Dear America, Could We Get Some Trains Please?

Well I’ll preface this by saying this will be a very boring post. Why, you ask? Well today we spent the entire day on our overnight train to Beijing so there is only so much you can do in a 8’x6’ space, but this doesn’t mean that we don’t fully appreciate this mode of transportation, quite the opposite really.

We awoke at 7 a.m. bright eyed and bushy tailed to pack up our items. At around 7:30 a.m. we headed to the lobby to meet Davaa who would drive us to the train station for our 8 a.m. departure. A quick 7 minute drive away, we said our goodbyes and made our way through the lobby of locals to the train platform to find other tourists patiently waiting for the doors to open. We pulled out our tickets and then attempted to decipher the Cyrillic to determine which car we were in. Luckily, Doug is now well practiced so after a brief look over it was determined that we were in car #3, beds #17 and #19.  We hurriedly walked the platform to find our car, arriving at just about 7:50 a.m. We then continued to wait and decided that we had misinterpreted our tickets, along with the other tourists, and the 8 a.m. departure was an 8 a.m. board time. 10 minutes later we were finally allowed to board and arrived at our room with beds #17 and #19, both bottom bunks which we now know is the thing to have. While waiting for our cabin mates to arrive, a young women visited our cabin to inform us that our train tickets had the incorrect time printed on them and that we would be leaving at 8:30 a.m. Our only response was ‘OK’ because we really had no say in the matter and we were already on the train, but I would say we always appreciate over-communication when in a foreign country. 30 more minutes ticked by without any cabin mates and off we were with the cabin all to ourselves.

Doug's artsy photo of our train with the Ulaanbaatar sunrise
Doug’s artsy photo of our train with the Ulaanbaatar sunrise

And, not a whole lot happened the next few hours. We napped, walked the train, commented on how the landscape looks like Texas, watched multiple episodes of The Americans, read our Kindles, continued our ongoing game of Rummy (Lynn is in the lead!), and judged the nearby French tourists on their incessant need to smoke. Every time we stopped we would brace ourselves for the arrival of our cabin mates, but every time we were delighted to find that we were still the only ones. For lunch we ate a can of tuna on bread that we had purchased the night before and snacked on paprika flavored potato chips and dried apricots. For dinner we headed to the food car to have overpriced beef stir fry which we were able to pay for with our remaining tugrik and Chinese yuan which Lynn had brought along that was left over from her study abroad trip 10 years before.

Doug napping
Doug napping
We decided to keep in shape during our trip by mainly walking but also supplementing with push-ups. Doug forgot to do his and had to do them on the train
We decided to keep in shape during our trip by mainly walking but also supplementing with push-ups. Doug forgot to do his and had to do them on the train
Looks a lot like Texas
Looks a lot like Texas
Small Mongolian village we stopped in
Small Mongolian village we stopped in
Lynn being Lynn
Lynn being Lynn

At around 10 p.m. we arrived at the border where we had Mongolian customs walk the train and immigration take our passports to stamp them. We don’t know exactly what the train was doing while this was happening, but it seemed as though the train was dancing. For about an hour the train would move forward 50’ then backward 50’. At some point Mongolian immigrations returned our passports and we were off for a quick 20 minute drive until we arrived in China and had a somewhat similar scenario. Chinese customs collected our forms and walked the trains, this time asking us to lift our beds. Our response was, ‘Wait, we can lift our beds?’ So thanks to Chinese customs we learned that there is storage under our beds and we were now able to put our bags there instead of having them take up valuable leg space on our beds. Immigration also came around and collected our passports and we again started the train dance, but this train dance took much, much longer and at the end of it we just went barreling off. Slightly nervous because we still have not received our passports from immigration we kept our eyes on the window trying to figure out what was happening. A brief while later we rolled into what appeared to be a warehouse with a bunch of lifting jacks, and you should have seen the excitement on Doug’s face. Imagine you are a small child and seeing a firetruck, real life firetruck with firemen and possibly a Dalmatian puppy although that never ever happens, for the first time. That was Doug. In reading up on the Trans Siberian Railway, he learned that there is a point where you switch from Russian tracks to Chinese tracks and since they are different widths this requires that the train’s axles be swapped out. He didn’t recall where in the visit this happens, so he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to see it. With the realization he would witness it on the border with China, Doug kept his eyes glued to the windows to watch the action. Each train car was individually separated and placed in 3 rows of jacks. Two crews of workers would work nonstop to unhitch the current train’s wheel assemblies, roll them away, roll the new wheel assemblies under the car, and then attach the new wheel assembles. Since there were only two crews and about 15 cars, this took some time and provided quite a bit of entertainment. When all was said and done, it was about 1 a.m. and time for bed.

Swapping train axles in China
Swapping train axles in China

Daily Walking Mileage: 1.5

Fun Facts:

  • Monglian trains run on 1520 mm lines (Russian gauge). China uses 1435 mm (standard gauge) lines. Any train that passes over the border must have their axles, also called bogies, swapped.
  • The Trans Mongolian Railways follows an ancient tea caravan from China to Russia.
  • Mongolia shares a border of 4677 km with China, the longest for both countries.

2 thoughts on “Dear America, Could We Get Some Trains Please?

  1. I totally agree!!!! Swapping axles and wheels – with the people still on the train?!?! – how cool. All that time with nothing to do means you can spend LOTS of time on posts for your adoring fans. When Nick and I were riding the train from Denver to Salt Lake City (11 hours) he tried to teach me ‘Magic’…turns out he didn’t really know the rules so I learned it all wrong. Anyway…THAT is a beautiful train trip. No changing wheels, but you do go through 29 tunnels from Denver to Winter Park. And I agree…America needs more trains!!!!

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