Asia | Mongolia | Ulaan Baatar – The Trans Mongolian Express
Ever since we agreed on our route around the world, Id been in two minds about the Trans-Mongolia Express. On the one hand, it would be an epic in journey, crossing a third of the world and a chance to see some fantastic scenery. On the other hand five days on a train!!! Hardly any opportunity to get out and walk around and the thought of it after so much overland travel was a bit worrying.
As it turned out, the journey was beautiful, interesting and my fears of the stress and lack of comfort that such a long journey may bring were totally unfounded. It was a completely relaxing week.
After a dispute with our French cabin mates on the first day, which boiled down to how much room wed paid for (they seemed to believe they had paid for a bed on the upper bunk through the night and a seat on our bunk during the day; we soon put them straight) we were left with a cabin to ourselves. And no, we didnt drive them away; they were disembarking at Lake Baikal. Honest.
The train was half empty and there were very few tourists on board. Our carriage was shared with four vodka-swilling, sardine-eating Russians (who, as you can imagine, were emitting a delightful aroma) and a handful of Mongolian traders.
The latter were an intriguing bunch, or should that be that their working methods were intriguing. At every station, the platform would be packed to the gills with people, but no-one ever seemed to board the train. A bit of investigation uncovered that Russians shun the high street for their shopping and opt instead for the train station, waiting for the international trains to pass through. The traders hang out of their windows dangling their wares, while the customers clamber over each other to get their hands on some cheap clothes.
Luckily for us, the Russians repay the favour by selling a good variety of food on the platform. A godsend since wed had a dispute with the dining car staff. Prices on the menu were written in pencil nice and easy to delete and write in a higher price once youve eaten. And whos going to argue with a 15 stone Muscovite? My advice pay before you eat!
So other than fighting off the vodka lovers who were trying to round up players for their drinking games and scouring the platform for tasty bargains, what is there to do on the train?
Well, we played a completely unnatural amount of card games (actually, we only know the one game so you can imagine how monotonous that got!). We counted down the miles and constantly calculated our speed and whether wed reach Moscow on time (yes I know thats really sad!). Hector invented a million and one games to play with an atlas, we ran down the batteries in our walkmans, which was a blessing since we only had four tapes to listen to. And we spent hours on end simply looking out of the window. Its a perfect trip for people who are happy to just do nothing, though a bit more of a challenge for people who need to be entertained (like Hector).
A few warnings and tips: There are no showers on board, but the bathroom floor comes equipped with a hole so you can get naked and tip (cold) water over yourself. Take a mug or cup. Also, take plenty of food and drink you never know how long youll have to wait between stops. Pot noodles are good as each carriage has unlimited boiling water. Take a big fat book and plenty of batteries!!!