The train trip is 31 hours, departing as scheduled at precisely 7.27am from Beijing Railway Station and arriving on time in Mongolia’s patchwork quilt coloured capital, Ulan-Bataar.
The first day of our Trans-Manchurian/Siberian journey runs through the relentless mud brown of Inner Mongolia in northern China; a mix of rural wilderness and barren fields, canyons, hamlets, large industrialised towns, isolated factories and nuclear power plants and the great Gobi Desert.
The villages are monotone in colour with rows of brick houses uniform in style. The sighting of unpreserved sections of the Great Wall in the distance causes a stir in the dining car. As we roll through, the landscape delivers sandstorms in the distance, trees in blossom in nearby fields and dusty railway workers lunching within metres of the track.
Once in Mongolia, the view starts hosting more animals than humans. Herds of horses graze on stubble, small deer run from the train, goats wander, a few camels gather under pylons. Ger, the round traditional homes of Mongolian nomads appear in the foothills of the steppes. Tyres, half buried vertically in the sand and dry mud, stake claim for a nomad family’s future living space.
The train has 20 carriages, all with two or four berth cabins. Our two berth room has an ensuite with shower and toilet. This luxury is a surprise and thrill though the shower is wasted on us in the end. An attendant doles out linen, official forms for immigration and locks our cabin door when we head off to explore the train.
The dining car is functional and staffed politely under the Chinese but once over the border it is literally transformed into an ornate wooden Mongolian cafe complete with nomad weapons and furs. The exuberant Mongolian waiter greets us heartily, seats us, kisses Jenny on the cheek for the photo and proceeds to drop off individual pieces of cutlery then breakfast items as he nonchalantly strolls by. When everything is finally served he sits at a table smoking and gazing out the window like a pondering poet.
The actual border crossing will be a blog post in its own right. Suffice to say it was a shuddering experience.