Dec. 1 – K3 Train from Beijing to Irkutsk – In Mongolia
We awoke to light blue skies, a vast white, undulating plain, and patches of yellow grass. Mongolia.
Yesterday, after an hour on the metro, I arrived before dawn at the Beijing Railway Station. Announcements boomed through the cavernous hall as I had a sad, bland breakfast at McDonald’s. We rolled out slowly into the frost-tipped city’s morning, elders outside doing calisthenics, car traffic still looking tolerable. All day the railroad cut north, tunneling through steep mountains which flattened into gentle, butternut contours. The pale brick buildings along the track were low and rough. Power and telephone lines. Water frozen in the ditches. Sheep grazing on dry stalks.
I had not expected to have an entire four-person compartment to myself, but I did and it was/is awesome. More room to spread out and makes sleeping easier. This did not entail isolation. I’ve met other “fellow travellers”; a former Starbucks executive from Los Angeles, a videographer from Brisbane, two bald, bespectacled Swiss men (one short, one tall), an Irish couple from Kerry. There’s easy and instant chemistry among us, doing the Trans-Mongolian route the “wrong way” and in winter. We’ve all done far-flung travel and can easily share stories without vanity or one-upmanship. There are Chinese and Mongolian passengers too, but language barriers limit the contact to nods and “Ni hao”.
Arriving that night at the China-Mongolia border town of Erlian, the train stopped. Mongolian and Russian railway gages differ from China’s so the wagons must change bogeys. While this was being done, I spent a slightly suspenseful half hour with the Chinese authorities. They had never dealt with someone who had come to China by ship. The entire green-uniformed border control staff clustered around me, like medical students studying a rare case of cranial deformity. Their best English-speaker asked the questions posed by his superior officer:
“Did you arrive by car?”
“No, by ship.”
[Pause. Discussion in Mandarin.]
“Were you working on the ship?”
“No, I was a passenger.”
“How many passengers on the ship?”
[Pause. Discussion in Mandarin.]
“Was this a cruise ship?”
“No, it was a container ship.”
“Why did you take this ship?”
[Pause. Some smiles from the junior officers as this is interpreted.]
Lengthy discussion among the entire team ensues. Senior officer picks up the phone, makes a call, says a few words, puts the phone down, waiting begins. I try to remember that I’m dealing with the Government of the People’s Republic of China, that this is no time to be chatty, and keep my smiling mouth shut. All the same, I’m not too worried as the only word I understand being spoken among the relaxed-looking junior officers is “Xbox”. A few minutes later, response comes from Shanghai Pudong port where I landed. My story checks out and I’m free to go. I then wait past midnight for the Mongolian authorities to complete their formalities and return my passport. As we start rolling again, I can finally go to sleep, gently rocked by the rails.
From the warmth of my compartment, the wintry Mongolian landscape is beautiful. Deep undulations, sun sparkling on snow, herds of shaggy horses and even dromedaries. Ulan Bator, by contrast, sprawls low and ramshackle in a bowl of its own smog. Plank fences delineate small property lines, crummy houses with tin roofs. Packs of stray dogs trot along the tracks. Thirty minutes at the station, long enough to step out onto the platform, breath freezing while we snap a few pictures. Passengers board with large bundles, workers dump loads of coal to heat the samovars that supply each wagon with boiling water. Then northwards, sun setting over a mountain range to the west, and suddenly the snow is gone.