Finding “the one” on The Trans-Mongolian Express

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.

Figure 1: Passengers taking a break on the platform of the Novosibirsk train station.

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.

 

Figure 3: A Buffet Coach on the Trans Mongolian Express K3, with decor reminiscent of days gone by.

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”…..

K3 stop at Irkutsk.

Putrajaya

(Its a mini travel guide on Putrajaya; in August 2019 Issue of Going Places, MAS in-flight magazine; edited version below ).

Seri Gemilang Bridge, Precinct 4 Putrajaya

GP Aug’19 MY

Guide Head: Smart City

Standfirst: From administrative centre with architectural masterpieces to a vibrant neighbourhood of strong cultural and recreational activities, Putrajaya promises a spectrum of experiences only a smart city could provide.

Words: Husna Kassim

_________________________________

“I would like to think that a century from now people would know they are in Putrajaya because of the uniqueness of the city architecturally.”

These are the words of Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad when he first unveiled Putrajaya, his brain-child and the country’s federal administrative centre, in 1999. Today, Putrajaya is a beautiful city, where 37 percent of the land comprise of parks and open spaces with man-made wetlands and lakes.

URBAN SPECTACLE

Persiaran Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah is the main thoroughfare in Putrajaya. Known as the world’s largest roundabout with a diameter of 3.5 kilometres, it is named after the eleventh king of Malaysia. Located on a hill within the roundabout is Istana Melawati, the second royal palace of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, also known as the Supreme Head or the King of Malaysia.

Opposite the palace is the 93 hectare tropical botanical garden, Taman Botani, where more than 700 species of plants from over 90 countries vie for space along with cycling trails. Entrance to the park is free. Within the garden is the Moroccan Pavilion, a replica of a palace in Marrakesh in Morocco, and a popular spot for pre-wedding photography. With its Islamic calligraphy and intricate carvings, it reportedly took 80 artisans from Morocco more than eight months to build the Pavilion as a cultural exchange between the two countries.

Inside the Moroccan Pavilion, Taman Botani, Putrajaya

If you drive further along the roundabout and take a slip road, you would arrive at Dataran Putra. The majestic green-domed Perdana Putra, the Prime Minister’s office, is located at the edge of the area. A few minutes’ walk away is the iconic Putra Mosque, which takes inspiration from Middle Eastern, Malay and indigenous architectural aspects in its design. Its pink dome is made with rose coloured granite and the prayer hall can accommodate 15,000 worshipers. The mosque sits on the edge of the scenic Putrajaya Lake, and would make a charming picture postcard at sunset.

The nearby Putrajaya Boulevard links Perdana Putra to other government buildings, and is distinctive in its design modelled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris. This boulevard measures 100 meters wide and four kilometers long and links five core precincts and passes through four squares, including the majestic Palace of Justice and the three-tiered Iranian-inspired Putra Bridge. The 435-metre concrete bridge with four minaret-type piers and observation decks overlooks the Putrajaya Lake.

FUN AND FESTIVITIES

Like everywhere else in Malaysia, festivals in Putrajaya are a celebration of diversity. The Festival of Light and Motion Putrajaya (LAMPU), one of the biggest events in Putrajaya, held annually at the end of the year showcases concerts by local artistes and New Year countdown traditionally attended by the Prime Minister. The event’s crowd-puller is the Projection Mapping show, where the façade of the grand Palace of Justice is transformed into a colossal background for the display of lively multimedia effects. Entrance is free and it is advisable to bring a portable chair. The Royal Floria Putrajaya is Malaysia’s annual flower and garden festival. The theme this year is Orchid & Bonsai and will be held from 30 August till 8 September. Last year, the festival featured 61 garden lots with 43 international participants from 23 countries.

Putrajaya Lake Cruise is a top tourist attraction and for good reason. You get the perfect opportunity to take photos of the many bridges you pass cruising down the lake. But for thrill seekers, fly-boarding, hovering and dolphin dives at the Marina Putrajaya in Precinct 5 comes highly recommended. The Putrajaya Water Sports Complex in Precinct 6 is probably the best place for those who love the active lifestyle. This complex has been used to host local and international sports events. Alternatively, you can rent a boat and choose from different sets of activities at the lake such as wake-boarding, water skiing and banana boating.

Putrajaya Wetlands Park is the first man-made freshwater wetland in the tropics and a sanctuary for marshland wildlife and water birds. Grab your binoculars and go bird-watching here in the Wetlands, recognised by UNESCO as an eco-hydrology demonstration site. Skyrides Festivals Park, located on the edge of the Perdana Lake, in Precinct 2, offers thrilling experience of hot air balloon rides.

With plenty of greens and beautiful lakes, dedicated cycle paths and fresh, clean air, Putrajaya is a haven for cyclists and joggers. There are plenty of places to stop for a picnic, too. You can bring your own bicycles or rent one from Taman Botani. There are also walking tours in Putrajaya, organised by various companies. There is also the Putrajaya Night Tour and the Symphony Walk which consist of waterfront walks. If you prefer not to work up a sweat, book a tour with Planet Scooters. They offer two and three hour programmes and is the perfect way for families to tour the city together.

SOMETHING FOR THE TUMMY

There are plenty of restaurants and fast food outlets in Alamanda Mall but locals prefer Dataran Putra. If there is one thing in Malaysia you can count on, its hawker food. At Selera Putra Food Court at Dataran Putra, visitors will find a varied spread, from Indian curries, Middle Eastern kebabs, American fast food to the quintessential Malaysian dessert, durian cendol.

Sidebar

Getting Around

By Bus

There are five types of bus services operating from Putrajaya Sentral in Precinct 7. NadiPutra Bus, a commuter bus service, offers the most comprehensive bus routes coverage within the city.

By Train

The KLIA Transit train service from KL Sentral station to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport stops at Putrajaya. It takes about 20 minutes.

By Taxi

Taxis are plentiful though try to avoid flagging one down in front of train stations or bus terminals or be prepared to be ripped off. Alternatively, use ride-hailing service Grab to get around