We got to sleep quite soon after hitting the road again and I woke to see the sunrise over the Gobi Desert. It was a beautiful, once in a lifetime sight and I realised that if I had a better seat I may not have had the best view to see the sunrise. I stared for some time, watching the sky turn from a dark, somewhat drowsy blue to a cool pink, then on to an electric orange. I got a couple more hours sleep then woke for the last hour of our trip. Somewhere close to the boarder there started popping up myriad dinosaur statues. Scores of metal brontosauruses dotted across the landscape. I guess things get boring in the desert.
We finally entered the border city of Erlian at around 7am. A huge, forgotten city, many times bigger than what I had expected. It was an altogether strange area that looked like it could have been something of a nice place to live, but then just stopped caring about itself and sunk into oblivion.
We were once again told to watch our pockets in this town as the people around here were ‘inner Mongolian’ and not to be trusted.
Getting across the border isn’t as easy as it sounds, or as it should be in this part of the world. For one you can’t just walk across, you need to be driven. But there is only one or two official buses every day so the general way is to get a local to take you in a truck. My wife-who likes to steer on the safe side of the road-didn’t like the sound of this but there were other things to consider. We had read that crossing the border could take hours and we wanted to get the train to Ulaanbaatar that day. We certainly didn’t want to get stuck in this town for any longer than what was completely necessary.
April 8th Beijing-Erlian
Up at 6am. These early starts will start to get to me before too long. I am a notoriously late sleeper. My mother surely considered homicide in my youth trying to get me up for school.
The reason for the early rise is that we aren’t completely sure about getting a bus ticket from Beijing to a town called Erlian, on the Chinese/Mongolian boarder. Online sources have said various things. Some have said they have had to wait in Beijing for days for a ticket, other have strolled up to the tickets desk with minutes to spare and got one. We’ve decided to get there as early as possible to try and score tickets. Peace of mind and all that.
From our dungeon it is only a 15 minute walk to The Forbidden Kingdom, where our bus stops. We are around 300 poxy metres from the stop when we see the bus coming from behind us. We leg it and just get to it in time. For anyone reading who would like some tips, the bus is number 2 and many people will tell you to get off at Muxiwun station but this is not correct. You actually have to go one more stop Hua Hutong. Here is where the long distance bus station is. When you stop, you walk 50-100 metres in the direction the bus will go and the station is on your right. A big, glass covered building. We arrived at 8 and asked the lady at the ticket box:
“Erlian. Today. Okay?”
(Lots of Chinese)
I won’t put you through the whole back and forth but this went on for a while. At the end of it she figured out where we wanted to go. To her credit I think our pronunciation of the town was less than stellar. Once she got the gist she directed us to the information desk.
I woke before YJ, but not before our guest. I sat for a minute before checking my clock, hoping it was before our symphony of alarms would be set off.
“You have many alarms.”
“Yes. Sorry about that.”
“No, problem. I think you need some more.”
At least she took it well.
As we overslept we have no time for breakfast. We packed essentials and hoofed it to the train station, having to pass through Beijing’s blisteringly inept security policy and catch the train. Subway trains in Beijing are incredibly frequent. The 10 or so trains so got in Beijing were either waiting for me at the platform or were there within a minute or two. The stations are clean but retain a nice sense of old fashioned mustiness and gloom. About on a par with the London Tube.
We arrive at the station with 5 minutes to spare, hurrah! After the high fives and back pats with find out that the train is full. Sunken, we line up for the next train, hoping it won’t be 4 hours later. With some luck it is only an hour away at 9:05. We get the tickets, pass through another security check and wait around with half of Beijing. Since we have 50 minutes to spare I decide to grab a coffee from KFC (capitalist pig dog!) and by the time I get back there is a somewhat chaotic queue forming.
“What’s going on? We have 40 minutes before the train goes. Why are we lining up?” I testily ask the other.
“You think I chose this? It’s group mentality. One lined up and the rest followed.”
After pointlessly lining up for 20 minutes they opened the doors to the platform. Perhaps I haven’t explained yet that Beijing is big. On top of being big, it’s long. The buildings are big and long and so are the trains. Not only was our train big and long, but they decided to park it a big, long way away from where the tracks come to an end, rather conveniently by the door. A Good 300 metres from it.
The morning of our trip started with tea and apprehension. A quick shower, brekkie and last minute triple checks. We have been waiting for this trip for months, even years, and now it’s here I don’t really want to go. Why are we even going? I have a good job here in Korea, Youngja’s doing well at work and we’ve decided to pack it all in and live in sweat house dormitories, showering in toilets and sharing sleep patterns with strangers. I know the dignified reason for travel: it broadens the mind, you experience cultures out of your comfort zone and realise how small and big this world really is. It’s an incredibly fortunate situation to find yourself being able to get out there and have a jolly good look around.
Though, one shouldn’t forget that travelling is hard. You’re constantly on the move, from plane to bus to subway to whatever next. You flitter and flutter about more than a whippet in heat. If you’re not moving you’re preparing to move, and for a man who has declined whole careers for an extra hour in bed this can be seen as a tricky spot to place oneself.
We said goodbye to Youngja’s mum and set off. Youngja gave her little hug and a pat on the back and tried to make the best of it. They’re a sturdy bunch at the in-laws and public displays of affection are few and very far between. After we were dropped off I asked “How was your dad?” “He was quite upset” the wife told. This came as a surprise, to the untrained eye he seemed his usual self. “He seemed okay to me” I put forth. “He couldn’t look at me.” She confessed, through her blues.
At the airport we met a tiny Chinese man who was very jovial and proceeded to push in front of everyone and get to the front in record time.
“How did he manage that?” Asked the wife.
“Maybe everyone thought he was looking for his mummy.”