Wednesday, October 26, 2011

C'mon Ride the Train, 'N Ride It!

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.
Train conductors on the platform in Beijing
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.
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
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.
Saying goodbye to Beijing
Car #7 hallway
Taking a nap in our cabin
Train bathroom
Empties onto the tracks.
We passed by the Great Wall of China
Typical Chinese scenery - fields bordered by heavy industry
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. 
The train station at night.
The Viennese Waltz played loudly over the loudspeakers (not a joke).
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 customs stations.
Ni hao. Would you like a legal consultation?
Dale mans Declarations
Steve is ready to give an Examination
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!]
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.
First glimpse of Mongolia the next morning.  It is flat!
And there are horses!
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.
Chinese dining car.  Booooooring.
Mongolian dining car.  So fun!
(Note the fake mounted deer head on the right!)
The Mongolian dining car attendant took an especial dislike to Dave.  It all started when he asked her how much an omelet cost.  In response she brought him an omelet that had been sitting on another table, untouched, for at least the past hour and a half.  Dave politely explained that he just wanted to know the price, he didn’t want an omelet and especially not that omelet.  After that, Dave was the attendant’s mortal enemy.  She scowled every time she walked by him and when he asked for a cup of coffee she curtly responded “No. No coffee.”  Then we watched her pour coffee for some other people.
The dining car attendant didn't hate Steve though, so he ordered giant Mongolian beer for the table.
We arrived in Ulanbataar in the late afternoon to huge cloudless blue skies and the next leg of our adventure.  Stay tuned.
And of course, bags of coal filled the vestibule area of each car.
* So far the cheapest Johnny Walker is available in Vientiane, Laos.

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