Beijing to Mongolia
The Trans Mongolian train from Beijing to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia takes 31 hours. It is not a grueling trip but it has some unique elements. Traversing north and west of Beijing it follows the mountainous area that embeds the Great Wall of China for some breath taking landscapes. If you are not watching the scenery you might be entertained by inside carriage life. Chinese men do not like to wear many clothes on the train (even in second class); at least they take most of their clothes off as soon as they board in Beijing. They immediately start stripping down to boxers only, unable to allow the cosmopolitan aura of an international city gradually wear off. Maybe this is just a hot weather thing. After all, it was 35 C.
Another interesting and probably unique event is the replacement of all of the wheels on each carriage with narrower ones (“bogie change”) at the border. Yes, that is, the wheels of every carriage must be replaced as the width of the rails in Mongolia and Russia (Russian gauge) is about 3 inches narrower than the standard gauge of Chinese rails. Train aficionados know all this stuff to the millimetre. After a hot day on the train with fans blowing at top speed, the traveler at the China – Mongolia border whiles away several evening hours waiting for customs clearance, shopping at the only grocery store along the entire line and waiting for the bogies to be changed in the rail shed. Anyone who happens to be on the train at bogie change time, goes off to the shed too, under full lock down. Upon recovery of the sinking sensation that the train has left you in Erlan, China, you just might wait out your time over another 750 ml of beer in the welcome evening air watching the customs officers beating away at their computers over your documentation. When the train finally arrives back (about 1 AM) don’t board without relieving yourself as your only points of relief on the train has been locked up solid. Every one of them. And the rail officials don’t take kindly to any begging to open them up until everyone has their papers back, the train brake is released and on to Mongolia…
With travel photography many people relax on the bus, weary after a day of snapping palaces and forts but the mode of transportation (or between transport) can often provide opportunities to capture local people in their environment. Jeep windows, bus seating, train platforms separate and elevate from the street level and can give a unique and unobstructed viewpoint. In developing countries like India, street portraits are everywhere so be ready, walking back to the train, when the day is done. The opportunity for street photography doesn’t end when the tour guide is tipped.
Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan, northern India
How early do you have to get up to see Indian tigers in their natural environment? At least 6:00 AM is a given. Ranthambore National Park is a sizeable swath of verdant bush, long controlled by the Rajputs and preserved soon after independence. The flagship of Project Tiger but, controversial in the preservation of tigers, in the 1970′s numbers plummeted. They have since regained to above 40. Travel through the park is in a bouncy twenty-seater truck called a “Canter” and the drivers stop at nothing but tigers. Reported sightings of same can bring about an immediate, neck wrenching about face and a scramble through the park at butt bouncing speed. After our “tiger sighting”, which amounted to barely more than the glimpse of an ear through foliage, after more than required maneuvering of the Canter through the park brush, we flew back through the park on rough, potholed roads. We had spent most of our visit looking for the elusive tiger and now that we had found one it was time to scramble regardless of any other animal sightings. It was all we could do to stop the driver for a rare (due to shyness) Sloth Bear lumbering through an open field in full view.
Our guide was more than smug about the bear. He had not seen one since the rainy season (8 months before). Nocturnal in nature (and thus not often seen by anyone) and lankier than black bears, Sloth Bears have a special mouth adaptation for sucking insects, their primary food source. This national park needs to get its priorities straight; one endangered animal does not a park make and harassing the tigers to give visitors a sighting does not give animals or humans a pleasant experience.
A highlight of Ranthambore National Park is the abundant chital deer, handsome in their soft fawn coat and spotted markings with three- pronged antlers. No doubt a tiger food source.
It was good to be on solid ground again and these Indian musicians were a welcome sight.