36 hours, 1 boarder, 2 countries

Trip Start Jul 11, 2005
Trip End Apr 04, 2006

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

I am going away with him to an unknown country where I shall have no past and no name, and where I shall be born again with a new face and an untried heart

- Colette

Chinese/Mongolian boarder.
Prague time +7hrs
Days to get to Prague - 22

Life on the rails
I don't normally write a Travelogue entry to highlight journey, but the one from Hohhot in China to Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia was a bit special. It turned out to be my first time spending 2 consecutive nights on a train, and it took me through a part of the world I had always wanted to see and had unsuccessfully attempted to get to a few years back. I understand in the coming weeks when we're heading across Russia that we'll be spending longer periods on trains, but for those two aforementioned reasons alone I'm creating this Travelogue entry. Stick with me here folks, or at least humour me.

Unknown Arrival
We thought we'd be hopping on the train in Hohhot and about 30 hours later we'd arrive in Ulaan Baatar. Simple, right? Although we inquired when buying our tickets in Hohhot we were unable to get a definite answer as to how long the trip would be. And now we know why. We, ominously, left Hohhot at 11pm, almost an hour late. Amid the confusion on the Mongolian train as to what carriage we should be in (seemingly tickets we had in hand and their printed text showing such details are mere souvenirs) we were finally shoved into an empty 4-berth compartment by the gruff Mongolian carriage attendant who seemed rather ruffled that he had to deal with us. We quickly realised the few words of Chinese we had were no good to us here and for a split second I remember missing China.... the comforts of familiarity, however obscure, make travel easier. That was our first introduction to Mongolia. That and the doggy carpets and blankets that tried ever so hard to spruce up our compartment. If someone had told us the blankets were used by none other than Genghis Khan himself we'd have believed them. As it turned out the compartment, blankets and the train itself were very comfortable. Plus we had the 4-berth compartment to ourselves as no one attempted to join us. Score. The lack of fellow travellers this time of year means this really is the best time to travel, assuming you can handle the cold.

We awoke the next morning to the hollow sound of mechanics at work. We were parked in a huge shed in Erlian, the Chinese town on the Chinese-Mongolian boarder. It is here all trains heading into Mongolia have to have their wheels, or bogies, changed. The Mongolians and Chinese use different railway gauges (something to do with the Russians having built the Mongolian railway) and thus the bogies need to be changed on all trains passing from one country to another in either direction. It really was a sight; huge cranes lifting wheel the train and the wheel assemblies into place. Boys will be boys so that kept us and our cameras busy for a while. The whole process took about 2 hours but soon after we were sitting on the train having rolled into Erlian station a few kilometres from the pit-stop shed.

We'll never leave China
And thus began the waiting, something we've got quite accustomed to over the past couple of weeks. Having rolled into Erlian station and 11 in the morning (after spending the previous 2 hours in a shed having our wheels changed) we were still there at 5 that evening. For what reason we don't know. We ventured off the train earlier in the day to have a look around what was a thoroughly uninspiring, not to mention freezing, town. Before leaving the train we made sure to ask what time the train was leaving the station and we assumed the carriage attendant understood our question when she replied by raising 2 fingers. Right, 2 o'clock. We made sure we were back on-board well before 2pm but we were still sitting on the train, and it still sitting in the station, come 5pm.We spent the afternoon in our carriage wondering when we were going to move, if at all. We dared not get off the train again, just in case. When we did eventually move (at 6pm) it was to travel a few kilometres down the track, crossing over into Mongolia as we went. Then the waiting continued. After the surly Mongolian immigration officials had finished their deeds on the train we had another 3 hours to kill as the train wasn't leaving for Ulaan Baatar until 10pm. This we were able to determine with some certainty because I had a Mongolian guidebook with me and in it had the phrase 'What time does the train leave?' written in Mongolian. We'd only just entered the country and the guidebook had come in handy. How an equivalent one was missed in China.

Korean beer. In Mongolia
That night, in the freezing cold, we had our first look at Mongolia. Putting on our usual layers of clothing we left the train. We were in Zamyn-Uud, the Mongolian town on the Mongolian-Chinese boarder. On the poorly light streets that night I got my first look at a Mongolian Ger, a traditional felt tent most Mongolians live in (more on Ger's and all things Mongolian in the following Ulaan Baatar entry). We also noticed the Mongolian fondness with all things Korean. The shop near the train station was full of Cass, Hite and OB, all Korean beers. It was a strange, but somewhat comforting, sight seeing Korean beer in a Mongolian boarder town shop. We loved Mongolia already. In the 30-40 minutes we spent off the train we were twice stopped by supposed 'officials' wanting to check our "papers" (passport). I guess even on the low lit streets of a Mongolia boarder town us foreigners still stand out from the crowd. The checking of our passports was a pointless exercise in our view. If our papers were not in order we wouldn't have been able to get into the country in the first place. But I guess as it was a boarder town that the officials might have assumed we were going in the opposite direction (leaving the country as appose to entering it) and thus we might have overshot our visa enabling them to fine us and make a quick few Togrog's (the Mongolian currency).

Having failed in our attempt to buy a few beers with US dollars (we had no Mongolian currency yet) we went back to the train, consumed the one Chinese beer we had chilling in a plastic bag hanging out the window of our carriage and went to bed. I was keen to get up with the early light to see the Gobi desert and the famous Mongolian grasslands as we passed through the countryside. I'll include any pictures I might take of that trip in the following entry from Ulaan Baatar, the Mongolian capital.
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