Day 24: China Railway from Moscow to Beijing (Trans-Siberian Day 6)

Another long day (to be awake) on the Trans-Mongolian begins when I woke up early at Ulan Bator. Many of the passengers from Moscow and Irkutsk alighted here as well, and plenty more boarded the train to continue on to Beijing. I’m one of the few nutcases remaining on board for the whole ride.

Welcome to Mongolia, where half of the 3 million population lives in Ulan Bator and the other half anywhere else in the vast landscape of the entire country. There’s some writing on a hill here, probably to indicate a position.

There’s a possibility of the population of cows exceeding humans here too.

Sparsely-located yurts can be found unpredictably from the train. No use pointing out their location as the families move around almost daily.

Time for breakfast in the very elaborately-decorated Mongolian restaurant car.

Most of the passengers probably had their breakfast in Ulan Bator already, so the restaurant car was empty during breakfast.

Fried rice for breakfast, because it was one of the cheapest items on the menu. The Mongolian restaurant car is probably the most expensive among all my train rides so far, and I needed to ration my remaining Rubles. Thankfully, they accept a variety of currencies including Russian Rubles, Chinese Yuan, US Dollars and Euros, so I didn’t need to change any Mongolian Tugrik for this leg.

Some green in the Gobi Desert.

A house in the middle of nowhere.

A Mongolian riding his horse.

Starting to get a little brown and desert-y.

Mongolia wouldn’t be complete without some camels in the desert.

If you have been on the Trans-Siberian, and wondering why I could get my window open for such a long time, the conductor said it was because it probably rained in the morning, so the sand wasn’t flying into the coach.

My compartment had the gaps in the window stuffed with tissues and shredded towels, and some sand still remained in the compartment when I boarded the train in Moscow.

The attendant kindly removed some of the tissues in the windows along the corridor to get the windows open. He also said it was one of the few times he has actually seen rain in the Gobi Desert.

I ordered a “Traveller’s Beef” set in the Mongolian restaurant car for lunch. This hot plate set costs around S$18. And this isn’t the most expensive item on the menu. I can remember the price so well because it was the most expensive thing I’ve eaten on all the trains so far.

After lunch, it started raining again. It rained heavily twice in the Gobi Desert in one day. Where did the water even come from?

A house and an arch in the middle of the desert.

I wonder what the elaborate arch is for.

Stopping at Sain-Shanda station for around 20 minutes. It felt like was freezing thanks to the strong winds and prior rain, but because I was lazy to dig into my backpack for my jacket, I just walked out onto the platform in a T-shirt and jeans. With some attendants asking me if the freeze was the normal temperature in Singapore.

The exterior of the Mongolian restaurant car. It bears a similar livery to the Chinese coaches, although a little bit more pale.

More camels.

Since the electric heater wasn’t working fast enough, my conductor decided to fire up the coal heater to speed up the heating.

Beware of your hands here, don’t even try to touch any nearby metal railings because you won’t know the actual heat until it’s too late.

My conductor getting more coal. Glad he didn’t ask me to help him out for the full Trans-Siberian experience.

Mongolian immigration and customs formalities were carried out at Dzamynude (pronounced as zha-min-wu-de) uneventfully. It was less tense than the border of Russia, with smiles on the official’s faces. The doors on the train were all locked with some immigration officials patrolling the perimeter of the train though, but that was about as tense as it got.

After sunset, we departed Dzamynude and entered Erlian in China. Less than 24 hours in Mongolia for me and the train.

You’ll know that you’re in China when you pass under the huge arch, called the 二连国门, or directly translated, Erlian Country Door. It’s a symbolic border which is just slightly after the actual border, marked by a shorter milestone.

Thanks to my conductor who asked me to stand at the window for the whole journey across the border though, you would miss the shot if you were sitting in your compartment as the train will pass under it at speed in the darkness.

Arrived at Erlian for Chinese immigration and customs. Despite the arrival and departure halls clearly visible from the train, the procedure was conducted on board. Great for us passengers.

The border felt similar to Mongolia, though I was the only one being interviewed by the customs officer about my travels, probably because I speak Chinese. And by interview, I mean just talking about Singapore and my journey from London back to Singapore, and if I have visited China before.

During this time, my conductor hands out meal tickets for the Chinese restaurant car for tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch. The meals are included for passengers, and he tells me that as a staff, he has to pay for it. What?

After that, he tells me to explain the meal tickets to the other compartments.

Also, as you might notice, breakfast is served from 6.30am to 7.00am, and lunch is served at a very logical 9.00am to 10.00am.

We were then shunted into one of the sheds at Erlian to have our bogies changed to standard gauge.

Individual coaches will be shunted and decoupled at its own position without brakes. So if you’re standing and taking photos and you’re not used to it, hold on tight!

My coach being positioned at a pair of jacks.

The other set of coaches commence their change of bogies first. As you can see, a train of standard gauge bogies are pulled from one end…

… pushing the Russian gauge ones away…

… and the standard gauge bogies are decoupled into position…

… drifting and locked into place. The whole replacement of bogie process on the track took less than 3 minutes.

Engineers taking a manual check for each individual bogie before locking it into place despite the automation.

Here, you can see the rails for the standard gauge bogies, and the additional groove at the left side for the wider Russian gauge bogie.

Back at the station with new bogies, we are free to finally use the toilet and to head upstairs to the minimart if we wanted to buy something.

The toilets and immigration counters are located on the ground floor, with the minimart and a waiting area of sorts upstairs, probably for frequent border-crossing trains to Mongolia.

The minimart at Erlian station. It has two trolleys over there in case you get tired of walking down the 3 short aisles.

On top of typical minimart items, you can get fresh fruits and vegetables, and also vacuum-packed corn, chicken drumsticks, hard-boiled eggs, duck feet, and other Chinese-y stuff.

I just stuck to my milk tea for the night. It was already past midnight.

The platform played .midi files of songs throughout, but I managed to head to sleep while the train is still at the station, ready to wake up early for the free breakfast the next day.

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