Trans-Mongolian Railroad

By Jay Brunhouse
This item appears on page 55 of the August 2010 issue.

by Jay Brunhouse (First of three parts)

Eighteen days before departure, I received a brief e-mail with 22 lengthy, separate attachments from Lernidee Tours in Berlin. I was staggered.

Gandan Khiid is Ulan Bator’s largest and most important Buddhist monastery. Photos: Brunhouse

The package, when downloaded and printed, presented me with 29 glorious pages to study. All were in English except for the sample Russian visa application, which was in German.

I savored the sample Chinese entry form, the Mongolian entry and exit forms, the Russian entry and exit forms as well as my Zarengold (Czar’s Gold) private car boarding pass and berth assignment. I suddenly realized I was only 18 days away from climbing aboard the Zarengold Trans-Siberian Express private train from Beijing to Moscow. I had a vision: I’d be in Ulan Bator (Ulaanbataar) in less than a month.

On Sept. 14, 2009, I landed in Beijing, and for two days our group visited all the textbook sightseeing “must sees.” Our guide took us to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Beijing’s 800-year-old hutong area of narrow streets and courtyards that has been preserved by the government as a cultural heritage.

Our program included all meals at stops or in the train, including the gala getaway Peking duck dinner in Beijing.

The adventure begins

Our group boarded a mint-new, very comfortable, chartered Chinese train on Sept. 20 to take us over the 1,250-mile Trans-Mongolian line from Beijing as far as the Mongolian border. It was the first leg of our transcontinental trip to Moscow. The Trans-Mongolian line’s first service came in 1956 during a lull in the stormy political relationships between China and the Soviet Union that then closed the line in the 1960s and reopened it in the 1980s.

The overwhelming Beijing Train Station is a lesson in efficient crowd control. I knew it was large when the loudspeaker announced “Go to waiting room 10.” No longer the world’s largest (Beijing West is), it can accommodate only 8,000 passengers. The illuminated departures signboard looks like a fireworks display.

At 7:40 p.m., nightfall, we departed Beijing for our 13-hour trip to the Mongolian border. I slept soundly as a single in a comfortable, four-bedded compartment. A luggage van carried our heavy suitcases to our waiting, wide-gauge Russian train, where we found them already in our compartments when we arrived.

While sleeping I missed seeing the Great Wall, but I awakened in the steppes of the Gobi Desert in the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. Instruments in the breakfast room revealed we were at 4,213 feet; outside was 66°F, with humidity 44.8%. At 10:24 a.m. we arrived in the busy border city of Erlian, China.

While the border officials were processing our passports (Americans require no Mongolian visa), we left the train and visited, among other things, the recently erected buildings of the pathetic Dinosaur Museum. In 1920 an American explorer discovered dinosaur skeletons by the dozen — and there are still many fossils buried in the sand.

Czar’s gold

It was a pleasure boarding the red-rust-colored, wide-gauge Russian train sporting the German logo “Zarengold.” Sergei, our carriage’s porter, a veteran of the Chechnya War, welcomed us aboard.

I had been assigned a single compartment with nightstand, two folded-up bunk beds and attached shower and toilet. At night, Sergei expanded the bottom bunk into almost the width of a queen-sized bed. The closet was large enough for my suitcase, but Sergei could find a place for larger luggage.

For practicality, passengers were divided into color-coded groups. Passengers in most of the carriages spoke German, but in my group, “blue,” there were native Swiss-German, German, Italian, French and Spanish speakers, although English was the common language for all.

During our trip, most of our local hosts spoke good English. As well, group blue’s attractive Russian guide from Kazan, who spoke English fluently, briefed us for an hour every morning at 10 a.m. in the dining car.

Ulan Bator

On the morning of Sept. 8 the Zarengold rolled into the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator (meaning “red hero”). We left our luggage in our compartments and checked into Hotel Bayangol, located on Genghis Khan Avenue.

This Mongolian horse rider galloped to the “mini-Naadam festival” in the Terelj National Reservation.

Genghis is despised in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe where his savage Mongols massacred indigenous populations. He is regarded as Mongolia’s national hero for his military, political and social successes. I saw his image everywhere, including on the currency.

In the afternoon, we visited the Choijin Lama Temple Museum, consisting of five small temples and five arched gates — very impressive. It was erected by Mongolian masters in 1904-1908 and active until 1938. In 1942 it became a museum of religion.

After breakfast, in the rain, on our second day in Ulan Bator we passed an open-air railroad museum and visited the city’s largest and most important Buddhist monastery, Gandan Khiid. It was a very interesting surprise to me because it was quite unlike Buddhist monasteries I had seen in Southeast Asia. The Mongolian branch of Buddhism is related to the Tibetan practice, and the faithful are flocking to wats now that the Soviet prohibitions against religion have been lifted.

In the afternoon, we embarked on a several-hour drive through Mongolian Switzerland, which, our Swiss companions confessed, reminded them of their motherland with blue lakes, wide valleys and craggy peaks. At our destination, the Buveit Tourist Camp in the Terelj National Reservation, we awaited the anticipated “mini-Naadam festival.”

The excitement of the annual Naadam festival on Mongolia’s national holidays, July 11-31, in Ulan Bator’s National Sports Stadium has been well described in previous issues of ITN. Other cities and towns across Mongolia have their own, smaller-scale Naadam celebrations. Here, we were treated to competitions of archery, horse riding and wrestling, Naadam style.

Back to the train! Because on the next day we would enter Russia, land of the Buryats and the Circumbaikal Railroad. All Aboard! Till next time.

Many thanks

I thank Lernidee Tours for inviting me on this splendid trip. For more information, contact Bjarne “BJ” Mikkelsen, the Cruise Broker (New York, NY; phone 917/282-2305 or e-mail BJ represents Lernidee Tours in North America.

In China’s capital city we stayed at the four-star Beijing Hotel Jing­lun (phone 86 10 65002266 8143), two miles from Tiananmen Square, with rates from RMB680 (near $100). Hotel Bayangol (phone 976 11 326 781) was our home in Ulan Bator. Winner of Mongolia’s 2006 Best Hotel award, the Bayangol has rates from $75.90.