The train pulls out of Beijing’s central station precisely at 7.47am. Some of China’s train stations maybe chaotic and crowded but Beijing Central is anything but. Wide clean corridors with sleek polished floors, chandeliers and comfortable chairs are the order of the day here.
The train itself, in contrast, is an old one, painted green and gold and with hard bunks and a rattling fan in place of air conditioning.
It takes almost an hour before we leave the outskirts of Beijing behind and perhaps another hour before the smog disappears and the sky becomes visible again. Soon the engine is straining up mountain sides and through long tunnels, offering glimpses of high cliffs of rock on one side and mountains and rural villages on the other.
By lunchtime we’re in the coal belt of northern China and by mid afternoon in the province of Inner Mongolia. Arid grasslands bleed into dusty hills that fill the horizon. Occasionally I glimpse sections of the Great Wall; sometimes crumbling, sometimes standing firm, winding its way along hillsides and through valleys. The train is peaceful. I'm sharing my compartment with two German travellers, Sonja and Marcus. In the compartment next door, two Mongolian men sing lustily, presumably happy to be heading home.
As afternoon gives way to evening I wander to the dining car with Sonja and Marcus. We drink cold beer and eat tomatoes and eggs, roast chicken and rice and spicy pork with green peppers and watch the Gobi desert begin to slide by outside the window. Whirls of dust follow the train along the empty, almost desolate countryside.
At 8pm we reach the Chinese border. A fierce looking customs official appears at the door asking for passports. I hand him mine and say ‘thank you’ in Chinese. His officious face dissolves in a huge smile and he transforms from a fearsome official to a shy teenager in seconds.
I join the crowd of passengers on the platform where we wait for two hours for immigration to be completed and for the train to be changed to the Mongolian and Russian gauge base. (Mongolia and Russia have slightly different rail sizes to most of the rest of the world). With great clanking and juddering, huge jacks lift the carriages from one base to the other.
Eventually the whistle sounds and we board and I lie, sleepy, on my bunk. I hear music as the train starts to move and, curious, walk to the open window to see what’s happening. The music is the Chinese national anthem being piped through speakers at the station. As the train draws out, all the customs officials and railway staff stand to attention along the platform to see us off. I spot my customs official and smile at him. Once again he breaks ranks and returns the smile.
I find the ceremony surprisingly moving. Yes it’s nationalistic and yes China is a country that has serious issues with human rights. But at a one to one level, Chinese people are friendly, helpful, hospitable and patriotic. I’ve loved every day I’ve spent in the country and as I watch the platform disappear I realise I’m really going to miss it, too.
Half an hour later we cross the Mongolian border. The train pulls to a stop, customs officials board and we wait, this time in our cabins, for another two hours. There’s no power and the cabins are soon stiflingly hot. I fall asleep, only waking as we begin to move again to find my passport has materialised on the table beside me.
When I wake in the morning we’re leaving the Gobi behind us and entering the flat, featureless grasslands. An occasional white domed ger (the large tents in which nomadic Mongolians live)sits in the distance. A herd of camels graze on the sparse grasses alongside a smaller herd of horses. There are no roads, no towns, no houses, nothing. Until finally, at 4pm, we arrive in Ulaan Batar.