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 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.
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia — a very interesting mix of gers, wood shacks and drab soviet style buildings. Nice main square, and the large Gandantegchinlen Khid monastery and the winter palace of the Mongol Khans are worth a look, though not the fee to take pictures. Lots of mutton available to eat. Many people use Ulaan Baatar as a setting off place for trips into the Gobi desert.
Whatever you do, don’t give your passport to the police. It’s a shake down, which I unfortunately feel victim too. Three police officers accused me of being drunk (which I was, but I don’t think that’s a crime) and started harassing me. They searched me and took everything off me. I had been warned that the police do this, and it’s really an extortion attempt. I was pretty sure I was going to have to pay to get out of it.
But then one of the dudes dropped my camera and it popped apart into 3 pieces. That seemed to destroy all their resolve, and they ended up giving me back everything without getting a cent out of me. I think they were worried that I might want to go to the station and report my camera being broken.
Either way, the good news is that my camera just popped out a couple different modular parts, and that I was able to snap it back together and it still works fine.
Beijing, China — Tons of construction cranes dot the skyline of Beijing as they prepare for the 2008 Olympics. The hutong (all the little alleys that hold the small houses) is quickly disappearing as Beijing builds high rise apartments and office buildings and street wide enough for cars.
I stayed at the Bamboo Garden Hotel near the Golou metro stop. Amazing place! It was around $US 70 a night. It’s a first rate establishment, built around a courtyard that once housed the Empress’ eunuchs. There are quiet pools to sit by for reflection, a restaurant, tea room and bar, and (most importantly) hot water in the showers! The room is fantastic, including free HBO and a James Bond-like control panel to control and lights that folds up into the night stand to disguise itself as a drawer when not being used.
Ordering in restaurants can be a bit of pain, so if you speak no Chinese, look for places with pictures on the menus, or eat from stalls where you can see the food. I had no problems eating from the stalls, and it was very inexpensive.
Also, be wary of students practicing English with you. I meet a couple of students who wanted to practice English with me. They showed me around for a couple of hours, and then we went to see a tea ceremony. The bill came and it was for $330, which the students didn’t have. I paid, and then we went out to dinner. I didn’t even realize it was a scam until I read about it a few days later. They worked 5 hours for the money! Also, I was approached twice by English speakers who were “art students” and wanted to show me their work.
Hong Kong, China — well, at least kind of China. Mountains and ocean, with gleaming high rise towers in between. I loved this city. I hiked up to Victoria Peak and watched the sun go down and the sky-scrapper lights start to come on. Really cool.
I stayed at the Marriott Renaissance Harbour View Hotel using my Marriott Rewards points. It’s very nice, but hardly budget.
It’s right by the Wan Chai metro stop, which also has a lot of bars, restaurants and “strip clubs.” I didn’t go in, but apparently the strip clubs are very shady, and I have heard of people being drugged in them. The bars seemed fine.
I had no issues with border crossings. Half the borders I crossed had no border control (France-Belgium, Belgium-Germany, Belarus-Russia). The rest were pretty painless in that you just waited on the train for someone to come around.
For any forms required to be filled out, most forms either have English on them, or you can get an English form, so if they hand you a form without English, ask for the English form.
The crossing from Russia to Mongolia is very long, though, taking upwards of 8 or 9 hours, so don’t plan much for that day.
In Russia, learn the sounds that the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet make. Metro stops, train stations and street names are not printed using the English alphabet, but maps tend to put things in English letters, so to translate between the two you need to know that tuhhelb is pronounced tunnel, and stuff like that. Plus, a lot of the words that travellers would need to know are pronounced the same or very similar. Tourist, restaurant, bar, cafe, toilet, and bank are just some of the words that are very similar, so if you can read a little Cyrillic, you can figure out that Pectopah = Restoran.
Mongolian using the Cyrillic alphabet too, but the words are somewhat different. Many things in Mongolia are also printed in English. Few people speak it, but pointing and smiling can get you pretty far.
China was very hard to communicate outside of Beijing. In Beijing, there was a lot of English around, or at least words in English.
Ticket Costs (as printed on tickets)
For Paris — Brussels, you can buy the tickets on the Thalys TGV site. Standard prices is 71 Euros, but discounts can be found if travel is flexible, or departure point. I saw one deal that was 15 Euros from Charles De Gaulle airport to Brussels.
I bought the Brussels – Moscow tickets on line from Die Bahn for 229.5 Euros.
For the Moscow — Hong Kong portion, I purchased on line with a company called Sokol Tours. I found them to be the cheapest after spending 6 hours or so looking. They charged me about $US 1000 for the tickets. However, the ticket prices were printed on the tickets, and thus if you wanted to try and buy the tickets yourself you might get a much better deal. However, trying to deal with ticket agents without language skills could be a problem. Some people who purchased tickets were charged extra fees in addition to the ones listed on the tickets.
- Paris – Brussels = 71 Euros or $US 83.54 for seat.
- Brussels – Moscow = 229.5 Euros or $US 270.05 for shared cabin sleeper with 3 people
- Moscow – Irkutsk = 3780.1 Rubles or $US 131.00 for shared cabin sleeper with 4 people
- Irkutsk – U.B. = 1617.8 Rubles or $US 56.07 for shared cabin sleeper with 4 people
- U.B. – Jining = 40580 Mongolian or $US 34.22 for shared cabin sleeper with 4 people
- Jining – Beijing = 83 RMB or $US 10.26 for open dorm style sleeper (lower bunk)
- Beijing – Hong Kong = 646 RMB or $US 79.87 for open dorm style sleeper (middle bunk)
— courtesy of GregW