Chopsticks and Train Tracks


This blog entry about the events of Thursday, August 19, 2004 was originally posted on August 25, 2004.

DAY 306:  I woke up early that morning in Ulan Baatar to catch my 8:05 a.m. train to Beijing, China.  Everything was packed and read to go by seven — except for one thing:  my watch.

It’s funny how certain things suddenly become sentimental on a trip like this.  For example, I almost flipped out when I thought I had left my New York Yankees hat in Namibia; it had become a symbol of where I came from — where The Trip would begin and end — plus it cushioned the blow when a heavy sign came crashing down on my skull in Brazil and sent me to the emergency room

My watch also served as a sort of symbol; it was the first “major” thing I bought with money earned from my first job working grills in summer street fairs in and around the metro New York City area.  Every time I look at the time, I am reminded that with a little hard work and a little savings, you can acquire the things you want — much like how I set up this trip around the world.  Although the wristband has changed for years, the center timepiece has been on my wrist practically everyday for the past thirteen years.  I didn’t by it for its brand (America by Perry Ellis, which I guess now serves as a symbol of where I’m from), but for the features that I required in an analog watch when I bought it at the age of sixteen:  tick marks (but not numbers) where they should be, a date indicator and a day indicator.  (The day indicator is really important on a trip like this because when you don’t work a 9 to 5, there is no “Monday feel” or “Friday feel” and it’s hard to say what day of the week it is unless you are told.)

Anyway, this watch has come to have great sentimental value to me — like the gold watch in 1994’s Pulp Fiction — and leaving Mongolia without it would be a major downer.  I pretty much ransacked my bags even though they had been neatly packed.  I turned over the mattress, looked behind dressers, and nothing.  I think my mania transcended into Vera because she was frantically looking for it too.  She even called (and woke up) Tatiana to explain the situation — not that there was anything she could do. 

There was less than a half an hour left to get to the train station across town, and thankfully Gotov was to drive me.  We stopped by the internet cafe that I might have left my watch at the day before (why I don’t know), but it wasn’t there.  The minute hand was fast approaching 8:05 on my watch, wherever it was, and we just called off the search and head to the train station — the next train to Beijing wouldn’t be for another six days, and that train was booked full already.  In fact, in the summer tourist season, it is near impossible to get a train to Beijing from Mongolia; the next opening wasn’t until late September. 

My surrogate parents Vera and Gotov seemed very concerned when we zipped towards the train station.  Vera had a worried look on her face and Gotov even took the silver watch off his wrist and gave it to me to have — I politely declined.  Vera walked me and my bags to my train car — with only minutes to spare — and saw me off.  Sooner than I thought, the train pulled out of Ulan Baatar, taking me southbound towards China.  Towards China without my watch, I thought.

There was no use crying over spilled milk so I just sat in my compartment bed to chill out and relax from a hectic morning.  I opened my Dave Barry book to read a bit and realized that I had used my watch as a bookmark the night before.

THE CHINESE TRAIN CRUISED OUT of the steppe region of northern Mongolia towards the Mongolian/Chinese border, stopping at smaller stations along the way.  I had lucked out again on compartment mates:  Henry, a Vancouver-born-but-raised-in-China Chinese guy on his way to Hong Kong to start a hair styling business; Toni, a Croatian-born-but-raised-in-Germany guy on his way to Shanghai to finish university; and another Mongolian guy who didn’t say much in the few times he was awake in the room.  Sharing the apples and cookies that Vera had packed for me broke the ice.  Soon after, we were served airline-type food in our compartments from our food vouchers that came with our tickets.  It was evident we were heading to China; our food was served with chopsticks.

I spent a good portion of the first six hours of the thirty-one-hour journey in my bed to catch up on writing and to read Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons.  Two little children spent their time sitting on the retractable chairs in the aisle playing with their Game Boys.  When I finally looked out the window I saw that the scenery had changed; we had made into the great sandy expanse of southern Mongolian known as the Gobi Desert.  Although I had enough apples, ramen noodles, chips and water to last me the entire trip, I head out to the dining car to be a little social.  I hung out with Henry for a bit, talking about this and that when there was a tap on my shoulder — Pilar, the Colombian girl from Barcelona that I met on the train from Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatar was there.  Soon we were joined by Croatian Toni and the other Barcelonan Jave and sat around swapping traveler tales over beers.  We looked out the window to see if we could get a glimpse of the indigenous two-humped camel, but there nothing but sand, small patches of grass and a few scattered cattle.

THE TRAIN CONTINUED THROUGH THE GOBI DESERT (picture above) all day until our arrival at dusk in Zamyn-Üüd, the border town on the Mongolian side.  We were there for a few hours as really friendly Mongolian exit official proceeded with exit formalities — no drama, just long.  While waiting to get into China, we were handed a variety of entry forms, one medical form asking:

Have you had close contact with any probable or suspected SARS case in the past fourteen days?  __ YES __ NO

“Not yet,” I joked to Toni.

One form asked for your intended address in China.  I just picked any old one in the guidebook.

“You will go to jail [if you don’t stay there],” Toni joked. 

“Well, it’s my intended address.  Maybe when I get there, I’ll change my mind, but right now it’s my intention to stay there,” I said.  “Actually, I intend to stay at the Forbidden City.”

“Forbidden City, one,” he joked.

The train pulled into the station at Erlian, on the Chinese side of the border for the long two-hour entry proceedings — one hour if you account for the fact that we turned the clock back one hour in accordance with Daylight Savings.  (I had my watch to do this now).  Immediately we saw the different in the two cultures.  As friendly was the officer was on the Mongolian side, the Chinese side was really sedated, in a serene, almost science fiction waiting room sort of way.  The train platform (which we were not yet allowed to go on) had speakers that pumped Muzak renditions of elevator songs to keep us calm during the entire immigrations process, from “Our Love Goes Up To Where We Belong” and the theme to The Godfather.  A pleasant female voice came on the loudspeaker and calmly announced, “Please… do not take inflammables or explosives on the train.  Thank you for your cooperation.”

“What’s your name?” the immigration officer asked me.  A simple test that he gave everyone.

“Erik Raphael Trinidad.”

He flipped through my beat-up U.S. passport, full of stamps on almost every page (even with the page extensions in it) to look for the Chinese visa that I got in Ulan Baatar.  He scrutinized my identification on the inside cover.  “What’s wrong with your passport?”

“I don’t know.”  The ID page was all beat up and the lamination was cracking as if it might have been a forgery.  This wasn’t the first time an official suspected my passport was a forgery.

The officer didn’t give it much thought after that — I got an entry stamp.  “Welcome to China.”

IN ATTEMPTS TO PREVENT AN ATTACK by railroad in the past, the rails of the Mongolian and Chinese lines are at different widths; one cannot simply go from one country into the next.  After the two-hour customs proceedings, the train was decoupled into sections and brought into a huge hangar where each car was lifted (with us inside) so that the bogies of every car could be swapped out for the Chinese-sized one.  A huge mechanical arm like thing swung above us, to do what, I don’t know.  “It’s like a big Transformer,” Toni said.  “More than meets the eye.”

The entire process, as much of a picture taking event it was for everyone the first half hour, turned out to be fairly boring and it just put most of us to sleep.  I passed out in my bed before it was over, but by morning I knew that we had “transformed and rolled out” into China — my watch included.

Next entry: Money, Lodging and Beer

Previous entry: Will The Real Mongolian Please Stand Up?

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Chopsticks and Train Tracks”

  • could i be first?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  07:02 AM

  • I thought we’d established that family doesn’t count.  I hereby claim the spot of “first.”

    Some day you’ll lose one of these sentimental objects and it won’t turn up in front of your nose.  Then it won’t be so funny.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  07:24 AM

  • An SBR sent me a tip via e-mail with this link:

    Weird huh?  “Inspired by…”—it’s like fan fiction for Star Wars…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  07:29 AM

  • That link is really cool.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  09:33 AM

  • “Have you had close contact with any probable or suspected SARS case in the past fourteen days? __ YES __ NO”

    This is because the Chinese propaganda at home is that foreigners brought SARS into China. Pisses me off every time I cross the border from Hong Kong or Macao.

    I really hope you are fine now; I guess your strange fascination with Chinese food isn’t a healthy thing in China (walk to the kitchen area in any of the restaurants-guys walking over on the meat and vegis on the floor, spitting and smoking, etc), also avoid ‘boiled’ water, they just warm it up.
    By the by a good (if not the best) place in Hong Kong to stay are the little hostels around Causeway Bay, MTR Exit E, turn left, walk, first street to the left, opposite Wellcome supermarket. It’s in Central not in crappy Kowloon.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  01:37 PM

  • Happy to hear you found your watch.  Do you have any way of letting Gotov and Vera know you found it?  She is probably still looking for it…...  And how nice of him to offer you his!  Apples and cookies - what a truly “mother” thing to do. They really were your “surrogate” parents.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  04:37 PM

  • now that i read this again…the train track thing is really quite fascinating…

    “choo choo”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  05:00 PM

  • I too was intrigued by the choo choo.

    Erik, I totally understand your watch attachment….I would mourn the loss of my watch for days if (knock on wood) I ever lost mine.  My watch was given to me from the family of a close friend who passed away….so every time I look at it I think of him!  It is funny how distant memories can coming rushing back to you with just a glance at an object, or even a smell!  Strange how our minds work!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  05:32 PM

  • I’ve never heard of anything like that with the train tracks - wow… I like the dusk picture in Zamyn-?d, very nice, as usual.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  05:42 PM

  • I had to give you a shout out at least for the inspiration.  I always wanted to learn flash, but never tried, because I had no reason to.  After seeing your flash movie a while ago, I found a reason. 

    Hope you don’t mind the mention and hope it does your inspiration justice! wink

    Posted by Dan  on  08/25  at  06:55 PM

  • DAN:  No, honestly, thanks for the plug!  I’m glad I inspired…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  07:08 PM

  • NOELLE / MARKYT:  Actually, I hear the train track widths are different between Spain and Portugal for the same anti-attack reason…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  07:10 PM

  • But is it like an attack of the Trojan Horse variety??
    Very fascinating.
    Teacher, I’m done learning for the day - I learned my ONE NEW THING.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  08:21 PM

  • That track thing is really interesting.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  05:56 AM

  • But Wouldn’t it be faster and less work just to switch to a Chinese train?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  05:58 AM

  • raphael? your middle name is raphael? you don’t look like a raphael. i guess it is still better than the common john, michael, or alan as middle names. =)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  06:45 AM

  • ALICE:  It’s funny; sometimes I tell people my name and they think it’s made up.

    “What is that, your pen name?” 

    Then I have to show them ID…  Really, who would think an Asian-American guy would have a Spanish last name with a Scandinavian-spelled first?  With that said, it should be no shock my middle name is that of an Italian Renaissance sculptor (and Ninja Turtle).

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  09:14 AM

  • Damn! I was gonna say that you probably left your watch on the kangaroo on the bedside table. But than I saw you allready found it (well done). So did you ever wear this uncomfortable hunk of metal up your ass in some Hanoi pit of hell?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  11:33 PM

  • PEPE:  Oooh, you just gave me a bright (and sick) idea for when I get to Hanoi!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/27  at  05:26 AM

  • I was hoping it was the artist Raphael. Now I count THAT as the one new thing I learned today!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/30  at  02:26 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today,, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.

Next entry:
Money, Lodging and Beer

Previous entry:
Will The Real Mongolian Please Stand Up?


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