Goodbye Mongolia, Nihao China!
After our little adventure around the wide open spaces of the Gobi desert it felt strange to be confined in chaotic, noisy Ulaanbaatar. We had two full days before our train to Beijing, the first of which we spent rather lazily catching up on laundry and the internet. It was actually quite nice to not do anything or go anywhere. Later on we went to the Tumen Ekh Mongolian National Song and Dance Show after Sophie had highly recommended it.
The Tumen Ekh Show building was situated in a run-down park, it looked like the last place you would find a tourist show but inside the building was elaborately decorated to resemble the interior of a royal ger. The show was excellent a good combination of dances and musical performances. The throat singing was remarkable, two men performed it, both a little different, the sound was extraordinary and seemed to come from deep within them, a harmonious vibration that is said to imitate the sounds of nature. The Shaman dance had wonderful costumes and was most entertaining, the exotic dancers were good but less impressive. There were lovely folk songs and the contortionist brought tears to our eyes!
We had met up with some other guys staying in our hostel at the show and we all went to Luna Blanca, a vegetarian restaurant for some veggie Mongolian food. The walk back to the hostel was through falling snow.
Gandantegchinlen Monastery escaped destruction in Soviet times and was renovated in the 1990s, we visited the following morning, walking there through the snow. The main draw is the magnificent golden statue of Migjid Janraisig housed in a tall white building within the monastery walls. This bodhisattva stands over twenty-five metres high and is made from gold-leafed copper and decorated with colourful precious stones. It gleams within the shadowy wooden-framed room.
Outside, pigeons flocked around the monastery in their thousands, fed by seeds that could be purchased from old ladies dotted around the temples. Every now and again they would all fly up in a mass flap, circle and then settle back down, you could smell them.
We were enticed into one of the buildings with the sound of chanting, dipping beyond a heavy red curtain into a vestibule that then lead into the temple proper. We slipped quietly in and took a seat on one of the benches around the edge of the room. On the far wall were glass cabinets crammed full with dust-covered Buddhas, in front of them were some benches and tables.
A few monks were gently repeating mantras, softly chanting. The chants would rise to a crescendo and the monks would strike cymbals and bells, bringing life and magic to the hushed room. The chamber felt ancient, the lighting was low, aided little by the wintery natural light from outside, the rites seemed as old as time. Interestingly, the temple smelt a lot like a ger, the scents of incense, smoke and that familiar farmy smell mingled together, it created a wonderful connection back to the nomadic side of Mongolia . The smells, the smoke and the chanting made me very light-headed and I had to step back outside into the cold air. I found the whole experience very uplifting, it is hard to describe exactly why though!
That night was our last in Mongolia and I was feeling a little blue, sad to be departing this amazing country and leaving behind our lovely travel companions, our little travel family. The following day would be both mine and Severi’s birthday so a few of us went for a meal to a nearby Mongolian restaurant to celebrate. Unfortunately the only vegetarian option on the menu was fries but nevertheless we had a fun evening, finished off with a cheeky shot of vodka back at the hostel. Tipsy, me?
It was a frightfully early start the next morning, Sean made us wake him to say goodbye and he saw us out to the car. The hostel gave us a lift to the station along with a couple of other guys. The train was waiting at platform one when we pulled up, a line of bright windows in the darkness. Our four berth compartment would be our accommodation for the next thirty-one hours until we reached Beijing.
There were quite a few travellers on the #24 train and this included our new friend Caley who we’d met in UB. I would be spending my entire birthday on the train so it was fun to have friends around me. Lamentably, the dining car/bar closed around half past four and the toilets closed at half past six for crossing the border, this put rather a downer on the birthday celebrations. We managed to squeeze a birthday meal of Mongolian-style eggs on toast and beer before the dining car shut. At a station towards the border we were able to get off for some fresh air, this was good because we were confined to our carriage after that for the lengthy border controls.
The Mongolian side of the border was straightforward and only took an hour. The Chinese side took considerably longer, while the border formalities played out our train was taken into a huge shed and the carriages separated. The Chinese tracks are wider than the Mongolian ones so the bogies, the wheels, on all the carriages needed to be changed. Each carriage was lined up with a set of pneumatic jacks, the bogies were unattached and the carriage was gently, imperceptibly lifted up, with us still in it. The Mongolian bogies were wheeled off and new, Chinese bogies pushed in. We were lowered back down onto our new wheels. It was a long train and this process took ages, the novelty of the procedure soon wore off and we took to our beds. The shunting of the carriages to rejoin the train back together took hours, every shunt caused a thud and a jolt, sleep didn’t come easy.
I woke the next day, a year older, in a new country. China passed by the window, from the emptiness of south Mongolia we passed through the previous day we were now in a visually populated country. There were buildings everywhere, people, trash, cars, the scenery was very dry and dusty. As the train continued the land became mountainous and we passed through many tunnels, and then we saw it, the Great Wall. It snaked over a mountain and out of sight, our first glimpse of something truly iconic, something truly Chinese.
The train pulled into Beijing just after two in the afternoon, the end of the line for the Trans-Mongolian journey but not for our rail adventure. For now, we had China to explore.