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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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The Trans-Mongolian Railway

It might seem strange, but I was really looking forward to our five day train ride through Russia ever since that dinner with Ben in Ipoh. (We never did make it to Taiwan, though.) The idea of going by rail through Siberia and crossing from the East to the West appealed to my romantic, nostalgic imagination of what travel should be. Plus I’ve really grown fond of trains during this trip. They really are the best mode of transportation. And, more than anything else, it just felt right. Brad and I were very excited about Africa, but it never fit into our plans very well. I can’t believe we had been planning on covering all of Asia and Africa overland in six months. In retrospect, it was the most absurd idea we’ve ever had. I don’t even think it’s possible. At dinner that night in Malaysia, it just clicked in my brain that the Trans-Mongolian was perfect. Africa will be another trip.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Siberia surprised me. Actually, it reminded me of northern Wisconsin. Most of it was forest, with many birch and pine trees. There were also many purple wildflowers in bloom all over the place. We went along the shores of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest and deepest lake and a World Heritage Site. It holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. I was also surprised by how many people we saw in Siberia. Maybe it was because we were coming from Mongolia, but it seemed like there were people everywhere. There were even a couple of huge cities with busy highways and skyscrapers out there.

The train itself was modern and nice. I’d say it wasn’t quite as nice as the train we took from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, though. At the beginning of our trip, we had two Mongolians as cabinmates. They didn’t speak much English, but I’m assuming it was a grandmother with her teenage grandson. At one point, the boy took out his grandma’s passport to show us that she had gone to America. We asked where in America and she answered, “Washington! Washington!” with a huge smile. As Brad mentioned in his country recap, they shared their delicious dumplings with us when the customs agents wouldn’t let them take homemade food across the border.

The grandma and grandson disembarked on the second day and we never got new cabinmates. It was nice to have our own cabin, of course, but I also would have liked to meet new people. The train was mostly empty, actually, so there wasn’t a whole lot of socializing in general. We spent our time reading, talking, looking out the window, eating, listening to music, watching movies, and playing Uno, SimCity and Tetris. I enjoyed the train ride overall, but a shower would have been nice. We were looking pretty swampy by the time we arrived in Moscow.

I’m glad we took the train. We weren’t exactly like??freight-hopping??hobos??or the
Boxcar Children, but it was still old-fashioned enough to satisfy my sentimental side.??If you’re thinking about taking it, here are Brad’s tips and things to bring: More »

Entering Mongolia

The first leg of our train ride across the continent went very well. Our train was clean and modern and we had a whole compartment to ourselves. There were Western style toilets that flushed, soap, toilet paper, and even power plugs. I thought it was nicer than many of the hostels we’ve stayed in!

The passengers were primarily Mongolians and Westerners; we didn’t see many Chinese. My first impression of the Mongolian people was that they were quite large. The men in particular all had gigantic??beer bellies??and seemed determined to spend as much time shirtless as possible. There wasn’t room to go around them in the corridor, so someone always had to duck inside a compartment to let the other pass.

At the Chinese border we had to wait several hours while they changed the bogeys and cleared everyone through customs. The Chinese officials took our passports (which made me nervous), then one of the train workers said something that sounded like, “Shopping god,” and motioned for us to get off the train. We went inside the train station, bought water and snacks, and then discovered the door was locked when we tried to go back outside. I wanted to see them change the bogeys, but the train rolled off, presumably to change them elsewhere.

Once everything was set and they let us back on the train, it was only about fifteen minutes until we had to go through Mongolian immigration and customs. It was already after midnight by then, but at least we didn’t have to get off the train. Soldiers came in and did a quick, half-hearted search of our compartment. They took our passports away again, which still made me nervous, but we got them back without a problem. Then we finally were able to sleep.

Coming into Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we passed buildings with brightly colored roofs, giving a cheerful feeling to an otherwise bleak and rundown place. A driver from our guesthouse picked us up from the train station. In the parking lot, he had to jimmy open the door of the van with a screwdriver. The UB Guesthouse is very small and cramped, especially at breakfast time, but the owners keep it very clean and there’s hot water, so we can’t really complain. Besides, we didn’t want to spend much time in Ulaanbaatar. We were anxious to get out into the countryside for our first adventure: the Gobi Desert.