So it was time for the last 2 journeys of our Trans Siberian/Mongolian adventure, taking us from Irkutsk to Beijing via a brief stop in Ulaanbaatar. In a way it was sad to be near the end but we were also looking forward to a break from sleeper trains.
Both legs were around 26-30 hours but frustratingly we weren’t actually covering that many miles, as a large chunk of each was to be taken up by border crossings – Russia/Mongolia and Mongolia/China. We were excited to get to some new countries but not looking forward to the tedium.
Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar
We boarded the train as usual, this time about 9pm and excited about finally heading to Asia! We were pleasantly surprised to have a cabin to ourselves, as the train was fairly empty, so we got a good nights sleep before the border boredom the next day.
We trundled along through what remained of Russia and reached the border at Naushki around 2pm. This was the part I had been dreading for weeks, as I was unsure whether we were going to be fined for not registering our visas – technically every visitor to Russia is supposed to register at least once and again whenever they stay somewhere for 7 days or more. However no hostel want’s to register you unless you are staying for 7 days, which we obviously were not. There is a lot of conflicting advice from all quarters, with guidebooks saying how imperative it is, yet ignoring the fact it is all but impossible for those moving quickly through the country, mostly on trains.
Anyway our passports were taken by Russian border guards and after an hour or so (a lot quicker than expected) they were returned – with nothing said and exit stamps present! We were so relieved. All I can say to anyone in a similar situation is try to register if you can, but don’t panic too much if your itinerary makes it impossible – just take proof of where you have been (not that the border guards even asked to see these).
Despite this being done quite quickly, we hung around for another 4 hours while the train was shunted backwards and forwards until just our sleeper car was left. Cue a moment of panic when I came back from the station toilet, and leapt on board our moving train like in the movies, only for it to come back to the same place minutes later.
Eventually we were off, but not for long. We stopped at the Mongolian side which mercifully was fairly quick, a ‘mere’ 3 hours. Finally we were able to get a bit of sleep, but not much because were arriving in Ulaanbaatar at 5am!
Getting off the train in ‘UB’ we were supposed to be met by someone from our hostel, but there was no sign so we walked there (it wasn’t far thankfully) After ringing the bell for what seemed like hours, we managed to get in and checked in, before getting to bed around 6am.
We woke up a few hours later so we could make the most of our one and only day in UB. I would have loved to have spent more time in Mongolia, but due to frequency of trains our options were limited to one day or one week. Because we had a date we had to be in Vietnam for, everything else before such as China and Mongolia had to be cute back a bit, and we chose an extra week in China rather than Mongolia.
Straight away UB felt like Asia, despite being as cold as Russia. Everything felt a bit easier, more people spoke English, everyone seemed friendly, and the prices were a hell of a lot lower for just about everything – most notably accommodation – a huge private room for about £12 – little chance of that in Russia.
What is strange is that I was a bit worried about UB before visiting. Everything I read online and in guide books painted a slightly shady picture of the place, mentioning that there was a lot of petty and violent crime and you shouldn’t be out alone at night, etc etc. Quite honestly we found it to be one of the least threatening cities we had yet been to! It was a fascinating place to look around and I would like to spend more time in Mongolia one day.
As we only had a day, after filling ourselves at BD’s Mongolian BBQ (which is an American chain of non authentic Mongolian food, bizarraly now with a single outlet in Mongolia) we walked to Sukh Bataar square, the focal point of the city. From here we spent several hours in the National Museum, which was really good – we were slightly museum-ed out on this trip so far but it was fascinating.
After a cheap beer at a bar on the main square we headed back to our hostel for some dinner, picked up some supplies for the final train and had an early night.
Last Leg to Beijing
Rising at only a slightly less awfully early time, we packed up again and traipsed back to the station to catch our last train to Beijing. The first thing we noticed upon boarding was that the train was seriously busy, and full of tourists, most having been on the train since Moscow (not something we fancied, 7 days straight on a train!)
The other thing we noticed was that despite the train being extremely similar to the previous ones, the staff unsurprisingly were now Chinese, and sadly it didn’t seem like they kept the train as clean as the Provanistas in Russia. That said, it wasn’t too bad.
Most of the day was spent travelling through Mongolia, until we reached the border about 7pm. Once again we were through the Mongolian side fairly quickly, and went on to the Chinese border. This is where things got a little strange. After our passports had been checked, and knowing the train would not be moving for at least another 3 hours while the bogies were changed, everyone was eager to get off, including us. We expected a nice cafe/restaurant at the station that we could grab some food at and relax.
What actually happened is that we were shepherded into the dullest train station in the world, mostly just full of customs and immigration lines (all closed since we had already been done on the train). So we all headed outside, again to be met by precisely zero places to eat, just a few grocery stores which only had warm drinks and next to no ready to eat food.
To make things worse, after ‘enjoying’ a warm beer and some Chinese Pringles, we attempted to go back to the train or at least the platform to wait. Except all the doors had been locked and we couldn’t get to said platform. So we were stuck in a tiny waiting area for the next 2 and a half hours. I was starting to wonder whether the doors would ever be unlocked and whether we would be stuck in the border town of Erlian with our train continuing onto Beijing!
Luckily we were eventually allowed back on, and there was a mere 14 hours left of our Trans Mongolian journey.