Mongolia - 2002

From the Sands of the Gobi
to the Steppes of Siberia
A Journey to Far Distant Lands

Mongolia—The Adventure Begins -- To Beijing

My daughter Emily once said I should pursue all my dreams.

A journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad over the deserts of Mongolia and into the cold Siberian wastelands had been a dream of mine for longer than I can remember. It was just an impossible dream, one that I never believed could actually come true.

But here I was on a hot September day in 2002 landing in the Beijing airport. And in a few days my never-to-be imagined dream would become a reality. Soon I’d be hopping on the Trans-Siberian railway headed for Mongolia and Siberia. Who’d ever have thought it possible? Certainly not I.

But I must say, the start of the trip was not exactly how I would have planned it—and this had repercussions every moment of my journey over the next month’s time.

The entire trip—from leaving Dulles Airport on Saturday morning, then changing planes in Chicago and flying over the pole to Beijing was the longest trip I have ever taken. I calculated it took something like 22 hours door-to-door from the time I got up at 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning in Rockville, Maryland to catch a van until our arrival in Beijing on Sunday afternoon. (Confusion always arises—at least with me--when you lose a day crossing the international dateline!)  It was a grey, dreary day in Beijing—and my eyes were already burning from the pollution when we finally arrived and made it through customs, and I was very tired.

But I almost forgot to mention the reason for this  exhaustion — I could hardly walk!

Five days before the journey was to begin, as I was playing in my usual tennis doubles game, I had felt a sudden pain which soon elevated into excruciating throbbing in the left knee. I rushed home to ice my knee thinking I had pulled a muscle and spent the rest of the week, in between packing, with my knee on ice. So, I had set off on this ambitious trip with high hopes the pain and stiffness would go away. But, to compound whatever the injury would turn out to be, as I stepped up into the van to take me to Dulles Airport to begin the trip, I felt a sudden unexpected painful pop in the same knee—and the pain spread quickly as I sat there nervously anticipating unloading my baggage, checking in and walking through the airport. By the time I got to Chicago, met my friend Jean, and started on the flight to Beijing, I had to keep my leg outstretched in the aisle-- and  my knee remained painful.

What a way to start this trip, I thought. I hoped against hope that the pain would disappear in a few days. How wrong I was! What I had anticipated as a carefree journey into the vast mysterious Gobi Desert with camel rides and overnights in exotic Mongolian gers and visits to Lake Baikal (perchance to swim in its restorative waters? Dream on!) proved a memorable trip to say the least! But for painful reasons I had never anticipated.

But back to the beginning, arriving in Beijing.

I was traveling with Jean with whom I had become friends on my around the world trip on the Ocean Explorer.  She was delighted when I suggested we travel together.  We had set off in great anticipation on this trip to Mongolia. I  thought we’d be congenial traveling companions, and my prediction was totally justified. She was a wonderful companion from the outset.  Her nurse’s background made her totally unflappable under the worst of circumstances, and her reassurances that I’d make it through despite any adversity was what kept me going more than a few times on what we both  recalled later as a really tough (but great) trip.

At our hotel in Beijing Jean and I met the rest of our group— four married couples, three of them from California—and we knew right off they’d be great companions.

We “bonded” by the second day out as we climbed the Great Wall and visited the Ming tombs.  On the previous hot humid day they had all taken off for a walking tour of the Forbidden City. Since I had done the same eight-hour trek the year before, I opted out to protect my knee. The group returned exhausted from the heat and humidity and said I’d made the right decision.

The walk on the Great Wall, which I had also done the year before at the same entrance, Badaling, was not easy, but I wasn’t going to let that deter me. This was a test of future walking. I could tell it wouldn’t always be easy; pain was always present, but I was not going to let it ruin my entire

Two days later got our 4:30 a.m. wakeup call and we were on our way to the infamous Beijing train station.  Rain was pouring down in torrents, which made the snails’ pace of a ride through the early morning traffic jam of Beijing predictable. Arriving at the station in rush hour is no fun under the best of circumstances. But compounding the difficulty of making it through the gridlock of cars, buses, delivery vehicles, and taxis, was an almost solid mass of commuters and travelers pushing their way into the station in the height of morning rush hour.

However, our van driver threaded his way successfully into the remote inner workings of the station and dropped us off on platform #2 where the dignitaries all arrive. The problem was, it turned out we weren’t dignitaries enough! There we were standing amid all our suitcases on the wrong platform—and he and the van had flown the coop! By now our Uniworld guide, Cheer Wang, who had met us at the Beijing airport and was our guide throughout the trip, realized her mistake. She had never led a group to Mongolia or traveled on this particular train before, she admitted, and didn't know the correct platform.

But she retrieved herself by hurrying off and snagging a second van—albeit a decrepit, junk filled van with torn seats—but we piled our baggage and ourselves in and headed for the right platform and train #10 of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Or was it Trans-Mongolian?  We never knew the real name of our train day by day until we read our Lonely Planet guidebook later. My bible, throughout the trip, the book explained that the trains changed names and identifications at the Mongolian/Siberian border with new dining cars and new border guards, etc. (I never found out about whether engines changed too but I learned we were traveling on the Trans-Mongolian to the border of Siberia at which time the train became the Trans-Siberian.

But it doesn’t matter. I had made it to train #10. Jean and I settled into our deluxe compartments for two and stuffed our baggage into any available space—not an easy task.  But all was well with the world. We were in high spirits because we were headed off for one of life’s great adventures.  Little did I know how different these experiences would be from what I had anticipated!

[Go to Mongolia Part Two]