The train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing was about 30 hours on a Chinese-owned train. I had a first class ticket and had the compartment to myself. These trains are relatively new and each first class compartment has a comfortable easy chair and a bathroom/shower. This would be the last train I took that wasn’t 100% full.
Mongolia does not have electrified tracks and most of the route in Mongoila is single track. About an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, the train makes its way up through the Khangai Mountains and then into the Gobi Desert. The route is slow-going with many sweeping switchbacks.
By mid-day, the train was chugging along the sandy landscape of the Gobi Desert where the occasional horse, Bactrian camel, or dirt bike interrupted the monotonous desert view. The train made only a couple stops in southern Mongoila, in towns whose only connection to the outside world seemed to be the train. These towns were typically only small clusters of low cinder block buildings being constantly sandblasted by the desert wind.
By around 11 p.m., the train had reached the Chinese border. Customs and passport control was surprisingly quick and efficient, but, because the rail gauge in China is narrower than in Mongolia and Russia, the train trucks (wheels) have to be switched out. So the border stop actually takes about 4 hours. Why they don’t just have a Chinese train set waiting across the border to cut down on the voyage was a bit baffling.
At any rate, I thought this process was going to be more interesting than it actually was but you aren’t allowed to leave your train car to watch and it was the middle of the night so I slept through most of it.
The process works like this: The train set is broken up and each car is separately shunted into a large shed. Then the train trucks are detached from the chassis, the cars lifted up onto jacks and the Chinese gauge trucks are rolled under the cars. The cars are then lowered and attached to the new trucks, the train set is put back together and sent on its way.
It must have been a quiet and smooth performance because by the time I woke up it was mid-morning and we were just outside of Datong, China; a city of over 3 million people that I had never heard of.
The route from Datong to Beijing runs through incredibly steep, mountainous terrain. The railway goes through hundreds of tunnels and runs along the Great Wall for a brief period.
Once in China, rail travel continued to be comfortable, easy, and efficient. From Beijing to Hong Kong, I took 5 train trips, three of them were high speed. The two conventional overnight trains I took will be replaced or supplemented with high speed service in a couple of years. China boasts the world’s longest high speed rail line which currently connects Beijing and Guangzhou, a route that covers over 1,300 miles in 8 hours at a top speed of 185 miles per hour.
I took the high speed train from Beijing to Xi’an, a distance of 725 miles, and it took 4.5 hours. That’s just short of the distance between New York City and Chicago, and it took 4.5 hours. On a train. Currently, the quickest train service from New York to Chicago takes about 20 hours.
Getting tickets for train travel wasn’t quite as easy as for Russia where I ordered and printed tickets online before I left. In China, you have to have a Chinese bank account to order tickets directly with the railroad so I used a travel agency that specializes in Chinese rail travel. They charged a small fee but I’m glad I used them as trains fill up fast and, if I had waited to get tickets once I was in China, I may have gotten delayed or stranded. Once in Beijing, I went to the closest train station to my hotel and picked up all my pre-purchased tickets at once.
In addition to building high speed rail networks, many new railway stations are being built to accomodate the newer lines. Some of these stations rival airports in size and number of people passing through them.
In order to ensure security and prevent a complete gridlock of people, you are only allowed to enter a train station if you have a ticket. Checkpoints outside the main entrance of stations check your passport and ticket, then you and your bags go through a metal detector; over half of the time, I was also wanded down before entering.
Once inside, most stations have 6-10 waiting areas, you are allowed into a designated waiting area based on which train you area taking. Waiting areas usually have small shops where you can buy snacks and reading material and hot water is available for free. All tickets have a magnetic stripe in them and access to the platform is controlled by automated ticket readers. The train platform isn’t accessible to ticket holders until about 30 minutes before the train departs.