You wait on line outside Beijing’s main train station. Wrong window. So you wait on a different line. Sorry, no. Try buying your tickets at a hotel, says the man at the ticket counter at the train station.
So Mister Chen took the subway to Beijing West, with written directions to the International Ticket Window on the second floor, and you can’t enter the train station without a ticket so Mister Chen played the foreigner all they way up to the information desk, who directed him downstairs to the ticket booth, where he waited on another line. “Where do you want to go?” the ticket agent asked. “Ulaanbaatar,” said Mister Chen. “Where do you want to go?” How do you say Ulaanbaatar in Chinese? “Mongolia.” “Where?” “The main city in Mongolia?” “Where do you want to go?”
So we went to the CITS agency at the Beijing International Hotel. It was located on the second floor, right where the signs said it would be. We filled out paperwork and show our passports when prompted.
In China, Ulaanbaatar is pronounced Ulaanbatwa.
There’s a large timetable above the main staircase in the Beijing Railway Station. It displays train numbers and destinations in Chinese and English, and then there is a number. Numbers one and two correspond to the two waiting rooms on the second floor.
Our train is a number three.
We ask unhelpful railroad employees. We run up and down and up the stairs.
Between the two waiting rooms is a corridor. A-ha.
Everyone is gathered by the stairs to the track. Everyone is bringing stuff. Giant suitcases and packing boxes resealed with duct tape, large plastic-fiber red blue and white checked bags full of gift food in fancy boxes and IKEA furniture on dollies. When the platform opens it’s us and them and the self-assembled Swedish furniture concepts competing for space as we squeeze down the staircase together to the track. And then for a moment the sky comes into view through the latticework of the station roof. The forest green passenger cars, every doorway manned by a lady standing ramrod straight and smiling in green skirts and coats and thigh-high boots, the Rockettes of the Mongolian plains, the cart attendants. Just for a moment the sky opens above you and those forest green passenger cars stretch forever into the distance belching white smoke, eager to start. And the bounce and jostle of the crowd closes in, returning you to the hard enough business of walking, of watching stairs and elbows.
Oriental rugs cover the floors along the hallway into the compartments. This is a Mongolian train. Our compartment’s walls are wood and the four bunks are swaddled in floral embroidery. The lady cart attendant appears with mugs of strawberry tea. Q: How do you know if you are on a Mongolian train? A: Is the lady car attendant shoveling coal in thigh-high black leather boots with stiletto heels? You are on a Mongolian train.
At 9:15am we pass through the Great Wall of China. In the afternoon dust fills the train like smoke. At 8:40pm the train stops at Erlian, the last stop in China. You can get out, and then the train disappears for two hours. It is freezing cold outside. Inside the station are plastic seats, a bathroom, clocks of the world (non-functional) and a convenience store. The convenience store is packed and people buy in bulk, cardboard flats of water and cookies to take with them to who knows where. Outside loudspeakers on telephone poles play a Mariachi recording of Taps.
It’s a night of interrupted sleep, Chinese immigration and Chinese customs, Mongolian immigration and Mongolian customs. In the morning the lady cart attendant asks 500 tugrik a person for yesterday’s tea.
MONGOLIAN TRAIN K23
ONE WAY TICKET SECOND CLASS SLEEPER 657RMB (APPROX $82.13)
DEPARTS BEIJING WEDNESDAY AND SATURDAY 7:40AM
ARRIVES ULAANBAATAR NEXT DAY 1:15PM
SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Get tugrik ahead of time. The lady cart attendant exchange rate isn’t good.