“And now for something completely different.”
I’m beginning to think, not for the first time, that the greatest perk of my job is all the time off that I get. Mid-Autumn, or ‘Moon Cake’ Festival, is one of the two major breaks in China, a time for people to exchange sweet cakes and journey home to their families. I have yet to acquire the taste for moon cake, and home to me (as Burroughs said) has never “meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room.” So I took another trip, boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express with the gf and a handful of friends and colleagues.
The Beijing-UlaanBatar express is a 28 hour journey with a handful of stops. The train itself was bookended by dining cars: one Chinese, one Mongolian. After departing the big smoke and setting up camp in two adjacent sleeper rooms, our party of eight (a Brit, an American, a Filipino, four young Chinese women and myself) descended on the Chinese dining car for lunch, laughing and chatting over ribs, chicken wings and bottles of Yanjing.* Every time I tried to open the curtain to peek at the glorious Chinese countryside, the rail collapsed into my lap. This did not deter me from stubbornly trying several times.
Returning to our carriage (which we had virtually to ourselves), we played card games and chatted politics (a conversation we cut short when it became a little too heated) before going our separate but interconnected ways for the evening. Dinner was composed of pot noodles and snacks that we brought with us.
At approximately midnight, we reached the Chinese border at Er Lian (and were immediately told not to step off the carriage). As we all climbed into our beds, the train was undergoing a procedure to change the gauge of the rails. None of us could tell if this was a literal placing of new rails in front of the train, or an exchange of every single wheel on the train carriages, but whatever was happening was accompanied by regular banging, an oppressive industrial thumping, and a broken sleep filled with Lynchian nightmares. At 2am we were awoken and scared shitless by Chinese soldiers with flashlights who returned our passports to us. A few hours later we were woken by the slightly more attractive (and less heart attack-inducing) ladies at the Mongolian border.
At 6am, the bedroom shutter rolled up with an enthusiastic “Dude, look at that sunrise!”, which I reluctantly complied with. We were chugging along the ridiculously flat steppes. I could not have been more elated (unless, of course, I’d have had 8 hours sleep). We went to the Chinese diner only to discover that it had remained in China: we were staring out the back of the train, watching the tracks recede into the impossibly distant horizon.
And so it was Mongolian food for breakfast. No curtain rails this time, just good food and Pythonesque banter: one of the delights of travelling with a fellow Brit is that we never ran out of things to talk about or of Monty Python references. We even improvised Palin-esque commentary on our adventure**. Tired of ‘lol’ing at our own wit, we spent the rest of our journey chatting and larking in the sleeper, trying to practice a handful of Mongolian phrases, and scraping the absolute barrel of Monty Python references (28 hours is a very long time!)
The foothills appeared. Then the mountains. By this time we were talking about Ben Wheatley movies as I dug wax from my ear. Eventually, the suburbs of UlaanBataar crept into view. Yurt after yurt after shipping container. We all agreed that the UB boonies appeared quite the fuck hole to our travel-weary eyes.
We stepped onto the chilly platform and entered the city itself with no game plan. We exchanged RMB for MNT and then started walking. First port of call was a Mongolian greasy spoon for lunch. None of us could read Mongolian, but one of our party suggested ordering the first few dishes on the menu and splitting them between us. So lunch was made up of five different soups and a bowl of rice.
We then descended on the Main Street of Peace Avenue and found a cheap hotel (at our second attempt), before tracking down a tour company that could facilitate the rest of our trip. We all discussed what we would like to see during our Mongolian stay. A trip to the Gobi was not possible with our limited amount of days, so we settled on camping East of the city.
So for one night only, we bedded down in UlaanBatar. I slept for 10 hours.
Cue Palin voiceover, and bombastic BBC music.
*(lunchtime drinking is discouraged in Chinese companies. We were truly in holiday mode)
**“The tea in the dining car is a little too hot, but the desert outside is only ten degrees centigrade.”