Wednesday, 8th June 1988
At 10.00pm in the evening we pulled up at Erenhot on the Chinese side of the Chinese- Mongolia Border.
We were ordered off the train and then told that we would need to spend two hours in the border station building whilst, as the lady in charge inside explained, “things” were done to the train. I knew that she meant the changing of the wheel sets so that same train that had so far run on the standard Chinese gauge rails could now continue to run on the wider Russian gauge they used in Mongolia.
This was to be done by jacking up the coach bodies, running the old wheel sets out from under the train, running new sets in and then jacking the bodies back down on to them. Passengers can safely remain on board during the process and that is exactly what happened a week later when the process was reversed at the USSR – Polish border. The Chinese, though, wanted us all off the train and, as soon as were safe in the building, they moved the whole train to an adjacent siding.
The facilities provided for the passengers at 10pm in that border building were strange to say the least. There were not enough seats to sit down on but there was a bar and a small disco floor complete with music and strobe lighting. I purchased my last Chinese beer at the bar and, resisting the urge to dance, I glanced out of the window at the wheel changing process.
There was also a post office and Aiko managed to confuse everyone by trying to purchase postage stamps for Mongolia. In the end she settled for some Chinese ones even though she knew they would be useless once we had left. We changed some Yuan into Dollars at the bank and we continued to wait.
Eventually the train was ready and we traipsed back to the platform and got back on.
Safely back in our compartment we watched as we rolled slowly from China into a kind of no-man’s land. We stopped there for ten minutes or so and then we began rolling towards Mongolia, stopping again just after we cleared the border fence.
The Mongolian customs officers now boarded the train. They were thorough and Aiko even had to declare her Chinese postage stamps. They took all our passports away with them and returned them to us unstamped about 15 minutes later.
After all this was done we finally got underway. I strapped myself into the top bunk with the harness provided. Helped by the gentle swaying of the train I fell asleep quickly. Nobody snored and I slept well.
Thursday, 9th June 1988
I woke at 8:00am to see that we were now truly in the Golbi desert with nothing but sand to see for miles and miles. The railway follows an ancient tea caravan route north from the Chinese border for over 1000 miles to the border with the Soviet Union. Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, lies in the middle.
As the morning passed we watched as the desert turned slowly first to green undulating plains and then to slightly more hilly scenery. We breakfasted in the new Mongolian dining car that had been attached the night before. We had pancakes, jam, coffee and bread all for 3 USD.
The Mongolian dining car was staffed by a busty Russian-looking woman. I felt that although we were not yet in the USSR, we were certainly in a country that was influenced by it. Mongolian is a totally different language but it is written in the same Cyrillic-style characters as Russian. The signs were all in Russian or Mongolian.
By 1pm we were approaching the outskirts of Ulan Bator and, bang on schedule, we pulled into the capital at 1:20pm. We had a stop there timed at 30 minutes and we were able to move around the station and have a peek outside. From the station the city looked to be made almost all of concrete, very 1950s and quite soulless. It was all low-rise with not a tall building in sight.
It was getting quite cold and after the train moved off again it started to rain. We spent the afternoon transiting scenery that looked more like that you would find in Northern Europe.
We dined in the Mongolian dining car again. The menu listed one hundred dishes but we were told that there were only two available. We both settled for borsht followed by beef Stroganoff whilst Andeas had borsht followed by beef with rice. His beef with rice looked almost exactly the same as our Stroganoff and we wondered if the choice on the menu was actually exaggerated.
The food was passable and we washed it down with tea. It didn’t fill us completely though and back in the compartment we shared more dried fruit and crackers. The weather outside was looking colder and wetter still and it was getting dark and quite misty.
Our 1,000 mile trek north through Mongolia was almost done. At about 10pm the train stopped at the final station, Sukhbaatar, and the Mongolian Immigration and customs people boarded. Their exit check was a lot less rigorous than their entry one and it took no time at all.
After a 20 minute stop the train moved off again and passed through opened gates that formed part of a long fence that stretched in either direction as far as the eye could see. Once the whole train had cleared the gates they were closed behind us.
Just ahead and through the misty darkness lay another fence with closed gates.
Behind that fence lay the Soviet Union.