003/004 is a Chinese train, pulled by local locomotives throughout its journey. As the line across Mongolia is not electrified it uses a mix of diesel and electric engines. For this reason the carriages are heated by coal fires rather than air-conditioned, and coal is taken on board two or three times each day as part of the routine.
The bulk of the train is made up of Chinese first and second class carriages, with additional local carriages (including the restaurant) added and removed on the Mongolian and Chinese borders. The wheel sets of the whole train are removed and replaced on the Chinese border to allow switching between the different gauge rails.
Train 004 has Chinese attendants rather than the Russian Provodnitsa you find on other Trans-Siberian trains, and train standards often differ between the two regarding cleanliness, attentiveness and efficiency. In addition to the varying standards, the language barrier can prove challenging and may often surprise travellers boarding in Moscow expecting the typical Russian-speaking provodnista. While the Chinese attendants may have some understanding of English, we recommend passengers take a Chinese phrasebook or download a translation app before boarding the train (as WiFi is often not available in the more remote areas of the journey) that covers the basics.
First class is quite different to second class on board this train. Each two-berth compartment has a shared sink and shower between the adjoining cabins - there are locking doors on both sides. The configuration is a lower and an upper berth, and a single seat on the other side of a small table. These coaches have thick carpets, wood effect paneling and silk seat covers.
In second class the feel is a little more spartan. Layout is more conventional with four berths to each compartment and no sink/shower room.
The berths are a good size throughout, with comfortable mattress pads on top of the berths. Cotton sheets and blankets are provided. The ride can be a bit bumpy at times, owing to the age of the carriages and accumulation of ice under the train in the winter.
Each compartment has central lighting and reading lights. First class compartments have their own 230v power sockets, whereas in second class there are just one or two sockets in the corridor. The voltage can vary quite a lot so be careful with sensitive equipment.
The compartments all have luggage space beneath the berths and also up top over the corridor. There is a metal box beneath the lower bed, so you can lift the seat and keep valuable belongings secure in here - access is only possible by lifting the bed. You can fit in a bag approximately 40 cm high and 70 cm deep and additionally up top there is room for smaller bags – up to 30 cm tall by 65 cm deep.
The carriages have fully opening windows in the corridor (for the summer), but those inside the compartments are sealed shut. These are fitted with extractor fans in the summer that are designed to keep the dust from the Gobi desert entering the train. The carriages can vary a lot in temperature, and often this is down to how regularly the guards add more coal onto the fire that heats the train.
There are two bathrooms, one at each end of the coach. There is no difference between classes, just the number of people who will share them. The western style toilets flush directly onto the tracks (using hot water to stop them freezing in winter). This means that they are always locked before arrival at stations and also at borders. Don't be surprised by the shot of steam that can materialize when the hot water meets the freezing temperatures outside! Overall the facilities are simple, sometimes clean, but always fully functional.
Security is generally good with doors that can be locked and double locked from the inside of the compartment. You should always use both locks, as the key that opens the carriage from the outside is widely copied. The guards will lock your compartment if you ask them to, for example when you get off at stops or visit the restaurant carriage.
Although, technically, smoking is no longer permitted in the Russian Federation, the end of the carriages by the train doors is often used for this purpose without complaint.
On this train you get to sample three restaurant carriages (but not all at the same time!) – always supplied by the country you are travelling in. The position of the restaurant in the train will vary, so it is worth asking before discovering it has moved to the opposite end of the train.
There is an interesting mix of tourists, travellers and cross border traders on this train. The restaurant will often be busy with European travellers, and this makes the atmosphere quite lively at times. Traders and locals tend to be in hibernation much of the time, and are rarely seen outside of their compartments.
Is this a good train to choose
This is a really good route for travellers, and as a result it is very popular - especially in peak summer season. The scenery is amazing and varies significantly throughout the journey. The train itself is quite well worn, but there is nothing in particular that presents a problem. The first class compartments are very comfy and worth considering if your budget permits. Don't let your decision be swayed by the en suite sink/shower though – the supply of water can be very limited and in winter plumbing problems often cause minor floods. Along with the fine views, the mix of travellers and different restaurant carriages really adds to the experience and makes the train an excellent choice.
Train 003 / 004 Trans-Mongolian Railway
Matthew Woodward is a rail adventurer, and the author a number of books about travelling from Europe to Asia along the Trans-Siberian railway. His books are available now in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.
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