Rapper Def P and his wife Fenske make a world trip by train across the northern hemisphere. He has written his adventures in the book Back and forth and can partly be read on our site. In this part, Def P discovers Mongolia and travels to China, where he spends a few nights in the nature of Mongolia. This time Def P writes about the difference between rich and poor, begging children and the Beijing Express journey.
On the route to the Buddha statue is also the Departmentstore, the large department store of Ulaanbaatar. Because we pretty much pass it, we grab it right away and walk around it for about an hour. It is actually not much different from the western department stores that we are used to. What does surprise me, however, is that a department store in a poor country like Mongolia also charges the same prices as ours.
Difference between rich and poor
This once again underlines the great difference between rich and poor that prevails here. For example, I need a pair of new underpants and they are converted there for 20 euros each. In Mongolia! Unbelieveable! Outside is a woman with a small stall, where underpants of the same quality are 50 cents each. So that choice was made quickly. “Just make a few.” I’m happy, she’s happy. I also wish such a woman much more than such a decadent department store.
With a bag full of new underpants we continue to the Gandan Monastery. That is a collection of Buddhist temples with a university and a shop. A beautiful complex and well worth a visit. We have just sorted our money and it comes in handy at the entrance. Mongolian money is worth so little that as a tourist you will soon be walking around with a very thick pack of paper money, which is comparable in value to our nickels and dimes.
A girl and a boy are selling pigeon food in front of the monastery. Both very young and penniless. They also try it with us. Without taking the pigeon food, I give them both a very thick pack of paper money and immediately see two very happy and surprised faces. Fens and I usually give nice tips in poor countries, and it is clear that people in Mongolia are not used to that. Normally I wouldn’t spend a penny on any religious institution, but for Buddhism I like to make an exception. We had a good time in the complex and really feasted our eyes. The large, golden Buddha in particular is really an impressive colossus to see up close. Such a temple is often like a fairytale world inside.
That evening we have a delicious dinner in a Japanese restaurant. When we then take one last walk through the city, we are suddenly approached by two begging children. Although approached: feel free to say attacked! Usually we give some money and then it’s done, but these kids are extremely persistent and bloody irritating. The girl immediately clings to Fenske and the boy sits down on the floor with his hands and feet around my leg. The kids are super filthy and their hands are pitch black. Our clothes immediately become very dirty from this attack.
“Money! Money!” I take a big step, while the boy hangs around my leg like a monkey
Fenske starts screaming and gesturing for the girl to let her go, but we are drowned out by the children shouting loudly “Money, money!” call. I now also gesture for them to let go of us, but they just keep holding on and pushing on. “Money! Money!” I take a big step, while the little boy hangs around my leg like a monkey. Soon the little guy flies through the air and lands nimbly with a roll on the street again.
He jumps up angrily and starts making fighting moves at me. Because we don’t feel like a confrontation with angry stray children, we flee into a store. But they just come after us, whining loudly. “Money, money!” Fortunately, the Mongolian woman of the shop does not feel like this either and sends the children away grumbling.
It’s all part and parcel of poor countries. But we’ve never seen it as persistent as this bunch of beggars in Mongolia. Sometimes it is also quite difficult to determine on the spot how to react to these kinds of things. You want to be kind and help the poor, but of course you shouldn’t reward pushy and annoying behavior either. If they had just asked they could have gotten some. And beating a child from you as an outsider in a foreign country is certainly unwise.
This morning we have to get up early again. We requested a wake-up call at a quarter to six, but it never comes. Fortunately, we also set an alarm clock ourselves. Everything runs smoothly and we are ready in time for the bus to the station. When we arrive in the train, a four-person compartment, it is otherwise empty.
It seems increasingly likely that this will continue to be the case. Just before our departure with this Peking Express, Harold and Chris storm into our compartment. They appear to have been reassigned to us, but almost missed the train due to poor planning by the local travel agency. They were in fact still in the nature reserve and have had an insanely hectic bus trip to the train. Still all stressed and gasping from their hasty trip, they begin to tell us their fresh adventure.
The camp manager was going to take them to the station in a van, but when he didn’t show up, they grew increasingly nervous. When they complained to the desk, there was no one there to help them, so at their wits’ end they went to his bedroom. There they banged on the door until the manager came out, half asleep. Then suddenly a van had to be arranged and that became an old barrel without windshield wipers.
Coincidentally, it rained that morning and the road they had to travel was long, winding, and potholed. That turned out to be a very wild ride with little view of the road surface. They didn’t know whether to be more afraid of flipping the bus over or missing the train to China. Anyway, miraculously they had made it in the nick of time. And that without a scratch.
From Mongolia to Beijing
After they have told their whole story in scents and colors, they calm down a bit. The train has now started running and the long journey from Mongolia to Beijing has started.
This drive leads mainly to the southeast, right through the Gobi Desert. We already know in advance that it will get warmer and drier during this ride. This is immediately apparent from the grass, which is getting yellower and thinner every hour. It doesn’t even take that long before we drive through a large, barren, yellow-brown, dusty plain. Every kilometer you see a half rotten corpse of a cow, horse or goat that did not survive the extreme weather conditions. Furthermore, the landscape is only interrupted by telephone poles or the occasional small village with a dusty highway.
Travel turns out to be an ideal binder again
To break up the long day a bit, we have an extensive lunch in the dining car. They don’t have much choice on this train, but it is very busy in the restaurant. A sturdy woman, who serves all the tables on her own, bravely works her way through the warm crowds. She puts all the couples two by two at tables for four. For example, Fenske and I sit down at the table with a retired Australian couple, with whom we soon have a nice conversation. They have already had a very long journey together and have a lot to tell. Travel again proves to be an ideal binding agent.
The man has been a history teacher for a long time and can explain to us beautifully why the Russians are such a grumpy people. He comes up with a nice and well-founded theory about communism, and how this system takes away every form of ambition and service orientation from a people in the long term. I think this man has a lot of interesting things to say. But unfortunately he doesn’t get much attention, because his wife is constantly talking about their trip. In any case, it is a pleasant lunch.
When we stop somewhere in the afternoon near a village in the middle of the desert, a whole horde of children tries to sell us bottles of lemonade, chips or colored stones. Since none of them speak a word of English, they all shout: “Hey! Hey! Hey!’ ‘Hey! Hey!” It’s like a bunch of chattering penguins bumping after you everywhere. It’s almost a comic scene, if it weren’t for the fact that you can clearly see that these children are also very poor and don’t do it for fun.
The desert we drive through is getting more and more intense. You hardly see people anywhere and when you do see them, they are covered from head to toe with clothing and rags to protect themselves from the scorching sun and the cutting sandstorms. Most desert dwellers wear sunglasses, so in the end you often only see their sunburnt nose above the rags, to be able to breathe a little.
The special thing about this border crossing is that our train is lifted, because the undercarriage has to be changed
Later that evening we have another border crossing. We are now going out of Mongolia and into China with the Peking Express. This border crossing also takes quite some time due to the now well-known story of many checks and forms. The special thing about this border crossing is that our train is now being hoisted in a large shed, because the undercarriage has to be changed. This is to be able to drive on a narrower track. In times when Mongolia and China were less peaceful with each other, they feared that each other’s tracks would be abused in a war situation. This may have been a smart decision theoretically, but in practice this still poses a problem to this day.
Border crossing with China
I suspect that this border crossing will take even longer than the previous one. It seems that we have already experienced such a chassis change in Belarus, but we slept through it. In retrospect it explains my restless night then, because there is quite a bit involved in that whole process. And now you can’t miss it. We have to stay in the train and can see everything. It is a busy place in the warehouse, with all kinds of heavy lifting machines that are operated by small, fanatical men in overalls and helmets.
In the beginning this is of course quite spectacular, but after a few hours this view gets quite boring. After that afternoon’s beer I started on a bottle of pure vodka and I’m starting to get tipsy. When the strict Chinese customs officers enter our compartment, Fenske, Harold and Chris do not find this so relaxed. According to them, I was making silly jokes and saying that we were coming to liberate Tibet. I don’t remember that well myself, but I do remember that at one point they hid my bottle of vodka. Apparently I was the only one having fun in this situation. I took it as a clear signal that they found me irritating, so I started digging. Everyone could breathe a sigh of relief again. good night!
The other half of this chapter can be read in the book Back and forth by Def P, in which the adventures of his journey around the world are linked to stories from the life of Def P. Besides the countries and regions he visits during his train journey (Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, China, Japan and Canada), the book also contains special trips to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, a Bosnia in ruins, the Spain of tourists, the slums in the US in the early 1990s and the slums of South Africa.