Six Time Zones in Six Days: The Trans-Mongolian Train

imageFour months ago, I didn’t think I’d be here. I thought all hopes of getting back to Europe via the Trans-Mongolian had been dashed. When I planned my round the world trip, the agency told me I could apply for my Russian visa on the road. Not any more. No country between Ecuador and China would allow me to do that, because I wasn’t a citizen of that country. So, I took a gamble. Whilst in Australia, I couriered my passport back to London and used my driver’s license to get between Melbourne, Brisbane and Darwin. It paid off. I was on my way to Moscow from Beijing.

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This was my home for the whole 7,621 km – a 2nd class 4 berth cabin. It wasn’t as cramped as I thought it would be. The two top bunks are pushed up during the day,

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I stored my rucksack under one of the bottom bunks, which are the day seats

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and I was given sheets, blankets and a pillow to make a bed at night. Once we reached Siberia, I was very glad I’d also brought my sleeping bag.

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You’re never without a hot drink though. There’s a coal fired samovar at the end of each carriage which provides constant hot water. There’s also an insulated jug in each cabin. The fresh coffee bags I bought in New Zealand came in handy. I’d also stocked up on instant soups from Australia, porridge from Indonesia and noodles from China. It was almost exotic. There’s a restaurant carriage that serves hot meals for about $10, but it runs out of things very quickly. Here’s the Mongolian menu to give you a taste of what’s on offer:

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The menu changes when the restaurant changes at each border crossing.

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The wood carved interior of the Mongolian one takes you right back to the times of Genghis Khan. It’s decorated with bows and arrows and paintings of wild horses.

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The Russian one is like an ’80s disco bar with lots of chrome and plastic seats. It also has a tuck shop next door where you can buy biscuits, crisps and chocolate. At some stations, there are ladies on the platform selling shopping trolleys full of snacks. Most stops last around 20 minutes, which gives you time to hop out.

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This was a bogie change just before the Mongolian border. It was the start of an exhausting few hours. The work begins at around midnight and after that, there are customs and immigration checks – loud knocks at the door, lights on and a lot of shouting, all at 3am. Spare a thought for one passenger though who was stranded at a station in his pyjamas for two hours. He mistimed the loo break and had to wait until we returned from the bogie change at the depot.

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At 1030, I pulled back the curtain and woke up in the Gobi. I was staring at this landscape for miles and miles. Suddenly, I felt very hot. “The heating’s come on quickly” I thought to myself. I then noticed the flames lapping against the window next to my face. For a moment I thought the train was on fire, but we were actually travelling through a series of small fires right on the tracks. Mongolian farmers were carrying out some controlled burning. I think it got a little out of hand.

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An hour later, we spotted this giant Bhudda keeping a watchful eye over a cemetery in the middle of nowhere. This is what makes train travel so special. When you go cross-country, you never miss out.

That night, another border crossing beckoned. This time, we were welcomed in by the Russian authorities. Our luggage was searched, the air vents were checked and sniffer dogs pulled their handlers up and down the carriages. All routine stuff, but quite unsettling when you’re half asleep in your pyjamas.

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On the second morning, we woke up beside Lake Baikal – the oldest lake in the world.

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Through the rest of Siberia and beyond, we found ourselves in the middle of a winter wonderland. These were my favourite mornings. There’s nothing better than being wrapped up in a sleeping bag with a hot drink in one hand, a book in the other and looking out at that.

The snow made carriage-hopping more fun too:

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Getting to know your neighbours helps pass the time.

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Meet my first roommate Lucy from the UK (bottom left) along with Alex and Tyler from Australia and Arthus from China.

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Here’s my second roommate Erkhembayar, from Mongolia. Who knew that you could spend hours talking about family and work using only pictures and the power of mime? His sister spoke fluent English and he phoned her all the way in Bahrain, just so that we could establish a line of communication. It turned out that she studied in the city where I live.

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The Trans-Mongolian was undoubtedly one of the best parts of my round the world trip. The people you meet and the sights that you see are what make this train journey so special. Being rocked to sleep under the stars and waking up somewhere completely different is another experience I won’t forget. The time passes surprisingly quickly and yet when you look at the map, you’ve almost carved your way across half the world. It was the best way to start my journey home.
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GENERAL ADVICE

Safety: I didn’t feel threatened travelling on my own, but you can try and get a cabin next to the guards – as long as you don’t mind them singing, smoking or frying eggs in the morning
Power: Don’t rely on your electric device for reading books. None of the sockets I tried in any of the second class carriages worked
Hygiene: Be prepared for a music festival toilet experience

WHAT TO TAKE

1. Toilet roll, baby wipes and antibacterial gel
2. Dollars in small denominations. They’re accepted in the restaurant / tuck shop if you run out of local currency
3. Indoor shoes
4. Actual books (see above)
5. A travel mug, cutlery and instant foods for back up

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I’m dedicating this post to Helena Crummet Lee – my friend’s Great Grandmother who, as a woman in the early 1900s, was more adventurous than me!

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The Mistake I Made with China

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It was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. I was hiking along the Great Wall of China – a huge dragon spine criss-crossing the mountains between Jinshanling and Simatai. I knew it would be breathtaking, but not on the scale I was expecting. I wasn’t expecting the silence either, or the autumn colours which helped paint this storybook scene.

It was also damn hard:

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We climbed 22 of these towers to reach Simatai. In some places, I thought my boots were going to slide back down the stoney slopes. It was Qin Shi Huang who rebuilt the wall to protect his Empire. He wanted to protect himself too – in the afterlife:

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The Terracotta Warriors are a formidable sight. They even have different expressions. Some of them look quite fearsome and are already drawing their bow and arrow.

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What’s also special about this exhibition is that you’re walking around a working excavation site. Equipment’s left out and there are markers to show what archaeologists have discovered, like the remains of this war chariot:

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Getting to the museum in Xi’an was an experience in itself:

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The bullet train reached speeds of up to 305 km/h. It was super efficient. The guards on the platform shouted at us through loudhailers, ordering us to stand in line at an exact spot. It was like herding hundreds of cattle – but it worked. The door to my carriage stopped right before my feet (which I was told not to put too close to the edge and was ushered back).

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Welcome to the Forbidden City. I didn’t fully appreciate the size of it until I got this view from the top of Jinshan Park.

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At the inner court, you can peek through the windows of the private chambers. There’s thick dust lying on top of these exquisite silks and carpets – as if they haven’t been touched since the end of the Qing dynasty.

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At the outer court, you see where the official ceremonies took place. This is Hall of Supreme Harmony where emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties were enthroned and married.

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108 paces per minute, with 75cm per pace. This is the People’s Liberation Army taking part in the daily flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square. When I went through the security check, hundreds and hundreds of excited people were rushing to get a good view. It was a real spectacle. As crowds huddled together and smiled for the camera, it was hard to watch their happy expressions. The news reports you associate with Tiananmen Square remind you of what took place 25 years ago on the spot where they were standing.

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My visit was over. The Trans-Mongolian train was waiting. I was sad about that. When I planned this part of the trip, I was wary – friends’ visa applications had been refused and it was hard for me to envisage an entirely different culture and having to speak a language I couldn’t even read. Subconsciously, I think that’s why I didn’t schedule a longer stay. I wish I had.