28 September 2009
First Class Is Actually Second Class & Other First-Day Musings
We arrived at the station a good hour pre-departure and boarded to find that we were - in fact - two of only four people on the entire car of the train which is meant to sleep forty. In turns out that there are a total of 26 people on the entire 18-car train and we are in fact outnumbered by porters, cooks and conductors. What’s even more hilarious is that all the foreigners are bunched into the back three cars, which the rest of the folks enjoying the others. To top it all off, some Australians we just met are the only four people in their car as well. What makes this amusing is that there are all in THE SAME CABIN and were told that spreading out is “impossible.”
It seems that the food is country-specific, with different food cars being attached at border crossings. Speaking of border crossings, after a day of napping, reading, blogging, staring out the window, movie watching and game playing we were welcomed to the Sino-Mongolian border by an enormous Chinese army brigade marching ominously along the platform to a German symphony blasting from the speakers. We were then invited to “detrain and shop a little” while the wheels were being swapped (while the entire planet runs on the same size tracks, only Mongolia and Russia continue to use a network that is 3.5 inches wider than EVERYWHERE ELSE (naturally). This means the train cars have to have all their wheels swapped out at the border.
Fortunately, there was an extensive selection of “duty free” to explore that included some fabulous options like “Absolute” Vodka, “Jieku Hueihai” Whisky and “John Work Song” Black Strap Whisky. Note the remarkably similar names and labels, despite being roughly 20% of the cost. It was the perfect farewell to China. Well, that and being allowed to roam freely through the customs area despite having our passports confiscated, left to wait aimlessly on the platform for “two to six hours” with knock-off liquor and an enormous group of foreigners.
Moments later at the Mongolian border we were treated to a form written entirely in Mongolian script and told to “fill it out.” Ten minutes later the border agent reappeared and as I was attempting to mime my illiteracy she nabbed the incomplete forms from my hand, stuck then in her pocket, stuck her tongue out and blew. Where, exactly have I taken this train?