We were both so excited on our last night in Beijing that we barely slept, knowing that the next day would start the first leg of our mammoth trek overland by train from China to Russia, through inner Mongolia (a semi-autonomous, traditionally nomadic, region of China), the Gobi Desert, the endless rolling grasslands of Mongolia (the country) and the Taiga of Siberia. There is something deeply romantic about train travel, and while so far our experience with Chinese trains had been a mixed bag, we were stoked at the idea of almost a week on board.
I had also forked out for ‘first class’ which means we would have a compartment to ourselves. While back in the day I travelled second or even third class in Russia and China and revelled in the social aspect of that – sharing vodka and cabbage cakes in Russia, and Tsingtao beer and noodles in China – this time I am older, have a child, and value my privacy more than making new friends I can’t communicate with apart from in the universal language of alcohol and food.
It was an early start on day one, and we shared a taxi with a couple heading to the train station amid the torrential rain. The taxi dropped us across the (6 lane) road from the station, so we had to haul our bags up the steps and across the pedestrian bridge in pouring rain, then muddle through the usual confusion about how exactly to get into the station, then clear security before entering the chaos that is Beijing (main) railway station. I think there are five stations in Beijing – Beijing North, Beijing South, Beijing West and (maybe?) Beijing East, but our tickets just said ‘Beijing Railway station’, which is not any of those but the ‘main’ station, but if you say ‘main’ station to anyone they will look confused then say ‘ah, you mean Beijing railway station’…
OK. We were in the right place so all was good.
Lauren went off to buy water, while I triple-checked the details on our tickets, and then suddenly there was a surge of people (I didn’t hear any announcement or see any staff, but everyone else seemed to know now was the time to queue) and we were carried along into a queue that led to (yet more) security and then the platform.
We easily found our compartment, and after dumping our bags headed back out to the platform for photos and to inspect the train that would be our home for 24 hours before a few days in Mongolia. We still had almost half an hour before departure, so we walked the length of the 16 carriages, enjoying the atmosphere of panic tinged with emotion as people rushed on board, waved to family, struggled with enormous bags, tried to find their places and chased after toddlers.
Our very swish compartment consisted of bunk beds plus an armchair and a tiny bathroom with our own toilet and shower. This was incredible luxury after our previous experiences. The toilet was also spotless and there was even paper and soap!!!!
Soon enough we were underway – dead on time – and rolled through endless suburbs of Beijing before emerging into the countryside. We played Machi Koro (a game we’d be given by friends in the US) as the scenery unfolded – first mountains and then agricultural land dotted with grim looking villages of uniform housing blocks and not much else.
For dinner, we braved the dining car, which had velvet covered seats and a kitchen set up with a series of gas rings and a chef juggling woks. We had a delicious meal of pork with peppers and a kind of sweet and sour pork dish, plus of course mifan (rice) which was the first word Lauren learned in Chinese. I treated myself to a beer and we hung out there for a while, until there was pressure for seats. As we made our way back to the compartment, we caught a spectacular sunset over the emptiness of Inner Mongolia. .
That night we arrived at the border at around 10.30pm. We knew that the border crossing would be long and tedious – not only because of the formalities of immigration and customs, but because the gauge of the rails is different in China and Mongolia, meaning the wheels needed to be swapped.
Exiting China was relatively simple, if long. We could choose to spend the time in the station, or on the train, but as it was scheduled to be hours, we decided on the latter. This despite the fact that the toilets are locked for the whole time. They came round and inspected our passports and visas, carefully scrutinising our faces to see if they matched, then took them away for hours. Then customs came round, and poked desultorily around the compartment. Clearly we didn’t look like prime suspects for smuggling.
The train was then rolled into a huge shed. There was much jolting (sometimes violent enough to knock you off your feet) and back and forth which I assume was the removing of the dining car (when we tried to find it the next day it had gone) and possibly some other carriages. Then, we heard a hydraulic buzzing sound, and realised we were being lifted ever so slowly up in the air. It was pretty cool, and very smooth. We went to the end of the carriage and could see we had been separated from the next carriage, which was also being lifted up. Once all carriages were a good 2 metres in the air, held by sturdy metal hoists, the old wheels were rolled all the way under the train and out the end. Next, we watched as the new wheels were passed under us, until every carriage had a set. Then, they lowered us onto these wheels, and there was much bashing as I presume the wheels were attached. Finally, some safety guys came round and tested every wheel.
Cue much more jolting and back and forth as everything was connected back together again, and eventually we backed up all the way to the station again, where those who had spent the time at the station were permitted to re-board, and someone came round to return our now stamped passports. Yay, we were out of China.
Next, we chugged along through no mans land (it was now about 1am) and Lauren went to bed. I figured they could look at her face sleeping just as well as awake, and she was fading after the excitement of the wheel change. I would have happily nodded off myself, but needed to stay awake for the border formalities on the Mongolian side.
These were straightforward, but again lengthy. Passports were taken away, a torch shone in the now-sleeping Lauren’s face, and customs lifted up my bed to check for contraband but didn’t bother with Lauren’s so as not to disturb her. Top tip for smugglers – borrow a kid.
After a seemingly interminable wait, we were finally allowed to close our doors and sleep around 3am, and the train left the border just before 4, when I finally fell asleep.
An hour and a half later I woke again, needing the loo, and caught the wonderful sight of the sun rising above the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert. Exhausted as I was, I watched for a few minutes as the sand turned a beautiful golden colour, before once more collapsing into bed, this time for a good few hours.
I woke to find Lauren eating breakfast and taking pictures of the desert.
The desert eventually gave way to the rolling grasslands one imagines when thinking of Mongolia, with herds of horses and cows roaming and the odd Ger dotting the hillsides. The few stations and indeed towns we saw had more colour and beauty to them than the grim monstrosities in China.
The train was scheduled to arrive in Ulaan Bataar around 2.30pm, and we were being met by friends with whom we would be staying. The plan was to go straight out into the countryside and spend the night out in the grasslands, in a traditional Ger. We decided to get a decent lunch before this, not knowing what dinner would be like (we hadn’t heard great things about Mongolian food). Heading in the direction of the dining car – which had been adjacent to ours – we discovered it had gone. Eventually we found the new, Mongolian one – an ornate affair with polished carved wood seats and decorations, and sat down to wait for a menu.
I caught the waiter’s eye, but he seemed busy and it wasn’t like we were in a rush, so we waited about 20 minutes. He then came over and told us ‘closed’ ‘sorry, closed’ and urged us to leave!!! We had arrived at 12.30, it was now 12.50, and lunch was supposed to be served until 13.30…. he wasn’t for changing his mind though, so with no ability to communicate in Mongolian, we did as we were told and left!
A miserable lunch of a shared pot noodle and some walnuts and seaweed followed.