From Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia to Jining, China and onto Beijing, China
31.10.2005 - 02.11.2005
From Ulaan Baator, my train journey took me to Jining, China, where I transfer to a train to Beijing, China.
The train ride from Ulaan Baator was okay. After calming myself after the event with the police in Ulaan Baator, I meet my new cabin mates. There is an elderly couple and their adult daughter. The daughter speaks French and Italian, so we can communicate to each other in French.
I learn that they are travelling to Hohhot in China to go to a hospital. I looked at her elderly parents, and decided not to enquire any more. Frankly, the train journeys were starting to wear on my emotional state, and I didn't think I could confront the concept of sick parents and mortality without breaking down.
The ride is nice enough. The Mongolians have brought a movable feast with them of bread, mutton, dumplings and berry preserve, which they share with me. It saves me from having to eat another bowl of reconstituted noodles.
We pass through the Gobi desert mostly. The desert is more rocky than sandy, I see a lot of gravel covered dirt with small tufts of dry looking grass. More wild horses are seen, as well as lots of cows and sheep. There are even a few camels. But it all passes by so quickly, and there is no chance to really examine the landscape.
We arrive in Jining, where I leave the train. Instead of the agent waiting for me with my ticket as I step off the train (as has usually happened), I have to wander the station to try and find the "Inter Tours" operator. I have a card with the name of the tour company written in Chinese, but no one seems to be able to assist me. Finally, a Chinese man approaches me (the only white face in the station) and hands me my ticket. Instead of the 8pm train I was expecting to receive, the ticket is for a 1:30 am train. I try and explain that I wanted the 8pm train, but the Inter Tours agent speaks no English, and I can't communicate my desires to him with mime.
Instead, I try and change the ticket at the various ticket offices around the station. I am told repeatedly I can't change the ticket, though why I am not sure. One lady seemed to indicate that I would have to buy a whole new ticket, another said it was because it was for a different day (the 8pm train was Nov 1, 1:30 in the morning would be Nov 2). Another lady said it was because I had a sleeper car, and the 8pm train didn't have sleeping cars. At least, that was my understanding of the sign language they indicated to me. No one spoke English.
I sat down in the station on the hard plastic orange chair, and got out my itinerary. At that moment, I noticed that my hotel in Beijing was booked for the 1st of November. But I wouldn't be arriving until the 2nd. I found a phone, and called the hotel. Luckily they spoke English, but said that there was nothing they could do. If I wanted to cancel a day on the reservation, I should have called 48 hours in advance. So I would have to pay for 3 days of hotel, even though I was only staying for 2 days. "Fantastic," I said to myself, sarcastically, and wandered out of the train station and onto the square in Jining.
I examined the scene in front of me. Lots of Chinese people hurried back and forth from building to building. A million watts of neon signs glowed in front of me, none of them with an English letter on them. I had 6 hours in Jining, but no Chinese money, no map and I couldn't find a left luggage office or lockers for my bags. The thought of trying to find a money exchange or ATM in Jinjing and not getting lost while dragging around my bag didn't feel that appealing, so I wandered back into the station and sat back down on the hard plastic chairs.
Everyone stared at me. I was the only white person in the station, and the Chinese didn't hide their fascination. I could feel all the eyes on me, and I hadn't showered or shaved in 8 days. I was alone in a strange place with no money. I tried to shrink in my chair, to hide from my situation. But there was no hiding from it.
A woman sat down across from me, eyes glassy from drugs or drink. She started to sing a mournful song. Soon the station attendants were surrounding her, telling her to keep quiet. Their voices echoed around the big, empty hall, harsh and unfriendly. Everyone stared at the confrontation. The woman continued her sad song, and started to cry. On the other side of the hall, a couple started arguing. The station floor was sticky and dirty. I wanted to be out of there. I wanted to be home.
- * *
If 8 days of train travel without showers had left any impression on me that there was any romance in train travel, the train from Jining to Beijing drained it from me.
Instead of the sleeper compartments I had on the rest of the journey, I was in an open dorm sleeper car, sharing space with 66 other people, stacked in beds three high. I was near the end of the car and the bathroom. All night people wander past me on their way to the squat toilet. The car started to smell like burning coal from the water heater, and the air became thick. The train creaked and shuttered all night, the door to the bathroom squeaked loudly. People shuffled and tossed in their beds. I hardly slept at all.
The train moved very slowly, covering a distance of 498 km in 9 hours. A plane would knock that out in an hour, a car in 5 or 6 hours. For a train with such utilitarian sleeping conditions, it didn't offer much in the way of utility as a method of travel.
The sun rose, and I stared out the window. Some amazing scenery was passing me by as we went in and out of long tunnels and mountain passes. I watched the great wall and temples flow by, but I couldn't care less. I just wanted to get to Beijing and be done with the train. This was no longer any fun, it was an incredible hassle, and I just wanted it to be over.