Trans Siberian Railway: From Beijing to Irkutsk
The Trans Siberian rail journey has long been a dream of mine. Armed
with a surge of confidence and knowledge the optimal season was quick in
passing, I decided to travel to Beijing to embark upon the train
via Mongolia to Lake Baikal and the city of Irkutsk.
It was September and the weather had been glorious in Beijing, a welcome relief from
the sauna that is Hong Kong. September is one of the best times to embark upon
the rail journey as the crowds of summer have largely dissipated. I was able to arrange tickets via a specialist travel agency by the name of
Monkey Shrine, and after a fun filled week spent with friends in Beijing, I
began my journey...
The train left Beijing's main railway station early on a Tuesday morning and over
the course of 29 hours made its way towards Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
I was exhausted from a late night in Beijing, so once on the train I decided to
get some rest. I awoke about an hour
outside of Beijing to a barrage of supportive messages sent by loved ones from Beijing and Hong Kong.
Looking out the window I saw a gorgeous mountain
landscape filled with stony peaks and pristine green lakes. Not wanting to miss out
on an integral part of the trip,
I decided to stave off sleep so I could continue to gaze out the window. But
after one too many tunnels I was unable to stay awake any longer and I passed out
I woke up later that day
in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia to see that the landscape had taken a
drastic turn from mountains and lakes to dry plains with small
rolling hills. There wasn't much to see, just a few
industrial cities, and one large wind farm, but there was a beautiful sunset over
The train was nice, modern, and best of all practically deserted. There was
only a few travellers to each car, most of whom were Western tourists. I spent
the majority of this first day in the dining car looking out the window and
repeatedly ordering the one vegetarian dish on offer. Trains are a
great place to catch up on reading and make new friends, so I spent my time
alternating between the two,
reading the many books I had brought and making a fair share of new friends.
That night around 9PM the train arrived at the border between China and Mongolia. On
the Chinese side customs and border agents came onto the train and
served to process everyone out of the country. Once they were finished, which
didn't take too long, everyone had to depart
the train and wait for it on the platform while the train switched gauges for the Mongolian tracks.
The night was brisk and the station had a bizarre atmosphere complete with
Chinese border guards doing marching drills on the platform. We certainly weren't in coastal China anymore. There was one market where
could buy supplies for the trip. Interestingly it had on offer a variety of western
products next to which their associated Chinese replicates could be found for a third of the
price. The most obvious of these were the bottles of 'Absolute
After a few hours train arrived back on the platform and
was promptly boarded for the short trip to the Mongolian frontier. It took
another few hours on the Mongol side to get cleared into the country, but it
wasn't difficult and leaving the train was not required.
It was quite late by the time all of the border formalities had finished, so
there wasn't much else to do but sleep. I slumbered into the next morning and awoke around 9AM to the sights of the Gobi Desert outside of
window. Feeling as though I were missing out on the beautiful scenery, I
immediately hopped out of bed and took to looking out the windows and snapping
pictures. It was interesting watching the scenery slowly transition from Gobi to
Having spent a few hours looking out the window, I was getting hungry so I
went to have breakfast in the dining car with one of my new friends . The dining car had been changed at the border
crossing and was now complete with a Mongol staff and traditional Mongolian decorations.
The food menu was much more complex than its Chinese counterpart however much to
my displeasure the dining car's prices were about three times higher as well.
Around one in the afternoon the train pulled into Ulaanbaatar. It was the first
city of consequence I had seen from the train, and it is home to over half of
Mongolia's population. I had arranged to stay in a traditional ger camp for
three nights and sure enough someone was waiting on the platform to pick me up
for transfer. The first Mongolian I had the pleasure of meeting was named Aagii
and she was to be my guide while in country.
It was a warm and sunny afternoon in UB and we made the most of it by going on a
quick city tour to the Gandan monastery, Sukhbaatar square, and the Zaisan
Memorial which is a panoramic hill spot
with great views of the city.
The monastery I found to be most interesting as it showcased Mongolia's
Buddhist disposition. There was a group of people throwing seed to pigeons in
front of the monastery in a custom of making a wish so the pigeons could take it to heaven. The visit to the monastery also revealed
some similarities to the type of Buddhism practiced in Tibet, and after a few spins on the
prayer wheels I was feeling positive enough to continue to Sukhbaatar square.
The square, built in true socialist fashion, was the city's answer to
On its periphery there was the Presidential Palace and the national museum, however
its most noticeable attribute was the giant statue of national hero
Genghis Khan. It's been eight-hundred years and he is still held by Mongolians
with a deep adoration.
Our last stop was the Zaisan Memorial. Located on a hill overlooking the
city, the memorial serves to commemorate the friendship between the Soviet and
Mongolian peoples. There were some interesting paintings on the memorial's
walls, with everything from cosmonauts to Nazis being killed. But the real
highlight is the amazing view of the city below. You can see the whole valley,
the surrounding mountains and at the time some beautiful fall colours.
After the city tour we continued on our 50KM journey
out of the city and into the steppes, where the ger camp was located. The
main road on which we traveled was two-lane and paved with
asphalt, the camp itself was located several kilometres off of this road down a dirt
A ger, sometimes called yurt, is the traditional form of housing in Mongolia.
It is a tent, the most common type consisting of five walls, but sometimes they
are larger and can go up to ten walls. The one I stayed in was of the five wall
variety, it had four beds all surrounding a central wood burning furnace that
vented out of a hole in the center of the tent. Perhaps not so surprisingly my
ger was larger than my apartment in Hong Kong and as such it felt very
It was coming on evening when I first got to the camp and I was a little
tired. So after eating dinner in
the lodge I settled in for the long night. The thing that struck me the most
about staying on the steppes was the amazing night sky. I've never seen so many
stars, and I could see the Milky Way which is truly amazing.
The fire in my ger had went
out around midnight and when I awoke it was quite cold. It was freezing outside
when I departed my tent to
make the trek to the toilets; however the skies were clear.
After eating a hearty breakfast in the lodge I was able to try my hand at some traditional
Mongolian archery. I wasn't very good at it, but I blamed it on the wind as I
didn't want to be
embarrassed in front of Aagii. Not that she believed my story.
I was to go horseback riding later in the day, in my preparation I decided to proudly display my Texas t-shirt. This, of course, served to set unmanageably high expectations
for my horse riding skills. Nonetheless, I think I managed to do alright. Thanks in
large part to the high altitude, the horses in Mongolia are of a short stature,
but they are
Riding across the steppes was a pretty wonderful experience, no fences as far as the eye could see,
there was an endless
horizon. It harkened in me images of the great American west and what it must
have been like hundreds of years in the past.
Our first stop was a neighbouring camp of a nomadic family. There were
three gers for the family and they still lived a traditional nomadic life. This
move their homes when the seasons change and make their living off of livestock
herding. There were some herd dogs and a couple of cute but rambunctious children
Once we finished lunch and visited with the nomads for a few hours, helping
with some of their laborious chores, we rode off
across the steppes once again. Five hours after we started we arrived back at
the ger camp. It was a long day's ride, but it felt good to be on a horse again. After dinner I retired to my
tent and had a good long sleep.
The next day, which was to be my final full day at the camp, I went hiking to a
large statue of Genghis Khan that was nearby. Getting there meant going through
a small portion of Gobi Desert that was on the other side of the camp. After the
desert came a large hill, and on the other side the gigantic statue of a mounted Genghis Khan could be seen
in the distance.
The statue was nice and is intended to be a national attraction of sorts.
They're building everything from ger camps to a golf course in its proximity.
But as it stands now, it's just a huge statue on the steppes, which I think is
Leaving camp the next day I could already tell I was going to miss the
steppes. It was wild and untamed, which is hard to find these days, let alone in Hong Kong.
Heading back into Ulaanbaatar we got caught up in an early season snowstorm. Seeing the city during a
definitely had a unique appeal and I noticed some interesting things I may
not have seen otherwise. From the deserted housing
complexes with graffiti on the walls to the barren sidewalks, the city had a
magical feeling of anarchy and isolation.
After walking around the city for a few hours, I went to the national theater
to see a presentation of traditional dancing, throat singing, and a performance
by the national orchestra. The show was really good; the dancing in particular was
amazing. After the show ended it was time for me to head towards the
train station as my time in Mongolia was coming to an end.
The train to Russia was decidedly different from its
Chinese counterpart. Everyone seemed to be packed into one car, the
quarters were cramped, and there was no dining car. Nothing about this train
seemed relaxing or pleasant, but there was no point in complaining as I didn't have
much of a choice.
The train traveled at a slow pace throughout the night, arriving at the
Mongolian side of the border at
6AM. The border guards waited until 8AM before starting the formalities and
then proceeded to wake everyone to check their passports. After a few hours of this the train rode
ten minutes down the track and stopped at the Russian side of the border where
it would spend the day. This process required everyone to disembark from the train
so the undercarriage could be changed.
There was a very small border town for travellers to explore during
the train's downtime. There wasn't much to see or do but there was a small
market, an ATM, a toilet, and one cafe. Unfortunately no one spoke English
at the cafe and it was quite hard for me to make heads or tails of the menu. It
would be an understatement to say that I was hungry
during this leg of the trip.
When all was said and done the train had spent ten-hours at the border. A
little while after we departed I watched the sun set over Siberia
and then went to sleep. The
next morning the conductor woke me at 6AM to inform me that Irkutsk was the next
stop. Looking out the window I was able to see a beautiful sunrise over the Angara
River as we pulled into the station.
Getting off of the train in Irkutsk I was met by Katja who was to transfer me to Bolshoe Goloustnoe
on the shore of Lake Baikal. My first impression of Irkutsk was of its crazy
traffic; let's just say the driver's were reckless. Compounding the problem was
that half of the cars were left-hand drive (normal in Russia), but the other
cars were right-hand drive (Japanese imports). For obvious reasons it's not very
safe to have the two types sharing roads.
The road to the village was a wide and well maintained dirt track, and it
went through some amazing scenery. The road followed a valley with
mountains on all sides showcasing their dazzling fall colours. It took about two
hours to reach the lakeshore and the village. The village was small with only one paved road, and a
few hundred citizens. All of the buildings were made of wood in traditional
Siberian styling, and it sat directly
on Lake Baikal, surrounded by forested mountains.
I had arranged to stay at a homestay in one of the local houses. It was a
nice family with an older Russian woman at its head. Like almost every Russian
country house there was a sauna but there was no running water in the house and
the toilets were in an outhouse in the yard. It meant there would be some cold
walks in the mornings, but my room was clean and comfortable.
I wasn't too active during my first day in the village. I walked around for a bit,
first to the Orthodox Church and then down to the lakefront. Looking out across the lake was a
good way to spend an afternoon. Lake Baikal is the world's oldest lake, and also
its deepest. Since its inception a completely unique set of
underwater marine life and fauna has evolved in the lake.
In the evening I went to the sauna, which is the traditional way to bathe in
Russian country houses. After the sauna I had an enormous meal, I do believe the
family matriarch had made it her mission to add some meat to my bones as all of the
meals I was to have during my stay would be of similarly large proportions.
The next day after breakfast I decided to hike to the top of a nearby hill to
get a view of the village and surrounding countryside. It seemed a lot easier in
the warmth of the house than it actually turned out to be. I underestimated the
cold and the wind became quite strong once I started to climb out from the
shelter of the village. The hill was also very steep, and it wasn't an easy going.
However I managed to persevere and once at the
top of the hill I rested for a while taking in the view. I could see the village in
its entirety, the Orthodox Church, and all the way across the lake to the
snowcapped mountains on the other side.
After walking back down to the village, I along with Katja and a few others went
cycling through the village and to the edge of town. There we stowed the
bicycles and went walking for about a mile or so down along the lake. The scenery
was much like it had been on the drive in, fall colours, rolling hills,
mountain backdrops. After finding a nice spot on the hillside not too far from the
lake we had a picnic with some traditional Russian food. You have to admire a
people who mix mashed potatoes with bread. I don't think there's much of a
market for low-carb diets here.
There wasn't much to do after the picnic so I had another lazy night,
spending most of my time reading and
occasionally venturing out into the cold to use the outhouse. The stars were
amazing here as well, maybe not quite up to the Mongolian standards but inspiring nonetheless.
The next morning I awoke early and was driven back to Irkutsk at around 8AM.
The plan for my last day in Russia was that I would leave my bags at a centrally
located hotel in Irkutsk, walk around the city for six hours or so, and then the driver
would take me to the airport for my flight to
Beijing. As much as I would have 'loved' to continue overland for three-days
(3200 miles) to
Moscow, my schedule was tight and I've already had the pleasure of visiting
It was a brisk zero-degree (C) day outside, but it was sunny and
felt a lot warmer than the temperature indicated. At first I wasn't sure whether I would find enough things to see in
Irkutsk to satisfy my six-hours of free time. But armed with a map and my
camera I decided to see why exactly they called this city the 'Paris of
My first stop was the Ephinany Cathedral located near the river, not too far from the
hotel. There were a few churches near the cathedral, they were attractive and built in
the typical Eastern Orthodox style.
Afterwards I went down to the river where I saw some amazing views of the city sprawled out on the other side
along with some more
I checked out the river for a bit before walking back down through the city
and to the main thoroughfare of the city center. Walking along that street for a
while I mostly just people watched and took notice of the architecture. The
majority of the city is built from concrete and stone, but at one time the
buildings in the city were entirely wooden. However a series of fires in the
19th century decimated those buildings and now they only make up ten-percent of
the city center's buildings. But I was able to find quite a few streets where
the buildings were still primarily wooden.
After a while I came across the city's high-street (shopping street)
where I sat down at a cafe and had a drink. I people watched here for a little while, and then
made a beeline across the city center past a huge statue of Lenin and to another part of the river.
On this side of the river
there was a nice promenade for walking, and a few vendors selling snacks. I
walked down the entirety of the promenade, checking out the splendid views.
Directly across the river was the central rail station where just a few days
earlier I had arrived on the Trans-Siberian.
I walked through the city for about 4.5 hours before I headed back to the
hotel where I had lunch in a neighbouring restaurant. Soon afterwards the driver came to
pick me up
and I was off to the airport.
The airport was unlike many I had ever seen, it was in the middle of the city, and
didn't look like an airport at all. The exterior first appeared like that of a
government building or a museum. But hey I guess in the USSR it was a
My flight back to Beijing was uneventful other than my surprise at the
contemptuous service on Hainan Air. As my flight arrived to Beijing late that
evening I had arranged to spend the night at an airport hotel. Early the next
morning I flew back to Hong Kong and so came to an end my trip through Mongolia
- Dakota Smith