Travelling south through the Gobi and into China
17.07.2011 - 17.07.2011 28 °C
Trans-Manchurian Express, China
Arriving early at Ulaanbaatar station for our 0715 train to Beijing we had taken one of the capital’s ubiquitous private car taxis. With ‘proper’ taxis in short supply most private cars can be flagged down and used as impromptu taxis for very little cost. Our older driver obviously did not like to rush, as we ‘sped’ to the station whilst other road users flashed by.
Migrating from a Russian to a Chinese train, for the first time, the layout is similar although the cleanliness is a number of standards lower. However, the pleasant Dutch couple we would be sharing our compartment with quickly addressed this negative with their antiseptic wipes. Positively, our carriage attendant spoke English and for the first time ever smiled when we boarded!
Passing through the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar a simple but leisurely breakfast was soon spent watching yet more grassy Steppes roll by. At one point we passed a small downhill ski resort. As is always the case out of season the stationary share lifts and green slopes looked a little sad and out of place. Trees eventually disappeared and the landscape became a 180-degree panorama of steppe, the only interruptions being grazing horses and the occasional Ger.
Unlike, the Russian trains the presumably Mongolian driver of the train had not learnt the necessary art of gentle breaking and acceleration for we rocked and jerked for much of our journey across Mongolia. Periodically, we passed or stopped at sad, remote towns. None presented an appealing stop off on our way to China.
By early afternoon we had reached the Gobi desert. Yet, with unseasonal rains this flat, arid and sparsely populated desert was also slightly green. A few sand dunes confirmed that this was the Gobi but it was not that of the romantic imagination. A beer in the Mongolian dining car allowed us the opportunity to barter for the cost of our drinks, with the Dutch couple we had been travelling with earlier reducing their bill from $25 USD to closer to $10 USD. However, with no prices on the picture based menu who knew what the ‘real’ price of drinks and food might be. With nothing making much appeal on the Mongolian menu we retired to our compartment for a simple supper and a little light reading.
By late evening we were at the border with China. Due to delays earlier in the journey we were slightly late arriving at the border; a first throughout our cross continent rail journey. We assume because of this, for no English communication was given, free breakfast and lunch vouchers for the following day, were distributed. However, as we made up time at the border this seemed more than generous and amazingly customer service orientated for the Chinese.
Arriving at the border station of Zamyn Üüd Mongolian immigration and customs formalities were soon processed and relatively quickly we were on our way to China. A similar process occurred at the Chinese border. One exception being the diversion of the entire train to the engine shed for a change in carriage bogeys (or wheels!). Chinese bogeys are wider than their Mongolian/Russian counterparts. This was introduced specifically to make invasion of the country harder, at a time when rail transportation was more widely utilized. So it was due to this historical quirk that we found ourselves, late at night, in a Chinese engine shed elevated some five feet in the air whilst the pins securing our Russian bogeys were removed and new Chinese bogeys brought in and secured. With ten carriages to adapt, most of which occurred simultaneously, the whole process took no more than 45 minutes. Despite the lateness of the hour our entire carriage, of mainly European tourists watched, filmed and photographed the entire process avidly, including ourselves.
Returning to the platform we were allowed thirty minutes to stretch our legs before we left Erlian station bound for Beijing.
Falling asleep in what was a hard but surprisingly comfortable bunk bed one can only surmise that either our driver changed, the new bogeys had some form of suspension or (as I suspect) the track was just better laid in China, for our sleep was deep and unbroken. When we awoke we would be deep inside China, fast approaching Beijing.