• 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
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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.