• 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!

    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!