22 Hour Transit

Travelling is a lot of fun. New countries, new cities, new people, new experiences – if you’ve made it this far reading about my travels and adventures, you’ll know just how amazing it all can be. However, there’s something to be said about the difference between being in these awesome, exotic places, and actually getting there. I know, “it’s all about the journey, not the destination” is a real phrase that people use all the time, and for the most part I completely agree. Given that my year of travelling was a consistent pilgrimage from place to place, never spending longer than two weeks in any one place, and that my eventual ‘destination’ would be right back where I started, on a macro level it really was all about the journey. But on a smaller, more specific level, the journey between place to place isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Some times they can be great, like the short cruises I used to hop across bodies of water in Europe, and the more peaceful train rides where you can sit back and soak up the Swiss countryside. Some train journeys, like the Trans-Siberian Railway, are challenging yet somehow intrinsically rewarding, while other rail and bus journeys are just downright awful, and make you wish you were still curled up in the last most comfortable place you slept, wherever that happened to be. Even flying can be stressful, what with the airports and baggage limits and occasionally missing your flight. I’d won some, but I’d definitely lost some too. However, if I had to pick a winner (read: loser), it would undoubtedly be the 22 hours transit between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

When discussing how I was going to get from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Vincenzo had given me tips and suggestions about places to stay, and I’d spoken to a few other people along the way as well, but there was one step of the process that I was unanimously assured was going to be… not so much difficult, but definitely not much fun: getting across Texas. As far as states go in the US, Texas is huge, and west of San Antonio there isn’t exactly a great deal of… well, anything. I was looking at the map for small places that I might be able to stop at along the way, and while driving a car might have provided the possibility to do so, in the end I was assured that it was better to just bite the bullet and drive on through the night across the desert. So that’s exactly what I did: since it was going to take at least 9 hours to drive from San Antonio to El Paso, I decided to book the night bus so as to not waste a day in transit. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong…

***

I climbed on the bus at San Antonio and picked a seat. Close to the back, window seat, and thankfully nobody sat next to me. It wasn’t until we were well on the road, and the city lights had given way to the vast darkness that the arid landscape had become, that I tried to recline my seat only to make a horrific discovery: I’d sat on the very last seat before the wall that partitioned off the toilet at the back of the bus, and therefore my seat only reclined a fraction of the way that the rest of the seats in the bus did. The bus wasn’t full, but there was no more spare seats that didn’t already have somebody sitting next to them, and I was not about to be that guy that blatantly violates the unspoken code of respecting personal space. And so begun my long, relatively sleepless night, twisting and turning, lying across the two seats, sometimes with my back propped up against the window, other times with my legs dangling out into the aisle, although that meant having people bump into them and stumble over them anytime someone needed to use the bathroom. I think it has to be said, that saving a day by doing a long haul transit at night only really counts if you’re somehow able to have a decent sleep on said long haul transit and avoid being a complete mental zombie for the entire following day that you were “saving”.

After intermittent bouts of uncomfortable sleep and a brief pit stop at a gas station, we finally arrived at the bus depot in El Paso at about 5am. I don’t know if there’s much to do in El Paso in general, but I think it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be much of anything to do in El Paso at 5am on a Monday morning. Sitting there in the breaking dawn at the bus depot, I recalled a conversation I’d previously had with Vincenzo:
“I’ve got a 5 hour stop in El Paso before the bus to Albuquerque. Do you reckon I could go down and cross the border into Mexico? Get another stamp on my passport? Cross another country off the list?”
“Absolutely not,” had been his response, without missing a beat, before educating me on just how bad the drug wars could get along the Texas/Mexico border. “I’d like to see you again one day, preferably not decapitated.”
At the time it felt like an exaggeration, but I promised that I wouldn’t try, knowing that he definitely knew better than me. Now, sitting in the bus terminal after a long sleepless night, wandering around the border towns of Mexico was absolutely not at the top of my list of priorities. But that did leave me with the reality of a 5 hour wait before my next bus was due to depart. Luckily the bus depot was actually relatively modern: there was a cafeteria where I had some breakfast, and free wifi, so I ended up having a group Skype chat with some of my friends back home – the one good thing about the ungodly hour in Texas was that it was the perfect time for my friends in Sydney.

By the time 10am rolled around, I had reached that euphoric feeling of over tiredness that you get when you stay up all night at a sleep over: that feeling when you’re not asleep, but you’re not really awake either. It had been 5 hours of boredom at El Paso, and I had to admit I felt a little bit crazy for actually looking forward to the thought of being on another bus for 4 and a half hours. The one plus side about this trip, in addition to being half as long as the journey between San Antonio and El Paso, is that the sun had finally risen, allowing me to actually see the expanses of nothing that we were driving though.

The Great Big Nothing

The Great Big Nothing

This bus trip also had another milestone – border patrol. Not long into the journey the bus crossed the border between Texas and New Mexico. I was a little surprised at first: it wasn’t like travelling to and from Canada when I’d actually been in another country, and I had never encountered these kinds of checks between any of the states on the east coast or between Louisiana and Texas. In the end I put it down to the potential for drug smuggling, given that this bus had literally just come from a gateway to that world. Of course, I got all the usual remarks from the guy who checked my passport:
“Long way from home?”
“Yep.” You’ll have to forgive me for not feeling chatty.
“Where are you heading?”
“Santa Fe.”
“What for?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Travelling?” It doesn’t exactly plead my case, but a flip through the pages of my passport and seeing all the stamps and visas usually speaks for itself.
“Wow, you really have been travelling,” he eventually said, handing back the passport and letting me get back to staring at the desert.

The rest of the bus trip went by uneventfully, and finally the bus pulled into the depot at Albuquerque, a place which, until very recently, I had thought to be a fictional city invented by the creators of The Simpsons in the episode where the city buys the Springfield Isotopes baseball team. Yet here I was, standing in a very real city, although for all the sleep deprivation I might very well have been hallucinating. At any rate, Albuquerque was not my final destination of the day – my transit from Hell had one final leg, not on a Greyhound bus this time, but the Rail Runner, a train that connects Albuquerque with the New Mexico state capital, Santa Fe. It was painted to resemble a roadrunner, the bird species that is native to the area, and provides a relatively fast journey, as speed is also something characteristic of the roadrunner. However, unlike the Greyhound buses, the Rail Runner is more of a transport for commuters, with people people working in one of the two cities that it joins, and living in the other. This meant that the timetable was not evenly spread out throughout the day, but with many of the services being centred around the peak hour times in the morning and the evening. Therefore, despite arriving at around 2:30pm, remarkably in sync with the bus schedule, the next Rail Runner to Santa Fe didn’t leave until about 4:30pm. In my mind I had thought “Great, that gives me a few hours to have a wander around and check out Albuquerque!”, a consolation for being forbidden to explore across the border during my stop at El Paso. Of course, upon arrival, with my big bag and depleted energy levels, that was absolutely not going to happen. I found a cafe in the bus depot, conveniently located next to the Rail Runner station, got some food, accessed the wifi, and waited.

The Rail Runner itself was remarkably modern, like any of the inner city metro trains that I had encountered throughout my travels – in some cases, even better. It whizzed through the desert, and since it was the peak hour service heading to Santa Fe, it was pretty crowded. I ended up chatting to an older couple who were sitting next to me, after they curiously commented on my backpack and began asking questions. I was tired, but they were actually quite sweet, so I ended up chatting to them for quite a while. It takes about an hour and half to get to Santa Fe from Albuquerque on the Rail Runner, and apart from my conversation with the elderly couple, only one other interesting thing happened. I’d like to think that I wasn’t talking too loudly, but there wasn’t a lot else going on during the journey, so I guess it wouldn’t have been too difficult for the people around us to overhear the stories I was telling my temporary companions. As we approached Santa Fe, there were a few stops on the outer city limits before stopping at the main depot in the town centre. I was heading to the very last stop, but as the Rail Runner pulled into one of the stops before the final destination, a girl who had been sitting across the train from us got up to get off. However, before stepping off, she approached me with a nervous smile and handed me a little slip of paper, on which she had written her name and phone number. She was probably around my age, with long brown hair and pale blue eyes, although they were downcast for most of our brief interaction, when she mumbled a few words from behind her smile.
“Let me know if you need someone to show you around town,” she said, and I didn’t have much of a chance to say anything other thank “thank you” before she hopped off the train and the doors slid closed. The elder couple sitting next to me didn’t say anything, but they were silently smiling at me as I felt my cheeks begin to blush. I put the number in my backpack, although I never ended up calling her. I wouldn’t be in Santa Fe for very long anyway, plus I had absolutely no idea what her intentions were, and I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Still, I had to admire the courage it took to do something like that.

Eventually the final stop came. It was about 6pm, so after a solid 22 hours of riding on buses and trains, and waiting in depots and stations, I had finally reached Santa Fe. At the time I had absolutely hated the journey, understandably, but in retrospect it’s those journeys that you actually look back on with some fond memories, because that’s exactly what they are: memorable. There’s almost always a silver lining to all the seemingly crappy experiences that you go through as a backpacker, even if it’s just another story to tell the grandchildren.

Advertisements

All Aboard

So far in my journey, the only train travel I had done was the overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani – the rest of South-East Asia had been traversed via bus, boat and plane. When it came time to board our first train of the Trans-Siberian adventure – the Trans-Mongolian leg of the trip fro, Beijing to Ulaanbaatar – I was quite excited, unsure if it would be similar to my experience in Thailand or something completely different. Snow met us at our hotel at 6:30am, and we piled into a minibus that would take us to the station. After a few security checks and little bit of waiting, she showed us to the platform and talked to the train attendants who took us to our cabins. We would be getting a new guide in every city of the tour, so we said our goodbyes to Snow as we climbed aboard. She had been a peculiar little woman, soft-spoken and shy but very polite, and had been quite helpful during our stay in Beijing.

Beijing Railway Station the morning of our departure.

Beijing Railway Station the morning of our departure.

***

As a group, most of our time had been spent sightseeing, wandering around streets and temples and other attractions, and eating together at meals. However, we would be departing Beijing at around 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and wouldn’t be arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, until about 2 o’clock in the afternoon on the Monday. If ever there was going to be a time to properly get to know my fellow travelling companions, it was going to be during the periods of transit where there was not much else to do other than talk to each other. It was interesting to get to know a little more about everyone: where home was, what they did there, where they were going after this tour, how long they had been travelling for, and how long they still had to go in their travels. I also discovered that I was the youngest of our group – the tour was for 18 to 35 year olds, but majority of the group was at or around the 30 mark, with a few in their mid-twenties. Most of them were also seasoned travellers, and listening to their stories made me realise that despite my travels extending right around the globe, there would still so much more of the world left to see once I finally arrived home.

I’d also been wondering who I would be sharing a room with, after having spent my nights in the Beijing hotel alone. Yet as Snow gave us our tickets for the train, she said to me, “I think you will be on your own. Each cabin has 4 people, but there are 13 people. Your name is last on ticket, so you might be with strangers.” She had seemed concerned, but I had assured her that I would be fine. I’d been sleeping in dorms with strangers for most of the past 6 weeks – another night on a train wasn’t going to kill me. The cabin set up was quite differently from the Thai train though – instead of single seats that lined the carriage and transformed into beds, the Chinese train was divided into cabins, each one equipped with two sets of bunks, which served as seats during the day and beds at night. I spent most of my time during the day in the next cabin over, with Kaylah and Alyson, the American girls, and Claire and Dan, a British couple who had been temporarily living in Australia and were returning home to the UK.

Mountains in the Chinese countryside on our way out of Beijing.

Mountains in the Chinese countryside on our way out of Beijing.

***

While I loved getting to know my tour companions, acquainting myself with the fellow travellers in my cabin was a different matter. When I’d first been shown into my room, I found a couple sitting on the end of my bed. Snow said something to them in Chinese, but they stared back at her with blank, uncomprehending faces. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Snow ventured out and asked “English?” The woman of the pair slowly shook her head and said, “No… not well.” Snow turned to me, a little frustrated.
“They are Mongolian, so I cannot speak with them…” She peered out of the carriage and down the corridor, looking for assistance from the attendants, but I assured her that as long as I had a bed in the cabin, I really wasn’t too concerned with where I slept. After a short while another older man joined us, and placed his things on the bunk above mine. Shortly after departing the station, he climbed up into his bed and settled down, and the couple seemingly disappeared. It was a 13 carriage train with a dining car at the end, so I figured that that’s where they had relocated to.

A few hours later, when I decided to do a little bit of exploring myself, I wandered down to the dining car, where my suspicions were confirmed. The Mongol couple was sitting at one of the tables, with about six or seven cans of beer sitting in front of them. The woman had her back towards me, but her boyfriend must have recognised me and said something, because she whirled around in her seat to face me, her beehive of hair flying all over the place, and shouted “Hi!” in a long, drawn out way that made me sure she was at least extremely tipsy. I said hello and waved back, but I had only come for a quick investigation, and didn’t stick around long enough for any other kind of exchange. It was still fairly early in the afternoon at that point, and we would be crossing the Mongolian border later during the night. I silently hoped that they wouldn’t cause too much trouble for our cabin during the border crossing and customs procedures.

***

Fast forward to about 8:30 that evening, and we had finally reached the Chinese side of the border crossing. I had been moving around freely at that point, but now we were required to return to our cabins to clear Chinese immigration and customs. Gramps and I sat patiently on our side of the cabin. The young Mongol man sat on his bunk, stumbling through a hangover after an afternoon nap and frantically trying to fill in his departure card. The Amy Winehouse look alike was no where to be seen – I would later discover that she was sleeping in the neighbouring cabin, which had thus far remained empty. An austere Chinese man came and collected passports, and we were ordered to stand up so that the under-seat luggage compartments could be checked for stowaways. However, he was speaking in English, which my Mongol companions failed to understand, and he must have started yelling in Chinese after that, because what followed was a lot of exasperated sighs from the border personal as they snatched up passports and shouted orders at the travellers. It must have been more of a nuisance than an actual problem, because they eventually moved on to inspect the rest of the train.

After that ordeal came the time for changing the trains bogies. The railway tracks in Mongolia have a different gauge of thickness to those China. Travellers were given a choice – get off the train and wait for three hours while this happened, or stay on the train for three hours while this happened. Whatever your choice, you had to stick with it, as you couldn’t come and go during the procedure. While most travellers chose to get off the train, everyone in our group decided the stay – there didn’t appear to be a lot to do so far out in the Chinese countryside on a Sunday night, and I was curious to see the bogie changing process. It just involved each carriage being jacked up and sliding out the old ones and slipping in new ones – though some other more interesting things occurred during that time…

Another carriage in the process of having bogies changed, as seen from our carriage.

Another carriage in the process of having bogies changed, as seen from our carriage.

I had been sitting in one of our other group cabins when I heard Alyson call out to me. “Robert, I think you’re locked out of your cabin.” I stuck my head out into the hallway to see at my cabin door was indeed shut, and they were the kind that could only be opened from the outside with a staff key. At first I thought it had accidentally shut, but after a while we heard noises coming from inside the cabin.
“I think your Mongols are having a bit of couple time, Rob”, Dan said with a slight chuckle that was sympathetic but still quite amused.
“Really? Eww, no they’re not… They can’t be, surely? Right?” I didn’t know whether I should be laughing or crying. There were a few muffled shrieks, and from inside Alyson, Kaylah, Dan and Clair’s cabin, we heard banging against the wall.
“Oh yeah,” Alyson said, her eyes widening in horror, not wanting to believe what she was hearing, but unable to unhear it now it was happening.”Definitely some serious couple time going on in there.” I was just hoping that Gramps had actually left the train for the bogie changing.
“Oh my God, can’t they just wait?” someone else had said, perhaps Claire. “It’s just one night!”
The entire group, all thirteen of us, stood around in our cabins and the corridor, half laughing and half standing around in a stunned silence. I was almost at a loss of words, but I tried to remain optimistic.
“Well… as long as they’re not on my bed, right?”

***

The Mongol couple hadn’t been on my bed – but it turns out they had been on someone else’s. After the bogies had been changed it was well past midnight, and after we went through the Mongolian side of the border and had our passports collected, most of our group began to fall asleep one by one. In the end it was only Dan and I left in the corridor, watching the hallways as the train acquired more passengers. A train attendant came to my cabin and started having a very heated discussion with the couple, though it was all in Mongolian so I have no idea what was actually said. Then, rather abruptly, they gathered their things and stumbled out of the room. I exchanged a look with Gramps – he obviously knew what going on, but his expression gave nothing away about how he felt about the situation. Like me, he was probably just waiting for everyone to settle down so he could go to bed. But the couple had obviously been in the wrong cabin for the first leg of the journey and had to be shifted, because the space that Amy and her lover had vacated was quickly filled with some new Mongolians.

Our two new roommates were a peculiar duo – I nicknamed them the Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar. They had luggage that looked like it weighed about 30kg, or at least sounded like it when they clunked the bags down onto the floor, and they tapped away on their touchscreen smartphones with their flashy acrylic nails while the shiny metallic decorations on their t-shirts caught the light like a disco ball, sending flecks of glare all around the cabin. They exchanged a few words with Gramps – I may as well not have existed to the , so after the official business had been conducted I slipped out of the cabin to rejoin Dan in the hallway. It would appear that the Real Housewives were not the only new passengers in our cabin – Dan and I had to duck out of the hallway and back into our cabins to make room for a group of six men, all of whom were incredibly filthy. You could see the dirt that lined their clothes and caked their faces, but the worst thing was the smell. The pungent aroma of raw fish wafted down the corridor, sending the cabin attendants running down the hallway, shrieking, covering their faces and spraying air deodoriser every time they had to open one of the two cabins which these men occupied. It was quite amusing, but would have been more hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that our carriage was now stained with the unpleasant stench.

However, the cabin doors appeared to be fairly airtight, and managed to either block out or, more importantly, contain the smell. So long as the doors to their cabins stayed shut, the smell didn’t bother us too much. I had to chuckle to myself though, as I realised that the Mongolian lovers who had soiled my cabin had been relocated to one of the two rooms occupied by two of the dirty fisherman. To me it was fitting, almost as though the universe had matched and raised them on their attempt to get down and dirty. As I bid my group goodnight and headed back to my cabin, I made another discovery. In the space of about half an hour, the Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar had also been relocated – I’m still not sure to where – and in their place was a single Mongolian woman, sitting on the bottom bunk and quietly arranging her things. She looked up as I walked in and gave me a small smile, which I returned before going about setting my bed up. I had laid out the bottom sheet and was about to climb into bed with just the top sheet to cover me, when the woman motioned to the blankets that were piled onto the top bunk above her, which now appeared to be empty.

“It will be very cold,” she said to me as she pointed. Pleasantly surprised to learn to spoke English, I thanked her and pulled one of the blankets down, making sure my actual body came into contact with it as little as possible – I still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened in this cabin earlier. I laid the blanket down, climbed under the sheet, and waited until the woman was ready for bed. Gramps had already been waiting patiently above me. When she finally moved to turn off the night, she turned to me with a smile and said goodnight.
“Goodnight,” I replied as the lights went out and we were thrown into darkness. After the confusing game of musical chairs that my day in this cabin had been, I was quite happy with how the evening had turned out, and I drifted off to sleep to the gentle rocking motions of the train.

***

Mongolian countryside as we approach Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolian countryside as we approach Ulaanbaatar.

The following day went by rather uneventfully, watching the Gobi desert and the surrounding landscapes pass us by. It had felt like quite a long time, but it was a little daunting to think that the Trans-Mongolian leg of our journey was actually the shortest trip of all, with the exception of the train between Moscow and St Petersburg. Having well and truly left China behind us – other than a bottle of alcohol the shopkeeper had described as “good for health” – we climbed off the train Ulaanbaatar, eager to see what Mongolia had in store for us.

At Ulaanbaatar station, after journeying across the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

At Ulaanbaatar station, after journeying across the Trans-Mongolian Railway.