Trip 5: Ulaan Baatar - Beijing


This was the last train ride, and as a seasoned traveler, I knew what to expect. Business as usual, and a short trip. One slight hitch, though.

The woman from Juulchin mentioned that she had another client staying in the same hotel, an Australian. We were going to share a berth on the trip to Beijing. That morning I met him a tall, Viking-like fellow with 2 weeks of beard growth, who looked as if a truck had left tire marks on him before speeding away. For all my worries about not being able to wash, here was someone who had the option and chose not to exercise it.

He was pleasant enough, though, and when we got in the car, I heard more of his story. Apparently, something he ate in Mongolia didn't agree with him. Even if he hadn't told me I would have found out sooner than later. There was no polite way to open the window in a car when it's 15 below outside, though I did consider opening the door and jumping on to the road. I'm shocked that the upholstery didn't melt.

We got to the train about 5 minutes before it pulled out. In the cabin were a bunch of Mongolian ladies who had boxes full of sheep parts. They were busy putting the boxes in the storage under the beds and settling in. My companion sat on his upper bunk, complaining once again how terrible he felt. The air became very sulphrous, and the Mongolian ladies sniffed. They said something, looked at each other in horror, and cleared the cabin in a hurry. I followed right after. After two weeks of exceptional luck, the law of averages said it must be thus.

Back in the cabin later on, I found that one of the women knew a little Russian. The others spoke only Mongolian, and my phrase book was packed away. The first thing she asked me was where I was from, and whether the Australian fellow and I were traveling together. I told her that I didn't know the guy, which was the right answer. They all became more friendly after that. After a day of charades (full sentences weren't possible), it turned out that they worked for Juulchin, the former state tourist agency in Mongolia, and were going to China for vacation. One of the women had her 7 year-old-daughter with her, who was very well-mannered, and offered me a piece of candy.

Sharing with these ladies was both good and bad. At first, they monopolized the cabin, and talked without stopping. I kept trying to remember that they were probably very nice and having a great time, but I also couldn't read. I read by listening to the words I see on the page, so when people are talking, unfortunately, I'm doomed to looking at the same sentence over and over. So I was banished to a fold-down seat in the hallway. Later, one of them convinced me that I should switch beds with her and take the upper bunk, across from the Australian with digestive distress. Her resolve was firm, and the "ladies take the lower bunk" argument was not without precedent. I was miserable. I caught two of the Australians from the Moscow to Irkutsk trip who were on their way to the dining car, and imposed myself on them for lunch.

The dining car looked a lot nicer than the Russian one. The one catch was that the waitress spoke no language known to man, but could say "No" in a wide variety. Though she had no discernable method of working, her one iron-clad rule was that each nationality could only look at its own menu. We got the European menu, and after lengthy inquiry, found out that chicken was the only dish on the European menu we could order.

Nonetheless, the dining car was OK. There was cutlery and real glasses. The sun was coming through the windows and the weather was nice. And I had a temporary diversion from my troubled home life. When I went back, the Australian guy was asleep, and I read inside the cabin to assert my territorial right to be there. All the talk was dying down, so it got more tolerable.

Of all the trains, this train was the nicest. The train carriages were the newest and the cleanest, the ride was the smoothest, and the Chinese provodnik was incredibly cordial and nice. I got the feeling that as we got closer to China, things were getting nicer, cleaner, better done, and more organized.

Later that evening the entertainment started again. The Mongolian customs people came on board, again proving my theory that they have too much time on their hands. They looked at everything, and when the passport looker-ater finished looking at my passport, he saluted me. They stayed on the train long enough to prevent people from going to the toilet, and then took their leave. A little while later, we arrived at the Chinese border crossing, where we were greeted with band music.

The interesting thing about going into China is that the wheels under the train have to be changed, so we spent an hour or two in the train yard. When the Trans-Siberian Railway was built, the Russians were worried that an invading army could use the tracks against them, so they made the track gauges wider. Mongolia followed Russia on the question of track gauges (which meant that Russia could invade them quite easily, which it did). China uses standard track. I had seen a program where they lifted the carriages with a crane, but the equipment they had in the train shed was much more sophisticated. There were tongs which held up the carriages, and it was done without a lot of effort.

Rather than being dropped off at the station, we were brought to the shed. Right outside the shed was a bunch of incredibly aggressive Chinese pedicab drivers. They yelled, they pushed and grabbed. From living in New York, I know that when someone is out to get your business like that, it has nothing to do with you. Besides, I had no idea where they wanted to take me. Even if they were going to the station, that's not such an adventure. I chose to sit this one out.

My musical mate, the Australian, however, got pushed into one of the pedicabs and driven away. I walked back, made myself some tea and read. It was getting closer to the time to go, and still no sign of Mr. Clean. It was a wicked thought, but I did have my best interests in mind: perhaps we might lose him. I would get a good night's sleep, and he'd make it to Beijing somehow. The only effect of his stomach quieting down was that his normal stench came to the fore, which was something like that of an oil drum. He was nice, but I had to keep our conversations short because I couldn't stand near him -- he must have had no sense of smell. But hope as I did (and I only felt a little bit guilty) he burst into the cabin just as we were pulling out, having had the scare of his life that he might miss the train.

Actually, things worked themselves out that night. It was cold, and my head was clogged. Not only was I unable to sense my neighbor in the next bunk, but I actually started to snore very loudly, which kept him awake. He had to ask me to please turn the other way, and I was very happy with myself.

The next morning, the Mongolian ladies offered me breakfast, which I thought was incredibly nice. It was boiled mutton on the bone, boiled turnip, and some vodka to wash it down. It sounds horrible, but it really hit the spot. I tried to tell them that the train would be going by the Great Wall of China, but that turned out to be more complex a thought than any of us could communicate. I took out my notebook and drew a train and a wall. They recognized the train, but thought that perhaps the wall was another train. Finally, I found my guide to China, opened to a picture of the Great Wall, and motioned the rest. Ahhhh! Yes, they got it! If anyone thinks that this game wasn't worth it, later on I was in the cabin eating pot noodles, when our train drove by the Great Wall. The Mongolian ladies came in and grabbed me out, and I got a bunch of pictures of the Wall.

The weather was very summery, compared to Mongolia where it was sub-zero. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and we got to Beijing at 3:30 in the afternoon. There was a lot going on in the station, and I recognized that I had arrived in a vibrant, modern city. The last sign of a flawless trip, I was met by my lift to the hotel. There were two women, one to drive and one to speak English, who showed me to a spotless, new, white car.

Until this point my normal practice was to engage whoever it was who drove me for a tour. This had worked well in Irkutsk and Ulaan Baatar. I made inquiries, and the English-speaking woman was only too happy to do business. She grabbed her mobile phone, and was wheeling and dealing, almost before she knew what it was that I wanted. However, on subsequent conversation, I discovered that:

This wound me up, and not a little bit. My premise is that everyone can defy understanding if they are closed-minded and don't communicate, and that everyone is special if you pay attention to what makes them that way. I regard this attitude as the lowest possible form of nationalism, the same way that I regard obfuscation as the lowest assertion of intelligence. Just because someone doesn't understand you, it doesn't make you brilliant!

But the second point got me the most furious, and this is where I started an argument. I come from a city of immigrants, and know that people would be totally complacent if it weren't for immigration. Yes, immigrants can be unsophisticated, yes, they can turn to crime, yes, they crowd in, but they also show great imagination and discover ways of doing things too obvious for the natives to see. Because they're shut out, immigrants usually start their own businesses, so they make jobs rather than take them. I don't think that I changed this closed-minded person's opinion, but at least I didn't listen agreeably and imply approval.

The way we left it, I would call if I could use her services, though I was waiting on some people I met on the train to see if I would visit the Great Wall with them. In the back of my mind, though, were other options. There's a tourism desk at every hotel, and also, some Irish travelers I met in Mongolia mentioned that one of the hotel clerks was practicing to be a tour guide, and that I should look for him. That's what I did.