The Trans-Mongolian journey from Irkutsk to Ulan Baatar was a very different experience from our first train. The accommodations were far more basic and the carriage interior was a stark clinical white with no noticeable efforts of decoration. The cabin configuration was the same but this time the beds were hard and unmade. We had clean white sheets, and a slightly tattered, bristly red blanket for warmth. They did provide a towel although the bathroom amenities were also very basic and there was no paper or soap in the toilets and most definitely no shower room.
We had to ask for utensils such as mugs for tea and a spoon for eating the delicious yogurts we discovered in Russia. The provodnitsas were more elusive and seemed less predisposed to providing helpful information such as the length of station stops. There was no train schedule available so stopping times at platforms were guesswork on our part. These very minor inconveniences and discomfort added to the greater sense of adventure we felt on this leg of the trip, especially when we reached the Mongolian border, which had the appearance of a wild west outpost.
The first class carriage from Ulan Baatar to Beijing, however, couldn’t have been more different again. The cabin and the corridors were clad in laminated wood, giving the carriages a warm, orange glow. In the room, two bunk beds were situated one above the other on one side of the cabin, leaving the other side free for a small single seat where you could sit and watch the Gobi Desert roll by. Unfortunately the windows were covered in dust inside and outside by the pervasive desert sand although some of the taller people made an attempt at cleaning them at various stops so we could get better views. The upper bunk bed could be pushed up against the wall, allowing the lower bunk to become a long seat during the day. The bunks seemed wider than the others on our trip and were soft and cushy and there were plenty of blankets and sheets on hand.
There was a private bathroom with a sink and a shower for every two cabins. The bathroom had two doors so you would have to lock your neighbour’s door when you wanted to use the shower, which was essentially an extension hose from the sink unit but worked quite well. There was also a shallow closet for hanging coats and within which we found a large flask for storing hot water from the samovar making it more convenient for us to refill our white teacups as when we wanted. And just when we didn’t think the service could get any better, we were served a complimentary boxed lunch to our cabin at noon. In these conditions, we could have gladly stretched out the journey time from Ulan Baatar to Beijing train for a day or two more if conditions had allowed.