Asia 2005 : Trans Mongolian

Wednesday

0545 The William Tell Overture

0546 "How the **** do I turn this alarm off?"

0700 Board the train, a placard on the side proclaiming BEIJING - ULAN BATOR - MOSKVA.

0715 My compartment-mates are three Mongolians (Young Mongolian, Mum Mongolian and Aunty Mongolian). It emerges that Young Mongolian is married to an Indian from Chandigarh and she was there during the recent earthquake. We swap natural disaster stories.

0740 Train K3 departs Beijing on time

0741 The Mongolians start getting out their food. This takes a good half-hour, and fills much of the cabin. I half-expect them to bring out a fully-roasted yak soon.

0930 Aunty Mongolian is asleep and snoring at a volume that would have impressed Genghis Khan. I set off to explore the train.

1100 Dining car opens for lunch. Gristly meat and rice, but free so can't really complain.

1230 So many Mongolians! The train is full of them. In the next compartment is a 26-year-old consultant from Ulaan Bator who's heading home after time in Hong Kong and Beijing. He teaches me how to say Genghis Khan properly (it's pronounced "Chingis").

1518 Already 463km from Beijing. There are white kilometre-posts along the route charting our 7621km progress towards Moscow. Went snooping in the first-class section. An Australian woman showed me her cabin; they have 2 beds to a cabin rather than 4, and a shower cubicle. We have erm... community spirit.

All the cabins have a guestbook with comments from previous travellers. All the comments are enormously positive about the carriage attendants on the train, who are called the fuwuyuan in China, or the provodnik / provodnitsa in Russia. We suspect they rip out the negative comments!

Scenery since Beijing has been rather scarred by industry, but it's improving.

1900 Have found the other Brits on board in the next carriage. We're filling in our departure cards for China. This has a section marked 'reason for departure'. "The toilets!" They're all getting off at Ulan Bator, I seem to be the only person mad enough to try and do the whole route in one go.

2030 The toilets are locked for the long border crossing. I have an empty water bottle ready in case I get desperate...

2039 Train pulls to a shuddering halt at Erlian, at the very edge of the PRC. Thoughts on leaving China? I don't feel like I've been here 3 weeks... I was expecting a country in transition, and I found change in abundance. The new-found money seemed to have filtered down to street level far more than in India. The streets themselves were clean, the people well-attired - and despites the complaints of some other travellers I found the Chinese very friendly, and patient of my dubious Mandarin. And yet... and yet... Idwtgmsbbtcc. Damn.

2355 Train pulls out of Erlian to rousing music from the platform loudspeakers. We've been let off the train for a few hours while the bogeys were changed. Took the opportunity to invest in some duty-free vodka (may be useful for bribing Russians).

Thursday

0130 Mongolian border formalities finally complete. Collapse exhausted.

0820 What a view! Outside the Gobi Desert stretches into the distance. Unlike China there is no sign of human habitation, just mile after mile of sand.

0836 Camels!

0915 Watching the desert fly by with a hairy German. There are a few 'towns': groups of six houses; more frequent herds of animals; the occasional ger (a traditional type of tent in which many Mongolians still live).

0932 Stop at Choyr 47 minutes behind schedule. Go for my first walk on Mongolian soil. It's COLD.

1130 Only two hours to go until Ulan Bator, so the Mongolians have begun the epic task of packing away their vast stock of alcohol. This was cunningly stashed away all over the carriage when we went through customs last night. A 2-litre of whisky appears from beneath Aunty Mongolian's voluminous skirts. "Her morning drink" jokes Young Mongolian. I think she was joking.

1230 The Mongolian dining car is beautifully decorated, and the views of the Gobi Desert are first-class. Only one problem: no food.

1400 Ulaan Bator! My Mongolian friends are met by numerous relatives. Lots of Russians get on to replace them... but none get into my compartment: looks like I'll have it to myself!

1450 Back in the dining car where they've stocked up with provisions in Ulan Bator. Well, stocked up with a few.

"Could I get the chick..."
"No chicken, sorry"
"Hmm... what do you actually have?"
"We have goulash (very long pause) and steak"
"Hmm, think I'll have the steak"
"And to drink?"
"Can I have a lemon tea?"
"No lemon"
"Tea it is"

1457 Mouth watering in preparation for steak...

1515 STEAK!

1730 Mark on a map my wandering of the past two months... now I can see how colossal the distance I have to get home is! Note to self: Bombay-Delhi-Bangkok-Shanghai is a REALLY dumb routing.

2000 Lack of English speakers on the train, they all seem to have detrained at Ulan Bator. So get talking to Ye Wei and his friend Zhang Lian. 'Talking' involves a mix of poor English, poor Chinese, my Chinese Hanzi cards and prodigious pointing out of phrases in my Pinyin version of "Elmer the Patchwork Elephant".

2100 Great delight when after about 15 minutes of mime we figure out that sha means beach.

2130 Yet another border crossing. Ye and Zhang need some help with their form, since it's English or Mongolian only.

2205 Oh dear, fear I may be delaying the train. Our fuwuyuan is now engrossed in "Teach Yourself Beginner's Chinese", while the Mongolian border guard is reading my copy of "Russian in Three Months".

2320 Border crossing still ongoing. Trying to get Xiao Ye to pronounce 'grass' and 'glass' differently.

GRASS... cow food
GLASS... stuff in window

"GLRASS... GLRASS..."

2350/1950 Clocks now helpfully jump back four hours to Moscow time. The Russian border guard is a bit suspicious of my visa. "Vere did you get your veesa?" "London." "This ees an old veesa". (pause) "This ees not a problem"

2048 Nothing much has happened at all for the past hour. Determined not to eat my last bar of chocolate.

???? Eat my last bar of chocolate. God knows what time it is, these timezones have confused me. We finally get on our way.

Friday

0440 The world rushes past my window. We're in Siberia, the vast expanse of Lake Baikal stretches to the horizon. Been reading about the lake: it's 20 million years old and contains one-fifth of the world's fresh water supplies. Most interestingly three-quarters of all the species found in its icy depths are located nowhere else on earth. Just imagine all the species they HAVEN'T found...

0830 Snow!

0915 More English lessons with Xiao Ye. "The earth is ground." "No, the earth is round. The cow is standing on the ground." "The cow is standing on the round." "Yep, that's about right."

1015 Irkutsk is no longer merely an evocative territory on the Risk board, but a concrete place (and yes it is mainly concrete). Go for a walk along the platform - not all that chilly. Lots of Russian babushkas hovering.

1300 The Russian dining car seems unfairly maligned. OK, they only seem to serve borsch, and you're not quite sure if the waitress is going to give you your food or thump you in the face, and the only other customers are chain-smoking mafia types, and you have to put up with an appallingly badly dubbed DVD, and it's woefully overpriced, and... OK perhaps it is fairly maligned.

1600 Feeling a bit jet-lagged through trying to adjust to Moscow time all in one go! It's already dark outside.

1930 Reading my largest book for the trip: "The Wind Up Bird Chronicle" by Haruki Murakami. Big jolts from underneath the carriage every so often.

2100 Bed, it feels like 1am (because it is 1am).

Saturday

0645 Wow, just wow. The view from my window seems to have gone through a sepia filter. There are only two colours, the silvery-grey of the grass and the bright white of freshly fallen snow. Apart from the electricity pylons that run alongside the railway lines, there is no sign of humanity, just utter desolation.

0745 Crazy Russian appears, with the help of "Learn Russian in 3 months" I ask him his name but he speaks far too fast to understand the response. I show him my world map; he likes the fact that Russia is still shown as the USSR, or rather the CCCP.

0950 Xiao Ye tells me the Chinese call pandas mao-xiong (cat-bear) while the Taiwanese call them xiong-mao (bear-cat). I feel this explains a lot. We've now crossed the halfway mark, 3811km from both Moscow and Beijing and are into the second pack of my Chinese character cards which includes those handy words "fabric", and happily for Fawlty Towers fans, "pigeon".

"PIG-EE-ON"
No, "pigeon"
"PIG-EE-ON"

1020 Mariinsk. A minor snowball fight breaks out on the platform. Bevies of Russian grandmothers appear bearing checked laundry bags full of bread, vodka, cigarettes and various dubious food items. I opt for some stodgy looking dumplings and bread rolls.

1420 Timing the gap between kilometre posts (OK, there ain't too much to do at the moment). It takes us 42 seconds to reduce the distance to Moscow from 3429km to 3428km, representing an average speed of 85km/h. Return to my cabin happy I can still do Maths.

1900 Although not much happens on the train it's not in the least boring. You soon reach a rhythm: sleeping, eating, reading, writing, chatting to the other people in the carriage, getting in the way of the fuwuyuan hoovering, dashing off the train every stop to "get some fresh air", dashing back on three minutes later when you can't bear the cold any more.

It's already the penultimate night on board the train, cracked open my bottle of Chinese beer in celebration. Xiao Ye and Xiao Zhang have been feeding me Chinese snacks for several days: spiced beef (good), chicken feet (never again).

2100 Playing poker against Xiao Ye. Am up 25 roubles up when I cunningly decide to bluff and bet 25 roubles when I'm queen-high. My bluff is called.

Sunday

0600 Sunrise across the Siberian wastelands. Are we still in Siberia?

0650 Tiumen. Need to buy a cool Russian furry hat. At present, am resorting to wearing all my clothes at once to stay warm. 2104km till Moscow.

1100 Discover "One Song to the Tune of Another" is a popular Chinese game as well

1147 The kindness of strangers never ceases to impress me. A couple of Australian women who now seem to be the only other Western tourists on the train saw me figuring out what to spend my last 30rb on at Ekaterinburg station and insisted on giving me 300rb of their money. "We both have sons, you could be our son! We don't want you starving..." Having thanked them profusely I buy a veritable feast of bread, cheese, chocolate and of course dried noodles.

1255 Back in Europe after two months! Often I think ahead "What will I be doing in 1 week? 2 weeks? 3 weeks?" Let's play that in reverse. A week ago at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Two weeks ago recovering from my horse trek. Three weeks ago panda-watching. Sightseeing in Shanghai. At Nathan's flat in Chennai. Cheering on England in the Ashes. Falling off my surfboard in Bali. Admiring the elephants of Pinnewala. And 9 weeks ago I'd been at Em and Nick's wedding in England. It's been a whirlwind of heat, colour, food and language the whole way.

2010 I can see why the Russians drink vodka... it was a bitterly cold night last night, but after three vodkas and cokes I've reached a nice fuzzy warm stage. Last night on the train, introduced Zhang and Ye to Eat Ch!

Monday

0740 The odd effect of travelling westwards thousands of kilometres while remaining fixed to Moscow time is that dawn becomes an hour or so later every day. It's as though winter is drawing in at great speed. Out the window, grey murky tower blocks (classic Communist design), most have the lights on.

Last day on the train, the six days have sped by in the blink of an eye - but then again I think of some of the weeks I spent working in India when six days could disappear working on a single animation. What did surprise me is how few tourists there are... train #3 is not preserved for any sentimental reasons, it's a vital transport lifeline for the hundreds of Chinese, Russians and Mongolians on board. It's a living train, a working train, and a train with just 394km to go.

1130 Last stop at Vladimir Pass, dash out to take lots all the photos we've missed so far. The engine has changed colour.

1205 Fuwuyuan arrives with the guestbook. Am enervatingly positive, as is the tradition.

1230 Last meal... no more pot noodles!

1422 After 126 hours, we arrive in Moscow just 3 minutes behind schedule!

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