With Backpack

One World in One Lifetime

The Trans Mongolian Express

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 9, 2009

June 10-11, 2008

All Pictures

The Trans-Mongolian Express

The Trans-Mongolian Express

We went to the Beijing Railway station , on subway line 2, to catch the Trans Mongolian Express to Ulaanbaatar. While we were waiting for the train, some officials rounded up some people and made them weigh their luggage. Oddly, only Chinese people were ordered to weigh in.

When we got on the train, we discovered that the beds had no sheets. They came by later and gave us sheets and took our tickets. We had a standard class berth with 4 beds. But since there wasn’t a 4th person in our berth, we put all our stuff on the extra bed.

In our exploration of the train, we saw that the first class berths had 2 beds and a bathroom. However, there was no shower. The bathroom is shared by 2 compartments. I’m not sure if they get refilled with TP.

1st Class

There were also electrical outlets in the aisle of the train for the standard class berths. First class has an outlet in the compartment. I put my mp3 player to charge in the walkway area and sat near the door of the compartment to keep an eye on it. The outlets are the F or C socket types.

If you are going to take the Trans Mongolian Express I would recommend bringing:

  1. A few books
  2. An mp3 player with lots of memory for music and/ or audio books
  3. Lots of snacks. There are dining cars, but they aren’t always open.
  4. Playing cards
  5. Toilet paper. There was TP on the train, but sometimes they ran out.
  6. Tea, cup noodles, and hot chocolate mix. There is a hot water dispenser in every car.
  7. If you go in the summer bring a fan. There are fans in the cars, but at some stops they turn off the electricity.

arguing over ramen

Food stop: Datong

At Datong, the train stopped to pick up more passengers. This gave us an opportunity to buy food. We bought some cup noodles and fruit. They were also selling some freshly baked (maybe fried) bread, but some Chinese guys ran off the train, pushed their way to the cart, and bought ALL of the bread from all the vendors. I guess they had taken this trip before and knew the bread would sell out quickly. Very few novice riders were fast enough to get any of the bread.

There was one more stop to buy food before getting to the border.

In some cars there was a bathroom that was hidden behind an open door at one of the ends of the car. Most people missed it and therefore the TP there lasted longer. It also stayed clean throughout the whole trip.

Changing the wheels

Changing the wheels: Erilan

We stopped at the border between China and Mongolia for passport control. As soon as we pulled into the station the officials came by every compartment to check under the beds and take our passports. Everything was very serious and they all seemed to hate their jobs, their lives, and everyone on the train. I could imagine all of officials going home to beat their wives or husbands, scream at their kids, and kick their dogs.

We were in Erlian for about 8 hours. For the first 2 hours we just sat on the train as the train kept moving back and forth. Later we found out that they were changing the dining car. Every country has its own dining car that goes from border to border.

After two hours of rocking back and forth, we were told that we could get off the train and wander around town but we couldn’t get back on the train until it was time to go.

Lifting up the train to take off the wheels

Just hold it

I wanted to get off the train, but my mom wanted to take all her important stuff with her.  While she unpacked and repacked her things the train conductors open and then closed the doors. So we were stuck on the train.

The train pulled into the “garage” and the next 4 hours were spent lifting the train up and pulling the wheels out. They slid smaller or maybe bigger… I don’t remember now wheels under the train. During these 4 hours there was no electricity so no fan and the bathrooms were all locked.

The Trans Mongolian trains have no a/c. All you get is a tiny blue wall fan. This would have been a great time for me to pull out my own personal fan, but I didn’t bring one.

the train’s wheels

The last two hours were spent back at the station where everyone who left got back on board and we waited for them the give us back our passports. Apparently they got to roam around the town with no passports. They also got to buy stuff and use the bathroom.

Because the train was in the station, those poor saps like us who stayed on the train could not use the bathroom for the whole 8 hours we were at Erlian.

When we passed the actual China/ Mongolia border there was a little Chinese soldier standing guard with his guns making sure the Mongolians don’t sneak into China. There were no Mongolian soldiers on the other side. I don’t think the Mongolians spend too much time worrying about the Chinese. Maybe they’re too busy sneaking into China.

70USD!? Malcolm really travels light.

Finally in Mongolia: Zamynuud

At the Chinese border everyone had official looking uniforms.  Even the janitor had a couple of stripes on his sleeves. But in Mongolia, only the lady who took our passports wore a uniform.

The mood in Mongolia seemed a lot lighter than in China. The officials were laughing and making jokes before they got on the train. Once on the train they acted quite serious, almost like they were pretending to be Chinese border officials. Once they got off the train they continued with their merriment.

I tried to stay awake as long as I could to see if I could spot any interesting things moving about in the desert, but there was nothing. So I fell asleep.

Cosmos the Cosmonaut

Call me Cosmos: Choyr

The next morning one of our rest stops was in the town of Choyr. There wasn’t much to buy. In fact there was only a 12-year-old boy and his friend selling un-cold water. Of course, we bought 2 bottles.

On this trip I didn’t drink as much water as I should have. But drinking enough water means peeing a lot… peeing in public bathrooms… dirty public bathrooms!

Here we met the statue of Cosmos, the first and only astronaut of Mongolia. I know what you’re thinking… “How fortunate for him that he was born a ‘Cosmos'”.

Some time ago, the Russians decide to Russianize Mongolia. The first thing that they noticed was that most Mongolians didn’t have a family name. So they made it mandatory for everyone to get a last name. Most people looked at their family tree to find one. It turns out that a lot of people are related to Genghis Khan. Other people either couldn’t find a suitable ancestor, or just wanted to be creative and made up their own last name.

This was the last stop before the final stop at Ulaanbaatar.

Sleeping on the Trans Mongolian Express

Backpacking Must Haves

When backpacking there are some items that you must never leave home without.

1. A photocopy (colored if possible) of every important document you have or need; passport picture pages, visa pages, prescriptions or medication labels. If it is something that you cannot live without or something that might be hard to describe in another language like an inhaler; take a picture of it and bring it. You should also keep a scanned or e-version of everything on an SD card and online. You can always e-mail them to yourself to keep everything in one place.

2. Toilet paper/ wipes and hand sanitizer or soap. Just assume that nowhere has toilet paper and that you will need to wipe down everything you touch. You don’t need to bring tons of TP and wipes since you can buy them at general stores on your trip, just bring enough to get you through a day or two.

3. A small memory card with important information on it. You never know when they this might come in handy. Since I travel a lot and get jobs around the world, I keep a copy of my resume on my tiny memory stick. (I actually got my job in Korea while on this trip. I did my interview while waiting at a train station in Paris.) Just make sure you have some type of reader for it; a camera, some mp3 players, or a card reader.

4. Travel Insurance. I use worldnomads but there are plenty out there. Shop around and find the best price for you. Also scan the receipts for everything you are taking that can be claimed with your insurance. That way you can file a claim while still on your trip if some misfortune befalls you. You can upload documents to Mediafire.com or google documents, that way everything you need for your trip is in one place or you can always e-mail them to yourself. Mediafire is free and your files are saved as long as you log in at least once a month. Make sure you set your file as private unless you want to share it.

5. Drugs. Bring cold, diarrhea, constipation, pain, allergy, and whatever medicine you need. You can buy these drugs in every country you visit, but when you’re sick and in a country where you don’t speak the language you might not be in the mood to find a pharmacy and search through new brands of drugs written in Russian. Just make sure that it is legal to bring your drugs into the country. (You cannot bring Sudafed into Japan.)

6. Get your shots. This might seem like going overboard, but isn’t it better to be safe? Then you can eat whatever mystery soup is given to you without worrying about contracting hepatitis B.

7. A universal outlet plug adapter.

8. Duct tape. You don’t have to bring a whole roll. Just enough to quickly patch a backpack. You can re-roll it as the guy in this link does. There are many reasons to bring some along.

9. A few dry bags. You can buy them online, at a Wal-mart, or at Target. If you don’t have any you can also use zip-lock bags but, they tend to get holes in them after a while. I use dry bags to keep my electronics in. If something wet spills on your backpack, or you get caught in the rain, or you drop your stuff in water, you can at least rest assured that your gadgets will be okay.

10. A swim suit. This is obvious when you are headed somewhere like Bali. But I would bring my swim suit even on a ski trip. There have been so many times when someone traveling with me had to buy an overpriced and tacky swim suit because they didn’t think they would need one on a non-beach/ non-pool related trip.

11. Clothes for crazy weather. If you’re headed somewhere warm, bring one light sweater and a pair of warm socks. If you’re going to a cold place, bring one pair of shorts and a t-shirt.

12. Cash Money! Bring 3 times the cash you think you will need. And, get a bank account from a bank with international ATMs for emergencies. In my case, I use Ally, which has no ATMs of its own; any ATM worldwide can be used to get money without fees from Ally.

All Pictures

Buying Tickets For the Trans-Mongolian Express

Where to go:

The ticket office is in the Beijing International Hotel on the second floor. The company is called CITS (China International Travel Service).

How to get there:

  • Go to Jianguomen subwaystation station and go out of the Northwest exit.
  • Walk West towards the Forbidden City and look for the hotel in the picture to the right.

The train departs from the Beijing Railway station. Here is a humble map: Beijing Railway Station.bmp.

Here is a map of the path that the Trans-Mongolian Express makes: Trans-Siberian_Map.jpg.



  • If you are traveling with a group and not using a travel agency, only one of your group will need to go to buy the tickets in person.
  • You will need to know the passport numbers of all the passengers  for whom you plan to buy tickets.
  • All this information may have change between the time this post was written in 2008 and the time you are reading in now. It’s China; things change.
  • Visit Seat 61 for more information.


Click here for Google maps

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