It was 2am when I woke up nervous my alarm wouldn’t go off. My cracked cell phone could no longer be accessed and had been my most reliable alarm clock, the iPad only seemed to do as it’s told 50% of the time. Tossing and turning, I eventually decided to just get up and get my stuff all packed and my writing caught up. The slow wifi allowed me to upload another 50 photos in the 3 hours, only 200 more to go!
The snow was falling heavy and the roads were slick with slush and ice. My taxi was running behind and had to speed me to the train station slipping through intersections and sloshing side to side, oh how I wished there were seat belts. We arrived to a mass chaos of people waiting for the Beijing train, me being the only westerner anywhere in sight. My attempt to confirm the train platform included three people abrasively butting in front of me. Ah, Asia. The drink vending machine only took 500 and 1000 MNT and I didn’t have enough of the correct combinations on me to get water for the long train ride, so I went to the restaurant in the station.
One door in, one door out, crammed with people trying to do both as if it was rush hour in Tokyo. Finally inside, people were everywhere, the tables were setup like a high school cafeteria and there was a counter at the end with one lady behind it and a swarm of people in front. I joined the line and as we slowly chugged forward there must be some unspoken thing that says – oh butt in front of the white girl, she can’t do anything about it, ha ha – as slowly my place in line got further and further from where I started. Orders for Mongolian style mutton dumplings by the half dozen were flying everywhere. It was 6:30am. Eventually I just hollered over the hoard of people that pushed there way in front of me – Bon Aqua and motioned for a large size and pointed to the stack in the fridge.
Frazzled from the chaos inside, I elected to stand in the freezing cold with snow falling and slush at my feet despite the fact I had packed most of my cold weather gear as I wanted to be more hands free/nimble for getting on the train / sorting myself. It was freezing, but better than being in a swarm of insanity. The train was running late, 6:50am came, no train, 7:00am came, no train, 7:10am came, train! In the meantime more westerners started to show, apparently it’s just me and the Chinese that feel we should get to the train obscenely early ‘just in case’.
Carriage #9, on I went with the handful of westerners. A carriage just for foreigners eh? It’s actually just luck of the draw but unlike the Russian train I came in on, there were no Chinese or Mongolian in first class, it was completely westerners. The outside was a dark blue soviet era train car and inside was a navy blue carpet that led the way to the rooms, wood lacquer on every wall. The train had come from Beijing, made it’s way to Moscow and was on it’s way back to Beijing, the end of it’s long long journey.
I opened the door to suite #9/10, there were two bunks stacked on top of each other on the left hand side, a small table that didn’t fold down in the middle just below a large and extremely dirty window. On the other side of the table was a single bench seat, presumably for the top bunk person to be able to use the table. Next to that was a door for a shared shower with suite #11/12, and I use the term shower lightly as it was a dingy room with a small metal sink and a dirty shower head that dripped cold water ever so slowly. Luckily I wouldn’t be on long enough to shower. Beside the shower door was a small slender closet just deep enough to fit my coat and boots sideways.
With my boots off I immediately felt the slush of the soaking wet carpet below me. My socks were wet within seconds and I frantically searched my bag for my flats. Hanging the socks to dry on the tiny 6” wide 3-rung ladder that partially assists in the hoisting effort required to fling one’s body up to the top bunk. The train car smelled of cigarette smoke as unlike the Russian train, it was allowed to smoke in the entry way. After a bit of haggling, the grumpy carriage manager reluctantly gave me clean linens – one pillow case, one sheet, and one duvet cover all pressed and clean.
I situated my bags on the lower bunk, spread out the sheet and draped it over the second pillow to use as cushion while sitting, then made the bed on the top bunk. Ian from suite #7/8, a tall good looking man in his early 30s from the UK stopped in, he had been on this exact train for the last 5 days from Moscow and would continue on to Beijing. Having had the carriage to himself for the bulk of the journey, he was excited for company. Next door to me in entered an Italian father and daughter and next door to them a couple from the UK. The carriage was starting to fill.
Unlike the Russian train, our carriage manager did not feel the need to replenish the toilet paper in the bathroom, clean the bathroom, or the carriage for that matter, or provide soap in the bathroom, or febreeze (which I could have used on the mildew smelling wet carpet in my suite). Apparently I had been spoiled before, I knew it was a fantastic ride, I just didn’t know it wasn’t protocol. I felt bad for Ian who would spend 9 days on this dingy train with grumpy managers who didn’t even provide the compulsory train cups and spoons for coffee.
The train was excessively jiggly bouncing back and forth between the tracks as it wobbled and creaked through the southern Gobi desert. Barely being able to see out my window through what looked like months worth of dust and gunk, I squinted eagerly trying to make out the herds of camels drinking by the stream, the herdsmen on their horses rounding up their sheep, the sand dunes in the distance, and the endless brown prairies. It was torture not being able to take photos as the dirt covered window showed only a blurry world behind it.
As the sun began to set on the endless prairies of Mongolia, our train turned East toward China. The deep black smoke billowing out the train as it whipped through the s-curved tracks wobbling and creaking the whole way. Despite having only filled my pot a quarter of the way for my ramen noodles, the wobbling was so intense the broth was flinging side by side all over the little table. The suite was starting to feel disgusting with a wet slimy mildewy carpet and dirty table covered in broth. I climbed into the top bunk to pretend it was all just a dream.
Around 7:00pm we stopped in Dzaminude for Mongolian border control. It’s always such a flurry as they enter the train walking quickly from one end to the next until there’s someone who stops and asks for your passport. He didn’t even look to confirm it was me, just grabbed it and left. Next a woman stopped in and took the declaration form that was stamped from when I entered and asked me to open the cubby below the bed and the shower. It was the least rigorous search so far. It would be another hour that I’d be without my passport, the longest so far on the journey, before the man would return and hand me an Italian passport and struggle with my repeated no, the blue passport, not that one.
With the toilets closed for the 2 hours to do the Mongolian passport control and knowing in 20 minutes they’d be closed again for the 4 hours at the China border, I begged them to unlock the toilets. How everyone else managed, I don’t know. It was 10km later that we got to Erlian on the China side which was quite the experience. The Chinese rail requires a different set of wheels than the Mongolian and Russian rails. After an equally less stringent border control process of checking passports and rooms, the train started undergoing it’s transformation.
After an abrupt clanking and jerking of the train, it began to roll backward the entire length of the train. Then it paused, abruptly shook and rattled and jerked again, and started rolling forward on a different track until we were back at the train station. Oddly, it did this back and forth once more until we were on an even further track in the station. At that point, the train shook violently much like if T-Rex were trying to attack us, the train crew worked each set of wheels at a time, and with each one it was as if we were hit head on by a semi-truck. The clanking, the shaking. As they finished the wheels on a carriage, there’d be small reprieve as we slid backward for a few seconds to line up the next carriage.
Within seconds of the last wheels getting transformed and the violent shaking stopping, I was out like a light. It had been a long day.