What did happen with the bogeymen in China? What is the dumpling massacre to which Ron refers? And what did Ron say to the policeman as he ran to miss the trans-mongolian express as it pulled away from the platform? Here at Passage Central, I get poked all day long with questions like this. Given that no-one has faxed me any questions about diving lessons, lectures, or the other soon-to-be inmates on Palau Balak, and there have been no interesting drug related shootings, I’ll spill the beans. You have to remember Ron likes pies and booze, and dumplings and lager fit the bill quite nicely….
Travelling alone, with no western faces. That suited Ron well at times, but so did a change of scene – a chance to try something new. As he entered his carriage on the number twenty-four, trans-mongolian express at Ulan-Batar, he noticed the first pastey white faces he’d seen in a while. The express was going to be anything but, so he figured he’d have plenty of time to hook up with a few English speakers on the way over the border to China, and perhaps sort out a few pies and lagers. He had all but finished ‘Lord of the Rings’ and pictured himself as a cross between all of the heroic characters and a pissed-up Glaswegian. Except he didn’t want any part of the short-arsed hobbits, who quite frankly ruined the whole thing. Their only endearing feature with which he identified was an overwhelming urge to eat as much as possible as often as possible.
Sure enough, as he manouevred his backpack into the carriage, a scottish voice piped up at the door, “Just let this chappie get his bag in first.” Alan turned out to be a policeman usually pounding the beat in Ilford, but prone to taking 6 week vacations with his girlfriend Cathy. As the trio sorted themselves out in the carriage, and Alan pleaded with his other half to let him take a photo from the window, Ron looked at the pair, puzzled. Alan noticed the inquisitive look that Ron was sporting, and explained that the two took on different responsibilities during their travels, and he was not trusted with the camera.
As the train crawled along in Mongolia, the three got to know each other, and Alan emerged as an adventurous character, keen to eat his way around the world, and dying to get to China and throw himself into a little alleyway. Cathy seemed to be the more reserved one, who would occasionally zone out of the excited chattering of Ron and Alan, by donning headphones and reading her book. Ron suspected that she knew that he and Alan would be off for schoolboy japes and wizard pranks at any opportunity.
Now, none of the travellers were train experts, but they had all read that the width of the train tracks in China and Mongolia differed by about 6 inches, and that once past the border in China, they were expecting a delay while each of the eight carriages was jacked into the air and the bogies replaced. This procedure duly followed the lengthy border crossing, and by this time, Alan and Ron were bursting at the seams with excitement. They were locked in the carriages, but with their noses pressed against the windows, they could see Chinese people all around. Cathy had curled up for a little snooze, and was clearly not peking to early, for Beijing was several hundred long kilometers away.
“It’s just not fair!”, thought Alan, “The train doesn’t stop for a break for another 16 hours, and I want to get native with the Chinese, and eat street food, and run around on fresh soil.”
At this point, Ron, as if writing Alan’s mind, suggested a plan. With Cathy asleep, the two could try to sneak off the train, and get into scrapes. Bogeymen were surrounding the carriage, which had been detached from the main train for the bogey conversion. Chinese bogeymen at that. But the fearless duo struck up a conversation with some Singaporeans, who managed to convince one of the johnny foreigners to unlock the carriage door. After a little confusion, and waving of hands, the duo ascertained that the train would be leaving from a station about a mile away in about 20 minutes time. Maybe.
The boys exchanged a look, and nodded. “Fuck it, let’s go!”, they exclaimed and grinning, they headed off into the night. Ron took his dive-knife, and they both took a bit of money – Alan had Chinese Yuang, while Ron had Yankee Dollars. It was pitch black outside the train rebogification shed, but above the clanging of trains being reshod, the hawking voices of taxi-drivers could be heard. Approaching the din, the two were set upon by a group of drivers, each with a ropey ‘Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door’ van at their disposal. A bit of bartering, grabbing, pulling and shoving ensued, and a price of 2 yuan was agreed upon with one of the drivers, much to the consternation of the others. The van sped off into the night, leaving a few angry cabbies with no fare.
But the disgruntled cabbies weren’t to be left for long. As the British detachment had left for a dark alley under a moonless night, the other vans started to follow. This was just the sort of adventure the Scottish policeman and English Pieman had wanted from the safety of the train. They were still giggling with excitement, despite their journey into almost certain doom. Their eyes were closely on their watches, hoping that they could fight off any assailants, escape the taxi driver, and possibly get some dumplings and ginger beer before the midnight departure of the train from the station they were supposedly travelling towards.
The van stopped in front of a building, and it was alleged that this was the train station, though the doors were all covered in black curtains and there were no signs or lights. Alan got out giving the driver the agreed price of two yuan. Ron got out. The driver got out, screaming that we had agreed two dollars – a sum about eight times greater. Other vans pulled up. “Here we go,” thought Ron, as his hand went to his knife.
Alan moved fast. He placed the requested two yuan on the dashboard, and started to walk off, but the taxi driver was far from happy, and started after him. Quick as a flash, Ron reached into his pocket, and withdrew his ‘Peacemaker’, and brandished it at the driver. The driver whirled round, and it crashed into his arm, and then as he pulled back in horror, Ron thrust it again at the nearest exposed part of his opponent. Looking down at the crumpled one dollar note that was being proferred by Ron, his foe seemed to calm a little, and the crisis point was clearly over. He nodded, folded up the dollar note, and slithered back to his van.
The two boys now looked at the menacing dark curtains which covered the building in front of them. No light escaped from the heavy drapes, but the duo agreed to venture in. After a bit of poking around, they gained entry to what turned out to be a train station. In fact, the train station, from which their express was due to depart in some ten minutes. venturing out onto the platform, two women in uniform turned to inspect them. Ron approached,
“Train Beijing? Here?”.
“Ah yars ah trane Bayjying.”.
“Great. What time?”
“Time?”, said Ron, indicating his watch. Nothing doing. A bit of pointing at the station clock. Nothing. Flashing numbers of fingers in front of the ladies was the only thing which ellicited a response. Two hands, other side of two hands, four fingers, flashed up the leading lady.
“Okay – gotcha, twenty four,” said Ron, repeating the hand signal to the lady to much all round nodding. He then pointed at his watch and with the general consensus on his side, deduced that the train to Beijing would depart at 1:24am.
“Right, half an hour before take off!”, said Ron, “Let’s get soem dumplings.”
Ron an Alan bundled past the curtains of doom again and out onto the street. A restaurant over the road looked enticing, and their entry was greeted by the immediate silence of all of the diners, and a dozen pairs of Chinese eyes pointing at them. The heroes stood their ground for a moment under the questionig glares, and surveyed the restaurant. It had many skewers of strange shaped foods on offer, from birds’ feet to whole fish.
“Ah, I reckon this place would, er, take to long to cook the food….” said Alan.
“Yeah, let’s go find a takeaway,” agreed Ron, as they hot footed it outside.
A dimly lit shop was there next port of call, and after selecting some curious goods such as a punnet of fresh strawberries, the haggling commenced. The Brits tried to double team the shopkeeper, but he was wily and fast. You don’t get very far in a border town unless you know a thing or two about people. His eyes seemed to point in opposite directions, but the Ron noticed that he was in fact watching both of the shoppers with one eye each. It all ended quite agreeably with supplies, booze and snacks for a few dollars, and the pair went on to the next part of their quest, the takeaway.
A few doors down, perhaps five minutes walk from the station, a small cluster of tables were squeezed into a small room with a counter at the far end. A group of people sat around one table, shovelling food into their mouths in silence; it seemed a good place, and also the only place, to try to secure the requisite dumplings. The staff and the pair had no shared language, the menu was in squiggles, but as luck would have it, one of the diners sat in front of a large plate with about five dumplings on it.
There followed a confused exchange, and a Russian lady who spoke both English and Madarin to some extent assisted the boys in their order, which they believed consisted of fried rice and a few dumplings, to be put into the styrofoam boxes which they had gesticulated at. After all, they didn’t want to miss the train. Not with only a handful of currency on their person, and with Cathy asleep on the train, and all of their belongings on the train. That would be mad, for the sake of a few dumplings. A whistle blew in the distance, and a sharp retort from the train’s steam whistle answered it. Ron looked at Alan. Alan looked at Ron. Ron reached into his sense of priorities, his memory of the heroes in Lord of The Rings, and declared,
“Wait here for the food – I’ll find out what’s going on with the train.”
“OK,” said Alan bravely, as Ron strode towards the door. With his hand on the door, Ron turned and pledged in a heroic and sincere way,
“I won’t leave without you.”
This was the sort of promise that book heroes always kept, and Alan replied,
“Just make sure you delay the train”
Ron thought about seeing a Russian pisshead nearly left behind by the train a few days earlier, and how the train driver didn’t stop, and the pisshead relied on an acquaintance to drag him on board as the train left the platform. It was with adrenaline in his mouth, and his pledge ringing in his ears that Ron sprinted onto the platform. He knew he could run pretty fast over short distances, and had a huge decision to make as his eyes were greeted by the train pulling away from the platform. He felt his stomach turn over, as he noticed the number twentyfour written on each carriage – the number of the train, not the time of departure. He thought of examining his ticket in Mongolia, and seeing the number twentyfour on that. This discovery did not hearten him
“I can definitely make that last carriage,” he thought, but his promise to Alan came back to him. “What about Cathy and all of the rucksacks?”, “What if trains are only twice weekly like those in Ulan Batar?”. These thoughts raced around as he sped towards the edge of the platform.
But no, he had to go back for Alan, and spend the next few days waiting for trains and eating dumplings and fighting taxi drivers if necessary. Ron spotted the ladies in uniform, and altered course towards them. Gesticlution followed. Frantic gesticulation. Another passenger appeared onto the platform, but even in the dark, Ron could tell it was not Alan. Possibly because the passenger was not in a hurry. He approached, and with a few Mandarin words, ascertained that the train was changing tracks now, and would return in another thirty minutes to depart.
“appy, Happy, Joy, Joy!” exclaimed Ron, and he went off, relieved, to tell Alan, and keep his oath to not leave without him. On entering the diner, he saw Alan looking up nervously.
“Just pulled out of the platform,” said Ron, “I reckon I could have made it too.”
Alan’s face dropped, as the realization of what Cathy would do to him hit him hard. That was, if he managed to meet up with his girlfriend in Beijing at all. Ron broke into a grin, and laughingly explained what was transpiring. Alan’s fears melted from his face, and he too grinned as two plates were delivered to his table. The two laughed when they saw no rice, but each plate bearing at least twenty dumplings. Where were the lashings of ginger beer to make the party complete? Never in the field of human consumption, have so many been eaten, by so few, and quite so quickly. Boy, those dumplings tasted good.