Category Archives: Asia

Taj Mahal

We were up and out at half past five in the morning for the short drive to the Taj Mahal. Although they were clearly geared up for large numbers of tourists, there were only a few dozen people in sight, and no queues.

Touts for rickshaws, tuk-tuks and tongas clustered around, insisting that the entrance to the Taj was over a kilometre away, which of course it wasn’t. We took a tonga anyway, a carriage drawn by an old and skinny horse with an uneven gait,and were relieved to find that the journey was only a few bone-jarring hundreds of metres around the next corner.

All aboard the Tonga Express

All aboard the Tonga Express

Intensive handbag checkpoint

Intensive handbag checkpoint

After being frisked and scanned through yet another security check, we ran a small gauntlet of prospective guides and photographers. In the end we allowed a particularly persistent photographer to attach himself to our group on the grounds that he didn’t want any money unless we chose to buy his photographs.

It was first light, very humid and sticky. The Taj loomed mysteriously from the mist. It is obvious why it’s regarded as one of the Wonders of the World. It really is quite beautiful.

The Royal Gate

The Royal Gate

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the Royal Gate

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the Royal Gate

The Taj Mahal (Crown Palace) is a mausoleum, built in the early 17th Century as Emperor Shah Jahan’s monument to his late wife. It stands in an elaborate garden containing four reflecting pools, and is flanked by a mosque and a guest house. It has a beautiful dream-like presence that can only be hinted at in photographs.

Probably the classic Taj photo, across one of the reflecting pools

Tourists (or their photographers) trying to take the classic Taj photo

Tourists (or their photographers) trying to take the classic Taj photo

Our own photographer had us posing here, posing there, with madam, without madam, standing up here, sitting down there, hands in front, hands behind… Until both Ankur and I cracked at the same moment and cried “Enough!”

Ankur, Tanu and Amaira are posed for a shot

Ankur, Tanu and Amaira are posed for a shot

Bronwyn is slotted into place for another classic

Bronwyn is slotted into place for yet another photo

After we’d got rid of the photographer, we had a pleasant and uninterrupted wander around the grounds. As we approached the Taj itself, we realised that it is much bigger than its ethereal looks convey.

Ankur, Tanu, Amaira and Bronwyn approach the looming Taj

Approaching the looming wall of the Taj Mahal

Reflections of Tanu and Ankur

Tanu and Ankur reflected in the pool

The interior, while encrusted like everything else with inlaid semi-precious stones, is a simple dark open space containing the sarcophagi of the king and his wife. It has an amazing echo, and although there were only a handful of us moving quietly and respectfully around the tombs, the dome amplified the sound to a multitude of hundreds. It must be really loud in there during the peak tourist season.

Inside the dome of the Red Mosque

Inside the dome of the Red Mosque

Looking out over the Yamuna River

Looking out over the Yamuna River

Exploring the upper level courtyard

Exploring the upper level courtyard

Every tiniest detail is intricately carved

Every tiniest detail is intricately carved

Sweepers work continually to clear the marble courtyards

Sweepers work continually to clear the immense marble courtyards

As the sun started to beat down and the tourists began to flood in, we took our leave. On the way out, we dropped into the photographer’s stall and discovered to our surprise that his pictures were rather good, so we bought them. Then we ran the gauntlet of marble trinket salesmen and, avoiding the clamouring tonga touts, made our way back to the hotel for a pre-breakfast nap.

The Road to Agra

We planned to do a circular tour around Northern India, and our Punjabi friends Ankur and Tanu wanted to come too, because they’d never had a chance to be tourists in their home country. In true hospitable Indian fashion, Ankur instantly arranged a car and driver to take us all on a huge arc through Rajisthan and Punjab.

After a full day of exploring Old Delhi, we woke refreshed at our hotel. I was keen to have dosa for breakfast, a traditional South Indian pancake, but the chef, aware that I am a coeliac, warned me that his version contained wheat flour. Then he cheerfully made up a new batch from pure gram flour, and served it with spicy potatoes and a fiery sambar soup.

After this most excellent start to the day, we caught a taxi to meet our driver, Happy, who would be doing all the hard work for the next few days.

Together with Tanu, Ankur and five-month-old Amaira, we piled into Happy’s people-carrier and hit the road for Agra.

Actually it wasn’t quite that simple. There are few road signs in India, and the accepted method of navigation is to shout questions out of the window. Even then, it seems to be part of the Indian psyche to make something up or to tell you what you might want to hear, rather than to admit that you don’t know. We therefore took a straw poll of half a dozen rickshaw drivers before finding two answers that  matched.

These guys are probably lost too

These guys are probably lost too

Eventually we found the toll road, and apart from the regular police checkpoints (security fencing across the road that constrict the traffic into a slalom but which are otherwise ignored), we seemed to be the only vehicle moving, something of a shock after navigating the crowded streets of Delhi.

On either side of the highway, boggy land was being drained and the clay dug out and fired into bricks in the hundreds and hundreds of little kilns spread out across the landscape.

Brick kilns between Delhi and Agra

Brick kilns between Delhi and Agra

The clay was being dug to a depth of about a metre, with walls left standing around every square acre or so. It looked as if water (and perhaps night soil) was then being pumped into each rectangular plot, which was then being planted with crops. The produce was later stored in thatched and mud huts.

Thatched huts on the outskirts of Delhi

Thatched huts on the outskirts of Delhi

Eventually we arrived in Agra, where the traffic was just as chaotic as in Delhi. All we had was the postal address of the hotel, so Happy navigated by asking people every few miles if they’d heard of it.

Traffic in Agra

Traffic in Agra

The randomness of the answers intimated that nobody had, but we passed many miles of shack hostels leaning up against local shops, before passing through an area of impressive government offices, which opened out into a sprawling confection of turrets and crenellations which turned out to be our hotel, The Grand Agra.

The Grand Agra Hotel

One small wing of the Grand Agra Hotel

As well as the now familiar check for car bombs (a mirror on a stick under the chassis, and a poke around under the bonnet), we also had to pass through a metal detector in the foyer, and watch as our luggage was unloaded through an airport X-Ray machine, before being allowed to check in. Once Inside, the hotel was impressively palatial, and indeed at one end they were building a ‘presidential suite’ with its own helipad and views over the Taj Mahal.

Grounds of the Grand Agra, with the Presidential Suite under construction in the centre

Gardens of the Grand Agra, with the Presidential Suite (the brown bit) under construction in the centre

We had originally intended to visit the Taj at sunset, but we would have had to rush to get to the ticket office before it closed, so we decided to go at dawn the following day, giving us the excuse to relax with some pleasant beers in the bar as the sun went down.

Not a bad little bar, this

Not a bad little bar, this

Later we ate a splendid meal at the restaurant, which we had to ourselves apart from a legion of waiters and a sitar player. Very very stuffed, we waddled out into the darkness and through the water garden to our rooms, surprising a trio of men with rifles who are presumably the night watch.

Old Delhi

What can I say about driving in old Delhi? There are cars and trucks and rickshaws everywhere, all mixed up with pedestrians and bicycles and porters. There are no valid road markings and few signs. Horns sound continuously, but not in anger, just to alert other drivers that you are inches behind them, because nobody uses mirrors.

A minor discussion about negotiating a junction

A minor discussion while negotiating a junction

Bronwyn and I had just emerged from Red Fort with our friends Ankur and Shalu, who had engaged a couple of rickshaws to take us all on a sight-seeing tour of the old town. Our driver was brilliant, pedalling us up and down the tiniest of soukh alleyways, panting and puffing under what I imagined to be the unexpected weight of two tall westerners. However, while waiting at the top of a particularly steep hill, our driver laughed good-naturedly at his colleague labouring along behind us, because neither Ankhur nor Shalu are particularly tiny either.

Struggling uphill

Struggling uphill

Some rickshaws are tidier than others

Some rickshaws are older than others

Rickshaw traffic in Old Delhi

Rickshaw traffic in Old Delhi

Downtown traffic

Downtown traffic

Porters at work

Porters at work

Pile 'em high

Pile ’em high

Room for one more

Room for one more

We visited a thousand-year old temple with hundred-year old mosaics, belonging to a strict Hindu sect that didn’t allow any leather inside. Shalu volunteered to stay outside with our shoes, belts and bags while an elderly toothless monk showed us around. We couldn’t take any photos inside either, but it was an old space filled with kitchen cupboards and old chairs, with occasional rather spectacular mosaics and sculptures. Overall it was a very nice little temple.

The street of the old temple

One of these door leads to the old temple

This lass was ironing on the street outside

This lass was ironing on the street outside the temple

We had a good time at the spice soukh, chatting to the merchants who were more than happy to allow us to taste their wares and let us take photos of their produce. We stocked up on chai tea and some really good quality spices.

At the Old Delhi spice soukh

At the Old Delhi spice soukh

Our rickshaw drivers then took us up some rickety stairs above the market, past tatty-looking legal offices and stepping over sleeping people (there are sleeping people everywhere) to the rooftops where we had an unrivaled view of the old city. Locals were having a good laugh flying kites from the roof, it was a relatively cool and breezy place to hang out.

The rooftops of the spice market

The rooftops of the spice market

High above Old Delhi

Climbing up above Old Delhi

I guess this stuff eventually falls to earth

I guess all this stuff eventually falls to earth

Looking down on an Old Delhi mosque

Looking down on an Old Delhi mosque

Man at work behind the Spice Market

Man at work behind the Spice Market

We were starting to feel more than a little hungry, so Ankur asked the drivers to drop us at Karim’s, a famous restaurant catering for “non-vegetarians”. Karim’s consists of an open-air triangle bounded by tiny cafes on each side. We were led up a wooden staircase to a balcony above the kitchen, where we were served some of the best Indian food that I have ever tasted. Mutton Queerma (Korma), an incomparable Butter Paneer, and an awesome and apparently nameless rice dish.

As evening drew in, Tanu arrived in her car with six-month-old Amaira, and drove us out to New Delhi to see the nightly water show at the temple of Akshardham. It took us some time to make sense of the mass of milling and excited bodies by the ticket office, being herded here and there by whistling and shouting security guards, before we realised that we didn’t need a ticket at all if we didn’t want to visit the temple building, which anyway was just closing. There was however an enormous list of banned articles, including cameras and phones, food and drink, any kind of bag, and some odd things such as USB drives and, amusingly, ‘drunkards’.

This meant in turn that there was another immense jostling crowd for the cloakroom, with lots of pushing and shoving and shouting as people tried to store their bags. Instead we dropped all our prohibited items back at the car and joined the queue for the queue for the security check. There was still lots of pushing and shouting and attempts at queue-jumping, but in an amiable kind of way with lots of laughter. Every ten to fifteen minutes, the security guards at the head of the queue lifted a rope and everybody surged forward, sprinting to join the back of the next queue.

Here people were separated by whistling guards into separate lines, who maintained order by solidly body-checking anybody who tried to change queues. Eventually we made our way through the scanners and into the temple gardens, which were very serene and scattered with water features and sculptures of mythological figures.

As dusk fell, we were herded gently out of the gardens into the main courtyard of the temple itself, an incredibly impressive recent building built mainly by volunteers from pink stone and white marble.

With Shalu, Amaria, Ankur and Tanu at Akshardam

Akshardham tourist photo with Shalu, Amaira, Ankur and Tanu

The courtyard consisted of a wide area of pools and fountains, and we found a place to sit amongst the families perched around the low retaining walls. As darkness fell, the ceremony began with blessings accompanied by a large swinging brazier of flame. Then the music began, synchronised with playing fountains underlit by dancing coloured lights and lasers. The crowd stilled, and we all stared in awe. It was beautiful, haunting and mesmeric, a gorgeous spectacle. There is a short promotional video here which doesn’t do it justice.

After the half-hour show, the main temple opened to non-ticket holders, so we left our shoes at the front desk and wandered in. It is very impressive, and to my Western eyes reminiscent of walking into a large cathedral but with the statues of saints replaced by swamis. The temple was built by the richest sect in India, and it shows. Every surface is intricately carved and gilded, and instead of a golden Buddha, there is a statue of the man himself. Around the walls, colourful mosaics depict scenes from the Swami’s life, revealing a pleasant man doing a lifetime of nice things before dying peacefully of old age. Compared to other religions, his is certainly a pleasant and refreshing story.

Red Fort

There was a very long queue for tickets at the Red Fort in Delhi, but we noticed that there was a sign above the desk that read ‘Gentlemen’. It turned out that there was another queue designated ‘Ladies’ with only two people in it, so Bronwyn nipped over to get our tickets.

The Indian flag flies above the entrance to Red Fort

The Indian flag flies above the Lahani Gate

Entering the Lahari Gate

Entering the Lahari Gate

Although the fort is essentially a series of ruins containing a small museum and some tourist shops, it is guarded by soldiers in sand-bagged machine-gun nests. Once we were past the security check at the Lahari Gate, we found ourselves in a covered courtyard which once housed a silk and jewellery bazaar for the royal household of the Mughal era, but which now holds somewhat more prosaic emporia.

The slightly unglorious Chhatta Chawk bazaar

The slightly unglorious Chhatta Chawk bazaar

Entrance tunnel

The entrance to the Chhatta Chowk arcade

The Diwan-i-Aam, or public audience hall

The Diwan-i-Aam, or public audience hall

An impressively scalloped audience hall led us out into the main body of the fort, and through another gate under the Drum House, an impressively sculpted building – now a museum – where musicians used to play. Only royalty are allowed to ride through the gate, but luckily we had neglected to bring our horses with us.

The Naubat Khana, or Drum House

The gate under the Naubat Khana. Only royalty were allowed to ride through.

The gate under the Naubat Khana.

Inside the main fort complex are a scattering of harem and palace buildings, all beautifully decorated with carved marble, along with numerous ponds, fountains and channels, one of which runs right through the harem. Although these are currently dry (and now provide seating for security guards), it must have been quite a paradise in its day. In fact a pair of archways to the Hall of Private Audience are inscribed “If heaven can be on the face of the earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”

Inlaid mosaics in the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience)

Inlaid mosaics in the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience)

Diwan-i-Khas interior

Cooling water would have run through the Rang Mahal

Hanging out with Ankur, outside the harem

Hanging out with Ankur while they renovate the harem (this could take some time)

The centre of the fort is taken up by the ‘Life-Bestowing Garden’, originally 200 square feet of gardens, but these were destroyed during the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion. All that is left is a dry reservoir with a marble pavilion at each end and a red sandstone building, the Zafar Mahal, in the middle.

The Zafar Mahal, a late addition to the Hayat Bakhsh Bagh (Life-Bestowing Garden)

The Zafar Mahal, a late addition to the central reservoir of the Hayat Bakhsh Bagh (Life-Bestowing Garden)

We were beginning to gasp in the unrelenting dry heat surrounded by all these memories of cool running water, so we retraced our steps through the bazaar, and headed out into Old Delhi for lunch.

Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur

We were hanging out at The Andaman, our favourite luxury hotel on the island of Langkawi off northern Malaysia, and we needed to get to Kuala Lumpur in the south. Since we we had just come off the Trans-Siberian through Russia, Mongolia and China, we decided to continue by surface transport instead of flying.

But first, several days of luxury at the wonderful Andaman, always our home from home when we pass through this region.

The Andaman is truly a rain forest hotel

The Andaman is truly a rain forest hotel

Tempted to have a cocktail?

Tempted to have a cocktail?

The table is laid for dinner

The table is laid for dinner

Our friend Kim had flown in from Thailand, and we whiled away the time swimming in the balmy sea, paddling kayaks around Datai island, eating perfectly prepared cuisine and drinking far too many cocktails and bottles of wine. Bliss.

Kim circumnavigating Datai Island

Kim circumnavigating Datai Island

One interesting feature of Datai Bay is the remains of the fringing reef, which was smashed in a storm some years ago. The broken pieces all washed up in the shallows near to the beach, and each piece settled down to become a mini-reef of its own. There are staff whose job it is to wade out into the debris every day, collecting specimens and putting them in an artificial reef behind the hotel. This acts as a breeding ground and hatchery, with the ultimate intention of rebuilding the original fringing reef. In the meantime, if you are careful you can wade out at low tide and see reef life that you would normally not see without diving gear.

The eyes of a clam embedded in a coral head

The eyes of a clam peeping out from inside a head of coral

An anenome on the fringing reef

An anenome on a broken fragment of reef

Eventually we had to to return to real life, so we dropped Kim at the airport and headed down to the quay for the first leg of our journey, the ferry to Georgetown on the island of Penang. We waited in the terminal and watched the approaching front of a gathering rain storm. As the heavens opened, our gate opened, and the terminal degenerated into semi-organised mayhem. The 300 or so of us who were lucky enough to have boarding passes pushed down the cramped gangway, stacking our luggage in a pile at the front of the cabin, and crammed into our plastic-clad seats.

Outside in the fog we could see a queue of other ferries being pummelled by the waves as they waited for us to clear the dock. The crew hurled more and more packages aboard as still more passengers arrived, screaming into their mobile phones. Even as we cast off and pulled away, a steady stream of new arrivals were still leaping aboard, stevedores flinging their luggage unceremoniously onto the roof of the cabin.

A line of arrivals waiting for the dock

A line of arrivals waiting for the dock

We’d noticed previously that the forward end of both passenger decks were protected by rows of welded steel plates, and we soon found out why. As we hit the rolling swell, the bow buried itself deep into the quartering sea. The pilot did a great job of zig-zagging to try to give us a more pleasant ride, but inevitably on each turn we were pushed back under water.

After three and a half hours of corkscrew progress, we disembarked into warm rain and humped our packs up to our favourite Georgetown hotel, the Yeng Keng. Since our last visit they’d built a cafe on one side of the courtyard, and – damp and hungry – we snuck in five minutes before closing and scoffed a very satisfying Malaysian meal washed down with white wine.

The sidewalks of Penang

The covered sidewalks of Georgetown

Detail of a temple archway

Detail of a temple archway in Penang

After a good sleep and an enormous breakfast (two complete servings of Nasi Lemak, and why not?), we headed out into the stunning heat and humidity for the short walk back to Georgetown jetty. We were had been on the car ferry to Butterworth before, and it is pleasant to stand in the open structure of the car deck and feel the warm wind on your face as it makes the short and scenic journey across to the Malay Peninsula. It’s even nicer because, in this direction, travel is free.

Approaching Butterworth

Approaching Butterworth

Colourful Penang car ferries lined up at the dock

Colourful Penang car ferries lined up at Butterworth dock

We had already purchased first class rail tickets from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur, so we ambled unhurriedly in the direction of the rail terminal. The station turned out to be closed for redevelopment, and we were redirected to a temporary structure which was largely closed. After a little searching, we found a small courtyard bar, which was also closed. However, the ceiling fans were running over the battered trestle tables, and there was a snack stall so we settled in to wait with some cans of soft drink.

There were a couple of cafes fronting the courtyard, both firmly closed with rolling shutters. While we sat there, the owner of one of them arrived and cracked open his shutter, pouring a tray of food in front of the gap. A whole family of cats and kittens emerged and began to eat, presumably this was his answer to any possible rodent problem in his stores.

Some local kids came and sat nearby, complaining to each other about their parents’ backward attitudes, and how they wouldn’t allow their children to get ahead. It was intriguing, but we never found out what they were talking about because it was time to head back to the temporary station, which had just opened. It was full of disgruntled passengers who had been told that the daily train to Bangkok had been cancelled and had been replaced by a bus service. Frankly I wouldn’t have complained, as we gathered that the reason that the service had been cancelled was that it had been derailed.

Boarding our own train, we found ourselves in one of those rather tired and battered carriages which are typical in Malaysia. Travelling first class just means that you get an assigned seat, and a pretty girl who brings you water and a piece of cake when you board. However, our seats were at the front of the carriage with copious leg room, and thankfully the flat screen TV did not seem to be working. This was fantastic news because usually they run a loud and endless loop of irritating advertising jingles.

We settled back to enjoy the ride as we travelled the entire length of the Malay peninsula. The windows were actually too dirty to see through, but by scrunching down in doorways I could get a reasonable view of this beautiful, fertile, and above all jungle country.

Mangrove islands on Kolam Bukit Merah

Mangrove islands on Kolam Bukit Merah

Arriving finally in Kuala Lumpur, we immediately headed out for food, and were once again stunned by the Malaysian attention to cuisine. A simple bowl of chips is a thing of beauty, and once you settle down to a good fish dish, you’ll never come up for air.

A simple bowl of chips in a roadside bar. Beautiful.

A simple bowl of chips at a roadside bar. Beautiful.

Suitably refreshed, we finished our trip at our favourite KL bar, the Hap Seng Belgian Beer Cafe. It’s not overwhelmingly beautiful and there isn’t much to see apart from passing traffic, but the stools are comfortable, the staff are attentive and the beer is perfect. What more could you ask for?

Under the Petronas Towers

Under the Petronas Towers

At our favourite KL bar, the Brussels Beer Cafe

At our favourite KL bar, the Brussels Beer Cafe

Trans-Manchurian to Beijing

Boarding the Trans-Manchurian train in Ulaanbaatar, we immediately noticed a marked improvement from the elderly Mongolian rolling stock in which we had trundled across Siberia. This time, we had been allocated a proper first class carriage with two beds, an armchair, and even a semi-private toilet shared with the next compartment. The friendly conductress kept popping in with hot water, tea and coffee (these latter came in sachets described as “3 in 1”, which apparently means that they consist of 50% sugar, 50% powdered milk, and a hint of tea or coffee).

Our Trans-Siberian first class carriage

Our Trans-Siberian first class carriage

Warning in our semi-private toilet

Warning in our semi-private toilet

We dozed off the excesses of our final night in Ulaanbaatar as the train climbed up onto the steppe. Waking up hungry, we made our way to the restaurant car. In contrast with the pleasantly homey but food-free Russian restaurant car which had accompanied the train across Siberia, this Mongolian car was quite plain. In place of the two elderly Russian ladies providing plates of potatoes and pickles, were uniformed waiters and chefs, and an extraordinarily expensive menu denominated in US dollars. We ordered one lunch and one breakfast between us, and it came to an astonishing $40, and that was with many of the key ingredients missing. When we first sat down, we explained that we couldn’t eat wheat, and the waiter leapt to the conclusion that we were vegetarians and no amount of argument could get him to change his mind, so we picked at our salad and watched in salivating horror as everybody else tucked into their bacon and chops. Still, at least we got to eat a lot of eggs.

The steppe ambled past our window under an enormous sky. A few mines, occasional herds of horses and camels, men with big sticks herding goats, sparse handfuls of yurts, and the odd truck.

The endless steppe

The endless steppe

We whiled away the time reading the train’s magazine, which is hilarious. One long and rambling folk tale seems to have been randomly generated by an online translating engine. It goes on for pages and is completely impenetrable, but peculiarly beguiling as we try to fathom what the original text might have said.

And then there’s the section on Mongolian cuisine, which goes on to list six pages of two-line recipes for cooking heart. It starts with “heart with carrot”, before moving on to “heart with carrot and turnip”, and then “heart with carrot and turnip and potato”…

At seven in the evening we stopped at the Chinese border, and everything got complicated. Most trains in Eurasia use a standard track width, which allows the interchangeable rolling stock to be mixed and matched along international train routes. However, Russia and Mongolia use a narrower track to everybody else, so it is not possible for the Trans-Siberian to proceed across the border onto Chinese rails. The rather exciting solution to this problem is to jack up the entire train with everybody aboard, remove the Russian bogies, and replace them with standard ones.

Our train was shunted into a large shed and lined up with a series of hydraulic jacks. As the train lifted, men ran around underneath hitting things with hammers until the bogies came free. We understand that in earlier times it was not permitted to watch the process, but on this occasion we were all glued in fascination to the grimy and mud-smeared windows. Once the Russian bogies had come free, they were pushed away, and a new set of Chinese bogies came rushing in, pulled by an underground cable.

Jacking up the train

Jacking up the train to release the old bogie

Positioning the new bogie under the fitting spike

Positioning the new bogie under the fitting spike

The whole process took a couple of hours, followed by another hour of banging and shunting as they put the train back together. Immigration was a formality, merely involving glancing at passports and checking the toilets for stowaways, and so we drifted off into a comfortable sleep.

Since the restaurant car changes at every border, we were interested to compare the new Chinese restaurant with the Russian and Mongolian ones, particularly as our last meal had been almost protein-free and we were starving. However, when we arrived for breakfast soon after opening, it was packed and we were told to come back at 10am for lunch. There were no platform vendors at the stations, so we quietly hugged our grumbling stomachs and chewed on our last remaining pieces of dry biltong before rushing to the restaurant car precisely on time.

The car was empty, and we gorged on two lunches each, crispy chicken and diced breast and peppers and rice and salad and eggs… we were so happy to eat. The price was only 80 yuan (about 8 pounds) including beer. Bronwyn offered to pay the bill using our Mongolian currency which we had forgotten to change at the border, and the price was 80,000 which was somewhat suspiciously exactly the amount that Bronwyn was holding in her hand, and which incidentally was about 80 pounds! We turned down the kind offer and paid in yuan.

Our somewhat unreliable guide book had insisted that we get up early if we were not to miss the best of the scenery, but it wasn’t until we had finished lunch that the landscape started to change. The train was running alongside the Guanting Reservoir, a large lake in a deep gorge that seemed to have been lined by white marble terraces, in part to prevent the valley from crumbling into the fields of sweetcorn and sunflowers below.

Stone terraces along the Yongding River

Stone terraces along the Yongding River

Tony gets very excited about breaking his fast

Tony gets very excited about breaking his fast

The lower reaches of the Yongding River

The lower reaches of the Yongding River

I think that this was the Huyu National Scenic area, but the camera's GPS wasn't working

I think that this was the Huyu National Scenic area, but the camera’s GPS wasn’t working at the time

The gorge was scattered with major engineering works, dams and power stations and bridges, all against a backdrop of spectacular mountain peaks, especially as we chugged up through the Badaling and Huyu national parks.

Finally after some eight days rolling across Siberia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian railway, we arrived at our final destination in Beijing.

Beijing railway station in the smog

Beijing railway station in the smog

Together with fellow travellers Gar and Tony, we stumbled blinking into the smog-laden sunshine, to find that the queue for taxis stretched clear across the square. The line of overheated and overladen shoppers and tourists snaked obliviously around a tented area of plastic tables, presided over by a smiling man with a portable freezer full of ice and beer. We looked at each other. It seemed rude not to.

On the Steppe

We had been keen to get some first hand experience of Mongolian yurts, because we’ve been toying with the idea of building one on our property in Tasmania. Since we were already in Ulaanbaatar, we headed 50km out onto the steppe to spend a few days at Elstei Ger Lodge. That was our first lesson; in Mongolia, yurts are called gers.

Mongolian yurt, or ger

Mongolian yurt, or ger

Our home for the next few days consisted of about a dozen yurts spread out across the flat grassy steppe. Each yurt contained three brightly painted wooden beds inset with drawers, a few small pieces of painted wooden furniture, and a central wood-burning stove.

Ger interior with typical bright paintwork

Ger interior with typical bright paintwork

The sun shone and the steppe was beautiful and so very quiet and peaceful. It is very fertile from horse dung, and far from being simply grass, the flora is a vibrant mix of green plants and fungi. Insects abound, particularly a cricket that makes a clicking sound as it flies. One of my favourite pastimes was to walk about a quarter of a mile out of the camp, in any direction, and to simply stand still and absorb the silence.

The Mongolian steppe, it goes on forever

The Mongolian steppe, it seems to go on forever

The Ger Lodge had attracted an interesting and eclectic bunch of travellers, and one night, after the bar closed, the hard core of us carried all the remaining beer and a considerable quantity of vodka back to our yurt for an after-party. I don’t think that anybody really remembers the whole night, but there was some wild dancing to our portable ipod speaker, a certain amount of lying-in-the-grass-and-staring-at-the-stars, and at least one lengthy who-can-think-of-the-best-toast competition.

I'm pretty certain that none of us remember this photo being taken

Partying with Gar and Tony, Cheryl and Amy. I’m pretty certain that none of us remember this photo being taken.

We mainly missed breakfast but brushed up OK for lunch, which comprised of mutton accompanied by vegetables from the Lodge’s garden and greenhouse. The meals were cooked and served by enthusiastic local students, and it was impressive the number of ways they found to prepare different and tasty dishes from a limited range of ingredients.

The days were spent in a happy haze of sitting in the sun, playing with balls and bows and arrows, and just wandering off and standing staring into the distance, admiring the views and the horses running free across the landscape. In the evenings, the bar had a selection of traditional Mongolian board games, including the intense “Pentagon” which is played on four rotating boards.

I don't think that Ghengis' hordes would have anything to worry about

I doubt that Ghengis’ hordes need be concerned

Bronwyn entertains a passing guest in our yurt

Bronwyn entertains a passing guest in our yurt

One afternoon, Oggi our guide took us riding out to meet some friends of hers who live in a ger out on the plains, with their children and horses. They welcomed us into their home, which was not dissimilar to the yurts that we were staying in, and introduced us to fermented mare’s milk (a bit like scrumpy. Yum!), mare’s curd (not unlike clotted cream), and a curious biscuit made entirely of mare’s cheese that had been dried in the sun (not unlike a parmesan-flavoured cracker).

Our lovely guide, Oggi

Our lovely guide, Oggi

Local family at home in their yurt

Local family at home in their yurt

Mare's cheese biscuits drying in the sun

Mare’s cheese biscuits drying in the sun

Bronwyn and a Mongolian horse

Bronwyn and her Mongolian horse

The Mongolian saddle looks a bit like a Western saddle, and the reins are held one-handed. To move off or accelerate, you say “Choo!”, and to canter you simply stand up in your stirrups. On the way out I had a bit of a stubborn horse which was moodily intent on following the tail directly ahead of it, but on the way back I had nice feisty one which was happy to go exploring, bounding over tussocks and sandy dunes. Out in front, I was able to briefly fancy that my steed and I were riding at the head of a vast Mongol horde, thundering across the steppe. But possibly my horse was just keen on getting home for dinner.

Ulaanbaatar

Having arrived in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, we met Oggi, our guide for the next few days, who took us out on an orientation walk. We began at the grand Sukhbaatar Square, named in honour of the founding member of the Mongolian People’s Party who was largely responsible for the switch from Chinese to Soviet rule, and whose statue stands in the centre.

Sukhbaatar Statue

Sukhbaatar Statue

Chinggiskhan looks down from parliament

Chinggiskhan looks down from parliament

Sukhbaatar Square

Sukhbaatar Square

Some visiting dignitaries were expected, which explained the red carpets and the honour guard outside the parliament building.

Even visiting dignitaries need to take a selfie

Even visiting dignitaries need to take a selfie

Honour guard outside parliament

Honour guard outside parliament

Khubilai Khaan

Khubilai Khaan

Away from the pomp of Sukhbaatar Square, it is obvious that the city is quite poor, with rotting buildings and rutted roads, unsurprising given its recent history of economic occupation by first the Chinese and then the Russians. Looking around, it’s obvious that the main industry is anglophone tourism from the Trans-Siberian railway. Many shop signs are in English, and it seems that every corner has its karaoke, ‘Irish’ or ‘London’ pub. Mind you, we did try an ‘Irish’ bar and it had none of the usual fake tat, in fact it was really just a high-end Mongolian bar with a Western name, and therefore much more pleasant than we expected.

The next stop on our little tour was the Gandantegchinlen monastery, destroyed (along with most Mongolian Buddhist sites) by the communists in the 1930s but rebuilt when the Russians left in 1990. The original copper and gold buddha was taken to Russia and melted down, but it has been replaced by a 26.5 metre gilt copper statue, the Migjid Janraisig, which stands inside an impressive purpose-built temple.

Photography is not allowed inside the temple, but once through the door, we found ourselves in a huge space held up by four gaily painted tree trunks, surrounding the enormous buddha. Wooden terraces cling to the inside of the walls on several levels. As we circled the statue in the approved pilgrim’s direction (clockwise), hundreds of statuettes of Yush, the buddha of longevity, stared at us from stacks of shelves to our left. Each carving is different, and each is dressed in a different coloured cloak, representing the inevitability of ageing.

On our right, between us and the great buddha, stood a great many brass prayer wheels, constantly in motion as visitors give them a boost as they go past. Some are quite elaborate with projecting handles, but most are simple cylinders which are spun with the flat of the hand.

Outside the temple are the impressive golden feet that are all that remain of the original buddha statue.

The feet of the previous buddha

The feet of the previous buddha eclipse the temple

Post detail at Gandantegchinlen Monastery

Post detail at Gandantegchinlen Monastery

Roof detail at Gandantegchinlen Monastery

Roof detail at Gandantegchinlen Monastery

On the outskirts of the city stands the Soviet-era Zaisan Monument, which we climbed for great views of the city. It was built to honour the Russian casualties of World War 2, but also has friezes commemorating peace-time comradeship between the USSR and Mongolia.

The steps up to the Zaisan Monument

The steps up to the Zaisan Monument

The view from the top

The view from the top

Soviet mosaic on the Zaisan Monument

Soviet mosaic on the Zaisan Monument

Looking down on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar from this viewpoint, it is clear that major construction is going on, which Oggi told us was all new housing.

Cityscape, showing construction in the foreground

Ulaanbaatar cityscape, withconstruction in the foreground including a huge new buddha

As soon as we left the monument, our bus got mired in traffic. I’ve seen a lot of traffic jams all over the world, but I’ve never seen quite so many cars packed into such a small space, inching along with only millimetres between them. Incredibly, there were people trying to hitch lifts and even hailing taxis from the side of the road, but the traffic wasn’t going anywhere and it would have been much faster to walk the short distance into town.

Eventually our driver fought free of the gridlock and turned onto one of Mongolia’s few graded roads. This is a bit of a misnomer, as it must be decades since it was last surfaced, and it has now decayed beyond any reasonable use. Traffic streams in both directions, but across the full two-lane width of the road there is often only space to get one vehicle between the pot-holes at a time, so the traffic consists of a wildly zig-zagging single line of cars and trucks heading in opposite directions. In places the road is so bad that the line snakes off into the increasingly boggy grassland before returning to the highway.

One of the better sections of highway. On the bad bits, I couldn't hold the camera steady.

One of the better sections of highway. On the bad bits, I couldn’t hold the camera steady.

We were out here to visit the Chinggiskhan (Ghengis Khan) Monument, an amazing 40 metre stainless steel statue on top of a 10 metre museum complex dedicated to the Mongolian Empire and the Khans who ruled it.

Chinggiskhan Monument

Chinggiskhan Monument

Worth a second photo, I reckon

Worth a second photo, I reckon

At its height, the Empire spanned most of Eastern Europe and almost all of Asia including China and Japan. The museums contain artefacts from over 100 years of turbulent history, most of them bronze weapons and tools, along with fascinating descriptions and maps. While we were examining the contents of the second museum, deep inside the main structure, there was a power cut and everything went dark. The staff all had torches and were unsurprised and well organised, but our visit to the museums was over.

However, the building was still full of visitors who had not yet climbed up to the viewing platform on the horse’s head. The lift had obviously stopped, and the stairs that run up inside the stainless steel statue were in complete darkness. Nevertheless, we formed an international human chain, and with the help of cigarette lighters and mobile phones and not a little humour, we all made it to the top for great views of the statue and of the surrounding countryside.

With Chinggiskhan in the rain

With Chinggiskhan in the rain

Trans-Mongolian to Ulaanbaatar

The longest arm of the sprawling entity know as the Trans-Siberian railway was built to connect Moscow to Japan via the port of Vladivostok on the eastern coast. However, we had chosen to head south from the major junction at Ulan-Ude, boarding the Trans-Mongolian which travels down into Mongolia and then on to China.

We had been travelling through Siberia for almost a week. The restaurant car had run out of food, but we had been buying supplies from platform vendors along the way. This had worked just fine for the first part of the trip, but as we approached the Mongolian border the vendors had completely dried up. For some days we had been living on ice cream, beer, and some biltong that was left over in our luggage. By the time we reached the border at Naushki our stomachs were complaining loudly.

Mongolia ahoy!

Mongolia ahoy!

We knew that 215 minutes had been set aside for customs formalities on the train, so we sat quietly waiting for the customs officers to arrive in our compartment, wondering if there was possibly any nourishment to be had from the curtains, or perhaps from our boots. When the Russian emigration officials arrived, we glumly handed over our passports, to be cheerily told that because we didn’t have any documentation, we were now free to leave not only the train, but the station.

Not pausing to argue with this perhaps unique official viewpoint, we ran for the door and joined the stream of hungry travellers barrelling down the platform. A farmer’s market had been cleverly set up just outside the gates, and we descended on it like locusts. We then spotted a little café where I laid into a very satisfying meat borscht followed by a stack of pork chops and onions. Fantastic.

After a couple of hours we got back on to the train and were handed our passports. The train moved about fifty metres and stopped. A phalanx of Mongolian immigration officers boarded and began to take the train apart, lifting the floors, pulling down the ceiling panels, and checking under the seats and on the luggage racks. Presumably they were looking for stowaways. Only afterwards did they pay any attention to the passengers and their documents.

I was quite relieved about this, because due to some apparently needless intransigence at the Chinese embassy I had my Russian visa in one passport and my Mongolian and Chinese visas in another one. I had not been looking forward to explaining why I had two passports, because dual nationality is not widely understood in many otherwise civilised countries, but now that I had already retrieved my Australian passport I simply handed over my English one and nobody knew the difference.

An Australian leaves, and an Englishman arrives. Very James Bond.

An Australian leaves, and an Englishman arrives. Very James Bond.

Mongolian immigration kept us up well past midnight, but finally the carriage settled down to sleep. For the most part, anyway: the two conductresses who run our carriage spent much of the night running up and down the corridor shouting and laughing and randomly opening and then slamming our compartment doors. I can only think that this was some kind of payback for us keeping them awake during our night-time parties (see my previous blog entry).

We had set our alarm for breakfast and woke very confused because although the train was under way, nobody else was stirring. We eventually realised that the train had switched from Moscow time to Ulaanbaatar time. Because the Russian section ignores all the intervening time zone changes, we magically jumped five hours at the Mongolian border, and we had inadvertently set our alarm for 03:00 train time. Back to bed.

At 06:00 we woke to cloudy skies above fields of fenced corrals, each containing a white canvas yurts (known as gers in Mongolia), interspersed with what seems to be stalled Soviet-style construction. We had heard that, since self-determination from Russian rule, 70% of the Mongolian population have abandoned their enforced ‘western’ life-styles and have returned to their traditional nomadic living. There was plenty of evidence of that from the train.

A scattering of gers

A scattering of gers on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia’s recent history is not a particularly happy one. The country was ruled from China for some years until it gained a spurious sort of independence by allying itself with the USSR. Unfortunately the only difference in the new regime was that Mongolia’s vast mineral wealth began to head north on the Trans-Siberian railway instead of south. Neither the Chinese nor the Russians wanted to build processing plants on what was effectively occupied territory, preferring instead to transport the cheap raw material back home, where local industries would benefit from processing the low-value ore into high-value commodities.

On gaining true independence in the nineties, Mongolia continued to use the Trans-Siberian to ship unprocessed ore because it didn’t have the cash to invest in its own processing plants. However, we hear that they are making a deal with Australian mining giant Rio Tinto who, in exchange for copper and gold mining rights, have agreed to building processing capacity on site. Hopefully this will start a renaissance in Mongolian fortunes.

We disembarked hungry and dirty in Ulaanbaatar. Our first stop was – blissfully – a local spa where we showered and I had a chance to shave my increasingly unruly beard, before demolishing a buffet breakfast of rice and fruit and eggs. Only then were did we feel ready to go out and sample the delights of the big city.

Ulaanbaatar Central Station

Ulaanbaatar Central Station

Trans-Siberian through Russia

Our driver insisted on coming into Moscow train station with us and waiting until our platform had been announced. This took a while, so we hung around outside the station bar and sank a few Lowenbrau beers and tried to make conversation in pidgin Russian and French. By the time the Trans-Siberian rolled in, we were rolling a bit ourselves.

As we walked the length of the train, looking for our assigned carriage, we noticed that standing in each doorway was a pair of Mongolian conductresses, each smartly dressed in a white shirt and a blue skirt, sometimes a very short blue skirt.

All aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, Moscow to Beijing

All aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, Moscow to Beijing

We found our compartment, which was officially a four-berth but, because we’d paid for first class, there will only be two of us in it. It’s a tiny little space but our home for the next week or so. The train shook itself and then moved slowly out of Moscow station, destination Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and then Beijing in China, six thousand kilometres on the longest railway line in the world. I stuck my head out of the window and howled; I am on the Trans-Siberian Express!

Our compartment in a Mongolian carriage on the Trans-Siberian Express

Our compartment in a Mongolian carriage on the Trans-Siberian Express

Our carriage is full of travellers, we have Chileans and French on either side. As night fell, all six of us got amazingly sloshed on canned Tuborg from the restaurant car which is an arduous nine carriages away.

The next morning, we started to learn a few of the features of this train. Each carriage has a ladies’ and a gents’ toilet, but the gents’ on our carriage isn’t working. I tried to use the gents’ in the next carriage, but was firmly turned away by the conductress there, so our carriage’s toilet is now effectively unisex. Either way, it has no toilet paper, but luckily we brought some with us.

At the end of each carriage is a wood-fired samovar, tended by the conductress, which provides hot water for drinks. Although we did bring coffee and a press, there is no crockery or cutlery, and we didn’t think to bring any with us. However, with the aid of a pair of nail-scissors, we managed to fashion a flimsy coffee cup out of the base of a water bottle.

Corridor party

Corridor party

Impromptu coffee cup (or wine glass)

Impromptu coffee cup (or wine glass)

Along each corridor is a red woollen carpet, nailed to the wooden floor with long brass tacks that keep popping out. The conductress endlessly patrols this carpet, either sweeping it or hammering the tacks back in. I’ve already trodden on one of those tacks, which leaked blood everywhere, but worse than that the carpet sheds little pieces of red wool which get into every crevice of your luggage and which pile up in little drifts on the floor of each compartment.

On our first morning, we made the long trip to the restaurant car for breakfast. We gathered that although this particular train consists of Mongolian rolling stock (and therefore Mongolian staff), the restaurant car gets changed when we cross borders. Since we are still in Siberia, the restaurant car is Russian, but will be exchanged for a Mongolian one at the border town of Naushki. We sat down to a pleasant dish of potatoes fried with dill and garlic, with a side of pickled cucumbers, plus our own pressed coffee in a borrowed water glass.

At about lunchtime, the train pulled in to a station. It looked pretty quiet and desolate, but we got out anyway to stretch our legs. Suddenly there was an explosion of elderly ladies, sprinting across the tracks and ducking under trains, carrying trays of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, smoked fish, bread, and even cling-filmed plates of fresh hot food. I bought some freshly roasted chicken with boiled potatoes, and Bronwyn scored a couple of salted gherkins from a plastic bucket. We also managed to buy some sturdier soft drink bottles so that we could make better coffee cups. Just about everything cost 100 roubles (about two English pounds) per item. The chicken tasted superb, far less bland than the stuff sold in Western supermarkets, and the potatoes were wonderful.

Bronwyn and some freshly roasted chicken

Bronwyn and some freshly roasted chicken

Karla finds it important to keep her fluids up

Karla works on keeping her fluids up

All this time, we had been chugging across a rather monotonous flat Siberian landscape of birch, pine, and the occasional open field. At the base of the Urals, our old engine was exchanged for a new one. We started to climb, but slowly. Were the birches looking a little thinner?

The trees thinned out into grasslands. Occasionally we passed a rock-crushing plant or train repair yard, and now and again a village of wooden houses. There were no signs of crops apart from some extensive market gardens behind some of the houses, and – very occasionally – some hay ricks, although it wasn’t clear what the hay was for, as we didn’t see any farm animals.

Fairly typical view of Siberia from the train window

Fairly typical view of Siberia from the train window

The occasional cluster of buildings, with market gardens

The occasional cluster of buildings, with market gardens

The Trans-Siberian isn’t really about the outside world, it’s all about the microcosm that is the train, and it didn’t take long for us to fall into its rhythm. In the morning, after sweeping out the night’s accumulation of red dust-balls, we’d hang out in our compartment and catch up on our reading. During the day, we’d hang out of the window and watch the world go by. Occasionally a freight train would trundle past on the other track. We’d snack on yesterday’s left-overs and wait patiently for the next stop, where we would leap out and grab meat, beer, ice cream, whatever was being sold by the ladies on the platform. In the afternoon, we would entertain visitors (our largely empty carriage was always popular with people travelling second class). In the evenings, we would party.

The world trundles by in a relaxing blur

The world trundles by in a relaxing blur

Passing strangers

Passing strangers

Onward, ever onward

Onward, ever onward

Bronwyn scores ice cream!

Bronwyn scores ice cream!

The Readings 'at home'

The Readings ‘at home’

And then, one night, near the tail end of an exceptionally good party, our compartment suddenly filled with armed police who confiscated our passports and made Bronwyn pour all our glasses down a sink. Then they took away our few remaining bottles of booze, including a rather expensive bottle of French wine that I had in my luggage for a special occasion. It was all a bit of a surprise, and since we didn’t have any languages in common, somewhat mysterious.

A few days later, they returned with an interpreter, who attempted to explain. It seems that each train has a contingent of police who live in one of the rear carriages. They told some story about us keeping other guests awake, but since the party had extended the full length of our carriage and included not only everyone in every compartment but also some people from other carriages, we could only infer that we were keeping our conductress awake and that she had made a complaint. At any rate, they gave us our passports back, suggested that we should party in the restaurant car instead of our carriage, and said that my special wine bottle would be returned to me when we arrived in Ulan Bator.

That night, we all went to the restaurant car and drank them out of beer. The two elderly Russian ladies who ran the restaurant shuffled calmly to their supply fridge and re-stocked. These ladies were great, they were everybody’s great-grandmother, fussing around the tables in their flowered dresses and permed hair. In the day, they liked to sit in the corner and snooze, and by night they slept on the floor of the restaurant. Before long we were clearing up the glasses for them, and when we’d finished the second cabinet-full of beer, we waved them to stay seated and just helped ourselves directly from the supply fridge while they smiled and waved their gratitude. We’d been drinking some fairly boring lager up until now, but I found a whole cache of more interesting beers in a back corner of the supply fridge, which was nice.

Trans-Siberian Trans-SiberianTrans-Siberian

One peculiar thing about the train is that it always keeps Moscow time regardless of the fact that it traverses seven time zones. This means that the concepts of ‘breakfast’ and ‘dinner’ drift considerably from the day outside; midday outside now corresponds to about six in the morning train time, which introduces a certain amount of jet-lag (train-lag?) in the staff. After a while, we realised that the two ladies were nodding off, so we bought some more beers and left them to make up their beds on the floor. We didn’t want to have a repeat of the police fiasco, so rather than returning to our carriages, we decided to party in the tiny space between the restaurant carriage and the rest of the train. That worked too.

Party in the corridor of the restaurant car

Party in the corridor of the restaurant car

This platform beer-seller was happy to see us

This Omsk platform beer-seller was happy to see us

One of the few real towns was Omsk, which seemed large and prosperous, and had actual kiosks on the platform instead of mobile vendors. We bought hot chicken and bananas and thought we’d have a quick look around the town, but there were armed police everywhere who were preventing passengers from leaving the platform. In fact it was here and at another station close to Irkutsk that we realised that many of the platform vendors weren’t locals at all, they were actually travelling on our train with us, and hopping off at the stations to sell goods to the locals. In the stations with a heavy police presence, they simply sold clothing and plastic goods out of the train windows.

T-shirt, madam?

T-shirt, madam?

On-train advertising

On-train advertising display

Suddenly a lot of things fell into place. I had wondered at the purpose of all these tiny little communities in the wilds of Siberia. What were these people doing out here? But now I realised that it is the train that is their raison d’être, without the train there would be no people. It is a nine thousand kilometre linear village, which has sprung up alongside the necessity to ship ore from one side of this enormous country to the other.

Many of our fellow travellers disembarked at Lake Baikal, but we had some deadlines to stick to so we stayed on board. We’ll see the world’s deepest freshwater lake on another occasion.

Houses on the shore of Lake Baikal

Houses on the shore of Lake Baikal

We likewise passed through Ulan Ude, which seemed to be a pleasant and prosperous city. Scattered amongst the Soviet-era apartment blocks were smart new houses, and closer to the tracks were the same kind of wooden home that we have seen all the way across Siberia, each with its own market garden packed with vegetables and fruit.

The railway here is also lined with lock-up garages. Some of them appear to be derelict, but others have been fitted with chimneys and new roofs. Do people live in them, or do the owners keep a fire burning to keep the cars from freezing in winter? We could not tell.

Garages with chimneys near Ulan Ude

Garages with chimneys near Ulan Ude

Brightly coloured paintwork was common on private houses. I was amused to see that the most common colours were pale blue and pale green, both of a shade usually to be found only on railway stations, signal boxes and signal poles.

Nice paint. Looks familiar. Any idea where can I get some?

Nice paint. Looks familiar. Any idea where can I get some?

We got a new engine for the final run down into Ulan Bator, this time a smoky diesel. Close now to the Mongolian border, the terrain changed completely. The railway lifted up onto an embankment as it followed a small river that wound its way through an old flood-plain, with a small range of hills rising up on either side. The flat plain was purple with heads of wild garlic, but it was the scent of a badly tuned diesel that drifted in through the window. It wasn’t long before my hands and face were black with grease. Never mind, Mongolia is just around the corner.

Heading for Mongolia

Heading for Mongolia