Home itinerary travelogues Photo Gallery ramblings resources About Us Contact Us

JUNE 25, 2003 -> The Trans-Mongolian Express

On a suffocating Beijing morning we boarded the carriage, brimming with excitement. In 36 hours, we would arrive in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. Mongolia! The birthplace of Chinggis Khan and the heart of the Mongol Empire. A massive nation of less than three million inhabitants, the majority of whom retain a barely modernised nomadism. Our final destination was spelled out in the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet on a small, white slate attached to the outside of the car. Darker, hardier Asians shouted guttural exhortations in an unfamiliar tongue to their family members buying instant noodles and bottled water on the station platform. Everything reeked of adventure.

As our train cut through Beijing's sprawl, China was waking: fishermen casting nets into the river, vendors opening their stalls, men scaling ladders to high-rise cranes. Everything was under construction. At railway crossings, a horde of bicyclists waited patiently behind a chevroned gantry for our train to pass. Blocks of garish apartments lined the highways, painted lemon yellow or cotton candy pink. "Beijing has totally changed in the past few years," my friend David told me, as we munched fiery Sichuanese cuisine, " not just for the [2008 Summer] Olympics, they want to do everything now!" Hutongs, the labyrinthine neighborhoods of old Beijing, were fast-disappearing to make way for office buildings and residential towers.

We had paid for a deluxe sleeper, but had no illusions about the comfort it would provide. So we were shocked when the tall, officious Chinese carriage attendant led us into a roomy cabin with fold-down beds, a writing table adjacent to the window, a shared bathroom/shower, and a constantly replenished supply of hot water for tea and instant noodles. Clean linen and woolen quilts were provided in the evening, and the attendant fastidiously cleaned and dusted the carriage several times throughout the trip. A bright, breezy corridor connected the cabins and led to the adjacent dining car. This was where I met Galsan.

Galsan liked to walk topless about the carriage, unashamed of his drooping chest or Buddha's belly. Once, he stood at the door of his cabin in only his briefs. He was Mongolian by birth, but now lived in Austria; the Trans-Mongolian Express train from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar was the final leg of a long journey home. Like me, he enjoyed standing at the windows of the long corridor, gazing out at the slowly shifting landscape. And he seemed to enjoy my persistent questions about Mongolia. "We were once so powerful," he said mournfully, "But now we are nothing."

A few hours north of Beijing the train entered a long pass through the boulder-strewn mountains and trundled past Badaling, the gleaming, reconstructed section of the Great Wall that most tourists visit. Emerging from a tunnel twenty minutes later, we saw the crumbling battlements of the unrestored Wall snaking atop ridges towards the horizon. " Why is the Great Wall?" Galsan turned to me. Before I could answer, he said "because of the north wind!" and laughed mischievously. I knew what he meant. Bands of warrior-herdsmen from the Mongolian steppes had been harassing the Chinese for centuries; these sporadic raids had led to the construction of several fortified walls that would eventually (many centuries later) be joined to form the Great Wall. I split my time between the windows and reading a history of the Mongols. Anyone who stayed awake in history classes knows that the Mongols controlled the largest empire the world has ever known, and that they were exceptionally cruel. But cruel doesn't begin to describe the acts of butchery and destruction that Chingiss unleashed across Asia. Ancient cities stretching from modern-day Iraq to Beijing were demolished, their inhabitants massacred. The Mongols were masters of trickery and psychological warfare. A favorite ruse was the feigned retreat, where a vanguard of Mongol warriors would fall back in apparent disarray, only to have a much larger force fall on the pursuing enemy.

Any city that put up resistance was demolished, but surrendering without a fight was no guarantee of clemency. Often, the surrendering citizens would be called outside the gates for a census, only to be mercilessly cut down. When Mongol generals learned that some citizens were escaping death by lying down amongst the charnel, they ordered that all be killed by decapitation. When they learned that others were swallowing their jewels, they ordered that all be disemboweled. Only young people (who became slaves or human shields), women (destined for the harems) and artisans (who enriched the Khan's court with the trappings of civilization) were spared. Some historians believe that more than 16 million people were killed during the Mongol conquest.

After debouching from the mountain passes, the train traveled in fecund river valleys hemmed in by arid mountains. Many of the flanks of these mountains were viciously gouged or gone altogether, victims of the insatiable Chinese appetite for building materials. The whole valley was a vegetable patch, workers in wide-brimmed hats stooped over the serried rows of potatoes, cabbage, and carrots. In some areas, the land had been moistened enough by irrigation, and women walked carefully across berms separating brilliant green rice paddies. Odd, red pyramidal roofs that I assumed crowned distant temples were later revealed to be the garish awnings of petrol stations.

Apart from major cities (such as Datong, complete with a massive nuclear power plant), the villages we passed had begun to look more traditional, tightly packed compounds with tiled-roof houses and small courtyards linked by circular portals. From a distance, these towns resembled gleaming plate armor. China's long history is everywhere stamped on the landscape: ancient mud brick walls, forts on every mountaintop, decaying fortresses on riverine peninsulas, the remains of walled cities tucked into the folds of scree-covered hills. In some villages, the ancient walls were still in use, the fourth side of ramshackle compounds.

As the sun slowly dropped towards the horizon, the landscape became drier, less populated. Just dots of scrub on a sand sea. After a quick meal in the smoky dining car, I looked out the window, where a row of telephone poles had transmogrified into the silhouettes of Calvary crosses against a blood-red sunset.

Not long after nightfall, Erlian, the Chinese border town, announced itself in tawdry neon signs and glowing billboards. Across the border there was only blackness. Once the train had come to a stop, a man and woman in white aprons barged into our cabin. They handed us SARS declaration forms to fill out, and then foisted thermometers upon us. As we placed these under our tongues, the women began to shout and gesticulate. She wanted us to put the thermometers under our armpits! We were both nauseated; those thermometers were certainly reused, and we had placed them in our mouths.

Fruit and drink vendors plied the railway station, and I wanted to stretch my legs. In my best Chinese, I asked the carriage attendant if I could go buy some provisions. No problem, he replied. But no sooner had I stepped down from the train to the platform that the train began to pull away. My instinct was to dash after it, but I was sure it would stop. It didn't. My fear escalated to terror when Nori appeared behind the carriage door, shouting and motioning to me. The train continued to pick up speed, and then disappeared into the night. I was panicked until I remembered that they had to change the bogies - a three hour process - to accomodate the different track guage in Mongolia. I pulled out the MP3 player from my backpack, selected the Trainspotting soundtrack, and did my best to relax.

On the Mongolian side of the border began a maddening series of visitations by Mongol officials, each an hour apart, starting at 12:30 a.m. A flurry of forms; one each for immigration, customs amd SARS. For the last two, I just let Nori sleep and filled out her forms - the officials didn't seem to care. In the morning, we looked out upon a grim city with its back to a ridge of sand dunes. This was Sain Shanda - 'Good Pond' - and we were 3-4 hours behind schedule. A gaily painted mural on the side of the station house proclaimed 'Visit Mongolia Year 2003,' while a dirty urchin kicked a coffee can down a packed dirt street. But SARS had turned Visit Mongolia Year into a complete flop. Most visitors to Mongolia ride the Trans-Mongolian from Beijing, and SARS had sharply reduced the numbers of travelers to China.

Though the landscape had altered only slightly since our final hours of daylight inside China, there was no doubt that we had entered another country. Chinese ideograms had vanished, replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet; the sealed roads had dwindled to dusty tracks, and the faces outside had changed in a way that was instantly discerned but hard to pinpoint. This was a landscape devoid of pretense, powerful in its simplicity and scale. Bright beams gave the earth a golden refulgence; only clouds cast shadows on the uncreased immensity of the terrain. Green velvet hillocks tossed up heavily eroded rock ridges, and horses and Bactrian (two-humped) camels grazed contentedly.

Once we passed a row of gers surrounded by large, bright-orange earthmoving vehicles. I was perplexed until I saw the wide brown swath cut through the valley. This was the initial stage of a new highway that would link Russia, Mongolia and China. I suspected that funding for this massive project had come from China or Russia; they would certainly glean the most benefits from the undertaking, while Mongolia would bear the environmental costs of increased road traffic.

The conduits of civilization converge just south of Ulaan Baatar. Tall, steel electricity pylons, only glimpsed occasionally in the distance, now marched in parallel with the railroad, while on both sides, telephone poles and roads rose over hills and raced at angles to intercept, and then surge past the train. A towering cat's cradle of high-voltage wires stretched between the pylons of the power generation plant.

Billboards clamored for attention. As if to remind me that all this is not Mongolia, a dark horsemen charged across a hill near the train, timeless in his long, grey del (the traditional long coat) tied with a red sash, a black bowler tilted rakishly on his head.

After the long train journey, we all stood in the corridor, anxious to catch our first glimpse of this improbable destination. Ulaan Baatar's setting is beautiful, surrounded by smooth-topped mountain peaks and with the Tuul River as its southern border. But the disappointment was palpable as the train crawled through a sprawling suburbia of shoddy homes and dust-covered gers, discarded concrete slabs and rusted freight containers. There are few fences in Mongolia; private property generally does not exist. The inexperience in erecting borders shows; the wood-plank fences that surrounded these 'ger suburbs' looked the work of madmen.

Undaunted by this dreary first impression, we stepped down to the railway station platform full of anticipation. It did not take long to locate Bobbi, the proprietess of our guesthouse. "Sain baina uu?" she asked. "Welcome to Mongolia."