I really need to stop reading. This summer I happened upon a romantic journey a New York Times writer took through the countryside of China, Mongolia and Russia aboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Since I found myself in the area, why not explore the vast lands of Asia by train? Armed with granola bars, oranges, apples, water, and cookies I stepped on the train at 11 AM Saturday. Initially, I was confused. Everything seemed to be in Russian. It makes sense because the line begins and ends in Russia but then I noticed a second and third language on some signage. I figured out the English pretty rapidly but it took me a few hours before I realized Mongolians like Russians utilize the Cyrillic system not the character system like the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans etc.
The Mongolians on the train I’ve met appear half Asian and half Russian and neither half nice. They are stern and serious like the Russians. In fact, they are Russian with Asian faces. I tried smiling, I attempted waving side to side and then I just gave up. For a few hours, I eavesdropped on the suite next to me containing a Mongolian woman fluent in English (Most Mongolians speak Russian, English and Chinese) and a British man wearing a red Christmas tree sweater like Mr. Darcy in Bridget Jones Diary. She is attractive and he an old fart. Since we are all sweltering our doors are open and their conversation has given me much fodder during the ride. She is beating him to a pulp and it’s clear she is not a fan of British government. My guess is he is hoping to get lucky with a pretty Mongolian. Where is my Shanghai husband?
It’s hot on the train. That is the opposite of cold. I’m curious if they are trying to break me down so I will be better ready to embrace the 20 below 0 temperatures in Ulaan Baatar. I am sweating. I’ve now stripped down to a t-shirt which is an issue because I’ve just been informed we are at Chinese customs and now the conductor is motioning to something that “no working Chinese.” She is right. I am not working and neither are the Chinese. I gathered from the sign on the bathroom door she meant the toilet. I hope this is a quick stop.
The wheels on the train need to be changed for the next part of our journey. Mongolian rail tracks are narrower than Chinese. The train has moved forward, and backward several times. They are lifting us up and dropping us down by crane and I feel like I am in an underground war shelter with little oxygen while bombs burst around me causing the ground to quiver. I decide without power the temperature is perfect and I should take this opportunity to sleep for a few hours.
At some point, I check my phone for the time and it occurs to me four hours have passed since the Chinese immigration man took my passport. Should I be worried? It also dawns me on that the bathrooms are still locked so I really must try to sleep but then I realize I am technically not in China and I immediately grab my iPad. BINGO…Google up, Facebook check. Instagram check. I’m back in business.
In total, 17 cars were lifted to change the wheels at the border crossing. It took about five hours. The Chinese man did bring back my passport at some stage and another hour or so passed before a Mongolian woman started waving at me for my passport. She disappeared and since I was 1-1 with the Chinese guy, I scrunched up my jacket for a pillow and shut my eyes until sunrise.
Someone not naming any names but stern Mongolian lady #1 forgot to unlock my bathroom door, which meant I had to go on the hunt. Walking quietly down the corridors, I tested every bathroom door with an open berth and the doors were all locked. I eventually arrived at the staff suite and a woman was sleeping on the bottom bunk. I scrutinized her breathing but acted quickly and turned the bathroom door very quietly. Success!!!! I ducked in there fast and did my thing before she could reprimand me. Slowly opening the door, I slid out of her quarters as quickly as possible. I’m confident she heard me but when ya must go ya must go.
The view from my window has been the same for the last 10 hours – bland straw colored desert and farmland and signs of freezing temperatures – Frost on the window, ice patches and even humans bundled up like Eskimos.
Mongolia has a population of about 3 million people of which a million (45 percent) live in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar and my final destination on the Trans-Mongolian line. It’s a land locked country with Russia on one side and China on the other three. Thirty percent of Mongolians are Nomads and their “homes” were visible along the train’s route. They are called yurts or Ger in Mongolia. It is more like a tent or an igloo looking structure. They are very easy to put together and transport according to the Mongolian passenger on my train. Alas, thirty hours passed somewhat quickly. I spent the time writing, reading about writing and watching chick flicks like 27 Dresses and Little Women. I won the seating lottery because the second passenger never arrived and I occupied the entire space (2 bunks and a chair).
As the train approached the station, a light bulb goes off in my head and I realize I have no Mongolian currency nor do I know the exchange rate. I quickly Google (Yipppeee) and it’s math so it doesn’t make sense. I’ll wing it! I jump off the train foolishly half dressed due to the sauna like conditions on the train and my exposed skin quickly reminded me it’s -5 F and I won’t last long. After no less than 20 people attacked me for a taxi or lodging, I located an ATM. Originally, I took out 5,000 Mongolian. When I turned around the taxi man who showed me the way to the ATM said he would take me to Kempinski. I replied, “how much?” He said 20,000 and then we went back and forth and then I realized I definitely screwed up the exchange rate. Letting it all hang out, I grab my AT&T Ipad (somewhere along the way Verizon informed me 35 min of data cost me $150 USD) and figure out that we are bargaining over $1.98 USD. Ooops. I tell him 10,000 ($1.98) is fine and let’s be on our way.
On first glance, Ulaan Baatar is a shit hole. It’s polluted, the traffic is worse than Beijing and the buildings look like 1950 Russia abandoned them. Russia did occupy Mongolia for nearly most of the 1900s but they clearly added no value. It’s a poor country. I’m really going to force myself to leave the hotel and learn something so hopefully my impression will change with a little history lesson. Until then…. I am definitely eating a solid meal tonight and I look forward to catching you up on the wonderful sights of Mongolia Monday.
Current Temp: -10 F @ 6 pm local time