By Train from St. Petersburg to Hong Kong (4)

Part 4 - Irkutsk to Hong Kong via Ulan Ude, Ulaanbaatar and Beijing
March 25, 2017 Updated: March 25, 2017
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The journey on the legendary Trans Siberian Railway is one of the greatest travel adventures of our age. The Trans Siberian Girl is traveling on the world’s longest train ride from St. Petersburg, Russia to Hong Kong.  The travel from West to East took her to various places across Russia, Mongolia and China, a journey of over 10,000km. Read below about her tips, advice and stories on making the trip of a lifetime possible. 

The world’s largest, oldest and deepest freshwater lake, the Lake Baikal is located only 70km from Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia is. As it was time for me to leave Irkutsk behind and get back on the train, I made sure to have the best view on the train and get a window seat for my eight hour ride from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude. Taking the early morning train, I was glued to the window, starring at the beautiful scenery of Lake Baikal. Riding next to it for eight hours, it looked like a big ocean in the middle of Siberia. If you wish to travel direct on the Trans-Siberian train either east or west, without stopping anywhere, you can still have a full view of the Lake Baikal without leaving the train.

My train arrived in the late afternoon in Ulan Ude, the capital of the autonomous region the Republic of Buryatia within the Russian Federation.

Ulan Ude

Stepping off the train in the late afternoon, it was already dark and the roads were covered with snow. I found my way to the hostel and soon after was already on my way to explore the town. As it isn’t a very large town it was quite easy to find the main square. As with many Russian cites, one can be sure to find a Vladimir Lenin statue centrally located. So it is that Ulan Ude’s main square is entirely dominated by a highly unusual statue, the world’s largest Lenin head. It is 77m high, made of bronze, erected in the 1970 to celebrate Lenin’s 100 birthday and is truly impressive. No wonder that it is one of Ulan Ude’s attractions.

A giant Lenin head, the biggest in the world in Ulan Ude. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
A giant Lenin head, the biggest in the world in Ulan Ude. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

It was exciting to be there, in a city that was until 1991 closed to foreigners and so close to the border with Mongolia. Ulan Ude gave me a taste for what was to come the next day when I got on the bus and crossed the border into Mongolia. Due to its favorable geographical location, the city grew rapidly and over the years became a large trade center of the Trans Baikal region, connecting Russia with Mongolia and China. 

Although, it wasn’t until the Trans-Siberian Railway reached the city in 1900 causing a massive rise in its population. Ulan Ude is located on the main Trans-Siberian line but also connects to the Trans-Mongolian line, which continues south through Mongolia to Beijing, capital of China.

Instead of taking the train I decided to go by bus. Bus was faster and a lot cheaper. The train takes 24 hours and costs approximately 60 USD, the bus normally takes around 10-12 hours and costs about 22USD.

Our bus from Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Our bus from Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar by bus

There is only one road going from north of Russia to the south of Mongolia and to its capital. The road passes through valleys and mountains in Russia and again in Mongolia before it reaches Ulaanbaatar. As there was ice on the road and it was snowing, it took us over 16 hours to reach Ulaanbaatar.

A Mongolian man whose name I found out later to be Tuvshinburen Battogtokh, was sitting in the bus next to me and looked tense. I told him that the drive was nerve wracking, especially after seeing at least seven cars in the snowy ditches beside the road. 

Bogd Khan Mountains Mongolia. (Vlayka Jovanovic)
Bogd Khan Mountains Mongolia. (Vlayka Jovanovic)

Mongolian Horses. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Mongolian Horses. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

Mongolian Village. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Mongolian Village. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

I wondered, and asked what had happened to the drivers, as there were no people inside those cars. He said, that if your car just stops on the road or slides off the road, the only thing you can do is start walking. As the only things around us were horses in the distance, no other cars or houses but just mountains and snow, I wondered where those drivers were walking. It was like watching a movie right in front of our eyes, only we were inside it. I couldn’t read or focus on anything else but the road for the whole duration of the journey. The scenery in Mongolia was one of a kind. Imagine snow everywhere so that you can’t even see the road, riding in the bus and having wild horses galloping next to you and a perhaps man with cowboy hat on his horse passing near your window. It was magical scenery, like the ones you normally see in movies and don’t think that those places exist.  

Ulaanbaatar

Arriving late but in one piece to Ulaanbaatar, the city was covered in snow and the temperature was below -25 centigrade. Owing to its high elevation, its relatively high latitude, its location hundreds of kilometers from any coast, and the effects of the Siberian anticyclone, Ulaanbaatar is the coldest national capital in the world.

It was strange after days of only seeing snow and much of Siberia’s forest, small towns and wide-open spaces, to be back in a city pulsating with life and wild traffic.

A sunny day in Ulaanbaatar, Mongoia in April 2016. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
A sunny day in Ulaanbaatar, Mongoia in April 2016. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

Ulaanbaatar is Mongolia’s industrial, financial and cultural center. The city is connected by rail to both the Trans-Siberian Railways in Russia and the Chinese Railway system.

After alighting from the bus, somewhere in the city, it was time to find transport to get me to my hostel. The man on the bus told me that it is difficult to get an official taxi and that all I had to do was raise my hand on the street and cars will stop. After a few minutes a car offered me a ride. The driver and his friend didn’t speak any English and didn’t really know how to find my hostel but after some time they managed to phone the hostel and get directions. Hostels and hotels, even those very central are quite affordable. For 10 dollars a night plus breakfast, I had a large, clean room right in the city center. After a good sleep, it was time to explore the city the following day.

Walking around the chaotic metropolis I soon figured out that my map was worthless. Aside from one or two key streets like the Peace Avenue or Narnii Road, Ulaanbaatar’s streets are poorly signed and street addresses are rare. As my hostel was on Peave Avenue, I used it as my key reference point. Chinggis Avenue, the administrative center of town is also a good reference spot. There you will find the central square of the capital, The Chinggis Square, previously known as Sükhbaatar Square. The official name was changed in 2013 in honor of Genghis Khan, considered the founding father of Mongolia.

Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

A statue of Genghiskhan in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Vlatka Jovanovic)
A statue of Genghiskhan in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Vlatka Jovanovic)

A large colonnade monument to Genghis Khan, as well as to Ögedei Khan, and Kublai Khan dominates the square’s north side directly in front of the Government Palace. Just around the corner there is the very interesting Mongolian national museum that I visited and can highly recommend. It is currently the leading museum in Mongolia and holds exhibitions that cover prehistory, pre-Mongol Empire history, Mongol Empire and traditional life, twentieth-century history and other cultural, scientific and educational rooms. Most exhibits have labels in both Mongolian and English. 

One of the highlights of my stay in Ulaanbaatar was the visit to the Gandantegchinlen, a Chinese-style Tibetan Buddhist monastery with the tallest statue in the world, the 26.5-meter-high statue of Avalokiteśvara.

Gandantegchinlen monastery Ulaanbaatar. Vlatka Jovanovic)
Gandantegchinlen monastery Ulaanbaatar. Vlatka Jovanovic)

the Gandantegchinlen, a Chinese-style Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Ulaanbaatar. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
the Gandantegchinlen, a Chinese-style Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Ulaanbaatar. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

Statue of Avalokitesvara at the Gandantegchinlen temple in Ulaanbaatar. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Statue of Avalokitesvara at the Gandantegchinlen temple in Ulaanbaatar. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

Walking around town there are plenty of small coffee shops and restaurants to try some of the local cuisine. Because of its extreme continental climate, the Mongolian diet primarily comprises of meat, animal fats and dairy products.

Due to the country’s history with China and Russia, one can find influences from both cultures. The Mongolian people seemed very friendly and helpful and so it was that after just asking for directions, I found myself having coffee with a local man who told me more about the country and his job at a mining company. Mining is central to Mongolia’s economic situation, and makes 44 percent of the country’s exports. Coal, copper, and gold are the principal mineral reserves mined in Mongolia. However mining faces criticism from environmental groups and also has several negative impacts.

Trans-Mongolian train. (Vlakta Jovanovic)
Trans-Mongolian train. (Vlakta Jovanovic)

After spending almost a week in Mongolia, learning about its history, culture and people, it was time to get back on the train. A short walk from the hostel took me to the train station where I bought my train ticket for the Trans-Mongolian line to Beijing. There is a cheaper and faster way of getting to China but that would have required taking a local train in Mongolia to Zamin Uud, a town on the Mongolian side of the Chinese border and then changing to a small bus or a jeep to cross the border into China, then once in the country, getting a night bus from the Chinese border town Erlian in Inner Mongolia to Beijing. Although I was considering that option because of the adventure, it seemed more exciting rather then taking a direct train to Beijing, but having spent 16 hours in the bus the other night and also traveling during snow on the roads, I opted for the safer option. So it was that I found myself in the early morning hours, just in time for the most magnificent sunrise so far, on the direct train to Beijing.

Dawn in Mongolia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Dawn in Mongolia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

Trans-Mongolian Train – Ulaanbaatar to Beijing

I heard that the train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing can be sold out many times over but probably because it was winter, I had a whole second-class cabin to myself. I got to sit back and relax on my bunk bed, gazing at the immensity of the Gobi desert from the train window and watching wild horses, camels and cows in the distance and sometimes even running right next to the train window. A magnificent part of the journey. After a day of riding through the desert we arrived in Erlian, the Chinese border. There is no need to alight from the train at the crossing as the border police enter the train to check passports.

A view of the Gobi Desert, Mongoila. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
A view of the Gobi Desert, Mongoila. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

After passport control the train goes into a nearby train shed to change the wheel bogies. The railway track gauge in China is narrower than the ones used in Central Asia. Therefore, the wheel bogies have to be replaced to fit the Chinese tracks. All the passengers remain locked inside their carriage.  The heating, or in the summer the air conditioning, is switched off and the toilets locked shut for the duration of the wheel change. The train is then separated into two halves so that all of the train can fit into the train shed. Each carriage is separated, lifted up one by one, the Mongolian wheels removed, and replaced with the smaller Chinese wheel sets. The carriages are then lowered and reconnected with one another, with a loud thump. The whole process was quite fun to watch and took around 3 hours, before the journey to Beijing continued.

Welcome to Beijing

The next morning as I opened my eyes, we were passing through tunnels, mountains and past lakes in northern China and after weeks since boarding the train in Europe, we rolled into Beijing.  It was like coming to a warm southern country. Suddenly the temperatures were above zero again, people everywhere, traffic and masses of concrete.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Temple of Heaven, Beijing. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

After meeting friends and exploring the Chinese capital for three weeks, I was back on the track and booked my high-speed train ticket at the railway station in Beijing to go further south, taking me across Wuhan to Changsha and Shenzhen, where I walked across the border to reach Hong Kong in a trip of 10 hours. All together a 10,000km journey on land, from St. Petersburg, through Russia, China to Hong Kong.

When to go and where to buy your tickets?

Anytime is a good time to make the journey. If you like snow then winter is a great time to go but if you want to take a swim in Lake Baikal, then choose summer. Winter is less touristy, so therefore less busy and easier to book tickets as you go. If you want to hop on and off the train wherever you like, then just book your tickets online on the Russian website: http://pass.rzd.ru/

 If you’re planning on taking the train from Hong Kong over Beijing towards Mongolia and Russia, then you can book your ticket first either from Hong Kong direct to Beijing (slower train) or high-speed train from Shenzhen North Railway station to Beijing and later to Russia from the CITS (China International Travel Service) in the Beijing International Hotel. The hotel is only a 10-minute walk from the railway station.

To book your trains in China faster and easier, you can download the Ctrip application where you can buy and reserve Chinese train tickets in advance. 

 Vlatka Jovanovic is an ex-professional WTA ranked tennis player, independent journalist and a podcaster. You can follow her work under www.chinacalling.org or https://www.facebook.com/hkchinacalling/

 

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