Trans-Mongolian Railway, Part 1: Beijing to Ulaan Baatar

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 IMG_1389 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.


At least they cleaned it before the journey

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.

IMG_1488 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. DSC00546Seeing 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.


Searching for China’s Kyoto


“Wherever we went as we traveled down the Yangtze we saw the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution: temples smashed, statues toppled, and old towns wrecked. Little evidence remained of China’s ancient civilization. But the loss went even deeper than this. Not only had China destroyed most of its beautiful things, it had lost its appreciation of them, and was unable to make new ones. Except for the much-scarred but still stunning landscape, China had become an ugly country.”

–Jung Chang, Wild Swans

Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over one thousand years, and still today is considered the cultural heart of the country. Famously, it was spared from bombing during WWII, so unlike most major Japanese cities, it retains its traditional architecture, dating as far back as the 15th century. Modern Kyoto also has its share of ugly IMG_4562 apartment blocks, neon, and concrete, but the overall atmosphere of the city remains genteel. It’s in a beautiful setting, bisected by a river and surrounded by mountains on three sides. Traditional festivals still take place as they have for hundreds of years. Alongside the fast-food restaurants and accessory stores of the shopping arcades are “old Kyoto” restaurants and inns. Traditional woodcarvers, painters, potters–and the occasional geisha–still make their livings there. It claims several imperial palaces, historic buildings, and supposedly, over a thousand temples and shrines. On the cultural side, Kyoto is the origin of Japanese haute cuisine, and is the best place in the country to see traditional performing arts. Many small towns boast historic centers or “samurai streets,” but none can compare to the significance of Kyoto. Just as many American schools take field trips to Washington, D.C., Japanese schoolchildren are packed off to Kyoto.

Is there a place in China that so perfectly captures the rich history and traditional culture of the country? Where is its cultural heart, so to speak? We started our search in Dali, an old walled city in Yunnan province. While it impressed us with its traditional architecture and beautiful setting, it was lacking in the cultural and artistic department.


Souvenir shopping, Lijiang

Our next stop, Lijiang, struck us the same way. The shops all sell the same mass- produced stuff. I’m pretty sure that there are only four or five stores in all of Lijiang and Dali, copied a hundred times over. Each city puts on concerts of traditional music, but other than that there was very little to see or do. In Dali, there is a temple complex, which costs a steep Y121 to enter. In Lijiang, there is an old house belonging to the former clan leader of the area. That’s it. After seeing these attractions, there is nothing left to do but eat, shop, and turn down old ladies offering you ganja. Dali had a few interesting independent cafes, but on the whole, it seemed like there was nothing original in either city.

Yunnan has dozens of ethnic minority groups, so a trip to the area does offer a chance to learn something about non-Han culture. However, Lijiang and Dali are so touristified that any encounter with minority culture will probably be in a restaurant. To experience anything more, an excursion to a minority village (and probably a guide) would be necessary.

But we were searching for insights into Han Chinese culture, not minority traditions. Maybe Xi’an is a better place to look. The first capital of unified China, it was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Nowadays its main claim to fame is that the 2200-year-old Terracotta Warriors lie just out of town. The city itself retains a traditional feel. Like most old Chinese cities once were, it is a walled city. There is little traditional architecture, yet to me, it had an older atmosphere than Dali and Lijiang. Vendors sell much of the same mass-produced junk, but there were some more interesting shops along the Artist’s Street, plus the food scene was much better than in Lijiang or Dali.


Section of Xi'an's city wall

Although Xi’an is not that big, its long history means it has interesting attractions (besides the Warriors) and unique traditions, especially due to the ancient traders’ Islamic influence. Like Kyoto, it both epitomizes traditional China yet maintains a distinct culture. Something was still missing, though. I think that while Xi’an certainly has the history, it doesn’t have the culture.

Our final stop in China was Beijing. By far a much bigger city than any others we visited, I hadn’t expected to find much history in Beijing. But it could also lay claim to being the Kyoto of China. While many sites of importance were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, a few imperial palaces, and parts of the old city wall still stand.


Hallway at the Forbidden City

But for every one of these, there seemed to be a thousand new, functionalist buildings, so it was difficult to feel like I was in an old city. The only time I felt I’d stepped back in time was when strolling through the hutongs. They reminded me very much of the narrow back alleys of Kyoto. They’re being destroyed, however, and without them, Beijing looks a lot like any other modern Asian metropolis. Like Kyotoites compared to other Japanese speakers, Beijingers are also considered to speak with a more refined accent than other Mandarin speakers. But that quirk alone wasn’t enough to convince me. I guess certain things were similar, but the old, refined atmosphere was missing.

Ultimately, China may not have a Kyoto. Thirty-five years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, I think the situation has improved, since traditions that were banned are now allowed to flourish. There’s still a long way to go, however. Many countries worry about how best to preserve their traditions. China doesn’t just have to preserve their traditional culture; in some cases they have to recreate it. As of right now, China’s cultural heart remains fragmented.


Eating China

I couldn’t write about China without writing a post about food, now could I?

Chinese food in China is a world away from the Americanized version. The food we get in the States is usually Cantonese food, and it’s not even good Cantonese food. I don’t want to become one of those people who always compares American restaurants with their foreign counterparts. I find it snobby, to be honest… “This pizza tastes nothing like the pizza in Italy.” But let’s be honest. Most American Chinese food is bland and greasy. I’ve been to a couple of good restaurants, but a whole lot of subpar ones. Compared to anything, it doesn’t stack up well. Just ask my friend Katie about the stir-fried hot dog incident.

Keeping that image in your mind, take a look at these Yunnanese mashed potatoes. Which would you rather eat? IMG_0019

Inside China, Yunnan province is well known for having spicy cuisine. Also, as I previously mentioned, it’s subtropical, which is reflected in the ingredients. Some favorite dishes of ours: stir-fried beef with cumin, served on a bed of fried mint leaves; stir-fried tea tree mushrooms, and the aforementioned mashed potatoes.


Hmm... we accidentally ordered too much

It may sound like a lot of fried food. A typical Chinese meal includes a selection of stir-fried dishes, a soup, steamed rice, and usually beer. Everything is eaten from communal dishes, so mealtimes in China are sad for solo travelers.


There are always noodle soups, though–popular among busy people at lunchtime and students at anytime. Cheap and always served in individual portions.  In most of China, these are wheat noodles, but in Yunnan, rice noodles are the specialty.

Sichuan province is also well known for its spicy food, both inside and outside of China. However, it’s a different kind of hotness- the Sichuan peppercorn is often called “numbing-hot,” because it numbs the tastebuds. It is sometimes crushed and sprinkled on top of a dish, but sometimes added whole. The first time Bob accidentally bit into a whole one, he said his mouth was vibrating. When I assured him that was normal, he thought for a minute, and then said it felt like tasting all flavors at once.

Our favorite Sichuan dish was mapo tofu, which we managed to eat five times in one week. For the uninitiated: it consists of tofu, ground pork or beef, and leeks; seasoned with soy sauce and rice wine, stir-fried in chili oil, and garnished with Sichuan peppercorn. At Chen’s Mapo Tofu (the original restaurant in Chengdu serving mapo tofu,) it arrives at your table sizzling, in an iron claypot.  IMG_0639


Eating jiaozi with some new friends

For breakfast nearly every day, we ate steamed dumplings (jiaozi) or steamed buns (baozi), usually stuffed with ground pork and chives. A bowl of rice or millet porridge rounds out the meal. A few times, we had deep-fried dough sticks (like churros) which are served with fresh soy milk and sugar. You’re supposed to dissolve the sugar in the soy milk and dip the dough sticks in, but I preferred to dip them first in the milk, and then in the sugar. It had a nicer texture.

IMG_1112On arrival in every city, one of the first things we did was to scout out breakfast joints. In Xi’an, we happened upon a place with a fantastic range of steamed buns. There must have been at least twenty different types of fillings: spinach and garlic, spicy potato, etc. My favorite one was filled with mapo tofu- what an excellent idea!

In touristy areas, the food quality often suffers, but Xi’an had surprisingly good food. One of the local specialties is biang biang mian, which is a noodle soup of extra-wide wheat noodles in a spicy broth, along with cabbage, beef, and chives.IMG_1113

It’s also written with the most complicated character I’ve ever seen: IMG_1322In Beijing, I continued my tradition of taking cooking classes (I’ve taken them in six countries now!) By this time, we had some visitors: my mom and her friend Liz had flown out to meet us. Together, the four of us learned how to properly wield a cleaver and stir-fry in a wok.

Under the tutelage of the brother-sisters trio at Hutong Cuisine, we made four dishes, including stir-fried cumin beef, spare ribs with black bean and chili sauce, dan dan noodles (with handmade noodles!) and of course, mapo tofu. If I may say so, Bob’s mapo tofu was just as good as Chen’s… maybe better.

So I apologize in advance, for when I get back to the States, I won’t be able to order Chinese takeout. I’m going to be one of those annoying people. The food in China is really so much better than the Chinese food in America. I’ll just have to cook it myself.