Crossing the Gobi Desert

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June 11th 2017
Published: March 27th 2019
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R: We left the hotel, bags stuffed with products from the Mongolian supermarket and a packed breakfast our hotel had insisted on giving us. A 15 minute walk along quiet roads brought us back to Ulaanbataar station. Our train was at 07:30. This time it was a Chinese train we were getting - the previous ones had been Russian - and this was the other train (of the 2 per week) that ran direct from Moscow to Beijing, so it had already been some way before it pulled in to Ulaanbataar.

The accommodation was very similar to before, but noticeably dirtier. The carriage attendants on this train (not called Provonitzas anymore) were surly looking men who spent most of their time standing at the back of the carriage smoking. There were no humorous night dress incidents, cozy chats about war films or an equivalent of the Russian Railways merchandise we were offered before. Oh, and no one hoovered our carriage at all. The horror! We were sharing our carriage this time, with Vera, a German Tax Inspector. We did get the carriage at the very back of the train, which made some good photos standing looking out at the track you had just come down. It wasn't quite the wild west experience of standing on a platform at the back of the train while latecomers chased after you, throwing their luggage while they tried to catch up to the train on food, but I liked to imagine it was.

We pulled out of Ulaanbataar (6306km from Moscow) and the land stayed fairly flat to start with - there were roaming herds of gazelles, cows, horses and camels which were all being tended to by nomads. The first big stop of the day was in Choir. The carriage attendants were less keen to let you out on Chinese trains, but with some persistence you could. We maintained our rule and Richard or I would stay on the train at any one time. On this occasion, while Richard was off the train with Vera, I spotted some old ladies walking down the platform with plastic cool boxes filled with what looked like hot dumplings. With only minutes before the train left I shouted to Richard and he began negotiating with the ladies for a set of dumplings. He managed to barter them down - but I'm pretty sure we were the only and last large train coming through today. He brought them back on board - this felt like something I had to do for the experience of it. I got them out and they were dripping in grease on the inside. Now, I am a fan of KFC, so grease isn't an obstacle for me. For Vera it proved too much. Inside the dumplings was Mutton, but quite filled with Gristle. I told myself I had to eat them and soldiered on. OK, so I liked them a bit, but they weren't that great really. And certainly not good for my health. Plus they made the compartment smell like sheep. But I was glad to have had them.

Now the scenery was really changing. We were in the Gobi Desert with sand dunes on all sides. The train snaked through the desert which was the only thing out here, except for camels. As the scenery stopped changing, Richard and I went to admire it in the buffet car. Bearing in mind we were now right at the back of the train, this was actually quite a long walk, through various carriages of 3rd class beds, 2nd class cabins, and proper 1st class like we hadn't seen before. These 1st class cabins had a 2 bed bunk bed on one side, a large wing backed type armchair on the other, and a little washroom that cut into the corner of the room. These were definitely filled with tourists. We could have done with one of these as the toilets on this train were also less frequently cleaned than on the Russian train. We stared at the scenery from the buffet car for some time, before heading back to our compartment briefly. Then it was time for dinner, such is the life of the train. Budget travellers would have brought more on board with them, by the way, but we were quite liking the slightly unusual experience of eating in the dining car each day - as they get swapped here and there when you cross borders. This one had a Mongolian dining car with a Mongolian crew running it. It was intricately designed in wood and iron and was really quite impressive for a train carriage. There was no Alexander, but the service was just as surly.

I had a great chicken and pineapple stir fry and then we headed back to turn in. It was when we got back to the compartment, that Richard realised he had lost his wallet. Quickly we headed back to the dining car (some 8 or so carriages along, all separated by numerous doors). It wasn't there (we were helped by other diners to look for it). We then headed back to the compartment, rather hurriedly. So hurriedly in fact that we managed to pull a door handle off a door dividing the carriages and were stuck on the loud connecting bridge between them. This obviously was not an ideal place to be so we stared banging on the door. Eventually, a carriage attendant rescued us, and we handed him the handle with a nod of "you better fix that, or someone could get hurt" before getting back to our compartment. Vera helped us turn it upside down and still nothing. By this point, both of us were thinking about how to deal with this situation, and what to do if we got thrown off the train. Then Richard sat down and put his hand on his pocket - and there was the wallet.

We got into the border station, Zamyn-üüd (7015km from Moscow, 842km to Beijing), pretty late in the evening. This border was promising to be more interesting. The Russians use different gauges (the distance between the rails on the tracks) to the Chinese, so all the carriages had to be lifted up, taken off their wheels, and replaced on new wheels. A process which was going to take hours. As soon as we arrived at the border, Mongolian authorities were on first, in what turned out to be a fairly straightforward repeat of what happened when we entered Mongolia. One strange oddity was the insistence on making us all stand up to have our picture compared with our face. No one was allowed to sit while this happened. We then headed across the border where all the staff were saluting as we entered the platform. We had heard they would play a fanfare for the trans-Siberian trains but this didn't seem to be the case today. The Chinese border guards looked us up and down then left us, concentrating on the traders who once again were on the train with large boxes of electrical goods and furs etc.

We still weren't allowed off the train which was getting awkward as the toilets were all closed and had been for some time. Being in the last carriage, we were the last to see any action so it felt like we had been sitting for some time. Eventually we got rolled between two hydraulic lifts. An army of workers appeared by the train, uncoupled the axles from the train, and the hydraulic lifts lifted us up. We couldn't actually see what they were doing to us (you weren't allowed to get off and watch) but could see it happening on another set of carriages across from us. They rolled all the axles out, and the new ones in behind and then coupled them up. This was all done by hand - the guys just pushed train chassis down the track by hand until it clicked into place, then dropped the carriage. The efficiency with with they took apart a train and put it back together was breathtaking - but then they are doing it for every train which crosses the border.

FINALLY we were allowed off the train into Erlian station on the Chinese border. Sadly it was closed, but we could go to the toilet. It was quite noticeably different from Mongolia - the station was lit up by bright gaudy neon signs and all the buildings were illuminated too. China was already looking pretty different to Mongolia.

Additional photos below
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28th March 2019
Crossing the Gobi Desert

Riding the rails makes us happy. Great photo.
28th March 2019
From the back of the train

28th March 2019

Love following along with you
We hope to do this trip in a couple of years.

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