The Trans-Mongolian experience

I’m sitting in the basement bar of our hotel sipping a cold beer (first cold one for many days) and reflecting on the past week on a train. It’s been amazing.

Our cabin on the Trans-Mongolian railway

As soon as we arrived at Yaroslavl train station in Moscow we met Mats (Swede), Rob and Tim (Dutch). They were wandering around checking where our train was or would be pulling in. They had berths in the carriage along from us so we knew straight away that we’d be drinking together quite a lot.

Lovely colours on the houses beside the Trans-Mongolian railway

When the train rumbled into the platform the excitement finally hit me. A few moments later we were in our our-berth cabin waiting to see what kind of monstrosity we’d have to put up with for the next week in cramped, intimate conditions. Luckily or us it was a tiny Japanese girl called Maki, Martyn agrees that she was probably the highlight of the trip. Or at least the thing that kept our spirits very high throughout. She was insane. In a great way though. Really funny and up for a laugh all the time. We had been very concerned we’d have another grumpy/wheezy person but it turned out she was the only other companion we had in our cabin until Ulaan Bator. The train left on time at about 9.30pm and it got dark soon after.

Mongolian yurts beside the tracks

A typical railway station scene, this one in Mongolia

A typical forest view from the Trans-Mongolian

The first night we settled in, learned a great card game called Speed from Maki and started eating the masses of food we’d brought along. I went on a cheese rampage and pretty much finished most of my stock on the first night, but I only managed to eat half a pack of the annoyingly hard to break rice noodles during the entire journey. My little tin cup was enough to make a very nice meal but it wasn’t perfect due to its very small size. I had plenty of other things to munch on though. A really good first night on the train.

Crazy, crazy, crazy Mongolian girl on the Trans-MongolianThe next day we found out that the entire Russian part of the journey was carried out at Moscow time. I also found out that most of the timetables people had for stops were nigh on useless as they seemed to have been compiled by idiots or clowns. They were all a bit wrong in one way or another. It became hard to judge when we would be stopping at a station, where the toilets would be locked, and we could get off to buy supplies. For now this wasn’t an issue as the local time outside the train was only +1 from Moscow time, this became a very serious problem a few days later when we had no idea where we were, when we would get anywhere, or what time it really was. I ended up resorting to an odd but very friendly Sue Pollard look-alike Russian lady who trudged up and down the train a few times a day peddling cool(ish) beer, vodka and snacks. Night time games in the corridor of the Trans-Mongolian railwayOh, and water. That was useful too (by that I mean essential). The scenery now was endless pine forests splattered with shanty-town style villages. Very poor people living very simple lives in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes with only an electricity substation or gently smoke-belching factory for company. I can’t possibly imagine how bleak it must be there in a harsh winter. I suppose small dwelling are easier to heat. We stopped a couple of times at nondescript identifit towns where platforms would be peppered with vendors selling whatever you needed from beer to salted fish.

One of many huge waterways along the Trans-Mongolian railway

Snow beside the tracks in SiberiaIn the evening of the second day we met up with Mats, Tim and Rob. In fact they came and chilled out in our cabin. Mats ‘treated’ us to some mind-tearingly-awful karaoke renditions of Enrique Iglesias’ ‘Hero’ and Britney Spears’ ‘Lucky’, even though he is a rugby playing heavy rock fan… Nowt as queer as folk. After weeping openly for several minutes at the horror of what my ears had endured we were suddenly joined by a Ukrainian woman bound for Ulaan Bator. She turned out to be a big fan of Pink Floyd ‘for 25’ (years I assumed) so I started a rather amazing and perfectly in tune version of Comfortably Numb. Gnarly baby chocolateAll of us (except Martyn, who was filming it all for my future appearance on Stars In Your Eyes) belted it out with pride and though the finish was shaky due to a lyric insomnia afflicting all of us, (no, very wrong word. Damn, I CANNOT remember the word for forgetfulness…) we were rightly applauded. We finished off almost all the vodka we’d brought along and worryingly, from what I’d seen of Sue Pollard’s trolley, we weren’t going to get nice big bottles of vodka again for quite some time. For some reason I was a bit drunk when I fell asleep. *Ah! Amnesia, that was the word I was looking for!*

In the evening of the second day we met up with Mats, Tim and Rob. In fact they came and chilled out in our cabin. Mats ‘treated’ us to some mind-tearingly-awful karaoke renditions of Enrique Iglesias’ ‘Hero’ and Britney Spears’ ‘Lucky’, even though he is a rugby playing heavy rock fan… Nowt as queer as folk. After weeping openly for several minutes at the horror of what my ears had endured we were suddenly joined by a Ukrainian woman bound for Ulaan Bator. She turned out to be a big fan of Pink Floyd ‘for 25’ (years I assumed) so I started a rather amazing and perfectly in tune version of Comfortably Numb. All of us (except Martyn, who was filming it all for my future appearance on Stars In Your Eyes) belted it out with pride and though the finish was shaky due to a lyric insomnia afflicting all of us, (no, very wrong word. Damn, I CANNOT remember the word for forgetfulness…) we were rightly applauded. We finished off almost all the vodka we’d brought along and worryingly, from what I’d seen of Sue Pollard’s trolley, we weren’t going to get nice big bottles of vodka again for quite some time. For some reason I was a bit drunk when I fell asleep. *Ah! Amnesia, that was the word I was looking for!*

Dust from the Gobi Desert scuzzed the windows, and our lungs, on the Trans-Mongolian railway

Rob, wrapped in a towel to avoid the filth coming in from the Gobi Desert

Day 4. A bit of a blur. I think it was today we went to the restaurant car for dinner, drank a couple of bottles of Russian champagne and ate well. Borscht for both of us followed by fried sturgeon for me and tongue for Martyn. Hmmm, memory is failing. Again.

Day 5. Hmmm, I can’t exactly remember what happened today either… I’ll have to edit all this later/some other time when I’ve got my diary to hand. (NOTE: 11/10/2011 – good point…)

At the Mongolian-Chinese border the train is lifted onto new wheels for the different gauge of tracks

On day six we reached Ulaan Bator which was the end of the journey for Maki, Suko and the Ukrainian lady. Maki waddled out of the station looking a bit like Yoda. In Maki’s place we got two Mongolian environmental efficiency experts (if I understood properly) both very nice but by this time I was getting very tired, and really didn’t try too hard with them. The train plunged into the Gobi desert and the scenery was incredible. Such a massive difference from yesterday. Blazing yellow ochres and a totally clear deep blue sky. For a long time the horizon was totally flat, then it would gently undulate for maybe an hour. The sun was scorching into our south facing cabin for some of the time and Martyn felt the heat quite badly. It made me tired too and I fell into a crazy half-waking state where I wasn’t sure what was real. Not the best hour or so of the journey. The lack of sleep was beginning to really get to me. As the day wore on the dust around the train increased dramatically. So much so that I’m still coughing a day later. Some idiot must have opened the window in the corridor I assume. A haze filled all the carriages gradually. Everyone was spluttering. The sun set in a pink blaze and about 9pm we reached the Mongolia/China border. It didn’t take too long to cross the Mongolian part but the Chinese side meant the bogeys (wheels etc.) under the carriages needed to be changed to the different sized Chinese tracks. I’m not certain what time we got our passports back but we flowed into the small supermarket in the Erlian station entry hall to buy more beer to toast in the new country. We finally hit our pillows just after 5am.

The scenery in Northern China

Day seven meant the end of this grubby saga. We woke quickly in what looked like an Iberian landscape and rushed to the restaurant car to use the free lunch token. The free breakfast token was by this time, voided. Apparently it was just a boiled egg and two slices of tost anyway so I’m glad I didn’t crop my sleep down to only 3 hours. When we reached the restaurant car we were told our watches were an hour fast. How? I have absolutely no idea but I had been failing to re-adjust my sleep patterns to a non-existent standard. Time zones are a strange thing. We packed our bags and returned an hour later to find every single table occupied and a short queue or passengers collecting take-away lunches in cardboard boxes. We swapped our vouchers and and devoured our meals back in our cabin. Nothing too complex, just rice, cabbage and a peppery meat faggot type of thing in gravy. Very nice and relief from non-stop noodles. Almost as soon as we finished our meals the view changed again. Now we sped through amazing canyons and gorges, above meandering and completely clear rivers and through a long series of short tunnels. The windows we cursed yesterday for allowing huge clouds of dust in were now thrown open and everyone took the opportunity to take loads of pictures. Slowly these magnificent surrounding peetered out and we dropped into the suburbs of Beijing. Speeding over level crossings and past massive construction works we could see the poorer side of Beijing immediately. Occasionally people living in refugee-type tents in car parks. At the same time you could see the growing prosperity with the tower blocks springing up all around. About 2.30pm local time we rolled into Beijing train station. Finally we left the cabin and after saying bye to drink fun guys strolled off into Beijing.

The scenery in Northern China from the Trans-Mongolian railway

A pretty river and mountain scene along the route to Beijing, in northern China

The length of the Trans-Mongolian train as we pass through northern China

*I would like to add that I’ve been sitting under extreme duress for about twenty minutes now as a Britney Spears concert is being played in the bar. She is whittering on about national unity and how proud she is of it. Very insincere.*

My next post may be from Xi’an, but I can’t say for certain. Til then, see you!

Shoot the breeze...