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.

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Mongolian Restaurant Cars

Mongolian Railways Restaurant Car
Mongolian Railways Restaurant Car

The train journey back from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar was, in many respects, better and more interesting than the journey down (we do, after all, drop from 1316 metres about sea level at Ulaanbaatar to 55 metres about sea level in Beijing).

We got to see the Great Wall of China a third time as the train passed through it. The compartments we were travelling in were a whole lot nicer (well, they were deluxe after all). We got to rock across the Chinese countryside again (and to rock I would suggest a 1 gigabyte MP3 player as there is a lot of countryside to rock across).

However, probably the most interesting thing (well, apart from the Mongolian Immigration folks at Zamin-uud disappearing with my passport for what seemed an eternity), occurred at Erlian. When the bogies were changed on all the carriages from the Chinese Standard Gauge (4 foot, 8 and a half inches between the rails) to the Mongolian Russian Gauge (5 foot between the rails), the restaurant car was also changed.

Gone was the Chinese Railways Restaurant Car, with its sweet and sour pork, with the funny beef dish and so on. Gone was the “greasy spoon” appearance of the car (I swear there was Formica on the tables under the dirty tablecloths). Gone was the Restaurant Car. Replacing it was a Mongolian Railways Restaurant Car.

What a difference the car made. The Chinese menu changed to Mongolian foods. The car was clean but most impressive of all was the decoration. I cannot find the words to describe this. Best I just let the picture speak for this one – click on it for a larger view.

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.

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!