Taking the train provides plenty of time to think. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on one’s perspective and how one utilizes such time. As we rode out of Beijing toward Mongolia, Anastasia thought about all the bad things that might happen at the border when she presented her laundered passport. As a project manager, she designed all kind of contingency plans. The rest of us (or maybe it was just me) spent our idle hours thinking of ways we could encourage Ana to torment herself. Her concern peaked when she read in the Rough Guide to the Trans-Siberian Railroad about a Nigerian citizen who’d spent 18 months in a Mongolia jail for having a bogus passport. Ana’s passport wasn’t bogus, just faded, but that didn’t stop us from promising to write to her “in care of the Mongolia Penal System” and offering other bits of advice such as having some cigarettes to barter. As one who doesn’t like to go into a new country without a little change in the local currency, I provide Ana with a pack of cigarettes (prison currency). Of course, I wasn’t exactly a big spender as I purchased the pack of Chinese cigarettes for only five yuan (roughly 80 cent). At the border, seeing Chinese policemen marching two-by-two, prompted Judy to point out Ana’s “new friends.” We all had good fun at Ana’s expense, which was a little cruel since she was nervous about the border crossing and even though communism may be dead, remnants of hard-line totalitarianism survives, especially at the borders.
The train leaves Beijing station right on time. Although we’d be on the “Trans-Mongolian” and later the Trans-Siberian route until Moscow, this was the only true Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian train we’d take. The rest just ran on the same lines. The Trans-Mongolian leaves Beijing once a week, on Wednesday, heading through Mongolia. It arrives in Moscow six days later. Not long after leaving the Chinese capital, the terrain becomes mountainous and the tracks run through long tunnels and curve through steep valleys, the wheels often squeaking as they rub against rails. There are half dozen tracks through this region, laid on both sides of the valley, each with their own tunnels and trestles. We pass by the Great Wall, but the views are not great as the skies are hazy with smog. After about two hours, the landscape flattens out. There’s farmland as well as factories. We stop in the industrial city of Zhangjiakou, where several of us get out and stretch our legs by walking along the platform. Lunch is served not long afterwards and we are pleasantly surprised that it (along with dinner) is free. In the afternoon, I take a long nap that’s filled with dreams. At Datong, there is a longer stop in this city where until the late 1980s steam locomotives were still being built.
A little after Datong, we pass under the Great Wall and the landscape opens up. We’re now in Inner Mongolia. Like Montana, this is Big Sky country. The air is cleaner. We pass giant wind farms and towns where the homes are all built of red brick and tiles. I love this open country; it stirs my soul. We could be in South Dakota or even around Beaver, Utah. The wind blows the grass, which is golden in the late afternoon night. As we proceed further west, the sun drops from the sky as the air becomes gritty. We’re on the edge of the Gobi desert and the attendants run through the cars, closing windows.
It’s after dark when we pull into the border town of Erlyan where we’re ushered off the train. The train is taken away to have its bogies (wheels) changed as Mongolia and Russia gauge is different from China’s. Chinese officials take our passports for processing. We’re left standing on the platform listening to classical music (which is a little surreal). Later, we learn we can shop in the station where there is a duty-free shop and another store that sells groceries. It’s here that I purchase a pack of cigarettes and present them to Ana. Then we venture out of the station and walk around town. It takes a couple of hours for them to process our passport and to change the wheels.
It’s nearly midnight when we’re ushered back onto the train. They present us with our passports and the train is moved a bit down the tracks and into Mongolia, stopping at the town of Zamiim Ude. Here, rather serious Mongolian officials border the train and take our passports. They immediately ask Ana what happened to her passport and she points to a bottle of water and said it got wet. Presenting them with a color copy of her passport along with a copy of her driver’s licenses seems to satisfy them. They take our passports with them off the train for processing, leaving us locked on the train (and there are soldiers standing at attention along the platform in case anyone thinks they might want to leave the car). Further complicating the situation is that the toilets are locked (we’re in a station and these cars do not have holding tanks for toilet waste). My fellow Americans (Ben and Daniel) each had several beers in Erlyan and the locked bathrooms create a serious situation. Daniel pleads with the Mongolian custom official in charge, saying he needs to go to the toilet. “It isn’t possible,” she snaps. I laugh, thinking that it is possible, just not desirable. The woman is serious, but Daniel is desperate. The border crossing into Mongolia takes a couple of hours. After much complaining Daniel and Ben finally fashion a urinal out of a water bottle and the rest of us are provided with way too much information. I spend most of the time with my head out of the window, looking at the guards on the platform. The sight of them is funny and I find myself making a crack about Mongolia being a military powerhouse, as they have never been attacked from a train. Then I realize the folly of my words, as Mongolia was once a military powerhouse, although not in recent centuries. After receiving our stamped passport, the train finally begins to move. Immediately the guards snap attention and salute. With my head out of the window, probably looking like a gargoyle, I return the salute, bringing a smile to at least one of the guard’s faces. The train picks up speed, rushing off into the darkness. We turn out the lights and soon I’m asleep. It’s two in the morning.
It’s a short night and I am up early the next morning and out into the corridor to catch the sun’s return. Mongolia is stark and beautiful. I’m reminded of Central Nevada, rugged mountains in the distance and a landscape of grass and small shrubs. We stop in Choyr, the birthplace of the first Mongolian in space (he caught a ride with the Russians). I get off and along the platform am quickly attacked by kids selling food, toys and even colorful rocks. The train rushes through the Mongolian countryside, passing herds of sheep and goats who mingle together grazing, as if they’re waiting for judgment day. Herders on horses stand nearby. Occasionally there is a ger (yurt) or a small town with a platform. We pass a local train on a siding, a solo diesel pulling a lone coach. Unlike China, where much of the line has been electrified, in Mongolia diesels reign. Trains hauling lumber and timber head south into China, to feed its building boom. Late morning, we begin the long descent into Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital. Running through grasslands, the train snakes back and for, it’s wheels squealing against the steel ribbons, treating us passengers with great views of the engine and the back of the train. We pack our bags and when the train finally stops, we haul our packs off and onto the platform. In the past thirty hours we’ve covered the first 1500 kilometers of our journey. There is more to come, so stay tuned!