For those with time and a little bit of patience to spare, the evocatively named Trans-Manchurian railway is one of the best ways to enter or exit China. The line barrels northeast out of Beijing, eventually crossing the Russian border to connect with its far more illustrious sibling, the Trans-Siberian. Indeed, once a week direct trains run the route all the way between Beijing and Moscow, avoiding Mongolia and thus the necessity of acquiring an extra visa. The trip takes around six days, starting almost simultaneously in both Moscow and Beijing each Saturday evening; trains are comfortable, with private rooms and restaurant cars. Visas must be arranged in advance both ways, and the difficulty of acquiring a Russian one (not to mention buying the ticket itself) means that many choose to organize the trip through a travel agency. Prices vary enormously depending upon whether you go through an agency or do things by yourself.
With a little advance planning, it’ll be possible to visit other Russian cities before hitting Moscow, with the Siberian city of Irkutsk a favourite thanks to its proximity to Lake Baikal, the world’s largest body of fresh water. Easier to organize are stops at Chinese cities on the way: Shenyang, Changchun and Harbin all have their merits, and new high-speed services have cut travel times considerably. From Harbin, the train cuts through Inner Mongolia before hitting the Russian border, passing through the pleasant towns of Hailar and Manzhouli.
With rail connections as well as an airport, Hailar (海拉尔, hăilā’ěr) is the main transport hub of the region, and a centre for grassland visits. The town itself is of minimal interest – the chief reason most visitors come to Hailar is to see the Hulunbuir grasslands (呼伦贝尔草原, hūlúnbèi’ěr căoyuán), an apparently limitless rolling land of plains and low grassy mountains. As elsewhere in Inner Mongolia, there are the CITS-approved villages of Mongol herders; though you could try to strike off independently, it’s worth noting that the grassland tours here don’t attract hordes of people. A day-trip from Hailar to eat a traditional mutton banquet on the grasslands, for a group of four people, costs around ¥420 each, or a little under double that to stay the night. For bookings and more information, contact Hailar’s CITS (t 0470 8224017) at their office on the third floor of Beiyuan Hotel (北苑宾馆, běiyuàn bīnguăn; t 0470 8235888; ¥288) on 20 Alihe Lu, one of the better accommodation options in town.
A few hours to the west of Hailar is Manzhouli (满洲里, mănzhōulǐ), a bustling centre for cross-border commerce whose wholesale demolition, renovation and development – much of which has involved the surreal addition of Versailles-inspired facades to communist tower blocks – has left it with little atmosphere. It’s worth a visit for trips to the surrounding countryside, as well as air fresher than you may have experienced elsewhere in China. There are plenty of hotels in town, and eating is a treat if you love Russian food. Those staying the night may care to visit the great Dalai Lake (达赉湖, dálài hú; Hulun Nur in Mongolian), a shallow expanse of water set in marshy grazing country where flocks of swans, geese, cranes and other migratory birds come to nest. In June and July, the grasslands in this region are said to be the greenest in all Mongolia, and coming here may be the most rewarding – and least expensive – way to see the region’s grasslands. A taxi from town will cost from ¥250 round-trip.