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All aboard, Beijing


We’re not going to catch the train out of Beijing. Our first leg of the Trans-Mongolian and the cab doesn’t seem to be going fast enough to get us to Beijing West Train Station. It’s about ten minutes before departure and I’m trying to communicate with my scraps of Mandarin that we need to go faster with frantic pointing ahead and looking flustered. The cab driver takes this has a critique of his music and switches from the hip hop station to some fluffy Canto-pop. Actually the determined rhymes and driving beats of Eminem suited the mood better.
This trip has been a dream for me ever since I studied Russian history at university. The Trans-Mongolian is an offshoot of the longer Trans-Siberian Railway that runs from European St Petersburg to Vladisvostock on the Sea of Japan. It’s a journey of more than 9,000km as cultures slowly change and borders blur. Our route (if we make the train) begins in Beijing then stops in Datong before wriggling north up through the steppes to Mongolia. We’ll hop off the train in Mongolia’s capital Ulaan Baatar before swerving up to Irkutsk where we’ll visit the world’s deepest lake, Baikal. From there we’ll meet the Trans-Siberian as it follows the ancient route of Russian tea caravans. It’s a long slow haul from here so maybe we’ll break the journey in Yekaterinburg, where the last of the tsars were murdered. Then the onion domes and grandeur of Moscow, before swerving up to St Petersburg. And because we can’t get enough we might keep on to Helsinki in Finland.
But all of this depends on us making that train. The cab veers off the main road and we see it in clear English: Beijing West Railway Station. Maddeningly we go into an exit loop so the sign passes us by twice before we get any closer to it. We pull up out front and I make a mad dash to locate the platform, while my partner, Nikki, unloads the bags and pays the taxi. There’s a metal detector (why do they need to know if I’m carrying my keys now?) and few gruff officials but then I’m there. There’s a scramble of characters on the departure board, but I can just work it out: platform 6. Doubling back and Nikki is dodging through lanes of traffic wrestling with both bags to get to the same metal detector delay. But we’re going to make it.
At the platform there’s another mix-up. Our carriage seems to be filled with smoking soldiers and our seats can’t be seen for bodies and fug. We grab a conductor and he takes another look at out tickets. He frowns and makes an executive decision that we just don’t know how to book tickets. He takes us two carriages down, where there are fewer soldiers and plenty of free seats. The train lurches to a start just as we drop into our new seats.

This post also appears at Viator.

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