- Food & Drink
It’s 6am on the 8th October and I’m watching dawn’s fat pink fingers slowly work their way up the track outside Ulaanbaatur’s train station. I’m also trying to wipe the taste of the worst cup of tea from my mouth.
I’m taking a break from the station cafe. Superheated by the meaty steam of mass produced buuz and a cauldron of scalding water that pours cup after cup of instant Mongolian milk tea, it has an atmosphere that only sharp pickles and hot sauce could cut.
We were the only Westerners to sit in the cafe. The others, panicked by the lack of an 8.15 train to Beijing on the board, preferred to wait in the nipping cold of the platform. DJ, Leonard and I opted to stay warm in the cafe and take turns walking outside in case a massive train with Ulaanbaatur-Beijing written on it pulled in. The locals were insouciant and spent their time drinking tea and wrestling in front of the counter.
At 8.15 a massive train with Ulaanbaatur-Beijing written on it pulled in and we clambered on board. The train was identical to the three trains we’d previously ridden on, except that the reign of the vacuum proud provodnitsa was over. Clumps of dust decorated the seat backs, desert sands streaked the windows into opacity and little piles of sand sat on the inside of the window frames. It was also really, really cold. The hats and fleeces we’d been pointlessly carrying around suddenly became useful and we piled into them.
As we walked down the train, it became apparent that it was only our coach that was freezing. Everyone else had changed into t-shirts and cotton trousers and we sweated our way past cabins of folks fanning themselves until we reached the dining car.
Here was a transformation. The rest of the train might be careworn plastic and polyester, but the dining car was carved from wood and decorated with worked leather and miniature weapons. It glowed buttery gold in the morning sun. This was the place to spend the journey, luxuriating in fantasy opulence. Everyone else thought so, too. It was packed.
We went back for a late lunch at 2pm. The dining car was hot. We were chuntering through the Gobi desert and the sun was pouring in. So was the sand. I was wearing glasses and kept cleaning them, thinking that would lift the haze. It didn’t and the waitress approached our table through a shimmering mist that made us squint and peer.
The menu was long but could essentially be boiled down to ‘meat with rice and potatoes’. I went for steak with onions. Leonard ordered the same and DJ went for some sort of sizzling steak dish. We also had bottles of excellent Mongolian beer.
My meal arrived on a fantastic white plate with an elegant train company logo printed on it. This was exactly how I imagined train dining would be. Except, that is, for the food. The steak had been beaten flat, thoroughly cooked and it had the faintest hint of liver about it.
The rice and the chips were cold. The pickled red cabbage and pickled carrot salad were dull, which is remarkable for pickled vegetables. The fried onions were alright. It wasn’t horrible, but I did wonder why I was eating it. The answer, I think, was that everything else would be equally as bad, if not worse. DJ managed to order something worse.
The best thing about her sizzling steak was the hot, cast iron, cow-shaped plate it came on. I like a plate to mock the food it’s on and what better than a cow-shaped plate for steak? However, I don’t think the chef should mock the meat, too. If my steak tasted faintly offaly, DJ’s tasted exactly like liver. It even had the texture of liver, but it wasn’t was liver. It was pounded muscle that had been cooked to taste like flabby slices from a cirrhotic cow’s overburdened organs.
We ordered more beer and melting Twixes and played cards until the waitress barked at us: ‘No cards!’ and slammed down the bill. We paid it, ordered more beer and carried on talking. The chef, the waitress, the poor, unfortunate dead cow might all have been conspiring to make us hate the Mongolian dining car but we refused to. We journeyed through the Gobi drunk and with nascent indigestion and we loved it.