Saturday, August 25, 2007
I'm happy to report that I survived the first leg of the epic train ride that will take me all the way from Beijing to Moscow. It took 34 hours to get to Mongolia from China but the time just flew by.
I spent most of the train ride staring out the window, listening to music, reading, sleeping, eating and playing cards with my Australian cabin mates. The great thing about being on the train is that there's nowhere to go and nothing to do. No television, no computers, no phones. No distractions aside from the gentle rocking of the train and the clack-clack-clack sound of the tracks.
On the downside, there was a lot of cigarette smoke (despite all of the non-smoking signs posted everywhere). People were chain-smoking in their rooms and the train attendants, who were supposed to be enforcing the rules, were smoking in the corridors. I would have said something but the people doing most of the smoking were big, burly Russians and Mongolians and I wasn't about to pick a fight with them. At least we could stick our heads out the windows for some (relatively) fresh air.
Crossing the China-Mongolia border was a bit of an epic production. It took five hours and it all happened in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, the train attendants locked the bathrooms during the border crossing. The train stopped for several hours while border officials checked everyone's passport and they didn't want all of the crap piling up on the train tracks and stinking up the station (the toilets flush right onto the tracks). I stopped drinking liquids at about 4 p.m. just so that I wouldn't have to pee during the border crossing.
Because we crossed into Mongolia in the middle of the night, it was too dark to see anything. Early the next morning we were greeted by dramatic scenery outside the window. There was nothing on the other side of the glass but wide-open space, rolling green fields and big skies. The air blowing in through the window was crisp, clean and cool. It felt like the train had rolled into another world.
I got off the train in Ulaan Baatar four days ago. It's not a particularly attractive city and it's filled with Soviet-style buildings. But it's a good jumping-off point to get out into the hills. So I left the city behind and headed out into Terelj National Park for a couple of days.
I went hiking in the hills. I slept in a ger. I drank fermented mare's milk (it sort of tastes like vodka mixed with sour milk). I ate dried curd and steamed dumplings.
I also went horseback riding, which unexpectedly turned into cattle herding. As we were riding along the road, some woman came running out of a ger and shouted something in Mongolian at the guide, which sounded like, "Hey, Bob. Since you're going down the road would you mind taking my cows out to pasture?" He shouted something back and the next thing I knew our horses were going up a steep hill towards a pen with a bunch of cows. The woman let her cows out and we herded them along ahead of us.
It was surreal to be riding on a horse in a national park, herding a bunch of cattle into a nearby field. It was amazing to watch the guide ride in and around the cows and make sure they followed an orderly path, yelling and whipping at the ones that veered off course and dropping back to herd in the cattle that were falling behind. It was the highlight of my short stay here.
I'm now back in Ulaan Baatar to do some laundry and catch up on my email before hopping back on the train later tonight. After about 60 straight hours on the train, I'll be jumping off again for a few days in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.
To be continued in Russia . . .