Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 7 continued
I spent the afternoon after my failure to negotiate the Erlian border crossing trying to forget about my increasingly desperate situation. There was nothing I could do but wait. I took a walk around Erlian town but found nothing but wide dusty roads stretching into the distance. The buildings were built big but seemingly oversize. It was a town of not much more than unpopulated space.
There was a park a twenty minute walk down the road from the train station, but when I reached it, it was in the process of being ripped up and I presume, re-landscaped. It looked like a building site. There was a new Nissan dealership that looked just opened. Balloons and banners were hanging proudly amongst the shiny new hatchbacks on the forecourt. But there were no customers around looking to buy these things, and there were no dealers around looking to sell them.
I did, however, find another park on my walk back into town, at the aptly named Dinosaur Square where I spent a pleasant few hours. The Eren Salt Lake, some 8 km outside the city, has been the site of several dinosaur fossil finds in the last couple of decades, and the Erlian city council have evidently gone all out with the dinosaur fan club because of it. There were dinosaur sculptures all over town. But the place needed livening up somehow. And who doesn’t love dinosaurs? I took a seat next to the fountains and watched the kids having fun in the water whilst I ate my grapes.
Hogji the translator
They couldn’t get under the fountains quickly enough those kids, stripping off to get amongst the spray and cool off from the summer heat. Some were plunging in fully clothed without a care for visas, train schedules or the quickest way to Ulaanbaatar. They were happy getting as soaked as possible and making sure everybody else got just as soaked as them while my morning’s disappointment still played very much on my mind. I was only a few days into this two-and-a-half week trip and already I was worrying if I’d make it to the end. I’d had a ticket fiasco, a train that wasn’t there, a flat tyre and a failed border crossing, all within the last three days. I could only hope that my luck would improve from hereon in. But I had to get out of Erlian first.
Later, as I explored the rest of the park, I got talking to a guy called Hogji, or rather, he got talking to me. He was Mongolian but worked in Hohhot as a translator for the Mongolians that came to China to trade there. He didn’t like Erlian and he didn’t like the Chinese. They treated Mongolians badly, he said. “We are not treated fairly.” I asked him why not.
“We are outsiders here,” he said. “But this was once our country. There are many Mongolians but we feel not welcome. Now prices are more for us than for Chinese and it is hard for us to do good business.”
So did he not want to go home?
“I cannot go home,” he told me. “Sometimes I can visit, but my work is here. Now I am a translator. It is good work for me. It is good for me to help Mongolians.”
He asked me why I was in Erlian and I told him I was going back to England. He proceeded to list every team and every player he knew in the English Premier League, just to prove his footballing knowledge. “Michael Orwen,” he said. “Runney, Gerrarr, Lamparr, Chelss. I like Manchester,” he told me. “I like Liverpool too.” I sensed a conflict of interest but thought it best not to force him to choose his favourite shade of red, and after chatting some more, we parted ways with a handshake and wishes of good luck.
I had imagined Erlian to be a slightly more modern version of the sort of border town seen in American Westerns – a single street of wooden shacks with a train station, saloon and sherrif’s office somewhere within sight. But though it was more substantial than I’d thought, at the same time, it seemed the town was dead. I began to think of it as a kind of purgatory through which the lucky ones were passing and the damned were here to stay, a place of transience in which no one ever quite belonged, with roads that no one drove on and buildings which may or may not have served a purpose. I felt stranded on the banks of the Styx. I prayed that tomorrow I’d be gone, through the gates and crossing over.