Beijing’s railroad station is a milling sea of people when we arrive in the evening to board a Chinese train, on the Trans Mongolian Railroad. This is the start of our 5,000 mile adventure that will connect us to the Trans Siberian Express and carry us through eight time zones to our final destination, Moscow. But first, we have to cross Inner Mongolia to the Chinese Mongolian border and the Gobi desert, before reaching the Mongolian capital of ÜlaanBaatar.
The first half of the 16-hour voyage to Erlian (or Erenhot as it is called on some maps) takes place in the dark. The train compartments are spacious and comfortable; dinner is surprisingly good and turns out to be the best meal we have on the entire train journey. After spending our first night rocking on the rails, we are greeted by a glorious sunrise as the train makes its way across the sands of Inner Mongolia.
Small villages appear periodically, the inhabitants already hard at work in the fields, harvesting their crops. Giant trucks loaded with coal from nearby mines raise a cloud of dust as they race the train on dirt roads. In one field the statue of an enormous wooden ox-drawn cart pays tribute to the importance of agriculture.
About 15 minutes before we arrive in Erlian in the late morning, a startling sight appears on the west side of the train — dinosaurs! They are replicas of the ones found around Erlian in the Iren Dabusa (meaning Colorful Salt Lake) as well as elsewhere in the Gobi Desert. We later visit the Dinosaur museum, established in 2009 as a tourist attraction. With a bit of imagination, you can see these enormous extinct creatures chasing each other and fighting for survival. The atmosphere is more theme park than excavation site, and some liberties have been taken with the exhibits since not all the replicas you see were actually found here. Still, it makes for some interesting photography.
Erlian has recently been built up, although the town itself has served as the main trade route between China and Mongolia for centuries. Shop after shop of wares line the streets, their signs written in Russian, Chinese and Mongolian. Every type of product from auto parts and food can be found here.
A large market is housed inside a warehouse. Carcasses of butchered animals hang from large iron hooks; catfish swim in aluminum tubs waiting for buyers; piles of fruits and vegetables and sacks of dried legumes cover the wooden stalls. Had we been continuing our journey on our Chinese train, the wheels (or bogeys, as they are known) would be changed in Erlian, a time-consuming process whereby the train is separated into three sections. Each is pushed into a hangar and the carriage is lifted off the Chinese wheels (operating on a standard gauge) and replaced with Russian bogeys which are 3.5 inches wider. Instead, Erlian is where we switch trains and board the “Tsar’s Gold” for the continuation of our journey to Moscow.
The train travels across the border through the 2.5 miles of no-man’s land before stopping at the Mongolian border town of Zamaan Uud where Mongolian immigration formalities are completed. Meanwhile, a throat singer accompanying himself on a horse head fiddle entertains the passengers while the attendants wash down the windows of the train.
The Journey to ÜlaanBaatar is another 16 hours through the Gobi desert with its barren, desolate emptiness. Overhead an almost full moon and a canopy of stars shine down on the vastness. In the early morning light, as the desert gives way to the grasslands of the Mongolian steppes, ‘gers’ (traditional Mongolian tents) appear. Herds of horses and Bactrian camels graze near the tracks, some tended by herders riding motorcycles. As the train approaches the capital, more and more brick houses appear, many with the traditional ger pitched in the backyard. In the distance, high-rise apartments fill the skyline.
Finally, we arrive in ÜlaanBaatar, Mongolia where we will spend the next few days. The capital of an ancient land that was once the largest and most powerful empire in the world, today, is the centerpiece of one of the world’s youngest democracies where Armani-clad businessmen rub elbows with deel-clad nomads, where a once closed society is now eager for visitors.
IF YOU GO
If you are planning to take the train from Beijing to UlaanBaatar, tickets can be purchased in Beijing from CITS (www.cits.com.cn); however, be advised that reservations for the sleeper cars must be made well in advance. If you are purchasing tickets overseas, Intourist Travel is a good source.
The “Tsar’s Gold” is owned and operated by the German company Lernidee Reisen Tel +49-0-30-786-000.