Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Greatest Pleasures of Travel

Picture of cabin.

A cabin heated by wood, televised by satellite.

Oct. 3 - 4, 2014
Days 78 – 79
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part III

* In cased you missed parts I and II, here they are:
Part I
Part II

Katie and I left the village of Moerdoaga early in the morning, on a bus bound for the small city of Erguna. Soon after we left, the Moerdaoga National Forest petered out and gave way to the vast Hulunbuir Grassland. The population of this land was sparse – we only passed a few farming communities of identical tiny houses.

When we reached Erguna, the bus dropped us off in the center of town. Vendors sold fruits and vegetables along the sidewalks. Clothing shops and restaurants blasted advertisements from outdoor speakers, competing for our business. Salesmen selling street food from rickshaws shouted their wares into bullhorns. All of the noise and bustle made the city seem much bigger than it actually was.

We bought tickets to Enhe, our destination for the day. There was just enough time before our bus left for us to run across the street for lunch. We walked into a restaurant and saw that nothing was written in English. We “ordered” by pointing at some other patrons' dishes and saying, “I'll have that.” Luckily, our bowl of soup didn't contain any intestines this time. As we ate, a foreign man walked into the restaurant. We exchanged awkward glances of “What are you doing here?” Then Katie and I ran back to the bus station and found our bus, just before it left. One of the greatest pleasures of travel is figuring out how to get from point A to point B, in a foreign country where you can't speak, read or write the language, under the pressure of time. Of course, another great travel pleasure is spending all day doing nothing at all.

The ride started on a bumpy gravel road. When we made it to a paved road, it became inexplicably bumpier. There were few cross streets – we were in the middle of nowhere, and this road went to the border of Russian Siberia. We arrived in Enhe at about 3 p.m.

We only knew two things about Enhe: it had been populated with Russian immigrants, and it had a youth hostel. In fact, the previous night while I had had a decent internet connection, I had searched for all hostels in the region. The one in Enhe was the only result. That alone was enough to make us want to go there.

We gathered our backpacks and walked toward the hostel, passing log cabins built along a river. A Russian Orthodox church was in the center of town, as were little shops selling Russian souvenirs. A bakery exuded the smell of fresh bread. Pigs and cows freely roamed the streets.

Picture of hostel.

Our hostel in Enhe.

The hostel was a nice place at the edge of town. There was a large common area with big windows, where guests could admire the sprawling grasslands. This room was heated with a wood stove, which made me feel like I was “up north” in a cozy cabin.

Katie's flight from Hailar to Beijing was the following night, so we figured we could go for a bike ride or a long walk before heading out of town. Unfortunately, the last bus of the day left at 9:30 a.m. Katie may have had to leave this remote village a mere thirty hours after arriving, but I was under no such time constraints. What would I do next?

It was unlikely that I would visit this part of Inner Mongolia again, so I wanted to see a few more places before heading home. The problem was buying train tickets. I had discovered on this trip that you can't just show up and expect to get a ticket for a long distance train. If you don't want to stand for thirty hours straight, you need to book your tickets online, days or weeks in advance. During my South America trip (2005-2008), I never once used the internet to book a bus or train ticket. Things have changed a lot over the last six years.

The hostel was packed with Chinese tourists. As I was browsing for train tickets, a kid sat next to Katie and me and started asking questions. We were happy to talk with him at first, but he kept asking more and more questions. “Where are you from?” “Do you have children?” “How much money do you make?”. Then he said, “I like to talk about uncomfortable subjects, like euthanasia and freedom of speech.” Katie and I changed the subject, but he kept talking. Finally I ignored him and went back to looking for train tickets. The English ticket-purchasing website wasn't working, though, possibly because it was a holiday weekend. I would have to improvise my way to my next destination, without any idea of how to get there, or what I might do once I arrived.

Ah yes, one of the greatest pleasures of travel...

* * *
Picture of workers.

Workers in Enhe.

The next morning Katie left town by bus. She would be back in Beijing later that day. I was actually a bit jealous – at least she knew where she was going. I decided to stay behind for a day and think things through.

I rented a bike from the hostel and pedaled along the road to the Russian border, past vast farm fields and open landscapes. I continued to listen to “Wrath of the Kahns” and learned more of the legacy of Ghengis Kahn's empire. When his son Ogedei died, he didn't leave an obvious successor. For five years, the various factions of Ghengis' grandchildren squabbled. During this interim period from 1242 to 1246, Ogedei's widow took over as leader of the entire Mongol Empire. She ruled over more land than any female before her, and possibly since. Yet few people in the modern world have heard of her. Her name was Töregene Khatun.

I biked across the steppe, conjuring images of Mongolians, riding their horses across this dusty land to conquer new territory, pillaging, raping and slaughtering all who got in their way. I pedaled to the next village, another farming community. The people living there looked Mongolian – direct descendents of Genghis, perhaps?

The next morning I left Enhe with a plan: I would ride buses a couple hundred miles southwest to Manzhouli, on the Russian border. From there, I would find the train station and attempt to buy a ticket home, from a real human being. This may have been a bad idea: it was the end of a holiday weekend, and the only info I could find about lodging in Manzhouli was from a guy who said the cheapest room in town was 400 rmb and didn't have electricity or running water (by comparison, my bed in Enhe was 70 rmb and had both). I had a tent with me, though, so I could always walk to the edge of town and set up camp.

When I got to Erguna, I bought a ticket for the next bus to Manzhouli, which didn't leave for three hours. Luckily, I met a French couple outside of the bus station who were on their way to a park, so I tagged along. The park was at the top of the hill at the edge of town. It afforded us even more great views of the surrounding wetlands and grasslands. While we walked through the park's boardwalks, at least six Chinese tourists stopped us for a picture. The French couple informed me that the Chinese equivalent of saying “cheese” when getting your picture taken is “1, 2, 3, eggplant.”

Picture of sign.

A sign in the park.

The road to Manzhouli was long and lonely. The landscape was so flat, the highway so straight, you could see the road all the way to the horizon. The only time it changed direction was when it made an abrupt ninety-degree bend with no other roads intersecting it. Wired fences and flags lined the sides. We passed clusters of yurts and a band of wild horses. The only time we stopped was to let a herd of cattle cross the road.

After a four-hour ride, we saw onion domes and thirty-story buildings emerge from the horizon. If I didn't know any better, I would guess that this was Novosibirsk or maybe Las Vegas. But it was neither. We had arrived in Manzhouli, and it was to be the most interesting destination of my Inner Mongolia trip.

What's next? How about reading Part IV of this series.

Photos from Enhe
Photos from the park in Erguna

External Websites:
Hardcore History Includes “Wrath of the Khans.” Not a sponsored link.

The Future of The Facebook



Have you noticed any changes on Facebook lately?

The world's most popular social network recently began to filter content in users' news feeds. The result is that when you create a new post, it only gets sent to a small percentage of your friends. If those friends engage with your post (i.e. they like, comment on, or share them), then it gets sent to more of your friends. Because of this, your news feed is no longer a chronological ordering of all new posts.

This may work fine for people who use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, but what about those of us who maintain public pages?

Is Facebook still useful as a promotional tool? Should we migrate to any other social networks?

Enter Catherine Ryan Howard

Irish author Catherine Ryan Howard is one of the top authorities on self-publishing today. Her delightfully quirky blog Catherine, Caffeinated is full of great advice. I used her book Self-Printed as a constant reference while publishing my own book, 1000 Days Between.

Catherine is releasing an update to Self-Printed today. It's actually a complete rewrite from the previous edition. The world of self-publishing is changing quickly, and this book promises to give authors the latest tools in the industry.

I recently asked Catherine the following:

Two years ago, when the second edition of Self-Printed came out, Facebook was easily the top social network for authors looking to reach new fans. Does that still hold true today? How about two years from now – do you foresee any other social networks taking Facebook's place?

Her response:

I do think Facebook is on the way out, especially for authors (as in, public pages). I blogged about it recently in some detail:

As for other networks taking its place, if there's any growing network out there at the moment, it's a visual one, i.e. Pinterest or Instagram. Now while I love using these, I don't think they're the best for authors. I think actually using them is kind of unnatural for authors, as in we have to bend and break in order to fit in there, seeing as we're not, say, graphic designers or bakers and can use images in a natural way to promote our work. So I'm sticking to what I know works and what I see continue to work in the near future: blogging and Twitter. Rather than trying to find ways to establish yourself on new sites, I'd say work on maximizing your use of those. You can't go too wrong then.

I think Catherine makes some good points. The thing I like about running a blog is that I own it. If I get booted from a social network, or if it goes belly-up, I could lose everything I've ever written on that site. But I get to control the future of my own blog. And for that reason, I'll continue to post the vast majority of new content here, and not on any external sites.

Here's where I stand with the social networks Catherine mentioned:

Twitter – I like the concept, though admittedly, I'm just getting started. I'll plan to tweet more in the future.

Pinterest and Tumblr – I have an account with both of them, but like Catherine said, they don't seem very useful in promoting books. I have used them both for posting photos, though.

Facebook – I have a personal account, as well as a page for this website. I don't think I'll update my page much in the future (not that I've ever really used it). It's not worth the effort. I certainly won't pay Facebook to “boost” my posts.

What social networks do you use? Have you found them useful for promoting products? Go ahead and leave a comment below.

More about Catherine Ryan Howard

Blank white book w/pathCatherine Ryan Howard is a writer, self-publisher and caffeine enthusiast from Cork, Ireland. SELF-PRINTED: THE SANE PERSON'S GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING (3rd edition) is out now in paperback and e-book and available from Amazon. Follow the #selfprintedsplash on Twitter today (Friday 24th) and/or visit for chance to win an amazing prize that will get your self-publishing adventure started!

“SELF-PRINTED is my self-publishing bible. It taught me how to format, create and upload my e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks. It showed me practical things such as how to build a website/blog and how to promote my books. More importantly, it taught me how to compete with the professionals. Just look at the results - The Estate Series has sold nearly 100,000 copies and following that I got a traditional book deal with Thomas & Mercer too, so I’m now a hybrid author. Jam-packed full of hints and tips all in one place, I’m always referring back to it. In a word, it’s priceless.” – Mel Sherratt, author of The Estate Series and DS Allie Shenton Series  

* I should let you know that Catherine gave me a copy of the third edition of Self-Printed. Last year I purchased the second edition and found it extremely helpful. I'm looking forward to reading her latest insights.


If you have a few extra minutes, you should check out these two videos by Veritasium. They go into great detail about Facebook's new algorithm for displaying posts, and why it's worse than useless to pay Facebook to “boost” posts:

Note: I don't make money when you watch these videos. I'm just a big fan of Veritasium's YouTube channel.

Moerdaoga: Tracing the Great Khan's Footsteps

Picture of Dan.

Gazing across Moerdaoga.

Sept. 29 - Oct. 2, 2014
Days 74 - 77
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part II
(In case you missed it, here's Part I.)

According to legend, early in the thirteenth century a nomadic tribal leader went on a hunting expedition to a mountain at the eastern edge of the Eurasian Steppe. As he stood on the summit, the spectacular view of the surrounding grasslands and forests inspired him. The man suddenly realized his desire to unify all of the tribes in the region. He gazed at the golden sunrise and commanded to his tribesmen, “Moerdaoga!” – “Ride into the battle on your horses!” The man's name was Genghis Khan, and this land would soon fall under his rule.

Eight hundred years later, two bleary-eyed Americans stepped off a train in Moerdaoga, and the spectacular view of the surrounding forests and parking lot inspired them. They suddenly realized their desire to find a comfy bed. Gazing at the golden sunrise, they commanded to a group of taxi drivers standing before them, “Ungha ungha,” which roughly translates to “Drive us to a hotel in your car!” A mighty battle ensued amongst the great drivers of this land. In the end, one woman triumphed. The Americans hobbled into her car and she took them to her tribesman's humble inn, lit by candlepower in the long and cold nights. And they slept.

* * *

When Katie and I woke from our long nap, we went for a walk around town. There wasn't much to see – some Soviet-esque buildings, a Pegasus statue, a lumberjack monument – but our main goal was to stock up on supplies for the next few days. When I had told our taxi driver of our plans to camp at Moerdaoga National Forest Park, she had offered to drive us to the entrance the following morning. Two days later, she would return to pick us up.

We had no problem finding food in the village's small-but-vibrant market. The only issue was that we couldn't locate any fuel for cooking. My camp stove could run on anything from kerosene to gasoline, yet we had found it extremely difficult (maybe even impossible) to acquire any such fuels in China. (Trust me, I've spent many hours trying. Someday when my blood stops boiling, I'll write a blog entry about this frustrating experience.) Thanks to China's “safety” regulations, we wouldn't be able to cook with the same stove I had used hundreds of times in dozens of countries without blowing myself up (sorry, blood still boiling). Instead, we stocked up on bread, Chinese Spam, spicy tofu strips and a jar of locally-made blueberry jam. The latter would go well with the jar of peanut butter we had brought from Beijing.

It got dark and cold early in Moerdaoga, so Katie and I went to a restaurant for a bowl of warm soup. It was a romantic candlelit dinner – for reasons unclear, the electricity was off throughout the town. That was all right, though. It meant we would finally get a good night's rest.

The next morning our driver was at our hotel ten minutes early, with a big smile on her face. As we walked to her car, the owner of the hotel stopped us and took our picture. That's right, foreigners are a novelty in Moeradaoga, even to the local hotel owners.

Picture of highway.

The highway to Moerdaoga.

The highway took us straight through the forest, full of birch and pine trees, that had inspired Genghis Khan 800 years prior. We did a loop around the park and took several breaks to hike on boardwalk “trails.” The deep blue sky and natural beauty of the forest was stunning, especially after having spent the past few months in a big city. The best part of being there was that we could suck in long breaths of fresh air. The only downside was that we had arrived a bit too late to see the fall colors in full force.

During our drive through the park, we met some tourists from Hong Kong who spoke English. They were the first English-speakers we had met since leaving the train. We had been communicating with our driver using my limited Chinese, so we were relieved to have temporary translators. Our driver related to the Hong Kong folks that she was hesitant to drop us off in the forest for two days. What would we eat? How would we keep from freezing? Eventually we convinced her that we would be fine. After all, we were traveling with a large can of Chinese Spam and warm sleeping bags. What could possibly go wrong?

Picture of tent.

Our campsite.

After our driver left, we set up camp in the forest and went for a long walk along the highway. I listened to a podcast called “Wrath of the Khans” by Dan Carlin. It gave a detailed account of the life of Genghis and his descendents, their rise to power and the legacy of their empire. The Mongols were brutal (to put it lightly), and I could see why they terrified everyone they came into contact with. Nevertheless, I admired the Mongols' ability to live off of the land. They thrived in the face of near-daily life-threatening challenges. I, on the other hand, almost ran away when I spotted a fake moose.

Back at camp, we opened our Chinese Spam (not real Spam, please don't sue me). A thick, translucent layer covered it.

“Is that ice?” I asked. The air was getting cold with the coming night, but it was still above freezing.

“Nope. Just fat,” Katie said.

We scooped off the fat and reluctantly ate the “meat.” Luckily, a trash can was a short walk from our campsite. The half-eaten Chinese Spam and fat dollops probably made some critter's night.

* * *

Two days later our driver showed up fifteen minutes early, as we were finishing our spicy dried tofu breakfast. We wolfed down our food and broke camp. We had managed to stay warm during the cold nights, but the tent wasn't faring so well – it was sagging under the layer of accumulated ice.

Our driver convinced us that we should visit the Russian border. She took us along a bumpy road, through more birch and pine forests with cell towers disguised as trees (or were they trees disguised as cell towers?). Along the way we stopped to buy dried blueberries and mushrooms from a roadside stall. Eventually the forests gave way to grasslands and we entered Shiweizhen, where the signs were written in Chinese, Mongolian, Russian and English. A river ran next to the village; Russia was on the other side. Barking dogs and crowing roosters were barely audible. I couldn't tell what language they were speaking.

We walked around town and found several shops selling identical touristy stuff: Russian dolls, Russian vodka, Russian chocolate, Russian clothing. The only Russian attraction the village was missing was a bona fide Russian person.

Eventually we grew bored of shopping, so we did what came natural: we snuck across the border. Next to the river was a stage of sorts, with the flags of both countries in the backdrop and seating for around 100 people along the edges. Katie wondered what the stage was for. I speculated that it must have been located in “no man's land,” where there were no laws, and therefore, it was a cockfighting ring. Some college girls approached us for a picture, and one of them explained the less-sexy truth: This town was the setting for a popular TV show called “My Natasha,” in which a Chinese man falls in love with a Russian woman, but she's on the other side of the river. I still wasn't sure what the stage was for, though. Maybe there was a cockfighting scene in the show.

New friends.

Katie and I, with our driver in the middle.

Our driver was smiling when we came back to her car. She had gifts for us: “Twinkies,” filled with egg yolks instead of frosting. We couldn't get enough of those. Even though we spoke little Chinese and she didn't speak a word of English, we could tell our driver was a great person with a kind heart. We felt really lucky to have found her when we stumbled off of the train.

When we returned to Moerdaoga, we were delighted to see that not only was the power on, but our internet connection was surprisingly fast. Now that we were back on the grid, we turned our attention to our next destination in the land of the Khan...

What's next? How about reading Part III of this series.

More photos from Moerdaoga

External Link:
Hardcore History. For now, at least, “Wrath of the Khans” is still available for download. This is not a sponsored link. I don't get paid when you click on it. I'm just a fan.

Beijing Hutongs, Part II

Are you planning a trip to Beijing? If so, then make sure you include a visit to a hutong in your itinerary. These shared-housing neighborhoods offer a fantastic real-life glimpse at traditional Chinese culture. Unfortunately, many of Beijing's hutongs have been leveled in favor of apartment towers, but a few have received historical status, protecting them from demolition. Here are some pictures I took during a recent visit to the hutongs of Beijing's Lake District.

Picture of crowded street.

The Lake District is a traditional neighborhood in central Beijing.

Picture of Bell Tower.

In ancient times the Bell and Drum Towers were musical instruments and timekeeping devices. Today, they are historical landmarks.

Picture of men.

The locals regularly take strolls through their beloved hutongs.

Picture of mahjong.

Small fortunes are won and lost in games of Mahjong, often played in public parks.

Picture of courtyard.

Doorways leading to central courtyards are sometimes left open.

Picture of door.

Other doors are locked with chains and padlocks.

Picture of workers.

Sanitation workers ride through the hutongs on bicycles...

Picture of trash.

And emerge carrying full loads of trash and recyclables.

Picture of street vendor.

Street food is abundant in the hutongs...

Picture of rickshaw.

As are bicycle rickshaws...

Picture of smoking man.

And smokers...

Picture of performers.

And street performers.

Picture of rubble.

Unfortunately, some of the houses are crumbling...

Picture of construction.

And others are being demolished.

More photos from the Lake District

Riding the Rails to Moerdaoga

Picture of train.

The train to Hailar.

Sept. 27 - 28, 2014
Days 72 - 73
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part I

We had been warned about Chinese national holidays. A few times per year, almost everyone in the country goes on vacation, all at once. The transportation infrastructure is overwhelmed, the hotels overcrowded. The message was clear: if you choose to travel during a Chinese holiday, you do so at your own peril.

Such a holiday fell during the last week of September, and Katie and I were ready to leave Beijing. But where could we go, knowing that a billion other people would also be traveling? We were hoping to see some fall colors. With a bit of research, we found one area that was far enough from any city that it might not be completely packed, yet close enough to Beijing to visit on a week-long trip. Nestled in the northernmost reaches of the country, close to the Russian border in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, was Moerdaoga National Forest Park. Katie's guidebook for China didn't cover the park, and the articles we found online simply said that Moerdaoga was renowned for its fall colors. We decided to head to Hailar, the biggest city in the region, and wing it.

Hailar was a two-hour flight from Beijing, but it was also connected to the country's elaborate railway system. Give a choice between flying and taking a train, I'll almost always choose the train. How much can you see from 35,000 feet?

The trains going from Beijing to Hailar were slow and old. This particular trip would take thirty hours. That wouldn't be a big deal if we could get a sleeper cabin, but they were sold out. If we wanted to go to Hailar by train, we would have to do so in a “hard seat.” Reluctantly, Katie agreed to take the train with me, and she bought a plane ticket back to Beijing. I wanted to travel home overland, possibly making some stops along the way, so I decided not to buy a return ticket until I was ready.

Beijing's long-distance train station was huge. A massive pavilion was outside, and thousands of people with suitcases and backpacks were milling about. There was barely room to walk. Three men in camouflage uniforms stood guard at the edge of the crowd, assault rifles pointed downward, index fingers resting next to the triggers. Behind them was a van with blackened windows. Troublemakers wouldn't last long here.

There were about twenty lines, each thirty people deep. Nothing was written in English and we didn't see any other foreigners who might be able to help us make sense of this place. Luckily I had already scouted the station a few days prior, so I knew which line was the “will call,” where we could pick up our tickets. The shock of seeing so many people in such a small space dissipated, and we found that the lines were moving surprisingly fast. Within a few minutes, we were inside the station, ready to board our train.

Train loading was quite efficient, given how many people were waiting to board. Our “hard seats” had the same amount of padding as a Chinese bed (not much). We were lucky, though – many people were standing in the aisle. Katie and I sat next to each other, and a woman and her teenaged daughter faced us. This configuration gave us plenty of legroom, and several moments of awkward eye contact. Thirty hours is a long time to spend staring at someone three feet from you, especially when you don't share a common language.

Picture of train.

Inside the train.

Our train left on time. At first we went south, across Beijing, and soon we were outside of the city center. But the population didn't cease. We passed multiple clusters of 8-12 identical apartment towers, each between 15 and 20 stories tall. How many people lived in these complexes? One thousand? Two thousand? For many of them, the answer was zero: they were still under construction. I was glad that at least some of the hutongs (traditional shared housing neighborhoods) had been saved from demolition. The towers had no personality. They were the same buildings, repeated ad nauseam.

When we crossed Sixth Ring Road, we were outside of the metropolitan area, heading east toward the coast. Small cornfields started popping up, but there were still clusters of apartment towers. Cornfields, towers, cornfields, towers. After two hours of this, we reached the city of Tianjin, and there were more towers. We turned north and continued through population centers that would be major cities in the US. Here, they were just names. Tanshang, Jinzhou, Shenyang, Changchun.

Now that we were settled in for our long journey, the people in our car got comfortable with one another. The girl across from us played with her mom's hair. On the other side of the aisle, a teenaged boy leaned forward, cupping his girlfriend's hands in his own. She leaned back, feigning disinterest. One by one, people walked to the small space between cars and lit cigarettes. The windows were closed, so the smoke drifted toward us and soon filled our car. This was not unusual – smoking was permitted almost everywhere in mainland China. I was still adjusting.

Between cities we continued to pass complexes of unfinished apartment towers. Counting them became a game. A thousand future residents. Two thousand more. Another thousand... How were they going to fill these places? How much longer could the construction keep going?

New noises constantly filled the train – salespeople hawking food, drinks, leather belts and plastic carps that “swam” in circles on the floor, glowing gold and playing loud music. People talked on phones and to one another. The train itself was also noisy, click-clacking along the tracks and blowing its whistle every few minutes. There was never a dull moment.

Four hours after we left Beijing, the cities finally gave way to huge cornfields. The landscape became hilly. We passed a few open-pit coal mines. Bullet trains occasionally flew past us in a white blur. We chugged along, never exceeding forty-five miles per hour.

Picture of cornfields.

Northern Chinese cornfields.

At one point a train employee walked to the center of our car and gave a long sales pitch for a massager. When he was finished, he walked down the aisle and asked if anyone wanted a demonstration. He stopped at me. Before I knew it, he had stuck two electrodes to the back of my neck. Everyone sitting near us peered over their seats and watched. The salesman turned on the device and my shoulders shook uncontrollably. He changed the setting and my neck jerked back and forth. It was horribly uncomfortable. Finally I cried out, “I don't want it!” in Chinese. Laughter erupted all around us. I felt bad for making the salesman look like he was selling a shoddy product, but he laughed off the insult. After he was gone, Katie informed me that she had volunteered me for the demo when I wasn't looking. I wasn't mad – someday I would get my revenge.

The girlfriend sitting across from us got up and walked away. Her boyfriend finally leaned back in his seat and played with his phone instead of her hands. After she had been gone for a couple of hours, I assumed she had left the train, but eventually she returned to her seat. Her boyfriend feigned boredom, and now she was vying for his attention. They went back and forth like this all day.

I listened to podcasts, read a book and napped. At around 11 p.m., the lights went out. I leaned forward, placed my head on the table in front of us and fell asleep (it was like I was back in high school). Eventually I started burping and woke up. I tried sleeping while sitting upright, but my head bobbed uncontrollably and I woke up again. I leaned against Katie, but she could only handle it for so long before shoving me away. Then I repeated this trio of sleeping patterns. The other people near me appeared to do the same. I now understood the largest disadvantage of arranging the seats so that they faced one another: the seats didn't recline.

I woke at sunrise. My neck and back were sore and I was too tired to sleep. Luckily Katie and I had brought coffee and a French press with us. The train provided hot water, one of the best amenities commonly available in China. Besides our coffee, we indulged in bread and granola bars for breakfast. The other passengers ate buckets of ramen noodles, boiled eggs, sausages, cabbage and mushrooms.

We were now in the northernmost reaches of China, a world away from the cities we had seen the previous day. A fresh coat of September snow blanketed the ground. The villages we passed were small, even by American standards. Some of them looked abandoned (had their former residents moved into apartment towers?). Others were clearly mining towns – they were surrounded by quarries, and dump trucks full of coal drove through them. Many houses had gardens. Cabbage appeared to be the principal crop.

The salespeople worked their way up and down the aisle, selling the same food, drinks and gadgets. Every couple of hours, the train's seven conductors marched past us, impeccably dressed. After every stop, one of them entered our car and announced our next destination. Interestingly, these were the same employees as the previous day. Apparently, they were on a thirty-hour shift.

A girl who had been sitting near us got the nerve to approach us. She was studying at a university in a city near Beijing. Her English was good, yet she was clearly terrified of using it. I've heard this is common in Chinese culture, but I knew what she was going through. I constantly found myself thinking, I can't start a conversation in Chinese. I need to improve my Chinese first. Never mind that having such a conversation was exactly how I could improve my Chinese.

Picture of Katie.

Katie writes in her journal.

When the mother and daughter left our car for a while, a teenaged boy took a seat across from us, looking infatuated. Whenever I looked up from my book, I noticed that he was staring at me. Not in a creepy way; he just seemed curious. Once while I was reading, I heard the sound of a camera shutter. I looked up and saw that the boy had attempted to take a discreet photograph with his cellphone, but he had forgotten to turn off the fake shutter sound. The girl who had spoken to us in English was sitting next to him, and she looked mortified. I didn't mind, though – I take candid photographs all the time, so it was only fair. Now that the ice had been broken, we all got trigger happy with our cameras.

We reached Hailar a bit before sunset. It had been an amazing train ride. I loved witnessing the transition from metropolis to smaller cities to snowy hinterland. We said goodbye to the people we had befriended over the last thirty hours; they grabbed their luggage and vanished. Katie and I were exhausted after our night of fitful sleep, but we were still a long way from Moerdaoga.

After leaving the train, we went over our options for traveling the rest of the way to the park. We figured out that a train was due to leave for the village of Moerdaoga in a few hours. It would tack another twelve hours onto our trip, but we bought tickets anyway, with the thought that we could sleep the following day.

The train to Moerdaoga was significantly older than the one we had ridden to Hailar. The “hard seats” were wood benches. The paint was chipping. The bathrooms were filthy. At least it wasn't quite full.

Just like the last train, this one left on time. Say what you want about China, but it is a punctual culture. Between the plumes of cigarette smoke that immediately filled our car, we saw that our old friend, the infatuated kid, was on this train as well. He moved to the seat across from us and stared.

The guy sitting next to the infatuated kid smiled and offered us apples. We gladly accepted and gave him oranges. He upped the ante, handing me a vacuum-sealed package containing three hard-boiled eggs. The shells had been removed, and the “whites” were brown. I repeatedly told him that I didn't want the package, but he forced me to take it. I had yet to figure out how to gracefully turn down a gift in China. Not wanting to make the man “lose face,” I ripped open the package, bit into one of the vinegary eggs and acted like it hit the spot. The guy wouldn't stop, though. He forced us to take two moon cakes and some “Twinkies,” filled with egg yolks instead of frosting. We tried to give him a chocolate bar, but he wouldn't accept it. Instead, he continued to hand us food until he was out.

We had another night of little sleep. The generous man got up every half-hour to smoke between the cars, waking Katie and me in the process. Eventually he stopped getting up and chain-smoked from his seat. At least he didn't force us to take his cigarettes. I couldn't blame the generous man for smoking. It was probably his way of passing the time during our insomnia-inducing ride.

At last we arrived in the village of Moerdaoga at 9 a.m. Most of the leaves had already fallen from the trees, but I didn't mind. The sky was blue, the air was crisp and clean and the forest surrounding the village was still beautiful. Even before I exited the train, I knew I wouldn't regret coming here.

What's next? How about reading Part II of this series.

Or you can check out the full photo album from this entry.