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The wheels are rolling to Mongolia

CHINA | Wednesday, 10 September 2014 | Views [480]

We've passed through fifty four tunnels on the way out of Beijing.  Rumour has it that we will psas through over sixty in total before we are out into open country. 


The sky is blue, with only a hint of grey-ish smog overhead.  We pass through valleys and gorges.  Yellow rocks, craggy, marching upwards to the sky.  Green grasses, trees.  No fields.  Very colourful and pretty.  It is still just about summer, and the land is relatively dry.  Occasionally the valleys are punctuated with a turquoise river, flowing down or at least dampening the floor of the valley.  The rocky hills, not mountains, are stratified, with 45 degree seams.  In places, erosion has created a very regular, tessalating almost digital patern.


Again, I am in a four person berth, but for now only one other is occupied - by an English guy, an English teacher from Vietnam. He's already got a bottle of Chinese baijiu out.  Great.


It's not long before we see our first wind turbines.  In Gansu and Xinjiang they are everywhere, gigantic lorries carrying them down dusty highways were a constant obstacle.  China is embracing renewable wind power at rate unparalleled around the world.  They need to keep it up if blue skies over Beijing are going to become more common again, because despite all the wind turbines, China still also burns coal at an unparalleled rate.


Occasionally we pass through a suburban train station. A Han Chinese - of course, we are barely out of Beijing - stands to attention, red and green flags in hand, in an odd perspex walled cabin on the platform.  I hope there is more to his job than that.  In China it is not uncommon to see people doing mind numbingly boring jobs.  Whether the younger generation can find enough jobs to satisfy their aspirations is still an open question.  There are many young graduates, and many job openings, bu the overlap between the jobs that graduates want, and the positions on offer, can often be too small.  Many are likely to be disappointed.  In contrast however, this is still a generation whose parents or grandparents knew famine and starvation.  Perhaps unmet expectations are a relatively small burden for this generation to bear.


We trundled through shacheng (sand city?). We couldn't be at the Gobi yet.  It seemed like a place of some importance, with a dozen or more tracks passing ours side by side.  For all the coal trains it was hard to count.  We passed a passenger train headed to the famed (notorious) Jiayuguan - once the most western outpost of the old Chinese empire.  For that reason, it's signifcance derives from being the location of the first fort on the great wall, strategically placed in the Gobi desert in a narrow valley - the Hexi corridor.  There, at the edge of the empire was where soon to be exiles were brough to be cast out into the wilderness.  To be cast out of the last fort at Jiayuguan was a fate that instilled real fear.  Western tourists were on the train, but I doubted that they would be going all the way to Jiayuguan - for all its significance in Chinese history it is not widely known of in the west - more likely they were heading to Xi'an, famed former capital, located in Western China, and home of the terracotta warriors.


I was reading Theroux's "Riding the Iron Rooster" and enjoying the views.  The trees I had earlier thought more likely than not to be poplars, he said were.  There was also something like a silver birch lining many of the roads, with it's bright white bark.  Fields of corn grew everywhere, occasionally dotted with sunflowers.  Those gleaming yellow faces looked like weeds, popping up their heads randomly, here and there in and around the obviously cultivated maize.  But I know the Chinese like to eat sunflower seeds, and I have seen vast, radiant, magnificient fields of sunflowers being cultivated in Western China, so they may not be weeds at all.  I even saw a horse, black, standing by a tree.  We were still very much in China proper, so I could only suppose there is no Mongolian heritage to it.


Through Hebei provine we rattled on.  More coal trains.  I gave up counting one after thirty, fourty, fifty wagons, its hulking mass extending off into the distance.  Coal was piled up by the railway in places - we passed coal depots, and more gargantuan coal trains.  A coal fired power station pumped smoke into a once again ashen sky.  The route from Inner Mongolia, Hebei and into Beijing is a huge coal transit route; bringing the black stuff from the mines closer to the cities where the electricity is need.  It was once reportd that this route was the site of "longest traffic jam in the world", a result of of countless coal trucks backed up for hundreds of miles.


I took a break from the Iron Rooster to find the dining car.  I had missed the official lunch time by more than an hour and was growing hungry.  My Chinese was good enough to convince the staff to re-open the kitchen briefly, and rustle something up for me.  Mostly rice and green beans, but I did count three pieces of chicken meat amongst the vegetables.  One thing I will miss when we cross the border into Mongolia is the convenient benefit of speaking the local language fluently.  I suppose someone in Mongolia can speak Mandarin, but for the most part I will be just another wandering tourist who cannot communicate.  If they do speak Mandarin, I wonder what sort of accent they have?  I may not even be able to understand it!

Tags: beijing, china, hebei, train, trans-mongolian

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