March 31, 2013

Beijing Bound – Trans Mongolian almost at an end

My epic 3 week journey from St Petersburg in Russia through to Beijing is getting closer to the end.

That morning we were due to leave Ulaanbaatar at 6.30am and board the train for the last time and off for a 30hr trip to Beijing, 7 of which is spent at the border.
The train left just after 7am. We’d stocked up on food from the pretty ordinary supermarket the night before (supposedly it was a big one with lots of stuff, but had nothing actually useful to any of us). It’s always weird shopping in supermarkets where you can’t read the language. Most of the time you can get a rough idea from the pictures, but I did happen to get some bread rolls which turned out not to be bread rolls, but some kind of sweet cream bun. It didn’t go so well with the cheese slices (the only cheese I could find), but when I put some of the left over Russian jam on it, I was able to offer a makeshift devonshire tea to the guests on the train!

Grabbed a taxi that had “in-cab entertainment” (a tv screen in the back of the front seats for the back passengers!) to the train station and enjoyed some suprisingly traffic free streets. The streets around Ulaanbaatar were choked with traffic most of the time, even late at night.

in taxi entertainment on the way to the Ulaanbaatar train station

in taxi entertainment on the way to the Ulaanbaatar train station

So got on the train and found that it was a fairly modern one. We had some potential for in-train entertainment (there was a tv screen on every bed, but it never worked), it had a shower at the end of the carriage (but that was full of junk and didn’t work either), it had a sink with dish washing detergent where we could wash dishes and it had HOT water at the sink and toilets! WOW, that is a huge upgrade!

Complimentary cups and cup holders (which were to remain on the train when you left...)

Complimentary cups and cup holders (which were to remain on the train when you left…)

Traveled quite slowly through the rest of Mongolia – this train had a little info display at the end of each carriage which told us the altitude and how fast we were going. It was almost fascinating traveling slowly past the cities as you got to peek on “normal” life as people went about their daily lives, almost oblivious to the train passing so closely by. Cities in Mongolia were very few and far between though, the country is very sparsely populated (least densely populated country in the world). Scenery was still amazing through Mongolia – definitely a place where much more time could be spent.

Playing in the sand

Playing in the sand

We were running a bit late, but eventually made it to the Mongolian/Chinese border at Zamyn Uud/Erlian. The Mongolian border people were really friendly. They said hello and smiled. Guess they were happy we’d visited their little country. Train border crossing was interesting. They boarded our train, then took every passengers passport. We were the first compartment in the first carriage, so when they came back to deliver our passports (with another stamp, this time an exit one), the guard had a stack of passports as long as his arm. I presume they’d kept them all in order so they knew who to give them back to – ours were right anyway and I didn’t hear anybody else mention they’d got the wrong one. We even offered the Mongolian guards some of our food – but they politely declined. Guess they had a stack more passports to return…

You can just see the LONG queue of trucks to get into China at Zamyn Uud, must have stretched for at least 5kms

You can just see the LONG queue of trucks to get into China at Zamyn Uud, must have stretched for at least 5kms

After that, we were officially in no mans land. We couldn’t leave the train, not that it stopped anywhere anyway… and we slowly made our way a bit further on to where we were greeted by Chinese border officials.

We’d heard these guys were a bit more serious than the Mongol guards, but they did at least greet us. I guess if you walked into a compartment of people singing about being stuck in no mans land perhaps a good thing to do would be to say hello… glad they did. We stopped our singing and handed over our passports again. The guards collecting our passports left, but other guards were stationed in our carriage – in fact, just right outside our compartment. We were a bit careful about what we said for a while, just in case he decided to tell us off, or worse, throw us off the train, deny us entry to China etc… This is where it gets interesting.

Ever seen those movies where you have a train (or car, anything really), moving very quietly through the dead of the night, with guards on board, sweeping over a huge, dark area with spotlights? Anyway, that’s what happened next. The bogies on the train carriages needed to be changed, because Mongolia and Russia have a different guage (track width) to China. So with us still being in no mans land, it meant we stayed on the train to watch this happen. But to get to the shed where they changed it, we went through this huge railway yard with heaps of old carriages and empty bogies sitting in it. Every part of the yard was swept more than once with huge spotlights, looking for illegal immigrants trying to cross into China. It was like a scene from a war or movie or something. It was really eerie. Apparently carriages are normally searched for illegal immigrants as well. Because we were clearly tourists and therefore highly unlikely to be hiding illegal immigrants, they didn’t bother doing a thorough search, although as the guard came in at one point, he did do a pretty quick look round and up to see if there was anything (there is luggage storage above (plenty of room for a few people) and some below our seats – both out of direct line of sight.

So a run down of the bogie changing process: Undo the bogies, jack up the carriage, roll the new ones in, the old ones out, let down the carriage. Repeat for each carriage of a 16-17 carriage train. Thankfully the guard outside our compartment left at that point, probably a good thing, coz I’m sure he would’ve got a bit sick of watching over 36 people staring out the window as all this happened.

Changing bogies

Changing bogies

Finally – all done and off to China. Even though it took a while, I suspect that it took a whole lot less time than by road. The queue out of Mongolia at Zamyn Uud must have been at least 5kms long. Now our train picked up a bit of pace and we all went to sleep. The scenery coming into Beijing was totally different to that which was left behind in Mongolia. Perhaps not as spectacular as Mongolia, but it was good in it’s own way (until we got to the city). It just goes to show how far you can travel in a few hours to change from gentle rolling hills to high rocky mountains, clear skies to a smog filled polluted sky.



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