We're groggy and tired, bouncing around in a taxi that feels like it could be a louage. Our driver hums along to the radio, while every joint in the body of his rickety van creaks and squeaks and complains about its old age and neglect. Out of the smoggy capital we ride, escaping the traffic, back to the beginnings of countryside, into the real Mongolia.
Stepping off of the plane in Beijing, a wave of heat hits my face and I begin to sweat. As we're all shuffled to a bus that will transport us to the gate, I peel off several layers of clothing; it is quite a bit warmer here than it was in Mongolia! Inside the bus, with a tightly-packed crowd of people, the hot air is stifling. My duffel bag hangs heavy on my shoulder as I chat to two elderly Australian women going home after their holiday in Mongolia.
We arrive inside the airport, and there's more waiting, more checking, and yet another customs search. This time, they immediately notice the obviously placed baston, and eye us warily, checking with their supervisors before allowing us to carry on. Tyler tells them he uses it as a kickstand for a heavy bicycle and they reluctantly nod our weapon through.
The airport is light and airy, with clean glass windows that stretch all the way to the ceiling. Tinkly piano music plays, accompanying our stroll around the upscale duty-free shops offering silk clothes, Chinese dolls, and fancy green teas in tall glass canisters.
We find a quiet place to sit down and wait a few hours for our flight to Bangkok. Power outlets are sleek silver disks on the floor- the cover is lifted to reveal the plug, which we use for our laptops. There are water fountains and hot water dispensers for tea or instant noodles.
To our delight, there is free internet in the entire airport. I simply have to insert my passport into the kiosk; it scans my information, spits it back at me ("are you Tara Alan?"), and I press a button to activate my free five hours of browsing time. With everything we need, we wait and work, and watch other travelers go by.
It's getting dark now, the lights of the little trolleys and cars blinking and shimmering through the clean glass windows. The time is growing near. In just a few minutes, we'll be boarding our plane to Bangkok!
I find it amusing that we picked our route specifically so we wouldn't need to fly, and yet here we are, flying. Oh the decisions we made arbitrarily, knowing nothing, chasing an idea with little or no experience. I thought at first that flying would seem strange (too fast, too easy, not "going slowly" enough), but it feels the same as it always has, and I am glad to be doing it.
I've always loved airports – the anticipation of new place, the time to sit and read, an endless variety of people to observe, all with their own stories and their own lives. I always wonder who they are and where they're going, and how, on this particular day, we've all wound up here together. Stephanie said the trains would be absolutely insane today because of China National Week; I am more than happy we'll be high above it all.
Around midnight, we arrive in Bangkok. A trip that would take us months to cycle, we've traveled in just a day. We find our boxes at the over-sized luggage claim, and wheel them around the airport, and then file through yet another customs line. We're stamped into the country, given thirty days to do as we please, and are sent on our way.
And then, after guiding our bike boxes up and down smooth, tilted escalators (a dangerous operation, actually), we find our way to the taxi pickup area. I've booked a cheapish hotel near the airport, saving us from the task of assembling and riding our bicycles in the middle of the night.
Among the throng of people there is a man holding a piece of paper with our names printed on it. When we arrive and tell him we're on his sign, he smiles and leads us to the free shuttle van. He loads our bike boxes into the trunk, lends us a hand up the high step into the vehicle, slides the door closed, and then we drive off into the night.
On the way to the hotel, I am so excited to be in Thailand that I can hardly contain it. I open the small shuttle van's window, weary of the climate-controlled environment I've been in all day, and stick my head outside. Hot and humid air rushes past, and I spot decorative street-lamps that have golden statues of gods frolicking about on them, and bright purple orchids growing in abundance in planters along the road.
I'm agog already, swiftly becoming smitten.