• Time: 06:30, Thursday 23rd of August 2007 (This means nothing to me. Time in the manmade sense lots its relevance last week) (This could be why I keep on missing trains…)
  • Location: ‘Characterful’ lodgings, city of Jining, 498km north-west of Beijing, China
  • Moments of sheer wowness in last 24 hours: too many to count
  • Feeling: this is what it’s all about
  • I wake-up after a fitful five hours sleep here on the ground floor of a hostel type affair that is apparently run by the railway station management. This city, in addition to being an important player in the region’s coal industry, is a major railway junction, the last outpost of civilisation before the long haul north into the Eastern fringes of the Gobi desert (inner Mongolia) – a fact confirmed for me by the near-continuous hooting of air-horns by freight trains on the tracks in front of the building. They kept the noise down for about 6 hours, but have once again begun their raucous calls. Anyone would think they are looking for a mate. Other disturbances throughout the night included mosquitos, their high-pitched whine in my ear sending me further under the stiflingly hot thick duvet. With day-time temperatures reaching 34 degrees and nights not being all that much cooler, I am dripping hot, but if it’s a case of mozzie bite or sweat, I’ll go for the sweat. There’s plenty of them in the room, although all but one are dead, making up the for the plainness by providing colourful red splodges on the whitewashed walls. I’ve been horrified by the amount of blood that comes out of them, especially when they die on my white MacBook keyboard’s ‘Ctrl’ key – I hadn’t even seen the blighter; it was basically a case of unfortunate timing on his part.

    Couriers outside Jining Station

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    Another disturbance last night was the owner of this 3-storey block of rooms. It must have been about 3am when the shouting started. Every 10 seconds or so a man (who I assume to be the same old feller who has dealt with my stay here up until now) let out a bark from the reception room neighbouring my private dorm. It was quite bizarre. There were no other sounds to indicate the presence of others, just this solitary voice, shouting in what sounded like anger.

    I was pretty surprised to find that he was actually the owner. Arriving in this desolate little town (has a small-town feel despite the population of 1 million) at 5pm yesterday, I emerged from the front of the station and had a look for the ticket office – they’re nearly always housed in a separate building to the side of the main block. Seeing some chinese characters that seemed to be suggesting tickets, I head over to a little 1-storey hut: I am greeted by a group of old men, perhaps in their 60s, their skin a dark brown from endless hours in the unforgiving sun, their clothes torn, cigarettes hanging from their lips. One in particular seems interested in my fate. I repeat the name of the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar; there is a shaking of heads and a babble of Chinese. He makes the gesture of sleeping, and points down the road to what I assume is a hotel he has a personal interest in introducing me to – it seems there are no more trains today, and I must stay in this dusty city, about which nothing is written in my guide book. I am not convinced, and I do not want to believe him. After all, this is a major rail junction, surely there must be more trains. And why should I believe this old guy? – I should ask some uniformed station staff.

    The ticket office staff have been looking on smiling at the foreigner, as has the remainder of the local population it seems. I find the transport section of my phrasebook, tell them I want to go to Ulaanbaatar, or at least the border city of Erlian: when is the next train? We find the time section, and he points to the “Tomorrow. 10.30am”. A wave of dismay washes over me, I have over 1000km to travel by the following night in order to reach my Yurt – at this rate I will never make it on time. OK, OK, so I can’t travel today, but for tomorrow’s train, where can I buy the tickets? He points at the old guy on the street, the one who had been badgering me to stay in his hotel. I raise my eyebrows, “really?!”. He says “Yes, OK”, and leaves it at that. Well, if the station staff tell me he’s to be trusted, I suppose I’d best give him a second chance.

    He beckons me to follow him. Rucksack of valuables firmly strapped to my front I stay a couple of steps behind him as we make our way down the deserted alleyway next to the railway line, until he points out a sign with Chinese characters I can read – “accommodation”. It looks pretty clean, and I am pleasantly surprised by my room with its tall ceiling, huge TV and clean white beds. He gives me a tour. These are the beds, I can have them both. This is the table. And look, here you have your own bathroom. I follow him one step into the windowless hole, and am struck by the stench of urine. There a shower head attached to the wall, a washing machine stacked with dirty linen, a toilet with no water in and a sink that has come dislodged from the wall; it balances precariously on its stand.

    He tells me that the ticket to the border town of Erlian, 350km to the north, will cost £1.40 (US$2.80). If I give him the money, he’ll go and buy it for me. Oh, and the room – that’s £7 for the night. A little steep I think, but I don’t have much choice, and he has been very kind as to persevere with making the foreigner understand what’s going on. Soon after he has left a woman in a flowery dress enters the room with a huge red thermos flask of hot water and a paper cup. I thank her, remove the cork stopper and make myself a cup of tea with the leaves I was given following my £45 mishap in Shanghai.

    Sitting back on my bed, I flick through the TV channels. It seems somewhat in character that the buttons on the remote control do the opposite of their intended function” volume up is volume down, channel up channel down. There’s not that much on in any case, just the endless TV dramas from Hong Kong, badly dubbed into mandarin. I tell you, my rating of Japanese TV has gone up considerably since I came here. The most popular program (which appears to have 2 channels devoted to it, 24 hours a day), is one featuring a man dressed up as a monkey, who, with his friend in the pig mask, has all sorts of amazing magical adventures courtesy of some TV technician who clearly loves to play with (very cheap) special-effects software.

    The other thing that catches my eye is the endless broadcasting of adverts centered around the Beijing Olympics. Talk about a lesson in manners! The government has enrolled the services of some major celebrities to smile at people who they see doing good deeds for one another. A tricyclist is unwittingly about to lose his load of cardboard boxes – a young woman rushes over and saves the day, whilst Mr celebrity looks on, smiling and nodding as if to say “Now there’s a good girl”. Variations of the scene are replayed again and again: a lift door closes just as someone is about to get on – one of the people inside press the open-door button. A driver is about to reverse into a moped when a young girl steps in and bangs on the rear window. A worker leans back too far in his chair which starts to topple over – he is saved by a passer-by. Whilst these adverts may be a bit cringeable and cheesy, I like them a lot, and think that Japan should replace its entire TV schedule with them for a whole year.

    It’s then that I spot the large nude portrait on the windowsill behind the curtain. A Chinese woman stands clutching a Tea Pot. It’s nice I think, although a bit of an odd choice for a room in a guest-house, especially considering how realistic it is. Moving it to one side I can’t help but laugh at what I find: a half-used toilet roll. Ah, that’s why it’s here… How thoughtful of the management!

    As I sit there, I think back on all the people I’ve met since I left Beijing 30 hours previously. I marvel at the fortune I’ve had in this place where I only speak two words of the language, and the locals only two words of mine (“Hello” and “Bye Bye”).

    Following a few cups of tea, I debate what to do with myself. It’s still early, and I could either catch up on some badly-need sleep, or go out and explore this strange foreign place. I opt for the latter, and repack my bags so that I can carry all my valuables in a single rucksack, leaving the other one in the room. Using my best Mandarin (painstaking read out of my phrasebook), I tell the owner “I feel like going for a walk”, and using sign language ask him to lock my door for me. He obliges, and off I trot into the unknown.

    Where to go? I really know nothing about this place; I’ll just follow the crowds. Wandering across the big square in front of the station, I notice how not a single person fails to stare at me. I smile back, call out “Ni-hao!” followed by a “Hello!”. The old people grin wildly, the middle aged reply with a greeting of their own, the young girls giggle and hide behind each other. It’s not long at all before I meet an English speaker – an 18-year-old boy with spikey hair and a beginner’s moustache, “Hi! Where are you from?” he asks in an American accent.

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    We start to chat, until I realise that we’re actually standing in the middle of the road with maniac taxis approaching. Moving over to the street corner we continue our conversation. A crowd gathers, all fascinated by this foreigner in their city. A little girl in a pretty denim dress stares wide-eyed at me. Perhaps she’ll like my penguin, I think, and reach into my rucksack to extract Pepe. She lest out a squeal of delight and says thank you. I quickly ask my new English-speaking friend, Wang Xin (English name Tom) to tell her that I’m sorry, it’s not a present, as the penguin needs to go to England. She isn’t too disappointed, and loves the photo I take of the two of them.

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    It turns out that Tom is a self-taught English speaker. Text books and films have been his tools, which explains his accent. I tell him I’ve just arrived in the city and I’m wondering where I should go – does he have any suggestions? He asks me if I’ve been to Tiger Hill? No, what’s that? Let me show you! And so the two of us begin our exploration of the city that is to last several hours.

    He’s a great guide, and chatters away telling me this and that. He’s never been outside of China, indeed has never been far from this city, but has international ambitions, and an enthusiasm that will surely lead him to success. After 15 minutes or so, the endless straight, flat boulevards come to an abrupt stop and a huge hill rises vertically in front of us. It appears to be some kind of park, and at is entrance two huge tigers pose for photos.

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    Why the tigers? “A long time ago there were too many tigers here. They’re all gone now” he tells me. We climb the steps to the plateau above – it offers a spectacular view of this industrial city, red roofs of the workers’ houses stretching off into the distance where coal-furnace chimneys prick the horizon. He tells me it’s a beautiful site. I think to myself that yes, it is, in a kind of desolate way. He points out the flowerbed in front of us, “I love flowers! I love green too!”. I can’t help but feel a little sad that in this dirty, polluted city, the little flowerbed atop the hill of rock is about as much of nature as one is going to see. Using my zoom lens, I capture a street scene: an icon of so many streets that I have seen of late.

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    We sit down under a beautiful little pavillion, its detailed paintwork outshining all around it. We talk about family. Brothers, sisters, jobs. “Is your father a happy father?” he asks. I tell him that yes, he is …he is happy for me; “but my father is not a happy father. He is always tired and shouts at my mother, but she is tired too from working all day. I like my uncle – he works in a university in Beijing!”

    The city of Jining
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    “You smoke?” “No, thanks” I tell him, declining his cigarette. “I know smoking’s bad for me, but, but, well, I just love it!”

    “Have you eaten?” I ask, feeling a little peckish. “No, you want to eat? Great, let’s eat, come on, this way!”. We descend from the plateau into the dirty streets below. He unlocks his bicyle and head for a really great Chinese fast food restaurant. Stay there, I’ll do everything for you, he tells me as he leaves our table and heads off to the buffet. I can’t help but remain a little suspicious, I’ve been told to trust no-one, and even after several hours with Tom I remain a little uneasy. I watch as he fills the kettle with tea. I’ll wait for him to drink first in case there’s something in it. I feel bad for thinking like this, …but I’d kick myself if anything happened.

    The noodles are good. I’m not sure about the reconstituted meat and so put that to one side, hiding it under the soup. We chat away, the centre of attention in the restaurant, until the elderly man with but a wee strand of hair in the centre of his head, skillfully arranged to cover as much of his scalp as possible, leans over and starts talking to Tom. For once, it’s not me that’s being talked about. It’s Tom. “You know, you are a great student” he tells him. “What you are doing is really fantastic, well done. Tell the foreigner that he is very lucky”. I respond by seconding this opinion, and then raising my cup of tea against the old man’s hip-flask in a gesture of friendship and a toast to Tom.

    When we leave, Tom tells me not to worry about the bill; he’s already paid. I protest strongly, but he does not want my money. Is there anything I can do for you? I ask. No, I don’t think so. Oh, unless you have any dollar bills. I’ve always wanted a dollar bill! Hmm, maybe I do, I tell him as I open my wallet. I pull out a few 1$ notes, and am only too happy to give them to him. He is delighted – I tell him to save them for his trip to America which I am sure he will make one day.

    We wander back to the station, past a middle-of-the-mainroad clothes market and a group of gypsies playing some folk music (I pause to take a photo, and then watch with dismay as the crowd around the musicians becomes a crowd around me!), until it’s time to say goodbye. I thank Tom whole-heartedly for his kindness, and head back down the alleyway to my bed.

    Once inside I knock on the owner’s door – can he unlock my room please. With more amusement than horror I watch as he goes to the entrance of the building, and pulls out a huge keyring from under a pillow lying on the bed next to the door. My one little rucksack of clothes is till in the cabinet under the TV – finally I can relax. Or so I thought. Seconds later the owner is back again. He sits down on my bed next to me, offers me a cigarette, is surprised when I decline and then lights up his own. I guess I can’t really object… He then starts to talk to me, in Chinese of course, and I understand nothing. He writes down some kanji characters, but they are not ones shared with Japanese and I am clueless. I count the strokes used to write them and search through my phrasebook’s dictionary. No joy. Eventually, he gives up trying to communicate whatever it was he wanted to say, and I am left in relative peace. Just the trains calling to each other.

    I had wanted to write about my trip on the train that day, but I am exhausted. Killing what I thought were the last two mosquitoes, I settle down to sleep.

    It’s now 11am. I have left Jining and am now on a local train heading north. We’re just heading out of the suberbs – endless orange-brisked houses, stretching off into the distance. Between them and us is a constant pile of rubble, mixed up with rubbish. The pollution along the railway has to be seen to be believed, yet still cows are grazed next to the tracks, the solitary herder standing on the bank above; children scramble about in the remains of tumbledown houses, motorbikes converted into mini-farm vehicles putt-putt by. When I see these scenes I am reminded of the Mexico that I have seen in the films, or one of those rapidly expanding African cities that are heaving at the seams with new immigrants.

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    Perhaps the air is fresher outside than it was in the centre of the city where the smell was such that it encouraged one to refrain from breathing. I can’t tell, as the windows on this train are jammed shut. Cigarette smoke aside, the atmosphere isn’t all that bad. A row of fans attached to the ceiling like in some old-fashioned Tokyo trains keeping us cool.

    As mentioned above, it was an early start this morning, up with the trains’ morning calls. This wasn’t a problem though as I wanted to write. However, an hour or so later my peace was disturbed by a knock on the door. I was actually on the loo at the time, and had a feeling that that might happen. Then someone called out in English, “hey, it’s me!” Of course there was only one person I knew in this town who spoke English, and that was Tom. “I’m on the toilet!!” I called back, hoping that the owner didn’t unlock my door and let him in as I was mid-poo and had left the bathroom door open to let the light in. Thankfully, he understood, and waited.

    “i came to say good morning, and bring you your breakfast!” he say with a look of delight on his face. What a nice surprise! I set about carefully transferring the (liquid) tea – which for some reason was in a plastic bag – into my paper cup, and tucked into the pastry-wrapped meat concoctions, which I must say were delicious. “Ok, so what you wanna do now?” he said in his best American accent. I explained that I was just writing my story, and would like to finish it before going out, if that’s ok. He was fine with that, adding his spit to the ash on the floor left by the hostel manager the night before, saying he needed to wash his hair and brush his teeth in any case – he’d come back in an hour.

    Looking at my trans-siberian guide book, I realised that I was gonna have a job getting to Ulaanbaatar by nightfall: I needed to contact the yurt owners. Tom kindly offered to take me to an internet cafe where I was able to delete my spam and send the necessary mail, before heading back to the railway station to catch this train.

    Tom was clearly upset that our time was up. It had been fun, and I could tell that he desperately wanted to get on the train with me and travel to foreign lands where he could use his English every day. I’d given him my map to Shanghai – he’d not been there before, but had heard stories of the buildings that disappeared in the clouds they were that tall – and encouraged him to believe in his dreams of travel and having many international friends. I was sure he could achieve whatever he wanted with the passion he had within him. Just before I boarded the train I picked up some food and drink for the long trip. When I asked how much, an argument developed between Tom and the Owner. It seemed I was being ripped off, being charged 98p instead of 70p for my four bottles of ice tea, bag of salted soya beans and pot noodle. I paid the 98p in any case, I’d have been willing to pay more for the fluid that is going to be so vital as we head into the desert.

    Tom was mightily pissed though, “It’s just not fair!” When I told him I paid 100 yuen (£7) for the room for the night he was shocked – half that would have sufficed. A small part of me feels a bit peeved at this injustice, but the rest of me says it’s only right, seeing what his country has done for me – like make this MacBook.

    We waved goodbye at the ticket barrier, although this was not to be the last I’d see of him! Just as the train was about to depart he appeared down the corridor, struggling through the masses of hessian sacks, rucksacks, futons and suitcases and clutching a bag of apples – for me! I was really touched by that gesture. It, along with everything else he had done for me (despite my initial suspicions) had been entirely selfless acts of generosity. Perhaps this was why I had missed the only trans-border train the day before, which had forced me to stay in what I initially thought would be a dull town with little to offer.

    Tom’s attitude towards me is actually fairly representative of the majority of the people I’ve met and had any interaction with – I’ll tell you about the other characters in posts to come.

    For now though, I’m going to gaze out of the window at the arid landscape before us, and wonder if this train will ever break the 15mph speed limit.

    Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go…

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery