And, thus, began the long-awaited epic railroad adventure from Beijing to St. Petersburg via the Trans-Mongolian & Trans-Siberian Railways. Whoot whoot.
We left around 6:30am to get to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall by opening time. I’m not sure if it was due to it being a Monday, super early in the morning (before cable cars were running), torrential raining or, a combination of some or all but, it was completely empty when we arrived. So, our plan of attack was to take the free option (climbing up the endless stairs) to around Tower 8, trek up to Tower 20, then head back toward Tower 1 to sneak onto the OG wall and take the toboggan down.
It stopped raining on phase 1 of our plan, drizzled during phase 2, then downpoured after that. I was in a constant state of condensation both inside and outside my unventilated single-use plastic poncho and, sadly, the rain closed down the toboggan. To get to the original section of the wall, we had to climb and ninja our way through an open window next to a bricked up one leading directly to the path. The abandonment and disrepair of the OG wall made us feel like rebels…for about 5 minutes. I’m also pretty sure we were being watched on CCTV by a guard who said “hell no” to the rain. Overall, we finished the wall in just over 2 hours.
We ditched the G group and met up with Davy and his wife for the tastiest and juiciest Peking duck dinner and to catch the Euros afterwards at a sports bar (sans Davy and his wife). Lucky for us, we managed to find a nearby bar in a city whose bars seem to only be concentrated in two areas. But, unlucky for us, nobody spoke English and all the waiters couldn’t comprehend why I wasn’t communicating in Chinese. Pointing at the menu wasn’t helping for whatever reason and neither was Google Translate. Finally, we pointed at another table with a pitcher of beer. We completely forgot that Davy had actually taught us how to say “cold beer.” Bing pidyo.
The next morning, we walked through Tiananmen Square toward the Forbidden City. It was faux pas to openly discuss the 1989 protests and so our guide, Lee, briefly whispered about it while keeping a side eye before speaking out loud about how excited he was when he first saw the city. In the past, many families were too poor to make it here and it had been the childhood dream of many to do so. Now with more disposable income, Chinese citizens make up the largest percentage of tourists. Because of the long line at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, we skipped it in the interest of time.
The Forbidden City, in the midst of the city’s smog, was pretty much forbidden to all non-royalty. And, I got to visit it for less than $10. Lee led us around while holding a stick with a stuffed green ram hanging off of it for easy identification. The green ram, named Steve, had a stupid look on its face and, so, I punched it. Lee was a good sport about it and maintained a normal smile.
Then Dean asked Lee if he could teach him some Kung Fu moves. It was a goal of his to “fight” someone in all 3 countries. So, Lee gave him 3 basic moves – watermelon, teeth, ear – and demonstrated the moves with his tour guide stick, Steve still attached. Dean practiced with his selfie stick. I guess those things really do come in handy (no pun intended).
I don’t remember what people were taking a photo of as I was clearly distracted by the sheer amount of people in the mosh pit.
And, whatever dignity and personal space we had left was lost when a peddler approached Pete, one of the older guys in the group, rubbed his stomach in a circular motion and shouted, “Baby!”
National Center for the Performing Arts or, a huge architectural rendition of a steamed bun.
All morning, we had been lugging around umbrellas only to be met with clouds of the non-ominous kind. So, we dropped them off at the hotel, then hit up the night markets in time for a torrential downpour. Pride had us getting soaked enough to finally cave in and pay 10 RMB (peanuts) for shitty plastic ponchos, perfect outfits for trying out miscellaneous grilled creatures on skewers. Dean and H sampled a worm, snake and lamb testicles and, I, mysterious fried mangoes (being sarcastic here). Then, it was off to actual dinner at Alice’s Tea House, a supposed 3 subway stops and a 5 min walk away. Nikka, our G CEO, failed to mention that there were 2 subway transfers within those 3 stops that involved trekking through a labyrinth of hallways and then a 20 min walk after that. I was so hangry by then that I almost ditched the group for KFC. But, I chanted “I’m one with the force and the force is with me” and made it to the authentically cooked local food.
The night ended with a tea demonstration of green, black, white and pu-erh teas, all of which require almost no brewing time (especially whole leaf teas) and could generally be used for multiple brews. As a side tip, yellow tea is known to be so expensive that if a teahouse sold it, it would likely be fake. And, never ask an Asian if they add milk to their tea.
We headed for the Beijing Railway Station to catch our train to Ulaanbaatar around 11:22am. The trains were nicer and more comfortable than I had expected, not that we were in first class suites or anything. I just expected something along the lines of what I experienced in India (less privacy, no sheets, and toilets that made me pray for dehydration and constipation). The constant beat of the wheels on the tracks became a natural rhythm of life that Dean deemed as the “clickety clack technology.” Soon enough, it had me zoned out against the passing scenery.
For lunch, dinner and the next morning’s breakfast, we were told to hit up the supermarket beforehand and bring our own supply. But, we were surprised with free meal vouchers (not something that happens all the time). So, after stuffing ourselves with steamed buns and bowl noodles (there was a hot water boiler), we still cashed in our vouchers for plates of steamed cabbage and mysterious meat that was supposedly chicken. Then, began our night of debauchery with a bottle of rice wine (never again) and dining car beers. We became friendly with the cabin next to ours – a bunch of Americans from Seattle and Portland who seemed like trust fund babies in their early 20’s, clearly high on whatever gasoline they carried in their 5L bottle. They kept losing one of their guys, the one most trashed, who would reappear somehow and disappear again throughout the night. We invited them into our cabin to continue our drunken night only to have one guy eventually realize that they had been swigging water instead of alcohol for the past hour and essentially admit that they had been exhibiting the Rusty Miller Zima effect (MADtv reference).
By midnight, we were stopped at border control at Erenhot/Zamyn-Üüd for about 4 hours while they checked our passports and changed the wheels to accommodate the Mongolian rails.
The passing landscape was at first beige as we were going along the edge of the Gobi Desert then eventually green as we reached Ulaanbaatar around 2:45pm. Our adjective contest to describe the view resulted in the following words: dry, arid, vast, expansive, lonely, dirt-y and flat. The smog also rolled in. It turns out that Ulaanbaatar is in the Top 50 list of most polluted cities in the world. That’s comforting.
We stopped at the hotel for some glorious showers before heading out to a cultural show, Tumen Ekh, that featured a throat singing guy and a contortionist who supported her entire body weight with her jaw. It was one of those things that made you cringe yet refuse to take your eyes away from at the same time.
Gandantegchinlen Monastery. Try saying that even once (unless you’re a Mongolian speaker). Outside this temple, there were two men “loitering” around with the intent to pickpocket groups of tourists. Our guide, Nemo, set up a code word in case any of them loitered too close. GORILLA. (Though not shouted so obviously.)
Trains! And, Stalin’s profile.
The Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan, containing the possessions of the old emperor and a scary amount of taxidermy.
The Zaisan Memorial was built to commemorate the friendship between the Soviet Union and Mongolia, depicting scenes of Soviet soldiers fighting against the Japanese and Nazi Germany and supporting Mongolia’s independence.
I get a little bit Genghis Khan [Equestrian Statue].
Standing at 40m tall, Genghis Khan (statue version) also oversaw a music festival featuring a dance competition and tents selling cheap cans of beer. With almost nothing in the vicinity except vast space, this made for a perfect venue for loud bass and drunk millennials.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
On the way to a ger camp in Terelj National Park, we stopped at a shaman mound which we walked around with a rock in hand until the universe compelled us to throw it into the pile. After throwing the rock, we then walked around the mound another 3 times, during which I think you were supposed to make a wish. But, I still haven’t seen my vault of gold bars and now that I mentioned what my wish was, it will never come true. Thanks.
We stayed in the coziest ger for 2 nights and became one with nature. H found a Gandalf staff (above right) during our morning hike, which ended at the Aryapala Meditation & Initiation Center. Apparently, there was a way to cut through the woods to avoid paying the entrance fee but, it was cheap anyway. Past the entrance, though, was a really long walkway lined with signs printed with Buddhist teachings that for some reason made us feel like we’ve been living life in horrible sin. I’m going to blame it on the English translations. Yea.
Then, we went horseback riding with some, uh, wild horses. All of them seemed to jerk their heads sporadically in random spasms and, for whatever reason, the one assigned to me had one crazy eye.
Nemo: “I told the guy that you’re the only one who hasn’t ridden a horse before. So, don’t worry about it!”
Well, naturally, I fell behind everyone else and, while everyone else was being led by a guy walking ahead and holding onto the horse’s reins, my guy let go of mine and walked away. Um, what? In order to keep my fear at bay, I started talking to the horse who I affectionately nicknamed Horsey. I felt myself calm a bit down once I got the hang of it and the horse and I bonded as outcasts of the group. But, then, Horsey led me into a low-lying branch of a tree which whacked me in the face before I limboed my way out if it, holding onto the horse’s reins for dear life.
Nemo (after hearing what happened): “I specifically told that guy to watch you!!”
But, I kicked ass at archery. My ego remained intact.
After rounds of football (and snooker where Nemo’s wife kicked ass), Dean checked off country #2 in which to have a “fight.” Nemo gathered some locals for a wrestling match. Mongolian construction workers vs. New Zealand tourists. Not too much success for Oceania, unfortunately. But we did end the night with Haribo marshmallows toasted in our ger’s furnace.
Back in Ulaanbaatar, we checked out the National Museum of Mongolia before stocking up at the supermarket for the next leg of our railroad journey. This time, we banned rice wine and went for red wine, instead. Classy. We also made sure to have an extravagant dinner before falling back into bowl noodle meals on the train. Our choice cuisine? Korean. Dean and H watched through grinning teeth as I awkwardly communicated our order in Korean to a waiter I was sure was Mongolian. Thanks, guys. Truly.
Pictured above is our G group: Lucy, Ann, Ilona, Nikka (our G CEO), Diana, Jeff, Carmen, Claudia, Pete, Sarah, David, Dom, H, Dean and me.
June 12 – July 2, 2016: Trans-Mongolian Express