Wednesday, April 27, 2016

From Sadness to Excitement...From Beijing to Ulaanbaatar

I always get a little bit sad when I am getting ready to leave a place. And it was a little bit sad to leave Beijing. I had met some friends there, and we all had hung out in the lounge at the hostel to chat. But it turned out we were all leaving at the same time. The city was interesting, and I hadn't even scratched the surface of what there was to see.

But that bit of sadness turned to excitement as I prepared to take the Trans-Mongolian Railway. I mean, crossing into Mongolia on a train! I had booked my tickets far in advance (back when I was in the US), and had picked them up at a travel agency in Beijing. So I was ready to roll on this new adventure, and that was exciting.

I decided to walk to the train station, which was about 1.6 kms away from the hostel.  On my way to the train station, I met Simon, who was also taking a train out. We walked together to the train station, and then I tried to cash in my subway card with no luck. Simon decided to go on to the station while I did this, because he would have had to go through a security check.  Theoretically, it was possible to cash the card in, but at the two subway stations where I tried to do it I encountered an impenetrable wall of Chinese bureaucracy, so I gave up.  There was only about three dollars left on it (plus the card deposit), and I would have had to go to a third station, and I had no idea where it was. And my train was getting ready to depart. Maybe I'll be able to find someone down the road who is heading to Beijing who can use it.

I boarded the Trans-Mongolian train a little before noon. The cars were nice; I had a sleeper seat/bed all to myself. There were four sleeper berths in the compartment; two upper ones and two lower ones. I have what they call the hard sleeper and I believe it is second-class, though it is plenty comfortable to me, and I would not see any reason to pay more for the first-class soft sleepers. But maybe that's just me. I saw some compartments that looked like they had fluffier cushions, and only two berths (but still top and bottom), and then a plush chair on the other side. Having a top berth has got to suck significantly more than a bottom one, and I'm glad I don't have one, but expect I might at some point. There is no ladder to get up to it (like there is in hostel bunks), so you just have to clamber up to it. You can't really sit in it all that comfortably like you can in the bottom berth, so you would have to lay down, or share the bottom seat with the occupant until bedtime. Or maybe you could just hang out in the dining car. I hope they are cheaper than the bottom berths, because if they are the same price, it would suck to lose that lottery. But it would be tolerable if it were the only choice on a packed train.

There were also electricity outlets in the compartment (but only in the bottom berths), which surprised me; stuff I had read online had led me to think the trains would not have electricity,  or at least it would be limited to the attendant's compartment.

I shared the compartment with Klin, a Thai woman who was a student, and we both occupied the lower berths. It was strange that we were sharing a compartment, since there were only three people in the whole train car, which consisted of nine compartments with four beds each. But I guess those were the tickets that had been booked. I had been led to believe from stuff I read online that these tickets were hard to get but it sure didn't look that way. A bunch of us on the train compared what we paid, and most of us paid in the $200-$300 range (not bad for a train ride of about 26 hours), but one Belgian guy only paid about 50 Euros. I would wager that it would be significantly cheaper than an international train if you could take a domestic train to the border, walk across the border, and then take another domestic train.

The first area we rode through was a spectacular mountain range a little ways outside Beijing. We snaked in and out of mountain tunnels frequently, which sometimes messed with the pictures I was taking, as just as I would get a shot lined up, we would enter another tunnel.

Then we entered the province of Hebei. This area was flatter, and not as majestic as the mountains. Every area from here out was flatter, there were no more beautiful mountain scenes.

Then we entered Inner Mongolia, a region in China, which had some nice views, but was terribly littered in some areas with trash, and it looked like some rapacious strip-mining and resource extraction had taken place, even within some of the cities and villages. The biggest city we passed through in Inner Mongolia was Ulanqab, a city of more than two million inhabitants.

The sun set over Inner Mongolia, and I took a nap for a short time. There was nothing to see in the dark anyway. Earlier in the day, I had met up with a bunch of tourists in the kitchen car who were playing a dice game that was a Hungarian variant of Yahtsee (called Yahtzi, had somewhat more complex rules), so I joined in for a few games.

Then the train stopped at Erlian (also known as Erenhot) a Chinese town on the Mongolian border.  All the wheels needed to be changed out underneath the train to accommodate a different gauge of railroad track in Mongolia. As they prepared to change the wheels, the lights flickered, and the electricity outlets stopped working throughout the process. I suspect that they turned off the electricity throughout the train, but then connected the lights to a generator or some external electricity source.

We were stopped here for a little over three hours while they accomplished this task, and some of us went outside for a while. The train had been truncated at some point.  When we left Beijing, it was quite a long train, but now it was down to just nine cars. I guess the other cars must have been domestic train cars, and had been removed at stations along the line. But then they added more cars at this station, so the train was longer again going into Mongolia (I found out later that I could not get to some of the new cars they added in front, as the door to the new section was locked). It was fairly chilly outside, and I had to get the down shell jacket I had purchased in Beijing. Some of the passengers were having a wine party outside the train. I had read online that one could explore the town whole this was going on, but they herded us back on the train after just a few minutes, so there was no opportunity to do so.

Chinese customs agents boarded the train, made us fill out departure forms, and took our passports for about an hour before returning them. After a short bit, Mongolian customs also boarded and did a very cursory check. But, strangely, they didn't even take the customs form we had to fill out. They just stamped it and have it back to us.

I had been drifting in and out of sleep while all this customization had been going on. I did watch the changing of the train's undercarriage from the inside of our car, which was interesting. They separated out all the cars from each other, jacked the cars way up, very slowly, and rolled the new wheel assembly under each car. We could see all the newly stranded passengers in the next car pressed against the window at the back of the car while they were doing this.

I also got a text from T-Mobile telling me that I didn't have data or texting for free in Mongolia as I had in the other countries so far. I've been somewhat spoiled by having free data, even though it was slow. So I turned off data on my phone (so I don't inadvertently get charged some enormous roaming fee), and now I'll only be able to connect to the Internet in Mongolia when I can find WiFi. No big deal, it will just be a new adventure. Humankind has only had WiFi for about a nanosecond of our existence anyway, and somehow we managed to survive.

After sleeping through the night, I awoke just in time to watch the sun rise over the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Shortly after that, the train arrived in the village of Sain-Shanda, where it stopped for about half an hour. I was hoping to get out and wander for about fifteen minutes, but the train doors were locked, so no such luck. After that there were sparsely spattered small structures in the desert very infrequently, punctuated with the occasional yurt.

Early in the morning, I went back to where the dining car had been, and it was not in the same place. I just kept going, and it was way back at the end of the train. But they had replaced the Chinese dining car with a Mongolian dining car. I sat down, and the dining steward immediately starting bringing me stuff, even though I didn't order anything. I had wanted coffee, and I got that, but all sorts of other stuff arrived too. Oh, well, I was a bit hungry. Then he came to collect the bill, and it was much more than the Chinese car had charged for food. Maybe it had something to do with the exchange rate, since I had Chinese yuan, and no Mongolian money. He offered me the choice between paying with Mongolian, Chinese, or American money. I wonder if I would have gotten a better deal with dollars.

The Gobi Desert in Mongolia is enormous, and mostly flat, with some undulating dunes, sparse grasses, and low shrubs. Periodically cattle, horses, or sheep will appear on the landscape.  There is also the occasional resource-extraction environmental nightmare. But it doesn't seem to have earth-destruction machinery and open sores on the land, or rampant trash piles, as often as Inner Mongolia did in China.

Mongolia will be colder than the places I have been so far. It may get down to freezing temperatures at night. Good, that will give me a chance to use some of the cold-weather clothing that I have been lugging around that takes up so much room in my pack.

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