It was midnight and I was all choked up.
Not because I was in the midst of a bucket list experience of epic proportions, traveling through Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but because I was in the midst of an enormous sandstorm.
Earlier that day, after spending fifty-seven days in China, Perry and I left Beijing for the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar (UB) on the K3, of Trans-Siberian Railway fame, a once-per-week train that traverses northern China, Mongolia and Russia, arriving in Moscow six days later.
We were only hitching a ride to UB, alighting after a day's journey to spend a week in Mongolia's largest city (home to half of its three million people) before embarking on a trek across the country. However, I was still pretty excited about it, despite not being able to snag a deluxe sleeper which had sold out well before we arrived in China. Apparently, this trip is on MANY a bucket list.
I'm not opposed to budget train accommodations, but we had already spent two nights on K trains (slower and older than bullet 'G' trains) in soft sleepers, which are supposed to be a nicer class of travel, yet found the cigarette smoke and processed meat odor emanating from my fellow cabin mates almost unbearable during these fourteen hour trips.
So, the thought of riding in the cheapest class of travel for twenty-seven hours didn't exactly fill me with giddy anticipation.
Ultimately, we just could not pass up on such an adventure, and booked two bunks in hard sleeper class through China Highlights for around $400, a great value considering it included transport (passing through the Gobi Desert), overnight accommodation and two meals, each.
Little did we know the Gobi would deliver more adventure than we were expecting.
I arrived at Beijing Railway Station with a terrible cold, not the best start for our journey, but felt better after I got on the train and met our neighbors, three boisterous gentlemen from Austria headed to the backcountry of Mongolia for three weeks of motorcycling.
Adding to the fun was our was our cabin mate, Koh, a Japanese student of rail engineering who was making the entire journey to Moscow, a couple of nice Korean guys, and our friendly (by Chinese standards) carriage attendant. There weren't many of us in Carriage 15, and it was a pretty laid back atmosphere.
Ours was the very last car, and while it had definitely seen better days (it's best not to look too closely at the carpet or blankets), we had the distinct advantage of being able to take panoramic photos at the rear of the train any time we wanted.
Departing on time at 11:22a.m., the first few hours were relatively uneventful. We visited with Koh and the Austrians, watched videos and took photos while trying to work around mud spots on the windows.
Attempts to eat in the restaurant car proved interesting. Even though our meal tickets had time slots on them (I assume to even out the flow of traffic), the car was packed and chaotic. We grabbed individual seats wherever we could and I ultimately had a fun conversation at a table with a Chinese man and two travelers- one from NYC and another from Argentina.
After lunch, the landscape shifted from the dry, yet relatively green Hebei province to the scrubby semi-desert of Inner Mongolia. We were entering the Gobi Desert.
As evening approached, the winds began to pick up and by the time we reached Erlian, on the China/Mongolia border, we were in the throes of a full-blown sandstorm that was so huge, it made the news after causing havoc in Beijing. Because of it, that night would prove particularly taxing.
It was midnight and I was all choked up.
My breathing, already limited by a nasty cold, was reduced to wheezing courtesy of the chain smoking carriage attendant and the fine mist of dust particles brought on by the storm. It was so thick, it made my teeth and eyes feel gritty. As I settled into my bunk, I could feel the temperature plummeting as the wind snuck through cracks near my head, howling and rocking the carriage. I pulled the rough bedsheet over my head and was reminded of being a kid on my parents' farm in northern Minnesota, listening to a winter snowstorm while falling asleep.
I was awakened by a man in uniform and a large hat tapping my leg.
Chinese border control officials were collecting passports from each cabin for exit stamps. Looking out the window, I noticed that we were inside a very large building and rail workers were starting to hoist up the carriages and change the wheels as the tracks in Mongolia and Russia are a different gauge than in China.
Three hours of pounding and being jarred around later, we were off again, only to repeat the passport ritual twenty minutes down the track with the Mongolian officials. Around three a.m., we finally disappeared into the raging sandstorm once again.
In the morning, I looked out my window to the sight of blue skies and camels.
Even after our wild night, the ride into Ulaanbaatar that morning was the most thrilling train experience I've ever had. The stark, flat desert scenery dotted with yurts and a few animals, gradually changed to rolling hills of very short grass. Large herds of horses, sheep and cows and small villages with colorful rooftops began to appear alongside makeshift roads.
It finally hit me. Holy smokes, I'm in Mongolia! Bloody freaking MONGOLIA!
We pulled into UB around three p.m. local time, nearly twenty-eight hours later, and while I'm still horribly sick, luckily I have a few days to recover before our trek begins.
Here's hoping that the next time I get choked up in Mongolia, it will be from emotion, not sand.
Thanks for reading!
For more information on the train we took to Mongolia or the entire Trans-Siberian journey, please visit my favorite resource for rail travel, The Man in Seat 61.
Next time on Gobsmacked: Two Months in China: Nine Highlights