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Off to China – On the train

Thu 27 Jun ’13 – day 47  I was up and down all night as I had the trots so very little sleep.

I awoke with a start at 05:30 hours, no alarm call, so up and to the toilet again.  Now it was coming out of both ends and I felt terrible.  I packed, showered, dressed and then drunk some water, but even though I have cleaned my teeth, my breath must smell terrible.

Down to reception at 06:10 hours, so not too late and the senior receptionist (a lady) said that all the room charges have been waived because of the bag fiasco and the hotel car would take me to the station.  So my missing suitcase has probably cost the hotel another 100000 tögrög.

We got to the station fairly quickly as there was little traffic about at this time of day and having unloaded my bags and tipped the driver, I took a photograph of the station and then went on to the platform just as the train was ready for boarding.

Unlike the daily train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, there were only two direct trains from UB to Beijing every week.  One is the Trans-Mongolian which would have come all the way from Moscow and the other is the one that I was catching, Train 24 which departs at every Thursday at 07:15 hours.  So this was one of the three critical points on the whole of my trip when missing the connection would have caused a major disruption to my plans; so on my excel planning spreadsheet (12 landscape pages long) the date was in bold, red and italics.  The next critical point is in just two days time when I am scheduled to leave Beijing on the Vostok bound for Ulan-Ude.

I had booked my place on the train through Real Russia and they had got their local agents to deliver my ticket to the hotel; good service as it saved me having to find their offices in UB.

The magnificent website Man in Seat 61 gives a number of alternative ways to cross the border, but these involved changing trains and / or crossing the border by bus, something that I did not want to do.

This train is run by the Chinese national railways and having gone the wrong way at first as the numbers were out of sequence, I found the correct carriage which was right at the front of the train.  I was in the carriage directly behind the loco’s and the first 5 carriages had Ulaanbaatar – Beijing plates in the side, but after the Chinese restaurant car (which I didn’t visit) the remainder of the carriages were sporting Moscow – Ulaanbaatar – Beijing plates; very strange as the train No 4 goes through UB on Sundays.

As this was one of the two weekly direct trains to Beijing there were crowds of people waiting to board; Mongolians going to a station somewhere down the line, a small number of Chinese heading home and crowds of tourists on their way to China and maybe beyond.  The carriage attendant checked my passport, including the visa, then the ticket and I was allowed to board.  I was the first one into my compartment and have a forward facing berth for once; I quickly got settled and changed, then the German party arrived.  There were four in the compartment forward of my and three in mine, a husband and wife plus a single gent who spoke pretty good English.

Introductions – the group is from all over Germany, Frank, the English speaking gent, is from Dusseldorf.  They met in Berlin, then flew to UB where they spent two days and were now travelling to China and would fly back to Frankfurt next Tuesday; so a very fast paced trip.

The lady and gent spoke no English but could understand the odd word.  She was pretty domineering, Helmut do this, Helmut do that and she had a large belly plus a hacking cough.

I looked out of the window as the train pulled out of UB and there were long queues of traffic at all the level crossing.  Just as in Russia a metal ramp raises by the level crossing to prevent vehicles jumping the lights.

As I was still feeling pretty rough I laid down and tried to sleep, but could only snooze as I was off to the toilet ever ½ hour or so.  It was a good job that I had brought a full toilet roll from the hotel as there was none on the train!!  Strangely the sink had a plug, the only one I had seen on any of the trains so far.

So I spent most of the day either on my berth snoozing, or in the loo.  I drank lots of water (bottled of course) to try and flush out my system

When we arrived in Choir I left the train to get some fresh air and buy more water and a large bottle of coke from a stall on the platform.  This was a bleak and dismal place that was once home to the largest Russian air base in Mongolia, but which was now derelict and has been stripped bare.  Outside the station was a statue of the first Mongolian to go into space – a local boy made good.

The sun was very bright and it’s hot, well over 35° C, so having got what I needed I got back onboard and laid down again.

Once we had set off again I managed to get up from my berth to take photos of the nothing that is the Gobi Desert, but was soon back horizontal and trying to sleep.

Every 50 Km or so along the track is a small settlement for the railway workers, but this must be a pretty bleak existence.

No air-con, but I found the switch for the fan, so on full blast.

It was on and on across the featureless nothing until we reached the Mongolian border town of Zamyn-Ude at 19:10 hours.  It was starting to get dark; however I was starting to feel much better having drunk lots of bottled water.  The Mongolian officials were quick and efficient again.  Immigration came and took the passports and departure cards away, then customs who asked for the berths to be raised and wanted to look in one of the couple’s large suitcases – no problem.  So after just 1½ hours we crossed the border where we went passed a large arch.

It was difficult to see what the area was like as by now it was completely dark and there were virtually no lights to be seen, but we were busy completing the Chinese Immigration and Customs forms.  Quite easy, but I had to help the lady as she was getting confused.  “What is nationality?” “German”, “Ah Deutsche”.

As we pulled into Erlian station martial music was playing and three officials in uniform were standing rigidly to attention exactly where the door to each carriage would open.  Once the train had halted announcements were made in Chinese, Mongolian and English, but it was difficult to hear what was being said as the lady was jabbering away to Helmut, probably complaining about something.  First up was the immigration lady who checked passport photos and visas, even though these had been thoroughly checked by the Chinese conductor in UB before we had been allowed to board the train, and she then left taking the passports with her.  The customs man just checked the currency forms, had a look under one of the berths, asked for one suitcase to be opened and then left.

I thought that I may have had trouble leaving Mongolia because of the great difference in my currency declaration compared to when I entered the country, so the hotel had written two letters, the first in Mongolian and the second in English saying that my suitcase had gone missing.  These should also suffice if I need to make an insurance claim.

I was also concerned about the attitude of the Chinese officials given my lack of local currency, but nothing was said.

With one group of officials to each carriage all the checks were quickly carried out and the train was then reversed into the bogie changing sheds, with the toilets locked and no one allowed to get off.

Although everyone was interested in the bogie changing operation, I had watched the reverse in Brest many days ago, so just laid on my bunk.

I had been to the toilet before we arrived at the border and advised the others in my compartment through the English speaking gent to do the same.  Other people in the carriage had not bothered and so were bursting by the time the train was reassembled and shunted back into the station.  I had even persuaded the others in the compartment to make their beds while the bogies were being changed.

By the time the passports were returned and we were allowed off the train the toilets had been shut for nearly 4 hours so there was a mad dash down the platform by many people.

It was now nearly midnight.