August 2017 BLNI Extra No. 28 – London to China by train
[C69] LONDON TO BEIJING BY TRAIN (MOSTLY!) – MAY 2017
It had always been an ambition to take a trip on the Trans-Siberian railway, and an organised tour travelling
overland from London provided an ideal opportunity to incorporate this into a family holiday. Although it
wouldn’t cover the full length of the classic route to Vladivostok, the final destination of Beijing was a much
more enticing one. The vast majority of the trip would be by train although, as it turned out, there were a
couple of small gaps that would be covered by coach, thus giving a reason for another visit! The tour involved
taking service trains from London to Moscow, then a special tourist train onwards. The entire holiday would
take 20 days, although the actual journey was 17 days long, with the final three days taken up with
sightseeing in Beijing and the flight home.
After meeting up with the rest of the tour group, 12 people in all, the 08:55 departure from London St
Pancras to Brussels, provided by an old Eurostar set, was joined and departed on time. It was your member’s
ambition to cover some new track on every day of the trip, and on the first day this was achieved early on
when Line 96N, the flyover just south of Brussels Midi giving access to the international platforms, was taken
as expected. After two and a half hours in a rainy Brussels, the 14:25 ICE service, operated by a set with NS
branding, was boarded and taken as far as Köln Hbf, with the High-Speed Line east of Liege providing new
line number two. The third and final train of the day was the 16:48 ICE from Köln Hbf to Berlin, and this too
provided some track, in the shape of the High-Speed Line from Wolfsburg to just east of Stendal.
Timekeeping had been exemplary until a 20-minute pause at Hamm, waiting for the late running portion
from Dortmund, but this was all but recovered by the time the train arrived at Berlin Hbf. This long first day
ended with a coach trip to the group’s hotel in Potsdam, arriving at around 22:00.
Today consisted of a morning coach tour of Potsdam and Berlin, followed by an early afternoon return by S
Bahn to Potsdam, with the rest of the day free. The hotel was centrally located, close to the Alter
Markt/Landtag tram stop, so the late afternoon was spent tram riding, covering the full length of route 91
from Rehbrücke to Pirschheide. It had been noted that the loop at the current north end of route 96 was
likely to come out when the line is extended at the end of 2017. Furthermore, it was discovered that, after
8 in the evening, tram route 92 diverted to call additionally at the last two stops normally served by route
96, so such services did both the full terminal loop at Viereck-remise (route 96 trams set down at the start
of the loop and pick up at the end so there is normally a gap), as well as the direct curve avoiding Campus
Fachhochschule, which links the ends of the two lines. A trip out after dinner confirmed this, and in addition
provided the full loop at Kirschallee, the end of route 92, where passengers going into Potsdam town centre
were allowed to stay on.
A view, taken from the Mercure Hotel, of a tram at Alter Markt/Landtag, surrounded by some of the many historic
buildings in Potsdam.
A late start provided the opportunity for a bit more tram riding, so the north end of route 93 was
taken. This runs to the Gilenicker Bridge (known as the Bridge of Spies as during the cold war as it
formed the border between East and West, and was used for the exchange of prisoners, most
famously Gary Powers the U-2 Pilot). Of operational interest here is the fact that there is a reversing
triangle here rather than a loop, so passengers are set down at the apex of the triangle before the
tram is reversed (the driver changes ends as there are limited controls at the non-driving end) around
the curve to the line end by the bridge. Unfortunately, there were a couple of ticket inspectors on
board who were not amenable to the empty stock being ridden!
A tram being reversed towards the Glienicke Brucke departure platform, having deposited its passengers at the
arrival platform situated at the apex of the reversing triangle.
After a coach transfer to Berlin Hbf, the 12:37 departure to Warsaw, formed of PKP stock, was taken.
Your reporter’s coverage of Poland is very limited, so it was very satisfying to know that everything
done after Frankfurt (Oder) was going to be new track. The route was as expected, with the only
section of note being the Września avoider. The scenery was distinctly underwhelming but at least
the first-class coach was spacious and comfortable. A short walk from Warszawa Centralna in the
pouring rain brought the group to its hotel, the very comfortable InterContinental, situated almost
directly opposite Stalin’s stunning ‘wedding cake’ building. The weather didn’t let up so dinner was
followed by a quiet night in.
Although it wasn’t included in the original itinerary, a morning coach tour was arranged to view some
of the main sights of Warsaw, finishing in the old town. During the tour a stop was made at the railway
themed Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East.
A part of the Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East in Warsaw, which commemorates victims of the
Soviet invasion of Poland during World War 2.
The afternoon was free, so the opportunity was taken to travel over some of Warsaw’s large tram
system, and also parts of the two metro lines.
A Warsaw tram at Stare Mesto tram stop, having just passed under the old town, which is in the background.
At 20:10 the group departed on the Moscow train, travelling in one of the excellent new RZD sleeper
coaches which incorporate very clever design features, with sleeping compartments having plenty of
luggage space under the seats, ladders that drop down from the side of the door, and a table with a
small sink underneath. There is even a tiny shower in one of the WC cabins at the coach end.
The train consisted of four through coaches and three PKP day coaches, the latter being removed at
the border station of Terespol. The expected route was taken to Terespol and, after a perfunctory
customs check, the train proceeded across the border into Belarus.
The train stopped short of Brest station where a much more thorough check was undertaken by the
Belarussian border staff. One of the party’s bags was thoroughly searched, and passports were taken
away before passengers were asked to complete Belarus/Russia entry and exit forms (for anyone
travelling this way, make sure that you make a note of your passport and Russian visa numbers, as
you will need them for the form). Passengers were also asked to show their travel insurance certificate
so make sure that you have that to hand.
Eventually the train proceeded into the standard gauge side of Brest station, where a few passengers
alighted, before the PKP loco was detached, and the train drawn back and then propelled into the
gauge changing shed. Here the coaches were jacked up, and the standard gauge bogies removed to
be replaced by Russian gauge ones. Photograph on next page.
After around an hour a Belarussian diesel very violently shunted onto the front of the train and drew
it on through the shed and back into the broad-gauge platforms on the south side of the station. It
was assumed that, at this point an electric loco replaced the diesel but, by then sleep had taken over.
Daylight saw the service on the approach to Minsk, and it was noted that the Belarussian capital had
an unexpectedly prosperous look, in stark contrast to most of the rest of the country that was passed
through. A 30-minute stop was booked at the modern main station, and the train staff were quite
happy for passengers to alight and take photographs. It was observed that an elderly looking
Belarussian electric loco was removed, followed by a day coach that had been attached at Brest,
before a modern Russian electric was attached. It was also noted that an ancient looking coach had
been attached to the back of the train – this was the restaurant car, which was splendidly basic and
was later used for lunch.
The last stop in Belarus was at Orsha, where the train paused for 15 minutes. A ceremony was taking
place on the station which, apparently, was to celebrate the end of the Great Patriotic War (as World
War 2 is known in the old Soviet bloc). The train crew were, by now, very friendly, and actually ushered
the group off the train to view the proceedings.
The Warsaw to Moscow train at Orsha, Belarus. A ceremony related to the Great Patriotic War was taking place in
front of the station building.
View from the Warsaw to Moscow service being propelled into the bogie changing shed at Brest.
The Russian border was crossed without formality and the first major city, Smolensk, was approached
via the southerly of the two western approach routes. For around 20 kilometres west of Smolensk the
east and westbound lines take completely separate routes into the city and, on departure, run round
opposite sides of, firstly a huge yard, then a carriage works. From here it was a straightforward run
through unremarkable scenery, punctuated by a 20-minute stop at Vyazma, to Moscow Belarusskaya
station. A particular feature of the journey through Russia was the many wayside stations that were
named after their distance from Moscow.
After checking into a nearby hotel and taking dinner there, the group was given an evening tour of
the city, which included a two-stop trip on the Metro to see one of the more impressively decorated
A detail of the decorations at Moscow Tverskaya Metro station.
This morning’s breakfast was enlivened by the procession of tanks passing the hotel. It wasn’t a coup
but a dress rehearsal for the following Tuesday’s Victory Day parade. Being a Sunday morning this
main route into the city could be completely closed off, which it was for most of the day.
Unfortunately, Red Square was also closed, which prevented access to Lenin’s tomb and St Basil’s
Cathedral. This didn’t really affect the full day guided tour, which included a visit to the Kremlin, other
than the fact that various other road closures connected with the above meant a lot of time stuck in
Unfortunately, there was no free time, so no further exploration of the city’s public transport system
was possible before the coach arrived at Kazanskaya station, which is at a main transport hub as it is
situated across a square from two other stations, Leningradskaya and Yaroslavskaya. The group was
ushered into a splendidly restored large waiting room to join up with the other passengers (around
150), who were travelling on the special train.
The ornate waiting room at Moscow Kazanskaya station.
Marketed as the Tsar’s Gold Train, it was actually a mixture of old and new stock, and was an
impressive 19 coaches long, including four restaurant cars. It is operated by a German company and
the passengers were a mixture of various nationalities, although mainly German, French and British,
nearly all of whom had flown directly to Moscow.
The Tsar’s Gold Train awaiting departure from Moscow Kazanskaya station.
The train departed at 17:48 on the first leg of its journey to Kazan. This is not the route taken by most
scheduled Trans-Siberian services, as these run from Yaroslavskaya station via Nizhny Novgorod, but
it is still a busy double track electrified line. Because Moscow does not alter its clocks in the summer,
darkness came relatively early at just after 8, whilst they were having dinner.
Arrival into Kazan 1 station was at 08:40 the following morning. There are two stations here, Kazan 1
is on a loop which goes through the town, and Kazan 2, used by most long-distance trains, is on a cut
off line which runs through the northern suburbs. A full day of exploration (this was to become a
theme!) had been arranged of this city, the historic capital of the Tatarstan region. Unfortunately, the
weather, which had been cool but sunny in Moscow, had turned cold and wet, so the guided walk
part of the tour was a pretty miserable event.
On arrival back at the station your reporter had just enough time to photograph some trams at the
terminus near the station, and also a St Petersburg bound train, before re-joining the tour for a 17:50
departure and a chance to warm up.
Typical Russian tram near Kazan 1 station.
In the evening the train climbed steadily towards the Ural Mountains, at this point little more than
rolling hills, and eventually, in the early morning, into Siberia.
View from train of typical local service alongside Chusovaya River at Sportivnaya, near the Europe/ Asia boundary.
The clocks went forward two hours overnight, so a 10:10 arrival into Yekaterinburg, historically the
most significant of the Russian cities visited during the trip, didn’t seem that late. There are two
separate routes into the city and arrival was via the southern one. Again, the time was well filled with
organised exploration, the highlights being a visit to the Church upon the Blood, built on the site
where the Tsar’s family were murdered, and a trip out to the Asia/Europe boundary, marked by a
large obelisk. The day was made more interesting as it was Victory Day, a public holiday, and the
crowds were out in force, many holding up photos of relatives who were killed in the Great Patriotic
War. The downside was that many places were playing non-stop martial music! Yekaterinburg has a
metro as well as an extensive tram system, but unfortunately the tight schedule didn’t allow time to
travel on either, although a few pictures of the latter were taken. The original station here, adjacent
to the current one, houses a railway museum but, for the same reason, there wasn’t time to visit it.
DAYS 8- 9
Departure from Yekaterinburg was at 15:46, and the train left by the more southerly of the two
available routes. Now on the main Trans-Siberian route, the crossing and overtaking of freights and
passenger trains was on an even more frequent basis than before.
View from train passing a looped freight on the main Trans-Siberian route between Yekaterinburg and Tyumen.
The landscape, which had been quite undulating the day before, was now much flatter, although still
well inhabited with towns and villages. During dinner the train arrived at Tyumen, the earliest Russian
settlement in Siberia, for an extended crew change stop before heading off into the night.
Tsar’s Gold Train awaiting a late evening departure from Tyumen.
The clocks, rather surprisingly, again went forward 2 hours overnight. After pausing at Omsk during
the night, the morning saw the train travelling through the flat, wooded (millions of silver birch)
landscape, arriving at Barabinsk at around 10:00 for another 30-minute operational stop.
View from train of typical Siberian marshland near Barabinsk.
One travel guidebook describes the line between Omsk and Novosibirsk (the next stop) as being the
busiest freight line in the world, and the yard here certainly would support that, as there appeared to
be at least four freights waiting to depart.
Tsar’s Gold Train at Barabinsk. Note the freight and the plinthed steam loco, a typical feature of many larger
Incidentally, to this point at least, taking photographs on stations was not a problem in Russia and
even walking off the end of the platform (where it was safe to do so) was tolerated. The scenery
continued to be flat, but with fewer trees and many marshy areas, punctuated by ramshackle towns
of single storey wooden houses, often painted blue (the Russian colour associated with ‘hope’).
Late afternoon saw the train arrive at Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city. Another coach tour had
been arranged, but your reporter took the decision to head off on his own, much to the group’s
Russian guide’s consternation. The city boasts metro and tram systems as well as trolleybuses. The
Metro station of Pl. Garina Mikhailovskogo was adjacent to the station so your reporter headed for
that. The instructions on the ticket machines were in Russian only, but fortunately there was also a
ticket office where the lady there spoke enough English to enable him to buy two tickets (20 roubles
each, or around 30p). The tickets were actually tokens that had to be fed into a slot on an entry gate
with no barriers, which meant that, once you were rail side, there was no way of checking if you’d
paid so you could travel all day if you wished, although the two metro lines aren’t very long.
Your reporter knew that the next station, Sibirskaya, was close to tram stop Magazin Tysyacha
Melochey on line 13. Having eventually found the tram stop he then had to establish how to pay.
When the first tram turned up he waved a bank note at the driver, who pointed him in the direction
of a conductor, who in turn sold him a crumpled ticket (clearly used before) for 18 roubles. He also
knew that tram stop Zyryanovskaya was adjacent to metro station Rechnoy Voksal so, by counting
the number of stops, somehow managed to get out at the right one. The trams were old, decrepit,
and very busy, and the track was even worse, especially towards the end of the journey where the
route ran alongside an unmade road.
Tram on Novosibirsk route 13 approaching Zyryanovskaya.
Having photographed some trams on this section of track he managed to find the metro station and,
after using his second token, made his way back to the main station, well before the any of the
returning coach parties.
Novosibirsk metro unit on arrival at Pl. Garina Mikhailovskogo, terminus of the Green line.
Novosibirsk is unusual in that it has two separate tram systems, north and south of the River Ob,
linked only by the metro. The main station building is one of the largest in Russia and, viewed from
the front, has the shape of a steam engine.
Novosibirsk main station showing the steam loco shape. The loco cab is ahead, with the chimney to the right.
There is a splendid large waiting room, and the departure board shows both local and Moscow time,
the reason for this being that the Russian timetable uses Moscow time only.
Departure board at Novosibirsk, showing local time on the left and Moscow time on the right. All train times use
the latter. Train 934 is the Tsar’s Gold Train, and train 1 is the Vladivostok to Moscow service.
Novosibirsk was left at 19:52, and darkness descended while dinner was taken. On awakening it was
noticed that the scenery had changed to hilly and wooded, a major improvement! Many dachas
(summer residences) were noted on the way in to Krasnoyarsk, their next stop, where they arrived at
08:00. After yet another guided tour (no metro or trams so no incentive to do anything else), unusually
there was a free hour before lunch so your reporter, his wife and the British tour group leader took a
stroll down the street and came across a rail served brewery with a small off-licence attached. There
was an excellent selection of beers available on draught, many having British names, so a litre bottle
of Imperial Russian Stout was purchased and later drunk with lunch, and excellent it was too!
Upon departure from Krasnoyarsk, the train crossed the Yenisey river on an impressive 1 km long
bridge, before climbing into the hills, passing surprisingly fertile valleys, frequent settlements and,
occasionally, oil wells or coal mines with large numbers of busy sidings. One feature of Russian main
lines is that the level crossings don’t just have barriers, they also have retractable ramps as well, so
little chance of cars crossing when they shouldn’t.
Typical level crossing on the main line at Kamarchaga, between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, Eastern Siberia.
Late evening saw arrival at Tayshet, a very important junction station, where the BAM (Baikal-Amur
Mainline) route, only completed in the 1990s as an alternative route to the Pacific, diverges.
Unfortunately, late running meant that the intended break there didn’t occur. Freights were
numerous, with timber, coal and oil appearing to be the main traffic, and also some container trains.
The scenery had changed again by the morning, still hilly but much more barren. Just after dawn the
train passed a hilltop town with a large coal mine.
Small mining town of Tyret, Eastern Siberia.
In this part of Siberia temperatures regularly drop to -40oC and below in winter, and winter lasts most
of the year (typically only 96 days a year are frost free), so it must be a depressing place to live and
work. Fortunately, since Kazan, the trip had been blessed with good weather, and this continued with
a sunny but cold morning – the temperature display on one wayside station showing 1oC at 6 in the
morning. Interestingly, even this far east, all station names are shown in both Cyrillic and Roman
Dropping down towards the Angara river valley, the landscape became more cultivated, with huge
fields being prepared to grow wheat in the short summer season, but still with plenty of industrial
sites, including power plants and what looked like an oil refinery. The train arrived at Irkutsk at around
10.00 and, after five nights on the train, the next night was to be in a hotel, a much-welcomed
opportunity to freshen up. A busy day of sightseeing again ensued but there was just enough time
before dinner to catch a tram on route 1. This stopped near the hotel and covered a circular route
around the city. The tram was the usual ancient patched up single car and the fare was a mere 18
roubles, payable to the conductor, for a journey that lasted more than 60 minutes.
Irkutsk tram on route 1 outside main station.
This was a day that promised to be a rail highlight and certainly delivered, helped by sunny and mild
weather. Leaving by coach, the destination was Lake Baikal, the largest lake on the planet by volume
of water, containing around a fifth of the world’s fresh water supply. Snow covered mountains on the
far side of the lake provided a spectacular backdrop as the party boarded a ferry which crossed the
mouth of the Angara River to reach Port Baikal. The original Trans-Siberian route from Moscow ended
here, with two British built ice breaking ships (one of which now houses a shipbuilding museum in
Irkutsk) transporting trains across the lake to continue their journey to Vladivostok. Subsequently a
line was built from here around the south end of the lake, to complete the rail route. In the 1950s a
new direct line was built from Irkutsk to the south end of Lake Baikal and, at the same time, a dam
for a hydro-electric power system flooded part of the Irkutsk to Port Baikal route, so the latter location
became the end of a branch from Slyudlyanka, where the new line from Irkustsk joined to the old one.
Since then the branch has been in gentle decline, reduced to single track and de-electrified, and only
really survives because of tourism. It sees four scheduled return passenger services a week, plus a
steam hauled service on summer weekends.
During our night in a hotel the train had been moved, and was waiting for us at Port Baikal, which is
now a very run-down town and is inhabited by locals, many of whom get around on ancient motor
Tsar’s Gold Train awaiting departure from Port Baikal.
Line end and motorcyclist at Port Baikal
After a three hour break here, giving time to visit the station building, which houses a small railway
museum, and to walk the current end of line, your member followed Society tradition and made his
way down to the end of the 19-coach train, as there was a rear facing window ideal for photographing
its departure (at least that was his excuse). It was a staff coach, so he half expected to be moved on,
but instead the train manager arranged for the window to be cleaned, even though it meant having
to unlock and open the end door, a long and laborious process.
View from back of train leaving Port Baikal, with station building on right.
It was a Saturday, so the steam service heading towards Port Baikal was passed at the first crossing
point. Soon after the train stopped and a group of passengers were allowed to disembark and climb
onto the side of the two diesels for a short ride. This was repeated a bit further on, and your reporter
joined this second group.
Riding the loco along the Port Baikal branch.
This took the train to a small village where the train was booked to stop for a few hours for a lakeside
picnic. Earlier in the day the train manager had offered to try to arrange a ride up the line on one of
the locos whilst the picnic was taking place so, once all passengers had alighted, your reporter,
together with another British enthusiast and their group leader, was escorted up to the front of the
train where the leading loco was just being detached, and they were treated to a 10 km ride up the
line and back on a perfect evening through wonderful scenery, even passing a large ice floe at one
point (the lake freezes over in winter).
View from the front of the loco of an ice floe on Lake Baikal.
View from the loco cab of dusk on Lake Baikal.
View from loco approaching train at the picnic site on Lake Baikal.
Fortunately, on returning to the picnic there was still plenty of food and drink to be had, which
finished off a most enjoyable evening. The train eventually left after it was dark, although as there
was a full moon and a clear sky it was perfectly possibly to see the lake as the line ran alongside it.
A lengthy stop at the junction station of Slyudlyanka meant that the train was still running alongside
the eastern shore of Lake Baikal at dawn and well into the morning. The scenery further up the lake
was hilly rather than mountainous, and surprisingly fertile with frequent settlements. Next stop was
Ulan Ude, a modern prosperous looking town, but one which had a much more Asian feel about it, as
well as a more temperate climate.
Busy freight yard viewed from train entering Ulan Ude.
As usual, limited time and the usual coach tour only permitted the briefest glimpse of the tram system
Ulan Ude, 5,700 kilometres east of Moscow, is the point at which the line to Mongolia and Beijing
parts company with the Trans-Siberian route to Vladivostok. Until now the train had travelled on an
electrified double track route, but here a huge diesel loco was attached to the head of the train as the
line onwards was non-electrified single track.
Russian diesel at head of train awaiting departure from Ulan Ude.
As the train climbed away from Ula Ude, the scenery changed to arid hills and plains with few trees.
After passing a massive power station on a large lake, a 30-minute stop was made at a basic
settlement called Goose Lake, in order to cross a northbound passenger service.
Crossing northbound service train at Goose Lake, near the Mongolian Border
The scenery was spectacular in a stark way, although on one stretch, running alongside the Selenga
river, the land was more fertile with herds of cows. Some of the gradients were quite severe as well,
judging by the amount of smoke put out by the engine. The train arrived at the Russian border station
of Naushki just after 18:00. It felt as though there was a locomotive change here but, because no-one
was allowed to get off it wasn’t possible to be sure. Two hours later, after customs and passport
checks had been completed, the train departed, and the whole train immediately sat down to dinner,
which was due to take place between border checks. This didn’t quite work out as, having arrived at
the Mongolia border station of Sukhbaatar, somewhat early, passengers were obliged to return to
their cabins taking their drinks with them. Although the train wasn’t booked to depart until 02:45,
passports were returned at around 23:00, so a decent night’s sleep was had.
Dawn saw the train winding its way beneath a cloudless sky through a sparse valley between rocky
hills, passing the occasional yurt and herd of cows or horses.
Train, hauled by Mongolian diesel, running south towards Ulaan Baatar, near Shatanga.
This stunning scenery continued until the outskirts of the Mongolian capital Ulaan Baatar, where a
haze of smog lay over the city. Ulaan Baatar has the coldest average temperature of any capital city
in the world, but it was difficult to believe as today it was 27oC in the afternoon, compared with the
average for May of 13oC. On arrival at around 09:30 there was the usual tour (the city also has the
worst traffic jams your reporter has ever seen!). First stop was at what was called the railway
museum, which was in fact just a line-up of rusting locomotives by a main road. Of particular interest
was a large diesel with the face of Stalin on the front (Stalin is rarely, if ever, seen in Russia, unlike
Lenin, who seems to have a statue in every town).
Plinthed loco with Stalin’s head at Ulaan Baatar.
Mongolia was, of course, once part of the Soviet bloc, so the railway infrastructure is very similar to
Russia, although much more run down. After an excellent lunch (far better than anything in Russia),
the group were given a much-appreciated afternoon off, but unfortunately there was no railed public
transport to sample, just a few trolleybus routes.
After a day in the countryside, in what was called Mongolian Switzerland but looked much more like
Arizona with its unusual rock formations, the train was re-joined and at 19:00 it departed from Ulaan
Baatar. The following two hours, until darkness fell, saw the train pass through some of the most
spectacular scenery on the trip so far as it wound its way via a series of horseshoe curves up into the
mountains, with views stretching to the distant horizon in the setting sun, and the occasional herd of
camels and horses. Unfortunately, this coincided with the final dinner on the train, but your reporter
did manage to slip away and take some photographs.
Train climbing away from Ulaan Baatar towards the Gobi Desert, near Bayan.
At dawn the train paused at Tsagaankhad, a wayside station and crossing point in the middle of the
Gobi Desert. A herd of very scruffy camels had been brought to the lineside and passengers were
allowed off to photograph them.
Train paused at Tsagaankhad in the Gobi Desert.
Camel herd alongside train at Tsagaankhad.
After waiting for a southbound freight to overtake them and a northbound one to pass, the train
eventually set off at 08:50 though this most barren of landscapes, heading for Zamyn Uud, the
Mongolian border town.
Train running through the Gobi Desert in the vicinity of Avlin Gol, close to the Chinese border.
The biggest disappointment of the trip, from a track point of view, was that it wasn’t possible to cross
the border by train. The stock didn’t have gauge changing capability so couldn’t run through to Beijing
but, although it still should have been possible to take the train into China, the tour manager later
explained that the Chinese authority’s charge for allowing this meant that the organisers weren’t
prepared to do so. The result, therefore, was that passengers had to alight at Zamyn Uud and cover
the 12 kilometres to the Chinese border town of Erlian by bus. To add insult to injury, at the border
itself passengers had to take all of their luggage off the bus and through customs as everything had
to be X-rayed, before getting back on the bus to go into town.
After a day spent in this rather strange border town, at around 20:00 passengers were taken to the
station where a specially chartered sleeper train was waiting.
Chinese sleeper train awaiting departure from Erlian, the Chinese border station. Note the dual gauge track in the
Apparently, the set to be used was normally retained for government officials, and the quality of the
interior fittings certainly supported that suggestion, with much use of wood and brass. The
compartments were certainly the most spacious seen on the trip, and the restaurant car, where a
very odd breakfast (fried egg, spam, cauliflower and carrot) was ‘enjoyed’ the following morning, was
beautifully fitted out. The train wasn’t booked to leave until 22:45, by which time the best night’s
sleep that had been had on any train during the entire trip was being enjoyed.
Dawn on the following morning, on what was the final travelling day of an epic journey, saw the train
at the Inner Mongolian town of Jining, changing from diesel to electric haulage. Passengers had been
told the previous evening that the train would be routed via Datong, famous for its coal mines and,
at one time, steam locos, but in fact it took the direct line to Zhangjiakou Nan (South), a spectacular
route, apparently opened in 2015, cutting through mountains via long tunnels and huge viaducts. At
the major junction station of Zhangjiakou Nan it appeared that a further loco change took place
although, as it wasn’t possible to get off and there were no opening windows, this wasn’t certain.
Your reporter was using the 2008 Quail Map and it soon became apparent that there had been a lot
of changes since then, mainly as regards the building of new lines, both for high speed and freight.
View from train of a freight crossing on one of China’s many new lines near Shacheng, north-west of Beijing.
The approach to Beijing was through the spectacular Longqing gorge, where the two lines of this
double track route kept to opposite sides, but crossing and re-crossing a number of times. Eventually
the outskirts of China’s huge capital city, with unofficially 30 million inhabitants, were reached and,
arriving from the west, the train wound its way around the south side of the centre, passing through
the stunning, British designed, new station of Beijing Nan (South), built to be the main station for high
speed services, before arriving at the final destination of Beijing station, at the end of this epic 10,000-
High Speed train at Beijing Nan (South) station
Journey’s end at Beijing station.
Beijing station exterior.
The official rail trip was over and all that was left was two days of sightseeing in Beijing, in extreme
heat (38oC and humid), but your reporter was determined to maintain his record of covering some
new track on every day of the holiday. On the first day the opportunity arose when, on returning from
the Great Wall and after visiting the last sight of the day, the Olympic (Birds Nest) stadium, the local
Chinese guide was reluctantly persuaded to drop off the same gang of three that took the cab ride at
a nearby metro station to complete the journey back to the hotel by public transport. She seemed
convinced that they would get lost in the Friday night rush hour, but in fact they beat the coach by
Using the metro is actually quite straightforward as the ticket machines have an English option – you
simply specify your destination and pay the fare shown with either cash or card, and change is given.
You receive a ticket, Oystercard size although thinner, which you scan on the way in and feed into the
gate machine on the way out. All station signs are in English. The only thing to be careful of is making
sure that you leave by the right exit (all stations seem to have four) as the map showing their locations
shows the street names is in Chinese only.
Typical Beijing Metro station at Chongwenmen.
On the last full day of the holiday an early finish to the sightseeing meant that there was time for
another metro ride, this time to Beijing South station. Unfortunately, it didn’t prove possible to go on
to any of the platforms so your reporter had to content himself with photographing the exterior.
An early start was required for the BA flight home (fortunately this was the weekend before the
system meltdown). Whilst not really track, an unexpected bonus was the full length of the people
mover at Beijing International Airport Terminal 3 (over 1 km long), and much later the Heathrow
Terminal 5 people mover line was also sampled after the long flight. Finally, having purchased some
fairly cheap advance tickets for Heathrow Express, the flyover on to the fast line at Hayes rounded off
a truly memorable holiday.
Doing a trip like this on an organised basis does have advantages and disadvantages. The main
advantage is that most of the stress is removed, as you know that, if things go wrong, someone else
will sort it out (unless of course you do something stupid like losing the exit form that you need to get
out of Russia!). Also, this particular trip included a decent level of comfort with travel in all service
trains being in first (or standard premier on Eurostar). However, the special train from Moscow was
described as being luxury, which, in your reporter’s view, it wasn’t – it was comfortable but no more
so than a first-class sleeper, with shared facilities (except for the most expensive cabins, and they
were really expensive!) and, for the most part, decent but unexciting food, although drinks were very
reasonably priced. Also, the trip was very highly organised, with little or no free time, as participants
were expected to take part in all the side trips. If you were particularly interested in Russian history,
you’d love it, but even then, there was an element of repetitiveness as most cities had similar tales to
tell and the guides were very talkative. Finally, the manner of the transfer across the border from
Mongolia to China was disappointing.
Having said all that your reporter was very glad to have gone, enjoyed it immensely, and would
certainly recommend this as a great railway journey.