It’s easier to handle the vastness of the Gobi desert if one approaches it through Siberia. The brainstuff is already properly tenderized, prepared to handle the gradient of bleak to bleaker.
DAY TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY SIX distinguished itself by being a Friday that shone brighter than any Friday I’d ever seen. I had read that Mongolia was called the “Land of Blue Sky,” but I dismissed the words as atmospheric chauvanism. And were a reader to dismiss my words now, I would understand. But it’s true: the sky in Mongolia is supernaturally blue. There were days in the desert where I swore the shadows under rocks and on the side of dunes glowed purple, somehow saturated with the neon color from above.
Claudia and I stepped off the train at Naushki, a town on the Russian side of the border with Mongolia. Claudia reminded me that “Naushki” sounds like a dog’s name. This is why I like Claudia.
Naushki was pretty much your standard Russian/Mongolian border town. Only the occasional gimpy cow wandered up and down the seemingly deserted main avenue, furtively trying to fertilize a dirt road that had long since turned to dust.
We saw a hood-scarfed babushka waiting outside a corner grocery. The grocery was closed.
Naturally, this was the perfect place to stock up. We found a quiet grove of market stalls, each stall built from corrugated tin siding. I looked for pants and disposable razors, and Claudia found some cucumber shampoo.
An hour and two Fantas later, we got back on the train.
New kupe occupant: a young Chinese entrepreneur commuting between Erlian and Irkutsk. He and I were soon dancing the traditional Russian Ludicrous Hospitality Waltz. I offered him a cookie. He declined but counteroffered a chicken’s foot. Woah, checkmate! I ate it politely. It was delicately spiced and quite tasty. Turns out you can get a fair bit of meat off a chicken’s feet. Right after, he offered me a Tsingtao and I declined. For this he behaved offended, and asked “Why don’t you want beer?”
Guy, cut me some slack!