We left Beijing Wednesday morning at 7.45am. We brought the cheapest ticket, hard sleeper 148 RMB (11 pound), but got a 4 x bed cabin all to ourselves. We closed the door and got comfortable.
We'd brought some blue cheese, fresh breads, tomatoes, red onion and of course red wine. We started our journey out here from Brum with Champagne so we had to do the return leg in style too.
It was a beautiful train journey leaving Beijing sprawling city into countryside and then the mountains, the train went past and alongside The Great Wall. After the mountains was the flat plains of Inner Mongolia. Which looked stunning especially as the sun was setting.
There was a quite a few foreign travellers on the train, many on a group Trans Mongolian trip. Traveling with a guide everything arranged. I chatted to a few I met in the corridor, but we spent most of the trip snug in our own private cabin.
Read some of our books, I put aside Will Self's ‘Book of Dave’ for a bit and picked up Paul Theroux's Riding the Red Rooster. His account of his journeys through China in the late 80's. It starts with him taking the train to Mongolia with a group.
‘The people from the tour were still acquainted with each other. They asked me questions too. Where was I from What did I do? Was I married? Did I have Children? Why was I taking this trip? … First time in China?’
We were glad to be alone, for a while. We've met some great people on our trip but it can get tiring answering the same questions over and over.
“I was Paul, I was unemployed, I was evasive, and – how does Baudelaire put it? – ‘The real travellers are those who leave for the sake of leaving’ and something about not knowing why but always saying Allons!”
We got to Erlian near the border around 20.30 that night. We got off the trains and tried to get an onward ticket to Ulaanbaatar.
The train was there for 2 and 3/4 hours, whilst they sorted Immigration and changed the train bogie’s. Our Trans-Siberian Handbook explained ‘The Chinese railway system operates on standard guage (as do Europe and North America), which is 3 1/2 inches narrower than the five foot gauge in the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. Giant hydraulic lifts raise the carriages and the bogies are rolled out and replaced.’
We thought it would be easy to get our onwards tickets here but no, we was stuck, we had to stay another night in China. (We should have asked to upgrade our ticket on the train (a traveller writing on LP Thorntree said they did this for $33). We could have got a direct ticket in Beijing but that would be easy wouldn't it? (It was also much more expensive at 780 RMB)). The tour group, filed off the train, shopped at the 'duty free' then got back on the train. We didn't envy them?
We tried a few hotels near the station, "Mayo" - don't have, it was late and dark many places looked shut, but thankfully a taxi driver found us a nice hotel for 80 RMB. I had a Tsingtao Beer, 4 RMB from the 'duty free and watched Twin Peaks on DVD in the room before crashing.
We got up early and headed to the bus station buying a ticket to the border town, Zamyn-Uud. We had a few hours to kill before the bus at 10.30am so had a wander round the pleasant enough town in Inner Mongolia and caught up with emails and news at a 'Wang ba', Internet Cafe.
On the bus we met Jaggi and Chandra, two Mongolian students returning home after a year studying in Alliabad, Utter Pradesh, India. The border was a mess of lorries, jeeps, busses and people, there was no order just a mangle of vehicles. After going through Immigration we got back on the bus, we sat there, it was quite hot and sunny. Their was no way we were going anywhere. After a while our driver got out and moved some of the jeeps with some help. We got through eventually. Back on the bus we got talking to two Mongolian girls who were also returning from study in India, the parents of one of the girls was also traveling with them. We all headed to the train station together and found a place to sit and put down our bags. Jaggi helped us get our tickets for the train to Ulaanbaatar later that night. We then took it in turns to get food or look after the bags.
We had rice, salad, coleslaw and a potato stew. Everyone else had the same but with meat, it looked like beef goulash. It was more East European than Mongolian but Jaggi and Chandra wolfed it down, ‘we miss this food’, you very rarely find beef in India.
We had been warned it was difficult to get Vegetarian food in Mongolia, the lonely planet guide said ‘Indeed, up until recently the Mongolian language only had one word to describe both grass and vegetables’.
We shared a carriage with Jaggi and Chandra. They had the bottom bunks and we had the top. There was no guard to stop you from falling out. Karen tied herself in with her shawl.
We passed many goods trains full of logs heading for China. Chandra shook his head ‘Our people are destroying our country, selling it for easy money, selling it to China’, ‘they don’t care about the country or future, they are not educated, they don’t understand, they just think money, money, money’.
Later, whilst staying in the countryside in Mongolia, we saw a brave report on Mongolia’s 9TV channel. Huge sways of forest were being cleared. The female reporter was being harassed by security guards, she continued her report anyway. A security guard stole the microphone. We then saw local Mongolians come to help her. They kept the security guards at bay, so her report could continue. The report was in Mongolian but we got the jist. The reporter went to a nearby factory, the logs were being made into chopsticks, which looked like the disposable sort. China's appetite for disposable chopsticks eats up 25 million trees each year*. In our short time in China we had used many, even though we tried to carry some with us.
It is not only exports that is fuelling Mongolia’s deforestation. As Mongolia becomes more Urbanised, over one third of Mongolia now lives in the capital Ulaanbaatar, there is an increased demand for wood to build houses as well as fuel for cooking and heating.
It was good travelling with these bright passionate students, they told us a lot about Mongolia, it’s proud long history, it’s customs and cultures. Their English was excellent, they had picked up a touch of the Indian English accent and even the Indian head wobble. ‘Mongolia is very friendly country, you’ll love it, we have a strong tradition of looking after travellers’. They told us about ‘Ger’s’ the traditional Mongolian home, (The word ‘yurt’ is a Turkic word introduced to the west by the Russians, Mongolians call them ‘ger’).
They spoke of Shamanism, Buddhism, horse riding ‘we invented Stirrups’ and of course Chinngis Khan. Named Temujin, (Ironsmith) at birth, in 1189 he was given the honorary name of Chinggis Khan, meaning ‘universal (or oceanic) king’. In 1206 he was proclaimed leader of ‘all the people who love in felt tents’.
Jaggi and Chandra both proudly told us that ‘Chinggis Khan was voted man of the Millennium’ and that he created ‘the largest empire the world has ever seen’. By the time of Chinggis Khan’s death in 1227, the Mongol empire extended from Beijing to the Caspian sea.
Jaggi and Chandra made some Instant pot noodles then went to bed. We soon fell asleep too.
Paul Theroux's - Riding The Iron Rooster - By Train through China. Penguin 1988.