The Train’s The Thing

(November 2001)

As if going to Mongolia wasn’t a memorable enough experience in itself, the train journeys to and from Ulaanbaatar were beyond unforgettable.

To Ulaanbaatar

After I boarded the train in Ulan-Ude I met five other Westerners travelling with the same company as me. I would be sharing a compartment with three of them; the other two, J and T, were next door, with two Mongolian men. The guide booklet supplied by the travel company had been pretty rubbish so far, but it was right to warn us to expect an “interesting” journey.

The bulk of our fellow passengers were Mongolian traders, returning to Mongolia with goods they had bought in Russia. However, they had perfected a way of, shall we say, ‘minimising’ the import/export taxes due at the border.  As we left Ulan-Ude, the carpet running down the corridor of our carriage was peeled back and the trapdoor underneath was lifted. Men (as far as I could see it was only men) appeared from nowhere and started to cram goods into the compartment below: coil after coil of electrical flex, and countless pairs of shoes. Seeing as this activity wasn’t exactly subtle, I assume it was happening with the blessing of the provodnik.

Apart from the racket outside, our compartment was relatively peaceful. Next door, however, had become a clearing house for hooky stuff. J and T, who sought refuge with us, thought they had figured out how the system worked. Anything that wasn’t concealed was shared among the traders. One person would have, say, 10 CD players. He would get four other people to take two each – for ‘personal use’ – in exchange for him taking maybe two food processors, four duvets, two sets of pans and a microwave from them. Each of those four traders would be striking deals with other traders, who, in turn, were arranging swaps of their own. This wasn’t happening in just our compartment, though; the whole train was alive with men staggering from carriage to carriage laden with consumer goods.

It was a(nother) overnight journey, but needless to say, even though we were left pretty much alone, we didn’t get much sleep. Nothing disturbs your slumber quite like a man carrying a television tripping over a trapdoor and stumbling against (and nearly through) the wall of your compartment at 3am, or a bewildered soul flinging open the door offering a set of bedding then changing his mind when he realises you’re not in on his act. And that was just on the way to the border. Once we were through that and on our way to Ulaanbaatar we had to go through the whole process again, only this time in reverse.

From Ulaanbaatar

On the train for the final part of our journey, to Beijing, I tucked into my ‘afters’ to my veggie lunch. It was a tin of Del Monte peach slices I had carried all the way from home, to stave off the scurvy I was sure I would have got by now, thanks to the dire warnings in the ever-reliable guidebook about there being no such thing as veggie food in Mongolia. (I’d brought two tins – would have been more but I could barely carry my luggage as it was – but I had given one to Z, my host in Yekaterinburg, because she seemed to be rather taken by it.)

Our journey to Beijing was enlivened by a) the gross realisation that we had spittoons – spittoons! – under our bunks (better than the alternative, I suppose) and b) spotting camels out on the steppes.

But in terms of excitement, neither came anywhere close to what happened when we reached the Mongolian/Chinese border and… the wheels were changed! The tracks are different widths (no idea how that happened), so the Russian/Mongolian-sized bogies had to be taken off and replaced with ones that fit the Chinese tracks. Although the guidebook had warned us about the whole wheel-changing thing, it was still rather alarming when it happened; one minute we were travelling in the pitch black (it was another overnight journey) the next we’re in one of the biggest sheds I’ve ever seen watching the carriages around us being jacked into the air.

I didn’t realise it was actually happening to us until the carriage started to jolt and sway. It was really unnerving to look through the window and down and watch the ground getting further and further from us. We must have been raised about 10 feet (three metres). The whole process took something like three hours. And, of course, the toilets were out of action for the entire time – which for me was far more concerning than the whole being stuck in a carriage above 10 feet of fresh air thing.