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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.