Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to travel by train through Asia into Europe. What the inciting incident was occurred so long ago that I can’t remember it. It might have been the allure of the names: mercantilist routes named for the goods they carried. Silk Road, Tea Horse, Spice; the sounds had a mixture of sibilance and vowel that I found enchanting. And the stories—it was not so far fetched to believe a road might have been constructed of silk or was scented with cinnamon. The incident might have been a National Geographic. My grandmother kept a stack, most dating to the 1960s, underneath her glass coffee table. While lounging on her couch, I never read the articles but indulged on the photographs. I would have seen a train window, or the reflection of a face in one, the landscape superimposed in translucent outline over a nose and thistle eyebrows. That would have done it: sitting on a couch with a National Geographic and realizing a train offers a similar sort of immersion. Every rail tie bump a page turn, every outside view an indulgence. A landscape, a person, a country, all a quick shuttering, going past your face but made permanent by the eyes that blinked on them. I have better judgment than to wake before dawn to take photos of an outdoor market but give me a chair, a cup of coffee, and an opportunity to gaze for hours and I will be content. A person could do worse with their life than vegetating in second-class, doing nothing more than straddling steel rails around the world. They’re absolved from laziness because they are going somewhere; with movement is an innate sense of betterment. No matter how marvelous the last place, the fact you’re leaving suggests, perhaps, the next will be better.
In my case this assumption started off as a true and ended as true, for where I started was Beijing and where I ended was home.
Beijing, May 22nd—I am on the move before the city. The combustible energy that will engulf it does not rev until I’m at the station. Powered by stimulants—coffee and excitement—a dissipation of travelers from hotels and suburbs concentrate and gyrates like opposing magnets at the entrance.
I’ve no idea where I am supposed to be other than Beijing Station at 7:27 for train number K23. And it is a vast station. One doesn’t just nose their way to the correct gate. Windows are massive, yet inside is a midnight, halls asleep. Outside Beijing is heavily overcast. Travelers with no more luggage than a satchel snooze across rows. Rooms yawn between the massive jaws of their entrances. I have two bags and one hour. I study the shops. They’re sparkling with displays and sell big boxes of green teas and foods for stowaway. Also, they sell duck: whole ducks, roasted, decapitated, and sold in bags for easy portability. One costs the US equivalent of $8.
At a Macca’s, I drink coffee and decide the romance of travel occurs in the interlude between logistics and pit-stops. It’s during this, sorting out where I might go to find the gate and get on the train to have such a romantic moment, that I see a female version of myself. My hair is shorter than hers, but not by much, and it’s just as dark. She’s likewise in a button up shirt and shoes with a few continents worth of wear. She sits with purpose and intent, and since I suspect something of her destination, my intent, I decide, is to follow hers. So I do. When she rises, I rise. When she walks, I walk, tracking her at a respectable distance down a hallway. Her trekking bag is on straight, her two hiking boots swing like a cat’s tail clock from the bag’s straps. She goes into a distant wing of the station.
She is not the first inside the waiting room. Altogether, the folks here make for a less-erudite, un-cinematic cast of a Murder on the Orient Express re-boot. We are each our own porter, there are no immaculate velvet vests or hooped emerald dresses or brimmed, black animal hair hats. The number of waxed mustaches is at a disappointing low and the number of elephant print gypsy yoga pants at a disheartening high. There are hikers, and low-season travelers, and Australian retirees (this is Asia, and therefore there must be Australians). I hear three middle-aged men discussing books and students. One of them is wearing a University of Wisconsin collared shirt. Most appear at once tired and sprite. A very little girl, I say girl but she is a woman and a Spaniard, asks if this is the gate for K23. I say, “If not then we’re lost together.” A backpacker nearby confirms that this is the place for K23.
I begin to think of myself as the most unkempt of the bunch, the one people scooch from and hope to not share a compartment with. My beard clipper’s trimming attachment snapped, so I haven’t had a proper trim in weeks. Hair strands are darting off into their own trajectories, leaving my face with no flow, just a raggedy knot of itch. My shoes are about worn through. They’re a pair of Clark Desert boots, which I purchased in Sydney a year ago. The sole is all but translucent and is a flimsy barrier through which my toes sense the outline of pebbles. My trekking bag deserves a fair amount of credit for holding itself together. It’s had some assistance: New Zealand hikes gave parts of the fabric a good rubbing, and the rub went clean through and those parts I overlaid with duct tape. Most of the clips have broken. One of the two holding the top compartment down I had to replace with a carabiner, and the hip-belt I have to tie together since a bag-handler in Vietnam shattered its clip. The fabric is filthy as swine. But without these marks—the bag, the general unkemptness—I wouldn’t look the part of the traveler I wanted to be. Am. The one who is not on holiday. The one with meaning to find. I’d have no marking badge, and what every traveler wants is a badge of some sort. If the badge is not a literal one (which I have seen: patches of country flags stitched to straps and pockets of trekking bags) then what better trophy is there than use?
Two scattered queues form following a boarding announcement. A woman stalls in front of me to look for something essential that she’s misplaced: her hands rove across her pockets and zippers. Politeness and decorum rule everyone else but me. The line she’s in stacks like at a dam. I move to do a quick-side step, a moseying cut. As soon as I move forward, she finds the object of her search and lifts her head at the moment a tall side-profile and much higher nape steps in front of her. As should be expected, this lady (her name is Sam), will enter my cabin in fifteen minutes and introduce herself as my compartment mate for the next 36-hours.
This is a train as I envision them. Technological advances often shove out of view our romantic notions of how a thing ought to look. Think of the automobile, how people over sixty react to a 1955 Chevy. “Now that’s a car,” they say. Our nostalgia for a train’s aesthetic does not suffer as much, there’s no new style to become accustomed to year after year, but there is a design push, and it’s pushed a wide gap between the trains of today and the trains of our imagination. They’re not so clunky and boxy now as they once were, not so much like a creation of Industrial Revolution industry. Look at Tokyo’s bullet trains or China’s high-speeders. They’re narrow, sleek, and sneaky. They approach like some distant wind draft, a stream of formless energy. We say trains chug, but I don’t think that is true for these new ones: they are daring on the track and full of confidence. They know they can. Chugging is a working verb, descriptive of a thing with black grease in its gears, wheels gone over a million miles, and pipes in need of calibration. K23 is this sort of train. It’s an old iron beauty: dark and verdant, two bright yellow stripes go along the top and bottom of each carriage. The windows to each compartment are broad with white-cloth drapes. At the center of each carriage is a raised crest emblazoned with three gold stars. All attendants—and there are two to a coach—lean from out their wards to look at the conductor at the train’s end. When the time is right, they hop onto the platform and check boarding papers.
I sit alone in my second class cabin. Two would make it cozy, three cramped, four a cargo hold. My berth is the upper one, near the ceiling and above a bench that can be converted into a bed. The same set up is opposite me, a half-leg swing away. Rough linens are folded atop each berth. The bench has a carmine cover with gold and floral embroidery. Luxury this isn’t. The train purports to do nothing more than to move from A to get you to B. There’s a hot water furnace in the hall and two flanking bathrooms, which are as narrow as matchsticks with a toilet flap that opens to the track. The soap is a very small disc you have to press into the counter so it glues.
I never considered that I might have the compartment alone, or that the train wouldn’t be sold out. China made me forget privacy is possible. But the train leaves at [ ] and it is twenty minutes to that and I’ve yet to hear a single other person board this car. I hear voices. The attendant who helped me find my place appears in my doorway. Following him is a middle-aged woman with a rough crop of blonde hair and a massive suitcase. I gulp. I recognize her. Once she introduces herself as Sam, I apologize for that earlier cut-in-line indiscretion. “Too eager,” I explain. This tickles her. She hadn’t noticed and is amused I even apologized. “Even if I had noticed, I wouldn’t have minded. I misplaced my passport and who knows how long it’d have taken to find it. You couldn’t have known, I might have been turning in the hall all morning.”
Sam is British. Her accent is supreme and her dental work as expected. The hue in her cheek is like rhubarb and she wears jeans and hiking boots. There’s two months worth of clothing in her roller. “Where’d you put your stuff?” She asks. I point to a head-level cranny next to the top bunks. She looks at her bag and shakes her head.
“What about under the sofa?” I say.
“I’d have to sit on the bag to get it to squeeze in.” So she does. She sits and tries to push while I stand and try to push, angling to get just a corner under and hope the rest will slide in. We succeed and a few minutes later we’re back on the benches.
“What do you reckon, we’ll be alone in here?” She asks.
“It’d be a bit of a tight fit.” She pats the bed and scopes the room.
“I don’t like to think about those things,” I say. “If I’m on an airplane with an empty seat next to me, I fight the temptation to look up and see if anyone is eyeing it or to count how many people are in line and how many seats are left. Looking up signals to the universe that you know there is an empty seat next to you and that you have an interest in keeping it that way. When the universe knows you care, that’s when it acts against you. That’s what I think.”
“So we’re jinxing ourselves by talking about it?”
She laughs. “A Yank who says reckon. That’s funny. Where’d you pick that up?”
“Australians. They say catchy things.”
“What’s another one?” She asks.
“‘Good on you.’”
“Why is that a good one?”
“It’s a conversation catch-all. It makes you seem interested in things that aren’t interesting, or to give acknowledgment to anything. Your mom calls you up and says do you remember so-and-so, well she got a well-paying job. You can say, ‘Nice,’ or ‘Cool,’ or ‘That’s interesting,’ but the story is none of those things. But say good on her? It’s perfect! You don’t have to show that you don’t care, and you’re not lying. Good on her!”
“I see it. That’s good. Good on you.” She says.
“You like Oz then?”
“I had a job offer for there,” she says, “Well have one. I don’t know if I should take it. What do you reckon?” She asks.
“Have you been down?”
“One time. To Sydney with a British friend. I remember going to that famous beach they have.”
“Bondi. Aussies call them Poms. I mean they call British people Poms, not the beach.”
“What’s a Pom?”
“Pomegranate, I think. Because British people turn into Pomegranates after a few minutes in the sun.”
“I like that!” She says.
“What’s it you do?”
“Archaeologist. So it’s a teaching position in Perth with time to do my own research.”
“Well, that’s wild.”
“Living in Perth or being an archaeologist?” She laughs.
“One is wild and one is crazy.”
“It’s why I’m going to Mongolia actually. There’s a caravan leaving Ulaanbaatar day after tomorrow. It’s going to the steppe for a dig at a horse burial ground. My boss told me to not expect comforts. Sleeping in sleeping bags, no showers, that kind of thing.” She tells me that after that she has a Vietnam holiday planned. I promise to give her recommendations.
I have no plan for Mongolia. I know I have just shy of a week before a train I’m to be on leaves for Russia’s Ulan-Ude. For a heartbeat, I wonder if I can tag along on this dig. I’m crestfallen to think I don’t have the flexibility I’d been accustomed to or the clearance for something like that. Plus—the steppe. Sam tells me she had to buy a winter coat for it. I haven’t even had a proper jacket since November. That is when I left mine in California over Thanksgiving. (This is the risk of having to bring cold weather clothing to San Diego: the sun warms you into forgetting other places require it.) I was fortunate to not need it in Melbourne; summer rains sizzle on the sidewalk and I departed just as mornings were becoming cold. I hoped to extend this fortune through China, Mongolia, and Russia. A David Attenborough look-alike in Chengdu crumpled this hope. Attended by a cane, he rhapsodized about a day he spent in Ulaanbaatar in the 1970s that began hot and ended with a dreadful blizzard. He recalled the knotted clouds coming over hills and forcing him inside. And that was June. Such an event would require that I stay in Ulaanbaatar for the cover it offered, or have warmer clothes. Mongolia is 604,000 square miles. It has three million people, half of whom live in the capital. That ratio and demographic spread equates to a density of a person per square mile. A, one: after Greenland and the Falklands, the most sparsely populated place on Earth. And if I am to see this empty hinterland, as is my intention, I need warmth. So in Beijing, I bought pants. I searched for a suitable jacket, but I found my bag couldn’t fit one. I hear Sam tell of her plans and I hope I can sustain something similar by layering.
The train has an exciting jolt. Our compartment remains empty. “Is it time to celebrate yet?” Sam asks. There is a millisecond of motion that we see before we feel. The station walls move. Then our bodies feel the departure. The station moves behind us and a bloom of track rails spurt ahead. We track down, two dozen tracks become two, and we stay on the right side for our exit.
Beijing is alive, cantankerous, and gray. The concrete and sky make the city’s dreariness look irreversible, which is why I am surprised that one hour outside the city we are underneath opalescent skies—whispery clouds segment light into its color bands—and move through pale coffee mountains. None are large, but all have steep ledges. Our track bores through these into night black tunnels. The darkness interrupts my note-taking. We are not inside long enough for my eyes to adjust. I’m often mid-sentence, mid-word when a tunnel’s black clots my vision. So I learn to sit and hold onto a thought like it’s a breath I’m desperate to take, and I pause my pen at the word it’s on. A train is full of these moments when you must adapt standard practices such as sleeping and eating and reading to locomotion and the limited contours of your cabin.
I’ve explored the train. This is all the walking I can do: going one-way till I’m barred, turning and going the other, my nose pointed north or south or west or east depending on what tack the train takes. As it turns out, most people on board purchased tickets through the same agency, and the agency has lumped us near one another. That means there’s little diversity skin-color wise. It’s not till I’m at the rear of the train, or near the locomotive, that I see Chinese or Mongolian travelers.
Every cabin door is open. I pass a pleasant room, made so by elder Australians filling it with happy chatter. The women had to convince the men to come. One of the ladies, a thin woman with gray hair, says to me, “This is what I’ve always wanted to do and he couldn’t be bothered so I took his money and bought seats for the both of us. Look he’s enjoying himself, aren’t you?” She finishes, turning to a man who doesn’t look abundantly thrilled that his wife is spouting off about his stubbornness.
People sit opposite one another on their benches, their bodies mirroring one another except for their heads, which are turned to face out the window. Books are turned over in front of them, maps unfolded to the northern quadrant of China, binoculars are near at hand. Being on the train is inspiriting, and you can see this in its passengers: young, old, it does not matter, everyone has an upstanding perkiness and reverts to the childhood tendency of asking a billion questions and making as many observations. One as simple as “Look at that road,” contains a sense of profundity.
At first, it appears Sam and I are alone in our carriage. Had we known we missed the chance to each have our own cabin, we might not have cheered with as much fervor as we did about sharing one. There are two Chinese attendants. Later I’ll discover a Kiwi couple too. The attendants are two cabins down. They’ve pulled their curtains shut and have an extra blind that makes their room dark. Both are middle-aged men with very dark hair. They do little. Once we left Beijing, they removed their coats and put on slippers. We don’t stop often, but when we do, this is reversed: re-dressing themselves in their gray blazers and trousers before guarding the coach’s entrance. When the train is moving, they sulk in their beds. They wear wife beaters and watch Chinese soap operas. One turns on music. He has a Bluetooth speaker and plays the music loudly with his door open. The cabins have no-smoking signs. The attendants are the ones to ignore these. I can hear them chattering in the passageway between the carriages and can smell the smoke coming in.
We rarely stop and this gives the train purpose. Crops outside grow by the million. Thousands of solar panels spangle mountainsides. We stretch on through industrial and perennial agricultural towns, doubling or tripling the populations of some as we enter. Towns are tied to purpose, homes are appurtenant to the economy they were built to service. If that purpose is a factory then that factory is the center and all living quarters thread from it like afterthoughts. Vineyard towns have vines heavy on their trestles, corn towns have ares of uniform rows. The need to have the railroad near the means of production brings us in close proximity to workers. They watch us, some in indigo overalls and all with broad hats covering their faces. They stand from their raking, or tilling, or carrying pales of slop, and loiter to watch our approach and exit. They watch as long as I can see them watch.
We are an hour from the Mongolian border and less time than that until sunset. Dust clouding the horizon looks like fuzz, and sunlight suffuses through the gradations, darkening across each, until what reaches the track edge is weak and burgundy. The earth has little texture in this light but is full of lines: ridge edges are doubled with shadow, the outlines of solitary cement structures long abandoned cast trapezoidal stamps on the plain, the necks of two metal dinosaurs rise and twist together over a road, an endless fence, vectored with barbs, runs beside us. The land is a scourge, so flat and monotonous that if a wood stake were drilled into its edge the tip might cast a shadow that continues to the land’s opposite end without break. If the land is a scourge, then the horizon is its main assassin. It is a dark and disparaging line, one that remains fixed and never approaches nor recedes. After a time we come to a hazy area populated with the ghouls of an industrialized nation: pump jack wells. Cranks pull the well-heads in fellatic ups and downs, giving the vast landscape its sole movement. We track on, the train choreographing the vast geometric stage.
Seeing this emptiness requires adjustment. Central power in China is too profuse. The population number, harnessed for production, is mean in its absolute value. It creates dizziness. That this land, still in China, is so empty, makes me fear its harshness.
The sun stoops lower. Its rays cut the grass from night overhead. The topsoil shows itself to be getting less sustaining: its color lightens and its grains grow so fine that the wind is able to shape it into long sidewinder tracks. Then, suddenly, the grass ends. What follows after this demarcation is the Gobi. Wind mobilizes its sand into a perpetual army of dust devils. Camels—dual and single-humped—gallop aside the train. They are near enough that I can see their beards are white from the foam at their mouths.
We are in Erlian at 8pm. It is a border town, its Mongolian counterpart, Zamiin-uud, is on the other side. The station is small yet decadent. Flower-stuffed barrels are on the platform and there are obelisks festooned with commemorative plaques. The engines cease, and we hear classical music. It is loud and rousing, like the V for Vendetta scene where V pipes the “1812 Overture” through London’s PA system before exploding the Old Bailey. But this is Eastern with flutes and zithers*. Sam and I put our foreheads to the windows and watch an empty platform. Entering this scene is a crouching soldier holding a smartphone as if he’s recording a video. It makes zero sense until context arrives: another soldier, this one in a full dress uniform and a hat as large as his head, marches past our window. One arm swings stiffly, and his cameraman comrade follows his path.
“What the balls is going on?” Sam asks.
There is a clock outside our window. Its hour hand moves a digit before we get an answer. During that time, Sam and I sit back. She reads, I read. A bit later we make dinner. Dinner is whatever can be re-hydrated. I have noodles and Sam announces she is going to head to the dining car for a beer, but she returns a minute later.
“No luck?” I ask.
“The attendants, I don’t know what they’re saying, but they’ve locked the doors between compartments. Are saying no exit. It feels like the start of a horror movie.”
A trio of customs officials boards the train. Two are women in simple green uniforms. One has a stack of passports propped on her forearm, the other has a computer tablet. The third in this trio is a young man my age with a few medallions pinned to the breast of his uniform. Inside our cabin, we stand aside while he checks our bags and berths for contraband. Then he asks for our passports.
Sam is the first. The man cleanly flips through her passport’s pages like performing an expert riffle shuffle. I wonder if this is what one of his medals is for. When flipping is complete, he lifts the passport in the air and aligns its photo to Sam’s actual face. He hands the passport to his companion who leaves it open and adds it to her stack.
Few sounds attend this process. There are the flipping pages, the tap of fingers on a tablet. It is quiet enough that I can tell one of the man’s nostrils is plugged.
He turns to me.
After I hand my passport, the man repeats his process—to a point. He holds my passport in the air, aligning it with my face. He takes a long, long time. He asks a girl to come forward and do the same. She does, then she asks the other girl.
I am blind for this. My vision is about as clear as a Monet painting with none of the vibrancy, and I’ve had to remove my glasses. I just see hazy figures moving.
“Not you,” the man says to me.
I put on my glasses.
I’m in a conundrum. Bit of a tricky one too: how do I prove that a picture of me is me?
In fairness, the photo in the passport is of a very different me. There’s little to connect the face of January 12, 2009, to the face of this day, May 22, 2018. On that January day when I went into the post-office, I was a college senior. My neck was an all-American beef hot dog. I was a division 1 rower and had a few of the awful symptoms of a high-calorie diet and high-weight workout regime. My cheeks were the fullest they’d ever been. And, call it lingering puberty I suppose and an in-general dereliction of appearance, my face was cherry red and my hair short and messy. Nor would my expression ever benefit me. It is not just annoyed but hostile. More than one person has remarked on the expression’s uncanny resemblance to the infamous one held by Mohammed Atta. The May 22, 2018 neck is thinner, face leaner, hair higher. There is a beard and a better mask covering the hostility.
The passport standoff is yet to be resolved.
One of the girls leaves and returns with a man in his fifties. His uniform is an obscene wall of metals, reminiscent of those Soviet Era generals weighed down with accomplishment. He grabs my passport from the girl’s hands, clearly disturbed that his presence is warranted, but I sense that this is a man who approaches his bureaucratic position with authoritarian splendor.
Again, I remove my glasses.
I stand, trying to decipher the tone of the conversation. Chinese is all tonal, but I find these tones are indistinguishable for one another. There’s a minute of discourse. The general cannot decide.
I put on my glasses.
“Look at my Russian visa.” I offer to show them. The general hands me my passport and I flip between the photo on my Russian visa and the passport’s first-page photo. “2018…2009…2018…2009.”
I want to remind them that a Chinese consulate issued my visa and that a customs official let me into the country.
The general shakes his head. He’s resigned. “Very different,” he says, “But okay.” He passes it to the girl who stacks it on her arm.
Erlian, May 23rd— We are in Erlian five hours and by the way, our coach is moved into a giant mechanic’s bay. The attendants have not unlocked the bathrooms so as to prevent us from flooding the bay floor with piss.
I watch from the rear of our carriage as workmen unhook it from the train, and then watch as the carriage behind is reversed into the night.
The attendants have lost the space between carriages to do their smoking, and I suspect they’re smoking in their compartment. The air in ours is intolerable. Sam coughs until she’s red-faced. It looks as if she’s being asphyxiated.
I explore the carriage, sticking my head into each of the empty compartments to take a deep inhale. All the air is still and stale with a heavy, gritty dustiness except in one. I visit the attendants’ compartment and knock. “Too much smoke,” I say to the man that answers, “Can I please move rooms?” He does not understand.
Mark this advice: the game of charades is an epic preparatory tool for traveling in a foreign country.
I wave him to our compartment. Sam’s face has changed from rhubarb to Campari. For the attendant, I re-enact the motion of smoking and have my right hand mimic the resultant smoke that travels through the air ducts and exits the vent inside our room. I force an exaggerated cough, holding my hands to my throat like a python’s got me. He begins to understand.
I beckon him to the room I want to move to. I turn on the light, walk inside, and do a Julia Andrews the hills are alive with the sound of music twirl. Closer.
Returning to my compartment, I take my backpack and move, lay it down in the new room and lie on the bed for a moment, mimicking sleep, before popping up and giving a tentative thumbs up. The closing moment: he nods, “Yes, yes.”
Sam and I have our victory.
Past midnight now and our world sounds like an explosion. The carriage is mounted on a jack and being cranked up. Again in the rear, I watch as our wheels are slipped from under us, and new ones—ones suitable for Mongolian tracks—are subbed in. A dozen men do this job, and I marvel at the technical proficiency and man-hours dedicated to getting this little train to Ulaanbaatar. What valuable cargo does this train hold? I wonder because I doubt the sum of passenger fares adds to covering the expense of even this wheel job.
When the wheels are fixed, and the jack lowers us, the rest of the train returns from the dark. With a loud bang, we’re latched back on. I check the schedule posted in the hall. We’ll be in Mongolia in under two hours.
I can hardly tolerate my exhaustion. My eyes still sting from smoke, but my lungs are clearing. Changed into pajamas, I make my bed and sleep. It feels like a blink. No sooner does it happen than Mongolian custom officials are stomping in the corridor, turning on lights, and shouting at us to get up. A woman and man stand in our compartment and look incredibly different than their Chinese counterparts. We’ve gone overland an hour and a millennium of genetic change. Their faces are wide and dark, their bodies are like pillars.
“Do you bring illegal things?” The woman asks as the man peaks about the room.
She takes my passport and gives the photo a scant second. I get my stamp.
The sun is flipped. Sleeping was a concentration, and my mind is unsure if it happened. The train moves into your body. Movement and sound—that harrumphing clack of wheels over ties—is constant, and horns after a while do not wake you. Your brain cannot quite operate apart from these facts, so it inserts them into the random narrative arc of your dreams. You wake, marveling at a dream where a customs officer who looked like the customs officer you just saw but was also somehow your first grade English teacher, produced an earth-shattering blast while encouraging you to bike faster up a hill of roasted duck.
Sam is making her bed and lacing her shoes when I return from the bathroom. “Breakfast,” she says. “I need to spend the last of my Yuan.” Then she says, in a softer tone, “Hope it’s the last I need for that bloody country.”
We lost our Chinese dining car at the border. I am grateful. It was austere, the employees gruff and foul, the decorations unpopular. This Mongolian one is full of light with white tablecloths and booths upholstered in garnet leather. No table is empty, and a single Mongolian man in a tuxedo shirt and black vest hustles between them all, filling tea, taking orders, bussing.
That Kiwi couple from my coach has a table and I join them. We chatted during a platform break in Erlian. I’d asked where in New Zealand they’re from.
“We’re Kiwi,” the girl said, a reflexive response since more often than not the question would have been, “Where in Australia are you from?”
Tess is the girl. She is personable with a smile that lifts into dimpled cheeks. Vans is the boy. Something about him always seems serious and skeptical, like there’s an idea of consequence in his mind that he turns over. He is tall and structured like an athlete. He wears a ball cap and I wonder how his hair remains slicked into place.
In the food car, the prices are beyond what is reasonable. Tess is tuned to my thinking and advises me to tell the waiter that I’ll pay no more than twenty.
“I’ll pay ten,” I say to the waiter when he returns to take my order.
“You pay 20,” he says.
The waiter puts a thermos of hot water down, sliced white bread in a basket, and a pail of milk butter and jar of cherry jam. The thermos and pail and jam jar are communal condiments, and the waiter takes them from table to table as needed. The Kiwis don’t stay long. They’re in Mongolia a day longer than me and have no plans, but our interests align. We talk about exploring together. Sam joins, and I am soon eavesdropping on the group behind me when I hear them say the phrase “Tran-Siberian.” I saw one of the group as I sat down: a young brunette girl with a placative face and earnest composition. I glance back and see she’s the one talking. She is speaking of an island at the center of Lake Baikal in Siberia. It houses a village that takes two days to get to, but the structures are wood and the paths are dirt and instead of cars there are carts and horses. I make a mental note to seek this girl out and learn what other tips I can steal.
The Wisconsin professors sit across the aisle. They’re very serious with each other and very involved in the details of the books they’re reading, or have read, or plan to read. The books they are all reading, or have read, or plan to read, are the same for all of them, so the conversation isn’t so much a back and forth but rather a scrolling list of footnotes in oral form. One professor talks about the Karakoram Highway reconstruction project. It is the highway that connects Pakistan to China. He calls is a pecuniary abscess, surely the underlying purpose is to yoke Pakistan to Chinese power. The total dollar value, he claims, has no connection to the economic needs the road serves.
We will arrive in Mongolia’s capital in a few hours.
Mongolia after a China is a giving gulp of air that comes after a long period of suffocation. China has too much. Cars, metal frame bicycles, farmers, paddies, telephone poles and wires, ducks, fishermen, train tracks. Everything is produced, consumed, abandoned, and trashed in excess.
And then Mongolia.
It is a spectacular land and a barren agony. A painful and engrossing graveyard. Every feature of its landscape is visible: the grass blades, the hills, the piebald shadow shape of clouds on the soil. I see minuscule mounds in the distance. It is difficult to ascertain what they are so far away, and it is not until the train passes near the first one that I can thus identify them all: they are carcasses. In aggregate, the number would be in the thousands. Cattle, sheep, camels, antelope. Fresher carcasses hold, in bloated form, the outline of life. On older carcasses, bones elevate the hides that encapsulate hallow bodies. Naked skulls are chewed through by maggots, bleached by the sun, and sharded into the earth. Fleece lasts longer than the skin that grew it. When a sheep dies, it leaves an eerie white puff spiked with rib bones. And it is clear that predation is not the cause of so much death: I see solitary livestock—still living—and hunger has enlarged the track of their ribs. The creatures are nearer to death than life
Nomadic gers make an appearance. They have smoke piping through narrow metal chimneys, boys outside chasing dogs, and men herding livestock by motorcycle or Toyota truck.
The day is getting stronger with us, and the sky a paler blue. Gers come nearer the track, and I see my first fixed structure. It is a massive gravel processing plant. More distance, more gers. I might call them homesteads, but this is a place where terms derived from America’s land-use law have no application. America tells its citizens: that arid patch in the west if you take it and add water wells, silage, infrastructure, and everything else to make it habitable then you may retain it. The Free Soil will be yours for however long you wish to retain its title, and the United States will place no encumbrance on it absent what the law might allow. Mongolia’s law is: the land is ours so see to it and care for it, let your animals graze, take from it everything you might need but do it no harm. It will be yours for at least a season longer.
Sam puts on her shoes. The Kiwis and I stand in the hallway and watch as Ulaanbaatar develops from the track edges. The neighborhoods are decrepit. The yards filled with trash. Ulaanbaatar is like a grandmother moss creeping up a hill. Gers are in people’s backyards. I pass information to Tess and Vans and they pass information back to me. We make plans to make plans.
We arrive at Ulaanbaatar station. The sun is as bright as waking. I see a driver holding a sign with my hostel’s name. Standing next to him is the girl from the train who spoke of Lake Baikal. Together we get into the driver’s car, and immediately I notice that he drives on the right side of the car while all other drivers are on the left.
We drive into the city.
*A “guzheng” in China.