Beijing Central station was a sea of people and the van dropping us was not allowed into the station. It probably would take an hour or so just to get inside the station, judging by the size of the crowd building up. I have never seen so many lines queuing up to buy tickets before. There were at least 30 lines that morning. Getting into the main building was no mean feat, given the pushing and the jostling crowd. It was absolute chaos. I remembered Sam the Chinese van driver telling us “In Beijing there is no time to be polite”. There was no dignity at the station that day. Proper queuing up would have been more efficient.
As the Trans Mongolian Express K3 train started pulling out of Beijing Central station, I felt excitement mounting. After all the trip was in my bucket list. I also felt a little hungry. I heard that food served in the restaurant on the Chinese buffet coach was similar to hawker food found in Kuala Lumpur. And the good news was that it was halal. On the contrary food served on the Mongolian buffet coach was rather bland, especially to a palette used to everything hot and spicy.
As I got to the buffet coach, I noticed it was nearly full. I was counting on meeting some interesting people travelling on the train. I found a quiet corner and began scribbling some half forgotten details about Beijing in my note book while sipping some green tea. Opposite to my table was a couple of bubbly middle-aged British ladies and a young male deep in conversation interspersed with giggles like two teenage girls, sharing some jokes. Thank God for mobile technology, I was sufficiently entertained so as not to feel completely abandoned.
After some thirty minutes, my text neck left me stiff and uncomfortable. I had to refocus. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to initiate a little conversation with my neighbour. I said hello and the two ladies, probably in their early 50s, responded with a smile. We started talking.
They were from UK; one was a business development manager and the other was in some hospitality services. The young male happened to be a Russian model I was told. I recognized him while we were all waiting for the K3 train on the platform back in Beijing Central station. I could tell he was a model by his gait and a polished look of self-indulgence.
When the train reached Ulan Bator, a young Mongolian girl and her friend boarded the K3 and occupied the cabin next to ours. A big buxom lady later joined them. The Russian lady was a teacher and even though neither she spoke any English nor I any Russian, I was able to learn through the Mongolian girl, that the Russian lady taught Russian language to a school in Ulan Bator. Russian language was a second language in Mongolia just like English was to Malaysia.
The Mongolian girl, Tsatsral, was heading to St Petersburg to register for a university education. It seemed that secondary school leavers in Mongolia tend to register for college or university education in Russia. Mongolian population was about 2.4 million(in 2014) and 50% of these were women. It was therefore understandable that Mongolia wanted to utilize their women workforce efficiently. Women’s high level of enrolment in higher education reflected female dominance in medicine, nursing, teaching and professional child care. This same trend existed in Malaysia from as far back as ten years ago. Unlike the concern with female purity found in southwest, south and east Asia (Malaysia included), the Mongolians preferred fertility to purity. Mongolian women however although not shy, remained subordinate to men, as in many Asian country, I supposed.
While walking down the K3 corridor towards the buffet coach I met a Chinese couple on their honeymoon. They were planning to take a photo on the platform at Malinsk train station. The couple were from Beijing and decided to celebrate their honeymoon in St Petersburg. Taking the Trans Mongolian Express seemed to be the most romantic journey to embark for couples.
There is something undeniably romantic about train travel. James Blunt in his song “You’re beautiful” dealt with fleeting moments of aching, unrequited longing experienced on a train journey. A study by East Coast Trains uncovered that 1/3 of Brits believed that rail travel was synonymous with finding “the one”. Why is it that people were more willing to chat to strangers on trains? Train journeys tend to be more enjoyable, with respect to scenery, more spacious, and trains always arrive right in town with no crazy long-line check-ins beside being more affordable. The next time you feel like some romance, try spending 6 days on the Trans Mongolian Express K3…you will never know who you meet.
(Adapted from the book “A Train To Catch”, published by Partridge Singapore, 2016)