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Part 3 - 'Perfect nothing' on the trans siberian

MONGOLIA | Monday, 19 May 2014 | Views [204]

From Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia. With out much ado, our party boards the train in Beijing and for nine days we snake our way on to the next horizon.

The cabins are clean and straight forward – four bunks, the top two fold up against the wall and the bottom two fold up for the storage of backpacks and luggage, there are hooks on the walls for smaller bags and one small table with enough room for one person to use - so they are comfortable and straightforward and even spacious - until four of us unpack all of our things. If you don’t want to disturb the person on the bottom bunk every time you need something, now is a good time to organise yourself; sort what you would need for two days into your day pack - toothbrushes and deodorant if your into that sort of thing, books, notepads, and a t-shirt. This trip sees us disembark in 24 hours time in Ulan Bator, so it’s a dry run for the second part of the journey from Mongolia’s Capital Ulan Bator to Moscow, Russia. A Journey where, for five days, these cabins will be home.

            I leave the cabin and go for a walk. As I walk through the corridors, the berths reveal men and women travelling with boxes. Our neighbour tells us most likely goods being shipped for sale in Russia and Mongolia, jeans, t-shirts. He is from Kenya, he works in china and travels to see his family in Mongolia – he tells us there are many who make this train journey under similar circumstances.

            Finally I reach the dining cart- The pink upholstery is welcoming and the windows let the light in. I order black coffee and open my book

 

Adam, my travel buddy, slides in across from me. “Perfect Nothing” he says.

“Yeah” I say as I put the book down and pan across to look out the window. The train will go on in a straight line horizon to horizon, scenes will come and I begin understand the charm and appeal of long haul train journeys – the history, the engineering, the tales, the romance, the scenery. Perfect nothing.

 

            Ulan Bator – the capital of Mongolia has a population of a little more than a million and the capital seems to be analogous to the rest of the country; spaces as wide and empty as the Mongolian countryside. The streets in the centre of the city are wide, as are the plazas, and it smacks of the communist grandeur which we saw typified in many parts of Beijing.

Mongolia at one point was the power house of the world thanks in large part to Genghis Khan. He and his descendents in a short time came to rule Asia and were spreading into Europe and were responsible for the introduction of one of the earliest systems of mail. The Silk Road also played an important part in the history of trade in Mongolia as well as the rest of Asia and Europe.

            We spend some time in the countryside a few hours drive away from Ulan Bator in non-traditional traditional Ger. These ones are permanent replicas of the traditional nomadic home and allows, travellers the chance to get a taste of the real thing. We go off and meet a family who still lives the nomadic life. They say they may stay in this spot for a couple months more before they pack their things and move on. We are offered lunch and told these families can produce up to 150 different dairy products so lunch is various unsalted cheeses.

            Back in Ulan Bator we go to a restaurant for Mongolian barbeque. There are trays of marinated meats. The customer is free to fill a plate and take it over to the chefs who cook up a storm with what look like swords, flipping them and smacking them in an elaborate display against the large round cook top.

The morning that we are due to reboard the Tran-Siberian for a train journey measured in kilometres by the thousands, I get coffee from a little French café. In my journal from the time I haven’t written only one line “maybe the best coffee I’ve ever had” and even now that title still stands.

            The train again; for five days it goes on and on, past the Mongolian hills, past lake Baikal – record holder of the titles most voluminous and deepest in the world with at 1600 meters – it remains a fixture for hours out of the window, past deep forests and past villages where a blue tear drop roof of a Russian orthodox church will often rise above the rest of the buildings.

            The Russian train doesn’t seem to be as welcoming as its chinese-mongolian counterpart. The wait staff in the dining cart are happy to see us as we walk in and are happy to shoe us out when we tell them we are not ordering. We leave and don’t go back. Our four bunk cabin is home for five days. Each car on the train has a dispenser of boiling water which melts our plastic bottles. I pour water into trans-Siberian branded coffee cup and let it cool down before drinking. I have with me 10 packs of various flavoured two minute noodles for breakfast and dinner each day, some chocolate bars to snack on and many man many sachets of instant coffee which I drink out of the same trans Siberian branded coffee cups. The train stops maybe twice a day though I’m not sure – the hours blend together and we travel through the equivalent of three time zones. I wake at one point and my mind cannot seem to resolve how the body feels, with how long I feel I slept with how dark it still is outside. We get off to stretch our legs and resupply at the small villages and find that they sell four litre bottles of beer – and it’s cheaper than water and we spend one day playing our own version of Russian roulette with a bottle of vodka.

            The kilometres pass by and the seven of us are able to learn more about each other, two Norwegians, two Australians and three Brits, who have collectively been on the road for three and a half years. No doubt, travelling by plane always offers a wonderful sense of anticipation, but a long train journey offers the same…over five days, because it’s the journey not the destination right.

Tags: trains

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