If you are in Mongolia and want to go down to China, we recommend you to make the trip in the TransMongolian train. It is quite an experience but you need time since the trip takes about 30 hours to get from Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, to Beijing, the capital of China. You can also do it in the other direction starting from Beijing.
From UB, the train departs at 7 am from the main railway station. You have 2 options: first or second class. The difference between both, beside from the price, is that in first class you have a cabin for just 2 people, a small sofa and private bathroom (well, actually semi-private bathroom because you share with the cabin next door) with shower and W.C. The second class has 4 bunk beds for4 people and common toilets for all the people wagon. You will have to choose according to your budget and number of travellers. Second class works for if you are a group, but if you are alone or a couple you will have to share a tiny space with other people. All the wagons have a shower and a small kitchenette and mini fridge to store food, in case you need it.
After spending almost a month sharing the same room with several people, we decided to give ourselves a luxury and travel in first class. But, if you go in low season (closer to winter) the train is almost empty, so if you choose to go second class there is a big chance you won’t have to share but…who knows.
The train is not new but it is well preserved and decorated in such a kitsch way that it becomes charming, with carpets on the floor, pink curtains. The hostesses are impeccably uniformed. The restaurant is really cute, it looks like a scene from a Wes Anderson movie (thanks for the observation, Ortu!), with pink curtains and some very peculiar waiters.
The trip becomes more beautiful if you take a bottle of wine and a good book. Reading in the train is a pleasure because from time to time you raise your head to see through the window and you could have the pleasure to watch the beautiful landscapes, especially on the Mongolian side. The food of the restaurant is quite expensive and it is not the best (like food in Mongolia) so we recommend to bring your own food or snacks. There are a few 15-minute stops at some train stations where you could have time to buy food but do not trust too much on this. Each wagon also has a spout of hot water from your tea or your artificial ramen soup, which could always save you from starving.
Crossing the border
The heavy part of the trip is when you arrive at the border with China around 9 pm on the first day. They force you to get off the train to go through migrations, but for one who does not understand Mongol, the whole situation is confusing because you don’t know whether you have to take your luggage or not. We took all our stuff but soon we realized that it was not necessary, although some train staff told us to take them. Some people where only caring their hand luggage, for example. Then, once off the train you must enter to China migration office and to line up with all the people on the train. It is that moments when you realize that the train was not so empty as you thought… and surely you’ll find more than one French people, because our conclusion of all the places we traveled is that… they are everywhere! (yes or no, Alban?).
A official carefully checks your passport and visa and, if everything is OK, they stamp it. Then (the worst part) you have to wait about 4 hours in this building without the possibility of going out. Happily, there are enough chairs but it is quite boring and there are not even restaurants but just a couple of street vendors who approach to the door to sell fruits, snacks and beers. The good thing is that you have time to meet and talk to the other French people, I mean, other travellers. Finally, at 1 am, you can return to train and to your original cabin to continue the trip.
Why so many hours of stop? It is impossible to clearly know what happens behind the scenes during those 4 hours. Some people told us us that it is because when entering China the Chinese police must review the train in detail to check if there are no hidden contraband products or maybe some illegal travellers. They also take out the Mongol wagon from the beautiful pink restaurant (bu…) to put the Chinese restaurant wagon, which really looks like the kitchen of a prison. It is a drastic change.
Welcome to China
When you enter China, the landscape changes dramatically: you no longer see desolate landscapes with horses or sheep, but lots of constructions, bridges, mega buildings, dams, cement and more cement … and the train stations on the road are super modern. You even see more people on the street, abut this is obvious, as we move from the country with the lowest demographic density to the country with the largest population in the world. Yep! It’s crazy that just after crossing a border you could find so much difference between one country and another. Also, in case you did not watch Marco Polo con Netflix, China and Mongolia have been historical enemies for centuries.
It is 2pm (of the second day) and we have just arrived to Beijing. You can see the cameras in the street and fell that you are being observed. And everything is grey, but it not fog but pollution. Put your mask on and feel welcome to one of the countries with the highest rates of air pollution in the world!
But there might be also good things in China and we are here to discover them! We fell in love with Mongolia maybe because it was the first country of our Asia trip or because of the lovely people and the wild infinite landscapes. But now, we are ready to discover a different country with different people and different culture.