Step one in taking the train from UB to Beijing is to make it to the train station. Despite some rudimentary Mongolian language lessons my competency in the language never made it to my marker of basic language skills: giving directions to, and haggling a price with, a taxi. Fear not, there is an enterprising company that understands that English speaking travellers may want the comfort of organising transport ahead of time and be confident that their driver knows where to pick them up, at what time, and where they’d like to be delivered. That company is Help Taxi [+976 9965 2371] and I was impressed each time I used their service. To get to the station cost ₮15000 (AU$9.80/ US$7.70) which is about double what you might pay if you flagged a car down on the street.
Note: there is a thriving informal transport economy in Ulaanbaatar where you simply wave down a car (think of it as Uber without the use of an app, or hitchhiking with a fee) state your destination and take your chances. The going rate is around ₮1000 per kilometer.
I digress; I was picked up at 6.15am and made it to the station in time to see the train pull into UB from its previous Russian location at 6.35am.
For about half an hour I smugly thought I had the berth to myself, and met my next-door neighbours – a lovely young Spanish couple who I assume got the two discretionary tickets before my purchase – with whom I would share a washroom for the next 30 odd hours. The washroom is really just a sink and a tap but it’s nice to have that facility shared by four instead of forty. Back to my smugness. My travelling companion arrived soon enough with a host of family and a Tetris defying amount of luggage to position in the cabin, but stack and store it all did (the luggage, not the family, they were handy hands on deck).
There is something delightfully communal about long distance train travel. From the Danish woman who poked her head into our cabin to find out our story, sharing my Serbian apples and tangerines with my berth buddy and she in turn sharing her sister’s homemade khuushuur, to being placed with a young Dutch couple in the Chinese dining car for lunch and learning their travel story. I loved glancing up from my book to watch the snow covered vista unfold outside the window. I loved walking up and down the carriages, marvelling at the unmanned, uncovered coal fires in third class. I loved making use of the urn at the end of the carriage to get cups of hot water. From go to woe I loved the journey.
For a taste of the adventure I recommend viewing the clip below (most relevantly from 1.00 – 5.30) of a delightful father-daughter travelling duo who wing their way from KL to China and then train their way to UB.
- The journey runs spectacularly on time so simply refer to the timetable for expected arrival and departure times for Dzamin Uud (Mongolian Border), Erlian (Chinese border), and Beijing (main station).
- At Erlian you can leave the train and mill about the station for a few hours (on the plus: access to food, toilets, and the outside; on the minus: it is bloody cold outside in February) or you can remain on board while the train is readied for the differently gauged tracks between Mongolia and China (on the plus: it is warm, it is possible to sleep (as I did) despite the juddering of the carriage as they transition; on the minus: the bathrooms are locked so be sure to make use of the amenities beforehand).
- Remember you have access to hot water in all the carriages, so for those travelling on a budget ramen is a perfectly acceptable culinary option. Also bring a cup for tea, coffee, hot water as you will.
- The dining carriage changes in each country so try and venture to all and compare the differences.
* ₮ = Tughrik = Mongolian Dollar