I choo choo choose the Trans Siberian…

Remember that episode of Sex in the City where Curly Blondy and Sassy Older Chick decide to catch a train somewhere because it’s going to be old school glamorous, but really it’s full of smelly men on their bucks nights who want to watch sport and drink beer? The Trans Siberian (or the Trans Mongolian really, which is the route we’re on) is a little bit like that. It’s one of the most awesome things I’ve ever done. It’s also 29 hours of staring out a window, and eating in dining cart which scarily resembles an over produced prop from a Communist film made in the 70’s.

We’re currently on hour 24. We’ve read books, taken a million photos of landscapes, we’ve talked to other passengers, we’ve sat staring out windows. Happily, contentedly, don’t get me wrong. There’s something about the world whipping past your window that becomes quite mesmerizing. But this IS hour 24…

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This isn’t my first trip on a train in China, and let me tell you, we’re in the lap of luxury here. I’ve done hard beds, and 4 bed and 6 bed rooms on a train. Second and Third class living! Ee and I decided this was a bit of a “once in a lifetime” so cracked open the piggy bank for our own luxury 2 bed, Soviet furnished, Deluxe room. It’s great. It’s like the Brocade Fairy came and vomited on everything in sight. We have our own window onto the passing world, a carriage to ourselves filled with curious and polite guards, and our very own western toilet. Total decadence compared to my past trips, let me tell you!

It’s an odd journey though. There’s no one to tell you what you’re looking at, where you are or what to expect. We’ve sat here idling over how far we might be from the border, whether we’re stopping at a main town or a satellite village, and whether we’re allowed to get out of the train. But there’s no one to ask so we keep on musing, as do all the other just as perplexed travelers with us (most of whom are also Whitey’s. On this trip we’ve found innumerable Germans, a couple of Aussies and even a guy from our own hometown, Melbourne, who’s on his way to volunteer to make Mare’s Nest in Mongolia. Keen!)

When we finally got to the border, well that’s where the fun starts. First of all they take your passport. It’s gone – for hours! This stressed me more than it did Ee. It’s funny how when you’re traveling, that passport is your lifeline.

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So we’re stopped at Erlian, the last Chinese town before the border. Passports taken. No understanding of what’s happening. When we get the BIGGEST bump, like someone with anger management issues and a train of their own has come and charged into us. Then 30 seconds later, another one. This goes on for ages. Doors are sliding and slamming shut, guards are chattering away like nothing’s unusual, we’re holding on for dear life, knowing that eventually another bump will come…

Finally the bumping ends, we’re in a train yard, and we realize that all the carriages have now been separated and are being hydraulically lifted about 2 meters off the ground. Seriously! We’re still in the carriage with all our baggage, and suddenly we’re being elevated… After 13 hours of forward momentum it’s an odd feeling for the body to be going up.

Anyway, because you’re smarter than me, you’ll probably have worked out what was going on… They had to change the wheels. When all the carriages are lifted up, a hoard of Chinese men literally push the steel wheels from under the carriages out, and push new ones in. Very efficient in a “this took an hour and a half” way…

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More bumping, more near-whiplashing and guards being oblivious to the bone jangling jolts, and we were done!

Eventually the passports come back, and then we sit. And wait. And sit. And wait. No idea what was going on, but the border crossing (or pre border crossing as it were) took about 3.5 hours.

By this stage it was midnight and we were both a bit exhausted from all that sitting and watching the countryside that we’d been doing for the entire day, so when we finally started moving again our beds were made and Mongolian borders be damned! And by “be damned” I mean Ee and I did the Mongolian side of the border crossing with bleary, half awake eyes, in our pyjamas, sitting upright in our bunk beds. Couldn’t tell you how long it took, I only remember being tapped on my foot to wake up by some poor Mongolian uniformed lady guard obviously trying very hard to compare rumpled and sleepy real life me, to passport picture me.

I opened my eyes a few times to see more lady guards looking at our stuff, shining torches under the bed and generally taking up the standing room in our little abode, but frankly I didn’t really give a fig at that stage. I just waved and closed my eyes again.

Next thing you know, it’s daylight and we’re awake and in Mongolia. Woot!

So the biggest differences between Mongolia and China so far? China landscape was mostly mountainous, green, ranging, with brick villages every couple of hundred km’s with about 50 tiny houses making up the homestead. Mongolia is more stubbly. Bristly grasslands, soft hills dotted with small communities seemingly made up of 2 or 3 hall sized buildings painted in what were once bright colours, but now faded and tired, and a few small Buildings around it. But mostly it’s grassland and blue skies.

The other big difference is on the train. While we were sleeping the Soviet styled dining cart was replaced with Mongolia Bling (or as Ee has dubbed it, Mongolamania). I once heard that Baz Luhrmann came up with the idea of The Great Gatsby (a book which Ee coincidentally read on this train trip) whilst traveling on the Transiberian. After seeing this dining car, I not only can believe it, I understand it. It’s deco decadence carved into woodly goodness. Carpet dining seat coverings, deer heads on the windows, gorgeous flowers carved into the screens, Mongolian gun slings and hats hanging from the walls. Truly an experience…

So here we are. A few hours out of Ulaanbaatar. Camera’s and adventurous spirits at the ready. Our first Mongolian language lesson under our belts, courtesy of the happy and smiley (and feel-y up-y of Ee) waiter. Let’s get this party started…

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