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going from Russia to China by local trains

Published: Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Irkutsk - Peking
start: 17.09.2010 10:21 (Irktusk time, 5:21 Moscow time)
end:   20.09.2010 21:30 (Peking time = Irkutsk time minus 1h)

going the Transmandschurian by national trains and taking a bus to pass the Russian-Chinese border...

I had no visa for Mongolia. Of course, it is possible to get one, but about 100 $ for a paper to enter a country was too much (I did not want to stay there more than 1 week).
The missing visa and the reports of other travellers that many people in Ulan Bataar are nerving made me think about an alternative.
So, why not getting "straight" from Russia to China? There is also a branch of the Transsiberian track, that goes to Peking without crossing Mongolia. But the Transmandschurian railway only runs once a week (on Tuesdays) and it was Thursday (I could not leave earlier, because I wanted to visit the Baikal lake).

So I asked Irina who ran the hostel in Irkutsk and she told me that many Russian people take a train to Zabajkalsk which is also the last stop of the Transmandschurian on the Russian side. There you can take a bus to get to Mandzhouli in China... Why not? And I can get the cheaper national railway tickets because I do not need an international train. Let's try.
The first part of the travel was quite straightforward, because I'd travelled several kilometers in Russian trains and knew what it would be like. This time I was given one of the upper beds, which is a bit more comfortable to sleep (but you have to sit on others' beds to eat or watch the scenery).
The first bigger stop was Ulan Ude in the first evening. There I bought something for dinner and went back inside to finish reading my book. The stop was scheduled for about 30 minutes, but you never know and the distance to look "behind the station" was too far.
The second stop was Chita - the capital of the burjate region. The train arrived there in the morning. I thought it's just another stop and I will stay in bed and wait till the next stop, because it was still early. But, after 30 minutes - usually the maximum duration for a stop on the Transsiberian - there were no indications that the train will move on. So I checked when it will go on. The timetable next the toilet said: 13 hours! Wow, I didn't expect such a long stop. So it's another possibility for sightseeing. But the city was not very interesting. I went to the main square and changed several times between station, train and shopping streets.


The long stop in Tchita


But after a couple of hours when I wanted to go back to the train, the train was gone! Ok, check again the timetable inside the station for the departure time. Yes it is 13:48 Moscow time (that means in the evening according to Irkutsk)- but another train number!? I still had my backpack inside that train. Ok, lets ask at the information. The lady assured me that the train will come back half an hour before departure and that it is no problem for the luggage... I was happy that I could get the information and wondered, how it will be getting along in China without being able to ask anyone.
In the next morning we arrived at around 7 in Zabajkalsk. I only knew that the bus will leave at a bus station and I would have to leave the train station. It was still dark, so maybe it's better to wait until dawn? No, let's follow the Chinese people that have been in the train, they must go to the right direction...  Passing the taxidrivers and ignoring their advertisements I found the right bus! On the bus we had to fill out the Chinese imigration card.
Passing the border was about 4 stops (2 on the Russian side, 2 more to enter China) and took about 2.5 hours which was quicker than expected (people told me that e.g. their train waited 5 hours at the Russian-Mongolian border). The officers had a detailied look at the visas and at the passport and even at the stamps of their colleagues. When the Chinese border officer came inside the bus to check the passports and to announce the passengers to his colleagues, he said: 5 Chinese - 8 Russians and one German! It was difficult to explain, where I was from (at the border and in the Chinese train), it seemed that they do not have to many European / German tourists at this area. At least I do not have to answer lots of stupid questions, because I do not even understand simple words in Chinese and they do not speak foreign languages.
The difference between Russia and China is visible in the first moment. The last border check the passengers had to pass on foot and with all their luggage. There you enter a small room and after the papers are checked, you have to follow the signs until you get to a huge hall - welcome to China.
The next step was finding the train station and buying a ticket. This could be really complicated - but fortunately I met a Russian student, who studies in Harbin (China) and could help me organizing the ticket.


Which train goes to where?


The electronic schedule is not readable without understanding Chinese - the only thing which is useful is the departure time (but no way to get the direction).
The train to Beijing was only 3 hours later. The ticket only showed the number of the waggon but no number for a bed or seat. The price was about 225 Yuan (25 Eur) and the arrival time was unknown to me.
Later, I asked the staff and passengers inside the train several times for the arrival times and got slightly different answers but they all told it was the next evening, that meant again more than 30 hours in a train.
Actually these 32 hours were not comfortable at all. The seat number was missing because the train already was more than "sold out". From time to time people offered their seat to me, which was very kind of them. After they knew the most important facts, I could rest for a while (the facts: I am 1.94 meters tall and my shoes have the size 48 - communication was restricted to numbers, which was the only common language).
I could not see any other tourist, except the student I met at the bus station. So, we trank some beers together, but he already got off at Harbin and afterwards I was "alone".
Sleeping was reduced in that night to a 4 hour sit on the ground, fortunately the staff did not complain, alghough they had walk around me and many other passangers were standing.
In the second day a Chinese guy said to me "follow me, follow me" and I followed him to the train restaurant. He invited me to a Chinese dinner and afterwards I had a place to sit until we arrived in Beijing. With the help of our mobile phones we could "talk" some senteces and I could practice my skills in eating with chopsticks.
As many times before, I was not really prepared for my destination. In Beijing I did not know where to sleep and I was wondering, if I would find a hostel for the first night, because the train arrived at late evening. The only address I had was a fotografy of a French lonely planet page. I bought a city map at the train station in Beijing but I could not match the street names in the fotografy to the street names in the city map (although they were in Chinese and English). Of course I could have made a reservation somewhere. But you never know, what happens in between (only threee days in advance, but 2 different countries - many unknown details)...
I already wanted to start walking in the "best" direction when I saw the "Beying City Central Youth Hostel" next the train station! This hostel was of course also mentioned in the lonely planet - but they wrote the address and the metro station instead of writing: "it's next the train station on the other side of the street"! Checked it, and they had free space for two nights - that means: a real bed without moving train, hot shower instead of toilet sink, breakfast,... In the end it was a really stressful journey to go to Beijing from Irkutsk, and I wouldn't go this route a second time - but it was also very interesting and I got prepared a bit for China and the Chinese (at least I hope so): I will think it is normal to eat grilled chicken fingers or greet me with pointing their fingers to their noses and start to laught, or even make sure that the hairs on my arms are real...


Orientation can be a bit confusing. There are sooo many people!


Finally made it... The common room in Beijing Central Hostel


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