26 May 2016
As we head North Northwest towards the border, the sky grows dark. Thunderclouds have been threatening, and we've seen the occasional flash of lightning on the distant horizon. This is different though, as there is a reddish tinge to the swirling air. The train is heading into a sandstorm.
For around a quarter of an hour, it's dark, dusty, apocalyptic. Dust finds its way through the cracks to be in the train carriage, not visibly, but you can taste it. The ground outside has a dappled patina, similar to that on seived flour. The nearby Gobi is coming to visit.
We make it out of the sandstorm just in time to see a low sun cast long shadows across a plain peppered with wind turbines. Swirls of cloud, sand and light disappear with an almost audible pop as the sun sinks below the horizon.
We'd boarded the train in Beijing in the late morning. The last major stop in China was in Jining/Ulanqab. I found myself wondering what the guidebook entry to Jining might say. Are there any cool bars? Local handicrafts? What is it that bootstraps a tourist destination? Is it just a commerce town? Are the big sights of the world built upon foundations of cheap beers sold to young backpackers?
At Erlian the train goes into the shed. China and Mongolia don't have a shared rail gauge, so the bogeys need to be switched. This involves a lot of clanking, juddering and raising and lowering of carriages. Border and customs formalities for both countries take place on the train. The whole process takes around five hours, and with passports safely back in our possession, I turn in around 3am.
When I wake, the terrain has changed further. The low hills and grasslands of yesterday evening now run to the ends of the earth. It's very bright, and the huge sky is blue.
The grass is thin, and it feels like it could change to desert at any moment. As the train approaches Ulaanbaatar, settlements grow in size, eventually becoming towns of multicoloured corrugated roofs intermingled with white gers. More trees, a timid river valley, then the buildings start to rise higher, and we are in another capital.