Our pick-up time was 07:00, even though it was far earlier than it needed to be it was good because there was some built-in time there should we hit any bad traffic along the way. It turned out though we got to the train station just 20 minutes later, and was able to board the train about 15 minutes after that.
I’d not seen “Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure” or any other documentaries about this route before going which meant I had no idea what to expect. From what I’d seen in other countries though, and from what I knew others to be like, I expected the train to be packed full of travellers and extremely basic.
The carriage on the train was only a two berth one even though we had been told we’d have a four berth one to ourselves. On one side of the table were bunkbeds, and on the other was a single chair. The space was cramped, but this is where we’d be spending the next 24 hours. There was however a single power socket in the cabin.
We began our journey at 08:15, gradually leaving Irkutsk behind us. The breakfast that the Marriott had packed for us wasn’t too bad – a sandwich, biscuits, two small muffins, an apple and pear, a yoghurt, and some water.
Once the train reached Lake Baikal I stood in the corridor with a few of the other passengers taking photographs out of the windows that had been opened. They didn’t mind people hanging out the windows, but it was something you did at your own risk as it’d be into oncoming trains at least – one of which did pass. I kept an eye on the other tracks and did hang my camera out of the window a couple of times to photograph the curvature of the train as it rounded some of the corners along this stretch.
Eventually we could see snow-capped mountains getting closer, and with them we’d be leaving Lake Baikal behind. For a late lunch we used some of the food we’d brought with us – it was a simple meal but was still better than nothing. The best bit though was a Mars bar I’d bought just in case. Whilst I looked out of the windows the landscape could have been any country, and there wasn’t really anything to photograph at the speed we were moving at.
There were a few stops along the way, and I wasn’t really sure where. I thought it was unlikely we could leave the train even at the longer stops though as the conductor had taken our tickets and kept them when we boarded.
At around 16:40 Irkutsk time I realised why – they were using the tickets to check against passports as they passed down the corridors of the train. By this time the scenery had changed to small wooden settlements that we could see across sprawling landscapes of trees. Only 25 minutes later they came around a second time getting us to write our names and passport numbers down in duplicate which seemed a little odd considering they had this from the tickets, and from checking them earlier. Moments later we stopped again though this time every briefly.
Late afternoon I went back out into the corridor to watch the settlements pass by. Whilst there I talked to an American who had boarded the train in Moscow and was riding it all the way through to Beijing to then board a bullet train to Shanghai. Whilst talking I found out that it’s possible to leave the train on the longer stops and re-board without your ticket. At some point overnight they change part of the train as well and at that point you have the decision to stay onboard or to wait off the train – you can’t change your mind about it once decided.
For an evening meal there was a hot water urn on the carriage we we able to use for making soup. The travel mug I brought with me wasn’t really big enough for making soup in though, but I managed the best I could and followed this with some Fanta and an iced cinnamon cake.
At 20:00 (Irkutsk time) we reached the border crossing between Russia and Mongolia. In the hour and a half that followed we had customs check the compartment, checking about half of the luggage too. This was then followed by a dog wander along the train corridor and then after the passport control took the immigration cards for Russia this was followed by another check of the compartments. After 2 hours of this we were given customs sheets for Mongolia and then finally the train began to move again, to cross the border into Mongolia.
It took around 30 minutes to reach the Mongolian side of the border, which in Ulaanbaatar time was around 23:34. Not the best of times to be reaching the border. Once stopped they went down the corridor handing out immigration forms, but then didn’t give us enough time to fill them in as they started at the end that were the last to be given them. They then disappeared off with the completed form and our passports.
Whilst the border crossing was taking place there was a lot of sharp shunts that shook the entire carriage, and then they’d move back and forth for a while. Whilst on the train I thought it could be them changing the wheels as I remembered that the gauge changes somewhere along the Trans-Siberian route, however this was not the case as it’s actually the Chinese section that differs. It was more likely they were moving carriages around and perhaps changing which track we were on if there were multiple.
There was also another search of the cabins, this time by the Mongolian customs, and they insisted that everyone kept their blinds closed. Thankfully our passports arrived back on the train around 00:40, though it wasn’t a every efficient system as they walk up and down the corridor shouting the name of whichever passport was next.
At around 01:15 we began to move again, over 4 hours after reaching the Russian border. Though now we were in Mongolia and on our way to Ulaanbaatar.