Transsiberian Part 12 - Mongolian Border with China
Our train from Ulan Bataar leaves around 7:15 am, so another early start for us. It's cold in the morning - below zero in fact - but soon, it will be blazing hot. That's the thing with Mongolia. It's a place of extremes. Despite getting to the station on time, our train hasn't pulled in yet. This one has come all the way from Beijing to Moscow, and is now making it's way back again along the same route, so it probably had delays at the border.
The train is made up of Chinese cars, complete with their Red Star livery. We have the top of the line cabin, which consists of two bunks on one side of the cabin, with an armchair and, get this, a shared shower on the other side! Incredible! Or at least it would be if the tank in the hallway, feeding our shower, wasn't leaking everywhere. There is a real musty, stale smell that only seems to get worse as the trip goes on. No shared shower for us sadly. Nevertheless, the cabin is fairly plush, with dark, wood effect paneling, carpets and the like. Very swish.
The train winds it's way out of Ulan Bataar and through the city which fades away pretty quickly. Most of the land out here is scrub, with some grass and patches of muddy snow here and there. You can see the Gers (yurt huts) punctuating the scene. Quite often, there will be some land surrounded by a fence and within it, a Ger with a satellite dish attached! It's quite weird to see. Half nomadic, half stationary but somehow, all Mongolian. Quite a few have improvised porches instead of just the normal front door.
Soon, we end up in the middle of the Gobi desert - one of these mythical places. Definitely no snow here and the carriage begins to get incredibly hot and sticky, mostly because of the sunlight hitting it. Outside it's not incredibly hot but the place does seem very dry. It's all scrub-land with just a few bushes here and there. We spot camels wandering around, horses and cows being herded and the occasional Ger. At one point, we see a massive arch, flanked by concrete camels, in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. We pass through only a few small towns. One of which is very proud as it has a statue to the first Mongolian cosmonaut in it! We manage to catch a glimpse of this from the train.
We decide it's time to try the dining car and we are quite impressed! It's decked out with carved wood, bows and arrows, paintings of horses and all the rest. Mongolia is really quite proud of it's dining cars we feel. The food I get is basically a sizzling hotplate of mutton and onions with a side dish of rice and carrots. I've had take-aways in the UK nowhere near this good! Katie fares a little worse sadly, with only an omelette being available. We return to the dining car later in the evening to have a couple of Mongolian beers, only to find out there is no food available. Turns out we are closer to the border with China than we thought, so we hurry back to our cabin.
It's pretty dark by the time we arrive. The platform is lined with serious looking Mongolians, who salute the train as it pulls in. The Mongolian authorities are quick and the customs checking only takes an hour or so, though we are treated to a sniffer dog. We are then on our way to Erlian, the Chinese border town not far away. As we pull in, the platform is lined with official looking staff. The station building has lights around the top which change colour (typical China). Customs inspection and passport checking is brief and pleasant but the cabin is beginning to get to me. It's hot, stuffy and I'm really tired. Sleeping on a Mongolian section of track is nearly impossible (as we found out on our way in from Russia) and the lack of sleep is getting to me. Nevertheless, Katie and I stay on board to watch the bogie changing!
The whole train is shuffled into a shed. It's split into about 4 sections, and then lined up with some heavy duty jacks. We watch as the carriage opposite us is lifted into the air and a new bogie is wheeled in underneath. China's gauge is standard, compared with Russia's, which is a bit wider. Once this is done, our train goes back to the platform. The passengers who opted to stay in the station return and we get a quick breather on the platform. We are treated to some canned, classical-sounding music playing over the station speakers in that oh-so-cute Asian way. It's a little surreal, as far as my first steps ever into mainland China go.
Despite the problems with the Carriage, we get quite a good night's sleep! The cabin is dark, the rails smooth and the engine seems quieter. Thankfully, we've been given vouchers for breakfast and lunch so we don't need to worry about not having any Yuan just yet. The Chinese car is basically a nice looking cafe. There is no ostentation like the Mongolian car, and no dingy, wood paneled or pleather seats like the Russian car. It's pretty clean and functional the breakfast is a quite passable boiled egg, bread and jam, with green tea.
We catch our first glimpse of the Chinese countryside. Some looks like the desert we just left and some looks like back home - ploughed fields and rolling hills. I suspect this won't last, the closer we get to our next destination - Beijing! This train represents the last step of the classic Trans-Mongolian, Trans-Siberian routes, but it is not the last train on our journey to the East.