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Trans-Mongolian Trip Report

Author: GregW (More Trip Reviews by GregW)
Date of Trip: October 2005

I just completed a two week trip from Paris, France to Hong Kong via rail, most of the way covered on the trans-Siberian and trans-Mongolian railways. I completed the journey in 16 days, stopping in Brussels (1 day, 1 night), Moscow (2 days, 1 night), Irkutsk (1 day), Ulaan Baatar (1 day), Beijing (3 days, 2 nights) and Hong Kong (1 day, 1 night).

The Train Ride
In general, the train was a slow way to travel. I thought that it would be a decent way to see the country side, but I ended up feeling very disconnected from the scenery passing me by. Because of the timing of my tickets, we ended up passing a number of things that I wanted to see in the middle of the night (Volga river, Lake Baikal, Euro-Asia border, much of the Gobi desert). Even during the day, things pass by so quickly that you often only get a glimpse of them.

I would much prefer (in the future) to drive if I am going to do a large overland trip. In that way, you can stop and examine things and have the itinerary in your control, rather than under the control of the train schedule. I would take trains, but probably just overnight (8 - 10 hours), and not count on them providing a great way to see things.

The trains were comfortable enough. It is a little weird sleeping in a cabin with three people you don't know, and the constant noise and motion could be a sleep issue to some people.

Having a food car on the trains were in no means guaranteed. Even then, the food was on the expensive side. At all stops in Russia there were people selling food on the platforms, which was good and inexpensive. Most of it was meat in pastry or dried fish, so vegetarians may have some issues. At other stations, there was usually a shop or restaurant in the station. Hot water is always available, so self-catering is a good idea. Lots of people eating lots of "just add water" noodles.

I ran into few English speakers on the trains, really only on the trip from Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar and from Beijing to Hong Kong. Otherwise it was all locals. People are very friendly, though, and share their food (which is nice if all you have is noodles). Conversation was limited, but hand signals, mime and drawing pictures provide a minimal ability to communicate.

The Scenery
The train ride from Moscow into the Urals is alright if you like Pine and Birch forests interrupted by industrial wastelands. As you climb into the Urals (very low lying at the point the train goes through), we started to get snow and more forests and less industry. We did cross the Volga river, which was neat to see.

After leaving the Urals, you enter Siberian plains. It's a lot of forests, open grass plains and boggy, swampy areas. I didn't see much in the way of wild-life, as I imagine they are in the forests and keeping a low profile. Approaching Irkutsk the land starts to get hillier heading up towards Lake Baikal. Baikal is a long, thin but very deep lake, holding one-fifth of the world's fresh water.

Heading down through Mongolia you get more grass plains. Wild horses can be seen, as well as herds of cows and sheep. The occasional ger is sighted.

After Ulaan Baatar, you start to enter the Gobi desert. It's a rocky, sandy desert with tufts of dry grass. Horses, cows and sheep are still scene, but the occasional camel is added into the mix. The desert continues into China.

After Jining, the desert ends and you get into Chinese agriculture and mountains. Getting towards Beijing, lots of good views of the Great Wall can be found in between long, dark stretches through tunnels.

After Beijing and towards Hong Kong, lots of agriculture is seen. Hong Kong is very mountainous, and so you get more tunnels and mountain views.

I didn't get to see much of the cities, but here are my quick impressions.

Brussels, Belgium -- nice city, and interesting mix of old buildings and new office towers, but it fits together nicely. Beer is really cheap as compared to Paris, and so much good beer is made in Belgium, which is a plus.

I stayed that the Hotel Sabina, which was nicely located, but the rooms were drab, small and prison like. I paid $US 56 for the night.

Moscow, Russia -- very interesting city. Red Square is very cool. I couldn't figure out how to get into the Kremlin, there was a line but it never moved. I was amazed at how many high-end shops there were in Moscow - they seem to have taken to the shopping aspects of capitalism very well. I stayed at the Tourist Hotel near the botanical gardens metro stop. Around $US 70 a night. It was a nice enough hotel, but far from the city center.
There were a large number of buildings on the property and I couldn't figure out what they were all for. There was a store where I stocked up on supplies before getting on the train.

Irkutsk, Russia -- like a wild west frontier town. The weather was beautiful -- sunny and around 10 degrees. Very un-Siberian I thought, for late October. Irkutsk is a good base for lots of activities around Lake Baikal (rafting, boating, fishing). Food is inexpensive. There is somewhat of an irony in walking down Marx street and seeing all the high end clothing stores.

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