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  • Day27

    Nightmare in Erlian

    September 21, 2019 in China ⋅ ☁️ 16 °C

    Well when we left you last we were on a high, enjoying ourselves in the elaborate Mongolian Dining Car. It’s fair to say things went downhill from there!

    We spent a pleasant afternoon back in our lovely compartment sipping coffee and watching life on the Gobi but in the back of our minds we knew what was coming later in the day.....Border control and the changing of the bogeys on each carriage from Mongolian to Chinese gauge. Now we knew this was going to be a palaver (great word) lasting some time but we weren’t prepared for the scale of the shenanigans (even better word).

    Exiting Mongolia was fine. We pulled into Zamyn-Uud Station around sundown - just before 7pm - and remained in our compartment for about an hour and a half reading and using the last of our mobile internet. A border control lady collected our passports on arrival, checked that we looked like the photos and took them away. Passports duly returned some time later we departed on schedule at 8.45pm knowing that it was 30 minutes to Erlian Station in China where we would spend several hours going through border formalities and the train would be taken to an engineering shed where it would be hoisted while the wheel transformation takes place.

    The big surprise was when ‘Mr Woo’ came into our compartment with his trusty mobile phone to show us one of his translations. We thought maybe it would be ‘Hope you are having a nice time’ or maybe ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’ but no, unfortunately it was something along the lines of ‘when we get to Erlian Station you have to take all your belongings off the train’!!

    Shock, horror. Now we need to give this context. Compared to most Trans-Mongolian passengers we are not travelling light, although due to our multi-movements we are quite well practiced in the art of packing. Train compartments do cause an issue as even if you are in first class they can in no way be described as being flush for space. What this means is that on arrival in a compartment we have to break down our two big cases into several smaller chunks which can then be stored in varying small shelves, cupboards, nets, hooks, under berths and in any other hidey holes we can find. With our train journeys taking between 24 hours and four days it has not been too much of an issue to break down the bags on boarding and to re-pack prior to arrival.

    Mr Woo’s instruction gave us a challenging 20 minutes to get all of our stuff together back in our cases, plus gather together our food, drink, flasks, books, electronic devices, toiletries etc (hand baggage) which were dotted around the compartment and we assumed would remain there for the 31 hours of our journey. We knew we would have to leave the train for a while but nowhere in our research and advice did it say we had to clear everything out of our compartment in the process.

    We completed the task exactly at the time we pulled into Erlian and we disembarked with several hundred other travellers (almost exclusively tourists). It was 9.15 pm and strangely the station buildings were tastefully covered in flashing neon lights (Las Vegas sprang to mind) and there was Chinese music playing through the speakers. I guess this is their reasonable attempt at ‘Welcome to China’.

    Fortunately we were near the front of the queue to enter the main station building and what we discovered to be Immigration. We queued for a while, went through passport control where we underwent facial and fingerprint recognition before or passports were stamped, then had our baggage x-rayed. We were now officially in China.

    Then it got interesting, but not in a good way. Quite simply we were confined to the station building with no information on where to go and how long we would be there, albeit we had a schedule in our itinerary that indicated a 1.20am departure (it was now 10.20pm) so we always knew it would be a long wait. We plonked ourselves down in reasonable railway station seats as did all of our fellow passengers (in various places around the building) and passed the time away - not very peacefully however as we had a large group of Spanish women sitting next to us who did not stop talking for 3 hours (all at the same time and very loudly!). There was nowhere open inside the station to buy anything (talk about missed revenue opportunity) however there was a drinking water fountain! Oh, and all external doors were locked! They obviously didn’t want you wandering around the town!! We eventually deduced from an electronic information board, that our departure time was in fact 2am. This did not help our spirits. Fortunately games on our iPads saved the day, particularly ‘Virtual Lawn Green Bowls’ - highly recommended!

    Now a quick aside. Up to last year you had the option to remain on your carriage and go into the shed whilst the bogeys were being changed. However if you took this option the toilets were locked throughout and you may have a rather uncomfortable three/four hours. Anyway this option is now off the table.

    Back to present day Erlian Station and at 1.15am we were alerted to the fact that boarding would recommence. With unbridled relief we reloaded our bags onto the train with Mr Woo’s kind assistance (the low platform is unhelpfully over a yard below the train) and then unpacked to be able to get everything away so we could get to bed. The train pulled out of the Station we never want to see again at exactly 2am.

    It was a quick coffee and lights out for 2.30am. The good news is that the berths are comfortable. The bad news is that our first 5 hours in China were bloody awful! There are no photos of any of this as the ‘no photographs’ signs looked extremely non-negotiable. To put the frustrations of these past 5 hours into perspective it represents just 0.7% of the overall trip and on an adventure like ours things will not always be exactly as you hope.

    After an exhausted sleep we returned to good spirits on Friday morning and enjoyed tea and porridge around 9am. We had obviously missed a few hours visibility of China due to sleep but what we saw first thing was a mix of large towns with factories, big out of town industrial units and arable land (mainly corn). A lot of housing that looked very poor indeed and the amount of general rubbish dumped in ditches, river banks and by the railway line was quite depressing. Not quite Mongolia. Also Mr Woo’s number two (now that doesn’t sound very nice but you know what we mean) is on duty this morning and he is a right misery guts, although he does allow us to alight for a couple of minutes at one stop.

    With a scheduled arrival at 2.35pm we enjoyed our last pot noodle lunch on the train. Whilst in Ulaanbaatar John decided that he needed something with a bit more heat so he purchased a ‘2 x Very Hot Spicy Chicken’ which did not lie as it was just about the hottest thing he had ever eaten in his life bringing tears to his eyes. Perhaps the clue was in the title. We are hoping for no repercussions.

    We arrived at Beijing Station exactly to schedule (overall punctuality has been excellent), said goodbye to Mr Woo and his number two, and were met by our new guide Ben and then our driver Yang. They will be looking after us for two days now as we embark on the last leg of our journey.
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    John East

    Seems like it was pandemonium. Now that’s a good word !

    9/20/19Reply
    Jon Dyer

    What percentage of the trip did you spend in St Petersburg?

    9/21/19Reply
    Danuta Joyce

    Virtual lawn green bowls at the Chinese border crossing, hey? Now that's a story to bring back to Ealing Bowls Club!!! Who'd have thought?!

    9/21/19Reply
    Steve Stringer

    I think immigration is getting pretty much like that everywhere, we spent several hours at dara salaam Airport in June 40deg no aircon, must have gone through 8 security Checks. Ps clash of clans is the game you need, forget them rubbish bowls/golf platform games, things have moved on guys!.. 😎

    9/21/19Reply