We were so glad to be leaving Ulaanbaatar and what was left of its air particles that clung on to us with extreme might, but, it was not over yet. We had a train to catch and since we were leaving from Ulaanbaatar, what were we to expect? We were the only tourists in the carriage among Mongolians who wanted to pursue their dreams in China.
As the train left the station, we were taken aback as a Mongolian gentleman in a tracksuit jumped up to the empty berth in our cabin. With no suitcase or bag in sight, he didn’t say a word. What was he doing here in the first place? We figured that arrangements are made for people who make last minute China plans when some berths are empty. He never left the cabin, ate smelly corn dog and cracked sunflower seeds whenever I wanted to sleep. To top it off, he’d recline on my berth, eat and spill some of his food. It wasn’t the best time of my life.
In the midst of all this, we could hear Tupac blaring out of a kid’s headphones. The 22 year old exchanged so many I’m-so-bored-get-me-outta-here- glances to me and my two companions. They didn’t bother, I couldn’t resist. He spoke with a American G accent and revealed how rich kids roll in Ulaanbaatar. Exactly what I wanted to hear.
As mentioned previously, the train standards hit rock bottom on this final leg. I’m not going to go into details, however, what’s worth telling is our odd experience at the Mongolia-Beijing border.
We continued our 33-hour journey through the changing Mongolian landscapes. From the Mongolian Steppes to the southern part of the Gobi desert, we were riding through the ghostly traces of the Mongolian Empire that almost ruled the entire world.
Half a day later, we arrived at the borders in total anticipation of stepping out of the carriage because we terribly needed a break from the curious locals and meaningless conversations, and above all FRESH AIR! Unfortunately, we spent approximately 8 hours in the stuffy carriage because it was too dangerous to step out for what felt like the thud of Godzilla’s footsteps coming our way. The carriage shook violently, swinging from side to side as the rubbing of metal on metal screech eventually chimed in. With no advanced warning, the wheels of the entire train were pulled out and replaced to fit……..the smaller Chinese tracks.
At 1am, the train finally took off. We slept for a couple of hours and woke up to the Northern China, Manchuria, views of variously shaped Rocky Mountains surrounded and illuminated by turquoise lakes and sun rays.
Our luck ran out, as the landscape changed into flat plains of rocky desert. We were hit by a huge sandstorm and strong winds rattling the train. Piles of sand were all over our stuff in the cabin and… us. Forget about a shower but washing our hands? Undesired splashes of l’eaux de toilette in the tiny bathroom on top of our dusty selves certainly didn’t amuse us! So we looked out the windows from the corridor hoping to see the Great Wall from the perspective of Mongolian warriors while we prayed for an early arrival. It was all part of the surprise and we loved it. FYI, the train doesn’t cross the Great Wall.
As our train slowed down to the Beijing Railway Station, it felt like the gates of heaven opened up. The Beijing Railway Station, in the city center, is one of my favorite landmarks in Beijing. It’s a fusion of traditional Chinese and Soviet-Stalinist architecture. That alone brought a powerful ending to our journey that shadowed the historical events that traveled from West to East.