The Train to Ulan Bator

I'm not sure that we have ever crossed a border without being cheated in some way. China to Mongolia was no exception. We planned to arrive at the border as early as possible in order to beat customs queues and purchase our onward train ticket once over the border. We had read that we should hire a Mongolian jeep to take us the 7km across the border. Arriving in Erlianhot at 5 a.m., with no Mongolian jeeps around, we settled for a Chinese jeep. Our driver charged us the full border crossing price, but dumped us at the border gates, knowing that it didn't open for another 2.5 hours. We considered getting a taxi into town to have breakfast, but there was no one around, even the Chinese border guards were still asleep. So I killed time by taking pictures and Yann killed time by getting mad at me for taking pictures of a sensitive area. Since we were now jeep-less (and had spent out taxi budget for the day), we decided we would walk the 3km over the border.  As the border opening approached, jeeps began pulling up to queue at the gates. When the border guards finally opened their booths, we pushed our way to the front to purchase pay our "border-use tax" (we had to push even though we had been queueing for about 2 hours more than anyone there). This is when we learned that walking across the border is forbidden.

This was a bit of a disaster because we were now at the mercy of the drivers who were very aware of border regulations and charged the same price to stuff you into their overloaded vehicle for 3km then the train ticket for a 15 hour trip to Ulan Bator.  There would be no negotiating.

I can't remember how many people were stuffed into our soviet jeep, but there was no room for our baggage so it was piled on the hood. We drove slowly as the driver made sure not to lose any of his cargo. We paired up with two other tourists who had made the trip before and we managed to complete the process in just under 2 hours by beating the bus and train passengers to the customs desks.  There was an incredibly minimalist search of vehicles. Arriving in Zamyn Uud Mongolia by 11a.m. we were feeling optimistic. We had until 5:30pm to purchase a ticket for the local train to Ulan Bator. The queue at the train ticket office was small but aggressive. It took all of my focus to keep my place in line. Every Mongolian train ticket has the passenger's name and passport number printed on it manually, making the process fairly slow. When we finally arrived at the front of the line I had the following  conversation with the ticket agent, possibly the most unfriendly woman I've ever encountered:

"Ulan Bator, today, two people"




"After tomorrow?"


People behind us were getting impatient, and Yann and I were perplexed. We re-read our guidebook: "...then catch the local 5:30pm train to UB." This was supposed to be easy. None of the staff were interested in helping us. Eventually, with the help of two Mongolian women also having no success with ticket purchasing, we were able to get the answers to some of our questions (although not exactly what we wanted to hear). Tickets for local trains could only be purchased on the day of travel. We were told to come back at 7am the next morning. If we wanted to purchase tickets for the (expensive) "Trans-Mongolian International Carriage" we could purchase those at any time. After spending hours at the train station, this option was not that horrible sounding, except that the international train only departed twice a week. We would have to wait 4 days in the tiny, dusty, desert border town before moving onwards. This was a very discouraging prospect.

Zamyn Uud is not much more than two streets, a dozen or so kareoke bars, interspersed between run-down apartment buildings and a few hotels. It seemed like most of the people in Zamyn Uud were waiting for the train out. With a little bit more research on our part, we might have noticed on a map of Mongolia that there are no roads leaving Zamyn Uud (other than the 7km to the Chinese border). We were laughed at by locals when we asked about getting on a local bus to Ulan Bator. Our only way onwards was on a train, or back to China. Most of Mongolia's foreign imports are Chinese. The daily local train linking the Chinese border to the Mongolian capital is basically used by Mongolians to import Chinese goods as cheaply as possible. Every passenger on the Zamyn Uud train platform was waiting with piles of items purchased across the border in China. Watching the 5:30 boarding process was unbelievable. As the train pulled into the station, porters rushed the doors in order to be able to find place on the train for luggage (all overhead as well as under berth storage is taken on a first-come first-serve basis apparently). Police stood on guard trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent fights between passengers fighting for luggage space. As the train pulled off, porters were still leaping out of the train windows after having secured space for their last pieces of luggage. Watching this spectacle, all hopes for getting on the next morning's train faded.

With no other choice, we checked into a grimy, over-priced hotel with questionable structural integrity. Hisashi, the Japanese traveller who had helped us cross the border shared the room with us and showed us to a local restaurant for the "best dinner in Zamyn Uud". After exploring the eerie desert town, we hung out all evening on the stairs of the hotel, a more comforting location than our room. It was here that we met a local woman who could "help us" with our ticket problem. She worked for the local government and would be able to ask around ... for a small fee. As each ticket is assigned to a passenger, she would have to find two passengers willing to give up their tickets, then, with access to the train station official, she could get our names put on the tickets and stamped with the official approval. There was obviously a series of people who would be requiring fees in this process. The cost for this service would be twice the actual price of the tickets (plus the ticket price of course). This meant paying more than  first-class international carriage tickets for second class tickets in the local train. Once again we had planned our trip brilliantly. We still had hope for securing tickets ourselves the next morning, so we passed on her services, but agreed to phone her the next day if we required her help.

Despite arriving at the train station at 7am, we were near the end of the ticket queue. It seemed clear that people had slept on the stairs of the train station. As for the train boarding process, police were on hand to control the crowds. When the doors of the station opened, the queue dissolved. Everyone began running to the second floor ticket office, we followed, rather clumsily.

In the crowded ticket office, we each picked a separate queues and attempted to keep our place in line. This was an extremely challenging task. The crowd was so rowdy that the police resorted to discharging their taser guns in the air!  This happened several times in the short period it took for the train tickets to sell out. We didn't get tickets. We phoned our agent and began the covert ticket buying operation.

By late afternoon, we had secured our triple-priced tickets (with the original ticket holders' names scratched out and replaced with ours) and were waiting for the embarkation process to begin. As locals loaded their satellite dishes, boxes of fresh fruit, mannequins, children's toys, electronics,  we rushed to secure a space on the train for our backpacks. By the time the train took off, every space surrounding our berths was taken up by someone else's cargo. After a fairly stressful 24 hours we were treated to a firey red sunset over the Gobi Desert as we settled comfortably into our berths.

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