Monday, February 29, 2016

Trans-Mongolian Train

I have had my first real shower and my first real cup of coffee in a week, and now I'm ready to relate the recap of our last day in Moscow and our Trans-Mongolian train journey.

On our last day in Moscow, we had to be out of our apartment by noon, but our train didn't leave until nearly midnight. While pondering this ahead of time, we knew we didn't want to be carrying our packs around the city in the freezing weather, and we knew we wanted the kids to have an opportunity to burn some energy and have some fun before facing so many days of being cooped up. A little online research produced a perfect plan: an indoor water park, complete with storage lockers. We spent the whole afternoon there and had a blast. Then, we bought a few groceries for the train and spent a couple of silly hours at TGI Fridays (of all places!) in the train station waiting for our time to board.

The train was old-fashioned and not at all fancy, even in first class. There were community toilets (two in each car), which left much to be desired (including toilet paper, at times), and cold water "showers" (a sprayer attached to the sink and a drain in the floor) in the washrooms, shared between every two rooms. And, there was a layer of soot over everything, from the coal used to heat each car's samovar (water boiler). Each of our three compartments consisted of a set of super-hard bunk beds, a small table, and a chair. I say all that only to let you know that it wasn't glamorous (because I think sometimes people have the mistaken impression that traveling around the world is always glamorous and fancy and a sort of lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous lifestyle, which it isn't. At least not the way we do it). But, we had an absolute blast! It was such a grand adventure, and we made some excellent memories!

The first five days of our journey took us through Russia (because Russia is huge), including part of Siberia, which was just as cold and white and vast as we imagined it would be. But, it was beautiful. (And, we were nice and warm in our train as we passed through. In fact, it was warm enough on the train that most of us wore shorts and flip-flops for most of the journey.) We enjoyed getting off the train at some of the stations to buy snacks from the little vendors (though we certainly put our warm woolies on then), and we were amused to see so many ice fishermen out and about along the way. We ate in the Russian dining car a couple of times and spent the rest of our time reading, napping, chatting with each other and our car neighbors, playing games, watching movies, talking about plans for the future, snacking, and watching the world go by. On our last day in Russia, we passed by Lake Baikal, which is the largest freshwater lake in Europe and Asia and the deepest in the world. It was frozen over, of course, and packed with ice fishermen. It was also surrounded by some lovely low mountains. In my opinion, that area provided the most beautiful scenery of the whole trip.

We stopped at the Russian/Mongolian border for passport checks, cabin searches, and a change in the dining car. I don't care who you are or how much you've traveled, you always get a bit of a knot in your stomach when some official someone you can't really communicate with takes your passport out of your possession for any length of time. That's especially true when you're in Siberia, in the winter. There was nothing difficult or concerning about the process, though, so after only a minor inconvenience and a few hours, we were on our way again.

It was late at night before we set off into Mongolia, and what a surprise to wake up the next morning to a completely changed landscape. The white snow and mountains had given way to the brown, flat, dry, Gobi desert, where we got to see herds of camels and saiga antelope, as well as yurt dwelling ranchers and their many sheep, horses, and cows. At one of the stations, there is a statue of Mongolia's only cosmonaut, which Jeff and Clay dashed out to see. Coming from the barren landscape of Mongolia, space probably didn't seem too odd to that man. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal in the fancy Mongolian dining car, but we found it funny that they presented us with a very extensive menu and then proceeded to tell us that there were really only two choices--the beef dish or the beef and egg dish.

At the Mongolian/Chinese border, we repeated the passport checks and a change in dining car, but we had the added bonus of getting the bogies changed on our train, because the gauge of the rail changes once you enter China. This truly was an interesting process, and we all enjoyed watching from the window. What happens is the train is brought into a shed and the cars are separated from one another, which is done with much thumping and bumping and lurching, which little boys absolutely love! (That, and being able to see the track while flushing the toilet.) Then, each car is lifted into the air with a hydraulic lift (while the passengers remain on board), and the old bogies (wheels) are rolled out from under it, and new bogies are put in place. Then the cars are reattached to each other, with more thumping and bumping and lurching, and the train goes on it's merry way, just as if it had always been a size smaller than it started out.

Western China provided some lovely vistas of mountains and half-frozen rivers and lakes. We did not really love the food in the Chinese dining car, where they offered no menu and only one choice, but we did love the experience of eating there. Because of our early arrival time, lunch had to be eaten between 9:00 and 10:00 am, which we all thought was quite funny. We also got a kick out of watching Clay and Max try to master chopsticks.

We arrived in the crowded Beijing station, right on schedule, tired and ready to stretch our bodies, but happy. The kids were actually a little sad to see our train journey come to an end, and some of them wished out loud that the trip could have lasted a few more days. They all behaved themselves fantastically, and, contrary to my fears, never became bored or restless during the whole trip. (And, neither did I, for that matter!) We had such a great time and are so thankful we had the opportunity to do something so unique! We will never forget it!

I didn't intend to chatter on so long. I guess I just needed to share the whole experience. Thanks for indulging me. Since I have so many words, I will save the pictures for a separate post.

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