Train to Ulaan Bataar..."Wow"
Days 30-31: I took a gamble on the train to Ulaan Bataar. The first class berths have two beds, and I only bought one of them. Most people will tell you to buy both, if you can afford it, because the risk is high that you could get stuck bunking with some fat businessman from Hubei Province who chain smokes and sweats garlic oil. At first, my prospects didn't look so good. There was a mad crush of people to get on the train, most of whom had half their worldly belongings stuffed into cardboard boxes or white plastic bags. When they opened the gates to let the people board, the people stampeded.
David shoots the Mongolian landscape
But I got lucky. My bunkmate turned out to be a Frenchman named David--pronounced Daveed--who is romantic and passionate and easygoing in the way only the French can be, and I mean that in the best possible way. When David speaks English, which he does very well, he invariably finishes his sentences with "It's cool," "It's crazy," or "Wow," depending on the context. Sometimes, a sentence will contain all three, though his worldview is more nuanced than his English might suggest.
David works construction in Paris, but he left all that to spend a month in Mongolia. With him, he has only his clothes, some money and an eight-millimeter, hand-operated black-and-white movie camera, which he carries in a satchel over his shoulder--which is a style move only a Frenchman can pull off. His intension is to make a film about Mongolia, and he wasted no time in gathering footage. When something outside the window caught David's eye, he would say, "Yes, man," grab his camera and start filming.
David was in a rather excited state, and after we went to the dining car for a bite to eat, he opened up. He'd spent the last three days in Beijing where he'd met "this incredible woman. I mean, she is so beautiful. Wow." She was a yoga instructor, he told me, and it sounded as though they were on the verge of falling in love. "It's cool," he told me. "We spent time together, then she sent me an email that said, 'You are my diamond. You are my star. You are pure.' Wow." But then she dropped a bomb on him. "She's getting married, man. Tomorrow. To this Philippine guy. It's crazy." It is crazy.
It's getting drier out
As soon as we left Beijing, the land dried to the point of moonscape. The villages looked small, lonely and remote, and there were still factories, with smoke stacks, no windows and mounds of coal. The land was flat, barely undulating, with round hills far in the distance.
At nine o'clock, we pulled into a Chinese border town and customs agents in green uniforms entered the train and collected everyone's passports. They were so stone faced that, had my Mandarin been better, I would have suggested they enter a Texas Hold'em tournament. We were herded off the train. There was a store in the waiting area, and a bunch of 20-something Australians who'd spent the last year teaching English in Korea and were traveling to Europe, presumably to spend the next several months getting "trolleyed," loaded up on only-in-China specialties like grain wine and a black liquid called coffee wine [view].
The Chinese government doesn't give you a particularly hard time when you enter China, but they do when you leave. Presumably, it's because they're trying to keep their own people from leaving. And yet, they gave me--a foreigner--a form that asked why I was departing the country. I ticked the box that said, "make holiday," which is what I planned on doing as soon as we arrived in Ulaan Bataar.
The line to get on the train at the border between Mongolia and China
The next morning, Mongolia. It was high desert outside, with only a thin, worn-out layer of grass covering an eternity of rocks and earth and patches of bright snow filling in shallow depressions. David dragged his finger across the little coffee table in our room, marking a line through dust. "Gobi Desert," he said. "It's cool." The Chinese towns were poor and barren looking, but now the settlements had a shanty look to them, and you could see yurts as often as you could see wood houses with tin roofs. There were herds of animals, too. Mostly horses, but some sheep, the odd cow. Once, we saw a troop of furry camels strutting around. Camels perpetually have a mildly disgusted look, as though they're on the verge of penning a piece of art criticism.
The Mongolian dining car. You stock coffee wine here ?
A funny thing happened at the Chinese border, though we didn't notice it until breakfast the next day. They changed the dining car. Whereas the Chinese dining car was pretty standard looking, as train dining cars go, and served terrible food, which is also typical of train dining cars, in the morning there was a new, completely different dining car, with a bow and arrow hanging on the ornate, wood-carved walls, and pictures of wild horses and nomads in yurts. David and I went there for a coffee.
We stopped in a town called Choy, and as the train pulled out, David saw a Mongolian family, wearing traditional Mongolian garb, walking along the platform and fighting a harsh wind. He pointed at them and said, "Mongolia. Yes." Then he grabbed his camera, started filming and, after a several seconds of Mongolia were captured in black and white, he summed it all up for me. "Wow."