A midnight exchange in Mongolia (Sat) 15 May 2010

The coal-fired samovar from where we got our boiled drinking water (for things from tea to hot chocolate to pot noodles)

Over the days on the train, I’ve somehow built up a rapport with the train attendants. I never meant to be anyone other than just another passenger. As anyone who knows me would know, I’m socially handicapped and don’t have the ability to strike up conversations (except in desperate circumstances, hence Jack and Vanessa!) and would rather hide than socialise at a party.

The back of the samovar. At platform stops, a pick-up truck would drive along the platform, refilling with buckets of coal

I didn’t cause them any trouble and I said my good-mornings and thank yous. I helped them out when asked and I suppose, overtime, one of them got curious about this lone Chinese person.

Close up of the coal stove. Very classy.

They cook their 3 meals a day themselves over the coal fire that also heats the samovar at the end of each carriage. Tonight, they gave me 2 tea eggs. It was absolutely delicious and I felt very privileged. I wished I could give something back to them, but I really had nothing with me. In the end, I dug out 2 of my mini-Mars bars and shoved it into his hands.

The tea eggs the train attendant awkwardly found me photographing. I was very embarassed for some reason.

As the border crossing ended, he strolled up to tell me that it’s all over and that we can go to bed. I’ve more or less become the mouth-piece of these guys. He’ll tell me something and then I’ll annouce it out my door so whoever’s listening will know. Mostly, it’s just J and V. Tonight, it was “It’s over! We can go to bed now!”

But he stayed and stood chatting in my doorway. In my broken Mandarin, we asked each other questions about our lives. He told me he’s been doing this for 12 years (he looks only slight older than I am), but was not sure how long he’ll go on doing it. He says when he gets back to Beijing, he’d have 2 weeks off. Then he’d be on a train to Mongolia, and then another stint to Moscow and back. He reckons he goes to Moscow once every 1.5 months and after each trip, they get 2 weeks off.

The guy in the foreground is my man!

I told him what I was doing in London, where I’m going. I told him about meeting my father in Beijing and my apprehensiveness about traveling with him.

He told me to take it easy and give the old man some leeway. He wrote on a piece of paper his recommendations for places to visit around Beijing.

He said there used to be a lot more Chinese passengers on these trains up until 2004. Most of them traders and business people. But now, he said, they’re mostly foreign tourists.

We’re riding the Mongolian line using a Chinese train, but he says if you go on the Manchurian line (the train that goes down through Eastern China instead of Mongolia), they’re run on Russian trains which are newer and have TVs in each compartment.

He told me there are lots of thieves at the Mongolian-Chinese border, so we should be extra careful with our belongings.

We talked about how I don’t have a job, and how difficult it’ll be to find a job again. He thought it’s a great idea to take time out to tavel and spend time with my dad.

No, this is not one of the train attendants. He's one of the guys who walk the length of the train tapping at the wheels (or something else under there) with a metal stick.

My interactions with these guys and the growing hospitality that they’re giving me is actually my first experience of warmth amongst the Chinese. It shows me that, at least when we’re away and alone, we can actually be nice and caring and courteous to each other. Under normal circumstances, there are way too many of us and in the real world, I’ve only experienced the cut-throat me-only competition for everything from bus tickets to college places that seem to persist in throughout the country. They’ve given China a warm fuzzy growth and I’m looking forward to my arrival!


2 thoughts on “A midnight exchange in Mongolia (Sat) 15 May 2010

  1. My sister spent a year and China and raves about how awesome and helpful and friendly the people are. She encountered one or two swindler types but everyone else was awesome! I think you will have a great time.

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