September 16th – September 17th, 2017
Immediately after finding our first class compartment in the Mongolian train number 4/24 heading for Beijing, it was clear that this was the nicest train so far. There were bunk beds, but these were wide and comfortable. There was a comfortable chair there, making a great place to write and observe the landscape outside. Unlike the other trains within Russia and the one going to Ulan Bator, this first class had a bathroom shared between two compartments. This bathroom was located between the two compartments, and both doors were locked when you used it. There was also a lock on the door inside the compartment to keep your neighbor out if needed. There was even a shower!
Our first 10 minute stop was in Choir, where there were a few Mongolian ladies selling snacks from shopping carts on the platform. The next stop was for 30 minutes in Sainshand in the Gobi desert, where there were many more snacks sellers. We had a few thousand tugrik left which we wanted to get rid of, so we did some shopping. This later turned out to be a mistake, as we hungrily discovered that the restaurant wagon only accepted tugrik, rubles and US dollars. They did not accept payment cards like the Russian trains did. We fortunately asked before ordering food, or maybe we would have been kicked out somewhere in the desert. The next 17 hours were spent rationing the cookies, chips and nuts we had left, while trying to curb the hunger with cold water, coffee and tea.
The Gobi desert was beautiful to watch through the train window. You would expect a desert to be Sahara-like with just sand as far as the eye can see, but it is mostly empty, grassy steppes, at least what’s seen from the train. We did see a few camels, though!
At about 19:00, we arrived at Zamiin-Üüd, the Mongolian side of the Mongolian-Chinese border. Our passports were soon collected by Mongolian border officers, in addition to Mongolian customs declaration forms, even though we were leaving the country. It took a few hours of nothing happening, and during this time our train attendant came knocking. She had understood that we were from Norway, and she practiced a few Norwegian sentences and words like Vær så god! (you’re welcome!), god helg! (have a nice weekend!), takk skal du ha! (thank you!). As her English wasn’t the best, we didn’t quite get why she knew this, but I believe she said that there had been Norwegians travelling with her before.
At about 21:00, Chinese border officers came asking a few questions, but they weren’t very interested in us. They collected customs declaration forms and passports, and took a few seconds to look at our baggage. At about 22:00, we got the passports back. Half an hour later, we drove into the train depot where we were to change the bogie of the train. Russia, Mongolia and many other old Soviet countries run on 1520 mm railway gauge, while pretty much the rest of the world runs on 1435 mm. This makes it necessary to change the bogie of the train when crossing the border.
A few years ago, you could leave the train and either watch the bogie change from outside, or hang out at the train station. Today, you are only allowed to stay on the train while it’s happening. We stayed in end of our wagon to watch the process. They disconnected every wagon, disconnected the bogie from the wagon and used a hydraulic lift to separate the two parts. Using a wire winch, they removed the old bogie and replaced it with a narrower one. It was quite interesting to watch, but there was a lot of waiting, even though they seemed to be fairly efficient. Even the train attendants helped the mechanics with this job, wearing helmets and reflective vests.
At 00:20, after a fair bit of the loud noises from re-assembling the train, we were done. The train backed out of the depot and to the station on the Chinese side of the border. We were finally allowed to leave the train, after waiting about five and a half hours in total. Our train attendant told us that we would depart after 20 minutes, so we shouldn’t go too far. We followed the crowd of people into the station, and then through the station and outside. It felt strange suddenly being in China, with every sign written in Chinese. Being quite hungry at this point, we were intrigued by the shops we saw across the street, but very nervous about being left behind at the station. We decided to check them out real quick. None of them unfortunately accepted payment cards; cash only.
We walked back to the station and towards the door we exited through, but weren’t allowed in by the guard. We had to use the main entrance, she said, while pointing towards it. At this point we were quite stressed as there were only 5-10 minutes until the train would depart. We ran towards the entrance and into the station. Being full of adrenaline but still quite tired, we didn’t understand why the doors to the platform were locked, and started slightly panicking. We could see the train through the windows, and imagined watching it leave without us. After talking to a person in the waiting area, we understood that they would open the doors soon, they just had to check the tickets of the passengers first.
Since we were tired, we didn’t at first understand that all these people in the station were passengers who would board the train from this station. By showing our passports, we were soon allowed in. As is a very wise idea, we carried our passports around everywhere. It turned out that the train didn’t depart until 40 minutes after we stopped at the station. I’m guessing that the train attendant told us 20 minutes just to make sure they didn’t leave without us. Although slightly hungry, we were happy to go to sleep.
The next morning, we woke up to beautiful Chinese countryside nature outside the train window.