Sunday 20th October – DAY FIVE – After Ulan Bator
Anton disembarked into a night-zone array of squat rectangular buildings, lit with a braid of coloured light rows around the flat roof lines. I noticed a wing insignia painted on the front of one of the buildings. Perhaps Darkhan was a military or airforce centre? Or an educational centre?
Anton was contracted for a year in Mongolia and, although he was working for the same parent company, the entire workforce would probably be Mongolian and he did not know the language. He knew he was to be picked up at the station but did not know where the place he was to reside was after that. He gathered all his goods together. We shook hands and wished each other well in our new lives. What was he going to be making?
I slept once more and woke to find a new landscape.
New housemates! As our train stopped at Ulan Bator 6:50, Sil had kept his promise and gone quietly. Now present in the compartment, Chris from Inverness taking Anton’s place and Rinze from Rotterdam above me. He was part of a gang of Dutch youngsters who had met on their previous train and shared adventures in the yurts of the nomadic Mongolian people.
Rearranged cars on the train meant we were now the back end and Mark finally got his ornate Mongolian restaurant car.
Chris was a research engineer, working in Bristol testing various plastics for use in airlines. Rinze was a recent graduate, looking for a gap year adventure before beginning his working life. He was not exactly sure about his future; marketing or economics. We talked about sustainable travel. We talked about many things.
Haven’t talked so much in years. Next door I met Kim from Singapore who was travelling with her Aussie-based sister Lian and her hubby Andrew from Maitland NSW. Kim had two boys of her own, 24 and 22 – engineer and student – and she was in banking technology. Francine from Belgium, on a semi-organised tour, hung out by the windows with her huge camera ready for every last camel or sand dune. Mom and daughter Mary and Brett from America seeking adventure together. We all trotted off into the sunshine at Sayn Shanda. I did see a young man doing pushups on the platform (remember Compartment 6? It’s poetic and a little bit ominous.)
Ever since I started this trip, people asked me, ‘Why aren’t you flying?’ When I explained I wanted to avoid harming the atmosphere (that said as we breathed in coal dust!) I don’t think anyone judged me, more amazed I could afford the time. That’s one thing I was strong in. Time. Extraordinarily lucky.
In the end all those discussions seemed to come back to economic viability. The perception that ‘new’ renewable energy tech was not commercially feasible.
Until costs came down and it was cheaper to buy clean energy people would not change. Not until it was absolutely necessary.
Until accounting includes damage to the environment, we are doing the wrong sums. Damage to social structure, damage to well-being of humans, damage to health, damage to individuals, damage to species, damage to eco-systems; the rights of rivers to exist, the rights of humans to clean drinking water, the rights of humans to clean air to breath; those are the sums that must be run through Excel sheets.
We must urgently change our bookkeeping. The economy, as bandied about by economists, does live as a subset of the environment. The planet Earth is a closed system.
It matters not one jot if you have a fat share portfolio, not one skerrick if shells are used to pay for your sweet potatoes or you barter services for goods. If humans cannot breathe what economic system would you vote for?
If you like humans, fight to stop climate change as hard as you can.
Change is inevitable, normal in small doses. One day you have a green tea instead of a café latte. Walk rather than take the bus. Start looking for a different job. Or plan a holiday to Mongolia.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”
We must be prepared to unlearn. And learn anew.
Change. Clean air. Clean water. Make it happen.
We looked out the window.
Seventeenth day Tao said: ‘Without fundamental trust, there is no trust at all.’
Oh, it was a harsh landscape, with tussock grass, dunes and then the flatlands. We were passing the edges of the Gobi desert. And the distance. Chris said, ‘I never appreciated distance before.’
We turned back to the window. (And then to our detective novels!)
18:50 – Dzamyn-ude – Passport check for Mongolian border. Officer in forest kahki arrived at our door and saluted us. She took and examined each passport carefully, comparing us with our photos, then handed them on to our captain. Her fingernails, a perfect pink polish.
Hurry up and wait
21:00 – Erlian – Chinese entry point.
We packed up all our luggage and went into the building. We went through the security x-rays and into a waiting room filled with plastic glue fumes from some kind of renovation happening above us. We waited.
Went to the shop and bought fruit and nibbles. Rumours abounded. No official told us what to expect. Luckily Kim and Lian boldly went and found out and we passed the information along. Use the toilet while you can. Encountered my first squatty potty. Very comfortable.
We could walk in the brisk wintery air in a holding pen by the building. Walked up and down with Holly from Switzerland, a fellow long-term solo traveller, who agreed planning decisions were easier made alone.
We were allowed back onto the train at midnight although the toilets remained closed while we were at the station. It would leave at 2pm. We were all weary, weary, weary.