Friday, August 21, 2009

Day 5 - 14th July 2009

5.45am - Early start. Today the real journey begins. A taxi to Beijing central train station and 25 degrees temperature. Already there were crowds of people and major traffic jams en route. The two sets of doors leading into and up towards platforms were opened out onto the street. Each door was cordoned off on either side with barriers to funnel everyone neatly and uniformly through the portal. A young man who was feeling a little tired of so early a start had climbed over the barriers between the doors to have a sleep, head on bag. Literally thousands of commuters and travellers pushed slowly past him and stared. In a strange way I felt this made up for missing the Mao mausoleum. The young man a substitute leader lying in state while we were filed past by the pressing crowds and paid our respects. Once inside, the excitement built as we prepared to move through to ‘Waiting Room 2’ on the upper floor. Surprisingly, at that time we were one of the few people there. In anticipation for boarding and not knowing what restaurant facilities would be available, we purchased various packs of dried noodles, drinks and biscuits to sustain us in the event of abandonment in the Gobi desert. One packet of noodles stands out in my mind especially, as it had a whole, complete boiled egg included in the packet. The egg was dark brown in colour, after having apparently been buried in the ground for a week or so after boiling, to help ferment it’s subtle yet enticing flavours. It was considered a delicacy in knowledgeable circles. I tried it. I wish I hadn’t. It tasted like a week old fermented boiled egg that had been buried in soil.
Waiting Room 2 is a vast hangar of a room capable of holding hundreds of pirouetting passengers. Numbers built up quickly and we were checked onto the platform by unsmiling uniformed staff. On the platform in front of us was the much anticipated train.
The first of many on our odyssey. It represented a mind shift and a new experience of our journey westwards. Photographs were taken and given and we entered the train breathlessly. It’s strange, but over the coming weeks hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs were taken, but the fervour of those first few hours of constant snapping of new images and impressions tended to become a more relaxed affair. The train would be photographed again and again as it turned yet another gentle curve through the countryside. A curvaceous metal coil snaking it’s way across the Chinese suburbs and wilderness of the Gobi desert.
As we left the centre of Beijing, the relatively prosperous areas gave way to makeshift communities made from Blue Peter leftovers and sticky back plastic. Poverty was rife. Detritus and filth covered everything. I have wondered why people in such poor conditions can’t clear away some of the left over leftovers and, if not live in rich opulence, at least try to live in relative cleanliness. Perhaps they were so busy trying to stay alive that they cannot spare the time to keep their habitable space disease free. Perhaps their apathy at their life leads to a resignation and acceptance of fate. Or perhaps it’s simply a case of ignorance and cultural difference on my part as much as theirs. I remember back in Belfast, the middle and upper classes always kept their homes and surrounding areas at a certain level of harmony and cleanliness. Whereas the back streets tended to be less cared for. That’s not the case for all the people living there of course, just a general observation. Humanity works in cycles of social acceptance. The higher the social level, the greater the pressure to be accepted. In China, I saw people standing in Tiananmen Square asking people for empty plastic drinking bottles, that they would then recycle presumably for money. In the hovels on the outskirts, everything that could be recycled had been recycled. Nothing was left but useless waste. I felt to some degree that this included the people as well. Recycling on a human scale.
The suburbs, still, hot, steamy and thick with smog slowly opened onto fields of rice, vines, trees and grasslands. The heavy air, slowly and reluctantly, released us from it’s grasp to be replaced by sunshine and blue skies with fluffy marshmallow clouds, taking the shapes of Chinese dragons riding on the backs of frolicking seahorses.
Quite often, train journeys can be tedious unless it involves new horizons and experiences en route not yet envisaged. Small things become big things, and unusual buildings become monuments of wonder. We passed through a mountainous region and the train sliced it’s way through the rock via a series of tunnels. Fifty at least, of varying lengths. To help pass the time we started a little competition. Each time we would push into the inky blackness of a tunnel one of us would quickly get into an unusual position on the seat, the floor or hang upside down off the overhead beds. Until you came out of the darkness you had no idea what position you were likely to find your travelling companions in. This became more and more outrageous as the tunnels became longer and longer. Virtual yogic flying in the darkness ensued. Anything to help pass the time. Signs in strange hieroglyphs become fantastical words of wisdom, Confusian advice to the unwary. In reality of course they probably said ‘Go to Lin-Chung’s Water Margin Restaurant for the best sweet & sour in the region’ Talking about food led me to the restaurant car and a wonderful stir fry. Sweet and sour pork looked and tasted nothing like what passes for the same thing in the west. A strong pungency of vinegar guaranteed that even a diabetic could be sure there wasn’t an over abundance of sweeteners for the western palate. Accompanied by hot sticky rice and cold Chinese beer, this proved to be a delicious combination. There was a distinct absence of MSG and artificial colouring which meant that the dish didn’t have the garishness of Chino-European dishes but the flavour was fresh and clean to my jaded taste buds. Settling down in the four person sleeper carriage a little later, the tastes, smells and memories flooded back as I realised I would have all but left China by midnight.
“Please return to your carriages!” The English version of the Chinese message was boomed out over the tannoy at around 9pm. We had just pulled into Erlian - the last contact with China on the trip. Piped orchestral music declared that we would be in high spirits and leave with good impressions of friendly Chinese officials. I felt a certain tension in the air. Soldiers filed outside each carriage window to block our possible escape in the event of our papers not being correct. In reality, this was geared towards Chinese and Mongolian traders who used this route to sell their black market goods across respective borders. We had completed customs forms for each country and waited for the various official bodies to come and allow us safe passage. Customs officers arrived and took the forms. “Stay in your carriages!” We sat like lambs facing the unknown. Large peaked caps created authoritative airs that you dared not cross. Entry and exit visas were checked, re-checked and finally stamped. All the while passports were studied by each officer and faces scoured to make sure each passport and face matched. I felt that my face was changing to a more grey shade with each passing minute. It was quite disconcerting when our passports were then taken away by the procession of communist pillars of society for further checks to be carried out. Searches were being undertaken by guards on each carriage. We were ordered out into the corridor while the place was strip searched for contraband. Nothing. Then ordered back into our carriages for the process to happen to the next compartment.
The time had come for a decision. This was the point at which the train was taken to a shed to have the bogies, or wheel units, changed from the Chinese (and European) size to the gauge used by Russia and Mongolia. This would take approximately two hours during which time you could stay with the train and watch the process from your compartment or get off at the platform and visit the local supermarket/shop that conveniently stayed open to sell you over inflated priced food and drink to keep you going until you reached Ulaanbaatar - the capital of Mongolia some twenty hours later. We opted for the latter and stocked up on food and a few cold beers to join other travellers and talk about their exploits around Asia. I find that talking to seasoned travellers is simply a case of checking off a list sometimes and I wonder how involved people get in the cultures they visit. Thailand? Oh yeah - been there - it rained a lot. Vietnam? Yep, but the beer was warm. Phuket? Nah - too many mozzies! Not going back there in a hurry.
The train reappeared to a fanfare of music over the brain washing loudspeaker system and we were ordered back to our compartments. Another search of each carriage took place and then we waited for what seemed an eternity. Outside the window stood an armed guard and we watched an Indian file of Chinese officials traipse from the main building. They entered the train, and with a final check to make sure our faces hadn’t changed from those in our passports in the intervening two hours, they handed our paper lifelines back to us. The final triumphal wave of music signalled for the train to slowly pull away from the station. That’s it, we’re free! I thought. Short lived, as we stopped only five hundred metres up the tracks within sights of the actual border crossing. Yet another set of guards climbed under the train to check for potential asylum seekers escaping from China for the dubious benefits of living in Mongolia. I suppose for those that get out, Mongolia is hopefully the first step into another country and a better way of life. Final checks completed, and we slowly edged our way out of China. More like a dog with it’s tail between it’s legs that with a triumphant roar.
Almost instantly we were stopped at the checkpoint of Zamyn-Uud and the whole process began all over again. This time as we pulled into the station the guards that were posted to stand outside each window, all stood to attention and saluted the train as it pulled to a stop. An incongruous welcome to a newly formed democratic country. Almost as if each was trying to outdo the other. Welcoming music on the Chinese side and endearing respect from the other. All the same checks were completed in more or less the same way. “Into your carriages!”, “Out of your carriages!” Searches, passport checks, re-checks, removals and returns. Process after process which took almost six hours between both countries. When our passports were finally returned to us, we slowly pulled out of the border checkpoint and back into the Gobi desert en route for Ulaanbaatar and the next adventure. By this time it was 2am and everyone was exhausted. Sleep followed fast.

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