It’s a nearly 30-hour trip by train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The sleeping cars are small and cramped. When the “toilet” flushes you can see the ground whizzing by below. Along the way are hours of beautiful nothingness and awe-inspiring sunsets and clouds. I leaned out of the window to get this shot of nearly half of the length of the train. There is really nothing out there apart from scenery, which is everything.
Sometimes the best travel experiences are the uncomfortable ones. While traveling on an amazing 11-month journey across three continents with a program called The World Race, I had many budget-friendly travel experiences, but one was by far the most extraordinary. My friends and I embarked on a 30-hour train ride from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I not only was able to get some excellent shots of the virgin landscape, but I also discovered that a seemingly arduous journey can be a lot of fun and hold some unexpected surprises.
We left Beijing sometime mid-morning and arrived in Ulaanbaatar mid-afternoon the next day. Two half days and a night on the train were just enough time to enjoy the experience, but not too long that one would go stir-crazy. My friends and I had “soft” sleepers (as opposed to the “hard’ sleepers, a.k.a chairs, that I’ve heard horror stories about!) The “soft” beds are thin and hard by any American standard but I had no problem sleeping very contently in the top bunk. The top offers more privacy and I figured I’d rather do the climbing than be the one climbed over. I slept wonderfully right up until we arrived at the Mongolian border at 1 am. That’s when everything turned to helpless confusion.
There’s something very surreal about going through immigration and customs in one’s PJs…in bed, in the middle of the night. The officers were serious and stoic in their neatly pressed uniforms, and I was groggy and thankful I hadn’t decided to sleep in my underwear. I really didn’t know what was going on. When you’re riding on a Chinese train you are a captive audience. There were a few times the conductors walked through the corridors saying something. I had no idea what they were saying, but after a month in China, I never knew what was happening anyway.
“I slept wonderfully right up until we arrived at the Mongolian border at 1 am. That’s when everything turned to helpless confusion.”
The confusion peaked when the train arrived at a station, as it had several times before. But this was not a basic stop. We had some time to get off and stretch, maybe buy something, use a real bathroom. Some of my friends bounded off of the train while I decided to remain snugly reclined in my bunk. This simple decision proved to be the best I made the entire journey. After about 10 minutes I noticed that no one was coming back. The passengers who disembarked were shut in the station; no, in fact they were locked in! The train slowly started to pull away, then began chugging along as if it wasn’t missing half of the passengers.
Before I could seriously panic, the train pulled into a giant building full of men wearing yellow hard-hats and big engineer-like gloves. “Oh of course,” I thought, “We must be in here for some quick maintenance, I guess I will be seeing everyone else later after all…..or maybe not. I’ll see what I can see out of the window.” It was at this time I saw what I imagine to be the other half of the train, parallel to my car. Big steel arms were placed under the car and slowly it began to rise. Well, the car did. The wheels stayed on the track, left behind. I had no idea what was happening. I watched as the abandoed wheels were simply pushed down the line, one behind the other, each set slamming into the one before it.
The craziest part was that I couldn’t even tell that my car was lifted just like the one parallel to me was lifted. The whole process was so smooth that I wouldn’t have known what happened had I not been gawking out the window. After what was a period of time which can only be described as way too long to have the bathroom locked, we left the train house and arrived back at the station. The relieved passengers, my friends included, piled back on the train, thankful that they wouldn’t be spending the rest of their lives locked in a train station in Outer Mongolia. The wheels were swapped to the Mongolian/Russian size (a wider gauge, I’d later learn) and we were off to complete the last lag of the journey, halfway across Mongolia.
Looking back, that was my favorite part of the journey. I loved the adventure of it, the thought of, “I don’t know why this train is going into this building, but I can’t wait to find out!” If I was traveling in luxury and knew exactly what was going to happen next I wouldn’t have taken time to experience and truly live the journey. Thirty hours sounds like a long time but I don’t actually remember feeling bored.
The rest of the time I actually got to lie in bed and watch movies and eat snacks. I do this at home anyway, but the great thing about lazing around on a train is that it is guilt free. There is nothing else to do; you’re actually accomplishing something pretty cool; you’re traveling vast distances over a semi-arid wasteland, while lying in bed. Traveling can be so restful sometimes. I gazed out of the window at the changing landscape and when sunset came I snapped a few shots. Of course all of this is very social because you’re basically sardined with the people around you.
“The craziest part was that I couldn’t even tell that my car was lifted just like the one parallel to me was lifted. The whole process was so smooth that I wouldn’t have known what happened had I not been gawking out the window.”
We received one free meal ticket, there was a ridiculously long line to get to the dining car, and the food was okay at best (just like airplane food – I was glad I brought most of my own food). I took full advantage of the hot water for both ramen and oatmeal. When I ran out of bottled water I drank the hot water after waiting for it to cool.
The other free amenity was of course the toilet. I use the term loosely. It was more of a small room with a sink and a urine-soaked floor with a hole in the middle of it. I’ve spent enough time in Asia to use and in fact appreciate many squat toilets. Some are gross and some flush and are clean. But this one was in the first category. It was gross. It was probably due to the physics of a swaying train and streams of fluid, anyway it was pretty bad. Hold your breath and wear different shoes in the bathroom bad.
Even with the “toilet,” the food, and the border wake-up, I wouldn’t want to travel any other way. The destination is the journey. What If the World Race had sent us by plane? It would have been a short comfortable flight. I would’ve gotten a meal, a seat among my friends and a view of the clouds. One day China, the next Mongolia. It would have been like stepping into a portal, one city to another without the in-between. I would have missed the transition; the land, the trees, the plains, the countryside that makes up Asia. I saw the huge metroplex that is Beijing and eastern China slowly dissolve into endless farms and villages and eventually they too disappeared until all that was left was rolling plains, and not even a tree or a house remained. I saw camels in the distance and the iconic round Gers of Mongolia begin to dot the landscape. The train wove towards Mongolia’s capital, more Gers appeared, each surrounded by a wooden fence, and then more buildings before barren hills evolved into a city. Then the train came to a rest, and we reached the station in Ulaanbaatar. I can now say traveling by train is my favorite way to go…wherever it may be.