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April 3 – 4, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

Anyone who knows Kristin knows that she has a long time love for camels. She had ridden on some camels in Asia, Australia, and Egypt and was extremely excited to finally have the opportunity to ride a two-hump (Bactrian) camel in Mongolia. For that reason alone she had made every possible compromise to somehow make this journey into Mongolia possible. We had stayed in close communication with my Mongolian friend Jenny and in her last message she stated that her sisters would be waiting for us at the train station in Ulan Baatar. It was of great comfort to us to know that someone would be waiting for us in this new and exciting country we knew nothing about.

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There was no great crush of people to get on the train to Ulan Baatar at the Beijing station — a welcome change from our usual train station mob experience.

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As the ticket lady had basically told us when we bought the tickets, no one in their right mind would go to Mongolia at this time of year because it was too freakin’ cold. While waiting for the train at the Beijing train station we were approached by a nice older gentleman who asked us (in English!) if this was the train to Ulan Baatar — we hadn’t been asked for directions in a very long time! It turns out he was Mongolian and was returning home. He was quite friendly and since we both had meal tickets (included in the price of the train tickets) for dinner and breakfast, we tentatively made plans to meet up in the diner car of the train later. We were anxious to talk to him about Mongolia.

Undaunted, we hopped onto the K3 train, the first leg of the Trans-Siberian railway (Trans-Mongolian line).

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Trilingual train car placard, great! Luckily Kristin can now put her Russian skills to use.

We settled into our second-class 4-berth cabin, and it looked like we were the only ones in the cabin — the train was probably less than a quarter full. In our train car alone there were only about 2 or 3 cabins being used out of the 10 or so available…just another sign that we were traveling to Mongolia at a not so popular time of year.

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HELLO, Hello..hello….hello….. Is there anyone else on this train?

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Our cabin with plenty of under the bed storage.

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With the cabin to ourselves Kristin makes herself at home, and I have my choice of fold down seats in the hallway outside our cabin to work on our blog.

Kristin had spent the last few days trying to get better by resting and taking whatever medication she could to clear up the severe sinus infection and body aches that had zapped all her energy. She had lost her appetite, and now news of a new bird flu outbreak in Shanghai causing deaths, there and around China, was starting to weigh on us. The news got worse when it was also reported that the outbreak had started during the time we were in Shanghai. We tried not to think of the possibilities and instead focused on a long (30 hours) restful train ride. At the same time Kristin and I did not want to miss out on any sights out the window once we got into Mongolia.

Early on in our travels in China we had been told that Beijing was a failed city on more levels than one. We were starting to see that, certainly from an environmental perspective, but we were not prepared for what we were now seeing out the train windows.

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We had seen the trash (mainly made up of plastic bags) along the tracks as we left Beijing, but we were now in the countryside and there was just as much trash.

As travelers we are somewhat conditioned to accept and see certain levels of pollution and blight in large cities, and probably more so in developing countries, but what we were seeing out the train’s window was off the charts. If ever there was a reason to rid this earth of plastic bags, it was this train ride.

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The livestock just wanders through the landscape filled with plastic. Can you tell where the sheep are?

We had dealt with, as best as possible, the air pollution in Beijing but the land pollution we were now seeing outside the train window was incredible. As we sped out of Beijing we saw trash of all sorts along the railroad tracks, and as the train kept going, hour after hour into the countryside, the situation didn’t get any better. How bad was it? It looked like the people had given up and were now just accepting the millions of plastic bags around them, to the point that in cultivating the fields, they were just plowing the plastic bags into the soil. Maybe hoping that the plastic would eventually breakdown and become part of the soil. Shocking? Yes. Upsetting? Even more so. Depressing? Most definitely. Had the people given up and accepted their situation? From what we could see, sadly so. Was this just another side of what we had been told about Beijing being a failed city? Probably so, but this had extended so far out of the city and into the countryside. I sat there sad, upset, and swore to make every attempt possible to never use plastic bags ever again.

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Plastic bags everywhere, and we were now going on 2 hours out of Beijing.

It was now getting close to dinner time and Kristin and I walked up to the dining car to take advantage of our free dinner meal tickets. The Chinese dining car was nothing to write home about, rather plain, a simple menu, and even simpler service — we handed them the tickets, they brought us the meal of the day.

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Uhhhh, pass the salt please? (Chinese dining car version of a hearty breakfast)

We saw our Mongolian friend and shared a table with him. He asked about us, our trip, and where we were from in the U.S., and we did the same with him. He taught us some useful Mongolian phrases, and then asked us if we knew about the changing of the wheels of the train at the border. Huh? No, please tell us more.

He described it like this: Around 11pm when we get close to the Mongolian border, the Chinese officials board the train to collect all the passports from the passengers — and leave with the passports in hand. (We don’t like to be separated from our passports!). They would return them to us once the wheel sets (bogies) were changed. Once the officials exited the train, the train will proceed to a large warehouse where they will separate all the train cars, disconnect the wheels, lift all the train cars by large hydraulic lifts, wheel out all the Chinese wheels, wheel in the Russian wheels, drop all the train cars onto the new wheels and attach them to the train cars, attach all the train cars back together again, and roll out the train. The officials then come back onto the train and give us back our passports, they leave, we enter Mongolia, Mongolian officials now board the train and review our passports, they leave the train, and then we continue onto Ulan Baatar. That should all take about 3 hours or so. He then ended by saying, “You should stay up and watch it all, it’s pretty interesting.” Huh, yeah! No kidding!

We then asked why they did this, why two different kinds of wheels? He said, all he knows is that in China they had their own set of standards for train wheel widths and that they are different than those in Russia and Mongolia. Because of that, there is now a round the clock operation on the border for all trains traveling between Mongolia and China where train wheel changing is a on going service. Wow! We definitely had to see this.

We returned to our sleeper car now excited to see this unusual aspect of China’s railroad system. By this time we had discovered two other travelers sharing our sleeper car. They too were Mongolian traveling back to Ulan Baatar. We were able to communicate a bit with them as one of them knew a little English. Just before we got to the border, the train stopped and the Chinese authorities boarded the train and took our passports.

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Have your passports ready.

To our surprise our cabin mates from Mongolia exited the train and went off into town. They motioned to us if we wanted to join them, but we said no. We didn’t want to miss this very unusual wheel-changing experience (and getting off the train made us a little nervous). So off they gallivanted into to the night at this tiny border town (Erenhot/Zamyn-Üüd).

For the next 30 minutes or more the train underwent a series of back and forth herky jerky, loud crashing moves. There was no way of getting any sleep now, even if we had wanted to. Finally the train pulled into this large warehouse, more herky jerking crashing around and then the train left the warehouse. Hey what happened? We didn’t see any wheel changing. Oops, spoke too soon. Back into the warehouse we go. Oh! Now we see what’s going on. Seems that the train was too long and they split it in half the first time we pulled in. As we pulled in the second time we could see across from us the first half of our train. We finally pulled to a stop — and spotted our Mongolian friend from dinner at his window in that first half of the train! We waved at each other and for the next hour or two we watched as the workmen proceeded to change the train’s wheels. It was pretty unbelievable.

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Once the wheels are disconnected, the train cars are lifted off the wheels. The red-orange things next to the train cars are the massive jacks use to lift each train car.

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A worker looks on as the Chinese wheels are rolled away. Amazing and crazy to know that this is done for each and every train leaving and entering China, 24/7/365.

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Stacked up and off to the side are all the train wheels ready for use.

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Rolling into position are the Mongolian train wheels for all the train cars.

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A view of how large the train wheel changing building is in Erenhot.

Video Clip “K3 train wheel-changing at the China/Mongolian Border”: http://youtu.be/KOCnX2qxhVc

After all the work was done and the train was put back together through another series of herky jerking crashing moves.

Video Clip “Crashing the K3 back together”: http://youtu.be/njixPYGie4g 

We pulled back into that border town and our Mongolian cabin mates jumped back on board along with the Chinese authorities, who gave us back our passports. Our Mongolian cabin mates were all smiles as they came back loaded down with all sorts of bags. I guess this town, like most border towns, is the last chance opportunity to buy products before you cross over the border. There was one more stop once we crossed into Mongolia. Another passport check, this time by the Mongolian authorities (these guys were stern looking but they spoke English!) and off we went.

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Even though I didn’t make it obvious I still took a picture of the border agents checking our passports.

It was really late, getting close to 3am; we were exhausted and had no problem going to sleep.

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One of our Mongolian cabin mates still sleeping soundly the morning after our train wheel changing experience.

What no one tells you ahead of time is that from about half an hour before the train stops for the Chinese customs officials until after the Mongolians check your passports, you cannot use the bathroom! Because the bathrooms have a hole dropping directly onto the tracks, they usually lock the bathroom doors 20 or so minutes before and after each station stop to avoid making deposits in populated areas. This was no exception — and there was definitely no using the bathroom during the wheel change! This information would have been really useful, say, right before we made that first border stop. We’re just saying…

We woke the next morning and looked out the window to see snow on the ground, rolling bare hills as far as you could see, and a pristine landscape with no visible land or air pollution. What a change from what we had last seen of the countryside in China. We gazed out the window enjoying this corner of Mongolia, the Gobi Desert.

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What a sight, the snow covered Gobi! Visually stunning and a obvious pollution free environment. A welcome change from our last stay in China.

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A view of our train as it takes a sharp turn.

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A treeless landscape for as far as you can see. Breathtaking.

Not one tree for as far as you could see. The occasional wandering herdsman with his herd of sheep or goats, scattered cows and what looked like some yaks.

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Every now and then we pass a yurt (or ger in Mongolian) a typical Mongolian nomad home.

And then all of a sudden there they were, a herd of two-hump camels!!! We came upon them so quickly, and were so flabbergasted and taken by the beauty of seeing them, that we had a moment of panic as we scrambled to reach for our cameras to quickly snap some pictures. We barely were able to take a few pictures of them as the train sped by the herd.

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Camels, CAMELS, CAAAAAMELS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Kristin all smiles after seeing her first 2 hump camels in the wild.

Afterwards we sat there stunned. The look of joy and happiness on Kristin’s was priceless. We were so tickled with joy that we were glued to the window hoping to see some more, but unfortunately that would be the only herd we would see.

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A herd of wild Mongolian horses.

We walked into the dining car and were taken aback by the change that had occurred. It turns out that not only did they change the wheels at the border, but the dining car too: Chinese car out, Mongolian car in (apparently you get a Russian dining car at the Russian border). Carved wood paneling, drapes, tablecloths, seat cushions — a total upgrade in the menu and service. Dang! I’m starting to really like this Mongolia place.

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Holy smokes! What happened here!

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So far, I’m really diggin this Mongolia place.

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Honey are those camels in your eyes? Are we happy now? Yes!

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This is what I call a meal.

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Now we’re talking! A glass of wine and some Mongolian beer.

We were once again joined by our old Mongolian friend and passed a leisurely breakfast time together. One other thing he mentioned to us was that all the meat in Mongolia is grass-fed, free range, and chemical free. No kidding! From what we could see they looked pretty happy in this vast paradise of open grasslands.

For the rest of the morning and early afternoon we sat in our cabin and enjoyed the scenery out the window. What a joy to see not just blue skies but an absolutely pristine environment. It had been a long time since the last time we had seen clear blue skies. Occasionally we would stop in a small town/village in the middle of nowhere to drop off or pick up someone.

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The faithful train station guard. Posted at every train station we passed, no matter how small it was.

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At one train stop I ran out so Kristin could take a photo of me in front of the train station.

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We loved the multi-colored roofs of the houses we passed in the small towns in the countryside.

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One of the many small village train stations we passed along the way.

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We always found it curious and entertaining to see signs in English.

It was at these stops that we noticed local women coming up to the train to sell their homemade food items. Many of the passengers would rush to open train car doors to purchase from these women what looked like some pretty savory stuffed breads. I really wanted to buy some of those delicious looking meat pies, but I didn’t have any Mongolian money on me. We still needed to get to a bank or ATM.

The end of our 30-hour train ride was coming to an end, we were finally arriving in the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Baatar.

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It was by far the largest city we had seen since leaving China, but it came no where near in size to the megalopolises of China. We slowly started to pack up and load up our backpacks. The train came to a stop at the station and our cabin companions quickly got all their bags in line, bid us good travels, and left in a snap. We were still struggling to put on our backpacks when I looked up, and at the doorway to our cabin stood two Mongolian ladies wrapped up in long coats, gloves, woolen hats and scarves. They looked over at Kristin and me, and asked in a thick Mongolian accents, “Havar? Kreestin?” I looked up at them and responded, “Chimgee?” Yes! One of them responded. And with that we had arrived in Mongolia.