December 11, 2008

Trans-Mongolian Railway (kind of, not really) from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing

Manduhai was a 15th century female Mongolian warrior of legend proportions. It is said that she united the squabbling tribes of the Steppes, conquered enemy armies while riding into battle pregnant with twins and instilled enough fear in the Chinese that they started a rapid expansion of the Great Wall. Mongolians have been waiting for a second coming of Manduhai, but they need not wait any longer, because I found her on my train ride from Ulaanbaatar to the Chinese border.
We were a three-person troop under this mysterious, middle-aged Mongolian woman’s command in the cabin, and she ruled us like a leader who has only concern and love for her people. Her precision with the latches, ladders, bed sheets and lights were like none I have ever seen and when the compassionless train attendant came in to wake us up an hour and a half (an hour and a half!) before our arrival time, she fought our battle well and won us much more uninterrupted sleep time.
My train arrived at the Chinese border instead of making its’ way all the way to Beijing. I was told in Ulaanbaatar that the last leg of my Trans-Mongolian journey would have to be taken in first class, as these were the only tickets still available, but knowing that all the fun happens outside of first class, I chose to take a local train to the border and then a Chinese sleeper bus the rest of the way. A Chinese sleeper bus? This I had to see.
After getting my pride handed to me on a pupu platter when a group of Chinese teenagers beat me at a few games of pool, I boarded the sleeper bus, which has three rows and two floors of “seating”. To assume that this bus was larger than one with regular seats would be pretty much inaccurate; it looked as though they had configured the interior space based on fit models that were four feet tall and ninety pounds. Thankfully as the only westerner on the bus, I didn’t have to suffer watching a six-foot human try to stuff themself into their assigned tray. Instead, I was busy trying to stuff myself in, carefully directing my limbs to contort appropriately, and when I had finally gotten settled, even though I was in China and not Japan, I felt like a piece of sushi on wheels waiting for a pair of chopsticks to come and abduct me.
I had a pretty prime seat in the middle row on the top bunk but my tourist status made me prey to the locals who were looking for a trade-up. I was approached by a man half my size who offered me his bed on the bottom row, over the motor, with a hump in the middle in exchange for mine. His selling point in charades was that he had a window, and since I was seeing this landscape for the first time, I would probably want to look out of it. Well, he was right and after the brilliant packaging I had managed with myself, it was time to unwrap this piece of tuna and rice and start the process all over again.
Once we were moving, other than the considerable drop in temperature from my previous spot, I was happy I had exchanged, as I was able to lie back and listen to music as the setting sun, open fields and clouds that resembled Mr. Miyagi’s beard from the Karate Kid rolled by.
The cliché of “the journey is just as important as the destination” was certainly true for my exit out of Mongolia and entrance into China, albeit with my own little modification that “the journey is just as entertaining as the destination.”

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