Published: January 10th 2012October 17th 2008
The train from Beijing used to travel east through the Great Wall at Badaling, where we had been a couple of days ago, but since late 2007 takes a new route north of the city that avoids the steep climbs and switchbacks of the old route. Even so, the new route is spectacular as it winds up through the mountains and valleys of the San Gan river towards Zhangjiakou where the old caravan route between Beijing and Russia crossed the Great Wall.
The new rail route parallels the Wall south east, only truly passing through it for the last time after the city of Datong. We are now headed into Chinese Mongolia (Inner Mongolia) and the early reaches of the Gobi desert. The population is only about 15% mongolian these days as the Chinese government has gradually supplanted them with Han chinese and forbidden their nomadic lifestyle.
The Chinese/Mongolian border is at the town of Erlian. As the train pulled in to the station, we were serenaded with the 1812 Overture from the station loudspeakers. After our passports were collected, the train was shunted off into a huge shed where the Chinese carriage wheels were changed for new wheels
which match the wider guage used in Russia and Mongolia. Each carriage is slowly hoisted into the air, the Chinese bogeys are wheeled away and the Russian bogeys put in place. The whole process takes about three hours during which time no-one is allowed off the train and the toilets, which open directly on to the track, are locked – not a comfortable experience for some.
Each of the carriages we have travelled in so far has had a pair of carriage attendants who are responsible for ensuring the cleanliness of the carriage, keeping the hot water heater fired up and generally looking after the passengers. The Russians call them Provodnitsa. Generally they can make the journey a pleasant experience or, if you get on their wrong side, a miserable one. In China they mostly left us alone but the Mongolian provodnitsa are a breed on their own. They are built like a tank, wear high boots and and short tight skirts under a hip-length jacket. They are also bossy and not to be crossed! Despite several attempts I was never allowed to take a photo of one.
Once past the border, the train continues across the Gobi
desert proper, which is flat, arid and treeless, to the town of Choir where a statue of the first Mongolian astronaut stands in front of the station. Up until now the temperature had been fairly warm but as the train wound its way up into the Bogdkhan Uul mountains, we saw the first signs of recent snowfall and the outside temperature began to fall.
Most of this part of the journey was at night so it wasn't until we were almost at Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, that were were able to get a glimpse of the countryside. Gently undulating, once away from the desert, there are vast, treeless grass plains which stretch as far as the eye can see. According to Tsorge, our guide, less than 10% of Mongolia is treed and that is reducing every year.
Ulaanbaatar is a singularly unpleasant city. It is built largely in the Soviet triumphal style: imposing public buildings, large concrete apartment blocks and gaudy theatres. Over 90% of Mongolia's population live here. The people look poor – this was the first time we had seen beggars (mostly children) in the streets – and the air is heavily polluted from
all the wood fires and factory outpourings. However the Mongolian people are very proud of their country and what they have achieved since gaining their independence from Russia. They are also proud of their Tibetan buddhist heritage.
Gandan monastery, in the centre of town, is a large, sprawling complex of 10 institutes and temples which survived the attempts of the communists to suppress religious communities, though many of the 5000 monks who lived here were killed, jailed or forced to join the army. Since 1990, after the Democratic Revolution and a revival of interest in Buddhism, efforts have been made to restore the monastery and other similar sites throughout the country.
Alongside Buddhism, Shamanism is also a feature of Mongolian life and the landscape is littered with coloured prayer flags and mounds of stones.
After a day in Ulaanbaatar, we travelled by road to Terelj National Park to spend a few days living in a ger. In Australia we call them yurts but they are essentially the same thing – a round room made from felt and supported by a light wooden frame which can be dismantled and moved to winter or summer pastures. The Ger has
Where we stayed for a couple of nights
four support beams which hold the centre portion and are generally decorated with paintings and symbols of the area. In the centre of the room is a wood-burning stove which is used for cooking and heating, although these days most have electricity or gas as well. They are surprisingly warm and comfortable even though the stove is notoriously inefficient. It has only two settings: extremely hot or cold.
We were also able to visit a “real” ger and had a chance to talk with the woman owner.
While we were here, I had the chance to go horse-riding for the first time in my life. I have always been intimidated by horses as they seem so big. Mongolian horses are smaller than western horses – about halfway between a Shetland pony and a normal horse – so I was more willing to try. I really enjoyed my ride though my legs and bottom were a bit sore afterwards. I’d do it again given the opportunity. Sylvia has ridden many times before (her youngest daughter was a dressage rider in her teens) so she was quite at home.
We were able to go on several walks in the
Terilj National Park
The view from Aryapala Monastery
national park. One took us to a meditation temple high up in the hills. It was empty when we visited but is usually used by trainee monks who are preparing for their ordination. Around the outside are graphic representations of a Buddhist hell. Very gruesome and highly imaginative.
There are also some spectacular rock formations in the park. I have included two in the photographs below.
On our return to Ulaanbaatar, Sylvia was invited to visit the maternity section of one of the main hospitals (for those who don't know, Sylvia is a midwife). Tsorge’s mother is a gynaecologist there and she and Sylvia had developed a rapport. I’ll leave it to Sylvia to describe what she saw but she was pretty appalled at the conditions the woman and staff had to endure.
Next stop on our journey is Irkutsk in Russia, two days travel away.
There are more photos below