14 revelations from the Trans-Mongolian railway

Many miles, many revelations, one train ride.
Mongolia from the window © Oliver Pelling
By Oliver Pelling

The Trans-Mongolian railway should be on everyone’s bucket list. If you don’t have a bucket list, I suggest you start one for the sake of this trip. Even if it’s the only thing you ever tick off the list, you’ll be better off for it.

Navigating through three wildly different (and eerily similar) countries (Russia, Mongolia and China) it’s a trip that covers some 7,621km. That's a lot of kilometres.

I started my trip in St. Petersburg then headed on to Moscow, then Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia with a final destination of Beijing, China (with a good number of stops along the way). It’s a trip that will bequeath you with a solid amount of new learnings, so here are some of mine.

1. St. Petersburg’s Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is incredible

Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood, Russia © Oliver Pelling

Firstly, it has the best name of any church I’ve ever visited. Secondly, just look at it. It’s a postcard image of St. Petersburg for a reason, and that reason is that it is extremely handsome. Other things that happened in St. Petersburg: I ate a fantastic kebab; I drank a lavender coffee; I didn’t go to the Hermitage because the queue was too long.

2. Moscow’s subways are also incredible

Subway, Moscow © Oliver Pelling

This photo doesn’t quite do these underground museums justice, but each station is absolutely unique unto itself. Some feature intricate carvings of great Russians, some feature enormous open spaces with domed ceilings, others are adorned with complex – and stunning - mosaics, all have trains running through them. And in February of this year, the Moscow underground entered its ninth decade of service. Happy birthday, you handsome old bastard.

3. The Kremlin is incredible too

The Kremlin, Moscow © Oliver Pelling

By now, you may be noticing a theme developing. But really, the Kremlin is incredible. A couple of hours spent inside the armoury will reveal more Russian history than you'll know what to do with, and a stroll around the outside will reveal a bunch of extremely goodlooking buildings, like this one.

4. The Red Square at night is really incredible

Red square at night, St. Petersburg © Oliver Pelling

During the day it’s a 7/10, once the sun sets it’s a 34/10. Not pictured: the stunning St. Basils cathedral, situated directly behind me. Google it.

5. The Russians I met were extremely friendly

Friendly local, somewhere in Russia © Oliver Pelling

Having gone into Russia not really knowing what to expect in terms of hospitality for your average tourist, I found the vast majority of people I came across and spoke to were interested, kind and friendly. This guy was clearly no different.

6. Dill and parsley are your friends

Dill and parsley: very important © Oliver Pelling

With food options limited aboard the train to what you bring on with you (in my case, a lifetime’s supply of mushroom soup) and what you can buy from the dining cart – which is pretty expensive and not much to write home about – dill and parsley bring a welcome dose of flavour to any meal. And you’ll be in no shortage of the stuff – at just about every station you stop at, you’ll find old men and women and the platform selling it.

7. Boredom is to be embraced, not feared

Train life is slow life © Oliver Pelling

The longest consecutive stint I did on the train was four days. At first, I found the prospect of having little to do daunting. But after a while you adjust to this new pace of life. The simplicity of it all is liberating: you can read, stare out the window, talk to fellow travellers and locals, play chess and so on – all without the nagging feeling we so often experience in “normal life” that you should or could be doing something else. I read an entire book in half a day and it wasn’t even one of those ones with big writing and lots of pictures.

8. Siberia is good for hiking

Hiking in Siberia © Oliver Pelling

Truly, this was one of the best short hikes I’ve ever embarked upon. It was near the shores of Lake Baikal, which is very close to the Mongolian border. The scenery was every kind of cliché you’ve ever heard rolled into one: somewhere between Middle Earth, Tatooine and, well, Siberia.

Not pictured: me getting eaten alive by horseflies and wanting to peel off my own skin for the following two days as a result. 

9. A flat Lake Baikal is a rare Lake Baikal

Cycling around Lake Baikal © Oliver Pelling

In this photo, you can hardly make out where the lake hits the horizon (or where the horizon hits the lake, depending if you’re standing on your head or not). Usually, my Siberian friend Eugene told me, she’s pretty choppy and not quite so photogenic. And in winter, the entire lake freezes over and you can walk from one side to the other. Other cool things about Lake Baikal: it’s the deepest lake in the world, it’s the largest freshwater lake in the world, it’s the clearest lake in the world, and it’s the oldest lake in the world. Phew.

10. There’s a lot of space and horses in Mongolia

Vastness, Mongolia © Oliver Pelling

It’s a big country with a small population of a rich history of nomadic culture. Of course there’s a lot of space. Check out how much space this horse has got: she doesn’t even know what to do with it all. She told her mum she was ‘just going to the shops’. That was three weeks ago. Anyway, I digress. Mongolia is incredible.

11. Mongolia knows how to sunset

Sunset, Mongolia © Oliver Pelling

This photo involved no filters and no post-processing: the colours are real and they came from the sky.

12. The Mongolian-Chinese border crossing is very uncomfortable

Changing the bogies, China/Mongolia border © Oliver Pelling

This is the bit in the four-hour border crossing where they switch the train bogies out so they can run on the slightly different Chinese railways. It was 36 degrees outside when this photo was taken and the air conditioning had been turned off for about three hours, so it was about 40 degrees inside the train. We weren’t allowed to open windows. We weren’t allowed to use the toilet. I was a little bit hungover from the few beers I had earlier in the day. The upshot is that nobody died.

13. Life in Beijing is beautiful

Reading to the cats, Beijing © Oliver Pelling

I don’t want to sound too earnest here, but I fell in love with Bejing. Maybe it was to do with eating flavoursome food for the first time in three weeks, perhaps it was to do with the incredibly friendly locals or it might have just been that the city signified the end of my trip. Whatever the case, I loved it.

Fresh vegetables, Beijing © Oliver Pelling

I spent a solid couple of days just wandering around the hutongs – little communities dotted around the city – and watching people going about their daily life: playing cards, reading the newspaper, chatting with their neighbours, playing with their kids.

14. Whoever named it ‘The Great Wall of China’ was spot on


The Great Wall of China © Oliver Pelling

Because it really is great. That said, it could also have been called 'The Steep Wall of China', because it’s extremely steep up there. So pace yourself, drink plenty of water, and if you’re lucky, you can take the luge – yes, the luge – all the way down.

The writer travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

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