Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 9
Waking to Mongolia, land of the sky of endless blue, of steppe and ranging grasslands. But not today. We’d entered in dust and sun-parched nothingness on the Trans-Mongolian railway from Erlian to Ulaanbaatar. Now the vast magnificence of the Mongolian countryside had been reduced to a drizzling grey, bleak and thoroughly miserable.
There was beauty out there somewhere, they said, rolling fertile into its own great space. There was the great Mongolia of myth and history. But you would have to go some to believe it. There were only a few soaked horses standing stoically; a handful of bedraggled cattle still grazing. Occasionally a herder galloped through the mist before disappearing into cloud as we passed. This wasn’t the Trans-Mongolian experience the tourist board would have us imagine by any stretch. But we were here, closing in on train 005 to Moscow, and that was all that mattered. In a couple of hours we’d be in the capital.
It reminded me of Manchester, the greyness, as we approached Ulaanbaatar. It reminded me of a dozen bleak industrial cities I could immediately bring to mind. Cities in which the cloud, never lifting, seemed just as much a thing of permanence as the skyline it oppressed.
From its rural beginnings the city grew on us. The yurts and wooden huts of the countryside converged, multiplied, became brick and concrete, rose higher, linked by roads, interspersed with industry and factories, until urbanity was upon us. In the taxi from the station, the traffic clogged the roads. It looked like a city about to have an aneurysm. The journey was only a couple of kilometers, but it took forty-five minutes to get where I was going. It was time that I just didn’t have. It was gone 11:00 am and in under three hours I had to be on a train to Moscow. I still needed to find the hostel, pick up my tickets and get back to Ulaanbaatar station before it left without me.
I got out at Sukhbaatar Square. The hostel should have been just around the corner. I took a couple of photos of the Sukhbaatar statue in the middle of the square, one of the Mongolian parliament building just to show I’d been there, then with a leaking shoe and a dampening sock, I tried to find the hostel. I couldn’t find it.
I walked from Sukhbaatar Square and down a side road to the next main road, closer to where I thought the hostel should have been. There was no sign of it. There was nothing that corresponded to the roads and buildings on my inadequate map which was slowly dissolving in the rain. I asked directions from a street vendor who pointed me back in the direction I’d come from, but then I was back where I started, struggling to banish the thought that I’d still be there in two hours time, collapsed and crying in a roadside puddle, as my train departed somewhere across town.
I went round in rain-soaked circles and increasing panic for thirty minutes or more before I finally found an entrance in a piss-stinking alleyway behind a bank. There was a keypad on the heavy, prison-style door. Above it was written, in black permanent marker, “press seven, one and two at the same time,” and, open sesame, I was in.
“I’m Paul,” I told the first person I saw that didn’t look like they were in the middle of a gap year. “I’m supposed to be getting the train to Moscow today.”
I hadn’t been able to call the hostel to inform them of my predicament as my phone had died overnight, but thankfully, there didn’t seem to be a problem with my short notice arrival. The original train 005 ticket had already been cancelled because I hadn’t managed to get in touch, but the guy at the hostel was able to put in a call to one of his contacts and I was soon back in a car, back amongst traffic, and on my way back to the station.
An hour to spare
The traffic was still unbearable, choked and static as we eased back in, but my driver had seen it all before. He wasn’t shy on using his horn and some well-honed weaving techniques to get ahead. He nudged when he could; he cut in and pulled out with a satisfying recklessness; and despite pissing off every other driver out there in the space of twenty minutes, he got us to the station as swiftly as I could have hoped.
I was met by the aforementioned contact when we pulled into the car park. “Helloooo,” he said, giving me an extravagant wave. He seemed far too jovial for such a dismal afternoon. He handed me my new ticket for train 005 and pointed to the station. “Here’s your ticket and there’s your train,” he said. It was waiting at the platform. It was there and I could see it. “You took a risk.”
“I know,” I said. “But I’m here. Somehow.”
He laughed a hearty Mongolian laugh. “Ha! Ha! Good Good! You will have a good trip. You have Mongolian luck with you.” Was Mongolian luck more potent than your regular Western luck? If it was, it was a pity I was leaving so soon. I had a feeling I’d be needing as much as I could get while I still could.
I offered the most profuse thanks I could muster to both him and the driver and, with handshakes all round, I walked across the flooded car park and onto the platform. I’d made it, with an hour to spare. I could finally start to think of Moscow.