We were standing around drinking near the toilets at the Erlian border station shortly after midnight when Wayne asked what everyone was doing at this time last year. It seemed like a simple question but it took me ages to remember because it felt like so much longer ago and further away.
Last New Year, I went for a curry with Kate and Steve, then we hung out with Fred the greyhound watching the hootenanny and jeering every time anyone but Paolo Nutini came on to play. New Years Day I went home in the morning by way of a coffee at Casa Amiga, then I took my quiet hangover to see The Imitation Game (because Finn Polmar) and went home to bed. This year was so incredibly different it may as well have taken place in another universe.
But I’ll start at the beginning.
The plan ended up being that I would be on the train on New Years Eve. From Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. I booked this before most of my Russian trains because I needed to show my entry to China for the visa, and this was pretty much the only real thing I included on that visa application.
In any case, my plan was to make the best of it, Scotland style, and force a party on whomever may find themselves in my compartment. And when I met Felix and he ended up booking a ticket to join the train from Sainshand (halfway from UB to the border), I was OVERJOYED because I was finally sure I’d have at least one person to celebrate with. Lucky me, I ended up with him plus three more.
The train left UB at 7.15, so after meeting my compartment-mates Galaa (from UB and visiting home, now returning to Beijing to study) and Emma (from the UK, a lawyer who retired early, currently seeing the world), we all promptly went to sleep for a few hours.
I woke up before everyone else because I never sleep and stared out at the vast passing Mongolian landscape for a bit. Emma and Galaa slowly emerged from sleep and I told them to expect Felix at the next stop. Emma mentioned that Wayne, a guy from England she’d met while in UB, was also on the train in another compartment and would probably also join the party later. We stopped in Sainshand and gained our German just about 3pm and the epic, 12-hour, New Year train party began.
We started drinking the beer we’d acquired almost immediately while Felix shared Dinner for One with us. It’s this English short play that was originally aired in the 60s and has somehow become a German New Year tradition to watch. It’s actually hilarious. Apparently the thing to do is drink every time the butler trips over the tiger’s head. So of course we did. And now I have a NEW New Year tradition to add to my repertoire.
We ran out of beer quite quickly (completely underestimated ourselves) so Felix and Emma gathered up the rest of everyone’s Mongolian cash and trekked off the the restaurant car, making it just 5 minutes before they closed it and bought all the beer they could afford. This added to our stash of fizz for midnight and a whole bottle of Mongolian vodka did us well for the remaining hours of 2015 and the first few of 2016.
Chinese tracks are a different gauge from Mongolian, so when you go through the border, not only do you need to clear customs and immigration, you need to wait while the wheels on every carriage of your train get switched. According to the interweb, sometimes they let you off while this happens, sometimes they don’t. It seems to depend on the whims of the conductors. We were hoping they’d let us off so we could have a party somewhere the toilets were not locked, but once we got to the Chinese side and they gave us our passports back, Galaa, who had done the route a few times by now, said that things did not look good for us getting off before they changed the wheels.
So Felix and I sat in the corridor of the carriage with our vodka putting the world to rights to pass the time while we all got shunted back and forth and up and down during the wheel changing. And after about an hour or so of this, we got a small window where they were letting people off the train for the remainder of the border station stop. We threw on our shoes, gathered up the booze, and ran out to the station building where there were mercifully open toilets and even a wee shop upstairs.
This was about 30 minutes before the end of the year, so we readied our fizz and I queued up ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on my phone and the corks popped at midnight on some rubbish, too-sweet fizz when I made my favourite New Year toast (‘Start as you mean to go on’, of course) and there were hugs all around. We rescued Wayne from the train about 15 minutes later so he could rejoin the party, and we goofed off outside for another half an hour before taking the party back on board, watching Dinner for One again, and yammering into the wee hours.
The next morning, we all emerged an hour or two before pulling into Beijing and said our goodbyes. I was fairly certain I’d see Emma, Galaa, and Wayne again though. And Felix was now stuck with me for at least a few days at his own suggestion. So we went off to secure our tickets to Harbin, and ended up eating at McDonald’s in the train station (I know. I KNOW. Not my choice!) because entering China was far too much for our brains to handle unfamiliar food with a hangover, both from the festivities and the being so used to things written in Cyrillic.
We then spent another 8 hours on a bullet train north, by the end of which I think we knew each other better than I know most people after months, or even years. And it’s a good thing we found how incredibly well we got on, because our arrival in Harbin was, I would say, less than smooth.
I am used to organising everything for myself (and everyone else), so when a few days earlier this man I had only met once said, ‘Hey I’ve booked us two beds in a hostel in Harbin, it’s all sorted’ I was like, hey, someone else is doing some sorting out of things FOR me for once! Enjoy the luxury, Kate! And I just trusted that is was all dandy.
Then we got in a taxi and he didn’t have the address in Chinese. After a very confusing (and probably maddening for the driver) 10 minutes, we finally got the driver to call the phone number we had and listed to what seemed like one side of an overlong conversation for the purposes of finding out an address. But then he drove on. And we got to the place (its around 11pm at this point) to find out they’d given up our beds.
This is where the benefits of having a travel buddy became truly apparent, because one of us got to freak out and one of us got to remain calm, and things are just a bit more balanced when those two things don’t have to happen in the same person. I was actually the calm one this time around, but we tended to swap off in that respect over the following two weeks.
With the help of three girls staying int he hostel who had a bit of English, the receptionist managed to communicate to us they’d found us another place to stay. We just went with it because at that point we had little choice. There are a bunch of hotels and hostel in China that only take guests who are Chinese citizens, and I believe the place we ended up was one of those places. It was… mildly terrifying. I’m sure I was the only woman on the premises. They put us in a room all the way at the back. It dingy and cold and not very comfortable and everything smelled of smoke. There was one very dirty squat toilet for the whole place, and no shower (and ALLLLLL we wanted after being on trains for 48 hours was a friggin’ shower). But the people who worked there were really just trying to be helpful in a bizarre situation for everyone, and there wasn’t much else we could do but go to sleep and solve it in the morning.
When I woke up, I WiFi’d up and found that there was an Ibis hotel in the city centre that was not exorbitantly priced and insisted we would be staying there for the remainder of at least MY time in Harbin. This was not met with much protest, particularly after throwing my ‘you best believe I am in charge of this decision’ look. So within the hour, we were in a room with a western toilet and a proper hot shower and it was probably the most relieved I’ll ever be to be in a soulless budget European hotel chain in my life.
From then on, things got much better. We had some absolutely incredible food. We hung out with an American couple we met randomly in the street. They were teaching English in China and were on a weekend trip to the city. (And were also Lindy Hoppers!) We walked on the frozen river and took a ride in some tubes pulled by a snowmobile. I discovered a love for hawthorn berries dipped in sugar. We wandered through the magical ice festival in awe despite our fingers and toes being completely numb just about the whole time. And somehow, rather than getting entirely sick of one another, we decided to stick together for the next 10 days until Felix headed back to Germany from Shanghai.
But only after agreeing I would be in charge of hostel booking duties from now on. Of course.
Harbin was probably the most expensive leg of this trip, what with the hotel and the ice festival tickets and the last minute train bookings. I never would have gone if it weren’t for this dude I jumped in a freezing cold lake with convincing me to freeze a little bit more to see some lights in some ice. And despite the massive added expense and the numbing cold and the slightly shady first night of the year, I’m so happy I agreed to give it a go. Because I mean, just look at the pictures!
And, as I wrote in my notebook while this was all happening, what a fucking way to start a year.