This is it, we were finally starting our journey. Admittedly it’s not quite the epic train journey we had hoped to do, but it was still exciting to finally be travelling on this famous train line.
The K23 train departs Beijing Train Station at 8:05AM. We’d planned to be there about an hour early (as suggested by the tour agency we bought the tickets from). I’m glad we had some time spare when we arrived, as it was a busy and crowded scene that we’d walked into. The only information that we were able to read, was the corresponding K23 train number. There is generally some English in the train stations, but not bi-lingual like in Japan.
Sad to say, but breakfast this morning was KFC. We’d love to have had something from a small local restaurant, but we just ran out of time. As a small consolation, it wasn’t that bad.
We found our platform and train, and found our carriage and room. What we didn’t expect to find was to have the four-bed room all to ourselves! Bonus! It seemed that the train wasn’t all that busy, as there were many rooms that weren’t full (or without anyone in at all). We went for the ‘hard sleeper’, which was the cheapest ticket I was able to buy – about $255 USD each. There was also the ‘soft sleeper’ and the ‘deluxe twin’. As far as I could tell, the difference between the soft and the hard were the widths of the beds – though I’d be more interested in a longer bed.
Each carriage has an attendant (or two) and on arrival they took our tickets off us and once we’d settled down, he gave us some sheets and a pillow case.
There is storage space underneath the bed, which is also quite secure because if someone wanted to take anything from your bags, they’d have to lift your bed (which would wake even the heaviest sleeper). It is fairly basic, and with four people in the cabin it’d be a little cramped. The beds are firm, but comfortable. It’s the sitting upright that is the most uncomfortable.
The train makes its way out trough the western suburbs of Beijing. It’s amazing the scale of the apartment construction projects. It almost looks like they are creating entire suburbs at a time. Everywhere we looked there were new towers being built. People had moved in, but it seemed that the grass around the buildings hadn’t even had a chance to grow yet. And, it wasn’t just apartment towers, there were also the giant shopping complexes, complete with KFC and McDonalds and Starbucks (and also often H&M, Uniqlo and an Apple store).
A little further out of Beijing and we entered an incredibly dramatic area with barren rocky mountains and deep jagged canyons. We were going in and out of tunnels. I started counting until I realised that each tunnel had a number – the last one I remember seeing was in the 60s. The skies were also blue and clear in this area. I thought we must have escaped the Beijing haze, but as soon as we cleared the range, the haze returned.
From here it was mostly flat and open with hills and mountains off in the distance. What we did notice though was the massive presence of coal. Giant coal burning power stations, with enormous transmission lines that stretched off in to the distance. Giant coal trains filled with hundreds of carriages of fuel to fire the power stations. It’s understandable that people want an improved way of life (that requires an increased energy consumption), but seeing first hand just how much coal is being used is a little… disheartening.
I thought we would (and glad that we did) see The Great Wall one more time as we headed north. It was in the distance, but the snaking wall along the mountain was unmistakable. I’m not sure what happened to the wall on the flat sections… maybe the bricks were removed to make houses? Or the wall was torn down to make access and farming easier?
Along the way there would be the occasional little village, with small houses made from red bricks, and with terracotta tiles. They also had fibre optic internet connections and satellite TV.
The train stopped for a couple of minutes a few times on the way. It was just enough time to get out, stretch, enjoy the ‘fresh’ air and then hop back on. I’d read on the Lonely Planet that there were going to be people on the platforms selling food and other things, but we didn’t see a single trader the entire journey.
The lack of food vendors meant we had little choice but to purchase a meal from the train, which would have been fine if we’d left Beijing with more than ¥80 ($12) – we hadn’t. Meals were ¥30 ($5) each, and if compared to what you would get for $5 in Australia, they were great. But, coming from the meals we’d been accustomed to in China, it was like having an average school lunch. Still, it was better than the cup of noodles that we were going to have to share for dinner…
It was surprising how enchanting it was watching the world pass by our window. We’d been on the train for over 8 hours, but it barely felt like it. The landscape slowly changed, the mountains disappeared and were replaced with flat open steppe, and the towns got smaller and further apart. It was meditative, hypnotic even. The desolation was similar to a lot of outback Australia, but now that I was the passenger, it gave me the chance to really just relax and take it in.
One of the conductors working on our carriage came in to our room and gave us some giant seedpods. I honestly had no idea what they were, so he typed something in to the translator in his phone – Tamarind! I’ve never seen the raw product before, and had no idea that it starts inside a seedpod. It was perfect, we were just starting to need an afternoon sugar rush. We repaid the food and cultural exchange by giving him some Vegemite to taste. Unfortunately for him, we didn’t have anything to put it on, so he had to eat it straight from his finger. He didn’t hate it, but he didn’t want any more!
It had become quite cloudy and hazy, and I didn’t think that we were going to get to see a sunset. But, we had a treat like the sunsets we were treated to in outback Australia.
A little after dark, the train pulled in to the Chinese border town Erlian. Chinese immigration officials collected our passports and customs declarations. Lonely Planet said we had to wait to receive our passports back before we were able to leave the train, so we made a big bowl of instant cup noodles (this was our budget), only to be told a few minutes later that we had to leave the train for the next two-hours while they swap the carriages on to different (wider) rolling stock.
So, we had two-hours to kill in Erlian. It’s a town of 400,000 people, but walking through the streets, it felt like a ghost town – albeit a brightly lit neon ghost town. We didn’t have enough money for food from a restaurant, so picked up some supplies from a small supermarket (more instant noodles, some bread and an apple). We now had ¥6 ($1), but enough food to sustain us until we arrived in Ulaanbaatar at lunch time tomorrow.
It was only 9PM, but most of the shops were shut. There weren’t many people on the street, so we became easy targets for the taxi drivers who kept honking their horn at us, trying to offer us a ride. It was also surprisingly cold, and the wind was making my face ache, so we returned to the train station and sat in the few chairs they had upstairs, waiting for the train to return.
Just before 11PM the train came back and we could board. There was more customs and immigration officials walking around, and eventually we were given our passports back and the train was finally back on its way.
I saw a small un-lit sign as we crossed the Mongolian border before stopping. I could see quite a few men in military uniforms carrying large machine guns. The train only stopped for a few minutes then carried on down the track before stopping at the Mongolian border town, Zamiin Uud. It was now 12:30PM. Here the customs and immigration process was reversed. Risa went to sleep, I waited for the Mongolian customs to return our passports at 1AM before I too collapsed.