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Erlian Border Crossing

China already seems to be behind us as we pull into Erlian. Already we’ve seen the landscape growing drier and stations have lost their grim institutional look. Actually crossing the border is a formality. Customs officials snatch up our passports and give us no idea of when we’ll see them again. We begin the long slow wait for the gauges to change. Mongolia is temptingly close but really it’s the distance between two gauges. And how long does it take to cross that distance? At least two hours as our bogie is lifted onto a new set of wheels. Swapping bogies makes trainspotters giggly, but it’s fairly dull for anyone else.

The guidebook chirpily tells you that once you get your passport back you should explore this “lively” border town. In fact it’s a plain train station that does duty free. To be fair I did ignore the instructions about getting your passport back and hopped off for a few minutes to go to the bathroom. I’m about to leave the terminal when I notice there’s now a guard on the door. I smile sweetly and push on the door but it’s locked. I ask the guard and she says “You wait. 10:30.”

This means more than an hour of looking in the Duty Free area which on closer inspection is

more of a supermarket with a dozen bottles of Malibu and a collection of obscure whiskies. I’m a little nervous without my passport but buying a few sachets of Coffee King in “American Flavour” keeps me amused for at least ten minutes. The rest is striking up conversations that consist of “Hello” and “I’m out of Mandarin now”.

Back on the train and we get a second serve of Customs – Mongolian style. The green uniforms are similar but the Mongol version is tricked-out with more military bling. And the female inspector has higher cheekbones with more makeup. Her approach might have just been bossy in China, but here it’s refreshingly brassy.