Monday, 14 February 2011

Mongolia, Lactation and the Luggage Rack, 19-20 December 2010

Having spent nearly two weeks in Mongolia, it was unfortunately time to move on as the winter had set in and there was no more exploration possible. The temperatures were on average -30c and whilst looking at the weather forecast for Beijing we got excited for the -4c temperatures. It was sad to leave Mongolia not being able to see all that it offers but unfortunately that is the risk you take when travelling through the winter months. Hopefully I will be able to come back one day in the spring and be able to explore the farther reaches of the country, especially out to the west to see the lakes and the Gobi Desert.

I was convinced by the East/West guy to take an alternative route to Beijing which would work out a lot cheaper than taking the Trans-Mongolian train. The route was to take a train from Ulan Bator to the border town of Zamiin Ude, from there I was to get a Jeep across the border into China and from Erenhot I would get on the bus to Beijing. It sounded quite convoluted and I asked the guy for reassurance and clarification on what I needed to do when I reached the border but he just replied “Follow the crowd. Don't worry about what you need to do, just worry about the people.” I shouldn't have expected a response that actually resembled something helpful!! Despite this, Christian had in fact followed the same route before me and had sent me an email saying that he managed it easily, however he didn't give me any other information. It was just one of those occasions that I just had to go for it and solve any issues when they come up. So I headed to the station to buy my £5 seat-only ticket to the border which I was later informed by the staff at the hostel would not guarantee me a seat.

Sunday morning soon arrived and along with it a massive hangover from the previous night of drinking. Caué, Cyrus and I decided that it would be good to have one last drink in a bar before I left Mongolia so we went to a local bar. The bar was a small and trendy place with a bohemian feel to it. There was a band there who apparently were quite successful in Mongolia and after our one drink turned into another, they invited us to drink some vodka with them. The difference between drinking vodka in Russia and drinking vodka in Mongolia is that the Russians like to eat after each shot and these Mongolians did not. I personally am not a big fan of straight vodka and it was quite difficult to drain the bottle with no nibbles. After the bottle was drunk, we were invited by the owner of the pub to continue drinking with them at a local club. I ignorantly ignored the fact that I needed to check out of my hostel by 10am which was only 8 hours away at that point. So we made the trek to an underground night club very close to our hostel. I never noticed it before as it was so well hidden. The club was very big and had a fair amount of locals in there. I remembered that Mr Kim had warned us about nightclubs and said that the men get very jealous and angry as the ladies pay more attention to foreigners.

Whilst in the club the owner of the bar ordered a pitcher of beer for us all which we split the cost for. Caué handed our share over the the owner so that he could pay but when the waiter showed up with the beer he turned around and angrily asked for more money from us. The owner was joining in and became very aggressive towards us and we could not make him understand that we had gave him the money for it already. The final straw was when he called Caué a liar which he did not like and became very angry. I can't remember how the whole scenario resolved itself but it did and the night continued a little scared from the ordeal. I left the club a couple of hours later and made my way across the road back to the hostel. After a climb over the fence, stumbling up the stairs and waking up the night attendant to let me in I crashed onto my bed around 5am.

The next morning was a struggle to say the least. I woke up briefly at 6am to bid farewell to June and Karin who were heading to Beijing on the early morning 'sensible' Trans-Mongolian service along with the French couple, Eric and Justine. The next time I looked at my watch through blurry eyes was just before 10am and there was no way I was going to be able to get ready and leave in time so I made the decision to stay in bed for a few more hours and pay for an extra half a day for the pleasure.

I soon got out of bed with a dizzy head and not looking forward to my long journey ahead. The train was scheduled to leave a little after 4pm which gave me enough time to grab something to eat and get to the station. An American guy whom I met the previous week returned from his regular Peace Corp training wanted to join me and I found Caué who had not yet been to sleep and dragged him along. We went to the local restaurant that we had gone to nearly every night since we had been in Mongolia and had a great big meal which provided huge relief to the hangover pangs I was suffering from.

With the meal filling the void in my stomach and a bag full of snacks and drinks for the journey, I was ready to head to the train station. Mr Kim and his son, known to me as 'The Driver', drove me to the train station which was quite far from the hostel and I was not going to attempt the walk in my state. Mr Kim was concerned that I had chose to travel seat only and had warned me about the thieves that roamed the train carriages looking for easy pickings. He told me that I should take my important things with me everywhere I went and slipped me a couple cans of Korean beer and said “You'll need these!”, which concerned me. The car pulled up on the bustling pavement and I quickly said my goodbyes and headed into the railway station.

The station is very small and it is representative of the Mongolian rail network as it only has one line from Russia and the North to Beijing and the South. I suppose with a small population like Mongolia there is not a great need for an extensive network. I found the correct platform and waited for the train to arrive. Once it did, a crowd of people descended upon the train with huge amounts of boxes, bags and crates of merchandise that were bound for China. I got on board and was shocked to see berths in the carriage as I thought it was only going to be seats. The compartments were open with four berths inside and two in the isle. My seat number appeared to be over somebodies bed and it was later confirmed to me that I would have to leave when they want to go to bed.

To begin with I was all alone but my hopes of getting an empty bed were soon dashed as I was joined by five ladies all in their forties and a young man in his twenties. None of them spoke English and I was squeezed up against the window with my lower leg burning on the hot water pipe that fed the heaters. The whole carriage filled up far beyond capacity and the train slowly moved out of the station and the modern concrete capital of Ulan Bator. The train sped up as we passed through the suburbs made up of Ger camps which are a far cry from the suburbs of London or any other capital city I've ever visited.

The encampments soon diminished and the train cut through the national park as the sun began to sink below the horizon. The lady opposite me produced soon sort of meat from her bag and offered it to me. Whatever it was tasted nice but a little tough on the gnashes. A lady passed though the carriage with a selection of items and a packet of cards were purchased by one of the ladies. The packet was opened and I was dealt a hand of cards. I had no idea what game they were playing and my pleas for assistance were ignored, the young guy sitting across from me took my cards from me and I hoped that he was going to help me, instead he placed the cards within the pack and the game continued without me. I had genuinely felt ignored for the first time on my journey but didn't have enough energy to insist on joining the game and actually preferred to just watch them enjoy themselves. I watched on with great intrigue, trying to ascertain the rules so I might have a eureka moment and be able to join in at some point in the evening. Every time I thought I had understood what was happening, something complete unexpected would happen and a cry would explode from one of them expressing their win or loss. I surrendered to the fact that I was not going to understand the game and decided to get some sleep whilst I could as I knew it might be a long uncomfortable and sleepless night ahead. I crossed my arms on the table in front of me and settled my head semi-comfortably inside one of my elbows.

I woke up intermittently over the next few hours to find that the card game was still in full swing with no signs of hiatus. My leg was still painfully avoiding the boiling hot pipe and every now and again I would feel a singeing feeling and violently jerk my leg which made me bump into the lady beside me. As I slept, I was regretting the night before and continually plotting where and how I was going to sleep tonight if all the beds were taken. After a couple hours of rest and recuperation, I sat up and retrieved a book from my bag. I was reading ' The Great Railway Bazaar' by Paul Theroux which is a recollection of his travels around the world by land. Whenever you bring out a book amongst foreigners it's bound to attract interest, especially if it's got an interesting picture on the front cover. I was surprised how quickly the ladies' attention moved from the card game onto my book. One of the ladies took hold of my book and was asking me questions in Mongolian. Luckily there is a good map in front of the book which I used to move the conversation away from the book and onto my journey and where I had been and where I was going. It's just typical though, after a long time of isolation and when I wanted to read they would not let me. I felt rude but I continued to read on for the next thirty minutes until people started going to bed. This was the moment I dreaded but the lady whose bed I was sitting on pointed towards an empty bed and I grabbed it whilst I could. I settled in and suddenly felt relaxed and thankful that the remainder of the journey, I would be asleep on a short but still horizontal bed.

After a hour or so sleeping I was woken by a short poke in the side. I opened my eyes to be greeted by a young lady saying something in Mongolian which I took for “This is my bed, sling your hook!”. I thought that it was a fair cop and removed myself from her birth to find myself bedless once again. The floor space had already been taken and so I looked to my ladies for help again. They simultaneously all pointed up to the luggage rack which hung high above two births and resembled a table that you sell your goods off at a car boot sale. I was uncertain and weary about the strength of the small brackets that kept the rack against the compartment wall. I looked around to see if there was anyone else sleeping up there and found one guy who was definitely bigger than me sleeping soundly in the compartment next to us. I took this as a satisfactory safety test and clambered up and squeezed my way onto the rack. There was only about a 50cm gap between the shelf and the ceiling of the carriage and I couldn't believe that I had made my way up there. Although it was uncomfortable, I was grateful to be lying down. I tried to get some sleep with my bag, hat and scarf acting as my pillow but it was impossible. Every time the train jerked I would slip and slide around the rack fearing that I would fall off and break my neck. I was clinging on for dear life and just hoped for the best. I couldn't wait for the journey to finish, but I knew that I still had a very long way to go when I reached the border.
A blurry vission of the carriage

Two hours of excruciating anxiety later, I was beaconed down off the luggage rack and offered a bed in the aisle from a young guy who had been asleep for the majority of the journey. Even though I had made my way up there, I really wasn't sure how I would get myself down but I did and sat down next to the guy who had explained to me he was getting off at the next stop. The man looked slightly shifty and I wasn't sure whether he wanted to rob me or was genuinely being kind. That's the problem with people telling you stories, you never know which ones are true and it makes you paranoid about everyone. During the journey my bag full of the most valuable items I have was in my hand at all times. The man told me to lay down and I soon went to sleep with him sitting by my feet.

I woke up soon after to a scene that I will never forget. The middle aged lady whom I was sitting next to early in the evening had her breast out and was expressing milk into a cup. This would not be an issue to me if she had a baby but she was alone so I thought she might have a baby at home and just needed to keeping the milk flowing. Then next thing I saw was her offering her milk around. One man in his sixties who had joined the group whilst I was asleep had taken the cup, drank the milk and returned it to the lady for a refill. The man sitting at my feet then had his go and I was dreading being offered the milk so I pretended to be asleep with one eye slightly open. I wouldn't ever want to drink an unknown lady's breast milk and I wouldn't want to turn it down either as that may be a big insult. Luckily I was never offered the milk but was left with an astonishing memory of generosity from a lady to two men unbeknown to her before the journey.

The young man who had offered me the bed started to speak to me and I was still unsure of his intentions but was shocked when he had forced two thousand Tugriks into my hand and said that I should get something to drink on him. My preconceptions were completely shot down and once again my faith in humanity was increased. The train slowly pulled into a barren station and the man stood up, said goodbye to me and left the train.

The rest of the journey I spent asleep with a whole birth to myself and I was so grateful to the unknown man for rescuing me from the perils of the luggage rack and gave me his bed.

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