The Trans-Mongol train, from Ulan-Ude (Russia) to Beijing (China), via Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)
If you can take the Trans-Mongol without stopping on the way (from Ulan-Ude to Beijing, via Ulaanbaatar) I chose to stop in Ulaanbaatar and in Sainshand before arriving in Beijing. Here are the trains I took.
Ulan-Ude (Russia) - Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) 10th of June 2018 Daily number of km by train: 438km Travel time: 15h05 Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) - Sainshand (Mongolia) 4th of July 2018 Daily number of km by train: 474km Travel time: 9h52 Sainshand (Mongolia) - Beijing (China) 5th of July 2018 Daily number of km by train: 695km Travel time: 23h18 Total travel time: 48h15 Total number of km by train on the trip: 11,315km
The Trans-Mongol train
The Trans-Mongol train is a train going from Russia to China via Beijing. Some trains are direct from Moscow to Beijing and other only start in Ulan-Ude (Russia) to go to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) where you have to change to take another train to go to Beijing (China).
The train company is a joint-venture between the Russian train company and the Mongolian one. So if you already traveled in Russia by trains, you will basically be traveling in the same kind of trains. However, as the trains are international trains, they are a little bit more comfortable than the local ones (but also more expensive). So if you want to travel as cheap as possible, the best thing is to take a local train to the border, cross the border by foot, and take another local train in Mongolia. I met some travelers doing that, but you will have to pay for a taxi at the Chinese border (as it is not possible to cross it by foot) so I am not sure that it is really less expensive.
From Ulan-Ude (Russia) to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)
I took the train in Ulan-Ude which was a direct train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar. I booked the train ticket at the train station in Yekaterinburg for 4,786 RUB (around 70 euros) two weeks before taking the train (and there were lots of empty beds in the train during the travel). As this train is an international train, you cannot book it online and there is no 3rd class (only 1st and 2nd class).
As usual in Russia trains, you ticket and passport are checked when entering the car. Then you enter a typical Russian train, decorated in a Mongolian atmosphere. As usual, you will find hot water for your noodles :-).
The only big difference is that you will find a really nice bar car, with lots of tourist :-).
The landscape is really nice. It is completely different from the traditional landscape you usually have in Russia. Gradually it turns into a steppe.
The train stops for 2 hours at the Russian border. There, you do not need to go out of the train. Custom officers enter the train to check your passport. After a 30 minutes ride, your train stops again at the Mongolian border for a 2 hours stop. Again, Mongolian custom officers enter the train to check your passport and your visa. You are now in Mongolia on the way to Ulaanbaatar.
Ulaanbaatar is a modern city which looks like to Russian cities. Only some buildings (like temples or old palaces) give you the impression of being in Asia.
On the following pictures, the Government palace and the Sukbaatar statue on the main square.
With all the Toyata Prius Hybrid cars with the steering wheel on the right (even if they drive on the right side of the road), it looks a little bit like Japan. I first though that they were buying second-hand hybrid car from Japan to protect the environment but Mongolian people explained me that the gas is so expensive in Mongolia (and they do not have a lot of money) that it is a way to save money.
When you go to the Gandan Temple complex you really feel that you are not anymore in Russia but you are arrived in Mongolia where almost 50% of the population is Buddhist.
One of the places I enjoyed the most is the old palace for the Mongolian king (Bogh Khan Palace – now a museum). Bogd Khan passed away in 1924 and was the last king of Mongolia.
The Bogh Khan yurt was made with 150 leopard skins!
You can also easily escape from Ulaanbaatar by going hiking on the Bogh Khan mountain. It is a 4-6 hours walk in the mountains near Ulaanbaatar. You can start the way at the Bogh Khan Ger camp which you can reach by bus, taxi or simply walking from the city. On the top of the mountain, you can enjoy a view on Ulaanbaatar.
Life in Ulaanbaatar
Mongolian people love meat. Be prepared to eat a lot of meat! Here are some pictures from the meat market.
If you like to play billiards, you can also find some places to play it on the streets.
Last but not least, as I really enjoy opera and ballet, I went to the Opera and Ballet theater to see a Mongolian ballet. It was a story about a war between Romans and barbarous.
If you can go directly from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, you can take a direct train, but if you want to enjoy a little bit the Gobi desert, you can stop in Sainshand. A one-day stop is enough as the most interesting part in the Gobi desert is not around Sainshand but around Dalanzadgad you can reach by bus from Ulaanbaatar (I will write an article about it in another post).
To go to Sainshand you can take a local train, which is quit cheap (29,000 MNT in 2nd class – around 10 euros). It is classical Russian train you can book online on https://eticket.ubtz.mn/home (I will explain how to buy a Mongolian ticket online in another post).
Arrived at the train station, the best is to take a taxi to go to Khamriin Khiid Temple, one of the most sacred place for Buddhism. It costed me 45,000 MNT for a 5 hours with the driver. I wanted to share the cost with some other tourists, but I was the only tourist this day. To go to the temple, it is a 1 hour drive in the desert.
Arrived in Khamriin Khiid, you can find several temples.
The most sacred temple is a temple made with stupas where people come to refill their Energy from the sky and the ground.
To absorb Energy people lie down on the ground.
Next to the temples, you can find a place where monks used to come and be locked in cavern to meditate.
From Sainshand (Mongolia) to Beijing (China)
To go to China I took my train in Sainshand. It was a train coming from Ulaanbaatar and going to Beijing with a one stop in Sainshand. We were only two to enter the train in Shainshand. I booked my train ticket online which I had to exchange with a special train ticket at the train station (tickets to go to China are made of 6 tickets! :-)).
The train going to Beijing is a really modern train (probably the most modern train I took on this trip). As it is an international train, there is no 3rd class, so I had to travel in 2nd class. My car was quit empty. We were only 5 traveling in my car and I could enjoy my own cabin for the all way!
Note: the TV screens were out of order.
As you are in the Gobi desert, this part on the trip is really incredible (probably one of the best part).
You then stop at the Mongolia border for around 2 hours. You do not need to go out of the train. After a 30 minutes ride, you enter China. There, you must go out of the train with your luggage to enter a place which looks like an airport. The custom officers control your bags (you cannot travel by trains in China with knifes and a lot of forbidden items), your passport and visa, take a picture of you and your fingerprints. After that you need to wait for at least two hours while they are changing the train bogies (tracks are not the same between Mongolia and China). Then you can go back to the train and wait for departure. The total stop is around 4-5 hours. Meanwhile, if you want to go to the city to eat, you can go.
After a (good) night, you wake up near the city of Zhangjiakou where you can enjoy a view on a small valley. After a few hours, you arrive in Beijing train station.