Wednesday, February 2, 2011

August 28 Across the Gobi Desert

We left the hotel at 0700 and returned to the Ulan Bataar railway
station. We arrived so early that we just sat in the mini-van for about a
quarter-hour, and then we boarded train number 24 for Beijing. This was a
Mongolian Railways train. The equipment was quite new, and of Chinese
construction. Most Mongolian Railways equipment appears to be of Russian
manufacture. We had a nice room for two with a head shared with the
adjacent cabin. That one turned out to be occupied by Alex and Susan from
the other Sundowners group. We had been their neighbors on other trains.
So we had quite a nice ride.

Butch and Del’s experience was not so good. Their two big suitcases
did not fit into their four-berth cabin, and so Alaine had them place the bags
into the shower compartment at the end of their coach. Within half an hour
after departure, they found their suitcases soaking wet! They believe that
one of the Mongolian povodnitsas hosed them down in retaliation for putting
them there. I think it is possible that at the end of the previous trip, the
shower was left open at the faucet. When the water system was energized as
part of the train startup procedure, water immediately flooded out and
doused everything in the shower compartment. My answer to this question
would perhaps shift some of the blame to Alaine for having them put there
in the first place. It seems that Butch went ballistic and upbraided the
povodnitsa, who simply shut the door in his face and waved him away.
Either way, it seems to me that they should never have put their things in
there without first checking that it was okay. The shower compartment is
for the common use of that carriage’s passengers. (Recall that Butch and
Del did not buy the rail supplement.) There is no baggage area in any of
these carriages at the end of the car.
This Mongolian Railways car was the most comfortable one of our entire trip.

 Mix of traditional gers with fixed buildings on the outskirts of Ulan Bataar.

The town of Choir once had a Soviet air base.

Gobi Desert scene.

The trip was quite scenic, and the terrain changed as we approached
the Gobi Desert. We arrived late into Zanin-Uud, the Mongolian border
station. We all cleared Mongolian passport and customs without difficulty.
The train proceeded across to Erlian on the Chinese side of the border. The
station building was brightly lighted and martial music played on the station
loudspeakers as our Mongolian train arrived at the platform. The customs
check here was rather more thorough. We were asked about each book that
we were carrying.

Some of our fellow travelers had a rougher time. Andreas Schick and
Karina von Baer are a Chilean couple of German descent. Andreas had a
book by Der Spiegel about China: current day statutes, some history, some
customs, and the like. The customs official spotted a picture of the Dalai
Lama. He confiscated the book and conducted a brief interrogation of
Andreas. The official left and then a more senior one arrived. This new
inspector spoke better English. He told Andreas that he and Karina were the
“first Chile people” he had ever met at Erlian. Andreas continued to object
to the confiscation of his book and argued that it only praised China. The
official replied forcefully to Andreas, “You are not cooperating with the
program!” Andreas later said that at that point the light came on, and he
backed down with an apology. Karina said it was because she kicked him
under the table at that point. We all had to remain in our rooms until the car
cleared immigration and customs, and at this point we were cleared.

I could no longer resist temptation and so I peeked into
the passageway in the direction of Andreas and Karina. The official looked
at me and I quickly pulled my head back into the room. He walked by and
asked me, “Are you enjoying your trip?” I replied, “Yes, very much, thank
you.!” He left the car. We later learned from Andreas and Karina that he
took them off the train to an office for an interview with yet a third official.

Andreas and Karina on the Great Wall.

At Erlian, the train had to be converted from Russian gauge to
standard gauge. This refers to the spacing between the right and left tracks
and wheels. Each car was jacked up on hydraulic lifts, and the bogeys
detached and replaced with different ones. The crew was quicker than
average about this, we were told, and the passport officials came back
aboard during the bogey change to return our passports. Alaine tells us that
neither is normally the case. But we made up about thirty of the sixty
minutes that we were behind schedule, and we moved off into China.

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