Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The food on the train goes round and round...

... round and round, round and round, all through China, Mongolia & Russia.

Spending nearly an entire week on the trans-Mongolian train, and I do mean a full week of butt-on-the-seat hours (with stops our journey took over a month), meant that we would have to be fairly resourceful or adventurous with our food options.  As you'd expect, we were a little of both.  Below I lay out some of the better, worse, and most common food dishes during the ride.

We began with fresh fruits from a platform-vendor in Beijing Railway Station (Chinese: 北京站; pinyin: Běijīng Zhàn)
Little did we know this would be the extent of the fresh fruit we would see for nearly two weeks...
Upon entering our kupe for the first time our linen-covered table, pitcher of hot water,
and freshly sealed tangerines looked just delightful
Enjoying our fresh fruit so much we quickly moved on to a prized possession.
Something we had carried for thousands of miles for this very moment.
The delicious, succulent, wonderful mango jam from Les-Manguiers with a fresh roll and peanut butter.
yum yum yum
Seriously, they were worth two photos.
In the morning-time we had instant coffee in fancy glass mugs.
Later we would just carry our own Nescafé Gold.
And if you BYOIC (Bring your own instant coffee) you can collect hot water in 
each car's clean and attractive samovar (a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water).
I was definitely a little scared to use this guy at first, but in the end he's not so bad.
The Mongolian dining car was super-decked out.
Carved wood, authentic cloth materials, and even carved-mini deer heads (check it out on the right)
I tried to order an omelet, but when I asked for the price (the guidebooks were adamant that you must ask for the price of the items before ordering, or you will surely face a surprisingly large bill) all I got was a blank stare.  A few moments later an omelet appeared.  Cold, tired, and small.  I did not like the looks it.  Or the scene that would surely follow (months of my lamenting over the $16 cold, two egg omlette).  So I refused it.  And for the rest of that 12 hour train journey, the waitress refused to sell us any food.   But as you will see, this was not a problem as we had come well-prepared.
As we moved through Mongolia the food selection took a surprising delicatessen turn.
Large salamis and hard crusty bread was the order of the day.
Indeed, we even hung them from our window...
We began fairly civilized about our deli platters.
Proper meat-cheese-cracker ratios.
Served on a nice Styrofoam plate.
Later we lost the plates, but still did it up with style.
You can see my preferred butter crackers here.
Jesse liked the bland, table crackers shown above.
Of course, neither compares to the ultimate cracker, the Tuc.
And the Mongolians on-board really took the meat, milk and white bread diet seriously.
Not a lick of green or fresh vegetables whatsoever.
Thankfully, we did not share a compartment with these folks.

Though bacon flavored chips were readily available.
As our food stores dwindled we eventually turned to our deep ramen supplies.
Familiar with the samovar we got our cup of noodles (or whatever they call them) ready to go and got ready for the
blast of salt.  Salt, salt, and more salt.
And tiny little scraps of dried and then re-hydrated beef.  I think that is beef. 
Hard to say really...
Whatever, these were much more appetizing than the pellets of meat in the ramen's above and below....
Yes, those little dried balls you see in the soup above?  Chicken.
Those pale little floaters you see in the soup below.  More chicken.
Maybe chicken? 
It kinda looks like a chicken icon on the lower right portion of the bowl, doesn't it?
Whatever, it did taste like much of anything.  Just hot salty noodles.
And that was OK. 
But, eventually it did get tiring.
And left us with an incredible thirst.
Finally we splurge on what we deemed to be a retro space-age Russian dining car
(we figured that if you were designing a futuristic car in the 80's this is what it looked like)
So, here we are, very fancy, for our dining car experience.
I started with a Baltica 3, which was second only to Baltica 7 in terms of my favorite Russian beer.
I was glad they had #3 because Baltica produced Baltica 1-9, and 20, so there was real risk I would have had to settle for a much less delicious beer.
Jesse went for a salad.
It was actually delicious.
In part because the veggies were fresh and crisp, and also,
because for the previous 3 weeks we had eaten Ramen, salami, and chips...
And turning away from any sort of health kick we also started with a plate of fries.
Also delicious.
So far the train food was quite a pleasant surprise.
I purchased bread for $0.75
Had I hoped for a half-slice of stale wheat I would be been in luck.
So, it would be fair to say that I was out of luck.
Then came my entrée.
This was the heaviest meal ever.  And it was delicious.
Described as a chicken breast with sauce over salad what I actually got was way way better.
It was a giant chicken breast, breaded, fried and smothered with cheese (sauce?), tomatoes, olives, and what must have been an entire container of sour cream. And as bad as it looked, it tasted that good.  I still sometimes think about it.
I also think it would fit the TGI Friday/Applebee's/Chili's menu just perfectly.
[JLM: Not wanting to deprive Dave of any of his dish, I did not request one single bite.]
Back in our car Luba had set up her perfect Russian meal.
Hearty (stale) black bread.  Tomato.  Salt.
It looked pretty good.
And, of course, at one station I found a man selling roast chicken.  So I bought one.
And I loved it.
The food on the train was fun.  It was an adventure, it was a break from the reading, writing, and lounging, and it was always something to look forward to.  In retrospect - we should've been eating in the dining cars a lot more.  Especially in Russia.  Great salad, great fries, and chicken a'la heart-attack.  What could be better?

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