Monday, August 26, 2013

Fifth Leg: Ulan Bataar to Beijing

It was easy to find my train at the Ulan Bataar station - much less traffic out here than in Russia - and was first arrive in my compartment, but a troop of six Finns soon arrived, filling the adjacent cabin and two bunks in my own. These two promptly went off to hang out with their friends, leaving me with the compartment to myself. This was pleasant for a while, affording me some time to catch up with the Rostovs and Bolkonskies, but a little tangible company is nice on these long stretches of railroad. Indeed, we only made a couple more stops before the border. During the morning, the train wound through a low mountain range, which sometimes was high and thus wet enough to support trees. The rains must have been steady this year, as the grass was flourishing, and I could always see horses, often in large herds. At road crossings, Mongolians waited in their SUVs for the train to pass. Apparently, they prefer these vehicles to pickup trucks. Towards the end of this stretch, we passed by a wind farm, its turbines towering up in the hills above the train. Mongolia must be an ideal landscape for this technology, though I wonder if they keep the energy or sell it to China (the next day, I saw more turbines in northern China).

After a few hours and a stop or two in the most deserted, dusty stations of the entire trip, the landscape became drier and quite flat. From time to time, I roused myself from my bunk to gaze out the window. The attendants - no longer provodnitsa since we had left Russia, and now entirely male - didn't care at all about open windows, except when the wind whipped up the dust. I spent a good deal of the afternoon resting my elbows on the sill, poking my head out the window. Animals were rarer in the Gobi, but horses still did appear, and so did the Bactrian Camel, distinctive from afar because of its double humped back. In many ways, the landscape, as well as the type of land use, was reminiscent of West Texas, where I did some of the research for my Master's Thesis. Tumbleweed, which we identify with the American west, is actually a group of invasive species native to Russia. As I mulled this over, a Greek couple, apparently on their honeymoon (second-class and its four-bed cabins was an odd choice), amused themselves by taking photos of each other's heads sticking out of the windows. This was great fun until the husband's glasses dropped off. I also passed time by going to the dining car with an English neighbor. This spot served about a tenth of the dishes offered in its menu, but it was decorated extensively with wood carvings, and it served as a watering hole for the more social passengers, especially those who needed to wet a whistle.

My companion, a recent college graduate from Sheffield named Lucy, was planning to trek around east Asia until December. Whew. I love to travel, but such a long stretch without a home base or constant companions sounded exhausting. Perhaps it was simply because I'd ridden the train for so long at this point, but I think it's important to limit my trips so that they don't lose their excitement. Indeed, when I compare my attitude toward new places now to ten years ago (a diligent supply of travel journals helps with this exercise), I discern that my experience is less exciting than it once was. Partly, this is a result of age, growing recognition of the universality of human experience, and the reality that tourism and commercialism are ubiquitous across the globe. I have fewer moments of anxiety when traveling, and I still do love the sense of unknown, obviously, but freshness of the adventure has waned.

We arrived at the Chinese border around eight. Leaving Mongolia was easy, but the People's Republic kept us waiting while its officials examined our passports. However, this crossing took half the time that it did to move from Russia into Mongolia, and it was not without its moments of humor. As the train pulled into the first Chinese station, where the large buildings and bright lights appeared to be designed to impress tourists, the loudspeakers began to play a stirring military march. The customs folks stood at attention in a line, but then when the train was stopped, they all spread out to board the separate cars. Everyone inside the train was sleepy, but laughter broke out up and down the corridor at this greeting. 

The Finns, Joni and Sana (I'm pretty sure I've misspelled their names) had returned to the compartment for customs, and they turned out to be an interesting couple. Their group had traveled all the way from Finland by rail, playing a card game that kept group spirits high. In fact, Joni told me that I was the first person they had spoken to at length on the entire trip. His father, though a Finn, had grown up in Tucson, so his English was excellent, and Sana's, though more heavily accented, wasn't bad either. Later on, in Beijing, these characters stayed at another hostel just a few hundred yards up Nanluoguxiang Hutong from me, so we kept running into each other, including during a hike along the Great Wall. 

From the next cabin came strains of a guitar lament - Joni explained that his pals were lamenting their inability to get off the train to buy a beer. I eventually dozed off, but I do believe that the Chinese eventually let people off the train, to much rejoicing. 

I didn't sleep very well and became conscious of a minor upset in my intestines, which put me in a sour frame of mind in the morning. However, the landscape had gotten interesting again after we exited the Gobi. Trees had reappeared, and mountains, too. We rode through some long terraced valleys, full of ripe corn. For a stretch of about twenty kilometers, the Great Wall was visible to the north, rising and falling with the mountain ridges. At points, it seemed to vanish entirely, probably due to erosion over the centuries. We also passed by an old earthen-walled village, a remnant of more turbulent, feudal times.

At the border, we had been provided with vouchers for breakfast and lunch in the dining car. I skipped breakfast, having some of my own and being suspicious of a Chinese train breakfast, anyway, but I did investigate lunch. Predictably, the dining car was swamped, but the kitchen was equipped to do takeout. I took my pork, dumpling, and rice, back to my compartment. While I was waiting, I saw the biggest power plant I've ever observed out the window. Seven cooling towers, of the type that you see around nuclear plants in the US, surrounded a central cluster of conventional smokestacks.

There's not much more to tell of this last leg. Around 2:15, we arrived in Beijing. The suburbs looked modern and bland, their size and the number of construction sites hinting at the density of population and pace of development. I put on my pack and descended onto the platform, when one of the Finns brightly suggested that I should have a picture taken by the train. So we posed by the sign on the carriage that displayed the names of the three capital cities I had passed through (can't resist: it was a Finnish finish), and then melted away into the vast crowds of pushy locals. That was it! I was very happy to arrive in Beijing, as I needed a good sleep and some solid grub. In fact, the city was absolutely fascinating, and I have a lot to say about it. But that will have to wait for another post, as this travelogue has primarily concerned the train journey itself. What a long way! I am still amazed when I look at the route on a map. Train travel is curious mixture of relaxation, anticipation, boredom, and, somewhat more infrequently, exhilaration. I think the best travel writing dwells on the mundane and comic as much as the thrills, and I have tried my best to emphasize this balance in these accounts. In the coming weeks, when I can get away from schoolwork, I will post a few more entries on aspects of the places I visited that I found particularly engrossing.

1 comment:

Tomas said...

Andrew, I have enjoyed reading this series and look forward to chatting soon.