In 2010 we jumped the epic ‘Trans-Mongolian Express’ and traveled 7621 kilometers from the red square in Moscow to the forbidden city in Beijing. On the way we made stops in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal and the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar.
After a wild taxi ride through the center of Moscow, we finally found our hostel the Moscow Home Hostel. This hostel was located in an apartment building giving it a homey atmosphere. The first day we visited the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the GUM department store and the colorful St. Basil’s cathedral which we absolutely loved.
The days after we were busy arranging a Mongolian visa (not as easy as it sounds) and the delivery of our pre-ordered train tickets. But, we also visited Lenin’s mausoleum and did some shopping at the famous Arbat shopping street. We traveled through Moscow via the most beautifully decorated subway stations.
The final day we visited the famous Novodevichy cemetry and the State Tretyakov Gallery. At the Novodevichy cemetry are Russians like Gorgov, Jeltsin, Chekhov and Brezhnev buried. The Tretyakov Gallery houses lot of icons and artworks of old Russian masters.
In the mean time the train tickets for the first leg Moscow – Ulaanbaatar were still not delivered! In the end, after many emails and phone calls we got them only 2 hours before departure! Our taxi had to race from the hostel to the station to get there in time.
Our train departed in the evening and we shared our carriage with a young Russian family. On the photo you can see our carriage’s provodniks/provodnitsa’s (carriage staf). They often speak some English and may be able to help you a bit on your way.
The train stops every few hours for 5-15 minutes and it is always your own responsibility to get back to the train in time. If you have a nice provodniks he may warn you when you’re going out during a short stop, but don’t count on it: always check the schedules! During the stops you will encounter rows of sweet Russian ladies (babushka’s) selling fresh and delicious Russian specialties.
The first leg from Moscow to Irkutsk was about 5185 km. Life in the train mainly consisted of drinking tea, reading, chatting and enjoying the beautiful landscapes that pass by.
Irkutsk & Olkhon Island
Early in the morning we arrived at the Baikaler hostel in Irkutsk and we decided to do a day trip to Listvyanka, a pitoresk village right on the shores of the Baikal lake. With a maximal depth of 1643 meters and a surface of 31.500 square kilometers (about the size of Belgium) the Baikal Lake is the biggest and deepest sweet water reservoir in the world.
Of course, we also dipped our feet and hands into the lake according to local tradition. When you do this, the Russians believe you will live longer (1 year for your hands and 5 years for your feet). We ate delicious fresh omul fish on the beach.
The next day we went to Khuzir on Olkhon Island. The route to the island was beautiful. However, the village of Khuzir was sleepy and dusty. Not much to do there. It only got electricity since 2005.
The next day we went on excursion to the north of the island. This excursion turned out to be amazing with snowy mountain peaks, spectacular rockery, azure water and a magnificent clear blue sky. We ended the night with a visit to a banya (Russian sauna).
The next day we returned to Irkutsk where we did a walking tour passing by some beautiful churches and houses of the December movement.
We concluded the day with some well-deserved Russian beers and in the evening we got on the train again and this time our destination was Ulaanbaatar.
This train was less luxurious and had many foreigners on board. However, this was by far the best leg since it had breathtaking views over the wild Mongolian grasslands. After a border control of 8 hours (!) we finally arrived in Mongolia.
Ulaanbaatar & Central Mongolia
Mongolia is a sparsely populated country with about 2,9 milion inhabitants. Thirty percent of the Monolians still live a nomadic life.
Upon arrival in the grey city of Ulaanbataar we got picked up by the Golden Gobi hostel staff (great hostel!) and we immediately went into the city for a bit of exploring. In the evening we visited the Lama monastery and saw a (pretty touristy, but nice) show with long songs, throat singers and acrobatics.
After that we continued to the great Grand Khaan pub where we had a great evening with three Mongolians of whom one of them was named Gamba. The next day we visited Zaisan Hill, Sukbatar square and booked a tour through central Mongolia in the hostel.
The Central Mongolia tour would last for four days and we were joined by three young Danish backpackers. We started off in the Hussai National Park. In this national park Takhi or Przewalksi horses are roaming in the wild again since 1991 . We were lucky enough to catch a glimp of a small family, protecting themselves from the intense sun.
That day we had lunch near the river and in the evening we arrived at our first Mongolian host family. This family still lived in the traditional Mongolian houses (yurts or gers), but stopped leading a nomadic life. Their houses are gathered on a hill giving the family a great overview on the surrounding planes to keep an eye on their cattle. We regularly saw the grandfather doing this, standing on the hill with his binoculars.
The second day we went horse riding. My horse was really small and hungry and he kept searching for food. Me and my horse were always riding in the back and went really really slow. In total we rode for 2 hours (I probably rode for 2,5 hours) and after lunch we went for a walk in the dry surroundings.
That evening our tour guide ‘Tauke’ introduced us to some traditional Mongolian (drinking) games including a weird one with bones. In the night we enjoyed thousand of stars of the clear Mongolian desert sky.
The next morning we got to ride a camel! These camels were smaller than the Indian camels, but still quite impressive. They were also wild and not easy to control. One of the Danish guys lost control of his camel and he got thrown off. Still, it was a fun morning!
Lunch consisted of potatoes, rice and vegetables (like every meal) and after that we left for Kharakorum, the old capital.
In Kharakorum we visited the Erdene Zuu monastery. This monastery is the oldest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia and is surrounded by hundred stupa’s. We spend the night in a ‘ger guesthouse’.
The next morning we had to drive back to Ulaanbataar. The weather was bad, and our initially planned outdoor lunch was not possible. Fortunately, a Mongolian family was so kind to welcome us into their home, and here we had lunch. The family ger was filled with medals of horse racing, a bloody goat thorax and large ladies undies. We were gaping at the family, while they were gaping at us. We arrived back in Ulaanbataar at 6 p.m.
Since it was our last night in Mongolia we decided to eat at the BD Mongolian BBQ restaurant. This was a so-so decision, since it turned out to be a big (American) chain. In the restaurant they sold t-shirt with lines like ‘We do it on a grill‘. We finished the night with some Mongolian shots.
The next morning we departed for Beijing. Our final leg. When we arrived in Beijing we would have spend about 6 full days on the train!
In Beijing we saw all the main sights such as Tiananmen sq., Mao’s mausoleum, the Lama temple, the Forbidden city etc. One of the highlights turned out to be the ‘Leo Secret great wall tour’ where you hike unrestored parts of the Great Wall!
Our ride on the ‘Trans-Mongolian Express’ was a once-in-life-time trip and provided us with beautiful memories of three fascinating and highly diverse countries!
Are you planning to do this epic train journey? Here are some tips to help you on your way!
10 final tips for your Trans-Mongolian adventure
1. For information buy the excellent Trans-Siberian handbook describing your journey step by step!
2. Also check out on my favorite train travel website: Seat 61
3. Arrange your visa in time. For a Russian visa you will need a letter of invitation of Russian tour company or hotel. A Chinese visa can be arranged before hand. We arranged our Mongolian visa at the Mongolian embassy in Moscow.
4. Try to avoid the restaurant cars (overpriced, unfriendly staff and medium food)
5. Bring instant soup / noodles, tea and snacks for on the way
6. Bring a small towel to clean the windows of your wagon
7. Bring your own mug and plate
8. Learn some words of Russian to connect with your fellow passengers
9. You will get lazy on your trip, but get dressed every day in normal clothes and stick to a normal rhythm.
10. Compare tour company’s and check out experiences of other travelers on the internet. We booked our trip at Rus Rail travel for about 639 euro (2010). However, during the first leg we only got our tickets 2 hours before departure which was obviously a bit late ;)! We preferred to only book train tickets, instead of full tour with for example the Vodkatrain.