Beijing Central station was a sea of people that morning and the van dropping us was not allowed into the station. It probably would have taken 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 of people queuing up to buy train tickets before. There were at least 30 lines that morning. Getting into the main building with luggage bags in tow, was no mean feat given the pushing and the jostling crowd. It was absolute chaos that morning. I remember the van driver Sam, advising us “There is no time to be polite in Beijing”. We finally managed to get to the platform after going through security checks and ticket verification. After waiting for what seemed like forever, the K3 train finally arrived. Like excited school-girls, we quickly made our way up the steps and through the corridors looking for our cabin, a 2nd class hard sleeper with four berths.
As the K3 train started pulling out of Beijing Central station, I felt excitement building up. After all, K3 was a rail journey of a lifetime, a tick off my bucket-list; a 7,622 kilometer-journey from Beijing to Moscow via Ulaan Bator. The train crosses three large countries and five time zones. There are fourteen stops (Fig 1) on K3 between Beijing and Moscow, with a border check and a rail gauge change at Erlian. Imagination ran wild as the wheels turned and pulled, the whooshing and the hissing sound of the engine shrieking a promise of adventure. And as you sit by the window, you discover the beauty in the changing landscapes. Horses running wild on the grassland, the sun peeping in between the trees, the endless glimpses of the beautiful Lake Baikal and the fleeting images of the mountains as the train chugged along. Inside the train, you sometimes meet complete strangers who share a story a two about their own life’s journey. The Trans Mongolian, like the Trans Siberian, is a journey that had captured the imagination of travelers, poets, artists and writers. It is a dream adventure.
Long-distance train travel has captured the likes of travel writer, Paul Theroux, who once wrote in The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), his first in a series of books dedicated to train journeys, “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it”. What is it about long-distance train journeys that is so mesmerizing?
For a start, the train is perhaps the most comfortable way of travelling long distances, despite the fact that a hard-sleeper meant six straight days of life in a cubicle, 1.5 meters wide, squeezing between oversized luggage bags, tight bunk beds and often, caught in the cross-fire of other contentious travel mates. The freedom of movement along the endless corridors allows a sense of space, so you don’t feel trapped as in an aeroplane.
Standing by a window of a corridor (Fig 2) for many hours, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the steppes, I was spellbound. The steppes, populated mainly by the world’s last wild horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands sometimes dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia, at one time, land of Genghis Khan and his Mongol horses.
Once the train was well on the way, passengers headed for the buffet coach (Fig 3). Even though I was counting on meeting some interesting people in the buffet coach, I desperately needed some time to gather my own thoughts and make notes. I finally found a table opposite a couple of middle-aged British ladies. In the company of the two ladies, who sometimes giggled like two star-struck teenagers, was a young male, a Russian model. I recognized him while we were waiting on the platform back in Beijing Central station. I could tell he was a model by his gait and a polished look of self-importance.
After some thirty minutes, my text neck left me stiff and uncomfortable. I decided to put away my mobile and initiate a little conversation with the two ladies instead. I said hello and the two ladies, probably in their early 50s, reciprocated with a hello and a broad smile. They were from UK; one was a business development manager and the other was in hospitality services.
When the K3 train arrived at Ulan Bator, a young Mongolian girl and her friend boarded the K3 and occupied the cabin next to ours. The Mongolian girl, Tsatsral, was heading to St Petersburg to register for a university education. A big buxom Russian lady later joined them. The Russian lady was a teacher who taught Russian language to a school in Ulan Bator, I was later informed. Russian is a second language in Mongolia just like English is to Malaysia.
While walking down the K3 corridor one morning, I met a young Chinese couple in their late twenties in one of the First Class coach. The couple were from Beijing and were on their honeymoon. They were planning to take a photo on the platform of the Malinsk station (two stops before Novosibirsk station). They decided to celebrate their honeymoon in St Petersburg. I thought it was most romantic to start a honeymoon by traveling on the Trans Mongolian Express.
This surprising encounter on K3 triggered a whimsical notion that 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 to mark National “I Love Trains” Week, uncovered that one third of British people believed that rail travel was synonymous with finding “the one”.
Finding “the one” may not be the reason travelers throw caution to the wind and chat to strangers. But trains do inspire an atmosphere of impulse, stimulating travelers to connect with strangers. For me, taking a train anywhere evoke a feeling of nostalgia and the Trans Mongolian Express trip was unforgettable in so many ways. The rhythm of “tchjk”, “tchjk” as the metal wheels hit the rail track, linger on long after the trip.
The next time you feel a need for some adventure or romance, try spending six days on the Trans Mongolian Express. You will never know who you meet. You might even meet “the one”…..