Mongolia. Day 12

Could a thousand Hollywood movies be wrong? I WAKE up at 5:30 a.m. and hear no sound but the train wheels. I slip out to catch the lavatory vacant. It is metallic and Western style, though the water in the basin is cold and accessible only by pressing up on a spring-loaded trigger under the faucet. For some reason the toilet cover also is spring-loaded, capable of delivering a smart blow to the spine. No tub or shower.

Back to the dark compartment for a snooze before anyone knows I'm gone. My head is toward the window, and I peek under the blind at 8 a.m.

What's that?

A herd of camels right beside the track.

It's the Gobi Desert!

No sand.

Could a thousand Hollywood movies be wrong? We passed through the sandscapes during the night, someone says.

Someone else seems to be talking to himself, quietly lecturing on the scenery. I see he has a video camera and is delivering narration into his microphone.

I feel like David Wark Griffith with my silent celluloid, but I do think I caught that cowboy on a chunky Mongolian pony going as fast as anybody in ``Birth of a Nation.''

Breakfast: rye bread, two fried eggs, tea or a small cup of coffee.

Lunch: soup with beef and potatoes, rice with meat in it, dessert.

Joan is not missing the peanut butter I said we shouldn't bring. Or so I believe.

We're moving out of the desert now. A lovely wooded valley. Streams, evergreens, birches, cattle, sheep, a Caterpillar tractor.

At dinner I have the pleasure of a table with three French students. The young man has been visiting the young women, one a lawyer, the other an engineer, who have been studying Chinese in Peking. They are very nice but very candid about being repeatedly kept waiting because of our schedule. It's one of the privileges or embarrassments of traveling with a group, especially in countries where mealtimes have an air of sanctity.

The middle of the night comes fast when you're having fun. This time we're all still up because of Mongolian and then Soviet customs inspection.

A frequent traveler in the Soviet Union has told us the attitudes of officials along the way can be capricious. You never know what to expect.

Our first Soviet official is a businesslike young man who salutes as he enters each compartment and carefully pronounces each name as he handles our passports.

Roderick Nordell is the Monitor's feature editor. Tomorrow he reaches Siberia and Soviet voices raised in song.

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