On the morning of our departure there was a sense of excitement but also genuine tiredness from the last few days. Don’t worry we said to the children, you can catch up on as much sleep as you like on the train – clearly this was never actually going to happen! We filled ourselves once again with the all you could eat breakfast buffet at the hotel and then travelled by taxi to Beijing Railway Station. On arrival we were overwhelmed with the hive of activity that we had to walk through. In front of the station was a huge square filled with people arriving, departing, selling, begging, walking, running, riding. There was an amazing range of sights and sounds as we made our way across to ‘check in.’ This involved showing our ticket and passports to a smiley lady in an outdoor kiosk and then making our way through the easiest airport style security check similar to those on every metro entrance anyhow. Once in we made our way to waiting room 1 and eagerly waited. Far easier, quicker and less stressful than the many queues and pocket and bag checking and emptying of an airport check in. As the train pulled into the station we gazed through the half open net curtains that covered the windows on one side for our first glimpse of it.
We made our way through the large double doors that led straight onto the platform from the waiting room and admired the train that was to be our home for the next 27 hours. We walked along the train hunting for carriage number 11 where we were greeted by our smartly dressed conductor who showed us to our berths. Strangely they actually felt larger than I had thought they might and we soon set about finding a home for all of our belongings and the children set about testing every switch and opening and closing every possible rack, bed and the ladder. At 11.22 we pulled away from Beijing station and travelled through the city. I thought the smog would disappear as we did this but it stayed for several hours of the journey turning all of our views into misty vistas. About an hour into the journey our conductor gave us free meal tickets for lunch and dinner – an unknown added bonus. We had already inspected the toilets at the beginning and end of the carriages so it was time to find the buffet car for our free lunch – rice, salad and chicken. Better than the pot noodles waiting for us in our berths. The rest of the afternoon and the rest of the journey to be honest, passed in a very relaxed manner, playing card games, colouring, eating fruit (as we had bought excessive amounts on our final night in Beijing), chatting and just gazing out of the window. We returned to the buffet car for dinner – rice, salad, meatballs and then played games in the restaurant car as it was a little more spacious and a welcome change of scene.
We knew that the stop at the border was a long one, in the middle of the night, and that somehow they have to change the wheels as the Mongolian and Russian railways are a different gauge to the Chinese ones but what we didn’t reckon on was a very strange 3 hour stop from 10pm til 1 in the morning. Imagine the train at Ashford when they add or take away the 4 extra carriages, you feel a jolt or 2 when they couple it together. Now multiply the strength of that jolt by 10 and then sporadically place the jolts over a period of half an hour. What the jolts did we are not sure because then our carriages were moved to a siding quite a few hundred metres away and then the real work began. We were lifted by a crane and sat suspended in the air for 20 minutes whilst they removed one set of wheels and replaced them with another. Then lots more jolts followed as we returned to the station. This whole affair was sandwiched between 2 periods of what can only be termed as inspections of our berths by smartly dressed border officials who took our passports at the start and returned them at the end just as I was finally dropping off to sleep. (Oh and for the whole 3 hours you also couldn’t use the toilets!)
When we finally moved on and gradually lulled ourselves off to sleep again as it was 1.30am, we stopped after about 20 minutes, this time for Mongolian border control!! Doors open, lights on, smile for your passport inspection. Maybe it’s not easier to travel by train than plane after all. We finally departed this stop just before 3, ventured to the toilets that were getting increasingly smelly and fell asleep til the morning – the thoughts of setting an alarm to see sunrise long forgotten. When we woke we saw the familiar empty,vast landscape of Mongolia stretch out all around us, just on the edge of the desert (I think we travelled through the desert during the 4 hours I was asleep). It felt good to be back in our ‘home’ country and all of us were excited to get out for a walk about at our penultimate station. Seb and I walked along the platform to see the engine, Erin did some racing with Mark as we had another 4 hours to go and she needed to release some energy! Seb and I got rather concerned that the train was about to leave and were ushered back onto the first open door – although it didn’t actually leave for another 10 minutes.
We then made our way back through the train but everything was different, as it was all in a different order and we had a Mongolian rather than a Chinese buffet car. It was beautiful, ornate carved wood framed each section and Mongolian artefacts decorated the walls. We ordered a tea for breakfast and promised the waitress that we would be back for lunch. We actually ended up sitting there chatting for so long that we then ordered a very tasty omelette and some pancakes for the children for our lunch, starting to sadden when thinking that our journey that we’d been planning, anticipating and looking forward to for weeks was coming to an end.
The real joy of the journey for me though was the mesmerising sound of the wheels on the track, the jolts and the creaks and rattles that become a part of the experience. Time to stare out of the windows, with no guilt about what I should be doing instead, no distractions of the TV or the Playstation or the Wii or a Fire Tablet, no negotiating how much more time the children could stare at a screen because we purposely didn’t take any on the trip at all. The children all had new books and for long periods of time we all just read quietly, no music, no moaning, no noise. Bliss as you all know I like my quiet times. There were of course some raucous times, card games during which we all got rather competitive, grumpy children but these were few and far between. The endless miles of open, empty country in the early hours, rolled by. The uninterrupted view of flat, sand coloured grass only interrupted by the occasional ger or animal, or, on one well spotted occasion, a yak. The train finally snaked it’s way into UB, following the contours of the hills, slowly introducing us back in to the city that’s our home, the ger districts, small settlements interspersed by smart new developments for the wealthy, level crossings that we’d become familiar with on the bus for our ger camp outings.
Quiet reading on the train
A train can jolt and shake, creak and grumble but there is always that reassuring thought that we are on land, not 30,000ft up in the air. The creaks don’t terrify me, the jolts are just joints in the track, not a patch of turbulence that we don’t know how bad it will become or how long it will last. The train is a fascinatingly comforting way to travel. At times we did have cabin fever but handy for us there are fold down seats in the corridors that we could banish people to!
It may have taken 27 hours rather than 2 and half by plane but the whole journey was relaxing and we saw much more of this beautiful country than we could ever see 30,000ft in the air.