Day 88: Zamiin-Uud , Last place

Screenshot from an Android mapping app showing various coloured lines converging at Zamiin-Uud..
Our route, maybe.

Tommy’s roadside nap lasts the best part of three hours and we arrive in Zamiin-Uud early the next morning.

Avoiding the cross-border van and motel touts, we find a cafe in which to order breakfast. I have some kind of soup and two greasy fritters. It fills a hole, anyway.

It is colder here than anywhere so far and this only strengthens my resolve to bypass China for somewhere warm. This should be relatively easy to organise, as there is a train station here and an airport across the border.

But where? I have one remaining entry into mainland China and must be in Hong Kong in six weeks' time. I ask Facebook for suggestions, but my distributed friends are either asleep, or too busy eating lunch to care.

Tommy finds me a nice hotel room by the uninspiring train station.

At the Nomgon Hotel, two large windows provide a commanding view of the vacant platform, long strands of dormant goods wagons and a blank cloudy sky. Nearby by out of sight, local wildlife forage at an open rubbish skip.

The Wi-Fi and hot water are lukewarm, but the bed is comfortable and the staff provide a jug when I request it. The highlight of the room is a once-grand bedside table, the front panel of which is adorned with two light dimmers and six white switches: DESK LIGHT, NIGHT LIGHT, FLOOR LIGHT, FRONT LIGHT, TV and DO NOT DISTURB. The level of ambient light control is outstanding, but I’m a bit mystified by the last option.

My entire road trip team has piled in there with me, so either the switch doesn’t work, or it works in reverse. Either way, it’s a bit awkward. I’m exhausted, but I feel uncomfortable about snoozing, or snoring, in their presence. Maybe my expectation of privacy and Dan-time stems from not growing up in a one-room house. At the same time, I’m well aware that they don’t have a room of their own, or any other reason to even be in Zamiin-Uud. The promise of the exciting road trip is a distant memory and this sleepy border town wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice of stopover.

Eventually, they decide to go for a walk, while my host-driver from Tsogttsetsii stays behind to rest. I ply him with hot drinks and snacks, happy to play caregiver to one.

When they come back I am told that we have all been invited to lunch.

Despite having no official job, his brother-in-law’s friend is successful by any measure. His cross-border trades have allowed him to build up a small empire, including a brick house, which he built himself, a Russian jeep, which he modified for racing, and a gorgeous wife, with whom he’s had three daughters.

They greet us as we are invited inside and offered milky tea and repeat servings of tsuivan from a Chinese wok. I do my best to ignore the elephant in the room, the large corpse of a dismembered cow, its bloodied parts piled on a sheet of plastic on the kitchen floor.

After some group photos they drop me back at my hotel. They’ve organised a man named Bataar to drive me across the border in the morning. I'm thankful - I was dreading have to organise this myself.

I look at my phone and try to figure out which path we took across the Gobi.

It’s more out of curiosity than anything else. There was no extra charge for driving all the way to the border and it makes me wonder how they came up with the pricing in the first place. I’m pretty sure the other passengers didn’t pay anything, probably because they weren’t actually going anywhere. Maybe it’s bad luck to travel with empty seats, or some kind of insurance policy against the myriad of things that can go wrong in a desert. I guess I’ll never know.

Despite not having done anything, I feel tired. I’m fairly certain that the weather across the border will be more of the same and I’m not sure if I can handle fifty days straight of Chinese snow.

I feel ripped off, not financially, but like a fistful of my dreams have been yanked from me. There are nine days left on my visa, but I couldn't even ride the last 210km from Sainshand to Zamiin-Uud. It’s not a good feeling and I can’t imagine that I’d feel any better by jumping on a train or a plane right now. Truth be told, I appreciate a bit of suffering, it just makes the high points that much more meaningful. It’s too late for regrets, but it’s not to soon to learn from my mistakes.

Whatever my next steps, my focus is firmly on the future. I can’t help but think of Mongolia as the last place and I’m already sad to see the back of it.