It is unbelievable to think that the Trans–Mongolian Railway follows an ancient tea camel route from China to Russia and connects Beijing, China with Ulan-Ude, on Trans–Siberian railway in Russia.

Map of the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian Railway Routes

The ancient Tea  Road, which dates back to the 17th century, was a network of ancient trade routes that came into being after the Silk Road. Starting from Southern China in the Wuyi Mountains, it passed thru Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and extended to Mongolia and Russia, stretching about 13,000 km and boosting the development of more than 200 cities along the way.

The Tea Road was a trade route that was officially recognized by a treaty between Russia and the Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1689. The Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689 was the first treaty between Russia and China under the Qing dynasty. It opened markets for Russian goods in China and gave Russians access to Chinese supplies and luxuries. For centuries, it was the preferred method of packaging tea for transport in the form of compressed cakes or bricks – this allowed greater value to be packed into a smaller volume. Bricks of tea became a major component of the tea trade up to Russia through Mongolia. Most teas were transported by mule or mule-carts from either the port of Beijing to Zhangjiakou, where it was re-packed and loaded onto camel caravans for the ride up and over the pass to the high plateau of the Gobi at Choir, Mongolia and onwards to Ulaanbaatar, then to Darkhan, Mongolia crossing at Kyakhta and onwards to Ulan Ude in Siberia, Russia. The Tea Road also transported goods like silk and porcelain.

First views of Mongolia at 8.30am, Bactrian camels descendants of the ancient tea route

Railway development came late to Mongolia partly due the ancient tea routes and history in the region.

Due to the geographical conditions, lack of direct access to the sea and vastness of the territory, the rail transport plays an extremely important role in Mongolia.

Rail transport in Mongolia is an important means of travel in the landlocked country of Mongolia, which has relatively few paved roads. Mongolia is 1.5m sq. km in size, in comparison to NZ at 268k sq. km. Mongolia has 50,000 km of road, but only 4,800 km are paved roads, whereas NZ has 83,000 km of paved roads. The length of road per person in New Zealand is one of the highest in the world.

Mongolia train at Choir, Mongolia. The Trans Mongolia stopped in town on Wednesday at 10.30am in winter

The first railway of Mongolia was built in 1938 and was operated for 43 km length, from the “Nalaikh” coal mines to the capital of Ulaanbaatar.

During World War II, Japanese forces occupied Manchuria in northern China. The Soviet Union saw this as a threat and despite a non-aggression pact signed between Russia and Japan in 1941, built up a strong military presence in eastern Mongolia, then effectively a satellite country of the Soviet Union. There were three bases at Sanbeis, Matad and Tamsagbulag. The bases were constructed in secret and much of their history was unknown until recently. Only in 2015 did a team of Japanese archaeologists confirm that the three bases were served by a railway. The Russian gauge railway diverged from the Manchurian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway at Borzya and crossed into Mongolia to serve the bases. Its total length was around 400km, and it appears to have been completed in 1943. A section of the line as far as Choibasan was retained after the War, and appears to be still active today. From 1988 to 1993 there was a branch north from Choibasan serving a uranium mine at Mardai.

Coal being loaded on to the trains in Choir, Mongolia

The most important railway line in Mongolia, the mainline connecting Russian and China, passing through the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, did not arrive until later. Construction of the Trans-Mongolian line began in 1947, reaching Ulaanbaatar from the north in 1950 and the Chinese border in 1955. It was built to Russian gauge, necessitating a change of gauge at the border with China.


 In 1955 the rail first crossed the vast expanse of the Gobi Desert, forging a direct link between Moscow and Beijing, a real and symbolic show of solidarity from Red Square to Tiananmen Square. This success was short-lived though.

Despite this initial openness, disagreements between Mao and his Soviet counterparts grew before coming to a head in 1969, with China suspending the Trans-Mongolian following a series of skirmishes between the two powers along the Ussuri River.

Mongolia Gers near Airag, Mongolia

The Trans Mongolia railway link would remain closed during the remainder of the Cold War, and reopen in the 1980s. 


This history of division is evident to this day between the Chinese and Russian railways, with different gauges forcing a switch at the Mongolian Chinese border.

Changing of the bogies at the border of China and Mongolia

China uses the standard gauge of 1,435 mm, while Mongolia used the Russian gauge of  1,520 mm. For this reason through  train carriages between the two countries must have their bogies changed at the border of Zamyn-Üüd/Erenhot or China and Mongolia.

Each carriage has to be lifted in turn to have its bogies changed and the whole operation, combined with passport and customs control, can take several hours. Freight wagons likewise have their bogies exchanged at this break-of-gauge.


Despite enduring a long history of Chinese occupation under the Qing dynasty, the nomadic Mongolian region did enjoy a level of autonomy that allowed them to retain their culture and traditions over the years. Following the Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689  and the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta, Mongolia even experienced a level of prosperity as a trade thoroughfare between China and the Russian Empire, facilitating the flow of goods such as furs, cloth and tea. Chinese occupation persisted until Mongolia declared independence in 1911 following the collapse of the Qing Empire.

Arrival into Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at 2.35pm, 38 hours after leaving Beijing South Railway Station

It is amazing to think we travelled over such an ancient tea route from Beijing to Ulan Ude in Russia. We will be forever grateful for this wonderful experience.

Overall, a great train trip and one day, once the borders are open again we look forward to driving from Australia via Asia back to Mongolia to explore this magnificent country. It is an Overlanding paradise.

Made with Love and Passion for the Road,

Travellers NEST Overland team,

Ro and Mark


Published by travellersnestoverland

What might seems extreme travel to some is normal to us. Two Dutch Kiwis, Rolanda and Mark, with Passion for Overland travel either with our overlanding truck, cars or by train. We have been on the road now for a number of years, 70 Countries done and dusted


  1. this was a very interesting read. Thank you for sharing. I will definitely have to check out some of those spots if I go there


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