Saturday 22 September 2012

The Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Saga - Part 4

It was the final leg of the Trans-Mongolian train journey - Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. This was a two-day one-night journey on the #24 train departing at 7:15am. An early start, but as much we liked Mongolia we had a schedule to get out of the city, plus we were excited to see some bare Gobi Desert.

Leaving - Ulaanbaatar Station
Our compartment buddies were a non-talkative Chinese man who spent the whole time either sleeping or smoking, and a young Australian called Johnno. Bloody Aussies were everywhere it seemed. He was a chilled out Fitzroy Melbournian who had some interesting travel experiences. We chatted about books we'd read, people we'd met, and his time with the nomads in Mongolia which was much more intense then ours. He had also been to Tibet, a part of China we would not be travelling to on this trip. His accounts of a Tibetan Sky Burial were captivating to say the least.

However most of the day was spent reading, occasionally picking up the camera to snap the hours away and capture the last bits of Mongolian Gobi Desert scenery.

Our Train to China - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
The Gobi Desert - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Gobi Desert - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
The sunsets over Mongolia - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Unlike the Russian trains, we could open the windows of this carriage for some cool fresh air, as well as some cool shots of ourselves when the train went around a big sweeping corner.

Tia out the Window - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Ben out the window - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
We reached the Erenhot/Erlian border around midnight and were greeted with marching Communist music trumpeting over loudspeakers. Chinese customs officers boarded the train and our passports and luggage areas scutinised for any contraband. One officer looked at Tia, looked at her passport, frowned and asked if she was Chinese. "Uh, sort of ..." she hesitated, to which he asked could she speak Chinese. "Oh, not really," she replied, "Ni Hao?" in a very Aussie-born-Chinese accent. It was clear to the officer that she did not belong to the People's Republic of China, so he moved on.

We were then treated to a minor spectacle. Mongolia's railways were built by the Russians using Russian gauge, 1524mm (5ft) while China built their railways to standard gauge, 1435mm (4ft 8½in). So how do they deal with the inconvenient fact that fat Rusky-Mongol trains don't fit in China? Don't bother getting up good passenger, China will change your wheels for you!

At the Chinese border - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
At the bogie exchange, the carriage wagons were decoupled from each other and lifted off the bogies using a series of hydraulic jacks. The set of bogies underneath were rolled away, and then the smaller set rolled in. Everything got re-aligned, they set the wagons down again, connected them back together and hey presto! we were on a Chinese train. All this took about an hour, and we stayed on the train the whole time, watching the process in fascination. It was a noisy job so there was no chance of sleeping through it, quite fun really.

Changing of the Bogies - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
It was a late finish, so we were soon snoozing to the familiar rocking of the train journey.

Waking up in China was an unreal experience. Gazing sleepily out the window, it looked like the entire countryside was covered in thick morning fog, but the haze never went away. After a while we realized it was smog. I'd heard that it was a polluted country, but I thought that that was just around the big cities , not in the country. Bewildering.

Despite the best efforts of the smog, we managed to spot the Great Wall for the first time. It’s a little hard to make out in the photo, but it is there, running up the ridge-line from the center to the right.

Our first view of the Great Wall of China (running up the ridge from mid photo to the right) - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
We were excited to arrive in Beijing. As odd as it sounds, I was craving rice. Food hadn't been that great over the last few months; yeah there has been some good meals, but nothing like South East Asia, Spain or Italy. This also meant the end of our Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Train Saga - 10,000 kilometres travelled over 7 days and 8 nights, with a few weeks of exploring in between to keep it fun. We met a lot of amazing people, more than any other part of this year's trip so far. A lifetime highlight to remember.

So China, bring it on.

Through the tunnels - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway

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