Low-cost train travel, Moscow-Ulaanbaatar-Beijing

By Stan Ink
This item appears on page 27 of the October 2015 issue.
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Enjoying a home-hosted lunch at Lake Baikal. Photo by Stan Ink

Had my wife and I chosen to book a private train and/or group tour for our 15-day trip from Moscow to Beijing, we would have paid more than three times as much as we did. Instead, we chose to travel on public trains and ended up having assistance from travel agents at two of our stops as well as during our first days in Moscow.

We booked our May 11-26, 2013, train trip through a UK travel agency, Real Russia (4-5 Wards End, Loughborough, Leicestershire, England, LE11 3HA, U.K.; phone +44 [0] 207 100 7370, http://realrussia.co.uk) and paid about $3,600 per person, which covered our transfers, arrival hotel and a tour in Moscow, escorts onto each of three trains and, at chosen stops on the trip, guided tours with varying groups of people.

Airfare from Ft. Myers, Florida, to Moscow, round trip, cost about $1,000 each and from Beijing to Moscow, $350 each. Visas for Russia and China cost almost $500 apiece, with Travisa (Washington, DC; 202/463-6166, www.travisa.com) doing the legwork. No visa was required for Mongolia.

We left Ft. Myers on May 8, taking Delta flights to Atlanta and JFK in New York. We then flew to Moscow on Aeroflot, where we stayed at the Cosmos Hotel. Three days later, after a day of touring around Moscow with our guide, Olga, and a day on our own, we were driven to the train station in the late evening to catch our train.

Our first-class cabin, one of nine in the car, was about 7 by 4 feet. Between the narrow twin beds, which converted to seats during the day, there was a small table. Quite cozy! (In second class, they add two more people in upper bunks in this size of cabin.) There was one toilet and a basin at each end of each car.

That evening, we had two very good chicken meals with beer for about $33 in the dining car. Hot water was always available on this train.

We rolled along for three days, and after a visit at Lake Baikal, with a chalet overnight and dinner, we had a 30-minute boat ride and boarded a modern, diesel train/car (almost like a bus on tracks) that would stop and wait for our group several times. 

Looking out the windows to the north during this part of the trip, we could see Siberia across the lake. We traveled through a 778-meter-long tunnel before stopping for lunch in a village. 

The train/car we were on joined a train to Irkutsk, where we were taken to a very nice Marriott. We had a guided city tour the next day, then were driven to a station to catch another train. This one was Chinese and in much worse condition than the one we had taken from Moscow. Hot water was available at all times, but there was no water in the restroom.

This train had about 15 cars, and all nine of the cabins in our car were alike. We would have been miserable if there had been two more people in our cabin.

Before exiting Russia, we stopped at the border for almost five hours. After the train moved forward for about 15 minutes, the stop to cross the Mongolian border took another two hours. During this entire seven hours, the toilets were closed.

In Ulaanbaatar, my wife and I had a private Mongolian guide, CJ, who drove us to Hotel Victoria for a shower and breakfast. He then drove us two hours to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and a ger (yurt) camp, where we spent the night. 

There were about 30 gers in the camp plus a central building with facilities, a dining room and a recreation room with a ping-pong table. From our ger, the toilets were about 200 feet away, uphill. In the ger, we had only a wash basin. The temperature was near freezing outside at night.

We spent the next three nights in the White House hotel and had guided tours and free time in the city, then we caught our next train, passing lots of small shacks with gers. This was a very nice train, clean, with a DVD player. In the shared restroom, the toilet, basin and shower all were stainless steel. We were provided with a thermos of water. Cokes were only $1 (not Mongolian currency).

Mid-afternoon, we had a 30-minute stop in Sayn Shanda, where passengers got off to walk for exercise and buy food and drinks.

That evening, we had our second meal in a dining car, though we had some trouble getting seats because of a large group of Swedes who were there, English speaking and friendly. It was very noisy. We were served hamburger, carrot salad, pasta, peas, pickles and cake with beer. For both of us, the total price came to about $53.

For the rest of our meals on the trip, we ate items that we bought at station stops or had brought with us, mainly dry packaged food that needed only hot water.

We waited in our cabin for our exit from Mongolia to China, which included filling out papers and passports. During this 6-hour period, we had Immigration and Customs inspectors from both countries and the changing of wheels. The two countries have different-gauge rails, so they have to take each train car one at a time into a building, jack it up, then unbolt the undercarriage and replace it with one that will fit the other country’s tracks.

We watched through our windows, then tried to get some sleep until the toilets reopened.

As the train went through the rocky mountains, there were numerous tunnels, some of which seemed to be a mile long. There must have been over 100 of them. This route followed a river. There was a similar train track on the other side of the river plus a highway, and all had separate tunnels. 

When we got to Beijing, at 2 p.m., we said good-bye to our travel friends and took a taxi to a Days Inn for the night before flying back to Moscow. After one more night we headed home, reflecting on the 4,600 miles we had traveled by train.

STAN INK

North Fort Myers, FL

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Enjoying a home-hosted lunch at Lake Baikal. Photo by Stan Ink

Had my wife and I chosen to book a private train and/or group tour for our 15-day trip from Moscow to Beijing, we would have paid more than three times as much as we did. Instead, we chose to travel on public trains and ended up having assistance from travel agents at two of our stops as well as during our first days in Moscow.

We booked our May 11-26, 2013, train trip through a UK travel agency, Real Russia (4-5 Wards End, Loughborough, Leicestershire, England, LE11 3HA, U.K.; phone +44 [0] 207 100 7370, http://realrussia.co.uk) and paid about $3,600 per person, which covered our transfers, arrival hotel and a tour in Moscow, escorts onto each of three trains and, at chosen stops on the trip, guided tours with varying groups of people.

Airfare from Ft. Myers, Florida, to Moscow, round trip, cost about $1,000 each and from Beijing to Moscow, $350 each. Visas for Russia and China cost almost $500 apiece, with Travisa (Washington, DC; 202/463-6166, www.travisa.com) doing the legwork. No visa was required for Mongolia.

We left Ft. Myers on May 8, taking Delta flights to Atlanta and JFK in New York. We then flew to Moscow on Aeroflot, where we stayed at the Cosmos Hotel. Three days later, after a day of touring around Moscow with our guide, Olga, and a day on our own, we were driven to the train station in the late evening to catch our train.

Our first-class cabin, one of nine in the car, was about 7 by 4 feet. Between the narrow twin beds, which converted to seats during the day, there was a small table. Quite cozy! (In second class, they add two more people in upper bunks in this size of cabin.) There was one toilet and a basin at each end of each car.

That evening, we had two very good chicken meals with beer for about $33 in the dining car. Hot water was always available on this train.

We rolled along for three days, and after a visit at Lake Baikal, with a chalet overnight and dinner, we had a 30-minute boat ride and boarded a modern, diesel train/car (almost like a bus on tracks) that would stop and wait for our group several times. 

Looking out the windows to the north during this part of the trip, we could see Siberia across the lake. We traveled through a 778-meter-long tunnel before stopping for lunch in a village. 

The train/car we were on joined a train to Irkutsk, where we were taken to a very nice Marriott. We had a guided city tour the next day, then were driven to a station to catch another train. This one was Chinese and in much worse condition than the one we had taken from Moscow. Hot water was available at all times, but there was no water in the restroom.

This train had about 15 cars, and all nine of the cabins in our car were alike. We would have been miserable if there had been two more people in our cabin.

Before exiting Russia, we stopped at the border for almost five hours. After the train moved forward for about 15 minutes, the stop to cross the Mongolian border took another two hours. During this entire seven hours, the toilets were closed.

In Ulaanbaatar, my wife and I had a private Mongolian guide, CJ, who drove us to Hotel Victoria for a shower and breakfast. He then drove us two hours to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and a ger (yurt) camp, where we spent the night. 

There were about 30 gers in the camp plus a central building with facilities, a dining room and a recreation room with a ping-pong table. From our ger, the toilets were about 200 feet away, uphill. In the ger, we had only a wash basin. The temperature was near freezing outside at night.

We spent the next three nights in the White House hotel and had guided tours and free time in the city, then we caught our next train, passing lots of small shacks with gers. This was a very nice train, clean, with a DVD player. In the shared restroom, the toilet, basin and shower all were stainless steel. We were provided with a thermos of water. Cokes were only $1 (not Mongolian currency).

Mid-afternoon, we had a 30-minute stop in Sayn Shanda, where passengers got off to walk for exercise and buy food and drinks.

That evening, we had our second meal in a dining car, though we had some trouble getting seats because of a large group of Swedes who were there, English speaking and friendly. It was very noisy. We were served hamburger, carrot salad, pasta, peas, pickles and cake with beer. For both of us, the total price came to about $53.

For the rest of our meals on the trip, we ate items that we bought at station stops or had brought with us, mainly dry packaged food that needed only hot water.

We waited in our cabin for our exit from Mongolia to China, which included filling out papers and passports. During this 6-hour period, we had Immigration and Customs inspectors from both countries and the changing of wheels. The two countries have different-gauge rails, so they have to take each train car one at a time into a building, jack it up, then unbolt the undercarriage and replace it with one that will fit the other country’s tracks.

We watched through our windows, then tried to get some sleep until the toilets reopened.

As the train went through the rocky mountains, there were numerous tunnels, some of which seemed to be a mile long. There must have been over 100 of them. This route followed a river. There was a similar train track on the other side of the river plus a highway, and all had separate tunnels. 

When we got to Beijing, at 2 p.m., we said good-bye to our travel friends and took a taxi to a Days Inn for the night before flying back to Moscow. After one more night we headed home, reflecting on the 4,600 miles we had traveled by train.

STAN INK

North Fort Myers, FL