The Train Ride Part 1 – Beijing to Ulanbaatar

I arrived at the train station bright and early to catch the first of the train legs. I then met Vicki and Suzy, mother and daughter from England, who were to be my travelling companions for the next two weeks. We got comfortable on the train before heading to the dining car to find something to do. It turned out that the dining car was the place to be. Settled into a pleasant afternoon and evening of food and beer with Suzy, Dash, Christian, Peter and the guys from the Vodka train.

Before long, it was time to cross the border into Mongolia. I said my final goodbyes to China and proceeded down the corridor to my cabin. Somehow, I managed to end up in Peter’s carriage when the border officer came through. As a result, I was stuck in this cabin for the next eight hours whilst the entire train was checked and the bogies changed to the wider Mongolian and Russian ones. Peter, myself and a Mongolian girl who had been studying in Australia provided a running commentary of the bogie change, focusing on the switchboard and comparing it to ordering a coffee. Needless to say that no coffee appeared but we did eventually leave the hanger with supposedly wider bogies.

After the bogie change, I managed to find my way back to my own cabin but not before the lovely Chinese provodnik came looking for me, worried that I had been left behind on the Chinese side. I assured him that I was simply in this carriage because I had to choose between someone with really bad English telling me what I think was to go back to my cabin, someone speaking what I think was Mongolian and someone who spoke understandable Chinese telling me to stay put. He just laughed. Then we filled out some forms, one of which was entirely in Russian although it was a Mongolian form (still not sure what it was for but they took it off us at the Russia-Mongolia border) and went to sleep.

Woke up the next day and headed to the dining car for some much needed breakfast. Found a still drunk Dash arguing with the horrible and completely unorganised dining car staff. Apparently he had paid for three beers already then ordered another four and as she had no system she was insisting that he paid for seven. I left him to sort it out by himself.

Ulanbaatar (UB)

We reached Ulanbaatar at about 1pm and were met by our Mongolian tour guide Nakhi, a strange man with an enthusiastic desire to be open-hearted about everything, including his arrangement with his girlfriend. Apparently they are now comfortable enough to shower together. He also struggled a little bit with the English language and we often found that his answers to our questions covered a close, but unrelated, topic.

Anyway, we headed off to the Gandan Monastery, the only fully operational Buddhist monastery to have lasted through the Communist purges of the 1930’s and Sukhbaatar square, the main square of UB. Gandan Monastery had one of the biggest Buddha statues I have seen in a while and Sukhbaatar had a statue of Gandhi. Neither place was of particular interest and we were definitely looking forward to our light snack that he had promised us. The snack, in a karaoke room at a random hotel, consisted of potato salad, bread and warm salty cow’s milk followed by Mongolian noodles and beef and finished with toffee ice cream. Just a light snack really…

Train amidst Mongolian countryside

Gandan Monastery

Sukhbaatar square
(Statue of Gandhi)

Sukhbaatar square

Gandan Monastery

After our “snack” we headed to another hotel where we were to take a shower and prepare for our trip to the Ger Camp. Turns out the shower was a banya, where you strip down naked and shower with anyone who is sharing the banya with you before hopping in the warm pool and/or sauna. We were lucky enough to share it with a rather well-endowed Mongolian lady and one of her friends. Definitely something you would like to be prepared for…

We finished our “shower” and spent an hour or so travelling to the Ger Camp in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Froze our butts off getting from the van to the Ger but were pleasantly surprised when we were greeted by an extremely warm and luxuriously decorated Ger. We had some dinner, and found out that cream of tomato soup is supposedly a traditional Mongolian dish and not something that they think tourists want. Pick my sarcasm here. After dinner, we retired to our comfy little Ger for an excellent nights sleep.

We awoke the next day to find that we were completely surrounded by snow. Just our seven or eight little Gers, a couple of staff, one other group of people, a dog, a cute little puppy and loads of snow. A pretty amazing sight if I say so myself.

Over the period of a few hours, we learnt a couple of new games using the ankle bones of sheep, tried out archery, played with the puppy and ate some more “traditional” food.

The games were unusual, with the ankle bones consisting of four sides named sheep, goat, horse and camel. Like playing with a match box, if you roll the bone, you are less likely to land on two of the sides. These were horse and camel. The first game, camel-racing, involved lining up all the bones bar seven in a semi-circle, placing three bones (there were three of us) at the start of the line and rolling the other four dice. The aim was to either get camels or four of a kind to move your “camel” bone to the end of the line before anyone else. The second game involved throwing all of the bones on the table and trying to hit sheep into sheep or horses into horses (etc) to remove one of them from the table. The person with the most bones won.

After lunch, we packed up and headed back into UB for an hour or so to view the city then shop for souvenirs as well as food for the next train journey, two days on a train with no dining cabin. We ended the day by heading back to the train station and boarding our next train to Irkutsk, our first stop in Russia.