Trans-Manchurian Express to Beijing

Boarding the Trans-Manchurian Express in Ulaanbaatar, we immediately noticed a marked improvement from the elderly Mongolian rolling stock in which we had trundled across Siberia. This time, we had been allocated a proper first class carriage with two beds, an armchair, and even a semi-private toilet shared with the next compartment. The friendly conductress kept popping in with hot water, tea and coffee (these latter came in sachets described as “3 in 1”, which apparently means that they consist of 50% sugar, 50% powdered milk, and a hint of tea or coffee).

We dozed off the excesses of our final night in Ulaanbaatar as the train climbed up onto the steppe. Waking up hungry, we made our way to the restaurant car. In contrast with the pleasantly homey but food-free Russian restaurant car which had accompanied the train across Siberia, this Mongolian car was quite plain. In place of the two elderly Russian ladies providing plates of potatoes and pickles, were uniformed waiters and chefs, and an extraordinarily expensive menu denominated in US dollars. We ordered one lunch and one breakfast between us, and it came to an astonishing $40, and that was with many of the key ingredients missing. When we first sat down, we explained that we couldn’t eat wheat, and the waiter leapt to the conclusion that we were vegetarians and no amount of argument could get him to change his mind, so we picked at our salad and watched in salivating horror as everybody else tucked into their bacon and chops. Still, at least we got to eat a lot of eggs.

The steppe ambled past our window under an enormous sky. A few mines, occasional herds of horses and camels, men with big sticks herding goats, sparse handfuls of yurts, and the odd truck.

The endless steppe, viewed from the Trans-Manchurian Express
The endless steppe

We whiled away the time reading the train’s magazine, which is hilarious. One long and rambling folk tale seems to have been randomly generated by an online translating engine. It goes on for pages and is completely impenetrable, but peculiarly beguiling as we try to fathom what the original text might have said.

And then there’s the section on Mongolian cuisine, which goes on to list six pages of two-line recipes for cooking heart. It starts with “heart with carrot”, before moving on to “heart with carrot and turnip”, and then “heart with carrot and turnip and potato”…

At seven in the evening we stopped at the Chinese border, and everything got complicated. Most trains in Eurasia use a standard track width, which allows the interchangeable rolling stock to be mixed and matched along international train routes. However, Russia and Mongolia use a narrower track to everybody else, so it is not possible for the Trans-Siberian to proceed across the border onto Chinese rails. The rather exciting solution to this problem is to jack up the entire train with everybody aboard, remove the Russian bogies, and replace them with standard ones.

Our train was shunted into a large shed and lined up with a series of hydraulic jacks. As the train lifted, men ran around underneath hitting things with hammers until the bogies came free. We understand that in earlier times it was not permitted to watch the process, but on this occasion we were all glued in fascination to the grimy and mud-smeared windows. Once the Russian bogies had come free, they were pushed away, and a new set of Chinese bogies came rushing in, pulled by an underground cable.

Jacking up the Trans-Manchurian Express
Jacking up the train to release the old bogie
Positioning the new bogie under the fitting spike
Positioning the new bogie under the fitting spike

The whole process took a couple of hours, followed by another hour of banging and shunting as they put the train back together. Immigration was a formality, merely involving glancing at passports and checking the toilets for stowaways, and so we drifted off into a comfortable sleep.

Since the restaurant car changes at every border, we were interested to compare the new Chinese restaurant with the Russian and Mongolian ones, particularly as our last meal had been almost protein-free and we were starving. However, when we arrived for breakfast soon after opening, it was packed and we were told to come back at 10am for lunch. There were no platform vendors at the stations, so we quietly hugged our grumbling stomachs and chewed on our last remaining pieces of dry biltong before rushing to the restaurant car precisely on time.

The car was empty, and we gorged on two lunches each, crispy chicken and diced breast and peppers and rice and salad and eggs… we were so happy to eat. The price was only 80 yuan (about 8 pounds) including beer. Bronwyn offered to pay the bill using our Mongolian currency which we had forgotten to change at the border, and the price was 80,000 which was somewhat suspiciously exactly the amount that Bronwyn was holding in her hand, and which incidentally was about 80 pounds! We turned down the kind offer and paid in yuan.

Our somewhat unreliable guide book had insisted that we get up early if we were not to miss the best of the scenery, but it wasn’t until we had finished lunch that the landscape started to change. The train was running alongside the Guanting Reservoir, a large lake in a deep gorge that seemed to have been lined by white marble terraces, in part to prevent the valley from crumbling into the fields of sweetcorn and sunflowers below.

Stone terraces along the Yongding River, viewed from the Trans-Manchurian Express
Stone terraces along the Yongding River
I think that this was the Huyu National Scenic area, but the camera's GPS wasn't working
I think that this was the Huyu National Scenic area, but the camera’s GPS wasn’t working at the time

The gorge was scattered with major engineering works, dams and power stations and bridges, all against a backdrop of spectacular mountain peaks, especially as we chugged up through the Badaling and Huyu national parks.

Finally after some eight days rolling across Siberia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian railway, we arrived at our final destination in Beijing.

Beijing railway station in the smog, terminus of the Trans-Manchurian Express
Beijing railway station in the smog

Together with fellow travellers Gar and Tony, we stumbled blinking into the smog-laden sunshine, to find that the queue for taxis stretched clear across the square. The line of overheated and overladen shoppers and tourists snaked obliviously around a tented area of plastic tables, presided over by a smiling man with a portable freezer full of ice and beer. We looked at each other. It seemed rude not to.

On the Steppe

We had been keen to get some first hand experience of Mongolian yurts, because we’ve been toying with the idea of building one on our property in Tasmania. Since we were already in Ulaanbaatar, we headed 50km out onto the steppe to spend a few days at Elstei Ger Lodge. That was our first lesson; in Mongolia, yurts are called gers.

Mongolian yurt, or ger
Mongolian yurt, or ger

Our home for the next few days consisted of about a dozen yurts spread out across the flat grassy steppe. Each yurt contained three brightly painted wooden beds inset with drawers, a few small pieces of painted wooden furniture, and a central wood-burning stove.

Ger interior with typical bright paintwork
Ger interior with typical bright paintwork

The sun shone and the steppe was beautiful and so very quiet and peaceful. It is very fertile from horse dung, and far from being simply grass, the flora is a vibrant mix of green plants and fungi. Insects abound, particularly a cricket that makes a clicking sound as it flies. One of my favourite pastimes was to walk about a quarter of a mile out of the camp, in any direction, and to simply stand still and absorb the silence.

The Mongolian steppe, it goes on forever
The Mongolian steppe, it seems to go on forever

The Ger Lodge had attracted an interesting and eclectic bunch of travellers, and one night, after the bar closed, the hard core of us carried all the remaining beer and a considerable quantity of vodka back to our yurt for an after-party. I don’t think that anybody really remembers the whole night, but there was some wild dancing to our portable ipod speaker, a certain amount of lying-in-the-grass-and-staring-at-the-stars, and at least one lengthy who-can-think-of-the-best-toast competition.

I'm pretty certain that none of us remember this photo being taken
Partying with Gar and Tony, Cheryl and Amy. I’m pretty certain that none of us remember this photo being taken.

We mainly missed breakfast but brushed up OK for lunch, which comprised of mutton accompanied by vegetables from the Lodge’s garden and greenhouse. The meals were cooked and served by enthusiastic local students, and it was impressive the number of ways they found to prepare different and tasty dishes from a limited range of ingredients.

The days were spent in a happy haze of sitting in the sun, playing with balls and bows and arrows, and just wandering off and standing staring into the distance, admiring the views and the horses running free across the landscape. In the evenings, the bar had a selection of traditional Mongolian board games, including the intense “Pentagon” which is played on four rotating boards.

One afternoon, Oggi our guide took us riding out to meet some friends of hers who live in a ger out on the plains, with their children and horses. They welcomed us into their home, which was not dissimilar to the yurts that we were staying in, and introduced us to fermented mare’s milk (a bit like scrumpy. Yum!), mare’s curd (not unlike clotted cream), and a curious biscuit made entirely of mare’s cheese that had been dried in the sun (not unlike a parmesan-flavoured cracker).

Our lovely guide, Oggi
Our lovely guide, Oggi
Local family at home in their yurt
Local family at home in their yurt

The Mongolian saddle looks a bit like a Western saddle, and the reins are held one-handed. To move off or accelerate, you say “Choo!”, and to canter you simply stand up in your stirrups. On the way out I had a bit of a stubborn horse which was moodily intent on following the tail directly ahead of it, but on the way back I had nice feisty one which was happy to go exploring, bounding over tussocks and sandy dunes. Out in front, I was able to briefly fancy that my steed and I were riding at the head of a vast Mongol horde, thundering across the steppe. But possibly my horse was just keen on getting home for dinner.


Having arrived in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, we met Oggi, our guide for the next few days, who took us out on an orientation walk. We began at the grand Sukhbaatar Square, named in honour of the founding member of the Mongolian People’s Party who was largely responsible for the switch from Chinese to Soviet rule, and whose statue stands in the centre.

Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar
Sukhbaatar Square

Some visiting dignitaries were expected, which explained the red carpets and the honour guard outside the parliament building.

Even visiting dignitaries need to take a selfie
Even visiting dignitaries need to take a selfie

Away from the pomp of Sukhbaatar Square, it is obvious that the city is quite poor, with rotting buildings and rutted roads, unsurprising given its recent history of economic occupation by first the Chinese and then the Russians. Looking around, it’s obvious that the main industry is anglophone tourism from the Trans-Siberian railway. Many shop signs are in English, and it seems that every corner has its karaoke, ‘Irish’ or ‘London’ pub. Mind you, we did try an ‘Irish’ bar and it had none of the usual fake tat, in fact it was really just a high-end Mongolian bar with a Western name, and therefore much more pleasant than we expected.

The next stop on our little tour was the Gandantegchinlen monastery, destroyed (along with most Mongolian Buddhist sites) by the communists in the 1930s but rebuilt when the Russians left in 1990. The original copper and gold buddha was taken to Russia and melted down, but it has been replaced by a 26.5 metre gilt copper statue, the Migjid Janraisig, which stands inside an impressive purpose-built temple.

Photography is not allowed inside the temple, but once through the door, we found ourselves in a huge space held up by four gaily painted tree trunks, surrounding the enormous buddha. Wooden terraces cling to the inside of the walls on several levels. As we circled the statue in the approved pilgrim’s direction (clockwise), hundreds of statuettes of Yush, the buddha of longevity, stared at us from stacks of shelves to our left. Each carving is different, and each is dressed in a different coloured cloak, representing the inevitability of ageing.

On our right, between us and the great buddha, stood a great many brass prayer wheels, constantly in motion as visitors give them a boost as they go past. Some are quite elaborate with projecting handles, but most are simple cylinders which are spun with the flat of the hand.

Outside the temple are the impressive golden feet that are all that remain of the original buddha statue.

Roof detail at Gandantegchinlen Monastery, Ulaanbaatar
Roof detail at Gandantegchinlen Monastery

On the outskirts of the city stands the Soviet-era Zaisan Monument, which we climbed for great views of the city. It was built to honour the Russian casualties of World War 2, but also has friezes commemorating peace-time comradeship between the USSR and Mongolia.

Soviet mosaic on the Zaisan Monument, Ulaanbaatar
Soviet mosaic on the Zaisan Monument

Looking down on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar from this viewpoint, it is clear that major construction is going on, which Oggi told us was all new housing.

Ulaanbaatar cityscape, showing construction in the foreground
Ulaanbaatar cityscape, withconstruction in the foreground including a huge new buddha

As soon as we left the monument, our bus got mired in traffic. I’ve seen a lot of traffic jams all over the world, but I’ve never seen quite so many cars packed into such a small space, inching along with only millimetres between them. Incredibly, there were people trying to hitch lifts and even hailing taxis from the side of the road, but the traffic wasn’t going anywhere and it would have been much faster to walk the short distance into town.

Eventually our driver fought free of the gridlock and turned onto one of Mongolia’s few graded roads. This is a bit of a misnomer, as it must be decades since it was last surfaced, and it has now decayed beyond any reasonable use. Traffic streams in both directions, but across the full two-lane width of the road there is often only space to get one vehicle between the pot-holes at a time, so the traffic consists of a wildly zig-zagging single line of cars and trucks heading in opposite directions. In places the road is so bad that the line snakes off into the increasingly boggy grassland before returning to the highway.

One of the better sections of highway out of Ulaanbaatar.
One of the better sections of highway. On the bad bits, I couldn’t hold the camera steady.

We were out here to visit the Chinggiskhan (Ghengis Khan) Monument, an amazing 40 metre stainless steel statue on top of a 10 metre museum complex dedicated to the Mongolian Empire and the Khans who ruled it.

At its height, the Empire spanned most of Eastern Europe and almost all of Asia including China and Japan. The museums contain artefacts from over 100 years of turbulent history, most of them bronze weapons and tools, along with fascinating descriptions and maps. While we were examining the contents of the second museum, deep inside the main structure, there was a power cut and everything went dark. The staff all had torches and were unsurprised and well organised, but our visit to the museums was over.

However, the building was still full of visitors who had not yet climbed up to the viewing platform on the horse’s head. The lift had obviously stopped, and the stairs that run up inside the stainless steel statue were in complete darkness. Nevertheless, we formed an international human chain, and with the help of cigarette lighters and mobile phones and not a little humour, we all made it to the top for great views of the statue and of the surrounding countryside.

With Chinggiskhan in the rain
With Chinggiskhan in the rain

Trans-Mongolian Express to Ulaanbaatar

The longest arm of the sprawling entity know as the Trans-Siberian railway was built to connect Moscow to Japan via the port of Vladivostok on the eastern coast. However, we had chosen to head south from the major junction at Ulan-Ude, boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express which travels down into Mongolia and then on to China.

We had been travelling through Siberia for almost a week. The restaurant car had run out of food, but we had been buying supplies from platform vendors along the way. This had worked just fine for the first part of the trip, but as we approached the Mongolian border the vendors had completely dried up. For some days we had been living on ice cream, beer, and some biltong that was left over in our luggage. By the time we reached the border at Naushki our stomachs were complaining loudly.

Mongolia ahoy! Aboard the Trans-Mongolian Express
Mongolia ahoy!

We knew that 215 minutes had been set aside for customs formalities on the train, so we sat quietly waiting for the customs officers to arrive in our compartment, wondering if there was possibly any nourishment to be had from the curtains, or perhaps from our boots. When the Russian emigration officials arrived, we glumly handed over our passports, to be cheerily told that because we didn’t have any documentation, we were now free to leave not only the train, but the station.

Not pausing to argue with this perhaps unique official viewpoint, we ran for the door and joined the stream of hungry travellers barrelling down the platform. A farmer’s market had been cleverly set up just outside the gates, and we descended on it like locusts. We then spotted a little cafĂ© where I laid into a very satisfying meat borscht followed by a stack of pork chops and onions. Fantastic.

After a couple of hours we got back on to the train and were handed our passports. The train moved about fifty metres and stopped. A phalanx of Mongolian immigration officers boarded and began to take the train apart, lifting the floors, pulling down the ceiling panels, and checking under the seats and on the luggage racks. Presumably they were looking for stowaways. Only afterwards did they pay any attention to the passengers and their documents.

I was quite relieved about this, because due to some apparently needless intransigence at the Chinese embassy I had my Russian visa in one passport and my Mongolian and Chinese visas in another one. I had not been looking forward to explaining why I had two passports, because dual nationality is not widely understood in many otherwise civilised countries, but now that I had already retrieved my Australian passport I simply handed over my English one and nobody knew the difference.

An Australian leaves, and an Englishman arrives. Very James Bond.
An Australian leaves, and an Englishman arrives. Very James Bond.

Mongolian immigration kept us up well past midnight, but finally the carriage settled down to sleep. For the most part, anyway: the two conductresses who run our carriage spent much of the night running up and down the corridor shouting and laughing and randomly opening and then slamming our compartment doors. I can only think that this was some kind of payback for us keeping them awake during our night-time parties (see my previous blog entry).

We had set our alarm for breakfast and woke very confused because although the train was under way, nobody else was stirring. We eventually realised that the train had switched from Moscow time to Ulaanbaatar time. Because the Russian section ignores all the intervening time zone changes, we magically jumped five hours at the Mongolian border, and we had inadvertently set our alarm for 03:00 train time. Back to bed.

At 06:00 we woke to cloudy skies above fields of fenced corrals, each containing a white canvas yurts (known as gers in Mongolia), interspersed with what seems to be stalled Soviet-style construction. We had heard that, since self-determination from Russian rule, 70% of the Mongolian population have abandoned their enforced ‘western’ life-styles and have returned to their traditional nomadic living. There was plenty of evidence of that from the train.

A scattering of gers, viewed from the Trans-Mongolian Express
A scattering of gers on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia’s recent history is not a particularly happy one. The country was ruled from China for some years until it gained a spurious sort of independence by allying itself with the USSR. Unfortunately the only difference in the new regime was that Mongolia’s vast mineral wealth began to head north on the Trans-Siberian railway instead of south. Neither the Chinese nor the Russians wanted to build processing plants on what was effectively occupied territory, preferring instead to transport the cheap raw material back home, where local industries would benefit from processing the low-value ore into high-value commodities.

On gaining true independence in the nineties, Mongolia continued to use the Trans-Siberian to ship unprocessed ore because it didn’t have the cash to invest in its own processing plants. However, we hear that they are making a deal with Australian mining giant Rio Tinto who, in exchange for copper and gold mining rights, have agreed to building processing capacity on site. Hopefully this will start a renaissance in Mongolian fortunes.

We disembarked hungry and dirty in Ulaanbaatar. Our first stop was – blissfully – a local spa where we showered and I had a chance to shave my increasingly unruly beard, before demolishing a buffet breakfast of rice and fruit and eggs. Only then were did we feel ready to go out and sample the delights of the big city.

Ulaanbaatar Central Station
Ulaanbaatar Central Station