Trans Mongolia Express

May 9

1:20pm Beijing time, just saw KP 305 moving past the window of our compartment in coach 9 / berth 5 of train K3 to Irkutsk.. (KP: Kilometer Post).

This means that we finally made it: we're travelling the Trans Mongolia Express and are currently between Beijing and Ulaan Baatar! Some hours back, withdrawn with my morning coffee in a silent corner, this fact made me a bit emotional. Watching the Chinese mountain ranges go by, taking in the mighty freight trains, realizing I am now part of the thing I have been dreaming of for quite some years now!
Pete sits across on berth 6 and has a grin on his face that probably will last a bit longer. He too is enjoying to the max..

Let's see how the day started...
..finally..!!! Locomotive from Beijing to Datong Emblem of China

Got up at 5:30am. Checking out of the hotel was (yet again) not without difficulties but what else would we expect... We could not believe our ears when the "robot" behind the desk asked US how much we had paid for the four nights... Apparently their system did not indicate IF and HOW MUCH we have paid. We gave her a figure that seemed appropriate and we are curious to see if this figure will actually show up on the monthly creditcard-overview. Great, this determine-your-own-price hotel concept!

Taxi to the station, no bother to lug the packs thru rush hour. Ten yuan later we were at Beijing Central Railway station. Security check (Chinese adore these security checks...), coffee, breakfast and released on our platform at 7:30. While I lugged all our stuff in our compartment, cameraman Pete had the holy mission to make as many photos of our train. Since he is totally specialized and interested in the carriages it turned out to be a very detailed overview. by nature and profession I am more interested in the motive power, and Pete did not forget to "cover" the locomotive as well.

The Trans Mongolia Express leaves Beijing as train #3 on Wednesday, covers the 7622 kilometer to Moscow in 121 hours to arrive there on monday. The train returns on tuesday as train #4 to Beijing.

    Train composition:
  • (electric) locomotive: class SS3 (ShaoShan), number 6039
  • carriages: all 15 Chinese, of which 10 all the way to Moscow
  • The Chinese dining car will join till the Chinese/Mongolian border: each country supplies its own dining car.

Our carriage (ID-number RW19-551977) is a "soft-sleeper de luxe", meaning:
8 2-berth compartments, shared shower between each two compartments.

Aisle Our "room" for the next 40 hours.. timetable trains 3 and 4 bathroom-en-suite

In the aisle, next to the carriage attendant, you will find the coal-fired samovar. This device is your source for hot water, basis for tea, coffee, instant meals (and cleaning activities as long as the boiler is on the blink...). Each car extremity has one toilet, which was clean and spacy.
Our compartment (number III) has two stacked beds. The top one is folded up during the day in order to turn the lower bed into a spacious couch. A table under the window and a decent chair against the other wall. Luggage is stored under the bank/bed. A door leads into the bathroom, which is shared with compartment IV. Since that one was not occupied we had the bathroom all to ourselves!
No airco but a well-sized fan. Lack of airco is good news for us: the windows can slide down, making pics much easier.

Lunch- and dinner vouchers Yummie! Chinese !! Adapt powerplugs to our standard

Two carriages down the train is the buffet car where we had to be on the dot (11am) for lunch. First surprise: this first lunch was complimentary. Basic but tasty and fresh food. We shared the table with our Belgian neighbors who resided in compartment V. It was special to share lunch with linguistic fellowmen about 9000 km from home..

Travel like we appreciate. Relaxed, talk a bit, wander around the train a bit, looking outside a bit. Talking about observing: we are now over 300 km north of Beijing and the landscape changes drastically. A few hours ago still in the mountains, now flat and getting more and more dusty. We are approaching de Gobi desert...

First stop: 380 kilometers and 6 hours away from Beijing is Datong. Our electric locomotive is replaced by diesel locomotive DF4d-3102. The electric overhead wire will end soon. No difference for driving: characteristics for both kinds of traction are more or less the same in China.
Something else that occurs to us: the rapidly expanding High Speed Train - network. More and more we see our familiar German ICE-lookalikes dashing through the landscape, attaining even higher speeds than we are used to.

Bogie change in Erlian Ultimate China photo:
frontier at Erlian

Beijing and Erlian are 824 kilometer apart, we covered half that distance in 7 hours. The stop in Erlian is going to last at least 3 hours since the bogies are going to be changed; China uses standard 1435 mm-gauge while Mongolia uses Russian gauge (1520 mm). The bogie-change operation takes place in a shed north of Erlian station. Passengers have two options:
1) Get off the train at Erlian and wait till the train will be shunted back after the bogie-change operation.
2) Stay in the train and witness the bogie-change operation. Only drawback is the toilets will be closed while in the shed, and you are NOT allowed to leave the carriage...

Enough talking for now. We are going to see through our window, you can join us if you like...

May 10

Sleeping was a bit of hardship because the matress is thin. But since we were tired enough we managed to doze off and recharge. It is quite an experience to draw back the curtains and see nothing else than sand-shaped emptyness... A bit of shrubbery left and right, but not a single tree in sight. The only constant is the ever-present railway-owned auxiliary threephase-powerline parallel to the single track.

In Erlian the Chinese buffet car was replaced with a Mongolian one. The Mongolian car has a very rustic wooden interior and very exclusive prices. Pete lay down 8 euro for a glass of orange juice, four slices of bread, some butter and marmelade and an omelet. Bit stiff but the quality of the food was OK.

Wake up in the Gobi desert ...big smile... 8 euro breakfast our combined wardrobe/larder

A brief stop in Choyr enabled us to stretch our legs and Pete to cover the obligatory fotoshoot of front and back of our train. The stop was only 12 minutes so Pete had to leg for it. Our car-attendant got nervous 5 minutes prior to departure time because Pete was still on the move. No worries, he will board anywhere and come back to our carriage. It was a set deal since Beijing: Pete's photos are superior since he has the skills of a pro (besides a professional camera) while my writing is better. It seems we have the ultimate combination between the two of us. About 80% of the pics on this weblog are Pete's; the ones starting with N or C are his...

It is 12:30pm and we are stationary in the middle of nowhere on a siding for about half an hour. Our train was just overtaken by a single diesel, heading the same direction we are running. Being railwaymen we sense an irregularity: why should a passenger express be overtaken by a loco-only? Passengers are not informed since a PA system is not installed in the train. Besides that it is not customary in these countries, contrary to what we are used to in Europe.
Our hunch was right: once we started moving again we overtook a broken down freighttrain which was evacuated by the diesel that passed us. A southbound express was also waiting until the single main line has been cleared. These things also happen here apparently... Big difference is that not a single person will start complaining about the delay, while in our country the general public will start acting up and ventilate their frustration...

Next stop Ulaan Baatar (meaning: Red Hero), capital city of Mongolia. This is a 30-minute stop only for a change of locomotive and loading/unloading of the mailcarriage. A quick glance on the platform, the obligatory pic of Pete and me in front of the stations' name, and off we go!

locomotives from Erlian to Ulaan Baatar Manufacturer plate of loco 0979 Our carriage for 2469 kms The Mongolian buffet car

During the afternoon not much else to do than looking outside, shoot some pics, talk a bit, lie down a bit. The landscape is difficult to define and it is hard to imagine living in this vast dry country. No trees, no shadow, no rivers. All of a sudden a small settlement, like fallen from the sky. No street, no fence around, no garden. The traditional yurts are present now and then, but several have a solar panel installed and a satellite dish in front... Even a 4x4 tethered to the front door instead of a horse... The contrasts in the country are big!

Sandstorm? Fire? No, train pulling
out of Ulaan Baatar the lonesome rider.. Crossing our counterpart
train #4 Moscow-Beijing
Ulaan Baatar

Assuming the buffet car would be overcrowded again, we set off early for our dinner. No need, we were the first to arrive and be served at 5pm. We were a bit apprehensive concerning price/quality ratio since breakfast experience but no need: excellent food, abundant, nice cold Mongolian beer, accompanied by sunset over northern Mongolian mountains.
Totally satisfied we went back to our compartment where we watched a movie on the notebook. More and more we spot Mongolian and Chinese tradespersons, trying to peddle their "merchandise". We are not interested at all and made that very clear to them. From that moment on they gave compartment III a wide berth while passing....

It is 8:50pm and we are approaching the Mongolian-Russian border. Border crossing formalities will take several hours according to the timetable. We are not going to bother you with that but will present to you a slideshow of today. In the meantime we are going to make an effort to solve the Trans Mongolian biggest issue: DUST!! When we left Beijing the windows were transparent, the carriages deep green, and we smooth. Now the windows are opaque, the carriages yellow and our skins a bit raw. Not to mention the interior of our room. But we have our ways of dealing with these issues!

Upon receiving our passports back in Naushki (Russian side of the border) we called it a day and went to sleep.

Ulan Ude, may 11

7 am local time, just woke up. We are in Siberia and just passed KP 5640 (indicating 5640 kilometers to Moscow). We are running along the southern shore of lake Baikal! A bit of a drizzle and a very cold wind. The lake is full of ice. Endless views and it should be with 636 kms at its longest point.
Lake Baikal is the biggest and oldest natural water lake of the world. The Trans Siberian railway runs along the south shore till Sludyanka and will veer off into the mountains to circle to Irkutsk.

Replenishing water in Ulan Ude crossing the Selenga river Two Russian carriages attached First view on lake Baikal!

We are enjoying the ride to the max. Lake Baikal in sight. Arrived in Siberia.
The train now comprises 13 carriages but appears abandoned, at least in our section. Our Belgian neighbors, us, and one sole Mongol on his way to Europe are the sole 5 persons in our carriage. The two Chinese car attendants withdrew in their compartment and do not appear too often since we put down a formal complaint with them because of their behavior. In our view it will not do that they smoke in the aisle while all windows must remain shut (by their command). Besides that they do not really make an effort to fire up the boiler for some hot water... This is 1st class and we paid for this little luxury...

Lake Baikal 5261 km to Moscow Supposed to look like this.. ..but looks like this after 48 hours

Four hours to go till Irkutsk. Time to take in the railways thru professional "engineers' eyes". The rail infrastructure is in perfect condition. Well maintained and well aligned. Short-bonded tracks though. Overhead power line at 25 kilovolts, single supply, but oddly enough double collector wires. Quite unusual under low-current system... Probably because of power need (reduction of resistive losses) since long freight trains follow up almost on single block intervals. Many drawn by class VL85 or double VL80s. Well dimensioned traction substations at 50 kilometer intervals. From time to time the parade of freight trains is interrupted by a 20-car passenger train.

Kilometers go by without spotting a sign of life. White-stemmed birch trees, more birch trees, swamp, snow. Tracks are laid on permafrost.

Pete went 5 carriages down to buy a can of Coke. Onboard price: 60 Rubles (equals 1,5 Euro). Buffet car is empty (besides staff). Later we found out why; in the train Moscow-time is the standard, also for breakfast, lunch and dinner rounds. This takes some time to get used to...

Arrival in Irkutsk on the timetable-dot (3:40pm local time, 10:40am Moscow time. Irkutsk has a modest railway head, considering it is the capital of Siberia.
The Trans Mongolian Express story ends here as well. Our story will be continued on the "Irkutsk" - page.

Still tidy after 55 hours.. Ulan Ude to Irkutsk locomotive Loading and unloading of the weekly mail Irkutsk.. Another target made!

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