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Published: March 3rd 2009
After the mystical experience of Lake Baikal, time speeded up again as we headed for the Mongolian border. Carriage 10 became a micro-world, the passengers all setting their own boundaries and establishing the roles, rituals and routines that were mutually noticed, yet never acknowledged. The smallest sound became audible - whether the drone of Jean-Paul humming a demented tune at the far end of the carriage or the snap of playing cards as my Swedish neighbours completed yet another hand of gin rummy.
The two Chinese attendants were tolerant, though not indulgent. This trip may have been the journey of a lifetime for Western tourists or adventurers, but these railwaymen rode this train every week. But they too seemed to fall into a torpor as the journey advanced - slowly chopping bok choi in their little kitchenette or quietly slipping into an unoccupied compartment for an afternoon siesta.
At Ulan Ude a leathery man in a blue beret persuaded two jolly Swedish pensioners to cavort around the statues of three bears on the station platform. Hard-faced women sold dried fish and Baltika beer from the platform kiosks. The surreal atmosphere was completed by the station announcements - each accompanied
by the jingle "I wish you a Merry Christmas"... Then we trundled on towards Naushka and the first real event of the trip: the Russian Border.
These long frontier crossings have an undefined theatrical quality and everyone, from the bored military conscripts to the passengers wondering if their passports would ever be returned, was alert to this. It was an interminable six-hour opera but all the actors were waiting, indeed hoping, for something to go wrong.
Sure enough, a guard emerged from the station office and the passengers lining the train windows began to stir and twitter. The visa of a young French woman (she had been travelling with Jean-Paul and I had assumed she was his lover) had revealed itself to be out-of-date. This being Russia, there was no question of buying a new visa, paying a fine, or even offering a discreet bribe to one of the young soldiers. Only the most melodramatic outcome would fit the crime: a six-hour train ride back to Ulan Ude on the next train. This left on Monday- in two days time.
As the French woman was removed from the train, the remaining passengers exchanged looks of barely concealed
schadenfreude. But the woman hopped jauntily onto the platform with her telephoto lenses and moved with a satisfied air towards the guard house. The coming lost weekend in Naushka was clearly a price worth paying..
Dusk fell, and above the station office a dim dormitory light clicked on, revealing four off-duty soldiers playing cards in their underwear. A vodka bottle sat predictably on the card table, while one of the men rolled a cigarette, which glowed in the gloom as the men passed it round. At Naushka - 5895km from central Moscow - you have to make your own entertainment.
We moved into Mongolia. The Russian dining car was gone - last seen shunted into a siding at Naushka with its two dominatrices hanging out of the dirty window, cigarettes dangling from lower lips. But, later, the Mongolian restaurant carriage was a revelation - a riot of carved wood and arches and with food - mutton - that was even edible. The beer, naturally, was called Genghis.
Outside, the lunar steppes flowed around the train - an infinite landscape of craters and boulders. It was a world without end, a scene that engulfed the soul, a reminder
of loneliness and the supremacy of nature. Just occasionally, tiny figurines broke up the yellow monotony of this blankest of blank canvasses: a swirl of horses moving in a vortex, a young man on a two-stroke motorbike put-putting on the road to nowhere, yurts hugging the railway tracks as if frightened of being left alone.
As we flashed through tiny stations a single, uniformed figure (always a woman) stood with a raised arm, a motionless waxwork dummy, baton in hand as if directing busy traffic through the tumbleweed.
We passed through Ulan Bator - 283 sunny days a year yet the world's coldest capital - and on into the Gobi desert. I sat in the dining car, drank Genghis beer and read Rudyard Kipling. In "Kim", a young boy was wandering with a lama through the 'roaring whirl' of India. Despite all the colours, costumes, tribes and languages there was, for Kim "In all India no one so alone as I".
If you could feel alone in India then it must certainly be possible in Mongolia - the world's nineteenth biggest country but with a population of only 2.8 million.
Blank night had now overtaken the Gobi, and a crescent moon hoist itself into view. Maybe it was the beer, but I was happy: tomorrow when I woke I would fling back the curtains, and gaze up at the Great Wall.
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