• Date & Time: 24th August 2007, 12pm
  • Location: The hotel Hutiejuhengnuobinguan, Chinese border town of Erlian, the Gobi Desert
  • Time until next train: 6 hours
  • Length of next train journey (to the Mongolian capital, Ulanbaataar): 17 hours

    Hello. I’m sitting at my desk in my hotel room, just getting into the mood for crossing the Mongolian part of the Gobi by listening to my Mongolian CD.

    I spent the morning getting all necessary business done, namely changing money and buying a train ticket across the border. Stepping out of the hotel at 9am I was dismayed to see a queue stretching a long way down the street in front of the international ticket office. People were standing there clutching great wadges of passports – at this rate I’ll miss today’s train too! I said to myself.

    As it happened though, things went pretty smoothly. That is, until I reached the ticket window, where, contrary to what the policeman had told me, I found I couldn’t pay in US dollars. I asked the somewhat embarrassed policeman where I could change money, in response to which he commandeered an old granny standing nearby and commanded her to take me to a local grocery shop where the owner was happy to rip me off with her personal exchange rate. Armed with my yuen, I returned to the ticket office and picked up my passport, various official vouchers to get me across no-man’s land, and a ticket to the Mongolian border city. There, I shall have to buy the ticket to Ulanbaataar. For that transaction Mongolian Tugrik are necessary, and thus another exchange was called for. Reluctant to go back to the woman who had been only too pleased to see me before, I asked at the hotel reception where I could change some money. She babbled away in Chinese, me not understanding a word, and then drew a map for me directing me down the street. I followed the map, and at the point that she had indicated found a Post Office. In I go, and ask the clerk if I can buy some Tugrik. He looks at me in a disinterested fashion and shakes his head. I ask him where I can exchange money, which prompts him to heave himself of his comfy chair and take me for a walk a little further down the road. We enter another tiny little grocery shop, where the owner is apparently happy to change money.

    This time I’m prepared: I’ve checked the exchange rate (or at least that of a few days ago) on my MacBook, and have the precise amount written down. He looks at this, and somewhat surprisingly only takes about 20p commission. Mind you, he wasn’t gonna miss out on this opportunity to get all he could off me, and so when I asked him how much my two bottles of iced tea, Cadbury’s Wispa, bread rolls and cup ramen cost, he told me 42 yuen – that’s about £2.50. What a rip-off! There was no way I was going to pay that, and in fact I didn’t actually have that much money on me, at least not until the hotel gave me my £7 deposit back. I told him I’d be back later – and later back I shall go, ready with my “That’s too expensive” phrase.

    I then went to look for some kind of internet access to tell the yurt owners that I’ve been delayed again. I decided to go and ask the very kind man in the travel shop who had told me all about the ticket-to-Mongolia system, and sure enough he came up trumps, switching on the pc at his desk and initiating the dial-up connection. I sent my mail, and thanked him many times; he was grateful for the 4 yuen (28p) I handed him.

    I’ve been told that although the train leaves at 6pm, I need to be there for 3pm to get through immigration and so forth. It’s gonna be a long day.

    I’ve been meaning to tell you a little more about Datong, the first city on the Trans-Siberian after Beijing.

    Riding from the station to the hotel on the 7p bus was quite an experience. The bus itself is a stunning mix of old and new. Whilst it sported an LED display (its disconnected wires dangling down) and the latest in IC-card technology (‘touch and ride’, no need to fiddle about with change), it also had a huge tank of water behind the drivers seat, with a hose going through a whole in what could be loosely termed a ‘dashboard’; I guessed this was feeding some kind of cooling system. The problem was though that the tank wasn’t actually watertight, thus every time we slowed down, speeded up or turned a corner water sloshed out of the top and onto the floor.

    There were many traders with their jumble of plastic goods laid out on blankets on the dusty streets, people selling peaches from carts (sometimes sleeping soundly on top of the carts next to their produce!), burst water mains flooding the road, and what’s that? A donkey and cart! And another one! They start appearing everywhere, usually with a load of watermelons or other assorted fruit behind them, led by an old man.

    Checking in to the once pretty snazzy hotel was an amusing experience. I only had 200 yuen (£14) on me, thus the 250 yuen room charge was beyond my budget. When my phrasebook skills hit a brick wall, a phone call was made, and a young girl in a long pink traditional dress appeared. “Hello! How can I help?”.

    Her English was pretty good, and thus I was able to discuss all sorts of options such as cleaning the floor, or teaching her more English in exchange for a discount. Eventually a deal was struck – I could stay for 185 yuen if I didn’t eat in the hotel restaurant. This was fine by me. I handed over my passport, and they then proceeded to photocopy my Japanese student visa instead of my Chinese visa. Error rectified, we took photos and up I went to my room, which all in all wasn’t half bad.

    The following day I spent hours trying to sort out a ticket for Jining. What a palaver! With not enough yuen to get me to Erlian I needed a bank, but was told that there was only one in this huge city that would change foreign money. Reluctant to take a bus and get completely lost, I opt for a taxi, writing down “Bank of China” and “place to change foreign money” on a slip of paper for him to read. 10 minutes and 35p later we arrive at the bank. In I go, and wait in line until served. It seemed to take forever to carry out this transaction. As I waited I glanced around, noting the fact that they don’t have money kept in drawers – the just use big metal suitcases to keep their dough in. The other thing that caught my attention was the little electronic staff name cards with 3 buttons on. In English and Chinese they read, “With your help, how was my service today?”. Once could then press the button that best summed up your feelings – satisfactory, average, dissatisfactory. I wondered if this meant that for the average Chinese banking customer, the service was neither satisfactory nor dissatisfactory – what might that be?

    You know in the UK we have signs on the doors of banks saying “No helmets”, well it’s not really a security issue here. You see, for one thing, no one wears helmets, but more importantly even if one did it wouldn’t really be as much of a threat to bank security as the other thing – people ride their motorbikes into the bank! I kid you not. There were two people in there actually sitting on their bikes whilst being served. It’s not as if this is a drive-through bank either. It’s a proper Bank of China bank, with a polished marble floor and three steps down to the street. Talk about being able to make a fast getaway!

    Eventually I managed to buy my ticket (after being referred to about 5 different station departments!), and boarded the train for Erlian. It was standing room only, but I didn’t mind as it was only a couple of hours. After a little while, I was approached by a 15 year old girl who speaks a little English. She invites me over to talk with her and her granny; I am only too happy to oblige. We go through all the basics, her granny (a high school teacher) doing more of the questioning than her, constantly prodding her grand-daughter to ask me this that and the other. Meanwhile, she is constantly feeding me hot water; I’m a bit mystified by this as it’s a boiling hot day, but assume that it’s some health thing, and sip away as slowly as possible. After a while it becomes clear that the 15 year old boy is understanding some of what I’m saying. I ask him if he speaks English – he does, a little. The process is now repeated with his mum, a maths teacher in her late 30s quizzing me on what I’m doing. The subject turns to my ring – am I married? I produce a photo of *Twinkle* and tell our story. When they hear that she is Japanese they all make a great deal of noise: “but Japanese girls are so beautiful and sweet! You are very lucky man!”

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    We exchange contact details, and as the train pulls into my station I promise I’ll keep in touch.

    I was only alone for an hour or so, as it was shortly after I alighted there that I met Tom.

    Well, check out time is upon me, and I must go do battle with the man who sells Cadbury’s chocolate.

    See you in Mongolia!

    love Joseph