After hours barreling through the empty expenses of the Mongolian countryside we made it the border. It was nearly 11pm when the Mongolian officials boarded the train, collected our passports and disappeared. (Sidenote: I hate when border agents take my passport out of view – turns my stomach in knots!)
When they finally nonchalantly reappeared, over an hour had passed. After they disembarked, the train lunged forward a bit more, stopped and then took a sharp left turn into a warehouse. What the?
The doors at each end of the car were locked. Curious, we looked out the window and saw several men meandering around in hardhats. Then, the entire train jolted up. As in, into the air. On a giant jack.
What was happening? Well, as it were, China (in its decades-long quest to safeguard itself from outsiders) decided to buck trend and create its own rail system with tracks of a different width than any other country in the world.
Basically, they made it impossible for foreign train to just roll into the country. We were jacked up in the air, so that the meandering workers could swap out the existing train rails in favor of the noticeably narrower Chinese ones.
The process can take anywhere from three to eight hours. And, in the mean-time all passengers are sequestered on the train and bathrooms are off limits.
Rails switched (only three hours later), we were lowered to the ground and met by a string of border officials. They collected, processed, returned, and rechecked our passports and customs forms before searching our bags. The process felt more like an interrogation than any other border I’d been through especially given the late hour.
It happened to be Halloween night, but in hindsight I’m glad we hadn’t celebrated with costumes and libations – I don’t think they would have gotten it and it would have drawn a lot of attention.
After over five hours, we got moving again, bound for Beijing. Verdict: the Mongolia – China crossing wasn’t the worst, but certainly raked up points in the categories of confusion and slowness.
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