I like a challenge and I needed an adventure which is how I decided to do the i-to-i China Internship in the first place. I also like to do things properly, so I went all or nothing on both the challenge and the adventure fronts; that’s how I ended up doing a triathlon and taking the Trans-Mongolian Express to Beijing instead of flying. Both of those things have turned out to be brilliant experiences that I’m really proud of, so I’ve got high hopes for China! This right here is the story of me getting my train-legs.
I flew to Moscow with from Heathrow on Tuesday 17th August, sitting opposite from a man who was constantly chewing and came out as a ‘Stealth Dandy’ on a men’s magazine accessory quiz. That was literally the most exciting thing about the flight, and I daresay flying to Beijing would have been equally uneventful. Fortunately for me (and for your vicarious kicks readers!) that was pretty much the last dull thing about my journey to China. Having said that, I’d booked a transfer to the Yaroslavskaya train station, rather than negotiate the Moscow metro on the clock, so once I’d found the taxi desk getting across Moscow was (to quote that Meerkat) simples. My taxi driver didn’t speak English, I don’t speak Russian, but we exchanged smiles and grimaces at the artistic licence which was taken with lane discipline and he pulled over so that I could take a picture of St Basil’s cathedral from a distance.
I was about an hour and a half early for the train, so after sitting for a bit, buying myself a big bottle of water (sparking by accident, damn it!) I experienced my first squat loo, which was no joke with the amount of baggage I had with me! Anyway, on to the train. I was in a 2nd class four berth compartment towards the back of the train, sharing with two American guys (Landon and Eric) from Moscow to Ulaan - Baatar (capital of Mongolia) who are English teachers in Korea, then an English couple on a year out from UB to Beijing. There’s a German girl called Lena down the corridor and a Swedish guy called Magnus who both came all the way to Beijing, so I spent most of my time with those two and the Americans. Also in my carriage were some English guys who were doing the London – Ulaan - Baatar rally, but broke down in Kazakhstan and joined the train at Omsk, two Russian ladies who feed Magnus within an inch of his life and two girls from the Netherlands who kept themselves to themselves. There was a mass exodus at UB where all the above left the train and new people joined but as there was only one more night after there, I didn’t really get to know anyone except the couple in my cabin after that.
Staff wise, the guards were all Chinese men who either gamble for cigarettes in their compartment, or cook things that smell almost too good for someone who is living off packet noodles! As we went across Russia there was a really sweet and smiley Russian lady who ran the dining car and pushed a snack trolley along occasionally and her two grumpy assistants who both looked about four. On the third night, after we’d been poring over my Russian phrasebook and she’d been poring over her English one, she declaimed proudly ‘VAT VOULD YOU LIKE?’ to which I replied ‘ya bit khat-yel...umm...banana’ (I’d like...umm...banana) Alas, no further progress was made, hopefully my Mandarin will end up being better! In Mongolia we got a new dining car, the inside was gorgeously decorated with carved wooden booths and Ghengis Khan inspired decorations including two shields with a bow and arrows and a fur hat. Lena and Magnus and I used up our roubles on a sumptuous breakfast – an omelette with sausage and spring onions, “toast” with “butter” and “jam”, orange juice with enough E-numbers and sugar to give us all superpowers and a mug of tea each. The Chinese dining car was nothing to blog about, but we were given coupons for free breakfast (boiled eggs, bread and tea) and lunch as we crossed the border.
There’s a sort of a boiler thing (samovar) at the end of the corridor which we can get unlimited boiling water from. I brought plenty of teabags and cuppasoups and I’ve eaten a lot of the local versions of pot noodles as well, because the dining car is expensive in every country! Fortunately there is usually a marvellous gaggle of enterprising Babushkas when we stop for any length of time at a station that saved me from scurvy and complete carb-overload! In Russia the Babushkas were mostly tiny old grannies, some of who wore housecoats, headscarves and beards and some who were too much fond of lyrca and generally looked like they’ve been on the game. They grabbed a patch on the platforms to sell food they’ve cooked from assorted baskets and trays. I’ve seen boiled eggs, bags of fruit, pickles, dried fish, shrink-wrapped meat and potato meals... all sorts. I bought a big meatball in a poly bag, some goats cheese pancakes, a chicken leg, apples, a litre can of beer, bread and boiled eggs from these fine ladies. In Mongolia this changed to ladies and children who smiled more but had less variety, and they disappeared completely in China.
The time passed surprisingly quickly, especially given that I only brought one book with me that I finished on Day 2! Because there’s been nothing to do but slow down, slow down I have. We spent a fair amount of time playing games and looking at photos on Landon’s ipad, playing monopoly on Eric’s ipod touch and listening to music on my netbook, looking at Leila’s maps, being lectured by Magnus and generally chatting, but I’ve also spent literally hours looking out the windows. Like a dog in front of a washing machine, I’m fascinated.
It’s a seven day journey straight through, five of which are spent in Russia. European Russia passed mostly in the dark on the night of Day 1, but what I did see wasn’t particularly gripping. As we travelled further East across Siberia on Day 2 - 3 it became more silver birch trees than I thought actually existed! Beautiful at first, but you can see why they sent convicts to Siberia as punishment. Fun fact for you about Siberia though – the top brand of Russian rucksack ‘Yermack’ is named after the man who brought Siberia under Russian control in the 1580’s; that’s Ivan the Terrible’s time history fans. Day 4 was a slow transition from swampy and desolate (silver birch peppered) taiga into mountains and forests straight out of any fairytale you care to name, including wooden herringbone cottages with intricately carved and brightly painted shutters and graveyards in the tree line. Further east, but still in Russia, still we skirted around Lake Baikal (deepest and oldest freshwater lake on the planet) at dawn on Day 5 which was utterly, utterly breathtaking. For the rest of the day we had vast plains with occasional scrubby bushes and rocky scree as we crossed from Russia into Mongolia. It was the biggest, emptiest sky I’ve ever seen, until we got onto the Mongolian plains and the Gobi desert on Day 6! I have to say, I started getting some serious locomotive ennui on Day 5, but I think that was mostly a product of the epic waits we had on each side of the Russia/Mongolia border because after some poker, chocolate and discussing the surprising amount of good movies that Keanu Reeves has been in (apparently, anyway) I felt much better.
The Mongolian plains made me think of being on a gigantic train set as it was all wide and green and hilly, and the train wove around the base of hills so you could see where you’d been. Around UB there was lots of heavy industry and Soviet style buildings, a bit further out there were wooden houses, cottages and yurts all jumbled up together, shanty town style. It was all a bit incongruous with the most beautiful misty mountains rising up behind them, but people have to live I guess! Most of Mongolia’s population lives in UB, apparently, so once we were clear of that it was pretty empty except for the odd yurt. Just as I was starting to day-dream about living hundreds of years ago and galloping across the plains like Genghis Khan, I saw a guy herding horses on a motorbike and it made me glad I live now when things as cool as that happen and shampoo exists. The bit of the Gobi desert that we passed through is a flat-ish rocky/sandy expanse with tufty grass rather than sweeping dunes, but we did see some galloping camels which was properly exciting. Camels are cool. I’ve never been to a desert before, so I took the opportunity to use my solar panel to charge up my mobile charger because it seemed like the most appropriate place!
The border crossings have been a pain in the arse, not to mince my words! You have to stop and be checked each side of each border, so it takes forever! The Russian side of the Russia/Mongolia border was OK – we arrived late afternoon, it was warm and sunny and after we’d had our passports taken for checking we all piled off the train and after the obligatory station photos and walk up and down the platform, Lena, Landon, Magnus and I went off with Magnus’ Russian lady to the local shop. It was outside the station, so we felt very daring being more than a few metres from the thing – they don’t wait for strays you see. We bought ice creams and, accidently, I bought powdered mash potatoes in a pot instead of more noodles. Pointing coupled with no knowledge of Cyrillic is somewhat hit and miss I’ve found! After they’d all had a good laugh at me, we sat down and played poker on the platform and watched a pack of small dogs beg for scraps from the train guards. So far, so good. On the Mongolian side it was altogether a stricter affair. Grim faced, military dressed officials got on, glared at our photos and generally made us all feel like we were on the point of being arrested! It didn’t help that the train kept going back towards Russia then forward a bit, then backwards again. The wait to get out of Mongolia was less stressful, except for when a very tall military type opened up the ceiling of our cabin to check behind the light fitting and showered my bunk (and teddy!) with dust. Brilliant.
The guidebook promised me a fairy-light strewn entry into China, serenaded by the Vienna Waltz...and I wasn’t disappointed! It was like going into a really bizarre version of Disneyland, until the passport collector looked at my photo about five times and asked me my name to confirm it’s me! I know I look really, really young in my picture – it’s from the days where you were still allowed to smile after all – but I still look like me. We started crossing the Mongolian border at 7.30pm and we didn’t finish getting into China until about 1am. This was mostly because all the wheels (bogies, I think is the term) have to be changed on each carriage to fit the narrower gauge tracks in China, and it takes ages. They have to take all the carriages apart, raise them up on hydraulic lifts (so slowly I don’t notice it, even though I was on the alert ready to film – damn!) shunt all the old wheels out and pull new ones through then put the train back together. Once all that rigmarole was done with, we were finally allowed off the train. Another milestone: my first Chinese squat toilet. There was a little supermarket in the border building, so I bought some sweets, fruit and water for Y18 which is probably extortionate, but is only about £1.80 sterling. Outside, they’d move on from playing the Vienna Waltz to Shirley Bassey, and once I’d recovered from the shock I decided to call it a night.
We’re about five hours out of Beijing now, so I’ll bring this mammoth essay to an end! It has been the most amazing week. I’ve met some great people and seen some amazing sights that there is no way I’d’ve ordinarily even thought to go and see. I’m feeling about as ready for the next step as I’ve ever been – I left my comfort zone way back in Derby and right now I’m actually feeling ‘brave as a lion’ like the sticker on the back of my phrasebook says; I got it from the travel nurse for it when I got my jabs - you’re never too old for bravery stickers!
TEFL, here I come!
p.s. pictures to follow when i've re-charged my battery!!