One thing I did not expect from our train journey from London to Beijing was falling for train travel. Never mind all this flying business. Wherever I can I will now be taking a train. Trains are old, nostalgic, slow – you can see out of the windows at what you are traveling through and they offer you hours of uninterrupted reading and thinking time. We used our days to perfect our gaming skills from Egyptian ratscrew to Shithead, Backgammon and Scrabble, though that didn’t last long when Toni ran away with the title after a seven letter word first go. I kept my cool, which alone is a ringing endorsement of how relaxing the train is.
The food was perhaps the only drawback of the train living on pot noodle with whatever was available for sale on the various train platforms we passed through. This ranged from grandma’s cabbage dumplings which were delicious to being stuck with nothing but small lumps of quartz to buy. Fruit and veg was an, oft worm filled, luxury.
Of the countries we passed through, we didn’t love Russia. It is hard to like a place which is devoid of joy. It was hard going and it wasn’t just because everything was in Cyrillic and we didn’t speak the language. That is the kind of travel challenge we revel in. Rather, it was the lack of interaction which we found hard. It also rained. A lot. At least until we got to the continental divide. One take away from our trip is that Asia is sunny, Europe is rainy. And that sums up all you need to know about the two continents.
Mongolia, on the other hand was a favourite. A must see and it inspired all of us to commit to the Mongol rally (London to Ulaanbaatar by car, under 1.1 litre engine). We went on a two day expedition into the national parks, stayed in a ger camp, drank fermented mare’s milk and ate a lot of other milk based products – they milk anything with udders in that country, slept under an amazing night of stars and enjoyed the silence of the wilderness. The Mongolians were warm, funny and high-spirited. We got on great. And as the train chugged through the Gobi desert we were sad to leave.
Then before we knew it we were rolling into China, and the landscape changed again from flat dusty dry land into lush rolling green hills. And a hive of industrial activity – as suddenly we were confronted by coal mines, cranes and people, working, everywhere.
The train journey turned from a means to getting to China into a trip all of its own – a feast of sights, smells and insights into the different places along the way, which we were unlikely to stumble upon otherwise. It comes highly recommended.