The lights were off in our train carriage and as the door was pulled open the border control guard shined a bright torch in our faces. He was checking our appearance against the photos in our passports and his demeanour was serious. This part of border crossings is often a tense moment, mainly because Ryan looks distinctly different from his passport photo. Lets just say there has been a huge movement of hair from his head to his face which usually goes one of two ways: the guard laughs or he takes a long time examining his passport, presumably weighing up whether Ryan’s a threat to national security…well he does have a beard after all!
This time I couldn’t help but be transported back to old films with soviet bad guys as the western hero attempt to avoid detection while crossing enemy lines (they always seemed to have torches shined in their eyes in my memory!). Well this was our first ex-soviet bloc country of the trip so far and the guard was especially stern. Needless to say we made it through as it’s no longer the Cold War, we are not spies and importantly we weren’t carrying any explosives or drugs! Win!
We made our way to the train station in Beijing, sad to be leaving but excited by the prospect of seeing one of the last nomadic societies in the world. Armed with a baguette, nutella and some bananas we were ready for our almost thirty hour journey. As we descended onto the platform we could tell this was not a Chinese train; it was not blue or red but a dark green and had cyrillic script. It was a Mongolian train, with none of the all female attendants speaking any English or Chinese apart from ‘no’, which they used vigorously almost every time we tried to use the toilet! Luckily we were travelling in the low season so we had a four birth cabin to ourselves and this was hands down the nicest train we’d been on for our entire trip. Western toilets, with toilet paper, clean sheets and blankets: it was like the Ritz but on tracks!
The train sped off, leaving Beijing behind, and we looked out at the dusty landscape as we moved further west towards the Gobi desert. We reached the Chinese border at around 10pm and were treated to music blared out through the loud speakers and flashing neon lights to greet anyone entering China from the other way. At this point passengers can get out and walk around for a few hours, while our passports were being checked and the wheels or boogies were changed. China has a different gauge to Mongolia and so every train has to have their wheels replaced to fit. We opted to stay on the train as it was bitterly cold outside and so we could watch the engineers hoist up the train and generally bash around beneath our feet.
We awoke the next morning (having not worked out the blind for the window) with the sunrise over the expanse of an almost deserted landscape. The orange-red of the morning sun turned the grass and sand the same shade, and gave us a hint of the beautiful landscape we would be treated to over the next few weeks. Two humped camels, goats and horses ran alongside as we gently rocked past, while eagles flew over head.
As we pulled into Ulaanbaatar that afternoon we descended from our carriage and pulled closed our coats against the cold. Though still geographically in Asia, this wasn’t the same continent we had left behind. The buildings and feeling of the city is more akin to its Russian neighbours than those to the East, but with temples and traditional dress reflecting the Manchurin influence from hundreds of years before. Here perhaps would be the true meeting of cultures and geography and we couldn’t wait to explore more. To only increase my enthusiasm we arrived on International Womens day, a national holiday in Mongolia, the celebrations seeming somewhere between Valentines and Mothers Day. Not sure how much equality was talked about over the cuddly toys being bought but we arrived at our hostel only to be given big slices of cake in honour of the day. I had a feeling we were gunna like it here…
Next time sand lots of sand