Mongolia, 19 May 2005. Thomo must leave the country on or before 20 May 2005. Take the train to Erlian in China says the admin department. It is not expensive, you can see the countryside and there is a Mongolian consulate in Erlian where your visa can be upgraded to the correct type. Go on, take the train. “Make it the flight to Seoul” says Thomo. The Mongolian Embassy in Seoul will be efficient at handling these things and yes, it may be more expensive but it will likely be easier and quicker.
“Well, if you take the train to Erlian, Nara from legal department will be with you, she knows someone at the consulate and they will smooth the process. Besides, the train is cheap and quick and you’ll get to see a lot of the countryside”.
OK, so Thomo took the train. It departed from Ulaanbaatar at 20:10 on Thursday, 19 May 2005 and was due to arrive in Erlian in China late the next morning.
Before going further, I should mention that in Mongolia all central heating is turned off on 15 May and then turned back on again on 15 September each year, regardless of the weather. What follows is the saga of Thomo’s Train Journey (eat your heart out Michael Palin). I have added some photos as well to the Gallery in Thomo’s Hole
The very first thing to note about the train is that it is called the Mongolian Express. Now an Express train is a particular type of passenger train. Generally Express Trains travel between major terminals on railway networks and have priority so that they arrive at their destinations quickly. I figured it could not be so bad then as whilst Mongolia is single line working, an Express train should scoot past all those goods trains and locals being held in the passing loops. I think we have discovered a new meaning for the term “Express”.
19:40, 19 May 2005. The bank’s Landcrusier, driver and Nara are waiting in my car park (the same car park the thief of my books carried their ill-gotten gains away through). Thomo arrives with rucksack, PC, four days of clothes and dhobi gear. At 19:45 we arrive at Ulaanbaatar station, locate our carriage and our cabin in the carriage and meet our travelling companion, a nice Mongolian gentleman heading to Erlian on business. Thomo wanders off to take photos of the train for his father whilst Nara worries that Thomo may forget to get back on the train. Thomo gets back on the train about 8 minutes before departure and sits in the cabin. Utters the words “Nara …. I’m bored!”
20:10 19 May 2005. The train departs Ulaanbaatar station – starting so quietly and gently that we hardly notice the motion. Shortly after this the conductor arrives in our cabin, checks our tickets and issues us with the snack pack. The snack pack consists of a bread roll, a pastry and 10 slices of a Mongolian sausage/salami along with a bottle of water. There is no restaurant car on the train and the snack pack is to last us until we arrive at Erlian. Note for other travellers – eat first, board train and save snack pack for breakfast. The conductor brings hot tea. Another note for other travellers – it takes about 12 hours from Ulaanbaatar to Zamin Uud – get the picture? A further note, if you must travel that way, see if you can get yourself booked on the train that goes to Beijing – it at least has a restaurant car.
20:25 19 May 2005. We pass out of the edge of Ulaanbaatar and into the countryside. As there are hills and mountains aplenty around Ulaanbaatar, we progress at a stately 60 kilometres per hour or so. We chat and snack and watch the world move slowly past the carriage window.
Our travelling companion disappears with some railway management. Judging from the colour of his face on his return, he had a meeting with railway management that was based over a bottle of vodka or three. Meanwhile, back in the cabin, the upper bunk is lowered down and due to her being much younger than I, Nara took that bunk. The cabins have pillows, sheets and towels along with a blanket for each bed. The pillow cases and sheets are provided clean in a sealed bag. Berths made and our travelling companion returning, the three of us retire for the evening to the sound of the wheels clacking along.
02:25 20 May 2005. We are stopped at a siding. The line from Ulaanbaatar to Erlian (indeed, from the Russian border to the Chinese border) is single line all the way. There are therefore a number of passing sidings along the route of it. This also ensures that the slowest train sets the speed for all trains operating on that rail system. We were parked, waiting for a freight to pass in the opposite direction.
It was cold. So very, very cold. Remember that this is the 20th of May. On the 15th of May the central heating in Mongolia (even that in the train carriages) is switched off. By this time we are out of the mountains and parked on the edge of the big flat bit known as the Gobi Desert. It’s cold. I mean cold. We are inside a metal railway carriage with a single blanket and summery clothes and the outside temperature must have been around -10 Celsius. Even though it was quiet, the cold and quiet made it impossible to sleep. We stopped another couple of times between 02:25 and 07:00. At 07:00 I gave up on trying to sleep and gratefully accepted the hot tea from the conductor.
Mercifully Nara had bought coffee so we were able to get a caffeine hit to start the day (but we were still cold). Camels flashed passed (or rather, were passed at a stately speed).
08:00 20 May 2005. “Nara …. I’m bored!”
08:15 20 May 2005. We rolled into Zamin Uud on the Mongolian side of the border. The station looked nice, the weather looked warm and pleasant we got to sit in the carriage. Customs officials board and check our customs forms. Man wants to know where mine is. I don’t have one as I flew into Mongolia and you do not need to fill these forms out arriving by plane (there is more to this but it is towards the end of the tale). Then the immigration lady comes through – looking cute in her uniform – and stamps us out of the country. Well, all except those that were getting off at Zamin Uud – they were stuck on the train with us. We sat around for about and hour whilst all on the train were checked. Looking outside, the customs and immigration guys were all on the platform, chatting on mobile phones whilst the train just sat there. See the Gallery for pictures. Again, Thomo was reduced to noting “Nara …. I’m bored!”
09:15 20 May 2005. The train slowly rolls towards the border after letting off only those going to Zamin Uud. Train stops between Zamin Uud and Erlian and a young Chinese guy is escorted off into the tender mercies of the Mongolian Emigration/Immigration Authorities – the Border Patrol. The train stops again, just short of Erlian and waits. “Nara …. I’m bored!”
09:45 20 May 2005. Having taken 30 minutes to cover the last 5 kilometres or so, we arrive in Erlian Station and again, are sat on the train. This time we are waiting for the Chinese Immigration and Customs officials to do the same thing that the Mongolians did (hey guys, simple system, why not do it together at Zamin Uud or Erlian and take two hours off the train trip?). With much officiousness passports are checked, visas are checked, baggage storage areas are checked (in case the Seven Dwarves are making a break for it into China) and then we wait. Another hour passes (“Nara …. I’m bored!”) until we are allowed off the train. We then pass into the maelstrom that is the arrivals area at the station with half the Chinese there trying to hustle us onto a bus to Beijing and the other half trying to hustle us into taxis. Fortunately our man off the train helped here, getting us a taxi and giving him directions to the Mongolian Consulate.
Interlude 11:45 20 May 2005 to 13:15 21 May 2005. During this period we saw consulate staff, submitted forms and papers, ate innumerable Chinese lunches, dinners and breakfasts (OK, one of each then) and Thomo played a lot of Rome Total War. We spent a lot of time waiting near a phone so that Consulate staff could confirm meeting us for a meal only to have them cancel. The result of this period was that after lunch on 21 May 2005 my visa would be in my passport ready for collection at the consulate along with two train tickets to Ulaanbaatar.
13:15 21 May 2005. After a Korean lunch (I could not take any more authentic Chinese cuisine and none of the foreign chain restaurants have made Erlian yet) we cruised out to the consulate. Apart from being accosted by an exceedingly drunk Mongolian who had no idea of the planet he was on let alone anything else (“Nara, in future just say ‘Thomo hit’ and all will be well”), we proceeded to collect my passport and visa along with two train tickets. We caught a taxi back into town. At this point it is 13:45. Thomo has spectacles off and can see a blurry 13:45 on the train tickets. Asks Nara who replies “No, Everyone has said the train leaves at 18:00 … but perhaps we should check back at the hotel just in case. We got back to the hotel and checked. It was now 14:00 and the hotel basically said “on yer bikes”
14:00 21 May 2005. We headed to the railway station to catch a train that was supposed to have left 15 minutes earlier. When we arrived at Erlian station the area out the front where the previous maelstrom was, was now deserted. When we got into the station building itself it was bedlam with people trying to get passports and departure forms checked and stamped. We managed to get through all that, got out on to the platform and into the train by about 14:40. We found our cabin. There were two Chinese guys taking the other two berths and also taking up most of the rest of the space in the cabin with their luggage (including pots and pans). I wandered around the station, taking photos. Nara was somewhat fearful of me being arrested by the Chinese for photographing but hey, train spotters rarely get arrested for photographing trains anywhere.
16:15 21 May 2005. “Nara … I’m bored”. We were still sitting in Erlian station, passports now stamped and essentially locked into the train.
16:16 21 MAY 2005. Train starts the 5 kilometre run to Zamin Uud. By this time our carriage, totally full of Chinese with the exception of Nara, the conductor and yours truly, reeked of instant noodles, every flavour you could imagine. And it was loud in there. One of the Chinese guys in out cabin had passed his passport to a Chinese emigration official with folded paper inside. The passport came back without the folded paper inside. Still wonder what that was as no one else did the same. I also asked where all the Chinese were going. Apparently to Mongolia for working over the summer. Seems that there is a large influx of Chinese each year and a small outflow at the end of the summer – and this into a country where the minimum wage is officially set at about $35.00 US per month and where there is a fairly high unemployment rate. Ah well, ours is not to reason why.
16:40 21 May 2005. We are halfway to Zamin Uud. “Nara … I’m bored”.
17:15 21 May 2005. We have arrived in Zamin Uud. Who amongst you can walk 5 kilometres in 60 minutes? Yep! Most of you. Well so can the train. Now starts the two hours of sitting locked into the train and waiting for the Mongolian Immigration and customs folks to check us all out (including checking the small storage bins under the berths in case we were smuggling the Seven Dwarves back into Mongolia). I was informed that this check was actually for animals as there is a bigger market for pet animals in Mongolia now than there was before and there are apparently a number of Shitsu and Pekingese smuggled in from time to time. We sit at the station for two hours in the carriages. “Nara … I’m bored” “Ah, but now you are bored in Mongolia” says Nara and that is true. Strangely I felt more comfortable.
The customs man (not as cute as the woman on the way out) insisted that I complete a customs form. I ripped the corner off the form accidentally as I handed it to the customs man. I had to re-complete the form and hand the new one over (sheesh). One of the questions concerns the amount of currency being carried. I answered MNT 199,990 and USD 6.00. This had him confused and he asked if that was $600. No, $6 we say. We noted to the customs guy that I did not need to complete this form at the airport. he said that the rules were different between the train and the airport and that I need to hang on to the signed customs form as if I ever leave the country by rail again I will need to produce it. I will not need to produce it flying out.
It was about now as well that we discovered that the tickets provided thoughtfully by the consulate were, in fact, simply tickets to Zamin Uud and that tickets from there to Ulaanbaatar needed to be purchased separately from the Mongolian Railways staff.
19:15 21 May 2005. We get off the train. There is no restaurant car on the train and it is not due to leave Zamin Uud until 22:25 (its usual time). Apparently the Chinese, for whatever reason, wanted the train to leave Erlian early but because the Mongolian Railway System is fully utilised and single line working, there is no spare capacity to timetable the train a couple of hours early. We then had to wait an additional three hours. “Let’s get something to eat Nara!” “OK” says Nara.
We headed over to a building that said “Hotel Restaurant Pub” on its sign. 19:15 is the time. “We close the restaurant at 19:00” is the response. And folks they did. Train full of people, many looking for food and the restaurant closes at 7. There was another restaurant at the other end of the station where we ate her last two meals – a wonderful Mongolian Mutton Stew. We then sat around the station for a couple of hours watching the shunting operations on the trains, including ours as they increased the length of it.
21:30 21 May 2005. By this time of the night we are sitting on the platform reading as there is nothing much else to do in Zamin Uud. On the seat on the platform sits an old lady from Zamin Uud selling water, Nara, me and a Chinese guy from the train. Two girls come over and start talking to him in broken Chinese and broken English and Mongolian. Between Nara and myself we could determine the conversation. The girls were offering for one of them to travel to Ulaanbaatar with the Chinese guy and live with him for a week here, if he would provide transportation costs for that person to travel later to Beijing. There was a lot more discussion and a couple of phone calls made. Later, on the train, I saw the Chinese guy again and he noted that he had struck a deal with both girls and that both of them were coming to Ulaanbaatar. He had given them about $60 for two tickets and they were travelling up in car number 11. We were in Car 5. For the record, we never saw the girls when we alighted in Ulaanbaatar. I guess it needs to be borne in mind that $60 is about twice the minimum monthly wage in Mongolia.
22:25 21 May 2005. Right on time the train departs – heading back to Ulaanbaatar and civilisation. The carriage was full, not a free berth anywhere with all occupants Chinese except Nara and myself. More hot tea from the conductor who also rustled up a couple of snack packs for Nara and I (and we were very grateful for that around breakfast the next morning).
04:00 22 May 2005. Parked on a passing loop again. Waiting for a southbound freight and it is cold. Damned cold. Bloody cold. Colder than on the way down. Gave up with the sleep then and paced up and down to corridor for the warmth at least. The Conductor woke up, saw me and gave me tea.
08:00 22 May 2005. Looking out the window of the train I noticed an increase in the number of plastic bags blowing across the countryside. “Nara, we are getting near to Ulaanbaatar” says Thomo. “How can you tell?” asks Nara. “Simple,” says Thomo, “the number of plastic bags blowing across the countryside is increasing.”
10:00 22 may 2005. “Nara … I’m bored!” “Ah, but now you are bored in Ulaanbaatar!” We arrived, alighted from the train found the driver, did not find the Chinese guy’s soon to be companions, walked to the car and waited. It was Election Day and the car was parked in. Eventually we extract the car and I am dropped back off to my apartment.
What possibly could be the perfect finish to this trip? I entered the apartment building to find that the lift (elevator) was not working and I therefore had to carry my bag up to the 11th floor of the building. Arghhh!
“Nara … thanks for the company … and I am no longer bored!”