After an overnight train from Ulan-Ude we arrived in Ulanbaatar – the capital of Mongolia – this morning. On the ride down, the tourist-to-local ratio was opposite from every other train ride we’ve had – the car was full of tourists, mainly European, and only a couple Russians. It was nice to hang out in the corridor and talk shop and hear other traveler’s experiences. However, it felt like we where tourists, which isn’t something we have felt that often.
We got on the train in Ulan-Ude and rode for about five hours until we reached the Russia/Mongolia border. Once we got to the border, all the cars were uncoupled from ours and we were told that at 4pm customs and security would board so we should be in our compartments. This gave use about three hours to explore the little town.
We hopped off the train and walked towards what looked like an exit from the platform. Tina then pulled me around and we saw some armed guards walking about six prisoners – on a chain – to a train car. They got near the car then the guards made the prisoners get down on their knees. Then they uncuffed them one at a time and put them on the train. We noticed that the car had only a couple windows at one end with bars over them. The guards then got about seven prisoners off the train, cuffed them, then marched them to the paddy wagon. Then they got out SEVEN MORE prisoners from the wagon, and marched them to the train! As they were passing us (Tina, me, and maybe 10 other travelers standing there) one prisoners yelled “Hello, Americans”! Tina and I walked around town a bit then went back to hang out in the train.
Not soon afterwards, a Mongolian woman and her friend boarded and sat in our compartment. They stayed with us until we got to the Mongolian boarder, then they got off and got on a local train. The woman and I walked to a market to get some water and food. Turns out she was a Russian teacher at a college in Ulanbaatar. Once back in the train, the two women started talking in Mongolian. It didn’t sound like Russian and was way more throaty.
So, at 4pm, the customs officials boarded the train and got our passports, made us get out of our compartment as they “searched” them, collected our customs papers, then left to process everything. We had to wait about 30 minutes until we got our passports back and were cleared through customs. At this point it had been almost five hours of just sitting at the platform – with no other cars coupled to ours, and no other trains at the station.
Once the train finally started moving, we looked out the window and saw Russian solders riding on the ends of the car – making sure no on hopped off. Then we passed a big electric fence and the guards hopped off. After about 30 seconds of no-mans-land, we passed another fence and some Mongolian solders hopped on the back of the train until we got to the Mongolian customs station. Once there, the solders walked around the train and people came with more customs forms and collected our passports. This process took another couple hours or so making the entire border crossing a 10 hour experience.