In order to cross from China into Mongolia by train, multiple steps are required. There is removing the wheels of the train and replacing them with the wider ones necessary in Mongolia and Russia, followed by customs and immigration in China, and finally there is Mongolian customs and immigration. All told, the entire process takes nearly 6.5 hours. No biggie, except that it starts at 8:18 pm and ends at 2:40 am! The toilets are locked this entire time. Why? Because they empty directly onto the tracks and since the train is parked, they don’t want the mess, I guess. We were provided with several forms to fill out ahead of time: Chinese customs, Chinese departure card, and Mongolian customs.
We were told to stay on the train when we stopped at the border. A group of Chinese passengers got off to get some fresh air. I assume they had to stay off the train until the wheels had been switched; a couple of hours. I was curious why the train tracks were a different gauge than in China. It turns out that the tracks provided a defensive advantage during WWII. No other country could invade by rail.
Svetlana told us that we would be able to watch the wheels being swapped out if we stayed on board. I was mightily curious how we could possibly see something going on under our car.
First, the cars were separated. Then, two large lifts were attached to the front and back of the car. We were slowly lifted up. Other than the sensation of being lifted, we really had no idea what was going on.
Then, the back half of our train was brought forward to a set of tracks parallel to ours. Now I understood: we would be able to watch their cars get their new wheels. As our car was lowered back to the ground, theirs was raised. The old wheels were in the process of being removed when I decided to get a little shut eye.
And it was a very little amount of shut eye indeed. The Chinese customs officers came through to pick up our customs forms. Next, our departure cards and passports were collected. The passports would be stamped and returned in an hour or two. We dropped off back to sleep until the Mongolian customs officers came through. They yelled at us to wake up and flipped on the cabin light. Clayton and I had scored the bottom bunks in the cabin which meant that everyone’s luggage was stored in the compartments below. We had to get out of bed and open up the compartments for the officers to look into. Perhaps to prove there were no rogue Chinese trying to escape hidden below? We were told ahead of time that sometimes they will do suitcase searches. Fortunately, they did not do that this time.
By now, our passports had been returned. Someone woke us up yet again to return them. Again, back to sleep briefly until the Mongolian immigration officers gave us another gentle wake up call (yelling and turning on the lights) in order to check our passports. They were checking visas (as Americans, we had been told by the Mongolian Embassy that we didn’t need them) and Chinese exit stamps. I handed over my passport; the officer flipped through it page by page and couldn’t find what he was looking for. This made me a little worried, but only a little because I was so exhausted that I could barely think straight! He yelled at me, “Where is your stamp?” I replied that I had no idea since the passport had been taken by the Chinese and they didn’t show me where they had stamped it. At least it was an exit stamp they were after (I was a little worried that they wanted a visa after all)! They demanded that I find the stamp. I was unable to. My passport is very full; at 1:45 am without my reading glasses there was a slim to none chance that I could tell one from another. Another officer came in the room and looked through; she could not find it either. Svetlana got to try next. While she was flipping through, the officers gave up, grabbed it out of her hands, and threw it back at me. So glad they gave up rather than holding me at the border! It was 2 am before we were finally left in peace to sleep.