Apart from the obvious facial differences of the locals I wouldn’t have been surprised to see ‘the Duke’ ride into view packing his six shooter and Winchester. Eventually I got up from my daydreaming and tried to do something constructive. After wakening one of my compatriots, we went for breakfast in the, now Mongolian, buffet car as much to let the rest of the compartment continue to sleep in peace as for sustenance. Breakfast consisted of two pieces of dried up bread, a pat of butter, some jam, and a cup of pre mixed coffee, milk and sugar - no choices. Strangely, it also included pickled carrot shreds with garlic shards as well. An unusual combination. A far cry from the delicious Chinese meal a few hours before. Already I could feel a western influence on the diet, but was it a good one? Time would tell.
We had to walk the whole way from the back of the train to reach our carriage at the front. I hadn’t noticed any problem with smoke from our carriage when I got up but as I walked back along each of the other carriages I noticed each one was absolutely filled with smoke! Maybe smoking is ‘de rigueur’ in Mongolia I supposed, but why not in carriage number 1? Was there such a thing as a non smoking car policy? As I moved forwards choking slightly, I noticed a lady whose head was wrapped in a towel covering everything but her red rimmed eyes. Perhaps a Muslim lady sporting a burka? No, just to escape the smoke. I realised as I went further forward that the smoke was coming from the engine labouring to pull us through the desert. For some reason the heavy thick smoke was being redirected into the carriages behind. Being in carriage number 1, we were too close to catch this residue and thankfully escaped suffocating during the night. The more we travelled into Mongolia the more the landscape became desert like. Green foothills struggling to survive in adverse conditions - dry and a blisteringly hot 30 degrees in summer, down to minus 40 degrees or even minus 50 degrees in extreme winters - just beggars belief or understanding from a temperate European dweller like myself. It was still very hot: hot enough to have just a pair of shorts on - and barely that. The only way to survive was for the compartment door to be fully open to the views of all and sundry, and the aisle windows to be open also. What we didn’t realise was that the more we ventured into the country the more the Gobi encroached.
Within a couple of hours the landscape had changed to little villages sparsely placed amid full desert plains. With all the doors and windows open we were slowly engulfed with a mini desert of our own. Some of the party who had fallen asleep looked as though they were testing some kind of new facial exfoliate product on one side of their face, given that it was covered in a fine layer of sand. The sandy layer covered bedclothes, seats, pillows, anyone sitting long enough in one place and just about every other surface imaginable. It was a stark choice. Get hot and uncomfortable, or sand blasted and uncomfortable. Some choice. We opted for the mid ground. We made a brief stop in the dreadfully challenged village of Choir (probably pronounced CHO-EER as opposed to a collection of heavenly voices) and saw some children trying to sell crystals and coloured rocks on the platform. The moral question arises - do you buy or not? I personally think any help is better than no help. The majority of people who sell ‘The Big Issue’ in the UK need a helping hand. As they say, it’s a hand up, not a hand out they want. This is my philosophy also. We bought some of the stones much to the chagrin of our fellow passengers, a French couple. I felt that they disapproved of our haggling for a better price. Still, the kids went away some money in their pockets for what was essentially lying around on the ground in the village.
Stepping off the train we gathered our backpacks and extra bags together and looked for the guide who was supposed to meet us. No show. That was okay though, as we had directions as to how to find our accommodation. The regally named ‘Tiara Guesthouse‘. Surely a jewel in the crown of Mongolian guesthouses? Sadly no. We walked with a couple of other travellers who informed us that they already had a run in with bag slashers at the train station. Thankfully nothing of value was taken but it was sobering lesson nonetheless. Never let your guard down. Following the directions to the letter we arrived at an extremely run down and garishly pink coloured apartment block in one of the back streets of the city. A mistake in the directions perhaps? No, over the main entrance door of the post-war communist block of flats was a small sign saying Tiara Guesthouse.
The new hotel room, while not the Ritz, was a dramatic improvement on what had gone before. Why did they bend over backwards so much? Well, we found out the next day, but that’s another story. Back to today - as a traveller you always try to be aware of your surroundings and your first impressions are usually right. The hotel reception was on the first floor of yet another downtown apartment block and the door was guarded by a heavily armed private security guard hired directly after the completion of the latest Rambo film. The upper floors contained the hotel rooms. We were on the top floor and I realised that apart from the main staircase outside out door, there was no other escape route in event of fire. We were so tired by this stage that we just didn’t care any more. We had a hot shower in the new hotel room just because we could! Wonderful. Then out into the Wild West streets of Ulaanbaatar.