While this was, by no means, the last train I would be travelling on, catching the train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing was the last stage of my route across the Trans Siberian Railway.
After a month’s travel along the route from Moscow and, having always wanted to make this journey, I felt a little sad that this part of the trip was coming to an end.
It wasn’t the most perfectly smooth start to the day’s journey as it seemed that the hostel had forgotten about the arrangements to take me to the railway station.
The driver didn’t answer his phone so I was sent out onto the street to wave down a taxi. Having successfully spent all of my cash the day before I also had to find a cash point. The first one refused my transaction.
As I ran along the street at 6.40am in search of an ATM I was again, extremely pleased with my decision to get the 40 litre rucksack. There would be no fast movement otherwise.
The first taxi tried to charge me 15000T. The hostel had told me it would be 5000T so I refused.
The next cab to slow down didn’t even involve a money discussion. I had withdrawn 9000T, about £3 and that’s what I was paying.
The German couple Barbara and Walter, along with Dutch women Hanna and Nienke told me, when I arrived at the railway station that I had been heavily ripped off. I didn’t mind, I’d made it on time to catch my train.
All my learning of how to board trains along the Trans Siberian route went out of the window at this point.
I walked into the station, looking for the non-existent departures board. There was no signage and no platform numbers.
I walked through the station to the platform and that was where I met the gang of four, waiting for the same train as me.
It was running late and it eventually arrived just after 7.30am.
It was another Chinese train (as had been the train into Ulaanbataar) and I climbed on board, past the coal stove heating the samovar.
It’s not only the coal burning in the gers that the Mongolian government needs to address.
I was sharing a compartment with Nienke and Hanna, while Barbara came along to chat too. The carriage was filled with Europeans.
At this point we confirmed for each other that no, there was no toilet paper on this train. This was the FIRST train I had been on without toilet roll. Damnit, I had been lulled into a false sense of security, and the only wipes I had left were mosquito repellant ones… at least I wouldn’t get bitten.
There was though running water… coming out of the tap rather than the joints.
The train’s route out of Ulaanbaatar headed through the hills of the Bogdkhan Uul mountain range. The Zaisan Monument that I had visited the day before used to mark the start of this protected area, but there are new apartment buildings going up here.
The tree cover eventually disappeared and the landscape became flat steppe, dotted with the occasional small herd of cattle or horses and the occasional ger.
There were also small wind farms at the top of some of the distant hills so some efforts are being made to address the air pollution issue.
There were multiple stops in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason.
On a couple of occasions, it seemed to be to allow a faster train to pass, rather like when the local trains pause for the intercity trains to go by in the UK. It was just like being on the Marple train into Manchester.
After four hours’ travelling there was a 15-minute stop at Choyr, where I dashed out to see the statue of the first Mongolian cosmonaut standing in front of the station.
According to my guide book, during the Soviet era this neglected town of 13,000 people was home to Mongolia’s biggest air base.
Choyr is a tiny town in the desert. No kiosks here, just ladies pushing a trolley up and down the platform selling drinks and buuz dumplings.
From Choyr, the train entered the flat, arid and sparsely populated Gobi Desert – tufts of short brown grass webbing across the sand. There were also pools of water visible from the train and though I was hoping to see camels, I saw mostly horses, sheep and goats.
The buffet car opened and I went to have a look.
I had packed fruit, snacks, cake and, of course, pot noodle for the journey but the food looked really good. Not the chicken and rice served on the Russian trains.
I was surprised by this because from the outside, the dining car looked like it was Russian.
After a couple of hours, the train stopped for around 20 minutes at Sainshanda (Good Pond).
There wasn’t a great deal to see here but Barbara, Walter, Nienke and Hanna told me international stereotype jokes. The Germans are well aware of their reputation with sun longers though neither Hanna nor I knew about the Dutch reputation for being a nation of caravanners.
The English? Milk bottle white legs, red vest sunburn and an internationally respected ability to queue.
However, our inability to abide by red and green lights on pedestrian crossings and jaywalking apparently results in concerns for our safety.
To be fair, this had come in useful in Ulaanbaatar as the drivers are reluctant to acknowledge the crossings and success is determined by who takes the space first. I’d ended up being followed across roads by Mongolians… but maybe they were working on the idea that if a car didn’t stop, I’d be hit first.
We noticed that the platform was rapidly clearing and, not wanting to be stranded in Sainshanda, hurried back to board the carriage.
The train headed East, passing more wind turbines.
The next stop a few hours later was Dzamynude. The train stopped for an hour and a half here, before stopping for five hours after ‘hopping’ over the border at Erlian. I was hoping that the toilets would not be locked for the six and half hours while bogeys were changed and visas checked.
In preparation, if we were to be allowed off the train, I wanted to know if there was anything worth seeing. I turned to the guidebook and had a similar experience to Arthur Dent as he travelled the galaxy.
The guidebook had this to say: Travel writer Paul Theroux visited the town in the mid-1980s and commented that Dzamynude was ‘a wreck of a town set on glaring sands and so lacking in events that when a camel went by everyone watched it’. Sadly, not much has changed since then.
Barbara and Walter passed our compartment on their way to the buffet car. We had discussed this at Sainshanda and on seeing the photo I had taken of the carriage, Walter had declared there was no need to visit now that he had seen it.
Barbara had disagreed. It had taken a moment for the penny to drop when she told him she was to be invited to go.
On this train, certainly in this carriage, our provodnitsas or conductors were men. They changed into their uniforms when we pulled into stations and spent the rest of their time in the same leisure wear as the rest of us.
They also prepared their meals from scratch in their cabin, not being served pre-packaged food as the provodnitsas on the other trains.
The train reached Dzamynude and my concerns about whether there would be sufficient distract were resolved.
The toilets were locked and we weren’t allowed off the train.
A drunk Englishman was escorted off the train by border officials, with him loudly shouting about being an British citizen and demanding his rights.
The conductor came along the carriage and explained that the train would shortly reach Erlian and everybody had to take their luggage, disembark and go into the station.
In terms of process, this was the most complex border crossing to date.
It was like passport control at the airport, complete with biometrics scanning and passing through the “nothing to declare” section… only, we would then get back on the train, after a five hour wait.
In terms of sights to see, it was the most entertaining.
The Englishman reappeared. Rumour had it that he had pissed off the border staff by trying to push his way off the train to have a cigarette.
Really? You’re crossing international borders and you think annoying the border control staff is a good idea?
His drinking buddies (who had been firm comrades in vodka from way back in Moscow, so about four days) tried to calm him down as he made very loud statements about being held at gunpoint in a basement by Russian officials an hour earlier.
Yes, he definitely said Russian. (If you haven’t been paying attention, we were leaving Mongolia, not Russia)
Apparently, they all understood what he was going through because they had been there with him. We hadn’t seen any of the troop leave the train with him, but they were concerned that his complaints would draw unwanted attention to them.
The hero of the moment, our British Citizen, disagreed with his pals and he was not prepared to wait until he returned to Notting Hill (London) to lodge an official objection to his treatment. He felt this was the time and place.
I think he was hoping to rally the other passengers to his cause.
His comrades continued trying to placate him. Then he and another man decided to mock the marching of the Chinese officials. It was a masterclass in making friends and influencing people.
Meanwhile, it emerged that there was another drunk Englishman (loosely connected by vodka to the group) missing in action. He had been found passed out in his cabin by Barbara and Walter, after vomiting all over the cabin.
He was very fortunate to have been found by such caring people. His associates had done little to assist and the conductors were trying to rouse him to complete the passport paperwork. As nurses, Barbara and Walter took over and helped him.
They completed his documents and we assumed the border staff had agreed to leave him on the train as he never appeared in the railway station.
After one hour waiting, the drunk Australian woman in the group started performing the greatest hits of Fleetwood Mac. She was no Stevie Nicks.
With three hours to go, our original hero was making another break for freedom to go outside for a cigarette. He seemed to think he was making a point about liberty on behalf of all of the passengers.
Barbara and I were wondering when he would be arrested.
I was really hoping that I wouldn’t be staying in the same hostel as them when I got to Beijing.
*Featured Photo: Sunset over the Gobi Desert, Mongolia.