By Rail – Moscow to Beijing

Legend Tours has a page on their website called “Train schedule in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)” which contains information about travelling by train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia.

One of the paragraphs of useful information for the traveller is the one shown below:

Customs & Immigration. There are major delays of three to six hours at both, the China-Mongolia and Russia-Mongolia borders. Often the trains cross the border during the middle of the night, when the alert Mongolian and Russian officials maintain the upper hand. The whole process is not difficult or a hassle – just annoying because they keep interrupting your sleep. Your passport will be taken for inspection and stamping.
During these stops, you can alight and wander around the station, which is just as well since the toilets on the train are locked during the whole inspection procedure.

Immigration Officials Wait At Zamin-uud, Mongolia
Zamin-uud Railway Station, Mongolia, with very cute Customs Officers

This is sort of understatement. Yes, the officialdom part is onerous and a couple of hours each side of the border are given up to much inspecting of documents, checking visas and so on.

In fact, when travelling across from the Mongolian side of the border to the Chinese side, all the Mongolian Immigration officers come through the train in Zamin-uud (and contrary to the article, you are encouraged to remain in the train). Everything is checked, papers and passport. The Mongolian border crossing at Zamin-uud is the only place I have ever been where a customs declaration has to be completed for departure (at the Chinggis Khaan airport in UB, customs forms are only required when arriving). What you should be aware of is that if you travel back INTO Mongolia through Zamin-uud, the Customs folks will want to see the form you completed when you were leaving.

Erlian Station, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China
Erlian Station, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, where the Customs officers are hidden and not cute

The train then crawls along for maybe 30 minutes or so to cover the 5 kilometres between Zamin-uud and Erlian. The Chinese Immigration folks then take the next 2 hours to check your entry papers. There is a detention area half way between Zamin-uud and Erlian and sometimes the train stops there and a young Chinese guy or two will be escorted off the train and into detention. Presumably their papers are not in order.

Of course, the trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar is the same, just the waits are reversed. Seems though that the trains tend to get to the border late at night (when travelling either way). The other thing not mentioned is that Chinese Railways run on Standard Gauge track (4 foot 8 1/2 inches between rails). Mongolian Railways run to Russian Gauge (5 foot between rails). So, at the border, apart from the immigration delays, there is a further delay of a couple of hours while the entire train undergoes a change of bogies. This entails jacking each carriage up and replacing the bogies underneath them. This is done with much bumping and banging whilst the passengers are all still in the train trying to sleep.

As mentioned, the toilets are locked but it is near impossible to get out of the carriage. Also, if it is winter, the temperature in the carriage falls as well. The combination of drinking beer before the border (or coffee) and cold temperature puts an unbelievable strain on one’s plumbing.

Indeed, my friend had saved a couple of plastic beer bottle precisely for this event. Out with the Swiss Army knife, quickly remove the top of the bottle and voila, instant relief.

The one thing that still has me frustrated about this whole process is that there is no reason why the Mongolian AND the Chinese Immigration staff could not check all the passengers at the same time. This would take at least 2 hours off the entire process and reduce the time to travel between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing to about 1 day 4 hours.

Train Trips – a Loooooooong Way to Beijing – China

We crawled across the border, from Zamin-uud in Mongolia to Erlian in the Chinese S.A.R. of Inner Mongolia. About 5 kilometres and it took about 30 minutes to travel it. We arrived in Erlian Station with the Chinese Immigration and Customs folks standing to attention. They entered the train and fairly efficiently went through each of the carriages, stamping us into the country and checking our customs forms.

Once the Immigration folks left the train, it was then backed up from Erlian Station and taken into a large carriage shed for a change in bogies. This is necessary because Mongolia uses the Russian Railway Guage of 5 feet between rails whilst China uses Standard Guage (4 foot 8 and a half inches between rails – only a three and a half inch difference but enough to ensure that each and every carriage is lifted, the Mongolian bogies removed and the Chinese ones added.

Irrespective of the being bounced around and the noise, I went to sleep.

We had arrived at Zamin-uud around 8 pm in the Thursday night. When I dropped off to sleep I can remember that the last time I checked my watch it was midnight.

I slept and the train rolled along through the night. And the train rolled quickly. Mongolia is all single track with lots of passing loops. China from the border is dual running – that is, one line northbound and one line southbound. It was, however, going to be another 15 hours or so before we got to Beijing.

We finally arrived in Beijing around 3:30 pm China time, so about 30 minutes or so late – not so bad given the length of the train journey.

It was an interesting rail journey and I am glad that I did it. I know that we will probably need to catch the train back to Ulaanbaatar but I am trying not to think about that at the moment. I am thinking that perhaps the next train trip may be Beijing to Kowloon (Hong Kong).

Train Trips – a Loooooooong Way to Beijing – Mongolia

I wanted to go to Beijing. Being “between engagements” again, I wanted an inexpensive way to go to Beijing. We decided, therefore, to catch the train.

Now, I have taken the train from Ulaanbaatar to Zamin-uud and on to Erlian in China once before see Travel, Visa’s and Related Matters for some of the details of that trip. Well, travelling to Beijing was really even more interesting.

We left Ulaanbaatar at 08:05 on Thursday morning UB time and arrived in Beijing at 15:30 the next day UB time. Loooooong time in train. There was a wind storm blowing across the Gobi Desert which means there was a dust storm, so everything in the carriage was covered in dust.

When you leave Ulaanbaatar, you are given a meal by the railways. Nothing to drink, just a meal. This was sausage, pasta and some vegetables as well as a bread roll. That was all the food given for a 30 hour trip. There is a water boiler in each carriage so if you take the trip, bring some pot noodles and packets of coffee (and a cup). Bread, salami and cheese is a good addition as well.

We arrived at Zamin-uud where Mongolian Immigration (Emigration) officers and Customs dealt with us. My first problem was that my Mongolian visa is in my old, cancelled passport so the Immigration Officer had to take my passports into the office to check them out with her boss. This caused some consternation as she had not returned after 40 minutes or so and it looked like we were getting ready to head into China (minus Thomo’s passport). She turned up with duly stamped passport about 2 minutes before the train moved.

The Customs officer was the next little trial. She asked me for my last Customs form. I did not have one. When you fly into Mongolia your customs form is taken at the airport. When you fly out, no problem. When you enter via train, your Customs form is returned to you. When you take the train out, you are supposed to return the form. Yes folks, two rules.

Still, after an hour or so all formalities were completed and we were on the way to China. Look for part 2 soon.

Ulaanbaatar Then and Now – Part 3

Scott Notes in 2000: Due to the length of my stay in UB the client was kind enough to show me some apartments that I might consider moving into. The first few were in so much disrepair that I was resigned to stay in the Hotel for the remainder of my time here.  However they eventually showed me one that I agreed to as it was more spacious than the hotel room, and was certainly a lot cleaner than the others I had seen. So I moved on Saturday.

Thomo Notes in 2005: There are many apartment buildings in many of the districts of Ulaanbaatar now. Some are old, having been build back in the Communist times, others are newer. In fact, the apartment I live in is on the 11th floor of a building and has been up for about 18 months now. Out my windows I can see many more apartment buildings being built. Ulaanbaatar still also has a large ger district, where the traditional homes (gers) are built. These are not connected to water and such – water having to be carried in from a water station. They do, however, provide a living area for those unable to afford a newer apartment.

Scott Notes in 2000: The apartment has a bedroom, a lounge, small kitchen, bathroom & toilet and costs AUD 650 per month. Today (Sunday) I am wondering if I made the right decision. The lounge is next to useless as the TV does not have cable. The bedroom is large and has plenty of space and a TV with cable. So I have set up my working area in the bedroom. The kitchen is OK, the stove hotplates & Fridge work. However the cupboards, cookware & utensil leave a lot to be desired. But at least I can now cook something and have a cold drink. The hot water isn’t working at the moment, found out late yesterday that the apartment block’s hot water system is under repair at the moment & should be fixed within next few days – great! Just hope it doesn’t break down when it starts to get cold. The electrical wiring is suspect as I have already had a few light jolts when turning a switch on/off.

Thomo Notes in 2005: No Hot Water? See A Shower, my Kingdom for a Shower in my blog. Ulaanbaatar has the largest Central Heating System in the world, with pretty much all the hot water used in Ulaanbaatar coming from central boilers that service many, many buildings. These boilers provide the hot water for both showering and washing as well as for central heating. An apartment can be rented in Ulaanbaatar for from US $200 a month to $2000 a month, depending on the quality that is needed. My two bedroom apartment, with furniture, in a building with a lift (two actually) that is left running 24×7, with security, costs US $750 per month  and the landlady pays every bill for the apartment except telephone usage. Electrical wiring still leaves a little to be desired in UB, with a combination of old electrical implementations along with power surges and blackouts causing some more problems. There is no standard power point plug in Mongolia with US, European and Australian (Chinese) plugs common. Powerboards that take all plug types are therefore common.

However, one positive thing is that the infrastructure is improving, slowly by slowly.

Scott Notes in 2000: The phone number is 555555 (country & area code is 9761) however if you wish to call me do so between the hours 9am to 10am or around 8:30 pm. I cannot give an office number as I am actually working at three different sites and, like everything else in UB, telephones are a scarce resource & expensive. An advisor to one of the Banks here told me that she came across a country branch manager who actually locked the telephone in the safe.

Thomo Notes in 2005: Indeed, there are no public phones in Mongolia either. There are small single phone operators. Since Scott has been here the phone system has improved. There are now two mobile phone operators and even Mongolia Telecom has been making some small improvement. Country code is still 976 and Ulaanbaatar phone numbers are prefixed with a 11 these days. There are also satellite phones connecting the remoter regions with Ulaanbaatar but the transmission delay whilst passing to and from the satellite is a little frustrating. A third mobile phone operator will commence business later this year.

Scott Notes in 2000: So far I have not had much time to look around UB or the surrounding country, something that I intend to do when I get a chance. However I shall only be able to do so on Sundays as it is a 6 day, 8:30 to 6 working day week. I did go to the supermarket yesterday to stock up the pantry & fridge in the apartment. Although the cost of living is suppose to be cheap here, the cost of supermarket goods are not. For example 1 small packet of Kellogs Just Right cost AUD 6.50. At the same time there is not very much variety of items to choose from. At least I could buy some cans of Heineken at a reasonable price.

Shop in Erlian, Inner Mongolia - click for closer look
A shop front in Erlian with its sign in 4 written scripts - old Mongolian, English, Chinese and Cyrillic

Thomo Notes in 2005: I have had lots of time to look around after six months here and that including all of the summer. Almost every weekend I went to the countryside with my favourite Mongolian family. I had to travel as well with work so I have visited 9 Aimags (provinces or states) of the country so far. Look in the Photo Section of this blog under the Mongolian Landscapes folder for some pictures. As far as supermarkets go, there are many “corner stores” in and around the apartments. They tend to be called supermarkets, along with the larger ones elsewhere. There are a couple in town that stock western produce as well so this position has changed over the years.

Scott Notes in 2000: That’s all from now from your man in Outer Mongolia.

Thomo Notes in 2005: And for those unaware, there is an Outer and an Inner Mongolia. Outer Mongolia is, indeed, Mongolia, where I am sitting at the moment. Inner Mongolia, where the native population is ethnically Mongolian, is in China and is one of those special regions the Chinese have a fondness for. I have visited Erlian in that region. One thing I can say positively for that region is that is maintains to some extent, the use of the old Mongolian script. Mongolia itself uses a Cyrillic script. See the picture at right of a shop sign from Erlian.

Train Travel, Visas and Related Matters

There will be a long tale updated to the Hole soon concerning Thomo’s Train Trip on the Mongolian Express to Erlian in China and back. 60 hours I was away from Ulaanbaatar and 30 of those hours were spent either in a train or on a station waiting for a train. Thrill a minute … not! Look out for it in the Hole. It’ll be under the title “Nara … I’m Bored!”

The reason for the train trip? My visa was not correct so I had to leave the country so that the government could formally invite me to return to the country to work here. Yep, I know but I had to leave the country to do it. Note: If you ever need to do this – do not listen to your office. Fly to Seoul instead! The article can be found under the title of “Nara … I’m Bored!“. Part Two is available as well!