Sunday, 14 November 2010

Arriving in Mongolia

We arrived at the China/Mongolia border stop of Erlyan about 9pm last night.  It was a fairly long stop because, apart from other things, all the train carriages need to be lifted up and have their bogeys changed due to the railway lines being a different guage in Mongolia to China. That in itself was pretty interesting.
We did get about 20 minutes to get off the train and wander about and grab some food from the little market shop in the railway station.
The border guards came and took our passports and various forms, but then wandered off and didn't return them for about 4 hours.  I would have been concerned but my cabin mate (who has done the journey 27 times) seemed perfectly at ease with it all, and I also read in the Trans-Siberian Guide to expect this kind of thing.  I ended up falling asleep, and I think we finally left a bit after 1am.
I slept like a log and woke up about 9am.  Then my roomie and I spent the rest of the morning gazing out the window watching the world go by, looking at photos we each had of friends and family, watching a dodgy bootleg copy of the new Shrek film (English with Mongolian subtitles), and generally just chilling out and chatting as best we could.
The train had a restaurant carriage at the back, and I made the mistake of attempting two meals there.  The menu promised a selection of various dishes, but really I think it just came down to two choices - chicken or pork.  I ordered different things but ended up with the same thing both times, fried pork and onion with a dodgy sauce and gluggy rice.  It was edible, but easily the worst two meals I've had since leaving Australia.  The beer was decent at least, but warm.  How could it be warm in these temperatures?? Did they heat it up deliberately?  I think the restaurant car is there mainly for the benefit of guards and the restaurant staff... as they seemed quite happy sitting around talking and smoking (under the no smoking sign), and when a customer arrived they were greeted by the staff with a sigh and a slightly dirtly look at the prospect of having to actually *do* something.
I should point out that each carriage also has two attendants who are responsible for that carriage, and as far as I could tell those ladies did an *excellent* job.  One of the things I wasn't looking forward to was the state of the toilet after a night or two on a long train journey like this, but I need not have worried here as every time I went to the loo, it looked freshly cleaned.  I was impressed!
As the morning progressed, the landscape looked less and less like China.  No more jagged mountains, now we have rolling hills with not a tree to be seen.  Patches of snow, no real roads, no real towns any more, just a few clumps of houses here and there, and each railway station we passed seemed to have a playground, making me think they serve a dual role as a school?  Aeroplanes seemed to pass overhead quite regularly, and all left a spectacular vapour trail in the clear blue sky.
And then we started passing the occassional Ger.  Firstly they would appear pitched in the backyard of a house, but then we started passing them pitched in the middle of wide open plains, complete with a handful of grazing horses.  These were real proper Mongolian nomads.
Then after passing through some gorgeous snow-covered mountains we began to encounter civilization again as we approached Ulaanbaatar.
Before we pulled in I threw on some thermals and rugged up ready to face the cold. My cabin-mate had her whole family ready and waiting to help her unload.

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