Ulaanbaatar to Ho Chi Minh by train
All sorts of things are standing by the railway track hours after Ulaanbaatar has dissolved and the steppe has reclaimed the landscape. Camels. Horses. Plastic bags. Every now and then a lone Mongolian appears outside the window, seemingly hours, possibly days away from civilisation. There’s never a car or horse or motorbike near them. The desolate landscape stretches away in every direction.
In the dining car, Oyuna runs a tight ship and doesn’t tolerate card playing, filming out the window or loitering. We order bowls of steaming Solyanka soup and overpriced cold beers until we reach the border. She doesn’t even smile when she kicks us out.
China welcomes us with pompous music as we’re lifted into the air and the wheels are changed. Hours into China, haze appears.
The land quickly moves from the vast arid expanse of the Gobi to an endless patchwork of cultivated, heavily worked crops that grow up to the train tracks. Felt gers, as the Mongolian’s call yurts, disappear and are replaced; first by mud brick homes and later by apartment blocks that sit in the landscape like the efforts of a new Photoshop user. The restaurant car now serves up sweet white bread with a lone fried egg for breakfast and slimy, bland Chinese dishes throughout the day. Is there any form of transport that serves decent food?
Early afternoon the train drops off the plateau and deeper into the smog. Beijing lurks in the pollution, gradually growing in confidence until the train comes to a halt and the city surrounds us with skyscrapers that all vanish into the smog at around 16th floor.
The fast train from Beijing to Shanghai silently glides thru the landscape. Five hours and 1300km later and we’re in Shanghai. It rains the whole two days.
There’s only one type of ticket left for the Sunday train to Hong Kong and with trains running every second day, I pay the premium price and take it. It turns out to be a first class carriage consisting of two berths and a private bathroom. I’ve only stayed in first class once before, a sex-fuelled 31-hour journey from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing some years’ prior during one of the brief stages of my life where I could say I had a girlfriend. This time my companion is a Hong Kong math teacher called Phillip who starts his sentences with ‘In the old days’.
The TV at the end of my bed has two channels. Channel 2 is showing a Hong Kong film in which a baseball hit-off decides the fate of a school. Channel 1 is just a blank blue screen. Luckily Phillip’s stories of travelling Mongolia in the old days are more engaging.
He lies on his top bunk and tells me tales as I gaze out the window. The landscape is a construction site. Cranes stalk the horizon.
The train delivers me to the heart of Hong Kong. I take a local bus out of town and spend four days on the beach.
At the end of the week, I take the metro from downtown Hong Kong to the border, walk into China and head to Shenzhen West Train Station.
On the overnight train, a young Chinese is eager to talk and tells me of life in Kunming while sharing the endless bags of food he’s brought for the 30-hour journey. It’s nice to hear of local life. It’s less nice when he starts nudging me at two in the morning. When I depart the train just after 6am the next morning he’s still asleep.
I manage to get a ticket out of Nanning on the same day. The train disappears into a maze of karsks, limestone peaks that rise up aggressively out of the landscape and crowd around the train. We sneak towards Vietnam under the cloak of darkness.
Passport control is a once-opulent, two-story building that’s been the victim of neglect and humidity. We sit inside waiting for young officers to yell out our names once they’ve stamped us into the country. The ceiling is lofted and an elegant staircase rises to a musky second floor. In the waiting area, a stern-looking Swiss family of four sit in the orange plastic chairs. They all chew gum in sync. Outside, Chinese tourists take photos of each other in front of the station on their smartphones. The building glows in the darkness.
At 5am we’re woken and soon after we arrive in Hanoi. After the sophisticated and manic Chinese station, it feels like we’ve arrived in Vietnam via the backdoor. We walk over other tracks and exit thru a plain gate onto a single lane street. Only the unusually high ratio of taxis hint at the train station’s presence.
For two hours I have my own cabin on the Reunification Express as it escapes Hanoi early morning before a family fills up the remaining five berths. Their mentally disabled son constantly offers me Milo drinks. That night I drink homemade rum with the father. It tastes of ethanol.
Hungover, we arrive at Dieu Tri an hour late. Luckily a local train is also running late and I’m able to get a 58 cent ticket to the coastal town of Quy Nhon. I spend a week there writing and swimming and eating seafood.
A manic taxi ride brings me back to Dieu Tri where the train arrives an hour late. Facing backwards in a soft seat, I begin my final leg.
Vietnamese board and alight at each stop. Lots of men are traveling. One is returning to his teaching job after visiting his father for a week. Another is heading back to Moscow where he’s studying nuclear engineering. Another plays games constantly on his Nokia Lumia. Unfortunately his Wi-Fi hotspot is locked. A pale tourist moves from his seat to one nearest the bathroom and struggles to get comfortable. Toilet paper sticks out of his pocket and he sweats profusely in the air-conditioned carriage. He squeezes his plastic water bottle as he constantly drinks, the crushing of plastic loud in the peacefulness of the carriage.
As the train approaches stations, the loud speakers crackle to life and start blaring music, waking anyone who may, or may not, be arriving at their destination. Occasionally the speakers break into English and release a string of monotone facts for any foreign tourists aboard. We snake in and out of tunnels heading towards Nha Trang before suddenly bursting out of one and overlooking the ocean.
The conductor carries a gun. Food carts rattle up and down the aisle and four women pace the length of the train, fruitlessly trying to sell bunches of deep purple grapes to the same customers for hours. Seats recline to almost horizontally sending the occupants back and startling the passengers behind them.
The clouds arrive before sunset and light fades as we head towards Ho Chi Minh. A flickering fluorescent light globe mimics a lightening storm that rages on the horizon. The dark landscape grows brighter as we approach the capital. Lights spot the horizon. Buildings. Streetlamps. Scooters. All of them building in intensity until we’re rushing by the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh.
A light tropical rain is falling as I step onto the platform of Ho Chi Minh Railway Station. It’s early evening and people quickly disperse, swallowed up by overjoyed relatives or slipping unnoticed into the city. I look up and down the platform as the last of the passengers disappear and, picking up my bag, cautiously approach the haggle of smoking taxi drivers.