The Trans-Mongolian Express
Mongolian internet cafes are similar in nature to Sloths: they are awfully slow but do eventually get the job done, however, they are most likely eaten or stuffed before they get there. Because of that it is virtually impossible for me to post photos right now, and I probably won’t be able to until the 7th of October. In the meantime please enjoy some small text and keep faith that when I do find a good cafe there will be in excess of 300 awesome pictures.
The Trans-Mongolian Express
The Trans-Mongolian Express is one of the worlds most revered train journeys; well at the very least it’s commonly taken as a part of the Tran-Siberian which is supposedly the world’s best. As far as romantic old-world train rides go, the six day haul from Moscow to Beijing is for some reason stuck in everyone’s minds. I for one can’t see why, especially now that I’ve done the trip from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar.
There are three ways to experience the Trans-Mongolian. The first is the luxurious train which runs twice a week directly from Beijing to Moscow which stops in UB after 30 hours or so. The second option is to take a Chinese train to the Mongolian border and then switch to a Mongolian train on the other side. This method is cheaper but of course has significantly fewer comforts. The third way was mine and involved two trains, four buses and a horse, four days, no comfort and not a great number of added benefits.
After waiting nine days in Beijing for my Mongolian visa I was unsurprisingly in a great rush to escape. This is not to say that I don’t like Beijing, quite to the contrary, but 24 days is well and truly enough to enjoy that city. Because I wanted to leave in such a hurry I wasn’t able to take the easy options for getting to Mongolia and instead I had to make my own way. To this end I took a night train to Hohot.
Hohot, or Huhehaote as the Chinese call it in an attempt to make the world’s most unpronounceable city name, is the capital of Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province which rings the real Mongolia. The city itself is remarkable, but only because it has a New Zealand themed pub. In a country where people are hard pressed to tell the difference between Austria, Australia and Italy, or more accurately where people can’t tell the difference between the USA and anywhere that isn’t the USA, I would be very surprised to find more than five patrons who understood the bar’s theme and could find it on a map (even the map on the wall which had NZ in the center of the world). Nevertheless, the bar was there.
Solace can be taken that the outside wall of the pub had a giant picture of a Red Kangaroo on it, even the owner got mixed up about the theme.
The reason I came to Hohot was to visit the grasslands to its north. Much like Mongolia proper the terrain is a massive grassy plain sitting on top of a plateau some 2000m above sea level. The population of the area is largely Mongolian as well so it has become an alternative destination for people who can’t get out of China that still want to see Mongolian things. I took a tour from my guesthouse, which meant that one of the two guys that worked at the guest house took me out for the day, which brought me to a tourist camp on the grasslands and gave me my first impression of Mongolia.
Let me paint a picture of the scene for you: the tourist camp consisted of a series of Gers (circular felt tents) which were permanently erected on cement bases. Around the outside there was a collection of “fake” gers which were made of wood (actually, a lot of the Chinese tourist camps exclusively feature fake gers because tourists can’t tell the difference and they are easier to maintain. Somehow I found it rather easy to tell the difference between a tent and a wooden shack, I guess I must be smarter). In the middle of the camp was a regular type building which was used as a restaurant and the like. Outside of the camp however, things were authentic. For miles in every direction the only things I could see were grass, lakes, hills, horses, and the odd powerpole (no Chinese photo would be correct without one). A lake was next to the camp which constituted the only change in the landscape; the plains were quite literally endless.
I explored the grasslands by horse for two hours. Having never ridden before I found it an interesting experience, somewhere between exhilaration and completely controlled panic, until I saw a photo of myself on the horse and realised just how silly I/we looked (see photo).
Returning to Hohot I was given a choice: I could immediately jump onto a train directly to UB, or I could take a bus to the border the following day and attempt to catch a connecting Mongolian train that afternoon. I chose the latter because it sounded like fun and soon found myself on a six hour bus ride to the border.
I won’t tell you everything that happened after that as it doesn’t bear telling. I will say a little though. China is an amazing country, one filled and then filled again with magical places and wonderful people. I spent five wonderful months there, sometimes struggling with things, sometimes following the easy path, but every moment gave me a good memory. However, China is a tough mistress to handle, and she sent me off in her typical style: I was ripped off when paying for my last meal, the bus connection I was counting on didn’t exist, and when I asked a man if he knew where the toilet was he told me that he didn’t understand me. In five months I never even got past this “toilet issue”; it was both the first problem I faced when I arrived in Kunming, and it was the last problem I faced when I left.
Eventually I was on a train, after having accidentally bribed three or four people, in a cabin all by myself. I first boarded the train after leaving Chinese customs at 3pm and sat expectantly as my Mongolian adventure began. For the first time I five months I was without language, a fact which shocked me when I first tried to buy some water and realised that neither Chinese nor English was working for me, and for the entire train ride the only words spoken to me were “money”, “thousand” or a Russian diatribe by a crazed man. The train didn’t even leave the Mongolian border town until 10pm for some reason which I am still yet to know, and the 500km to UB was one of the longest and loneliest parts of my trip so far. 22 hours and 15 minutes after getting on the train I finally arrived in what was by then an eerily empty train (everyone else got off a few hours earlier and decided that driving was faster) and set foot in the capital for the first time.