Because of the difficulty in getting visa for Russia, and my unwillingness to go through the strange invite process, I did a tour though the country. Having obtained my Mongolian Visa in Beijing (mostly due to poor organisation on my behalf just before I left on the holiday) I joined the tour group, led my Dymphna MaGrath (pictured) for the short trip from Beijing to St Petersburgh. Only 6 and a half days of train travel. When passing the great wall the train stopped. I am not sure why, but we got off and I took some photos.
The tour was a small affair, there were about 9 all up I think. We travelled in unheard-of (for me) comfort and had soft sleeper cabins. I think this was my first such experience. Really they were not much improvement on the hard sleepers, though you have a lot more room. Though this was in 1999 and in my latter trip I did some more soft sleeper travel and it had improved a lot.
Our trip to Mongolia was an eventful overnight trip. The carriages had those special things customs do on every thing that opened or closed to prevent smuggling. But alas, it did not work. As we had an odd number of people, one of our group had to share. It turned out, he was sharing with this woman taking “things” into the country. She had many boxes, and thought he was just in the way, and was trying to remove him from the cabin by filling it up with boxes. He had to be quite firm that he would not give up his bed for her cargo. She emptied boxes of sauce bottled, replaced the lower layers with bottles of alcohol and then the top with sauce. She also had boxes of umbrellas. Each umbrella contained either a sauce bottle or a bottle of alcohol.
I have always been surprised by how close Beijing is to Mongolia. It seems you hardly leave Beijing and already you are passing the great wall. Because China works on a different gauge to Europe and Mongolia is on the European gauge, they had to change the boogies on the train. We were given an option of getting off the train at the station or staying on it when it went into the change-over shed. Interestingly we stayed on the train, until half way through the change over. They lift the carriages up with hoists, roll out the old boogies and roll in the new ones. It was a very simple and surprisingly efficient process. We got off when the carriages had already been hoisted. So there was a little leap from the last step down to the ground. No workers even blinked an eyelid at what we were doing. We then walked back, in the dark along the train tracks to the train station. This was a mistake. I think they used that section of track to clean out the contents of the toilets. It was very messy. I’d recommend avoiding it.