The first leg of our train ride across the continent went very well. Our train was clean and modern and we had a whole compartment to ourselves. There were Western style toilets that flushed, soap, toilet paper, and even power plugs. I thought it was nicer than many of the hostels we’ve stayed in!
The passengers were primarily Mongolians and Westerners; we didn’t see many Chinese. My first impression of the Mongolian people was that they were quite large. The men in particular all had gigantic??beer bellies??and seemed determined to spend as much time shirtless as possible. There wasn’t room to go around them in the corridor, so someone always had to duck inside a compartment to let the other pass.
At the Chinese border we had to wait several hours while they changed the bogeys and cleared everyone through customs. The Chinese officials took our passports (which made me nervous), then one of the train workers said something that sounded like, “Shopping god,” and motioned for us to get off the train. We went inside the train station, bought water and snacks, and then discovered the door was locked when we tried to go back outside. I wanted to see them change the bogeys, but the train rolled off, presumably to change them elsewhere.
Once everything was set and they let us back on the train, it was only about fifteen minutes until we had to go through Mongolian immigration and customs. It was already after midnight by then, but at least we didn’t have to get off the train. Soldiers came in and did a quick, half-hearted search of our compartment. They took our passports away again, which still made me nervous, but we got them back without a problem. Then we finally were able to sleep.
Coming into Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we passed buildings with brightly colored roofs, giving a cheerful feeling to an otherwise bleak and rundown place. A driver from our guesthouse picked us up from the train station. In the parking lot, he had to jimmy open the door of the van with a screwdriver. The UB Guesthouse is very small and cramped, especially at breakfast time, but the owners keep it very clean and there’s hot water, so we can’t really complain. Besides, we didn’t want to spend much time in Ulaanbaatar. We were anxious to get out into the countryside for our first adventure: the Gobi Desert.