Day 23 – Beijing/Trains to Ulaanbaatar

Awe / Day 23 of 64 / 01 June

Time to push on to Mongolia! I left the hostel at 9.15am today and took the subway to Beijing West Railway Station [北京西站, Bei Jing Xi Zhan] to catch my 10.30am train to Hohhot (CR K617, trip.com, 196 CNY/36 SGD/pax). I must have overestimated how quickly I could get there because for the first time on this trip I had to run for a train. I entered my carriage with about three minutes to spare. Wew. I was assigned the top bunk this time around: my first time sleeping in a bunk that isn’t on the “ground level”. Other than having to climb, the upper bunks are equally as comfortable as the lower ones. In a hard sleeper, I’d say they even offer more privacy and security than the lower bunks.

A five star hotel without the stars.

The train pulled out of Beijing West on time at 10.30am. I hadn’t eaten anything all morning, so by lunchtime I was starving. As usual, I decided to have lunch in the restaurant car because the food carts were nowhere to be found. I had the Chinese staple, Hong Shao Niu Rou Fan (roasted beef rice). After lunch, I watched “The Cloverfield Paradox” to kill some time, but it was a short movie: only 100 minutes long. It’s a good movie: a bit too “generic sci-fi”, but generic sci-fi is always fun either way.

The cozy restaurant car. A true lifesaver for hungry souls.

With the rural 4G connection being patchy and unreliable, I needed to find something to entertain myself. I decided to play a game where I tried to get the attention of other passengers by shining the reflection off my watch at them. It didn’t work though, as most of the passengers were staring at their phones.

Why stare at your phone when you could be staring at this!?

It was then that I realised just how many people on board were completely oblivious to the amazing Inner Mongolian scenery we were passing by. Maybe they’ve done this trip so many times that they’ve become desensitised to the beauty, but there were only a handful of people who seemed somewhat impressed by the mountains and plains. Most of the younger passengers were playing phone games or taking selfies with beauty-enhancing apps. Some even seemed bothered by the Inner Mongolian sunshine and spent the entire trip with the curtains drawn. I guess when you’re bored you start to notice patterns and trends. You also start to notice weird stuff, like a guy chowing down on an entire cucumber like it was a hotdog.

Cucumber man was too much for me to take, so I ducked out to the smoking corner for a breather. There, a middle-aged man asked me why I had duct tape on my feet. I told him it was to prevent blisters from forming on my feet. He then asked me where I was from, as he said I didn’t look local. He told me he had thought I was Vietnamese at first. I returned the question and he told me he came from Hohhot, and that he was headed home from Beijing. As the ashes reached the filter, I said goodbye and headed back to my bunk.

At around 10pm, the train reached Hohhot Railway Station [呼和浩特站, Hu He Hao Te Zhan]. I left the station to buy some food from the nearby convenience stores. I returned to the station around 10.30pm to board my connecting train to Erlian (CR T4202, trip.com, 163 CNY/32 SGD/pax). The train left Hohhot at 11.15pm, and will reach Erlian tomorrow at 7am. I got the top bunk again, but since Sam’s ticket was for the bottom bunk, I took that instead.

Compare this photo with the first photo and you’ll see the toll long train rides take on a person.

Across from my bunk was a man from Erlian. He had gone to Hohhot for an errand and was now returning home. He asked where I was going since I had so much stuff with me. When he found out I was going to Mongolia, he gave me some advice: don’t use Mandarin there, Mongolians are not fans of China. Advice that might come in handy. He also started asking me questions about Singapore: like what brands of phones we use, how expensive are cars, do we really cane people, and what is the conversion rate from RMB to SGD. Even though my Mandarin was sub-optimal, we still managed to carry on a decent conversation. It felt great to finally have a proper conversation after almost an entire day. I’m really looking forward to the hostel in Mongolia, and hopefully, I’ll find more interesting conversations there.

One last thing, which I feel as many people as possible should endeavour to experience. Throughout the train ride, I was listening to trance music, and I firmly believe it’s the best music for long distance and scenic train rides. Trance, especially uplifting trance, often gives you a sense of being a part of something bigger than yourself. A feeling of smallness. A feeling of surrendering to nature. A feeling that Freud referred to as the “oceanic feeling”. Couple the feelings that trance conjures with awe-inspiring landscapes and you’re in for a goosebump-inducing ride. At one point, I almost teared up listening to “Sinai” by Ilan Bluestone while watching the landscape go by. Nothing short of an amazing combination.

Listen to “Sinai” and picture this view.

– Ryan

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