It smelled like a fruit market. That’s probably not the first thing you imagine when you picture the train ride from Beijing to Ulanbataar, but it’s true. Sitting in our train compartment was like sitting in the middle of a very tiny, very ripe local fruit stand.
It was the first leg of our Trans-Mongolian journey and we
were a little nervous and a lot excited.
We pictured free-flowing vodka, hearty Russians singing uproarious
songs, and little old babushkas sharing their blintzes and borscht with
us. Instead, we met our very nice and very
normal compartment-mates: an eighty-five year old Australian man traveling on a
tour (the rest of the group was in first class; we were in second class) and a
young Mongolian women traveling home after working in Korea.
We boarded the train in Beijing at 7:30 am, and most of the
day passed uneventfully – chatting with other passengers, visiting the dining
car (according to the Lonely Planet, the Chinese dining car is the best along
the entire Trans-Mongolian railroad; having eaten in the Chinese dining car, we
resolved to pack our own groceries for the rest of the trip) and reading and watching TV on our computers.
At around 9:30 pm the train pulled into a station at the
Chinese border. We were all herded off
the train and into the giant empty building where we were shepherded into the
convenience store. We wandered around,
picking up some bottled water, a package of cookies, laughing over the potato
chips flavors (a favorite activity of ours in each new country; this
convenience store offered “refreshing blueberry” flavor) and pricing out Johnny
Walker (Dave is keeping a mental Johnny Walker Index which he updates at every
airport duty free store, convenience store, liquor store, and supermarket we
visit*). The Mongolians, as we would
come to understand, knew better. They
loaded up shopping carts with crates of fresh fruit and veggies.
When we left the convenience store, the train was gone. This is never something you hope to
experience on a train ride, especially when all of your luggage is still on the
train. It turns out that they had just
taken the train away to change the bogies.
The Chinese tracks were of a different gauge than the Mongolian tracks,
of course. “Not to worry,” we were told,
“the bogie-changing process will just take a few hours.” So we sat around the empty train station,
milled around on the empty platform, and entertained ourselves in the empty
When we finally got back on the train around midnight, the
fun was far from over. First, we helped
our Mongolian compartment-mate stack her crates of fruit throughout the
cabin. Then, we attempted to sleep. Every thirty minutes to an hour a new
immigration or customs official (Chinese or Mongolian) would bang on the door,
fling it open, flip on the lights and bark out orders. (Midnight to four a.m. did not seem like a
desirable border-crossing time. Why
couldn’t our train have left at 7pm and gone through immigration and customs in
the morning instead?) We would blearily
hand over passports, fill out forms and try not to get stepped on as officials
in army boots climbed all over our beds to poke around in our stuff.
The morning brought a new and exciting experience – the
Mongolian dining car. Where the Chinese
car was rather spartan, the Mongolian car was decked out. You know, the usual train dining car
decorations: wood paneled walls hung with traditional Mongolian weapons.
We arrived in Ulanbataar in the late afternoon to huge
cloudless blue skies and the next leg of our adventure. Stay tuned.
|Train conductors on the platform in Beijing|
|It turns out that there are many train stations in Beijing.|
Our ticket was printed solely in Chinese.
We were really relieved to have arrived at the correct station.
|Our surly conductor, in front of our car #7|
|Saying goodbye to Beijing|
|We passed by the Great Wall of China|
|Typical Chinese scenery - fields bordered by heavy industry|
|The train station at night.|
The Viennese Waltz played loudly over the loudspeakers (not a joke).
|Ni hao. Would you like a legal consultation?|
|Milling around. At this point we're really ready to get back on the train.|
[FUN FACT! You'll meet Alida, Dale and Steve again later on this blog!]
|First glimpse of Mongolia the next morning. It is flat!|
|And there are horses!|
|Chinese dining car. Booooooring.|
|Mongolian dining car. So fun!|
(Note the fake mounted deer head on the right!)
|The dining car attendant didn't hate Steve though, so he ordered giant Mongolian beer for the table.|
* So far the cheapest Johnny Walker is available in Vientiane, Laos.