I have just arrived in Irkutsk, Russia. During my train journey from Beijing I wrote a quick update that I will now post for you here. Note that the date is yesterdays, as that is when I typed it in my train compartment.
I will enjoy myself in Irkutsk for the next 2 days and will write another blog entry detailing the remaining part of the train and my experiences on Lake Baikal.
It is Thursday, March 1st, 2012
As I type this I am gazing out od mrnfac, sorry. While I typed that last sentence I was gazing out of my train compartment’s window at the vast Mongolian plains. I am hurriedly typing this entry on a word processor (my wi-fi is not working, for some reason). I’ve decided trying to cover everything I’ve seen and done when I arrive in Irkurkst will take too much of my valuable dog-sledding time (which is one of the activities I’m hoping to do on the frozen Lake Baikal). When I get back to a reliable internet connect I will post this, then the next entry will cover Irkurkst and the trans-siberian train. So how did I wind up looking out a window at the barren plains of Mongolia? Let me back up and start from Beijing.
On Monday afternoon I landed in Beijing. I quickly found my hostel thanks to having already stayed there once during my summer vacation. I was amazed at how familiar Beijing felt, right down to the attitude of the bus driver to the small cough I developed as I wait for my lungs acclimate themselves to the pollution. Day two in Beijing found me acquiring my train ticket and then relaxedly people watching from a Starbucks window, before stopping at several 7/11s to collect provisions for the train ride.
The next morning I awoke and set off for the train station with my new found travelling partner (a girl staying in my hostel who is also returning home after teaching abroad, oddly enough). We found our way onto the correct train without too much difficulty (though I am glad I had a western companion, as all sorts of doubts can creep into an idle mind waiting for an important train in a foreign land). Boarding the train I was delighted to find that I have a compartment all to myself (I’m staying in first class – so I should share the compartment with only one other person, but luckily the train is mostly empty). Some people may be put out by having no companion for a 54 hour train ride, but I am excited! Not only can I lounge about and take up as much room as I want, but I don’t have to socialize with anyone and can relax completely in my comfortable room.
Yesterday was spent staring out the window at the awesome sights (more about those in a second), eating in the dinning car with my western partner Eve and newly discovered other westerner Shawna, reading my books (finished Prisoner of Azkaban in one day – working my way through the whole Harry Potter series) and drinking instant coffee from the healthy supply I brought myself. It has been a quiet and reflective journey, and I’ve spent it admiring the sights, reading good books and thinking about the ethereal nature of life (okay, that last one is a lie – I’m not trying to discover more to life than videogames and alcohol – honest!).
Speaking of sights, I have taken a fair bit of video and pictures, but let me describe them a bit. The area in the hours north of Beijing has been the most visually stimulating. The tracks carried us through a mountainous region with lots of tunnels and valleys and rivers and farms and villages. Looking out the window for this period was really amazing. Every tunnel plunged the whole compartment into total darkness for 10 seconds to 2 minutes, and when we emerged from the tunnel a different scene invariably appeared before our eyes for anything from 5 seconds to 5 minutes before the train darted into the next tunnel. For me the window became like a television screen and the tunnels were channel changes, or commercials. We’d shoot into one tunnel, then just as my eyes adjusted to the dark we would pop out into a well lit scene of a frozen river meandering between sheer mountain walls on all sides, some 50 feet below us, one tunnel later and its a view of a small village nestled into a mountain side, then a factory smokestack in the distance set into the valley between two steep mountains. Quite fascinating.
By lunch time we were into flatter terrain and the ground had turned dusty and brown. The vegetation in this area was mostly shrubs and grass, though there were farms everywhere with neatly planted rows of small trees (maybe olives? Not sure). At dinner time we watch the sunset from the dining car over the foothills of inner Mongolia (just north of the great wall, which is now Chinese territory). Finally, around 8pm we arrived at the China/Mongolia border. Customs officials took my passport and the train pulled off into a warehouse where the Chinese wheels were replaced with a wider gauge wheel used in Russia and Mongolia. The process was loud and took several hours. Looking out the window I tried to see the technicians at work, but couldn’t make out much. Every now and then the entire train would rock violently and there would be a loud bang as another car was removed or re-attached. Hours later our passports were returned (sigh of relief) and we started moving again (it was now nearly 11pm). After about a 20 minute trip we hit the Mongolian border, customs officials took our passports again, and we waited another hour or two. Finally the train got under way just after 1am and we started our journey into Mongolia.
Waking up this morning I was treated to a beautiful view of the Gobi Desert. Now I’ve just returned from breakfast in the newly attached Mongolian dining car. Over our lingering coffees we watched as the sand and scrubby grass has given way to white snow with brown scrubby grass. The landscape is very flat and, I must admit, thought-provoking. We will be arriving at Ulaan Bataar around 1pm this afternoon and the Russian border this evening. Tomorrow, around noon, we will arrive in Irkutsk so I have just over 24 more hours of train time.
One thing I need to mention about the train before I sign off is the bathrooms. Oh the bathrooms! Easily the most entertaining aspect of the journey, they are. It all starts out pretty normal, there is a toilet and sink, all that good stuff. After you do your business, thats when the fun begins! To flush you step on a small pedal and then watch (in my case fascinated and delighted) as your business is jettisoned into a small chute and fired out the bottom of the train right onto the tracks! Looking into the toilet you can actually see the train tracks whizzing by beneath you! Needless to say I’ve made a point of drinking more coffee than is necessary to ensure many trips to this wonderful apparatus.
Okay, so maybe 54 hours on a train is getting to me… a little.
That’s all for now!