Crossing the border by train in northern China to enter Mongolia is a five-hour noisy and bone-rattling affair, and that’s not just the rounds of border officials flinging open the cabin door.
The 20-carriage train pulls into Erlian station at 9.30pm after a 14-hour journey from Beijing. Easy-listening Chinese music is piped over the station’s loud speaker. A large lit bronze sign on the platform summarises the political history of the region since dinosaurs roamed. A newer sign with a rainbow on it may have something to do with the recent discovery of a hummingbird-like fossil found in the area with rainbow feathers. Closer inspection has to wait till the border formalities are over.
The Chinese immigration official tucks our passports over her starched jacket sleeve and marches off. A customs officer briefly inspects our cabin.
A group of Thai are led off to the station by Immigration. The rumour among the passengers is one of them has been in Nepal and the Chinese want to know more. They’re not seen again but I assume they returned.
We get off the train for a couple of photos of us hanging at the station in the dark and rail staff checking the undercarriage with torches.
Cold soon drives us back to our slightly overheated cabin and we return to our berths with plans to sleep through it all.
Just as we drift off the train kicks alive again. In a dramatic change from the journey’s earlier soothing rhythmic beating heart, the train has turned into a giant snoring dragon in the midst of a nightmare. For two hours it violently shudders and groans as the gauge is changed to suit the tracks across the border. The quiet between shakes is like a sigh.
Finally the train is freed to go on its way. Our passports are returned, only to be taken away again at the Mongolian border. Of all the officials who have flung open our cabin door, flicked on the blinding light and checked our bathroom (yes, an ensuite, luxury!) only one, a Mongolian customs officer in army uniform says “Hello”. In a daze I’d returned another officer’s salute, which Jen later told me made her laugh so hard she pee-d.
In a hunt for breakfast we find the dining car has not only moved to the rear of the train but it’s been transformed into an ornate traditional Mongolian eating house, complete with nomad weapons and horned animal heads.
Our train has returned to its gentle self and we roll on through the Gobi Desert to Ulan-Bataar.