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The Trans Mongolian Express

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 9, 2009

June 10-11, 2008

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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

Posted in Beijing, China, Choyr, Datong, Erilan, Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, Zamynuud | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on The Trans Mongolian Express

A City Cleaned up

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 9, 2009

June 5-10, 2008

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My mom and me near Qianmen Subway station. She’s so happy to see me in a dress.

Mother and Child Reunion

Once in Beijing, I met my Mom, whom I hadn’t seen in almost a year, and my brother, whom I hadn’t seen in a year and a half. It wasn’t until my plane landed in Beijing that I wondered how I would find my mom and brother. I knew they would be flying in from LAX, but I didn’t know the flight number or what time the flight would get into Beijing. I didn’t even know if it was a morning or afternoon flight.

I thought that the best thing for me to do was to find a computer somewhere in the airport, email them telling them to meet me at the gate 12 or something, then just wait for them for however long it took. I had just gotten through the passport check and was fishing around in my purse for internet money when I heard my name. I looked up and saw my mom.

me:      How did you know where to find me!?

mom:  I didn’t. Malcolm and I just got off our plane and were standing in line at passport control when we saw your afro.

My brother was still in line and came walking over about 5 minutes later. We took a bus from the airport to the Qianmen subway station. We stayed at the Qian Men Hostel, the same place I stayed when I was in Beijing a month ago.

At Qianmen Hostel in Beijing

The Qianmen Subway station is very near to many main attractions for which Beijing is famous. I recommend finding accommodations in this area of Beijing when sightseeing.

Buying international train tickets

Buying Tickets on the Trans Mongolian Express

Normally, to buy a  ticket on the Trans Mongolian Express, you just call up an agent. They would run down to the ticket office, purchase the ticket or tickets for you, and then mail it to your hotel in China. But because of the Olympics, all international train tickets had to be purchased first hand by at least one of the passengers and within two weeks of the departure date.

For directions click here.

So this was one of the first things we did on our first full day in China. I was a little nervous that something would go wrong and we wouldn’t be able to get train tickets, but I didn’t let my mom or brother know. Ninety percent of the time, something will go wrong when travelling through China. But for the first few hours at the start of this day, everything went fine.

Peking Duck

SCAMS: Stay away from the art students

There are many scams that are run on tourists. Tourists are often identified by the clothes they wear, their cameras, and they’re standing around tourist attractions instead of going to work. Here is an example of  one of the many scams that we encountered while in China. I call it “The Art Student Scam.”

After buying our tickets to Mongolia, we headed towards the Forbidden City. Along the way, we met a young man who said he was an art student. We had a long conversation with him and he taught us some Mandarin. His story was that he was going to Europe to sell  his paintings and he just wanted to show some of them to us.

We were flattered. Obviously this guy could see that we knew art, so we followed him to his teacher’s studio where his paintings were on display. They were nice. His teacher, the great salesman, tried to get us to buy some paintings. The teacher told us that the student needed to sell some paintings here, so he can afford the plane ticket to sell more paintings in Europe.

The Forbidden City

I have no money; neither do I want to carry a fragile painting around Mongolia and Europe so, I didn’t buy one. My soft-hearted brother bought one to help the “poor” student get to Europe. But the teacher wanted him to buy four for better “feng shui“. If I remember right, my brother ended up buying two.  (He says his feng shui has not suffered for lack of symmetry.)

Later, when we were in the Forbidden City another “student” wanted to show us her art. She too was going to Europe to sell her paintings and needed to raise some money by selling paintings. When we saw the art, it looked suspiciously just like the art the first “student” had “painted”. Those sneaky “students”!!!

The Mao Mausoleum entrance side

The East is Red

It’s a great deal they have there, at the Mausoleum. It is free to get in, but if you want, you can buy a flower for comrade Mao at the Mao Mausoleum (Maosoleum?). Then, you place it at the foot of the statue of Mao. I’m sure, they put these same flowers back for sale when no one is looking. You also have to pay to put your stuff in lockers, because Mao hates bags.

Mao looked just as creepy as Ho Chi Minh did, but maybe a little more bloated. Then again, Ho Chi Minh was a scrawny guy and Mao was fat.

The Great Wall of China and my brother, Malcolm

The Great Wall: Scams and all

The Lonely Planet was only somewhat helpful in getting tourists to the Great Wall of China. The directions are above. Watch out for scams.

We walked up and along the Great Wall. I was hoping that it would be more spiritual, walking along this very old wall with so much history beneath my feet. But it was way too crowded for me to get into any mood of tranquility or oneness with anything.

On our way down we passed a bear garden. There were some poor pathetic looking bears on display. Their owners were selling corn and fruit to tourists so that they, the tourist, could toss some food at the bears. By the looks of the scrawny bears, that might be the only food they get.

Where is this lady taking us?

The Underground City: closed

Reading through my Lonely Planet book, that great source of half-information, I saw an entry about an underground city. Mao had it built because he feared the Russians and their nuclear weapons. It was a secret when it was built and it apparently is still a secret because nobody could give us directions to it. No one had any idea what we were talking about.

Later I looked up the information on Wikipedia and there were several addresses for it; each for one of the many entrances.

The Lonely Planet book for China didn’t mention anything about it having more than one entrance. It had one location for an entrance given in map form and another location given in address form. But the book gave the impression that they were both the same place. It confused us.

Eventually, we decided to look for the street address and found it quickly. Of course, first we followed some old lady on a bike who claimed to know where it was. She actually wanted us to buy Mao’s little red book from her and took us on a wild goose chase.

Unfortunately, it was closed and under reconstruction for safety reasons. We were told to come back in a few months. We were all quite disappointed. But if you go to Beijing after September 2009, be sure to check it out and tell me how great it is.

Update: I read somewhere that the Underground City is closed for good and will never be opened to the public. Or maybe the Russians are still a bit of a threat…

Lama Temple

Lama Temple

After that, we went to The Lama Temple. As I have said before, to me, ALL temples look the same. The Lama temple is no exception. Same, Same. But it did come with a little CD  of nice “Lama” music.

Heavenly Dancing

The Heavenly Temple Park

We went to the Heavenly Temple Park, but we didn’t see the Heavenly Temple. We were tired of temples. They all look alike anyway. We were more interested in the people at the park. This park is where the happy people go to hang out, play games, dance, show off what they can do, or learn to do something new. It was wonderful watching folks teaching each other how to dance, do tai chi, or fight. Happy city people warm my heart!

The summer hangout of royalty

The Summer Palace

After the park, we took a public bus to the Summer Palace. It was a really hot day and going to where the kings of ancient China went to cool off seemed like a great idea. It was a little cooler there and very beautiful… so beautiful that it didn’t look real. It was a great place to spend our last day in China.

All Pictures


How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to China.
  • Visas to China are expensive for people of some nationalities.
  • Getting a Chinese visa is not a quick process. Apply as soon as you can.



There is a long list of websites that cannot be accessed while in China. Facebook and parts of Wikipedia are just two of them. As with everything, there are ways around it. There are sites that will let you get to Facebook and other sites for free for about 15 minutes, then you will have to pay.

My advice is to find a few of them and use them for free. Then use them again on a different computer. If you are in China for a long time, then you might want to invest in paying for the service. Ask friends living in China for the best deals.



*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.


  • If you want an internet cafe look for this (网吧) on a sign.

The Mao Mausoleum
Máo Zhǔxí Jìniàntáng

The Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square
Tiān’ānmén Guǎngchǎng

How to get there:

All of these things are close together. Well, close if you’re used to walking a lot. They are all right next to each other. But because they are really big, it might be a 20 minute walk to go from the Mao Mausoleum to The Forbidden city. You will have to walk though.

Go to Qianmen Subway station. The nearest attraction will be the mausoleum. You can’t bring anything in the mausoleum with you, so you’ll have to walk to the baggage check area first.

Behind the mausoleum is Tienanmen Square and behind that is The Forbidden City.


  • It’s free to see Mao. But if you have stuff, it will cost you to put it in a locker. You pay based on how many bags you have, how big the bags are, and how many electronic devices you have in the bags. The lines at the baggage check can get long, so it might be better, if you are in a group, to have only half of your group go see Mao while the rest watch the bags.
  • It’s also free to see Tiananmen Square. But if you pay 15Yuan you can walk to the top of the gate and look out on the square.
  • Entrance to the Forbidden City is 60Yuan.

The kept luggage costs for The Mao Mausoleum (2008)


  • Mao Mausoleum          Tu – Su 8:00-12:00
  • Tiananmen Square is an open area and therefore always available. **Update: The last time I was in Beijing there was a security check that people needed to pass through to get to the grassy area. This security check does shut down in the late evening and opens back up early in the morning before the mausoleum does. You can still walk around the area when the security check is closed, just not in the main part. **
  • The Forbidden City    8:30 – ??

The Great Wall of China (长城)
Badaling Entrance (八達嶺)

How to get there:

  • 40°21’35.3″N 116°01’11.7″E

There are many ways to get to the Great Wall since the wall is so… great. These are directions to get to the Badaling Entrance, where most tourists go. (Most tourists go to this entrance because it is the most accessible entrance.)

1. Go to the Deshengmen gate (德胜门).

Take the subway to Jishuitan station (积水潭站) on the circle line. I don’t remember what exit we took, but the place to get the bus was right next to the Deshengmen gate (德胜门). So ask someone how to get to the gate when you are at the subway station. Don’t get on any of the buses until you get to Deshengmen gate; the gate is a walkable distance from the subway station.

You can also get the Deshengman gate by taking Public Bus 5, 305, 315, 344, 345, 380, 670, 914, or 919. For these buses, Deshengman gate is the last stop.

2. Take the 919 bus.

The bus is 919, but  be careful. You want a green one like in the picture below, not the public/ city bus.

The green 919 to the Great Wall of China

SCAM: There are local 919 buses, that do not go all the way to the Great Wall and there are fake 919 buses that give tours and cost 400 Yuan. If you find someone who tells you that there are no public or non-tour buses to the Great Wall they are liars! We found one such man.

Ignore anyone who points out the local 919 buses as an example of the non-existence of a 919 to the Great Wall.

The buses at the Deshengmen gate are big, green, and costs 12 Yuan, at the time this post was written, to get to the Badaling entrance and they leave as soon as they are full. The next one is right behind it. So you’ll always be right on time for a bus.

Use the picture of the bus in this blog as a reference.

You can also take the route given by google maps which takes you to the Badaling Railway station.


  • Adult – 45 Yuan
  • Over 60 and Students with ID – 25 Yuan
    • Seniors bring your passport. My mom got the discount.
  • Kids under 1.2m and the disabled – Free



  • NEVER pay to take a cab to the entrance after taking the bus to Badaling. The small climb to the wall is nothing compare to the climb along the wall.
  • If you don’t feel like walking up the hill to the wall, it’s better to take the coaster up. You buy the ticket where the 919 drops you off. It’s 30 Yuan one way and 60 Yuan round trip. Then you walk straight pass the bear garden. Yes BEAR; not Beer.

The Underground City
Dìxià Chéng

How to get there:

  • 39°53’55.6″N 116°24’06.9″E

First get a map and go to Qianmen station, then head East, as if you are going to Chongwenmen subway station. Use one of the addresses below and try not to get lost. Do not buy anything, take any offers for a ride, or follow any little old ladies riding on a bicycle.

According to Wikipedia.com, there are many entrances to the Underground City. It gives three addresses as follows:

#1. 62 West Damochang Street in Qianmen

#2. Beijing Qianmen Carpet Factory at 44 Xingfu Dajie in Chongwen District

#3. 18 Dazhalan Jie in Qianmen

Unfortunately I do not have anymore information about it because when I was in China last, it was closed for repairs.

Update: The Underground City might be closed for good.


Lama Temple

How to get there:

  • 39°56’51.6″N 116°25’02.2″E

It is a short walk from the Yonghegong Lama Temple Station.

Or you can take the following buses:

13, 116, 117 to Yonghegong (Lama Temple, 雍和宫) or 18, 44, 62, 684, 858, 909 to Yonghegong Qiaodong (雍和宫桥东)


12 Yonghegong Dajie, Beixinqiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing


Cost: 25Yuan

Hours: everyday 9:00 – 17:00



The Heavenly Temple Park

How to get there:

  • 39°53’01.3″N 116°24’46.2″E

The nearest subway station is Tiantandongmen Station ( 天坛东门站).


N39 50 44 E116 26 41
Tiantan Park, Beijing



Nov. 1 – Mar. 31 ~ 30Yuan
Apr. 1 – Oct. 31 ~ 35 Yuan

Hours: 6:00 – 20:00


  • I don’t remember if the park is free, but it costs more to see the temple in the park than to just go to the Temple of Heaven park.
  • If the park is free then the prices above are for the temple. If the park is not free, then the prices above are just to enter the park and you will have to pay extra to see the temple.

The Summer Palace
Yíhé Yuán

How to get there:

  • 39°59’60.0″N 116°16’31.7″E

Take any of these buses heading to the palace:

331, 346, 394, 469, 704, 718, 732, 737, 808, 817


No. 19, Xin-jian-gong-men Road, Haidian Dist., Beijing

Phone: 8610-62881144


Cost: 60 Yuan


  • Apr 1 – Oct 31 ~ 6:30-18:00
  • Nov 1 – Mar 31 ~ 7:00-17:00


Click for Google maps

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