Trans-Siberian: Day 4-5 – Beijing to Gobi DesertJuly 24th, 2010
At 7:33pm last night the locomotive pulled slowly out of Beijing Railway Station, bound for Erlian on the Chinese-Mongolian border. The station was just as chaotic as I had imagined it. Hawkers were giddily peddling Chinese beer, Chinese spicy sausages and packets of instant Chinese noodles, and there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air – even among people who weren’t travelling. We’d already filled up on a big pre-journey dinner, but I picked up a few provisions on the platform just before we departed. Because we were travelling on an official Chinese luxury train hired directly from the government, there was a (female) military general on board who was serving as our overland air marshal!
Settling into the journey with an introduction by the tour leader and a brief encounter with one of our Chinese rail stewards – Railbookers
An uninterrupted 16-hour stretch of rail travel was a bit daunting – the thing I love most about train travel is that you can get off! – but the gentle rocking of the train across the tracks helped me fall asleep well. That is when I wasn’t up writing and editing for several looming deadlines. Just after 10am this morning we arrived in Erlian, a flat (and otherwise flatlining) city on the Chinese-Mongolian border. Erlian was once a thriving Gobi desert town that profited from the oil industry, but when the wells dried up it had to find a new way to market itself and attract visitors. Enter the dinosaurs, circa 2006.
A collection of dinosaur bones discovered a few years ago in a dried up salt lake just outside the city has given the city the belief that it has a purpose. Erlian now has a vaunted dinosaur museum – unarguably the town’s biggest draw – with exhibits that are admittedly much less interesting than the many miles of stretches of highway that are dotted with massive life-size sculptures of dinosaurs. We took a walk around the shoulders of the road to pet some of the steel sculptures and gaze at the gates to the city – a towering re-enactment of two brontosaurus caught in a passionate French kiss.
Our passports were taken away from us (where, I imagine, they were scrutinised and firmly stamped), and since the train to Moscow must follow the Russian gauge of track, we changed trains to our Russian dacha for the next ten days, the “Tsar’s Gold”. The Chinese train had felt fairly luxurious to me, but the Russian train was really something to behold: air conditioning, velvet carpets and a restaurant car that felt straight out of a Pushkin novel. What’s more, my cabin is actually larger than the flat I rent in London.We boarded the train in Erlian and crossed the border a few miles to the Mongolian town of Zamyn Uud, a two horse town with a few shops and little else going for it.
The contrast between Zamyn Uud and Erlian is night and day – the Mongolian border town really feels like something out of the Wild West. Being a foreigner here, somehow, is still exotic – I had several Mongolians come up and ask me to take a photo with them. With my camera! On the station plaza, local boys were playing pool on a few billiard tables they’d hauled outside, couples were holding hands and kids were horsing around on the tracks, just as the sun was setting. While the town may have been nothing special on normal days, it felt pretty magical in those moments when the locomotive was getting geared up to choo-choo out of Dodge. We were able to just catch the sun hitting the horizon before the train whistle blew at 9pm sharp……and we were off again.
Sunset at the Mongolian-Chinese border town just minutes before our departure for Ulaan Baatar – Railbookers
Tonight, we’ll traverse the Gobi desert – and if we’re lucky, maybe even catch a sandstorm outside the train window. Tomorrow, it’s Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital and the most landlocked city in the world. Vast steppes of pasture, cauldrons of fermented mare’s milk and wild Mongolian Przewalski horses – here we come.