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Friday, March 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:54 AM

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Beijing to Mongolia by train

Newhouse News Service

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — Most who dream of an epic train ride conjure scenes of the Trans-Siberian Railway, imagining vast birch forests and rustic peasant hamlets on the seven-day journey between Moscow and Vladivostok.

A close runner-up would be Vietnam's Reunification Express for its jungle scenery and historic immediacy between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

But in my book, the Trans-Mongolian Railway takes the prize for most exotic.

On all three trains, you can ride in deluxe sleeper cars, or cram into a bunk and get to know the locals.

But only along the Trans-Mongolian can you admire two-hump camels, touch 70-million-year-old dinosaur bones and drink fermented camel's milk in a yurt (which they call a ger).

The overnight train journey from Beijing to Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital, serves as a feeder to the Trans-Siberian line, introducing three profoundly different countries.

If you go


Trans-Mongolian Railway

Cost

About $185 for deluxe berth on regular train. Private trains operate as part of multiday tours that can exceed $5,000.

What to bring

Shop in Beijing for snacks, alcohol and food such as instant ramen to supplement the dining cars. Bottled water is available on station platforms. Earplugs will ensure sweet dreams, and binoculars make yaks and camels larger. Mongolian, Chinese and Russian guidebooks and language dictionaries can be handy.

Travel advice

Befriend the all-powerful coach attendant. Beware of crossing tracks at stations and getting cut off from your coach by an arriving train; life can get lonely in the Gobi Desert or Siberia without your luggage. Fermented camel's milk soon gets old.

How to plan

Read "Trans-Siberian Handbook" by Bryn Thomas and the Lonely Planet guide to the Trans-Siberian. Visit www.Seat61.com.

I got the idea of taking the train to Mongolia when I realized that the 33-hour trip fit neatly between Friday meetings in Beijing and a Monday appointment in Ulan Bator. Sure, the plane trip would have been 31 hours shorter, but the train provided an alternative to Ulan Bator's notorious sloping runway.

I admit that I'm a sucker for long rail rides. There's nothing quite as relaxing as watching the scenery glide by from a gently rocking coach, or as invigorating as playing chess with an Armenian gunrunner. The finest way to see India is aboard the luxurious Palace on Wheels train. Some of the best views of Southeast Asia are from the Singapore-Bangkok line.

Room to stretch

The Trans-Mongolian's Train 23 left the cavernous Beijing Railway Station at 7:40 a.m. on a Saturday, bound for Ulan Bator (alternately spelled Ulaanbaatar, and pronounced "oolan BAH-ter"). No one else showed up to claim the other couch bed in my deluxe-class compartment, which contained a foldout table and ample luggage storage space.

The sturdy woman who presided over Coach 517 delivered neatly folded sheets and returned with a tray of hot tea in white porcelain cups. As diesel engines shunted us up steep wooded hills, she motioned me into the hallway, where fellow passengers piled out of adjoining compartments for spectacular views of the Great Wall.

The strangers on the train soon became cohorts. Mike, a Canadian who runs an Okinawa bar, was headed for a fishing vacation in Mongolia. Eunyoung Myung, a South Korean woman with impeccable British-university English, was roaming from Tibet to Mongolia, where her father was producing a documentary.

We had plenty of time to talk in the corridor because our compartments, on the train's west side, became uncomfortably hot in the afternoon sun. We gazed at large sheep herds as the landscape changed from trim green with brick houses to tawny brown with mud homes.

"Lunch open," cried an attendant, at 6:30 p.m. We drifted up to the Chinese dining car for $3 dinners of fried chicken and rice from a menu heavy on pork. The sun, a yellow-pink ball, sank to the dusty gray horizon.

Wheel change

That night, we reached the Mongolian border and pulled into a large building for an extraordinary procedure. While we watched from inside, workers jacked up each coach, detached the wheels and slid in replacements before lowering the train onto Russian-gauge tracks.

Later, a Chinese immigration official awoke me from a deep sleep for exit paperwork. And then at some ungodly hour, an unsmiling Mongolian officer, ghostlike in her pale makeup and dark lipstick, awoke me again for a passport check.

Despite the interruptions, I awoke rested at 7:30 a.m. to the train's rhythmic rocking. Opening the blind, I saw wide, undulating sands beneath a gray watercolor sky.

Eunyoung stopped in. "I was thinking when I woke up, 'Is this ocean?' " she said. "Then I thought, 'No, it shouldn't be.' It's just marvelous."

We passed a sandblasted frontier town where an old man stood erect in a bright-yellow vest at a railway crossing, his right hand extended to hold a baton straight up — and not a vehicle in sight. The sky turned robin's-egg blue. Powder-puff clouds coasted above infinite grasslands. Horses and goats grazed near their herders' white felt gers.

A Mongolian dining car had replaced the Chinese coach, with a more extensive menu that included tasty cheese omelets. Mongolia's cuisine, I would learn, bore no resemblance to Mongolian-barbecue fare back home.

In the late afternoon, the train pulled in to Ulan Bator, where most fenced compounds contained gers as well as wooden houses. At the station, Eunyoung hugged her beaming father. I was met by Dan Schar, an American in Mongolia on a Henry Luce Foundation fellowship.

Schar gave me an insider's tour of Ulan Bator's incomparable Black Market, where vendors offer everything from Chinese footwear knockoffs and T-shirts to horsehair violins and ornate gers ready for assembly. He also took me to the Natural History Museum, where visitors can step up and touch the reconstructed skeleton of a 70-million-year-old Tarbosaurus — a Tyrannosaurus rex look-alike displayed without barriers or glass.

Other transportation

I went on to tour the Gobi Desert by car, ultimately flying back to Beijing.

Other friends have since told me of adventures on the Trans-Mongolian train as it continues to Russia.

German journalist Jens Eckhardt describes traders stuffing that train with Chinese goods until it becomes a rolling shopping mall in Russia.

Retired American geologist Tom Benson rode the same route on a private train with English-speaking staff last July.

Benson remembers gazing at Russian villages and the occasional Lenin statue en route to Moscow as his son, Chet, read "War and Peace."

Benson fancies a rail ride tracing the old Silk Road through Central Asia. I hope to ride that, too, some day, though the Trans-Manchurian — which stops in Harbin, China, with its legendary snow festival — is first on my list.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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