Our aim was to travel overland by any means of transport from New Zealand back to the Netherlands.
I had always wanted to travel overland, so one day the seed got planted over dinner with friends in Perth, Australia in 2017 to do the Trans Siberian railway. It had been such a bucket-list item for years, but growing up in the Cold war in the Netherlands and being the daughter of a Manager for an American oil company… it was too dangerous. Now I had an NZL passport, would it be easier, plus I had many more years of life experience behind me. After my dad died, with only 21 summers left.. it was time to fulfil that bucket list item once and for all.
If you are not familiar with our story, we set off from Auckland, New Zealand in March 2017 with a custom-built overland truck waiting for us in Melbourne, Australia. Our overland trip had been delayed due to my dad death in December 2016 in Galle, Sri Lanka. I come from a well-travelled international family, I don’t even have a direct family member living in NZ. We are all over the world, which is a disadvantage during Covid times.
We toured Australia for 24 months in our overland truck. We left the truck in Brisbane, Australia in storage.. intending to be back in Australia within 6 months.. but that did not happen. We could not find a company in Australia to winterize the truck for Mongolia and Russia. We aimed to travel overland back to the Netherlands, the place where I grew back and my heritage, to celebrate the very important birthday of one of my paternal aunts.
So we set off from Auckland International Airport in late October. Why October? Winter is my favourite time of the year. I wanted to experience Russia in the cold. It was so opposite to what we had experienced Overlanding the remote deserts of Australia, where my eyes had only seen beautiful red dust for months on end. The white and yet barren covered ice landscape is the polar opposite to the remoteness of Australia, yet so similar in many ways.
By the time we left Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on yet another train, we had done 15,130km from Hong Kong, to Beijing, to Ulaanbaatar. We got off the Trans Mongolian train to overland by vehicle thru one of the most beautiful breathtaking countries in the world, called Mongolia.
We have been to a third of the world countries now, but it is one of the most remote and incredible landscapes we have ever been to. Mongolia should be called the ‘Adventure capital of the world’. The Overlanding experience is second to none. The steppe grassland is covered in snow and ice with not a single tree in sight. It is the most incredible frozen landscape together with Siberia, Russia you will ever see in your life. It is such a unique place, somewhere where you have time to think and reenergizes your soul in the snow-covered landscape. To reenergize ourselves by travel is one of the most beautiful things in the world.
HONG KONG TO RUSSIA VIA MONGOLIA ITINERARY MAP
Map of our three weeks trip thru Asia and Russia
The Trans-Siberian Railroad is the longest in the world, which was constructed from 1891 to 1916. It was constructed during the reign of the imperial rule of Russia. The Trans-Siberian Railroad is 9,560 km in length.
The enormous work done to build the railroad amidst Russia’s long and troubled history makes travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway all the more magnetic and profound.
See Our YouTube Traveller’s NEST Overland channel for our travel videos on previous border crossing and personal security:
TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY BORDER CROSSINGS S1E17
After a week in Mongolia exploring the rugged landscape, we boarded the Trans Mongolian train 033 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The trains come overnight from Beijing, China into Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at 2.35 pm or 14.35 hours. The train is in the station for an hour. It gives passengers on board 50 mins to get off the train and get some quick supplies around the train station, before departing Ulaanbaatar at 3.22 pm or 15.22 hours.
In winter the train 033, only goes once a week on Wednesday. In summer the train 033, goes twice a week on Sunday and Wednesday
The next stage from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is 27 hours to Ulan Ude, Russia. The border crossing happens on the Mongolian side in Sukhe-Bator (Sükhbaatar) at 9.50 pm or 21.50 hours and a few hours on the Russian side to complete the border formalities. By 11.10 pm or 23.10 hours, one is in Russia.
This time we were better prepared than the border crossing with China and Mongolia. We stayed awake all night until we had cleared customs at 23.10 hours.
The border crossing into Russia was more involved:
- At first, a dog comes on board to check for drugs, then 30 mins later a customs officer comes thru and asks you to open all your luggage including laptop and photography bags. Drones are allowed in the country; you just can’t fly them. Satellite phones and PLBs are not allowed in the country. One has to ask special permission to bring these into the country. We left ours in the truck in Australia.
- Then you are asked to clear the cabin and stand in the hallway of the train. The cabin is fully checked by the customs officer. They were looking for cigarettes, alcohol and imported clothing from Mongolia. If you are doing this trip, don’t accept any luggage, boxes to take over the border, or even if someone comes up to you to take a jacket over the border. This is what the Russian customs officers are looking for, a lot of stuff is smuggled over the border on the train.
- Next is another customs officer, who comes to check your passports. Don’t be scared by their intimidation, it is this officer who will determine whether you are allowed into Russia. Our Russian Visas were processed in Wellington, New Zealand, but if the customs officer does not like the look of you, you will be refused entry into Russia. We were asked questions. I had all the visa application papers with me, for if we were asked questions. All the Customs officer wanted to see was our Letter of Invitation and our hotel reservations. We were lucky. Our Mongolian neighbours had a hard time, the Russian went thru all their bags. We could hear pots and pans, the customs officers were with them for 45 mins. We got off lightly at 5 mins each time. Our hearts went out to them.
It was excited to be in Russia for the first time in our life, 30 years ago this never could have been possible. After months of organising, we were in the country. Just keep 2 rules in mind, don’t talk about religion or politics in China or Russia.
The next stop was Ulan Ude, Russia. We got dropped off at the beautiful train station with ice and snow on the platform at minus 15 at 2.14 am or 02.14 hours. No one was around to greet us, the streets were all deserted at this time of the night. We had no cell phone coverage in Russia. I have printed off the direction of our hostel in Mongolia. Even then it seems like an hour to just get across the rail bridge with our bags. Your body uses up so much more energy in the cold temperature. Our bodies were still used to Australian outback temperatures. It was hard work at minus 15 in the early hours of the morning.