Trans-Mongolia to Ulan Bator

Let’s be honest Beijing station is chaotic, I had my ticket so one could deduct no queuing but how wrong was I.  At the left of the huge plaza at the from of the station is a huge exit sign, to the right a huge entrance sign, simple! Not so these merely are set out to confuse and exist from an earlier era. I passed through security (slowly) at the entrance sign and found my self in a ticket hall, but you have a ticket I here, yes and so I exited chaperoned by a sweet lass who guided me to the real entrance. I was positioned at the end of one of the 100 metre security queues and after around 40 minutes gained access to the station proper. They had told us to leave 40 minutes before departure (to be on the safe side) but my anal 90 minutes had proved more appropriate.

Once inside I spent my remaining Yuan on healthy stuff like apples and tomatoes plus a couple of ubiquitous Snickers, it was after all a 26 hour journey with little information available about the catering arrangements.

We embarked and departed on time and the first change was my cabin; presumably to reduce cleaning time they moved me in with Verity a lass who hailed from Exeter.  Verity who worked for the MET Office was on an excursion to Ulan Bator before flying back to the UK, she carried a humdinger of a cold. My luck! We chatted animatedly for a few hours before V fell into a deep slumber punctuated by coughing fits. I looked to the scenery which was mainly industrial and dull and so opened my reading matter “Last Call From The Dining Car”, available in good e-book stores.  This collection of short stories relating to rail travel collated by Michael Kerr of the Daily Telegraph is a captivating enough antidote to the industrialised Chinese landscape. As we left the environs of Beijing the terrain became mountainous but barren and I reflected on the hardships the locals must endure for farm out a living. We passed empty terraces, frozen rivers and what looked like a number of mini-penetentaries, maybe relics of the cultural revolution? I saw at lease 3 new coal-fired power stations being built and a beautifully preserved walled city whose name I am still unable to confirm but it could be Kalgan.

The Chinese deny all Mongol influence in Beijing forgetting that Peking was seized by Gengis Khan in 1215 and was made the capital of the empire by perhaps the greatest Mongol Emperor the Kublai Khan. IT is the great KK who Marco Polo worked for. Eventually we reached the Gobi desert, one of the world’s great deserts, covers much of the southern part of Mongolia. Unlike the Sahara there are few sand dunes in the Gobi; rather you’ll find large barren expenses of gravel plains and rocky outcrops. The climate here is extreme. Temperatures reach +40° C. in summer, and -40 in winter.

After changing the trains wheels to Mongolian gauge we crossed the border in the middle of the night (it took 2 hours) and the terrain became more mountainous as we headed north. We finally arrived in Ulan Bator around 3:00pm. After changing some dollars for Mongolian dosh and negotiating a reasonable taxi fare I was deposited at my hotel the Danista Nomads. This fantastic hostel/hotel with an incredibly helpful host is around a fiver a night. It has large rooms, is well heated, offers good bathrooms and a dining area. I had of course, courtesy of Verity, got flu. I took a stroll but after an hour retired to my bed with a mountain of meds.

Next day I decided to press ahead with a trip to the Terelj National Park and booked a taxi for the day at 50 quid, expensive maybe but the only way to get there if not on an even more expensive tour. The National Park is located 65 km north-east of Ulaanbaatar and is part of the huge Khan Khentii reserve and was established as a Strictly Protected Area in 1992. The Khan Khentii park is almost completely uninhabited by humans, but it is home to endangered species of moose, brown bear and weasel, and to over 250 species of birds. The average altitude is around 1600m above sea level. The park’s most spectacular features were its huge granite blocks (Tors), which added to the spectacular winter landscape. Despite felling grotty it was an awesome if tiring day which included the Genghis Khan statue, Turtle Rock and the Monastery of Terelji.

My second day in UB was a pondering city stroll.  It’s not the most inspiring city and has awful traffic problems but between coffee shops I captured some characters and plenty of graffiti. It was Army Day and a display of rather soft military might was on show in the main square opposite the parliament building.

Later in the day I headed to the back of the city and the Gandantegchinlen Khiid Monastery. Built in 1840, it is the centre of Mongolian Buddhism. The Tibetan name translates to the “Great Place of Complete Joy” and in the past it was one of the main Buddhist centers in Asia having over 20 chapels and it was renowned for its library of religious documents. The monastery was severely damaged during the soviet repression of the 1930s and only few building remain among them, a chapel for 20 meters high statue of the Megzhid Janraisig god. The two-storey Didan-Lavran Temple in the courtyard was home to the 13th Dalai Lama during his stay here in 1904 (when he fled Lhasa ahead of a British invasion of Tibet). Young monks scurried about their business dissipating the carpet of pigeons, feeding of which is discouraged inside the complex. I was asked by family to record their visit on camera and for this I was handed a snack. Kids were snowballing unaware they were damaging the tranquility. Elderly Mongolians sported traditional dress and others encircled a knotted tree, touching it as they chanted.  An army of cats napped in the shade and a succession of kittens squeeled for attention.

My last day in UB was spend at the coffee shop trying to fix the disaster that is Apple Photos.  This works perfectly well on mobile devices but not on Macbook Air. I know I signed up to trial the BETA version but it’s now deleted as I admitted defeat. The wonderful hostel owner let me keep my room all day and was even taking me to the railway station to join the train to Irkutsk. The last hiccup was that my pension arrangements needed attention. David sent me documents to sign and return as the deadline was approaching. This meant I had to dash the 1.5km and back to the Central Post office, not easy with flu and heaving lungs but we made it. After 15 minutes of rest I was transported to catch my next leg of the journey.

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