What is the greatest rail journey in the world? The Ghan, the Orient Express, the Caledonian Sleeper, Copper Canyon? Or the Trans Mongolian?
What can compare to heading East to West, crossing the Great Wall of China, the steppes of Mongolia, the snowy wastelands of Siberia before finally rolling into Moscow… The Trans Mongolian is a hell of an experience.
Mongolia: To do the Trans Mongolian and not take the time to look around is criminal. Mongolia is unlike anywhere else on Earth. Horses, steppes, yurts, nomads and endless grasslands. Eating mutton off thigh bones, drinking acrid fermented horse milk, breaking your teeth on cheese as hard as rock.
Night time stops: It’s the middle of the night, you’re fast asleep and the train rolls to a stop, doors open. Formal words in an unrecognised language fill the air, you must be crossing a border. The Chinese border is a trainspotter’s nirvana, with carriages efficiently hoisted onto different gauge wheel-sets. The Russian border is more intimidating.
Families, vodka and tea: Five days on a train is a long time stuck with fellow passengers in a small carriage. Local families board the train stocked full of food and drink for the journey and, if you are lucky, they will take you under their wing for the journey. Expect to consume lots of tea and even more vodka.
The Dining Carriage: After months of smiling South East Asian & Chinese service, the dining carriage is a big Eurasian wake up call. Surly Russian Babushkas deliver customer service in the only way they know how. Pointless menus are thrown onto the table – pointless, because what follows is a bizarre ritual where you, the punter, read out the menu and they, the surly babushka, tell you they don’t have it. Eventually, plates full of anaemic but curiously filling food (must be Northern Europe then) are slapped down in front of you. It’s so bad it’s fun.
Cold, desolate, chilling Siberia: Siberia is seriously, seriously cold, the kind of cold that renders your otherwise productive grey matter into a screaming mass of frozen vodka jelly. It wouldn’t be fair to write it off entirely, but I have done.
Moscow, glorious Moscow: There’s nothing quite like arriving after such a long journey. Moscow is a vibrant buzzing city with some massive attractions – the Hermitage, Red Square, Lenin’s mausoleum, St Peter’s Castle… but best are the beer stands. Where other countries have ice cream vans and hot dog vendors, Moscow boasts a beer stand on every corner. What more could you ask for?
Mongolia – amazing, Moscow – superb, the bit in the middle – troublesome but oh, what an adventure.
Ben is the visionary behind adventure travel site Tourdust.com and travels widely researching new treks and tours. He has taken long trips to Ethiopia and Kenya, countries in which his phobia of mardy Russian Babushkas lay safely dormant.
For everything you could ever want to know about the journey and how to book consult the oracle, Man in Seat 61 on the subject.