The Trans Mongolian route continues: After a couple of days in Ulan Bator, time to add some train-miles.
My last morning in Mongolia was an early one. My Airbnb host had arranged to drive me to the railway station, and to meet me at 6 am in the apartment. Early rise and shine! Another very cold October morning, with some snow in the streets. I was ready for the mild fall temperatures in Beijing.
All Aboard the Trans Mongolian
On platform 1, a green Mongolian train was already waiting, despite me being an hour early. But unlike my earlier boarding, the doors were still closed and no attendants were around. Turned out that this train would “only” go from Ulan Bator to Beijing, and that it did not come from Moscow before. So after a Russian train between Moscow and Irkutsk, a Chinese train between Irkutsk and Ulan Bator, I now could call myself a client of the Mongolian Railways.
A few minutes before the announced departure time, the train staff opened the door, and we could start installing our stuff. I found myself in a cabin with a German professor, who was on his way home in China.
Life aboard the Trans Mongolian Railway
The train left Ulan Bator and made its way towards the southern border via the Gobi Desert. The one thing that keeps on disturbing me, as it did on my tour in Mongolia, is the amount of litter everywhere. The culture of nomads moving their Gers and leaving the garbage behind is, in the age of plastic, a disaster.
Another day on the train that’s another day of instant soup. And another day of stops in stations where people are selling instant soup. I start counting down for the fresh Chinese food in Beijing. The one thing that I would recommend to travelers on the Trans Siberian trains and Trans Mongolian trains, is to research all the things you can do with hot water when it comes to food. On my next trip here, I’ll definitely change my strategy. The food in the restaurant of the train isn’t bad, but pretty expensive if compared to what it is and compared to what you’d pay anywhere in Mongolia for a comparable meal.
By 7 pm, about 12 hours after the train had left Ulaanbaatar, it reaches the border with China. As the night had set, it was a ride along spooky lit industrial fields. Exiting Mongolia went pretty smooth, in less than one and a half hours, the government agents had found that we could go ahead.
The seven dwarfs
The Chinese entrance required a lot more official visits to the train. A first official came door to door, asking where all came from. The next officer then asked for my passport and checked if it had a visa. A third Chinese public servant came to pick up the customs forms. The fourth uniform was to collect the passport and the arrival cards. After a while, a fifth person came to check the cabin for stowaway. The sixth person was from a quarantine service to check our fever. And a little later a seventh visitor came to return our passports. The train could now go-ahead to a hanger, where it would be fitted with new wheels…
Different rail width
The space between the rails in most of the world is different in Mongolia and Russia than it is in the rest of the world, including China. So when the train goes from the Mongolian system into the Chinese system, the wheels suddenly don’t fit. So the train is lifted with hydraulic systems, one wagon at a time. The wheels are removed, and new wheels are brought in place. The whole operation took several hours on our train. Since people are working beneath the train, no use of bathrooms. And without power, no lights either. Oh, and with the trains being shaken during these maneuvers, no chance of getting any sleep. So an ideal moment to meet the other people in the wagon that I hadn’t seen before.
After several hours, our train with the new shiny Chinese wheels was on its way to Beijing!
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Koen Blanquart is a strategy consultant, journalist, and author.
Wanderlust is one of his driving factors, and he shares his travels here on Boarding Today. Koen is also the skipper of SV Bagabonda, a sailing vessel making a slow circumvention of the globe..
Koen recently published a book on how to manage a remote team: The Suitcase Office.