Riding the Rails to Moerdaoga

Picture of train.

The train to Hailar.

Sept. 27 - 28, 2014
Days 72 - 73
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part I

We had been warned about Chinese national holidays. A few times per year, almost everyone in the country goes on vacation, all at once. The transportation infrastructure is overwhelmed, the hotels overcrowded. The message was clear: if you choose to travel during a Chinese holiday, you do so at your own peril.

Such a holiday fell during the last week of September, and Katie and I were ready to leave Beijing. But where could we go, knowing that a billion other people would also be traveling? We were hoping to see some fall colors. With a bit of research, we found one area that was far enough from any city that it might not be completely packed, yet close enough to Beijing to visit on a week-long trip. Nestled in the northernmost reaches of the country, close to the Russian border in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, was Moerdaoga National Forest Park. Katie's guidebook for China didn't cover the park, and the articles we found online simply said that Moerdaoga was renowned for its fall colors. We decided to head to Hailar, the biggest city in the region, and wing it.

Hailar was a two-hour flight from Beijing, but it was also connected to the country's elaborate railway system. Give a choice between flying and taking a train, I'll almost always choose the train. How much can you see from 35,000 feet?

The trains going from Beijing to Hailar were slow and old. This particular trip would take thirty hours. That wouldn't be a big deal if we could get a sleeper cabin, but they were sold out. If we wanted to go to Hailar by train, we would have to do so in a “hard seat.” Reluctantly, Katie agreed to take the train with me, and she bought a plane ticket back to Beijing. I wanted to travel home overland, possibly making some stops along the way, so I decided not to buy a return ticket until I was ready.

Beijing's long-distance train station was huge. A massive pavilion was outside, and thousands of people with suitcases and backpacks were milling about. There was barely room to walk. Three men in camouflage uniforms stood guard at the edge of the crowd, assault rifles pointed downward, index fingers resting next to the triggers. Behind them was a van with blackened windows. Troublemakers wouldn't last long here.

There were about twenty lines, each thirty people deep. Nothing was written in English and we didn't see any other foreigners who might be able to help us make sense of this place. Luckily I had already scouted the station a few days prior, so I knew which line was the “will call,” where we could pick up our tickets. The shock of seeing so many people in such a small space dissipated, and we found that the lines were moving surprisingly fast. Within a few minutes, we were inside the station, ready to board our train.

Train loading was quite efficient, given how many people were waiting to board. Our “hard seats” had the same amount of padding as a Chinese bed (not much). We were lucky, though – many people were standing in the aisle. Katie and I sat next to each other, and a woman and her teenaged daughter faced us. This configuration gave us plenty of legroom, and several moments of awkward eye contact. Thirty hours is a long time to spend staring at someone three feet from you, especially when you don't share a common language.

Picture of train.

Inside the train.

Our train left on time. At first we went south, across Beijing, and soon we were outside of the city center. But the population didn't cease. We passed multiple clusters of 8-12 identical apartment towers, each between 15 and 20 stories tall. How many people lived in these complexes? One thousand? Two thousand? For many of them, the answer was zero: they were still under construction. I was glad that at least some of the hutongs (traditional shared housing neighborhoods) had been saved from demolition. The towers had no personality. They were the same buildings, repeated ad nauseam.

When we crossed Sixth Ring Road, we were outside of the metropolitan area, heading east toward the coast. Small cornfields started popping up, but there were still clusters of apartment towers. Cornfields, towers, cornfields, towers. After two hours of this, we reached the city of Tianjin, and there were more towers. We turned north and continued through population centers that would be major cities in the US. Here, they were just names. Tanshang, Jinzhou, Shenyang, Changchun.

Now that we were settled in for our long journey, the people in our car got comfortable with one another. The girl across from us played with her mom's hair. On the other side of the aisle, a teenaged boy leaned forward, cupping his girlfriend's hands in his own. She leaned back, feigning disinterest. One by one, people walked to the small space between cars and lit cigarettes. The windows were closed, so the smoke drifted toward us and soon filled our car. This was not unusual – smoking was permitted almost everywhere in mainland China. I was still adjusting.

Between cities we continued to pass complexes of unfinished apartment towers. Counting them became a game. A thousand future residents. Two thousand more. Another thousand... How were they going to fill these places? How much longer could the construction keep going?

New noises constantly filled the train – salespeople hawking food, drinks, leather belts and plastic carps that “swam” in circles on the floor, glowing gold and playing loud music. People talked on phones and to one another. The train itself was also noisy, click-clacking along the tracks and blowing its whistle every few minutes. There was never a dull moment.

Four hours after we left Beijing, the cities finally gave way to huge cornfields. The landscape became hilly. We passed a few open-pit coal mines. Bullet trains occasionally flew past us in a white blur. We chugged along, never exceeding forty-five miles per hour.

Picture of cornfields.

Northern Chinese cornfields.

At one point a train employee walked to the center of our car and gave a long sales pitch for a massager. When he was finished, he walked down the aisle and asked if anyone wanted a demonstration. He stopped at me. Before I knew it, he had stuck two electrodes to the back of my neck. Everyone sitting near us peered over their seats and watched. The salesman turned on the device and my shoulders shook uncontrollably. He changed the setting and my neck jerked back and forth. It was horribly uncomfortable. Finally I cried out, “I don't want it!” in Chinese. Laughter erupted all around us. I felt bad for making the salesman look like he was selling a shoddy product, but he laughed off the insult. After he was gone, Katie informed me that she had volunteered me for the demo when I wasn't looking. I wasn't mad – someday I would get my revenge.

The girlfriend sitting across from us got up and walked away. Her boyfriend finally leaned back in his seat and played with his phone instead of her hands. After she had been gone for a couple of hours, I assumed she had left the train, but eventually she returned to her seat. Her boyfriend feigned boredom, and now she was vying for his attention. They went back and forth like this all day.

I listened to podcasts, read a book and napped. At around 11 p.m., the lights went out. I leaned forward, placed my head on the table in front of us and fell asleep (it was like I was back in high school). Eventually I started burping and woke up. I tried sleeping while sitting upright, but my head bobbed uncontrollably and I woke up again. I leaned against Katie, but she could only handle it for so long before shoving me away. Then I repeated this trio of sleeping patterns. The other people near me appeared to do the same. I now understood the largest disadvantage of arranging the seats so that they faced one another: the seats didn't recline.

I woke at sunrise. My neck and back were sore and I was too tired to sleep. Luckily Katie and I had brought coffee and a French press with us. The train provided hot water, one of the best amenities commonly available in China. Besides our coffee, we indulged in bread and granola bars for breakfast. The other passengers ate buckets of ramen noodles, boiled eggs, sausages, cabbage and mushrooms.

We were now in the northernmost reaches of China, a world away from the cities we had seen the previous day. A fresh coat of September snow blanketed the ground. The villages we passed were small, even by American standards. Some of them looked abandoned (had their former residents moved into apartment towers?). Others were clearly mining towns – they were surrounded by quarries, and dump trucks full of coal drove through them. Many houses had gardens. Cabbage appeared to be the principal crop.

The salespeople worked their way up and down the aisle, selling the same food, drinks and gadgets. Every couple of hours, the train's seven conductors marched past us, impeccably dressed. After every stop, one of them entered our car and announced our next destination. Interestingly, these were the same employees as the previous day. Apparently, they were on a thirty-hour shift.

A girl who had been sitting near us got the nerve to approach us. She was studying at a university in a city near Beijing. Her English was good, yet she was clearly terrified of using it. I've heard this is common in Chinese culture, but I knew what she was going through. I constantly found myself thinking, I can't start a conversation in Chinese. I need to improve my Chinese first. Never mind that having such a conversation was exactly how I could improve my Chinese.

Picture of Katie.

Katie writes in her journal.

When the mother and daughter left our car for a while, a teenaged boy took a seat across from us, looking infatuated. Whenever I looked up from my book, I noticed that he was staring at me. Not in a creepy way; he just seemed curious. Once while I was reading, I heard the sound of a camera shutter. I looked up and saw that the boy had attempted to take a discreet photograph with his cellphone, but he had forgotten to turn off the fake shutter sound. The girl who had spoken to us in English was sitting next to him, and she looked mortified. I didn't mind, though – I take candid photographs all the time, so it was only fair. Now that the ice had been broken, we all got trigger happy with our cameras.

We reached Hailar a bit before sunset. It had been an amazing train ride. I loved witnessing the transition from metropolis to smaller cities to snowy hinterland. We said goodbye to the people we had befriended over the last thirty hours; they grabbed their luggage and vanished. Katie and I were exhausted after our night of fitful sleep, but we were still a long way from Moerdaoga.

After leaving the train, we went over our options for traveling the rest of the way to the park. We figured out that a train was due to leave for the village of Moerdaoga in a few hours. It would tack another twelve hours onto our trip, but we bought tickets anyway, with the thought that we could sleep the following day.

The train to Moerdaoga was significantly older than the one we had ridden to Hailar. The “hard seats” were wood benches. The paint was chipping. The bathrooms were filthy. At least it wasn't quite full.

Just like the last train, this one left on time. Say what you want about China, but it is a punctual culture. Between the plumes of cigarette smoke that immediately filled our car, we saw that our old friend, the infatuated kid, was on this train as well. He moved to the seat across from us and stared.

The guy sitting next to the infatuated kid smiled and offered us apples. We gladly accepted and gave him oranges. He upped the ante, handing me a vacuum-sealed package containing three hard-boiled eggs. The shells had been removed, and the “whites” were brown. I repeatedly told him that I didn't want the package, but he forced me to take it. I had yet to figure out how to gracefully turn down a gift in China. Not wanting to make the man “lose face,” I ripped open the package, bit into one of the vinegary eggs and acted like it hit the spot. The guy wouldn't stop, though. He forced us to take two moon cakes and some “Twinkies,” filled with egg yolks instead of frosting. We tried to give him a chocolate bar, but he wouldn't accept it. Instead, he continued to hand us food until he was out.

We had another night of little sleep. The generous man got up every half-hour to smoke between the cars, waking Katie and me in the process. Eventually he stopped getting up and chain-smoked from his seat. At least he didn't force us to take his cigarettes. I couldn't blame the generous man for smoking. It was probably his way of passing the time during our insomnia-inducing ride.

At last we arrived in the village of Moerdaoga at 9 a.m. Most of the leaves had already fallen from the trees, but I didn't mind. The sky was blue, the air was crisp and clean and the forest surrounding the village was still beautiful. Even before I exited the train, I knew I wouldn't regret coming here.

What's next? How about reading Part II of this series.

Or you can check out the full photo album from this entry.

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