We were up at 0545 this morning as we had to catch our train the Trans Mongolian Railway, and after a shower, some final packing walked out the room just after 0615. Check out was pretty painless, we handed over the key deposit receipt and they handed over our key deposit of¥100.
The train wasn’t very full which was a nice change and we caught it from Zhangzizhonglu station to Chongwenmen where we changed to line 2 (after a long walk between lines). Then it was only 1 stop to Beijing Railway station. I showed our tickets and passports at the ticket office and they were about to refuse Michele until I pointed out that it was a double ticket with both our passport numbers on the one ticket. From there it was smooth, backpacks onto scanners, past the personal searches, then a lovely lady pointed us in the direction of our waiting room. The train was boarding early which suited us so after a short while we boarded the train finding our carriage to be fairly empty and us being the only occupants of our cabin.
The decor was a little 1960’s with communist beige walls and green seats with bright blue seat covers. The bottom bunk which doubles as a seat was so hard we could’ve cracked fleas on it. We were thinking the floor might be softer.
Not long into the journey the conductor arrived in our cabin and issued two lunch and dinner vouchers which we were pretty pleased about. We double checked the timings on the lunch tickets and it said 1100-1130, ooopsie so we hurried off to the dining car about 5 carriages away. We were served a meal of pork, onion, and capsicum (although pork wasn’t the main ingredient because it was pretty scarce between us we only found 4small pieces) they served it with a plate of steamed celery, and a bowl of rice. Luckily Michele didn’t feel hungry so I ate hers as well.
The countryside was pretty mountainous and near Dandel we passed a section of the Great Wall before passing over it. It was pretty interesting going past some of the villages with piles of sticks, and stacks of cornstalks outside the compounds. The villages were really rustic with donkeys in the courtyards and lanes. Further along we passed a few bigger cities and past lots of frozen lakes and streams.
The conductor arrived with Chinese departure cards, Chinese customs declaration forms, Mongolian Entry cards and declaration forms. Michele breathed a huge sigh of relief as she’d lost her departure card somewhere in our travels.
Dinner was rice, steamed cabbage and two meatballs that Michele was convinced were the former inhabitants of some poor hapless creature’s scrotum. Luckily for her they were only pork.lol
We arrived at the border close to midnight. A Chinese border official boarded the train scrutinised our passports, checked our pictures against our faces, asked our full names. I haven’t been treated like that since I was a teenager trying to get into a nightclub. The weird thing was we were trying to leave the country.
At the border they change the wheels on the train. What the? yep they unhook all the carriages and hoist them up on hydraulic lifts unbolt the boggies and replace them with the boggies for the Mongolian gauge tracks. The whole process takes about three hours. We had a choice of staying on the train or going into the waiting room. We briefly danced around the platform whilst Richard Cladermans greatest hits blared out of the stations speakers (odd to be playing piano concertos at midnight, I’d hate to be their neighbours) We reboarded the train just before it started moving to the shed so Michele hit the sack and I watched the boggie changing operation. It was quite interesting.
The border officials re boarded the train, returned our passports and we were on our way again.
We’d been warned that the Mongolian Army hide along the edge of the railway track and sure enough Michele spotted one from the toilet window in his camouflage gear. The Mongolian officials boarded the train firstly to check our customs declaration, then the immigration officials who took our passports for processing. The soldiers then boarded the train and started searching the cabins. They were polite and did a quick search before moving on to the next cabin. (they didn’t find the hidden stash of vegemite as we’re much too krafty for that.)
Meanwhile the conductor was having all sorts of trouble with the boiler in the carriage. The boiler at the end of the carriage supplied boiling water via a hot point and heated the carriage. The only problem was that it was powered by coal, which he had to stoke, so the carriage always stunk of coal smoke. Sometimes when he got it all wrong (like when the customs officials were onboard) instead of pouring out the chimney the smoke would flood the passageway. We found this to be especially true when the train was stopped.
After clearing customs we immediately hit the sack. I awoke to the sounds of Michele oohing and aahing as the train passed camels. Not the dromedary camels with one hump we have in Australia but the Bactrian camels with two humps.
Looking out the window was like waking up on another planet. There was not a single tree to be seen on the rolling hills in any direction. We passed herds of horses, cattle, sheep and camels. We passed a few villages consisting of a few houses but mostly Gers. (round canvas houses with a chimney in the middle) and round the Gers were dogs. When visiting a Mongolian Ger a common greeting before entering is ” nok-hai kho-ri-o” which translates to “Can you hold your dog”.
Passing through the countryside there was not much industrialisation. Occasionally there’d be a small quarry or small scale coal mining. Occasionally we’d see shepherds out tending their flocks, horsemen checking their herds and hawkers hunting with Eagles.
Rolling into Ulaan Bataar the outlying suburbs were filled with Gers on small plots surrounded by wooden fences. It was amazing that people were living in Gers so close to the city. The centre of the city was a hive of activity with heaps of cranes working on high rises, which some of the Chinese guys on the train were probably coming to work on.
Apart from a few of the old communist era buildings Ulan Bataar could be any small city. It’s quite interesting contrasting the modern glass fronted buildings with the old dreary yellow buildings with green roofs.
We were greeted by Doljmaa her husband Bacha at the station and dodged the afternoon traffic jam arriving at the hostel not long after. The hostel was in an old Russian building built in 1960 and climbing the stairs it had and old rundown feeling about it. (It was awesome) The hostel is in two sections and we stayed in section two, which consisted of a number of dorms, doubles, a few toilets and showers and a large living area. There was a new kitchen and the furniture and floor coverings were all fairly new.
After dropping our gear in the room we went for a walk and were immediately accosted by a drunken beggar. One of the fall outs from the fall of communism in 1990 and the transition to a market economy is the rise in unemployment and alcoholism, although I’d think some of the problems were pre-existing conditions.
We wandered down to Sükhbaatar Square named after the 1921 “hero of the revolution” who declared independence from China. There’s also a statue of him on a horse. The square was also the location for protests against communism in 1990 including hunger strikes by students. At one end of the square is Parliament House with a grand marble front and a seated bronze statue of Chinggis Khan, who’s guarded by two famous soldiers Boruchu and Mukhlai. There’s two other seated statues, one of Ögedei Khan and Kublai Khan the two successors who ruled the Mongol empire.
It was quite late in the day so we just walked around looking at the different parts of the city. It was interesting seeing older Mongolians in beautifully coloured deels (silk coats) with a colourful sash tied around the waist and boots walking past young people dressed in jeans, leather jackets and high heeled boots. One thing which is also noticeable is the women dress quite smartly here unlike their Chinese neighbours who dress a bit tacky.
We then made our way to a French Bakery to have some late lunch early dinner, enjoying the best bread we have had since leaving Europe a couple of years ago.
Another walk and we found the State Department Store, filled with all manners of goodies including a supermarket which had the most amazing array of decorated cakes we have seen ever. We stocked up on some yogurt, butter and cheese (to go with the baguette from the bakery we got for breakfast) then headed home.