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The Train to UB

October 2nd, 2010 · 2 Comments

Well life has been a bit frantic since we arrived back from Mongolia, but I know I owe the blog a few entries.  After all, there are stories to tell.

I’ve already told you about China (hot and humid, lots of Chinese food, and endless groups of people either taking or trying to take our pictures).  But I haven’t said much about the rest of the trip yet.

So in this episode, I will talk about our train trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar.  Then I’m sure there are entries floating around in my head regarding life in UB, my trip to the biggest farm I’ve ever visited, and probably something to do with the future of Mongolia as we look ahead.  Maybe I’ll even lay a heavy on you to contribute to some of the great projects we visited which are helping Mongolians on the fringes of society.

So let’s get going.

Yes, we took the train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (UB). You might wonder why we took the 30 hour option over the 2 hour option, so I put together a partial list of reasons.  Feel free to add your own:

  1. Travel should also be about the experience of getting there, not just getting there.
  2. We like trains.  We’ve been from Regina (OK, you really have to drive 1.5 hours to Melville and get on at 4 am in the middle of winter, but let’s just call it Regina) to Toronto twice, the reverse once, and from Minot, ND to Chicago to Longview, TX and back before.  So we like trains.
  3. It was half the price of flying this leg, so why not?
  4. You can see more from the train than from a plane, especially when you’re traveling with kids and they hog the window seats on the plane.
  5. More legroom.  And you get a bed.
  6. You can’t use the bathroom on a plane and watch it land on the ground when you flush.
  7. There’s no crazy contraption serving up boiling water (for making tea and instant noodles) just up the aisle in the plane.  There’s just a crazy person serving up some disease into the recycled air.
  8. You can’t lean out the window of a plane and buy drinks and snacks from vendors at all the stops.
  9. You can’t lean out the windows of the plane while it is moving.
  10. When you travel through a desert dust storm on a plane, the pilot doesn’t run through the plane to tell you to close the windows.
  11. When you cross the China-Mongolia border on a plane, it doesn’t have to stop for several hours to change the wheels. 
  12. The interesting adventurous travelers are on the train. (Although the backpackers tend to be running out of money. You never see them in the dining car.)
  13. Speaking of dining cars, when’s the last time you saw one of those on an airplane?
  14. No strip search at the train station, and you can have all the liquids and gels you want!
  15. How often do the locals wave at a passing airplane?

The train was scheduled to leave at 7:45 am, so we got up early and met Tony and our driver at the door.  Due to traffic madness right in from of the train station, they delivered us to the curb about a block away, and we dragged our luggage through the plentiful crowds to the entrance. Right inside the door was a luggage x-ray machine, which everyone jammed their bags into and then pulled them off the other side.  It was mayhem, and I’m not sure anyone was actually monitoring whether illicit liquids and gels were contained in anyone’s suitcase.  We weren’t sure where to go, but Tony said he thought upstairs was the place for international departures, so we pulled our luggage train onto the escalator, hung on for dear life, and rode to the top. 

There were big monitors everywhere with lots of important information written only in Chinese. Fortunately, they use numbers like we do, so we detected our train number on the board and another number.  We wandered around looking for something to correlate this number to, and it turned out to be a gate number, where the beginning of a line was forming consisting of primarily western tourists.  That was probably it, so we joined the line, and then noticed some other signage with a number matching our departure time.  So this must be the place.

While we waited in line, Brad bought some instant noodles and drinks at a shop near the line, and we waited.  Gradually, the line grew to be several hundred people long, including families with children, middle aged empty nesters, and a bunch of hippy-like backpackers carrying the requisite guitars and sacks of what must have been other suspicious substances.

Mostly, this crowd was European. We know this because most of the people spoke German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and French to each other. And usually to other people who also spoke German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and French. Sometimes the people spoke all of these languages (they’re European, after all), and you could see they all yearned for a Heineken or an espresso, and a bailout of the Irish and the Greeks.

The Germans were very organized and had lots of quality cameras and cool electronic gear.

The Dutch were tall and blonde, and had a tulip sticking out of their wooden shoes. If you looked closely, you could see the callous on one of their fingers from plugging dikes.

The Italians spoke really fast and elected a new government before the train boarded.

The Spanish spoke Spanish and seemed very inquisitive. 

The French spoke French we could understand (sans joual), and were preparing for a general strike to protect their right to designer clothing and Gitannes cigarettes.

There might have been some Americans, but if there were, they were too busy borrowing money from the Chinese people in the waiting area to buy cheap shiny Chinese-made trinkets.

 Eventually we boarded the train, which involved descending a large set of stairs with all our luggage, dragging them down the platform, up the steps into the right train car, and upon finding our cabin, finding a way to store our things in a way that allowed us to sit or move around.  That finished, Brad bought some more drinks from a guy on the platform, and ran to get back on the train before it left.

Our first stop was at 40.7529, 114.86343, Alt: 670.0 m.  We don’t know why.  Soon after this we ate lunch:

  • Fried egg with tomato
  • Sweet and sour pork
  • 5 bowls rice
  • 2 cokes + 3 orange juice

Total = 90 rmb = CAD$13.00

Sometime after lunch, we passed here:  40.47925, 114.09649, Alt: 986.0 m at 75km/hr, going SW (heading 227 degrees), which seems entirely wrong, since UB is NNW of Beijing.

We passed through an agricultural area, which consisted mainly of fairly small plots. Being from Saskatchewan gave us a distinct advantage over our fellow urban travellers who do not recognize many foods outside the aisles of Safeway, SPAR, Aldi, or Carrefour. We saw corn, peas, cabbage, tree seedlings (this is not a grocery item for those of you who might get sucked in by the context), potatoes, sunflowers, various root vegetables, some orchards, irrigation (primarily flood irrigation using temporary ditches), poplar trees, canola or mustard intercropped with corn, and more. All of this grew reasonably well in the light brown sandy soil.

We passed towns with lots of old buildings, but lots of new residential (apartment) construction and usually 5-10 construction cranes near the town centre or along the main drag.  Lots of big new gas stations (Sinopec and others), but rarely with customers.  Very few cars were on the road – vehicles were more likely to be trucks, small vans, passenger buses and motorcycles.

Everywhere we looked there was a lot of new infrastructure. In the construction phase, Chinese constructions sites are adept at adopting a look of total chaos, as if no one is in charge. But the finished product (bridges, highways, etc.) seems to be up to any standard once complete.

We passed impeccable toll highways (in Communist China, no less) and thought about the state of our highways back home.  What would the toll be like from Regina to Swift Current?  Would it be less than the toll that trip takes on my car?

New power lines were being strung everywhere, and we saw many high voltage transmission towers waiting for the wires to be strung.

About 6 hours out of Beijing, it was still hazy, but the visibility was gradually improving, and we hoped the humidity was going down as well.  If it was, we couldn’t tell.

At 13:35 (40.11772, 113.45798, Alt: 1118.0 m, heading WNW), we passed some mud-walled housing, just like in Africa. Up to this point, the houses had been brick/concrete with ceramic tile roofing, but these mud brick places had walls in need of much repair.

At 13:50, we arrived in Datong, Shanxi, China.  According to the signs, we were right on time. “Datong” translates to English as “place of many construction cranes”. The Wikipedia entry says the population is 3.1 million. And since Wikipedia doesn’t actually define the units as people, I prefer to think they are referring to cranes.  We saw far more cranes and new buildings and new roads than we did people or cars.

The train stopped for 30 minutes at 40.12004, 113.2965, Alt: 1042.0 m before carrying on.  If you go to that location in Google Earth, you can click on some of the photos posted by other users. Their photos were clearly taken on a different day than us – we couldn’t see the horizon due to the hazy smog.

We figured we must be starting to get close to the Gobi Desert.  Any natural growth seemed to just be short grasses. Most of the trees appeared to be planted.  And there were big coal trains going south. Some were so overloaded, they had their sides built up with bamboo to keep the coal from falling out.

The Mongolian lady in the next cabin started to look out the window, as if she might start to see home.  Her small boy was wearing a Tigger shirt that said “Tiger” on it.

At 16:05, we came to 40.99555, 113.10154, Alt: 1287.0 m.

Looking back on it, I’m not sure why we didn’t instinctively see that this was the twin cities of Malianquxian-Ulanqab.  But somehow we missed that fact at the time. Here, we saw a lot of roadside billboard ads, just as if we were approaching Wall Drug in Wall, SD.  It felt sorta North American, but without all the North American stuff to convince you it might be true.

After a 10 minute station stop in which Brad bought orange juice and ice cold water from a guy on the platform for $1 (in total, not each), the train continued on.  Our notes say we passed through a place called “Genia”, with a notation that the spelling is not right.  After looking at the map, it is clear that something happened with our spelling, because “Genia” looks nothing like any of these places we passed through:

  • Yadefang
  • Houying
  • Lijia Pocun
  • Songquancun
  • Nanwacun
  • Songjia Liang
  • Sansheng Cun
  • Renyicun
  • Hanjiacun
  • Pengjiacun
  • Miaowan Zicun
  • Qujiacun
  • Zhaojiafang
  • Xiwanzi
  • Daliuhaoxiang
  • Hejia Decun
  • Xiajianghexiang
  • Qianshuangjing
  • Gaojia Decun
  • Wulan Hada Sumu
  • Qiaojiacun
  • Hongge’ertuxiang (maybe it was this one)
  • Sangui Room (it’s a happy place)
  • Aguituxiang
  • Tumu’ertaizhen

At 18:30, we had used up all the ink in our pens trying to write down the names of places, so we were glad the train made a quick stop at Zhurihezhen, a mining town in the middle of what was now clearly a desert. The sandy featureless terrain gave it away, and along with the desert, the sky made an appearance in its glorious blueness. We could even see the horizon again.

About 20:30, we pulled in to Erlian, aka Erenhot, Eriyen, or Ereen, the Chinese border city. Wikipedia says it has 16,000 people, but that may have been referring to the average amount of Chinese yuan spent in the grocery store at the train station by each trainload of passing tourists. For a place with the population of Yorkton or Swift Current, it had an amazing array of buildings and development going on.

(43.65436,  111.98083, Alt: 943.0 m – I’m not sure how this reading came about, because I never made it around to the city side of the train station. I believe I was actually about 6,223 cm due east of this location when I took the reading.)

The public address system announced a 1 hour stop in English, Chinese and Mongolian. It said we could get off the train and use a “grocery store where you can relax at your pleasure”.  Our passports were gathered by female Chinese immigration officials and taken away to their own location to relax at their pleasure.

The kids were asleep, so we were clearly not leaving the train, but I decided to try the store anyway.  I made it there and back in just the nick of time before the train left the station and went off to get a new set of wheels better suited to Mongolian rail gauge.  Continuous announcements appealed for us to “Please inform us on our service.”

We went to this building (43°39’51.88″N, 111°58’21.42″E) to change our wheels, which required them to slam the train back and forth in order to separate the passenger cars, jack them up individually, whisk away the old wheels, slide the new wheels into position, and lower each car back down, followed by slamming all the cars back together.  During this time, the cars were locked so you couldn’t get out, and the bathrooms were locked so you couldn’t let other things out.  (Remember, these rail cars have toilets that dump onto the tracks.  The guys jacking up the trains weren’t wearing rain gear, so it was probably a good idea to lock the bathrooms.)

We emerged from the rail shed to the darkness of night.  Every apartment and house (and guard shack) in sight gave off the eerie blue glow of a television set.

We returned to the station, where our fellow passengers reboarded the train, and our passports were returned at about 23:40.  After honking the train horn about 4.2 trillion times, and slamming the train around on the tracks, we departed Erlian at about 00:21 to the pre-recorded sound of a telephone ringing over the platform public address system and a weak vuvuzela horn sound from the front of the train.  This was followed by a patriotic military march and all the immigration and security people standing at attention while facing the train.

I waved.

As we pulled out, we saw that most of the televisions had been turned off, and people had gone to bed (with earplugs, no doubt, since 4.2 trillion honks of anything is bound to keep a person awake).  It is also reported that mosquito repellent sales are very high in Erlian.  Locals have noticed a bothersome mosquito noise in their bedrooms at approximately 00:21 several times per week, and during the recent World Cup, officials were worried when local people would put on mosquito spray prior to tuning in.

[We pause for a moment of informing the Chinese on their service:  The border procedures on the Chinese side took almost 4 hours from the time we arrived in Erlian until we left.  Why did your announcement only say 1 hour?  You should also say something like: "Go shop at the store if you like, but we'll lock you out of your car and make you sit around on the platform for several hours. It might rain on you, but seeing as this is the desert, that's unlikely. (In winter, warn against hypothermia.)  Or if you stay on the train, we'll lock the bathrooms and we'll lock you in your car, and then you can watch us change the wheels, but we'll shut off the power so that your fan quits and you almost suffocate in that there shed over there."  Just a thought.]

By now, most of the televisions had been turned off, and we arrived at the Mongolia border post @ 00:40.

At the Mongolian border, the border guards conducted the routine inspection-under-the-train-with-flashlights to look for people trying to sneak into Mongolia.  Some of the guards were even armed with AK47s.  In spite of Chinese claims that the Great Wall was built to keep out the hoard of Mongolian invaders from the north, it seemed that these Mongolians like the Great Wall too.  It helps hold back the Chinese hoard from the south.

And with a crisp salute to the departing train from the border guys (I waved), off we went to customs and immigration, several miles further up the line. Arrived at 00:55.

Here, well-dressed female Mongolian border officials in spiky high heels and with English language only nametags came on the train.  Their uniforms said “Mongolia Border Protection Services”.

At 01:45, we got our passports back, and the train left at 02:10.  Total interaction with Mongolian border officials = 90 minutes.  Hats off to the MBPS.

At 04:40, the train stopped next to train of logs at a place called Orgon.  We only know this because of GPS. (44.72408, 110.77478, Alt: 972.0 m)  Because of the train of logs between us and the town, we never saw it.  A domestic passenger train passed going the other way, and we sat still until 05:30.

By now, we had drunk the train dry of Coke, which was cheaper on the Chinese side of the border than on the Mongolian side.  One of the kids bought a Pepsi, much to the chagrin of their father.  It cost $1.50 and was from Singapore.

At 12:30 passed through a place MAAHBT in Cyrillic script.  If memory serves, this would translate to something like Manvt.  And by 1:30, we arrived in UB.  Our driver and the person meeting us knew which car we were in, so they dove onto the train, helped us drag our luggage off the train, up some steps, down some steps, across a rough parking lot, up some steps, into the back of a 4×4 right hand drive Chamonix van, and off we went, to the apartment that would be our home for the next four weeks.

Next entry: Life in UB – the coldest capital in the world (thankfully in summer).

Tags: China · Mongolia · Travel · Uncategorized

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Teresa // Oct 3, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Hey Friends,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights into your time here in Mongolia! It’s all quite amusing! Keep your posts coming!

  • 2 Janet W // May 25, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    Obviously been a while since I checked your blog, but man, you have got to put this stuff into a book.

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