Start of Trans-Mongolian

The beginning of my trip along the trans-Mongolian railway couldn't be better - it's an adventure waiting at every corner and I love being back on the road. Traveling in China was great, but started feeling predictable, easy-going and sometimes it felt like going between places you already knew - partly because I visited friends along the way. Not in a bad way though, but unpredictable things happen now and I love it.

The hostel in Beijing gave me the name of a long-distance bus station where there would be a bus leaving for the border town Erenhot. They told me to go there early to be sure to get a ticket. The fact that the border town has like four different names, at least, doesn't make it easier though (I've seen Erenhot, Erlian, Erlianhot, Ereen and perhaps something more?). Well at the bus station it turns out that I can't buy the ticket in the ticket office, but have to buy it from the bus driver. They don't know which bus it is or when the driver will be there, so I walk around and ask people (I'm really happy for the note I got from the hostel in Chinese at this time). When I found the bus and one hour later the driver as well, he tells me the bus is full, but he sells me a ticket for another bus that will leave at the same time from the same place. He don't know when it will be on the bus station though, but probably in the afternoon sometime. That means I have to either carry my backpack for the full day (it's around noon when I get the ticket) or wait until the bus gets there, dump my backpack and then go for some food. I chose the last one, deciding to sleep in the warm and nice spring sun for a couple of hours and do some reading about Mongolia. As it turns out the bus is not there until five minutes before departure, leaving me to wait at the bus station for five-six hours. Didn't seem that long though - the spring sun was just lovely!

On the bus I got a upper-middle bunk in the back of the bus which meant that if I turned around in the bed I had a great panoramic view through the rear window. The bus takes about 12 hours, arriving in the border town at 4:30 am. It takes me through vast landscapes of grassy planes, stretching away far in the distance. After passing some mountains and the Great Wall in the sunset, the only features of the landscape might be a building far off on the horizon and the other cars, buses and trucks on the road. Other from that it's just flat, grassy and a perfectly blue and huge sky. After the beautiful sunset, the landscape is still lit by a strong full moon and lots of stars, leaving the world in dusk-like state. When the grassy fields start being frosty or snow-covered, the whole landscape gains an eerie, ghostly look - everything has a pale white color and glows in the dark. It is just beautiful and makes your thoughts wander freely around subjects rarely touched and memories long forgotten.

At half four the bus suddenly stops and we are appearently at our final destination. Now things get hectic and before I understand what's happening (or before I even know whether I'm at the right town) I'm stuffed in a minivan together with two Chinese drivers who just nod when I say Mongolia, Uud-Zadum (which is the border town on the Mongolian side) and they don't seem to understand a single word of English. They end up dropping me at a hotel and tell me to sleep a couple of hours before taking the train to Mongolia at eight or so. The train supposedly leaves from the building just across the street, a building that certainly looks like a train station. I pay 20 yuan for the cab and the hotel and end up sleeping in a waiting room of some sort - luxurious sofas, a huge TV and a bar and by putting to sofas together I get a real nice bed for some hours.

When I wake up in the morning at 7am I first go to the "train station" which turns out to be a big market - no trains or tickets, but loads of shoes and bags. Surprised, confused and a bit lost (still don't know if I'm in the right town) I walk out onto the pavement again. From there things happen too quickly again, I get picked up by a minivan who says he can take me across the border, he drives for one minute, drops me off to another van and I find myself in a minivan with five Mongolians in my age and an older Russian man. The Mongolians turn out to be students returning home from Beijing. Together we all cross the border without any big hassles and two of the Mongolians help me a sleeper ticket for the train to Ulaan-Baatar even though it's "sold out" - the brother of the girl works in this town and has some contacts obviously.

Another 7 hours to kill is ahead before the train leaves, so we end up playing ping-pong, snooker, 8-ball at a snooker table, juggle, play cards, eat and just talk a lot. Talking is the most fun and interesting part of course - especially because we have some troubles communicating. Only two of the Mongolians are confident enough about their English to actually talk to me in English, while the other ones do understand parts of what I say, but won't answer me directly. The Mongolians that speak English have very basic English. The Russian guy speaks Russian and Mongolian, but also German. So he end up interpreting some of their Mongolian to German for me, which I don't speak but understand enough to make sense of what they are saying. The Mongolians all study Italian also, so we do a fair bit of talking in Italian/Spanish which we all understand and speak a very little bit of. Since they study in China they also now some Chinese, so we do some of the conversation in Chinese. The conversations thus end up being a lovely mix of English, Mongolian, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and some Swedish which they seem eager to learn some words in. The interesting thing is that it really worked out well!

The Mongolian border town is really a desert town - all flat and sand everywhere (outside town, on the road, in between all the buildings, inside the buildings, in the wind when it blows, inside my cloths and so on..). After boarding the train it takes me straight through the sandy parts of the Gobi (which is actually only about 3% of the desert, the rest is stones, dry grass and steppes and the like). Of course I take photos through the window, but they are not even close to capturing the vastness of the sand dunes that just disappear far behind the horizon.

After traveling through the Gobi for 16 hours, most of the part being just sand, rocks and sometimes dry grass, I get a good feeling for how huge the desert is. We've now come into areas where there are some hills and the ground is occasionally partially snow-covered or frosty. The only signs of life I see throughout the whole trip through the Gobi is the occasional train station (every third hour or so and these are a sight in themselves - a train station in the middle of nothing and not a single person or building as far as the eye can see in all directions, and still people get off here...) and some hoards of wild horses, some groups of domesticated horses with their shepherd and some yaks.

Now I've found my guesthouse in Ulaan-Baatar - a ger (which is the type of tents the nomads use in the desert) set on the top of a building in the outskirts of UB and overlooking the market and the town. I've seen some sights in UB and met a Mongolian girl in a temple who had a day off from work and showed me the town. Now I'm heading out for dinner and perhaps some pool later. Tomorrow I'm looking at a full day at fighting for getting a Russian visa - they are really messy about this. Travel plans, all tickets, visa for next country, health insurance details and payment in US$ just to get a transit-visa. Wish me good luck!

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