5ft gauge which is a bit wider than the standard railway gauge used in China. Rather than changing carriages, they change the wheels (bogies). A long-winded operation of separating all the carriages then lifting them up individually, then replacing the bogies.
Once that was done, we set off for the Mongolian immigration which took another hour or so before going to bed for the night.