Train Day One: Beijing to Ulaanbaatar

Today is the day our adventure really begins! We were up bright and early to meet with our group by 5:30 in the lobby after checking out of the hotel. From there we would walk about 20 minutes to the train station. When we arrived, our passports were checked and our luggage was scanned before we could enter the station. The station has multiple waiting areas because it serves multiple train lines.We reached waiting area one around 6 am and had until 6:45 before we needed to meet back with the group. This gave us enough time to grab breakfast at Mickey D’s. Best to start the trip with a full stomach, just in case!

At 6:45 Svetlana gave us our train accommodation assignments. We would be sharing our cabin with Vanessa, a young woman from Germany and Svetlana, our tour guide.

We boarded around 7 am. The numbering system for the cars was pretty bizarre. Our group is in car #5 which turned out to be at the front of the train; the car numbering was not at all in sequence. We will spend the day traveling through China and will reach the Mongolian border at around 8 pm. At that point we will go through immigration and the wheels of the train will be switched out to fit the size of the Mongolian tracks.

The morning was spent enjoying the scenery. It was nice to see something other than big cities but hard to get photographs of anything. I tried anyhow!

Let me tell you a little about that train. We were in the second class compartment which has 4 bunks. The lower bunks are used as a seating area for the compartment. There is a small table and a pitcher of hot water provided. It was recommended that we not use that water, however. Why, you ask? When we cross the border from China to Mongolia the toilets get closed down. When all is said and done, the border crossing takes a total of 6 hours (from 8 pm until 2 am). Guess what gets used by many of the passengers since they cannot access the toilets?

There are toilets available at each end of each car; these open directly onto the tracks. This is why they are closed down at the border. Do not forget to bring your own toilet paper; one roll will be provided. Once it is gone, it will not be replenished. There is also a samovar with boiling water that is at one end of the car – handy for instant coffee, tea, cup of noodles, or whatever you might bring that requires hot water. A schedule showing when the train arrives and departs each station is in the hallway. None of the stops for this leg of the trip will be long enough to get off the train.

A couple of blankets, two sheets and a pillowcase were provided for each bunk. They are quite scratchy in texture; no Egyptian cotton in sight! Svetlana told us that the bedding provided in Mongolia and Russia is much nicer.

Though smoking is not allowed on the train, that does not stop the locals. They smoke in the openings between the train cars.

While in China, two meals are served as part of the fare – lunch and dinner. Word to the wise: get there early to get a seat. Not a good seat; any seat. There is one small dining car for the entire train, and lunch is only served between 11 am and noon. By 10:45 the entire dining car was completely full. So, people lined the aisle, shouting at each other (yes, these were local folk). Eventually, some of them were given food to go; others chose to wait for a table. We were told that we could order drinks (extra cost), but no one ever came around to take our drink order. Lunch was stir fried celery with a few small chunks of chicken and a dish of rice. Chopsticks, but no other utensils were provided. If you need a fork, bring your own.

We spent a quiet, but hot, afternoon napping, reading, and watching the scenery. We had a fan in our second class cabin. Some of the windows outside the cabins open; just not the ones near us. If you are considering this trip I would highly recommend springing for a first class compartment. Not only are they much, much nicer; they also have real a/c. We did revisit the dining car mid afternoon to buy some cold drinks and bask in the cooler temperatures found there. One other quick tip: bring a power bank for your digital devices. There are no outlets in the second class cabins. There are a few in the hallway. Whether they work or not is another story! There has been cell service most of the day which has been a pleasant surprise.

Dinner was fungus and cabbage with a mystery meat meatball on the side. Of course, there was rice but still no beverage. Tonight when we cross over into Mongolia the dining car will be changed to a Mongolian one. Food will not be included but will most likely be a bit more palatable!

After dinner, we started to spot our first herds of camels! Very cool! Now, the landscape is completely flat. It has been very, very hot all day but is becoming more comfortable. It will most likely dip below freezing overnight.