Saturday, June 20: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
6:45 Four of us say goodbye to Rachel and Neill and get in cab for the train station.
8:00 The train leaves right on time. I’m sharing a 4-berth cabin with Renee (who was on the Dragoman trip) and a nice couple from Holland – Jasper and Sue – who are traveling between Moscow and Beijing. They are very pleasant and spending 30 hours with them will be a joy.
8:18 The train has been moving for all of 5 minutes before a bearded hipster pukes in hallway just outside our cabin. His girlfriend is apologetic and attempts to clean up. She just makes things worse and the matron who tends to this car is not impressed.
11:07 I have my first nap.
14:10. I have my first drink.
16:00 We fill out customs and immigration forms for Mongolia AND China. I thought this was hard to do on a plane but it’s even harder on a train. The boxes on the form are so small that it takes about 15 minutes per form.
16:58 I head back to the restaurant car and order a beer. The waitress strongly suggests that I buy food. I’m not hungry so I point to a photo of mushroom soup. She points to five different dishes that consist of meat, cheese and gravy. I point to soup. No! She jabs her finger at a photo of meat and cheese. I end up with a piece of tenderised shoe leather (schnitzel?) under a thick layer of melted processed cheese.
19:20 I plug into a wall outlet and start to write my account of the last week. The waitress rushes over and says, “Twenty minutes. Out.” I assume she’s rationing electricity.
19:40 She’s baaassck. This time she makes it clear that I must leave. Not soon but NOW! It’s not worth arguing about so I head back to my cabin.
19:42 I see that we are approaching the Mongolia/China border and now realise why I had to leave the dining car. Customs and Immigration officials will soon board the train and we must be in our cabins when they come around.
20:10 A stern Mongolian official takes my passport.
20:25 We’re moving again.
20:30 Now we’re stopped. A woman comes around to say “toilet open.” Apparently they had been closed for the last 50 minutes while we were stopped on the track. They will soon close again for the duration of our stay at customs so if you think you’ll need a toilet in the next 4-10 hours, you are advised to go now.
21:20 My passport is returned by the Mongolian official.
21:40 We turn the clocks back one hour. It’s now 20:40 on “Beijing Time.”
20:44 We’re in no man’s land, a narrow strip of land halfway between Zamin-udd (Mongolia) and Erlian (China).
20:50 We know we have crossed into China as fireworks begin to erupt along the tracks. This is the government’s way of welcoming you to the country. A few minutes later about 50 very serious looking officials board the train and take up to three hours to check passports not once but two or three times.
21:10 Passport inspection #1
21:14 Passport inspection #2. This guy collects the passports and leaves, no explanation provided.
21:16 A third agent comes around to check for stowaways. She doesn’t enter the cabin but asks that we open the storage locker below the seats. There’s a space above the door that would hold a child or small adult but she doesn’t check it. I suspect that these inspections are all about the show as we could easily have transported anything in the four backpacks that have gone unchecked.
21:39 Violent banging and lurching begins. Train crews will separate each car from its undercartiage and install the narrow gauge wheels that fit the Chinese tracks. This is such a complicated procedure that one wonders why they don’t operate two trains that begin and end at the border. Moving passengers from one train to another would only take a few minutes whereas the physical conversion to narrow gauge wheels takes about five hours.
22:15 My passport is returned
22:20 I open the package of fresh bed linen that has been provided and find this note: “Please use the bedding truly. Please pay attention to make the related payments in case of unfast spots, tearing and lasing. Have a nice journey.”
22:30 There won’t be much sleep tonight. The train lurches back and forth every few minutes. Welcome to the People’s Republic of China.