Day 26: Ulaanbaatar - Erlian

Erlian Travel Blog

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on the train again

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.

Train leaving Ulaanbaatar
The two porters responded with a very foul and aggressive attitude, saying we hadn't paid them enough. Well, we hadn't agreed on any price beforehand, but I figured that the amount which would buy two people a night in a ger including dinner and breakfast would certainly be enough a tip for two porters pushing a cart with two backpacks for 5 minutes. They did not agree, they demanded we'd pay 10 dollars... per bag!
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.
on the train again
.. all agreed that 20 dollars was an outrageous amount and that the money we had given them more than covered the work they'd done. The argument went on for half an hour, but the porters would not budge. I tried to explain to them that in the half hour they spent arguing they could have carried a lot more luggage for other travellers - they were not impressed. I tried to call their bluff by agreeing to pay their outrageous fee if they could provide me with an official sign or price-list advertising these prices - they were not impressed. They simply remaind in the door opening of our cabin and refused to leave.
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.
Very clean and modern 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.

statue of Mongolia's first (and only) cosmonaut
Unfortunately this was also the only one of the three trains where we weren't as lucky with the fellow travellers on the train. Not that there weren't any, the train was packed, but we didn't meet any nice people at all. We shared our cabin with a very nice Mongolian lady and her daughter, and while nice, the lady's English was too limited to have any proper conversations. The rest of the carriage was filled with a French tour group consisting of very sour looking 50+ folk doing the stereotypes of their country justice by being very rude and not speaking a word of English. The attendants kindly catered for the French guests by showing only films dubbed in French on the TVs...

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.

Eastern Gobi
Our carriage was French, the next was filled with Mongolians, then came the German group tours, then the Dutch, then a carriage full of families with a lot of children, etc. And all independent travellers were squeezed in between with those groups, rather than grouped together like it had been on the previous stretch.

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.

Erlian train station / border crossing

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.

bogie changing

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.

The last stop in Mongolia, the last Uaz, the last glimpse of the Gobi

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.


pms70 says:
That must be one of the funniest things I have ever heard about a border crossing! I can just picture the train carriages being lifted up and everyone and everything in them being thrown about (it's probably not like that at all but in my mind it always will be)... I have to go see this one day!
Posted on: Nov 04, 2008
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on the train again
on the train again
Train leaving Ulaanbaatar
Train leaving Ulaanbaatar
on the train again
on the train again
Very clean and modern train
Very clean and modern train
statue of Mongolias first (and on…
statue of Mongolia's first (and o…
Eastern Gobi
Eastern Gobi
Erlian train station / border cros…
Erlian train station / border cro…
bogie changing
bogie changing
The last stop in Mongolia, the las…
The last stop in Mongolia, the la…
photo by: eefab