Hello Mongolia


  • Date & Time: 24th August 2007, 10.13pm
  • Carriage 8, bed 9, train to Ulanbaataar from China. Currently just inside Mongolia, Gobi Desert
  • It was so funny when we were waiting to get through customs and immigration. As mentioned in my previous entry, I’d got to the station pretty early and so was first in line. The initial line was that for the first of 2 luggage x-ray machines; all major Chinese stations have them at the entrance for some reason. That wasn’t so bad, as there wasn’t all that much waiting involved, thus not too much pushing and shoving. After that it was the customs x-ray machine. By this time people were starting to get excited, and there was about 30 minutes of waiting for the officials to show up for them to get inventive with their queue jumping. Now, once again, I was right at the front, standing on the yellow line in front of the immigration booth. Seeing this, about 10 Chinese men who’d turned up late started to slowly edge their luggage under the barrier next to me. When the official on duty turned his back, they proceeded to shove it forward until it was right up against the official booth – and they were now standing in front of me!

    The crowds – and their luggage – begin to gather in front of the station
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    I didn’t mind too much, after all, seats were assigned according to ticket, so being first in line wouldn’t really make any difference in the end.

    But the game wasn’t over yet. The men continued to edge forward whenever the official turned his back until eventually they managed to make it all the way past the booth to the x-ray machine. Eager to get through quickly they then started to place their packages on the machine’s (stationary) conveyor belt! The more they put on, the further into the machine it was pushed – if they carried on like that it would be coming out the other side! …and all this time the immigration staff were still in their office behind the scenes. Now and then a station worker would tell the men (kids) to get back behind the line, but they’d just argue with him until he gave way. It was all pretty funny to watch. I tried to imagine what would happen if they did this in Japan – something tells me they wouldn’t get too far!

    The atmosphere in our cabin is really nice. After a 90 minute walk around the border station (during which I met a very interesting Mongolian student who spoke excellent English, as well as Spanish, Korean and a bit of Chinese), we were back on board, welcomed by the two women in charge of our carriage and its little coal fire. During the first part of our trip they were pretty scary, barking at us to shut our window, yelling in high pitched blabbles for us stow our luggage properly. Now they know our faces, and now we are playing the role of obedient passengers, they are being kind and caring.

    The matrons

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    Once the four of us were seated, the main man, one of the 50 year olds from Shanghai, I’ll call him Barry, asked me for my penknife and cut one of his 6 watermelons from the net under one of the bottom bunks. He divided it into 8 slices, and together we sloshed away at the sweet flesh. Being a bit nervous about one of the matrons showing up and telling us off for getting the carpet wet, we shut the door and tried to keep the noise down. MMmmmmm, it was delicious. …Barry and the other older chap, let’s call him Harold (as he does remind me of the famous Mr. Bishop of Neighboursfame) are now comparing stomach sizes, teasing one another about being overweight.

    From left: Harold and Barry

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    It’s now getting on for 11pm, and I’m feeling dozy. I think I might retire to my bunk and get a bit of sleep. When I wake up we should have finished our Gobi Desert crossing, and will be close to the Mongolian Capital.

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    Oyasumi xxx

    Thoughts whilst waiting for the train


  • Date & Time: 24th August 2007, 2pm
  • Location: entrance lobby of station, Chinese border town of Erlian, the Gobi Desert
  • Time until next train: 4 hours
  • I don’t really need to be here this early – check-in for the international train doesn’t start for another hour – but I’ve had a look round town and had enough of the dust and heat.

    I managed to get my grocery bill halved, simply by going through my collection of food and asking how much each item was, then saying ‘that’s too expensive’ in Chinese to every price quoted. Turns out he was trying to charge me £1.40 for the Cadburys chocolate, double the UK price! I got him down to 70p on that, although he had the last laugh as after I’d eaten half of it I spotted the Best Before date – it was 2003!! Despite being over 4 years old it tasted pretty good, so I ate the rest of it. I’m now stocked up with coconut bread, pot noodles and plenty of water.

    Young workers on the Chinese railway

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    Scene: 2 hours later, sitting on the train, 90 mins till departure for Mongolia

    Myself and three chaps from Shanghai have now settled into our sleeping carriage – it seems most people have brought everything but the kitchen sink, thus the carriage is absolutely packed with boxes and suitcases. As we sit here waiting for departure, so local people keep on stopping at our door clutching great big nets of huge watermelons, boxes of peaches, bottles of half-frozen water and cartons of ice lollies. A sack of 6 watermelons will set you back £1.50 – makes a change from Japan!

    I’ve acquired some informants, a group of three girls, a Mongolian and 2 Mongolian-speaking Koreans who also speak English. Apparently the train to Ulanbaataar from the Mongolian border town that this train is heading for is fully booked – seats are sold out until mid-September, and there’s not even standing room available for tonight’s train. It seems that all remaining tickets were bought up by touts who will auction them off at extortionate rates on the platform. There’s a second rumour though, and that’s that we can buy a connecting ticket here on the train before we get to Mongolia. I’m a bit confused as to whether this actual train will go all the way to my destination or whether we have to change on the Mongolian side. Well, I’ll just do what my friends do, as I’m clueless. They said they’d keep me informed.

    A small business in the border town of Erlian

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    Meeting so many people along the way means that I haven’t really felt lonely at all on this trip. Well, actually, there have been two moments when I was filled with a rush of despair and isolation, longing to be with *Twinkle*. they were when I arrived at my hotel in Datong, and again here in Erlian. The Datong incident was soon dealt with as I found a broadband internet port behind the bedside table, and in Erlian I distracted myself by listening to a couple more chapters of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore – thanks for the recommendation Tom, and thanks for the download Audible.co.uk!

    I dislike the idea of not being happy being alone, as it suggests that one does not like one’s own company, which in my mind is not a good thing. If one doesn’t love oneself (I don’t mean in an egotistical or narcissistical way) then one can’t give so much love to others. I mean, think of someone you know who is very happy with themselves – doesn’t their radiance rub off on you?

    I’m finding writing quite therapeutic, and am very glad I brought my MacBook with me. I find it pretty shocking just how forgetful I am though – I’ve been taking notes on a pad of paper along the way, and find it hard to recall the days when I’ve not written anything.

    I’m trying not to think about arriving at my final destination, the UK. Even a brief moment of imagining being there fills me with fear and upset, as it confirms my separation from Japan and *Twinkle*. Those first couple of weeks will be spent visiting friends before I return to Sheffield, and I imagine I’ll be in a bit of a mess, not really wanting to be there. That I am sort of looking forward to, back in my own private space, in touch with my friends in Japan thanks to the broadband, surrounded by my belongings from Japan. I’d like to think I’m a free nomad, not needing the comfort of possessions or a fixed routine, but that’s not the case. I am yet to reach that stage of stillness.

    That’s not to say I’m not happy travelling, because I am, despite the very real concerns of having my belongings stolen. Time and time again I have been warned about ‘the bad people’ – they’re worse in Mongolia you know. I have my passport and money in a hidden belt, my wallet attached to that with a cord. I never let my black rucksack out of my possession, as it contains everything of value that I own. The green one is just clothes and tea, so whilst it would be a pain if it was nicked I could easily replace everything it contains. I’ve avoided alcohol altogether ever since I left Shanghai; I just can’t be too careful.

    Bye-bye China

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    Scene: 3 Hours later. Sitting on the train at the Mongolian border town of thingamijig, Gobi Desert, waiting for immigration to process our passports.

    Turns out the rumours were true and false. The false one was that we had to change trains and that all seats were already gone. The true one was that we can buy a ticket through to our destination from a women on board. 36,000 Mongolian Tugrik for the 13 hour trip to the Capital on a comfortable sleeper – that’s £15. Mind you, sheets and the cup of tea handed out upon boarding are extra – a whole 1000 Tugrik, or 43p. I’m sharing a 4-berth cabin with three blokes from Shanghai. Two of them are in their 50s, the other is a university student. None of them speak English, so communication is limited to the sentences my phrasebook contains and a large piece of paper now covered in pictures. We’ve shared a few laughs and a bag of pumpkin seeds, and helped one another out with the immigration forms. When given a Chinese form I asked for the English version – the immigration official had a leaf through his pile of blanks but couldn’t find one, so handed me the Mongol script version and burst out laughing. I thanked him in my best Mongolian, bayarlaa. That made him laugh too.

    There’s not much to see round here as we’re surrounded by freight trains. There’s a bunch of kids running around the yard, now and then pulling some lever under the carriage, causing a dramatic release of compressed air. Let’s hope it’s not going to disable the brakes.

    A two-hour wait at the border gives us a chance to stretch our legs

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    One thing I noticed in Erlian was that far fewer people looked at me. I guess being a border town they’re used to seeing foreigners – it made a refreshing change.

    For some reason the train is now heading back towards China. Not entirely sure why, but according to my carriage mates it’s quite normal. As long as we don’t go too far – I left my passport back there!

    tatta for now!

    Doing Business in China


  • 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

  • The hotel Hutiejuhengnuobinguan


  • Date & Time: 23rd August 2007, 10.30pm
  • Location: The hotel Hutiejuhengnuobinguan, Chinese border town of Erlian, the Gobi Desert
  • Distance travelled from Beijing: 842km
  • Time until next train: 20 hours
  • I don’t really get what the architect was thinking when he was designing the bathroom in my large, clean and fairly modern hotel room. It’s an all-in-one affair: sink on the left, toilet in the middle, shower on the right. But there’s no shower tray or curtain, just the head attached to the wall. The floor is tiled, but is lacking in any kind of drainage channel. Being the same level as the tiled floor of my room proper, when one has a shower the waste water, soap and all, hits the wall, runs down to the floor, runs under the door and floods the entrance hallway. The toilet also gets a good soaking, as does the toilet paper.

    Despite this, tonight’s unanticipated hotel stop is turning out to be a lot more pleasant that last night’s. For a start the white-washed walls are not covered in mosquito corpses and dried blood; all the lights work, the floor is clean (apart from the bit by the front door which has a nice coating of soap-scum!) and the price is the regular price, as shown in the hotel brochure (£7).

    Arriving in the border town of Erlian, I was kind of expecting a connecting train to Ulanbaataar, 700km to the north. I’ve had my thinking conditioned by a Year in Japan – here in the Inner Mongolian Gobi Desert there’s only one train a day, and I’d missed it by 30 minutes. I only found this out half an hour after we arrived at the end of our 7 hour trip from Jining. One of my friends from the train (who had earlier saved me from accidentally getting off at the wrong station) took it upon himself to find out where I could get a ticket to the Mongolian capital. He didn’t speak any English (no-one did on today’s train, although to be honest I was glad of a break from constant chatter), but we managed to get by with my phrasebook and sign language. First, we did a tour of the station’s many ticket halls – all said they couldn’t sell cross-border tickets and I’d have to go to an agent, the location of which they didn’t know. Feeling stumped, we stood together thinking. I then suggested that we ask the police, writing the simple kanji for ‘Police’ that I’d picked up (literally ‘Public Safety’ if given the Japanese meaning) on the palm of my hand.

    The police were just as unhelpful as the station staff, simply pointing in the direction of the main city and talking about some agent. It was at this point that I started to get a bit worried, picturing myself stuck in this place for days on end, unable to get a ticket for any train north. My first impression of Erlian is that it’s not the most hospitable of towns. It’s kind of raw, it’s got that wild border-town feeling, ungoverned by any authorities – the hundreds of kilometres of Gobi Desert providing an effective barrier between Beijing and the locals.

    Little boys on the streets of Erlian
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    The filthy streets are more sand than asphalt. Carrier bags do American Beauty dances wherever you look. Taxi drivers circle around in front of the station, hooting their horns to get your attention, even when they’re in what could be loosely described as a taxi rank. Half of the shops are empty; those that are occupied have thick plastic curtains hanging from their door frames to keep the dust out, behind which stand owners who don’t seem to want to have anything to do with the foreigner and his guide.

    The main street, Erlian

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    Eventually we find a little non-descript business, the owner of which speaks a few English words, and is happy to advise. He tells me that I can get a ticket to Ulaanbaatar from his neighbour in the morning, it’ll cost 360 yuen (£24) for the 16-hour overnight trip. For the time being though I’ll have to stay here. He points at this hotel, a recommendation I accept, its size and prominence reassuring the part of me that is sure that everyone is trying to scam me. I thank him, and turn around to thank my fellow passenger, but he has vanished – his wife had been anxious to get home.

    My train doesn’t leave until 6pm tomorrow, although this isn’t an issue as I’m sure I’ll have plenty of fun in the meantime attempting to change some dollars into Mongolian Tugriks, and trying to find somewhere to send an email to the yurt owners to tell them of my further delay. (I’d experienced a brief flash of joy when I first turned my MacBook on here in the hotel room – there was a wireless network! Unfortunately it turned out to be an internal thing, and is not connected to the www. The hotel receptionist, when I asked her about internet, happily assured me that there was no such thing in this city).

    Right, time for bed.

    Beijing Duck


    Time: Mid-morning, 23rd August 2007
    Location: On the local train heading north towards the Gobi Desert from Jining.
    Thoughts: Hmm, now I understand why the windows are sealed shut – if they weren’t the train would turn into a moving sand pit!

    The landscape is pretty flat in these parts. Long thin strips of crops occasionally break the stoney grassland, turning it into a rainbow of greens, yellows and browns. For the most part a line of trees protects the banks of the railway from erosion, and the trains from being tossed from the line in the vicious spring winds (they are not always successful in doing this, as the occupants of a train just like this one discovered a few months back).

    The carriage air is now full of fine particles of dust. It doesn’t smell all that good either as the two guys next to me have just taken their shoes off. One of them clears his throat and spits on the floor. I guess he hasn’t seen the Beijing Olympics ads on CCTV.

    My Final night in Beijing

    I shall now backtrack, to pick up my story that I left off with with the photos of the Great Wall.

    Once back in Beijing, I decided to explore the old part of town, the network of little alleyways that, as mentioned in a previous blog, house a quarter of the city’s population. What a fascinating place! I was mesmorised by the glimpses I got of life the other side of the door frames that marked the entrance to the walled-in communities. Many of these are now protected by preservation orders, as they date back to, erm, a long time ago, and have been victim to modern development projects. Some cunning foreigners (and increasing the locals) have seen these tumbledown grey-bricked shacks as great investment opportunities: they are, after all, in the very heart of Beijing. Subsequently, new cafes with Western menus, ethnic shops of the kind you will see in any Western city and swanky wood-floored Jacuzzi-equipped homes for the elite have sprung up – not a bad thing, as without this money the homes would be reduced to rubble in no time.

    Fruit and veg shop in the Hutong area
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    As evening drew close, so I returned to Ku-san’s apartment. Short on cash, I take the subway to the other side of town. I’ll still need to get a taxi, but it’ll cost considerably less. Once again I am mesmerised by the electronic ads that are displayed on TVs on the tunnel wall. They are programmed to display a perfect sequence of images, adjusted to match the speed of the train as it passes. We stop at a station, and suddenly the carriage is filled with singing. A heavily scarred man has got on the train with a microphone attached to a specially adapted rucksack containing an amp and a speaker where the back pocket usually is – busking, Beijing style. Once home I have a quick shower, and then we’re all out into the waiting taxi: it was time for the local speciality, Beijing Duck.

    Go into any supermarket in Beijing and you will be struck by just how many ducks there are. All dead of course, and pre-cooked, in bags. Anyone would the eat duck the way we drink tea; it made me glad I wasn’t a duck in China.

    We weren’t going to eat in the supermarket though, no, I was being treated to what will probably turn out to be the most delicious meal of this entire trip at one of the capital’s top restaurants. The endorsements said it all; alongside the various framed letters of thanks (for a great duck) signed by many ambassadors was one from the King of Morocco, saying he’s never tasted a more delicious quacker. The service wasn’t bad either – as soon as you walk in you are presented with a bar where you can help yourself to free plum juice, tea, or wine.

    [crikey, this guys feet reaaaaallly stink}

    Watching the ducks being cooked was quite a spectacle. Behind the glass wall, a team of chefs hauled ducks in and out of great flame-powered ovens, now and then dangling them directly over the fires to crisp off their skin. When it came to serving them, the duck was brought out whole on a small trolley, and one of the chef’s would carve it up for you, placing the thin slices upon a bed of lettuce. The head, beak and all, was unceremoniously snapped off, and then chopped in half and used as a presentation piece to a single piece of breast meat that was supposedly the most delicious.

    Beijing ducks. As seen in Tokyo, not Beijing due to temporary lack of a camera
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    [Crikey, the train’s just speeded up to what I guess to be about 50mp/h. The way it’s shaking from side to side I think I’d prefer it stuck to its previous 15mp/h!]

    Accompanying the duck was an assortment of dishes, including venison, some gorgeous bamboo shoots served with crispy seaweed, and a duck soup served in a real hollow orange with its top chopped off. All in all, it was gorgeous, and I felt thoroughly privileged. Ku-san, THANK YOU! It shall not be forgotten!

    I’m really very grateful to Ku-san, not just for the food and bed, but for the friendship that I found to be such a great comfort just a few days after leaving my home. It set me up for this long journey north; just knowing that you are there a few hundred kilometres away is a great comfort.

    2 hours later. The Gobi desert

    It’s a captivating landscape. Vast stretches of sandy grassland, punctuated by nothing but the rare gathering of disfigured trees. There’s no sign on any agriculture – the ground is just too dry. Any rivers there are do not carry water – they are just channels of dust, devoid of all signs of life. More than once I have mistaken them for dirt roads, roads without traffic. Every thirty minutes or so the train grinds to a halt at a seemingly deserted collection of tumbledown walls and dishevelled slate roofs. Do people really live here? What do they do? How do they survive? The wind removes what top soil there is and replaces it with sand, the rain …what rain?

    Life on the train continues to bustle. Families left right and centre scoop out the innards of halved watermelons, or munch on ice lollies sold by the staff who walk down the isle with boxes of snacks. Some compartments have a coal stove at the end on which one of the many conductors boils water in a big kettle; he then brings this round to us for our drinks flasks and pot noodles. Several hours into the trip many people are dozing, attempting to comfortable on this narrow plastic coated seats that make your bum sweat. There’s a lot of people standing in the corridor, all seats having been sold. With only two trains a day one can’t afford to be picky.

    Beijing West station

    This was the scene that greeted me at the incredible Beijing West station a few days back, after I’d said goodbye to Ku-san, his wife and daughter. Initially I’d seen the ‘soft class’ sleeper section, with its royal blue bed spreads and comfy-looking chairs. “Wow, not bad, not bad at all”, I thought, as I headed down the platform to my carriage, the carriage full to bursting, with people leaning out of the windows, huge crowds crammed around the doorways, a granny being lifted up so she could get her foot on the first step into the carriage.

    I told myself that this was far better than the comfort of the Royal Blue beds – this way I get to travel with all the characters, the way that most Chinese go. Entering the carriage, I start looking for my seat – Number 9. Everyone stares at me as I try to make sense of the seat numbers, and then suddenly, some one says in English, “What’s your seat number?”.

    I turn around and see a Chinese man in his 50’s, and next to him his wife. They are smiling; “Your seat number, which it is?”

    Dr. Ci Jun Liu and his wife turned out to be Chinese Canadians. Born and raised in China, Dr Liu studied in Maryland, before him and his family moved to Canada in the 1980s. They were now on their annual trip to China to visit their families, and today they were going to the same place as me, Datong, several hours West of Beijing.

    Dr Liu

    How lucky could I be?! I Took my place by the open window, opposite a smiley young girl and a bossy granny. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the folks around my table, and those around the table opposite (including Dr. Liu) became best buddies – we were one big happy family! I watched as the train continued to fill up; little boys dragging hessian sacks; people with mini-luggage trolleys stacked with huge great computer monitors; 5-litre bottles of water, plastic bags full of peaches, bananas and fresh dates from southern China.

    With the train not yet moving, the temperature slowly rose, sweat dripping from my every pore. Seeing this, Dr Liu offered me a drink of a Chinese speciality – hawthorn berry juice, good for preventing heart attacks (and cooling one down on a hot day!). Beethoven’s 9th symphony drifted over the intercom; this was later to change to the local folk music of all areas that we passed through. A mixture of coal and tobacco smoke drifted in from the vestibule area where the conductor was stoking the fire to boil the kettle.

    Finally, the journey began. Leaving Beijing, I was struck by how different landscape this was from that that I’d seen from the bullet train from Shanghai. There, floods and swollen rivers were the order of the day – here, between the rocky peaks that rose up beside us, small terraced crops of maize and sunflowers struggled for survival. It was mountainous terrain, with the train passing through over 40 tunnels. At several points we passed huge great power-producing lakes, the result of communist China’s first great construction projects in the 1950s. Then came the vineyards, home to the grapes of China’s most famous wine, the name of which I forget. (It’s a Chinese name in case you’re interested..!). The coal-powered power stations were never far away – don’t you know, Datong is famous for its coal, being exported as far away as the UK for its unique light-it-with-one-match properties.

    Water-starved disfigured trees now dot the landscape

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I’m handed a delicious peeled pair by a woman across the way – one of this year’s new crop. We share sunflower seeds, watermelon seeds, and a few delicacies that I’ve not come across before.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Dr. Liu translates questions and answers for other passengers until a crowd gathers. It seems that amongst the onlookers is a shy English speaker named Hao Yin, an 18-year-old girl studying business English. He encourages her to talk to me, but she is too shy. In a bid to encourage her, I produce Pepe the penguin, “Talk to him, he doesn’t mind if you make mistakes, and he’ll tell me what you say”. Dr Liu translates for the crowd, and there is much laughter, the girl, despite being a bit embarrassed, can’t help but smile herself. This seems to break the ice though, and in broken English she begins to ask me a series of questions.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    As we near our destination, I ask my new friends if they have any recommendations on where to stay in Datong. A couple who until now have been passive participants in our party speak up – yes, they know of a good hotel in one of the less dodgy areas. It just so happens that they are going that way themselves, why don’t I take the bus with them?

    Arriving at Datong station, I say my goodbyes to Dr. Liu and co., and follow my new friends onto bus number 4. They insist on paying my fare (7 pence / US 14 cents), and tell me where to get off. I thank them profusely for their help and kindness, and wave goodbye. Everyone oggles out of the window of the bus at the foreigner who can say ‘thank you’ in Chinese. I wave enthusiastically, raising a laugh or two and prompting a couple of waves in return.

    I felt blessed to have met those people on my first short stretch of the trans-siberian proper. It was a nice ease-in to the world of Chinese local trains. Dr Liu, I thank you for your kindness, and wish you a happy visit to your brother’s hometown, and a safe journey home next month.

    The landscape has become increasingly desolate over the past couple of hours of writing. Proper sand is now becoming a prominent feature, not just yellowish grass. The stations, a single building with an antenna and a large satellite dish, are becoming fewer and further between, and it makes one wonder why they have them at all – there’s nothing here! I look left, I look right. Nothing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an endless horizon on land before; it’s just a sea of flat, brownish grass; no hills, no mountains, no nothing but a small power line following the railway.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I’m getting a little peckish now so I think I’ll tuck into my over-priced salted soya beans. We must be approaching the border soon, that’s if the guidebook is to be believed. I have no timetable to go by, it’s just a case of sitting here and waiting. With the train rolling along at speeds like this it’ll be wonder if we ever make it!

    Tarra for now.