We arrived at the Beijing Railway Station a whole 90 minutes before departure. The night prior, we had seen long lines at the square, where people were getting into the station, and feared the same. Turns out, at 5:30am, while still a lot of people, the lines were short.
Upon entering the station, I was immediately impressed by the Russian architecture. I seem to have traveled back in time. The grand columns, intricate ceiling designs, and lamps from a bygone era transported me back to 1950s China, or what I can imagined to be that period. This old fashioned station is in great contrast to the high speed rail stations that I usually travel to in Beijing, with its ultra modern sleek design and absolutely massive volume.
The music playing also fit the scene that evokes a certain Chinese nationalism. But worry not, there was still Starbucks & Dunkin Donuts taking centre stage at the station. I spent the remaining RMBs loading up on breakfast at Starbucks, and with a heavy sense of nostalgia, Xav and I waved goodbye to our lives in China.
Travel in Style on the K23 Train
We boarded the K23 train between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, very promptly at 7am. I was filled with so much excitement to kick off this journey. The enthusiasm level was thankfully met with a new train, operated by Mongolia. We had booked two soft sleeper bed, and much to my surprise, we had a private room with an ensuite bathroom shared with another compartment.
The compartment was spacious, decorated with purple and green linen and a small purple lounge chaise. We joked that this is the practice for tiny-house living. Soon after we boarded, our kind train attendant brought us a kettle of hot water and sets of linen. This train has both hot and cold water dispenser for refill. I made my bed with the linens and settled into this home for the next 31 hours.
Epic Sand Storm Over Gobi Dessert
One of the reasons we chose to travel the Trans-Mongolian route of this Trans-Siberian journey was for a chance to witness Gobi Desert. Well, we got more than what we bargained for. Around 6pm, the vegetation became sparse, we knew we were heading into the desert. 30 minutes later, we saw an incredible sandstorm from afar. It reminded me of the scene from Inception, it truly felt apocalyptic.
Just minutes after seeing the mass sand clouds moving toward us, the entire train was enveloped by it. Adding to the sunset, we saw only brown and yellow colors. The train slowed down significantly, and the ventilation was temporarily shut. Even still, we could smell the dust that inevitably seeped through the space.
It took a good half an hour before we slowly moved out of the sandstorm. Not at all what I had expected of Gobi, but nevertheless truly epic.
Border Crossing Between China & Mongolia
Around 8:30pm, our attendant came by to give us a 30-minute warning. Be sure to use this bathroom when this happens, because once the border crossing process begins, it will be hours before the bathroom is available again.
After the train stopped, Chinese border agent boarded the train to check our passports. I thought we would all need to get off the train but it turns out all we needed to do was to stay put.
The next part was changing of wheels! The train tracks are different sizes between the Chinese and Mongolian sides. Each train cart was lifted and engineers change the tracks underneath, all while we are chilling in the wagons. As you can imagine, this process took hours.
I drifted off to sleep around 11pm, but by 1am, the Mongolian side of border control was still boarding to check documentation and luggage. They were pretty relaxed though, so even though I was more than half-asleep, the process went without hitch.
Waking up to the gentle moving train was so relaxing. I made myself a cup of coffee and watched the luscious grassland passing by. We all should be able to enjoy more tranquil mornings. I did several hours of uninterrupted reading while Xav was moving along the train cart getting videos from different angles.
The final two hours of the train ride had incredible views for photos. If you couldn’t be bothered to take too many photos, I recommend at least snapping a few shots during this final stretch. The train stopped for a longer stop in the town of Choir, we got out to stretch our legs. Enterprising women were waiting for us with shopping karts filled with snacks for sale.
In the final 30 minutes, Ulaanbaatar emerged from the vast greenery. The city consists of a hodge-podge of buildings and yurts. Meanwhile, a train attendant came by to collect sheets and closed the restroom. Before long, we pulled into the train station in the city center, and bid goodbye to our cozy cabin.