“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” - Lao Tzu
Saturday, 13 November 2010
And Now the *Real*Adventure Begins..
I'm sitting in my cabin on a train bound for Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The coldest capital city in the world.
This is the beginning of my *real* adventure. The Trans-Mongolian route of the Trans-Siberian railway. Beijing to Moscow. The reason I came to Beijing in the first place was to leave on this train.
Up to this point, everything in my trip has been amazing. Beyond all expectations. If I had to go home tomorrow I wouldn't regret a moment of it. But up to this point I've always had some (often inaccurate) idea of what to expect from each destination. Now I'm stepping into the unknown.
I will eventually get to Moscow, but right now I'm heading to Ulaanbaatar where I'll stay for a few days before continuing to Irkutsk in Eastern Russia. I'm beginning to really feel like I'm on the other side of the world. These places don't have the familiarity of Western Europe or South East Asia. I wasn't brought up on photographs of these landscapes and didn't go to school with people who's families came from here. I can only think of one Mongolian person I know, and I only met her this morning because we're sharing a cabin. I still can't pronounce or even read her name properly. One more strange alphabet to confuse me...
The train left Beijing at 7:47am, and will arrive in UB tomorrow night. This is just a taste of things to come - the longest segment of my trip (between Irkutsk and Moscow) is 5 days straight. In the same cabin of the same train sharing with 3 other people. After the mayhem and non-stop energy of Hanoi,Shanghai, Beijing, I'm ready to spend some quiet time chilling, and this train should give me plenty of that.
So here I am, only two hours out of Beijing and already I can't believe what I'm seeing. The landscape is like nothing I've seen before. Impossibly steep craggy mountains with trains popping in and out of tunnels as if playing a giant game of Mega Worm (google it if you don't know). Then suddenly the mountains are in the distance and we're crossing a giant plain, heading towards the next mountain range.
The countryside is grey and beige. Winter is well and truly on the way, but there's no snow yet. Despite being a cloudless sunny day, It looks dry and cold outside, and very windy. The mountains look dead, but things are just dormant. Big piles of coal on the side of the tracks have coal dust swirl around them like plumes of smoke. The architecture can be described only as functional, and tends to be some derivation on the ubiquitous concrete box. Not exactly romantic. But certainly a majestic mix of open spaces, industry and agriculture. Imposing, inhospitable, and beautiful in it's own way. And I bet when the countryside comes alive again in the spring it makes enduring the winter seem worthwhile.
I haven't even mentioned the train yet! It's better than I expected, and definitely a notch above the overnight train in Vietnam, although not to the same standard as the Shanghai-Beijing fast overnight train. It's not new, but has been refurbished and is clean and tidy and now each bunk has it's own little LCD screen that plays dodgy bootleg movies 24/7. Luxury. For anyone planning this journey, I'm currently on the K23 train. I think it's one of the better ones. Sadly I won't be on it for the full journey to Moscow.
The big surprise about this train is the fact it's almost empty. I'm sharing a 4 berth cabin with just one person. A Mongolian lady who is a school teacher in UB. She can speak enough English so we can cover all the conversation basics of where we're from, family, etc.. But I feel so ignorant traveling through countries where I know next to nothing of the language and the people. Sadly that includes almost every country I'm going through on this trip.
My cabin mate (as best as I can say, her name sounds roughly like "Orgungbuya") has more luggage than I've ever seen anyone travel with. I have no idea how she managed to get it onto the train. There must be well over 100kg. She filled the luggage compartment under her bunk, the upper luggage compartment (with pot plants), the entire top bunk, and still has a massive box in the cabin next door! For all I know there may be more; she was already unpacking when I arrived. She's very friendly and helpful though, so I'm not complaining.
I discovered a potential problem with my luggage. The dimensions of my bag makes it just a bit too big to fit under the bottom bunk, so that might cause a problem during other legs of the journey. Maybe I'll look for some kind of duffle bag or something in UB so I can split my luggage if necessary.
Luckily we're about the only people in the entire carriage, so there's plenty of room if we need it. This isn't the tourist season and it seems more people head east on the trans-sib than west, so it might be fairly quiet on the other legs too. Fingers crossed.
I just looked out the window and noticed that the water in a nearby paddock where cows were grazing is frozen over. I guess it's getting colder outside. I'm toasty sitting here in a t-shirt.
Update at 12:30pm - Wow. The great wall of China just came down from the mountains to meet us. We're running parallel with it as I type this. That's so cool! Ooo.. I see little bits of snow too!
Update at 1:00pm - We just stopped following the great wall after running beside it for the last 1/2 hour while it lined the base of a mountain range.
Update at 4:30pm - The industry has thinned out and the landscape is taking on a more rural look, although there are still random pockets of heavy industry and tower blocks of housing here and there.
The rivers and streams we pass are all frozen now, and more and more snow is scattered on the ground.
The craggy mountains have given way to huge wide open plains, and I'm beginning to get that sense of just how big the world is and how small I am.
I'm also beginning to relax and slow down to adjust to the pace of this kind of travel.
This is the same altered sense of time and space I felt while driving my kombi across the Nullabor in 1997, and it was the unexpected highlight of my drive around Australia back then. This time it's one of the things I came here looking for. I've got another two weeks of this ahead of me.