And so begins our “original trip,” which was, when leaving Japan, we thought we’d take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Asia to Europe, see a couple of European countries, and then fly home. Obviously, the itinerary got longer and longer. But I still thought of the Trans-Siberian part as a sort of centerpiece of our trip.
Technically, we didn’t do the Trans-Siberian, which would be a seven-day train ride from Moscow to Vladivostok. We did the Trans-Mongolian, which is more popular among foreign travelers, between Moscow and Beijing via Mongolia. In early summer, many travelers head eastward, arriving in Mongolia in time for Naadam, which is Mongolia’s biggest festival. We went against the tide by heading west.
As I mentioned previously, by this time, my mom and her longtime friend Liz had flown out to meet us. After five fantastic days in Beijing, we said goodbye to the Chinese capital and headed for places unknown. We had booked the direct train between Beijing and Ulaan Baatar, traveling second class. Our little compartment had four bunks. The two lower ones had storage space underneath, and the two upper bunks folded up against the wall when not in use. By the window, there was a little table with a white tablecloth, and on the wall, there were hooks for hanging our coats. We felt like real, turn-of-the-century travelers, albeit with more potato chips and Cup-A-Noodle. Our spirits were high as the train pulled out of Beijing Station.
Our carriage was nearly empty—out of six four-person compartments, there was just us, a Mongolian couple, and three male carriage attendants. The carriage attendants, who worked in shifts, are supposed to keep the toilets clean, make sure the hot water heater is filled, and lock your compartment, on request. In reality, they didn’t ever go near the toilet, much less clean it; and only filled the hot water heater once. After riding trains all across China, I was shocked. On Chinese trains (and in the train stations as well,) hot water is always available. Passengers carry their own commuter cups and make their own tea. When we first got on, there was hot water, but it ran out after several hours. They didn’t even bother to refill it the next morning. I tried to get water anyway and one attendant took a break from eating his breakfast to stop me, motioning that I should go to another carriage. However, when I did that, the attendant in that carriage got mad at me and told me to go back to my carriage. She needed the hot water for washing dishes. Every attendant on that train was more interested in preparing their own meals than anything else.
They also smoked like chimneys. On trains, passengers are supposed to go between carriages to smoke; the cars themselves are non-smoking. “Non-smoking” has a very flexible definition in China, but in our experience on Chinese trains, no one actually smoked *in* the carriage. On other trains, the passengers did go between the cars, but they did sometimes blow their smoke back into the carriage. So I can’t say I was surprised, but I was disappointed to see them walking up and down the halls with cigarettes dangling from their mouths. They also smoked inside their compartment, with the door to the hallway left ajar. I opened the hallway window to freshen the air, and five minutes later, they closed it. Feeling passive-aggressive, I went to open it again. This time one of them stopped me in my tracks. I pointed at his cigarette and held my nose, making a face. He got the picture and went back in his compartment, shutting the door behind him. That helped for about thirty minutes, until they decided to open the door again.
At lunchtime, we decided to check out the offerings in the restaurant car. (Of course, we couldn’t find our attendants to lock the door for us, so we just took our valuables with us.) As expected, the prices were inflated, but not as badly as I’d thought. Dishes that might cost Y15 off the train cost Y25. A small Heineken cost Y10. It wasn’t as tasty as the other food we’d had in China, but the excitement of eating in the dining car of a train traveling through Inner Mongolia overshadowed anything else. We were glad we’d brought plenty of snacks, though, and didn’t need to rely on the dining car.
The real appeal of this trip was the scenery, and that did not disappoint. After Beijing, it wasn’t long before the cityscape faded to desert, which seemed to go on forever. It was interesting to see thousands of saplings planted out in the sand—China’s “Green Wall” to prevent the Gobi Desert from moving closer to the capital.
Every once in a while, we’d pass a small, dusty town. We always knew one was coming up because we’d pass by trash dumps. Before I ever saw a real dump, I always thought of them as looking like a single, impossibly tall pile of trash. I probably got that image from reading children’s books, whose illustrators opted for something more picturesque and hilarious than the real thing. I’ve now seen plenty of dumps during our travels, and they never look like towers of trash. It’s more like a thick layer of garbage covering the ground. In a place like Inner Mongolia, you can imagine how windy it is, so the trash doesn’t stay contained in one place. The population density out there is very low, so it’s not as if the landscape were covered in garbage, but I didn’t like seeing any amount of trash. It really detracted from the scenery.
We arrived at the border right on time, about thirteen hours out of Beijing. Chinese and Mongolian trains run on different gauges, so here the trains have to be rolled into a shed and have the bogies replaced. The whole process takes a few hours. During this time, we were hoping to get off the train and stretch our legs for a while. But almost as soon as we’d arrived at Erlian station, immigration officers boarded the train and took our passports. We were in a predicament. In practice, I’ve never been asked, but legally, all visitors to China must carry their passports with them at all times. This being a border town, we didn’t want to push the envelope. Plus, we didn’t know when the passports would be returned. We wanted to make sure we were in our compartment when the immigration officers came back.
As we were deciding what to do, the Mongolian couple in the compartment next door disembarked the train. We thought we could go too, but then our carriage attendants appeared and blocked our way. Our decision was made for us. We stayed on the train.
We sat in our seats, confused, as the train was rolled into the shed. The guidebook had said that usually, everyone must get off the train while the bogies are changed. Those passengers who are interested in watching the bogie-changing process can stay onboard until the train is inside the shed, then they can get off and walk back to the station. We weren’t sure what was going on. Were we going to be allowed off later?
As the air in the train turned stale and we started to sweat (the AC had been turned off,) we heard a loud whistle, then felt a powerful back-and-forth jolt. A few minutes later, it happened again. It was strong enough to toss small items around the cabin. I held onto the seat with one hand and steadied my travel mug with the other. After this had happened several times, we figured out that these two things were connected: the whistle was a warning, or an all-clear; the jolt was the shunting engine separating the carriages. It seemed like there were two jolts per detachment, and there were a lot of carriages. It was like an intermittent, half-hour long earthquake.
As the train slowly rolled into the shed, we were suddenly parallel with the other carriages, and I could see other tourists excitedly taking photos of the process. While I guess it’s not something you see every day, I just didn’t get the appeal. Seeing as how now we were quite sure we were not going to be allowed off the train, we congratulated each other on our foresight to eat dinner early. Eventually, though, another problem presented itself: while the train is in the station, as well as twenty minutes before arrival and after departure, the bathrooms are locked. No amount of arguing will get the attendants to unlock them for you, and you just have to stay aware of when the train will be stopping (especially if there’s an extended stop.) In the end, we weren’t able to use the facilities for six hours. To quote Liz, “That’s a long time for an old lady!”
Shortly before midnight, after the carriages had been jolted back together into one train, the immigration officers came back with our passports. Then there was a perfunctory customs inspection, and we were on our way to the Mongolian side of the border. At Naushki, the same process was repeated: someone came and took our passports, then a customs official came by. Despite the late hour, the Mongolian staff seemed to be in a cheerful mood. We lifted up the lower bunks to show that we weren’t smuggling anything. Grinning, the customs official asked us if we had any marijuanas. When Bob said no, he chuckled and left.
We sleepily awaited the moment when we could use the toilets again. Sometime between midnight and 1, I fell asleep, only to be woken up when the immigration officials came back to return my passport. When we finally pulled away from Naushki, it was about 1:30, and we’d all been up since 5:30 the day before. I knew that the bathrooms would be unlocked shortly, but I couldn’t make it. I fell asleep again, all my clothes still on.
My bladder woke me up a few hours later. I climbed out of my bunk and tried to open the door as silently as possible. Then I saw the view. We were crossing the Gobi Desert and the sun was just below the horizon. I had to go back for my camera. Looking out at the vast expanse, no other living thing visible except for a few tiny shrubs, I was in awe. I’m really in Mongolia, I thought.
We spent the morning looking out the window, taking in the emptiness. Later, the desert scenery faded into rolling hills and pastures, with more signs of life. We alerted each other whenever we’d see animals. It really shouldn’t have been so exciting to us, but before this train ride, we’d spent the last three weeks in cities and hadn’t seen so much as a cow.
Once in a while, we’d spot white gers dotted against the green grassland. At first, this was thrilling. We couldn’t imagine people actually living permanently in tents, and we had a lot of questions. How do they send their children to school, or receive mail? Where’s the running water? Do they cook inside the ger?
In late morning, one of the carriage attendants knocked on our door. We all looked up from what we were doing, to see what he might want. He held an American five dollar bill in his hand. “Who… is… this?” he asked? First thought: where did he get that? Second thought: wait, he can speak a little English??
We told him it was Lincoln, who was a president, and he nodded and said “Lincoln!” as if he were saying “I knew that one!” Then he stepped out for a few seconds and came back holding several more bills of different denominations, including a fifty. Holding up a ten, he asked, “Washington?” The answer, Hamilton, confused him. We tried to explain. “Secretary of the Treasury,” Liz said. “Washington’s friend,” I said. Close enough.
We never did figure out why he had so much American money, but after that, relations between us improved. They allowed us to open the window so we could take photos, and they might’ve even cracked a smile or two.
As we got closer to Ulaan Baatar, the grassland turned to dirt and the gers grew closer and closer together. Just outside the city, there were lots of gers, all contained within fences, next to brick and wood single-story dwellings. We later learned that these were the “ger districts,” for people who live semi-nomadic lives. At first, to us, it was a novelty, but it’s actually really common. Something like 25% of the population is truly nomadic, and another 25% is semi-nomadic. The entire suburbs of Ulaan Baatar look like a surreal, multicolored campground.
We arrived at Ulaan Baatar station a few minutes early. We’d only been in Mongolia for half a day, but I already felt like I’d seen a lot.