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Published: December 24th 2007
One taste I've acquired over the last couple of years has been a love of train travel, with ~5,000 miles on the Indian network no doubt having been the catalyst. As a way of getting from A to B in comfort, with a continuous unfolding of the landscape in between and the chance to meet local people in a neutral environment, trains reign supreme. So a flight home from Beijing was never going to recommend itself when a good chunk of the distance could be covered on the Trans-Siberian railway.
The Trans-Siberian is more a collection of routes rather than individual trains. The 3 main routes are the Trans-Mongolian (Moscow <-> Beijing via Mongolia), the Trans-Manchurian (Moscow<->Beijing but skirting Mongolia to the north and east), and the true Trans-Siberian (Moscow<->Vladivostok). Heading east from Moscow, these routes are common for about two thirds of the way then, near Ulan Ude, the Trans-Mongolian goes south. Slightly east of Ulan Ude, the Trans-Manchurian heads south-east towards China at Chita. And the Trans-Siberian proper continues remorselessly eastward until it hits the Pacific Ocean at Vladivistok.
It's also no whimsical tourist route - trains run at, or close to, capacity year-round and freight traffic
in some parts is the densest in the world.
There are trains that cover each of these routes in their entirety, which constitute the purest Trans-Siberian experience. Spending 5 or 6 days on the trot on the train creates the environment for making friends with everyone in your compartment or even the whole carriage, the time together breaking down all language barriers. You will eat together, play cards together, remain unwashed together.
However any journey crossing the breadth of the largest country in the world (Russia is the size of 2 USAs) screams to be broken up along the way, to experience the landscape at first hand rather than merely through a grimy window. And with a tourist visa for Mongolia only a little more than a transit visa, I decided I would go the Trans-Mongolian route with my first stop in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, before hopping through Russia.
My compartment-mates were a Mongolian mother and daughter and a Chinese guy. However it soon became apparent that we had no common language and the interest level in conversation by any other means was reflected in the fact that the Chinese guy immediately immersed himself
Morn and eave
in the Chinese version of "The Secrets of Professional Sales Closing" and the Mongolians went to sleep. The other inhabitants of the carriage seemed to be mainly Mongolian, with their immediate distinguishing features being having a larger stature than most Chinese and speaking a language sounding Eastern European.
The journey to the border was dull, not helped by me dozing off near the beginning and hence missing the Great Wall, and near the border we had to get off and bide a couple of hours in Erlyan train station while the bogies were changed to the wider gauge used in Mongolia (and Russia). I read somewhere that this gauge difference, originating in Russia, was to prevent any invaders from using the railway system.
I woke early after a comfortable night's sleep and was rewarded by the sight of flat terrain stretching to the horizon and a sparkle of stars dotting the sky. As dawn approached and the morning fully began, the impression I had was that more wildlife existed out here than humans, with herds of antelope, a scattering of bactrian camels (not wild), and eagles on telegraph poles indicating an animal population somewhat greater than the human
population suggested by the occasional yurt.
The last couple of hours into Ulan Bator were conducted at a crawl, and we stopped with a jolt about 5km out (one great feature of the Trans-Siberian Handbook (to be henceforth known as the TSH) is that it contains a km by km guide to each route, which you can correlate to the km markers at the side of the track). 1.5 hours passed with no movement and I was getting more than a little impatient when, looking out of the window, I happened to see a woman holding a sign bearing the name of my intended hostel. I grabbed my luggage and jumped down.
It turned out that the train had actually hit a truck and trailer on a level crossing, killing one of the truck's passengers. I immediately felt guilty for my impatience. 3 other people were sent to hospital.
The minibus ride into the centre of Ulan Bator encountered a volume of traffic I hadn't been expecting in a city with a population of about 1 million (which is still a third of the population of the entire country). Somehow I'd thought that space on the roads
Let me out!
Child who kept hunting me down on the train in order to smile at me and then run away
wouldn't be an issue in such a large country with so few people.
It didn't take long outside for me to accept the claim that Ulan Bator is the coldest capital city in the world. A refreshing -10C during the day became a numbing -26C at night, and this with the real winter still over a month away. The first snowfall of the season, on the day before I left, felt long overdue. Unfortunately my nose reacted to the cold by running almost constantly for 3 days, a situation that left it red, cracked, and bleeding from constant blowing, and made me unwilling to eat out as I was generating heaps of used tissues.
Mongolia qualified as (yet) another country for which I'd fail the "Ten Things You Know About Country X" test. Ulan Bator, Gobi Desert, Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, colourful postage stamps, and a presence in the world of sumo were what passed for knowledge of Mongolia in my brain. Fleshing this out with some background reading, Genghis Khan (and later his grandson Kublai Khan) had actually ruled over the largest land empire in history in the 13th century, stretching from Korea to Kiev, the Arctic
Beijing railway station and K23 train
The platform was so wide that cars were whizzing up and down it as though it was a highway
to India - as documented in Marco Polo's "Travels". This period of prosperity did not last long though, and Mongolia effectively became part of China for half a millenium. Independence was declared in 1911 but it wasn't until 1924 that a communist government took power after further periods of occupation by the Chinese and White Russians, and the Soviets were enlisted to help modernise the country. The collapse of the USSR in the 1980s was mirrored in Mongolia by a transition to a capitalist system, though with a third of the population living below the poverty line it's hardly prosperous. I saw itinerant shoe-cleaners on the streets of Ulan Bator, and I would guess they go hungry pretty often.
Maybe due to having had such a far-reaching empire, or - more likely - due to the amount of contact with Russians over the years, I was hardly given a second glance by locals. I suspect that some of the looks I did get were more due to the fact that when your skin is numb with cold and you have a running nose, you may not notice a trail of snot inching its way to your upper lip. I
saw more Mongolians of my height (and obviously twice my width) than I'd seen in the rest of the countries I've visited this year put together. Their size and propensity for wearing coats with extremely long sleeves reminded me of Tibetans.
Also contributing to the feeling of being somewhere new was the Mongolian usage of a modified Cyrillic alphabet. Take the Roman alphabet, change a few pronunciations, throw in some Greek, sprinkle a few new letters in there, and you have Cyrillic, which looks significantly more familiar than Chinese and a good deal less disheartening. Sure, learning Cyrillic merely enables you to transliterate into the Roman alphabet - you still need to know Mongolian to know what the words mean, so it's only a tantalising familiarity. But since English words have penetrated, or have the same root in, many languages including Mongolian and Russian, it was worth my while to learn to read C as S, H as N, etc in order to be able to recognise pizza on a menu.
Like Beijing, the centre of Ulan Bator is a square containing a mausoleum, however on a much smaller scale. The mausoleum is that of Damdinii Suhbaatar, a
Through a dirty window
revolutionary and national hero, and it's not open to visitors. The city has few sights of interest, with Gandan Monastery probably the most significant - a communist crackdown on Buddhism in the 1930s saw the destruction of many monasteries and monks alike, but Gandan is now operating again as a place of worship. Walking the streets required a certain amount of alertness, as traffic laws were viewed with an almost Chinese indifference, and the pavement maintenance budget had clearly only been a few togrogs. Street lighting was not comprehensive, and the combination of that and some unprotected holes in the ground resulted in walking at night being an activity you should take very seriously.
Though there are official taxis in the city, almost any vehicle will pick up a passenger who's heading in the same direction and charge them a fare. Though this was no doubt a boon for locals, it was a slight annoyance for me as it meant that many times when I was waiting merely for traffic to pass so I could cross the road, cars would pull over in expectation of a foreigner fare.
Obviously the main reason for people to come to Mongolia
This woman just crops up everywhere
is to get out into the countryside rather than stay in Ulan Bator, but as I only intended that this was to be a taster, with a further longer visit some time in the future, plus I felt ill most of the time I was there, the city was all I saw.
From watching TV, it was clear that there is a national wrestling tradition that explains why there are several Mongolians in the sumo ranks. Wrestling garb consists of a too-small jacket and too-tight briefs coupled with knee-length boots, the bizarreness of which would ensure that a transition to the equally strange silk belt and topknot sported by a sumo rikishi would not seem a big deal. With no weight divisions, it's not surprising that the larger competitors usually win, which is another similarity with sumo. There's also a ritualistic aspect to Mongolian wrestling, seen when a competitor does a phoenix impression by flapping his arms like a bird after winning a bout.
I noted in passing that Ulan Bator has more than the average Asian city's share of sex shops, there are umpteen ATMs but I only found one that would accept an HSBC Maestro/Cirrus card
(confusingly, this lifesaver claimed to only be for Visa, yet the Maestro/Cirrus machines rejected me every time), slabs of Wispa chocolate are available everywhere despite the bars themselves having been absent from the UK for many years (though I hear they were reintroduced recently), and most dishes have a high mutton content. I had few communications issues using English, but the only interactions I would consider as conversations were with the hostel manager.
I spent November 18th in Ulan Bator, a day of interest to me because it marked the second anniversary of that distant moment in 2005 when I stepped on a plane and flew to New Delhi on the first part of my travels, my rucksack and hiking boots as unsullied by dirt as my mind was uncluttered by backpacking experience. That does seem an awfully long time ago, and flicking through some of the 300+ blog entries I've generated in that period, I'm already realising how much I've forgotten. I think I have 1 more year in me - then it'll be time for something different.
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