We left Beijing early Wednesday for 30 hours on the train to Mongolia. North of Beijing we passed through beautiful mountain scenery, which eventually flattened out to rolling plains. This area is much more sparsely populated than southern China. Each compartment holds four people with two bench/bunks facing each other with a small table between, and a door that closes, and a hallway along the other side. There is a toilet at the end of the car, and a boiler with hot water. We stopped at a few stations, but no crowds of people (big change). Occasionally there were people selling things to passengers, and I admit to buying a couple of pretty quartz rocks from some little kids. We had all stocked up on food for the journey, but they passed out free lunch and dinner coupons, so I was able to defer the big cup-o-noodles until lunch the next day. The food was pretty good for free--rice, veg, and meatballs for lunch, same with chicken/onion stirfry for dinner. We encountered rain as we moved north--good day to be on a train! In the late afternoon, it got quite flat and barren, despite the trees that had been planted along the tracks. We were into the southern part of the Gobi desert. About 9:00 we approached the border, and the Chinese border patrol boarded the train and took our passports. I admit I froze like a deer in the headlights when he snapped out 'What's your name?', but made a quick recovery, and remembered my name! They took off with our passports and we moved forward into a huge shed where the carriages were all disconnected with much clanging and jolting. Because China and Mongolia/Russia have different guage tracks, it was necessary to change the wheels. (Done on purpose to make it harder for one country to invade the other). Each car was lifted about four feet (with us inside). Then the Chinese wheels were rolled out from under, and the Mongolian wheels were rolled in place and we were lowered back down. The shed was big enough to do two rows of about 10 cars each. Once reconnected, we were backed up, and reconnected (more clangs and jolts). After getting back our passports, we rolled out of China past the border guards standing at attention in the night rain. After a few minutes we rolled into Mongolia, where a different set of officials collected our passports. This time one of the pointed a red flashlight thing at our foreheads...we finally figured out they were checking our temperature. Later we found out that they didn't check the younger members of the group! After what seemed an interminable amount of time (without the entertainment of the wheel change), we finally got our passports back and started to move. By this time it was about 2:00 AM, after getting up at 5:30 that morning, plus the bathrooms were locked for the 5 hour duration! (We were forewarned--have to do this because the toilets empty directly onto the tracks, so they are always locked when stopped.) Finally we were able to crawl into our bunks and get some sleep.
We woke the next morning with the desert stretching away on either side. Not piles of sand like the Sahara, but very dry earth will very little vegitation or inhabitants, human or animal. Throughout the morning we gradually came to hills and more vegitation as we came closer to UB. We were met at the train by our local guide, Nemo (nickname!). He took us to exchange money/ATM's and to the hotel where we cleaned up and went for a walk to the main square to get an overview of the city. UB is very modern in many respects. High-rise buildings, lots of traffic, but a little worn at the edges in places. They drive on the right, but the cars are a mixture of right and left hand drive, which probably adds to the challenge. The traffic is like China, and crossing the street requires bold action, and hopefully some local people to hide behind. Lights sometimes seem like decorations! In the early evening, we went to a Mongolian Culture show, which was great. Music, singing, dancing, and this thing called throat singing that I can't even describe. Fascinating and very melodic, but very differnt use of the vocal cords to sound more like a wind instrument than singing. Later we went to a good restaurant for traditional food, but I stuck with beef--no horse for me!
The next morning we headed out north east of the city into the national park in the foothills. This area resembles eastern Washington or Oregon a great deal. We stopped to let those who chose ride a camel (the double hump kind). I didn't ride! Also stopped to look at some yak in their fields, and finally got to our ger camp. These are quite popular--several traditional ger (yurt is the Russian name) were at the base of the hill, with a central dining hall/bathroom facility. We had a good lunch, then tried our hand at archery (I didn't hit anybody--or the target!)before going for a walk. I took the lazy route along the valley before finding a good rock to rest on and enjoy the sun on my face, with no sound except the breeze and the birds. Lovely after the city bustle of the last week. Later we had a cooking lesson in making Mongolian Dumplings (buuz). We made our own wrappers, and used the beef/veg filling they prepared. I'll probably still buy premade wrappers, but now I know how to make and fold them. The kitchen staff steamed them for us, and we enjoyed them for dinner, then sat around telling bad jokes and visiting until an early bedtime (for most of us). The guide trained as a doctor, but after the fall of communism, doctors were earning very little, and had very poor equipment, and he discovered he could make a much better living as a driver and guide! He is a lot of fun, and was the sourch of several of the jokes, as a urologist.
This morning we came back to the city after visiting a ger where a family lived. They relocate several times a year, but each family tends to have a summer location, winter location, etc. Looking at the relative scarcity of posessions reminds me of how much stuff I have--I could not relocate quickly! It is a hard life in some respects, but there are some good aspects, although I don't think I would trade. The government is doing things to try to support the nomadic lifestyle, like furnishing solar panels that charge a battery they can use for lights and radio/TV. The family we visited had a cell phone, so it isn't completely old-style. Back in the city, we had lunch and this afternoon I tried finding the Mongolian Quilt Shop. Unfortunately it is closed on the weekend, so I'll have to look for other shopping opportunities (shouldn't be too hard!).
Tomorrow is free here in UB, before we take an evening train for two nights and a day which will take us to Irkutsk in Siberia. That will be another border crossing, but hopefully not in the middle of the night! I don't know how soon I'll find internet again, but it will be a few days.
This part of the trip is fascinating--the things that are similar and different between China and here, and how it transitions to Russia. They use the Cyrillic alphabet here--I am still lost at reading it, though. It looks like if you held up a mirror and looked at it backwards, it might make sense. Guess I'd better work on some Russian on the train. With only a couple of days here, I didn't work on language skills. The money is 1400 to $1, so the conversion is tricky too, kind of like lira used to be in Italy. The stores have some more western looking products in the stores--I had some ranch Doritos and a diet Pepsi today!
Have a good speed here, so will do several pictures to last until next time!