Taking the train from Mongolia to China involves a train track size change. They have to change the bogies on the train. While you’re still on it!
We’d read vaguely about the changing of the bogies in the Trans-Siberian guides. I didn’t, however, pay it any attention, as I couldn’t really figure out what happened.
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The rail gauge is different between Mongolia and China (or between Russia and China). This means that the carriages that head between the countries need to have the bogies, or “the wheels that they run on” changed. Russia and Mongolia use 1,520 mm gauge track, China uses 1,435 mm, or standard gauge.
Our first clue that something was happening was after Chinese passport control, just after our fruit was confiscated. The train started going backwards towards Mongolia. We began to pass side track after side track of spare bogies. There might be repetition here, but I just love that word. Bogie. The child in me sniggers each time I type it.
A brief stop and then we headed forward into a train shed.
We are now shunted forward and there’s a jerk, the carriage in front of us is gone and we’re in the middle of a huge train shed. Red hydraulic lifts now line the track, and an overhead crane hovers expectantly. On rails alongside are bogies, the track in front of us leads off out of the shed into the distance. We are decoupled from the carriage behind and marooned on our own.
Before long there are clunks and our carriage starts to rise. At first the windowed door at either end of the carriage is open and we grin at the workmen below. Before too long someone realizes and the doors are locked. Its airless, just a choking breath of coal smoke.
The over head crane whizzes backwards and forward, delivering new bogies. It removes Mongolian ones, while we watch the progress on the carriage behind. Mongolian bogies are unfastened, then as the carriage is raised, manually rolled forward, first one, then the second. A hammer put on the track to stop them rolling backwards.
The crane arrives to remove the old bogies, after dropping new ones in front of the carriage, these are then rolled underneath. The difference in gauge size seems small. our new bogies sit on the outside of the track the old ones the inside.
I’ve forgotten to count how many carriages there are before getting on this train, but its easy to see why this takes a while. There is one overhead train and a crew of men for each carriage. Others who travel south to China, who don’t want to wait for this, take the train to Zamyn-Uud and then cross the border in a jeep. You are not allowed to walk across the border here. The faster border crosses then either take a train or a bus. It’s a much quicker route, but for me, watching the changing of the bogies was well worth the extra time.
Our carriage is lowered onto Chinese stock. A further carriage rolls back towards us and attachs to us with loud bangs and thuds. It’s the first of many as the carriages are connected and we roll forward. We’re unable to tell whether the thuds are us moving onto the smaller gauge, or, just the normal operation of the train. It wasn’t, after all, a restful night to get here.
And with that, the changing of the bogies is done. We’re in China and now we’re heading for Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.
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