Travelling from one country to another by train is a strange experience compared to other forms of transport. When you reach a new country via plane, boat or car, it is obvious when you have arrived – you join the endless immigration queue, the signs have changed to a new language and the people often look a bit different…you instantly get a feel for being somewhere else.
Arriving in a new country via the railway is arguably a far simpler and more civilised way to enter. Despite it taking several hours to cross both the Russian-Mongolian and Mongolian-Chinese borders as part of the Trans Siberian trip, it takes no effort! You sit in your compartment, someone comes to you to collect your passport, a customs official or two asks you to step outside for a few moments while they shine a searchlight around your luggage and you fill in your (numerous) immigration forms from the comfort of your bed.
Anywhere between five and 12 hours later, whilst you have been enjoying a few beers and games of cards with your fellow bunk buddies, your passport is returned, stamped, and you have arrived in your new destination without really realising!
The Mongolia-China border crossing is no exception, with some added entertainment thrown in. It takes up to 12 hours, not due to lax customs officials, but as a result of an ingenious and yet odd rail system. The train tracks in Russia and Mongolia are wider than the Chinese tracks, so a significant part of the waiting time is taken up by an extraordinary system of changing the bogies.
The carriages bound for China are de-coupled and hoisted up about 10 feet off the ground by a series of hydraulic lifts, while one set of bogies are removed and a smaller set wheeled underneath. As a passenger its a very strange sensation as the train seems to take of vertically and then “lands” an hour or so later with a bump and a clanking sound, ready to resume its journey.
For the train spotters among us (several surprising bobble hats crept out of the closet) it was quite an exciting event. For me… not a spotter…it was still a unique experience and the first taste of innovative and entertaining Chinese engineering!