Wednesday, 8th June 1988
We woke up early, checked out of the Sportsman’s and set off by bus and subway to the main Beijing station.
We had become quite professional at negotiating Beijing’s transport system by now and we made it with time to spare. In fact, we had already been on the station platform for more than 30 minutes when the empty train came in at 7:20am.
The train that now stood at the platform was known officially as “International Train Number 3” but it also went by the unofficial name of “Trans Mongolian Express”. It had a Chinese electric locomotive at its head. Immediately behind the locomotive were 5 Chinese sleeping cars numbered from 11 down to 7. The sixth carriage was a restaurant car and then there more Chinese seating coaches were behind that.
Despite the elaborate name, only the 5 coaches at the front would be going through to Moscow. The rest of the train including, sadly, the Chinese dining car would only go the relatively short distance to the Chinese border. The 5 sleeping cars would then be attached to the back of a Mongolian train and then later marshalled into the middle of another Russian one.
We sought directions from a guy on the platform. He looked at our ticket and directed us to coach 8. On boarding coach 8, I found to my utter horror that all the compartments in that coach were 4-berth ones and that all the 2-berth ones were all in Coach 9. I tried to argue with the train manager but to no avail. It was clear from the number on the ticket that we were supposed to be in coach 8.
We had been ripped off. The tickets that the guys in the hotel had given us were for two berths in a four berth compartment and not two in a private 2-berth one that had clearly been on the voucher that we had received in Hong Kong. To say I was upset was an understatement. The fact that Aiko didn’t seem at all upset made it a whole lot worse.
I went outside and banged my hands against the coach side in a rage. Then, swearing and cursing, I kicked the bottom of the bulkhead so hard that I bruised my toe. I calmed down a bit and limped back to the compartment to find Aiko in tears. I cheered up a little and tried to cheer her up too. I reasoned that it could have been worse. Our situation was not what I was expecting but at least we had a valid ticket on the train.
We had the upper and lower bunks on one side of the compartment. On the other side, the lower bunk was occupied by an American Student returning to the US via Europe after studying in Taiwan. On the upper bunk was a young West German named Andreas.
The situation didn’t immediately improve when the American explained his mother and father were also on the train but in one of the “luxury” two berth compartments. I started to wonder if it was ours and questioned him where and when they had booked their tickets. Things then went further downhill when Andreas revealed he had just spent 4 years in Japan and spoke wonderful Japanese as well as his fluent English. That put paid to us having any privacy when we were speaking Japanese to each other.
When the train started moving, my mood quickly improved. In the end things turned out fine. The American student spent all his days in the other compartment with his mother and father and came back only to sleep. This gave us more space in the compartment and that helped a lot. Andreas was sensitive to our situation and he turned out to be a lovely guy and we had a lot of fun speaking to him about his experiences in Japan.
The train had left Beijing station on time at 7:40am and was now gathering speed. It would take all day to reach the Mongolian border that evening. We would pass into Mongolia just before midnight and then spend the second twenty four hours transiting Mongolia and then we would reach the border with the USSR late on the second evening.
The third day would see us skirting Lake Baikal before a stop at Irkutsk. On the fourth day we would make progress to the western Siberian city of Novosibirsk and then reach the large city of Perm on the fifth day. We would cross into Europe and we were scheduled to end up in Moscow at 11:45 on the sixth day. We had the prospect of 5 full nights on board.
We climbed up through the misty suburbs of Beijing and, as we had breakfast together in the dining car, we passed through the Great Wall at Bandaung. We went back to the compartment and chatted with Andreas a bit and shared some fruit and crackers with him.
The mountains gave way to an industrial belt with relatively modern looking factories and power stations. Later that belt gave way to a land crisscrossed by roads that only had horses and carts on them. Some of the trains passing in the other direction were clearly hauled by steam locomotives. China, it seems, still had a way to go with its economic development.
The grass got browner as the day wore on. We had lunch sat opposite a couple from Kent in the UK and then watched as the brown grass slowly turned into the Golbi Desert.
The 5 sleeper carriages each had about 10 compartments and each carriage had one Chinese sleeping car attendant. Ours was about 40 years old and he was scheduled to stay on board the train all the way until Moscow. His main duties were to look after the bedding and try to maintain the cleanliness of the carriage.
He was also kept busy refilling the large hot water flasks that were placed on the small window-side table in each compartment. We used this hot water to make drinks using the tea and coffee we had brought with us. We drank it out of the glass mugs that were provided.
Our fellow passengers were a mix of westerners and Chinese. The Chinese seemed to be mainly traders and their compartments were stuffed full of boxes and bags of things they were taking to sell in Russia. There were probably more westerners than Chinese. There were several nationalities on board including Americans, British, Canadians, Swiss, Finns and Germans.
We returned to the dining car for dinner. The food was excellent and no different from what we had had in Beijing. It was all cooked by a couple of guys in the kitchen using a full gas range and several woks. We knew we should make good use of the Chinese dining car as we had heard stories of what it would be replaced with.
It soon went dark and at 10pm we pulled up at the border station.
Mongolia lay dead ahead.