Last day in the desert, and train 24 to Beijing
Trip Start Jun 01, 2010
158Trip End Mar 11, 2011
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In the morning we started packing our suitcases as we would be off to Beijing later today. Everything is dusty, and we try to find a change of clean clothes. We are promised a shower somewhere in town before we board the train, and we are looking forward to that. At breakfast we were treated to a bowl of rice, cooked in milk and complemented with half a pot of sugar. It was ok, and I was happy we did not get fried mutton pancakes. This was to be our last meal in the ger camp, as our lunch would be in town, and our dinner on the train.
Done with breakfast we head out to a family close by the camp. An old woman, and two of her grandsons welcomed us and were each put on a camel for a little ride. The animals are impressive, twice as big as a horse, and very strong. Linda got a pretty white camel and I got a normal brown one. The boys walked us around with the camels, as we sat on them like uber tourists. It's one of those things you have to do when you are here, and better here than somewhere in Egypt where you are the laughing stock of the many locals around you. Here there is no one, just sand, rocks, and piles of camel poo.
After our ride on the ships of the ocean, as this is how camels are referred to, we head back to the camp to pick up our luggage. The mini van is filled with things that have to go back to town as Bemba and his wife return to town together with us. They won't be coming back to the camp until next year as we are the last ones that visited for this season. Bemba boards up the small house he is building on the camp ground, his wife locks all the doors and the mini-van is filled with pots, baskets and other stuff that had to go home.
On our way back to Sainshand we pass by the highest mountain peak, about a thousand meters high. This is also a temple and meditation place. Only men are allowed up the mountain, woman have to wait half way. I did not feel like climbing up, and leave Linda waiting for half an hour, so we visited the little temple of the halfway and headed back to the car. After that it was a quick drive back to Sainshand where we were looking forward to our shower. But first we visited two small museums in town. One about Danzan Ravjaa, and one about the history of the region. I was amazed by the amount of goodwill and respect the Mongolians show in their museum for the Russian times. There is no mentioning of the destruction that the Russians brought in their political suppression campaigns. No mention of the thousands of Lamas that where killed. Only little black section on the wall, marking a dark period in Mongolian history.
When we came back from the museums Bemba had disappeared. His son, the driver that ditched us when we arrived, took on the driving. It was finally time for our shower. But 'surprise', the people where Neke tried to arrange such did not answer their phones. So we had to drive around to find a working public shower. These are shower buildings in the neighborhood where the people of that neighborhood can clean themselves up. Most of the houses in Sainshand do not have running water or bathroom facilities. So these buildings are all they have. Its' a bit like the showers at a very old swimming pool. After a couple of attempts we found a working one in a ger neighborhood. It was all very primitive but quite an experience.
Feeling refreshed and clean we headed out for lunch. We were supposed to have a packed lunch, but I think Bemba's wife did not feel like cooking anymore, so we all headed to a restaurant in town. The name was promising, it was called “Best Restaurant”. Located above a supermarket, with disco lights and wall paper that was falling off the walls. We all sat down and ordered some food, Linda had a Steak with egg, and I ordered a Schnitzel. Surprisingly they both were very similar. A beef grind, with an egg. The taste was good though.
It was time to get to the station, so we all went there. All of us went to the station, we got on our train, number 24 express to Beijing, and said our goodbyes to Neke. The train is the best one we have seen so far. We have a bathroom shared between two compartments. There are LCD TV's on the wall, that don't work, but who cares. The down side is that there is less storage space for luggage, so we have to store our suitcases on top of the chair in the compartment. Next door to us is another Dutch couple, with a very Dutch attitude. I tried to have some conversation with the guy, but he is as communicative as a sack of potatoes.
As the train moves to the Chinese border we have our dinner in the dining cart, They had a set menu which was very simple but nice. Soon after we arrive at the Mongolian border where our passports are checked, after around two hours we proceed to the Chinese border at ErLian, here the same is done by the Chinese officials. Here we also change wheels. The Russian tracks are a tad wider than the rest of the world, so we have to get narrower wheels under the train. Russia did this on purpose to reduce the risk of invasion by trains. The train was pulled apart into three carriage sections. Each is pushed into white hangar where they are lined up next to each other. Each carriage is lifted up, and the Russian wheels are removed and replaced with Chinese ones. The whole process takes no more than two hours, quicker than some tire changes. During the wait we can watch the whole procedure from our carriage. It is around midnight and we are tired, we are not used to going to sleep so late anymore. Because back in the desert and the steps, nightfall means bedtime. We have to wait for the conductress to open our toilet door as these are closed at all stops. After she finally unlocks our loo we can get to sleep.
As we wait I reflect my thoughts on Mongolia, it's vast desert and empty steps, the people and the culture. It is an interesting place, once ruled by bloodthirsty barbarians who roamed around Asia and conquered the world as they knew it. Now the center of 'world peace' with a calm Buddhist mindset, tranquil resurrected temples and an almost childlike curiosity for the unknown. What I remember of the steps and desert is a mixture of awe and soft sadness. The scars of humanity are visible in every wind direction. The empty plains are beautiful where they are not dotted with plastic bottles and other sorts of trash that is just blown around by the winds. At sunset you see the reflection of thousands of pieces of plastic in the emptiness. And then there is this strange respect for big brother Russia. Almost like it is a family member that committed a foul that no one should talk about to save the face of the family pride. The people we spoke to would not say a bad thing about them, even though they suppressed their religion and way of life and destroyed most of the vibrant history of this amazing country.