21 August, 2005

The Ulaan Baatar train station as it appears way too early in the morning.

And here's our train to Beijing which has caught the lens of many a tourist this day.

One of those stations in Mongolia that our train stops at for reasons unknown but which gives us an opportunity to buy various things from merchants who crowd the platform.

Such stations also give us the chance to get out and stretch our legs a bit.

Soon we were deep in the Gobi Desert.

"Beijing - Ulaan Baatar" - Moscow from the side of our train. Apparently they don't have a sign to indicate going in the other direction.

A desert community near one of the stations.

Our Chinese provodnitsa equivalent.

Almost every railyard has an old dog who hangs around and walks real slowly.

Many of these railyards also have very old freight cars.

And the desert continues for a good long time.

As do the desert communities we keep on passing.

21 August, 2005

Day 36. I actually managed to bargain a wakeup call from the hotel for 6:30. It came at 6:50 in true Mongolian laid back style. Fortunately I had woken myself at 6:25. We had to meet in the lobby at 7 to get taken to our train which left at 8. Theoretically I could have woken up at 7:45 and still made it in plenty of time but playing by the rules is very important to me.

I had spent a good part of the night connected to the net through my Internet card at 28.8 attempting to upload the latest chapter of my travel log. After three hours and two attempts, it aborted. Not only that but the hotel saw fit to charge for every minute I was connected which for that night alone came to around $40. Not exactly a bargain anymore. But such is life.

We found out at the last minute that the travel agency had been nice enough to book Hanneke and Sasja in with two other Dutch people and throw me into another compartment altogether. Oh, this was going to be swell.

We tried to get two people in my compartment to switch places with the two other Dutch people to no avail. I'm not quite sure why. But it was only for one night. Unfortunately it was our last night on the Trans Siberian (technically the Trans Mongolian) and it would have been nice to spend it together as we had spent all the others.

I was in a car with a Mongolian couple who seemed mostly interested in talking to each other and a German guy who seemed mostly interested in sleeping. He also had an obscenely huge bag that pretty much obliterated any floor space we might have hoped for. I guessed I would be getting a lot of work done on this part of the trip.

The problem with laptops of course is that their batteries eventually get used and you have to recharge them. The only outlet near me was in the hallway by the door and I had to stash it there for around five hours while it charged after working on it for another five.

We had gotten these little pieces of paper when we got onto the train that had Chinese writing on them. These turned out to be breakfast vouchers as we soon found out which was a pleasant surprise since I hadn't had a thing to eat yet since waking up. We were on a Chinese train now (they alternate Russian/Chinese out of Moscow) and there were definite differences. Free breakfast was one. No air conditioning was another. No provodnitsas here. Instead we had Chinese guys with uniforms who didn't really interact all that much. And the food they gave us wasn't bad. Rice, potatoes, bread, what I think was beef, and some other vegetables in a little container with chopsticks. I'm sure the bread and potatoes were a nod to the Russians; I didn't expect to be seeing much of that once we got to China.

We made occasional stops in tiny towns in the Gobi Desert. Sometimes we got out, sometimes we just hung from the window as local merchants tried to sell us stuff. I decided to get a bottle of water with some of my remaining Mongolian money. I was reaching to get the bottle when one of the women shouted loudly as if in protest that this was her sale so I instinctively handed the money to her. I regretted it almost instantly as I saw that she was young and well dressed while the person I would have otherwise bought from was old and frail and obviously not able to engage in such aggressive tactics. I later saw the well dressed woman get a few more sales in the same manner. I should also point out that the water I got looked like it had been used in a game of camel polo. Yes, that does exist.

Hours passed and we eventually made it to the border. The Mongolians gave us some forms to fill out which were pretty straightforward. I was expecting them to do something with the customs form they had given me at the Russian border but they didn't even want to see it.

The Chinese border was quite a story though. Getting into the country wasn't an issue at all. My visa was completely in order. I suppose now would be a good time to reveal that initially I was rejected from entry to China because of my job description: editor. Yes, that's right, they don't want anyone who seems even remotely capable of being a journalist to enter their country. It was easily solved though. All I had to do was write a letter saying I was only a technical editor and not a real journalist by any stretch of the imagination. Ironically I had to do this the very same day I gave my deposition against New York City where I was stating that I *was* in fact a journalist. To clear up any confusion this may cause: I work as a journalist but sometimes I'm merely a tourist. I usually stick to being a journalist in my own country however I will always write my observations down. I trust that this won't offend any of the authorities.

While we were parked in the station having our papers checked, we heard all kinds of announcements in all different languages greeting our specific train (number four). They told us that "anything you want" could be bought in their shops and we could visit the bar on the second floor. For people who have been locked in a train car for the past twelve hours, that sounded pretty appealing. We were supposedly going to be given a choice: we could stay on the train during the changing of the wheel bogies or we could wait outside and presumably take advantage of the marvels of the station. We chose the latter. All we had to do now was wait to be let off.

Well, we sat there at the station for a while and listened to the various trains blowing their whistles at each other. It was really something hearing this. Not five seconds would go by before someone blew a whistle. I don't know if this was some sort of rudimentary communications system to replace two-way radios or if there was a whole lot more going on than what we could ascertain. But one thing was certain. It was annoying as hell. And after sitting there our train started to move backwards, presumably to the place where they changed the bogies. We were split as to whether that meant we had to stay on the train or not.

After bouncing around the tracks for another 20 minutes, we parked inside the factory looking place where they change bogies and people actually began to exit. So we took the opportunity and joined them. The problem was we were now pretty far from the station and had to walk quite a distance to get back there. But we were take in by the broken English advertising we had heard on the loudspeakers so we followed the crowd like lambs to the slaughter. I guess that analogy gives a hint as to how pleasant our adventure wound up being.

The first problem came because we were so happy to be out of the train car and able to move freely. So we moved a little too freely and before we knew it we were at the head of the pack. And shortly after, we couldn't even see the pack. We then found ourselves on this weird little street that reminded me of something out of a Western with little shops on the side, people sitting in circles playing cards, and the theme from "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" in the background. Slight exaggeration but you get the idea. We were in a strange place. Not lost, mind you. But definitely a little bewildered. Nevertheless we continued onward, knowing that the station was straight ahead and on the left and that we could buy anything there and there was a bar upstairs and we could probably change money and go to the bathroom and so much more.

That's when we hit the second problem. Arriving at the actual station. It didn't look at all the way it was advertised. In fact, it looked more like an airport waiting room, complete with baggage scanners. We went in and naturally they wanted to scan our bags. How strange was this, that we had just gotten off the train with our bags and now in order to go to the station where the train presumably was going to show up we had to have those same bags scanned? Hanneke and Sasja were reluctant but I convinced them that absurd as it was, it was apparently the only way to get into the station which was where we wanted to go, wasn't it?

So we went through the baggage scan and I tried to get some information from the four people standing there. I asked if this was where the train would be. No luck. Eventually, they pointed me to a guy who allegedly spoke English. "Train here?" I said to him. "Slower," he said. I said the two words as slowly as I could. But slower didn't help. The billboard with the train number did however. So we were in the right place. Now we just had to find all of those promised wonders that the lady on the loudspeaker had told us about. I heard music coming from upstairs. The bar! We looked for the stairs and found a non-working escalator.

We made it to the second floor and quickly found the source of the music. It was a large screen television with two guys sitting next to it. The TV had some awful music videos playing. We approached and they jumped up, very excited to see us. But there wasn't another soul around. They motioned for us to sit at a table and we tried to figure out how to tell them that we didn't have any Chinese money - yet. After sitting there for a while trying to figure out how to do this, we came to the conclusion that they weren't at all interested in selling us anything and that maybe they didn't even work at this place. They were just completely fixated by the videos. So we figured we might be better off after all heading back towards where the train was and maybe finding a place to change money or an ATM along the way.

As we went back downstairs we noticed that portions of the building were being padlocked and that it was no longer possible to get back upstairs if we so chose. Leaving definitely seemed like the right thing to do. But not to those four people standing at the door by the baggage scanner who jumped up and prevented us from passing when we tried. Oh great. We were now prisoners in this building, unable to leave until our train arrived. We wouldn't get any money, food, or exploring. Instead we had to sit in an almost empty waiting room for over an hour while somewhere our train was being modified. In retrospect, staying on the train and witnessing that process would have been so much better.

But it wasn't really our fault. There was nobody in charge who could tell us what to do. People who spoke Chinese seemed as bewildered as we were once they were lured into the train station. A train station that didn't have a soda machine or a water fountain anywhere in sight. It really was very much like being imprisoned. What a bizarre way to get acquainted with a new country!

Our train arrived much earlier than we anticipated but it still wasn't ready for us to get on. We saw the people who had stayed on looking out at us, probably wishing they had gotten off the train and gotten food like we must have done. Then half of the cars pulled away from us, as they had to replace the now detached Mongolian dining car with a Chinese one and that involved inserting it into the middle of the train. And throughout all of this, every engineer within hearing distance was blasting his horn, sometimes once, sometimes two or three times, sometimes for five seconds continuously. This was as mind-numbingly annoying as you can possibly imagine. It was like watching kids playing with toy trains making as much noise as they were capable of making. But I'm sure it was more complex than that. Maybe it was even a language of sorts. All I know is it bothered the living hell out of all of us as we stood on that platform, tired, hungry, thirsty, defeated.

But we were in China and that's really all that mattered. In the back of our minds we all knew that. Eventually the train came back for us and we piled on, along with all of the other people who had now shown up at the station. Once again, it felt like coming back home.

I figured it must have been a practical joke, some Chinese initiation ceremony of promising great things on a loudspeaker and then sticking you into a "Twilight Zone" episode where you get to wander around an abandoned train station that you're forbidden from leaving by people you can't communicate with at all. As I drifted off to sleep in my compartment filled with strangers, I knew that China was going to have all sorts of strange things like this. Which is exactly what I've been asking for. So I have absolutely nothing to complain about.