An epic rail journey from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian Railway is as much about the journey as it is about the destination, and it’s not a stretch to say that it’s a lifetime travel dream for many. Covering a distance of 7,621km, this journey offers a glimpse into a range of worlds speeding across the landscape from the comfort of a first-class carriage.
The gateway is a modern railway station in Beijing. Smartly-dressed railway attendants stand at each carriage, checking tickets and ensuring everyone is seated at their allocated space. The train then begins its journey through Beijing’s cityscape.
The suburbs of tall apartment complexes quickly disappear, replaced by the vast open space of rural China as it opens up. The journey is a visual feast, especially once the train slips past the Great Wall as it snakes across the brown hills and towards the mysteries of Mongolia.
Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital city and a convenient stop to break the journey. The city highlight is the Gandan Khiid Monastery, home to over 800 monks and houses the gold-covered 26.5m tall Buddha.
However, the main attraction is not the noisy city but the vast grass-covered plains and staying in a traditional encampment. Many people still live their nomadic lifestyle herding cattle but some now offer their gers, or yurts, to visitors. These white-clad tents do not look like much from the outside but inside are rich deep carpets lining the walls and floor, a comfortable bed and a small fire creating a cosy escape from the cold, dark night.
With the 40m-tall imposing statue of Genghis Khan on horseback in mind, anyone can sign up and join the Mongol Hordes and swoop across the Mongolian Steppes on horseback. The reality may be different from many people’s imagination: local guides wearing traditional gear will help you onto small ponies – not big stallions – and lead you on a gentle ride into hills where you can see the endangered Argali Sheep. The trip back was very different, with the ponies throwing all caution to the wind and charging for home at speed. Unlike the armies of old, a hot meal and a comfortable bed await each traveller.
Life onboard the train quickly takes on a rhythm. It is tempting to bring many books and activities but fellow passengers may prove to be more interesting, with small groups milling in the corridor or gathering in the dining compartment to share stories, drink and food. The ever-changing view and stops at stations become part of the backdrop.
The stations give a chance to stretch the legs, buy local food for the next meal and watch the passing parade of people and goods. Travelling in first class is very different to the rest of the train which is full with locals, black market goods and hardy travellers – these carriages are noisy, smoky, crowded and smell of food and sweat. They offer a lifeline for people along the route and an experience of a lifetime for the intrepid traveller.
An easy, though stern, border crossing in the middle of the night and a change of running gear marks the entry into Siberia; the land of salt mines, penetrating cold, and vast forests.
The former military outpost of Irkutsk is now a modern city and a popular stop due to its proximity to Lake Baikal. After a quick recharge, travellers can head out of the city to its playground on the lake. The 64km long and 1.5kmdeep lake holds around 20,000 cubic kilometres, or 20% of the world’s freshwater and is, therefore, a must-see.
One of the many places to stay is the small village of Bolshie Koty which can be accessed by hydrofoil. Its main appeals are the scenic walks and the welcoming locals who can provide an insight into Russian life, food and vodka. In the summer, professionals
from Irkutsk open their summer homes to visitors to supplement their meagre incomes which provide travellers with an authentic experience. Many laughs and stories are shared over the evening meals of traditional food including Borscht, a traditional beetroot soup.
For the energetic, a 20km walk to Listvyanka along the shore and forests of Lake Baikal is a must. Others may prefer to take the ferry – with their luggage in town – before returning to Irkutsk before continuing on the final 3 to 4-day leg to Moscow.
If time permits, this leg can be broken up with stops at the various cities along the way. Although 3 days on a train sounds daunting, time passes very quickly with several stops a day, usually for 10-20 minutes which give you time to stretch the legs, take photos, and purchase local cuisine.
While it remains a popular option for travellers, booking the railway journey is not simple – it’s recommended to use a travel agent to make all the necessary reservations. While it may sound cliche, getting to know the carriage attendant is handy, as they can smoothen the journey.
It’s important to choose the class of travel to suit your needs and budget – you want to be able to balance ‘experience’ with comfort for your once-in-a-lifetime journey. Prior to the trip, some handy resources include the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas, and the ‘Man in Seat 61’ website.
As the train edges into Moscow, it’s not unusual to experience a bit of anticipation and restlessness. The terminus is the busy Yaroslavski Station, located in downtown Moscow which is a short distance away from the severe-looking Hilton Moscow.
The hotel is part of Moscow’s Seven Sisters – a group of skyscrapers built in the 1950s Stalinist neoclassical style which focuses on socialist realism art. Mixing Russian neoclassical style with the style of American skyscrapers of the 1930s, the hotel was designed to be the finest luxury hotel in Moscow when it was completed in 1954. The hotel’s staircase features one of the longest lighting fixtures in the world.
The hotel towers above Komsomolskaya Square – with its three ornate railway stations of Leningradsky, Yaroslavsky and Kazansky – along with a main ring road of downtown Moscow, making it easy to access the city’s sites including the Red Square.