Sleepless night – excitement, nerves, mosquitoes. 5.30am alarm: time to get our shit to the train station! Standing out on the main road behind our hostel with our mountain of luggage, which takes three shuttle runs to get it all out, our lovely hostel man tries, ineffectually, to flag us down a couple of taxis. The drivers stop, frown, spit, drive on. Shit, are the boxes too big to fit across a taxi’s back seat? Hostel man shrugs and leaves. After four or five taxi fails, Tama just grabs the box and rams it into the back seat while this driver frowns and spits and complains; but it fits, just, with a slam. Tama jumps in the first one, I follow close behind. At the train station – or more precisely, a few hundred metres from the train station – touts with bicycle trailers regale us. We don’t have a choice, so I agree to 30 Kwai for a porter to the train station proper. As we wait to cross a 10-lane road, my tout gets off the bike and shows me his left leg: it is prosthetic, plastic from the knee down. He then demands 40 Kwai, and I capitulate, only later realising that’s exactly why he does that job: to exploit his misfortune. I get dropped off at the edge of the train station, 100 metres down the road and who-knows-how-far from where we need to be. It’s all of 6.30am and already it feels like 35 degrees, sweat is dripping down my back as another set of touts come up, demanding 200 Kwai to take our gear to the train station. This is absurd, a brilliant scam, too much. Tama grabs his bike box off the trolley and storms off to find the check-in, which turns out to be just one hundred metres down the way. We then heft the rest of the gear, perhaps 40kg each, bags already ripping, and hump it across the shining Chinese morning. (Getting a bike box and two massive stripey bags up the escalator in one foul swoop is particularly satisfying.) In short, it is two hours of hell loading all of our stuff onto the train, but load it we do …
And away we roll! The train is rammed with westerners on their way to Ulaan Baatar and Mongolia’s famous Naadam Festival (11-13 July). We share a compartment with a polite middle-aged French couple, who are quietly horrified by how much luggage we have. Tama wrestles with the Soviet-era train window, which is jammed shut, for a good 45 minutes before it finally opens, and after that the Frenchies are our dear friends. I get comfy, have a sandwich, a beer and some Cambodian diazepam, and start letting go of the franticness of the beginning of the day. Beijing flickers and drifts by, not beautiful but very very impressive, buildings and buildings then little hills, little mountains, bridges and tunnels and blackness, gouged-out hills, coal trains stretching forever, blackness. China doing its thing, us not so much. We doze, wander around, doze.
And after a few hours, it all calms down outside. Plains, vast farms, plantations of wind turbines. Inner Mongolia is pretty quiet, and quite pretty. The dining car runs out of water, then food. When we roll into the border town of Erlian round 9pm, all the guiluo tourists mob the supermarket like bad parents on Christmas Eve. Bottles and bottles of water, pots and pots of cheap instant noodles, packets and packets of cheap Chinese cigarettes walking, running, flying out the door!
We wait around this fascinating train station for three and a half glorious hours. Back on the train, I smoke a cigarette in the train vestibule leaning on our bike boxes at midnight, as we pass under a massive brutish stone gate marking the final edge of Chinese territory.
We are now in Mongolia.