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August 16th, 2003

Somewhere on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, China

I caught a cab to the train station early in the morning and boarded the train to Beijing. My cabinmates were a Korean mother, her six-year-old son, her younger sister, and a Taiwan-based Frenchman in his forties. Jacques, with a bushy mustache and a white, knitted beanie to cover his long, brown locks, reminded me of Kevin Kline's character in "French Kiss". He chatted incessantly throughout the day, mostly with the Korean boy, whose youthful shyness soon melted away due to the confident playfulness of the Frenchman.

The trappings of civilization soon disappeared from the landscape, leaving only a cluster of gers here and there to remind me that the countryside was inhabited. The forests thinned out, the hills faded, eventually leaving flat, grassy plains whose only noticeable features were the aforementioned gers and the occasional herds of grazing animals. For hours and hours the flat, Nebraska-like plains remained a constant companion, their lush, green grasses slowly turning yellow, and their brown earth slowly being conquered by sand. Eventually the grass all but disappeared, leaving a vast, flat, sandy, desertscape, not unlike the Sahara in Mauritania. The bleak, hypnotic scenery of the Gobi Desert continued all the way into the evening, when our train reached the Mongolian border town of Zamyn Uud. Customs on both sides of the border were quick and easy, but the crossing still took several hours because of the need to switch train bogies. (Russia and Mongolia use a five-foot wide track gauge, whereas China -- and most of the rest of the world -- uses a six foot gauge.) Soon after our train restarted its journey on the China side of the border, I settled into my bunk and fell asleep.

Hallway on the train
Mongolian steppe
Sainshand train station
Mongolian kids at play
Gobi Desert
The train turns a corner

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