Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Trans-Mongolian Express to Beijing

It takes more than 33 hours to get from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian Express, and the food is lousy.

The set menu in the dining car—where the barman smokes beneath the non-smoking sign—costs US$25 for salad, soup, a main and dessert. The salad is shredded carrot in a radioactively garlicky sauce topped with a triangle of processed cheese. The soup is cream-of-something. And the main is a few small slices of beef in gravy with three sides: rice with corn in it, a kind of ratatouille (my polite interpretation of indistinguishable vegetables in an unknown sauce), and sauerkraut that tastes like feet. Dessert is a packaged chocolate roll-up cake, served to me as the last in the plastic tray of six. I don't care to eat it, so the waiter does.

I have a "hard-sleeper" berth, a second-class, four-bunk cabin, which I share with a pleasant young Norwegian couple. There are TVs in each bunk, but I dare not turn on the single channel of what will invariably be a looped screening of the Russian circus, replete with fat old women dressed in tutus performing tired magic tricks involving scarves and wands and pigeons. Mercifully, when curiosity gets the better of me and I turn it on, it doesn't work.

I chat to a fellow Aussie in the next cabin. He's been on the train since Moscow, doing the full Trans-Siberian. It had been three days so far. He's happy staring out the window at the endless plains of the Gobi desert because through Russia it had been endless silver birch.

At the border of Mongolia and China we spend four-and-a-half hours between Mongolian immigration, Chinese immigration, and changing the trucks on the Mongolian train to fit the Chinese rail gauge. Once we finally get under way again it is 1am. I kill a solid eight hours to the gentle rocking of the train. When I wake up I'm still here, so I kill off another two.

I love train travel, and I enjoy the overnight sleepers, but honestly, I don't understand the romance of the Trans-Mongolian (and less so the Trans-Siberian). It's long and boring. I can only recommend to bring several books, your own pot noodles, and consider a flight instead.

So it is a relief, in the mid-afternoon of the second day, to finally reach Beijing. The Norwegians' hotel is apparently close to mine so we agree to share a taxi, but we first need to withdraw some Chinese yuan as we have only Mongolian tugrik. After twenty minutes of hunting for ATMs and failing to find any that will accept our Visa cards, we finally turn to a tourism office for help (as did everyone else on the train, it turns out) and are directed to the Construction Bank.

Yuan in pocket, we look for a taxi. There is no shortage, but not one will take us. They are parked at the taxi rank or pull up without fares but wave us away when we approach. We can't figure it. Just one driver is willing, but only through extortion: "Three people, three luggage... one hundred yuan." We scoff and walk away. My new friends have been advised by their hotel that it shouldn't cost more than twenty.

A fellow traveller from the train who speaks fluent Mandarin is having the same difficulty. "It's impossible," she says to us. "No one will take you!"

Such is the strange situation with Beijing taxis. Yet pedicabs and tuk-tuks will hound you. But they can't take luggage, so we opt for the subway (which, as it turns out, is excellent—easy, efficient and cheap) and part ways at Andingmen station to our respective digs in the hútòng district north of the Forbidden City.

The young lady at my hotel reception is pleasant and welcoming, as most Pekingese are, but difficult to understand with that heavy Beijing accent of R's and "sh" sounds.

"Your room has Black Forest," she says.

"Pardon me?"

"Your room has Black Forest."

It does? Will I be sharing it with wolves and sleeping in a gingerbread bed? Or do I get midnight snacks of cake?

"My room has what?" I ask.

"Black Forest. Black Forest. Morning dinner."

"Oh, breakfast!" I laugh as the penny drops. "That will be lovely."

As long as there's no Trans-Mongolian sauerkraut.

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