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Published: October 31st 2013
'...charging along like troops in a battle
All through the meadows the horses and cattle...'
The evening sun shown itself like a big flashlight flashing every few seconds from behind the trees. We were passing through inner Mongolia. The constantly changing shadows, along with Stevenson's lines made it visually rhythmic. Willy too was lost in thought. ''It came to me in a dream you know'', he said suddenly in his deep and soft voice. He was still looking out the window, the flashlight lighting up his face in a warm glow. A moment later, he was in shadow again, he turned to me and continued. ''Going to Russia, Mongolia and Sheena (China) in this train''. I smiled back.
Meet Woditsch Wilhelm. He is 78 years old and is from a small village in Germany. He is passionate about his hobby as a radio amateur, one of the first few things he told me about as soon as the train started moving out of Beijing station. I shared a cabin with him on my journey to Ulaanbaatar from Peking. All through Willy talked about his life, his work, his wife, his hobbies, his daughters, his granddaughter,
how he likes his coffee, to name a few. He shared some secrets about his mother, his dislike of the Nazis and the Church administrators who were always asking for money. He told me all this in his slightly broken English sprinkled with some German words.
I sat listening. Imagining his life and asking a few questions to fill in the gaps in his story I was constructing in my mind. His German accent was very strong. In the middle of his stories he'd suddenly stop to think of the English translation of a word. He tried to tell me the German word and if I wouldn't get it even after he'd said it three or four times in different tones, in the most jovial way he'd brush it off. 'Ah, what can you do..' he'd say with a shrug. Despite the occasional conversation that we left hanging here and there, our conversations had a lot of sharing involved.
After I introduced myself and he himself and the 'small talk' about where you are from and where you are going was over, we got on to more important things. How he loved being a
radio amateur, connecting with people from across the globe. Working with his transmitter late into the night (Radio amateurs operate in GMT and so may need to connect at unearthly hours). When I asked him what he did for a living, he told me he used to work in the mines. For seven and a half years he worked deep in the belly of the earth. About 1200 m below, at 40 degree temperatures. After a few mins of silence, he continued with how he got so thin during that time. It was hard work. Working with your hands. We talked then of the joys of working with your hands, he smiled and said, working with your brain and working with your hands both have their own benefits. He chuckled and I knew he was laughing at something I did not know of.
I tried asking him what he did after those 7 years. He just smiled and nodded. I assumed he didn't understand what I said.
At some point he took out a small device from his bag. A hand held blood-sugar testing machine. I observed while he carefully opened the
box. With the ease that comes when you do a task every single day, he used a needle to get a drop of blood on a strip of plastic. 'Ah, its too high' he said, curling his lips in disapproval. And then with a naughty smile, 'it had gone to 200 while I was in Peking!, had this dinner, they eat too much rice'. Willy was traveling on his own, from Frankfurt, Dubai, Peking, Ulaanbaatar,Lake Baikal, Moscow, St. Peters-burg and back to Germany in three weeks. And he was doing so as a diabetes patient, I was more than impressed, I am inspired!
We passed the mountains near Beijing, the ones with the most popular sections of the Great Wall. Went on into Inner Mongolia, could see parts of some ancient sections of the Great Wall. I asked Willy about his wife. They'd traveled to the coast of France he told me... remembering something special. She passed away two and half years ago. I was looking out at the passing landscapes, the very same that the Mongolian horsemen had to struggle and fight so much to get to. Our train zipped past through tunnels, while
I was looked at this man's life ballooning in my mind.
We talked about his children, his two daughters who were both very successful and apparently as tall as me. They're both married and have children themselves. He showed me a few images of his village on his new Leica camera. The old analog camera just doesn't work he said with a sad smile and a shrug. He said he'd built his house himself, in fact many of the houses in the village were designed by him. So that's what he did after his years at the mine.
Our conversations were never constant and they were organised in no clear manner. I kept adding various things to my imagination of his life and it kept getting richer through out the trip. He told me about his grand daughter Carolina, seems to be his favorite grandchild. He was very proud of his genius grand daughter who could do a lot more than the average kindergartner.
We reached the Chinese border at 10 pm. They checked our visa's and then we had a choice to either go out and stay at
the station for two hours or we could keep siting in the train and watch them change the wheels of the train! The gauge of the tracks in China are narrower than the gauge in Mongolia and Russia. Both countries refused to change their tracks, obviously. And so instead of moving the people from one train to another in Mongolia, the entire train is separated into different coaches, raised by 4 huge jacks, their wheels changed and then connected altogether again. The entire process took only about 45 mins! We sat in the train excited all this while. Trying to guess as to how the coaches would be lifted and whether there are huge cranes that will pick up the coach, will we be dangling in the air !? But no such thing happened, the lifting by the jacks was sooo smooth we realized that we were higher than normal only by looking at the other coaches about 1m lower than us. Once the coach is raised, the wheels are just rolled out from under and a new set rolled back under the train. The engineers lock the wheels and the coach back into place and we're off in no
By the time visa's were checked on the other side of the border it was already about 1 am. I drifted off to sleep quite easily.
Next morning, when I woke up and looked out the window, I could see absolutely nothing. The dry grasslands stretched as far as I could see. Nothing came in the way. No Chinese industrial settlements, no unending windfarms, not even a shrub or a bush. The grass with its wonderful variety of dull greens, browns, yellows with an occasional maroon was the only thing that stretched for miles around. I was mesmerized at this emptiness, far away could be seen a lone red truck running smoothly in the distance. There was no road to be seen, only the truck moving along with the train. We were finally in Mongolia.
Willy mentioned before that his mother was very rich and she lived well. He later revealed, that she had been to these parts of the world before. I was surprised and wanted to know more. He then told me that, in the most matter of fact way, she was actually a spy. I
did not know if he were joking or he was telling me the truth. He said they sent her here to click pictures and get them back to show them. I was stumped. Couldn't wait to go to my parent's cabin and ask them what they made of it. The more I thought of it, it seemed more and more plausible. A German woman in those troubled times, who seemed to be a tourist, travelling through China, Mongolia and Russia, only to collect information for the Germans. Willy knew I was mighty impressed.
We passed a few stations in the middle of nowhere. Sheep, goats and horses could be seen every once in a while. How strange was this land, how far away from the noise and glitter of the cities. I think all Mongolians are in a trance. The harsh weather and the landscape does things to their minds and so it were doing to me. All morning I stayed in that strange state, watching the grasslands climb and fall, roll over and create soft mounds that looked like thick chocolate bubbled up and left to dry.
day, we started seeing a few trees, they were lit in autumn colors. We were in Central Mongolia and close to our destination. We started to see settlements. Some yurts(gers) here and there. Then fenced homes, with slanting colorful roofs. From the trains they seems to be bits of colored paper scattered all over the vast valley. And so we finally reached the city of Ulaanbaatar. Our trip had an amazing beginning, reminiscing over Willy's life and the landscapes that slid past us and have been as they were for millions of years. I was witness to a life well lived. At the UB station, we said our goodbyes, he wished me the best of luck and was off.
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