Day 26: Ulaanbaatar - Erlian
Erlian Travel Blog› entry 29 of 34 › view all entries
Back on the train again, for the final stretch: 33 hours to Beijing.
It was at the train station where we had our first and only negative experience in Mongolia. When we arrived at the station there were two porters came up to us offering to carry our bags on a trolley cart. Since we had a few euros worth of cash left, which we wouldn't be able to spend or exchange in China, we figured we'd might as well take them up on the offer to wheel our bags to the train. A good decision it seemed, as our carriage was the farthest back.
Once in our carriage however - you guessed it - it turned out this wasn't such a good idea after all. We thanked the porters, handed them the wad of Mongolian cash we had left and started to organise our stuff.
Are you out of your frigging minds? 10 bucks? a piece? I wouldn't even pay that much to a porter in a 5-star hotel! The men were making quite a ruckus, so several people came to see what the fuss was all about. The lady from the tourist agency who had arranged our train tickets, the railway attendant, a Mongolian lady who we shared our compartment with.
In the end we just ignored them completely and minded our own business. Eventually the railway security was called in to remove these men from the train.
I felt really awkward after this experience. After two weeks of nothing but highlights this experience came as somewhat a shock. All the more because I did feel somewhat sorry for them, but also because I felt like some sort of cheap bastard for not wanting to pay more money. Fortunately the lady who shared our compartment assured us that they were definitely in our right by refusing to pay the outrageous amount. However, the French tourists in the compartment next to ours kept giving us strange looks though.
Of the three trains we had taken so far this was by far the most beautiful. As if Mongolia needs to make a point towards China and Russia the Mongolian trains of the Trans-Mongolian Railway have hyper-modern carriages. Super clean, airconditioned, equipped with showers and each individual berth has a TV.
The whole train was divided according to nationality, it seemed. We were in the last carriage, so we had quite a long walk to the (excellent) restaurant carriage.
The view wasn't very exciting either. The train ran through the Eastern Gobi desert, an area characterised by its bleakness and flatness and ugly Soviet era mines.
The Mongolian and Russian trains run on a wider gauge than the rest of the world. The reasoning behind this was that if there would be an attack on Russia enemy trains would not be able to cross into the country. Unfortunately, the same goes for passenger trains during peace time, so at the Erlian border crossing the train had to change to the standard gauge.
Now to describe what exactly had to be done here at the border crossing. There is a huge customs and immigrations building right at the station. A few hundred people's passports and bags have to be checked, there are many tracks running everywhere, both standard and broad gauge and there are several trains at the shunting yard. Now how would you imagine the Chinese would deal with this?
Exactly! But that is precisely how they don't!
No, rather than offloading everybody from the train, ushering them through immigration and customs and putting them on a Chinese train to continue, the officials instead come aboard the trains to take everybody's passports. Then the trains are locked, the toilets are locked, and the whole train drives about half an hour over the shunting yard to a huge shed where each individual carriage is lifted up by a crane - with the people still in it - and the bogies are changed for standard gauge bogies.
This whole exercise takes almost 9 hours. All the while you cannot use the toilets, you cannot go outside, the electricity is off (and thus lights and airconditioning)...
Once back at the immigrations officials come back in the train to check bags and compartments for contraband and then finally you get your passport back and you are allowed to walk outside - for about 10 minutes. There is a duty free store, which can not cope with the hundreds of people trying to do some shopping in these 10 minutes, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that here too the toilets are closed.
This must be, without a doubt, the most inefficient border crossing in the world. Sure, with only two trains in both directions every week, they only have to do this exercise four times weekly, but even so, it is a ridiculous waste of time, money and resources.
And that was the end of Mongolia and the start of China, where we were greeted with big neon lettering and loud classical music playing over the station platform speakers.
Final thoughts on Mongolia? Well, absolutely fantastic! Every aspect about it. It is just a gorgeous country, largely undeveloped and still unspoilt by mass tourism. This is defnitely one of the most special countries I have ever visited on my travels.
Mongolia seems to be a very self-containing country, which somehow manages to thrive with just over two-million inhabitants (most of which are unlikely to pay any taxes). 16 years of stable democracy have made Mongolia a role model for most other third world countries. Squeezed in between the two super powers of Russia and China it is amazing such a country can even exist, let alone thrive as it does. Sure, the country has its share of problems, there's corruption, poverty and rising street crime, but comparing this country to some of the places I have seen in South America or elsewhere in Asia, many of the issues characterising most third-world countries are blissfully absent in Mongolia.