From Siberia to Tibet: Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert

I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve never been to a country like Mongolia.  Scratch that: I’ve never been to a country anything like Mongolia.

The first thing that strikes you is that this country is not really suitable for human life.  The more gentle bits, such as that around capital Ulaanbaatar (“UB”), consist of treeless steppe with temperatures ranging from -40°C in the winter to 35°C in the summer.  The less forgiving parts, like the Gobi Desert and Lake Uvs, dispose of unnecessary vegetation and crank the extremes up to −58°C in winter and 47°C in summer.  Add in the wild temperature fluctuations caused by a continental climate at high elevation that can see UB hit temps below freezing every month of the year, and you can see why agriculture is effectively impossible.

At this point, I should note that I was born in Helsinki, Finland, ranked a respectable #5 on the list of the world’s coldest capitals (#1 is, of course, UB), and many a time I’ve wondered how on earth my ancestors survived in this arctic wasteland without central heating or microwave pizzas.  But at least in Finland, we had timber for housing and heating, fish in the lakes and sea, game in the woods, crops of rye and barley, turnips and rutabagas — whereas the Mongols had, to a first approximation, none of these.

So, when the Mongols were playing Yurtcraft in Hardcore mode around 1000 C.E. and the only resources were sheep and yaks, what did they do?  They built their houses out of wool, namely the felt used for yurts.  In winter they ate only meat, specifically boiled mutton, and in summer they switched to a lighter diet of only dairy products.  And to be clear, when I say “only meat”, I really mean only meat: no vegetables, no grain, no bread, no potatoes, nothing.  Meat.  For dairy, they had a choice of milk, cream, sour milk, yogurt, fresh cheese and dried cheese, but at least they could ferment some into mildly alcoholic airag (mare’s milk) or seriously alcoholic arkhi (yoghurt vodka) and so they could drink away the monotony for a while.

Given this fairly serious handicap, you’d expect the Mongolians to occupy about the same amount of space on the world stage as, say, their fellow pastoralists the Maasai of Kenya, whose colorful costumes and exotic diet regularly feature in the National Geographic but rarely beyond it.  But no: the Mongols gave birth to Genghis Khan, who during his lifetime built an empire twice the size of the Romans at their height, and whose sons and grandsons proceeded to conquer China, Russia, much of the Middle East and knock on the gates of Western Europe.

Alas, the Mongol Empire lasted for only about 100 years until inevitably splitting into warring factions (maybe siring an estimated 8% of Asia’s population wasn’t such a great idea?) and it was all downhill from there for a while.  The Manchu Qing dynasty eventually conquered Mongolia in 1691, and while Mongolia declared independence in 1911, Russian aid quickly turned into Soviet strings and the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, complete with local Stalin clone Choibalsan doing his level best to purge the intelligentsia.  This created another overlay of weirdness, with Cyrillic script and hideous Soviet-style architecture still dominating the streets of UB.

In 1990, the Soviet Union and the Mongolian People’s Republic along with it collapsed, and Mongolia acquired a new state ideology: bling.  This gave Ulaanbaatar its latest layer of shiny skyscrapers, modern art exhibitions, traffic jams, microbreweries, hot dog stands, fancy boutiques and even a VIP room at the train station.  It must be said that Mongolia remains a poor country and most of this is far beyond the reach of the common man — but in a country where a taxi ride is $2, a tourist’s dollars go a long way.

This newfound comparative prosperity has also expanded the Mongol diet, with former festival fare like buuz steamed dumplings, khuushuur meat pies and tsuivan fried noodles now served by fast food restaurants.  And when all the mutton starts to get to you — you soon realize that the entire city smells like boiled mutton — check out one of UB’s countless Korean places, serving up all the kimchi and Choco Pies you can handle.

While I found UB to be absolutely fascinating, the scenery in nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park was equally so and definitely worth a day trip if not more.  Turtle Rock, Aryaval monastery (which sells pizza, because Mongolia), visiting a local tourist yurt, admiring the owner’s yaks and sampling many yak dairy products, pottering about on stubby Mongolian horses, visiting the yurt owner’s cousin’s distinctly non-tourist yurt and fermented mare’s milk straight out of a blue plastic bucket…  not a day I’ll soon forget.

Early on the morning of our final day, we boarded train #4 to Beijing and set off on a slow trundle across the Gobi Desert.  It’s large, it’s hot, it contains a whole lotta nothing — but the most striking sight was the heat-blasted, godforsaken town of Choir, a former Soviet military base that for some unfathomable reason has not been abandoned by its 8,000 inhabitants yet.  The town consists entirely of commieblocks and fencing, both in severe disrepair, plus an excessively jaunty silver statue of Mongolian cosmonaut Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa with his pants down.

At this point, I’m officially out of words.  It’s about time to cross the border into China.

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From Siberia to Tibet: Life on a Train

 

Many writers wax lyrical about the romance of long-distance train travel, but on this trip I sampled four them — Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, Beijing to Xi’an, and Xining to Lhasa — and the sad truth is that the passenger trains in these parts are strictly utilitarian workhorses, inferior to airplanes on virtually every measure of speed or comfort.   Here’s the lowdown on life in a 4-berth sleeper (kupé in Russia, 软卧 ruǎnwò in China).

Eat

When you’re on a train for 24 hours or more, you’ve got to eat something, and this leaves you with three options.

The first and most obvious option is restaurant cars, and the Mongolian ones with their intricate wood carvings and embroidered tablecloths even look quite attractive.  Alas, the food they serve ranges from bland but edible, like our Chinese breakfast set composed mostly of sausage, celery and chilli, to bland and near-inedible, such as the incredibly gristly beef served on the Mongolian train — I was picking bits out of my teeth for the next two days.  Perhaps we should have taken the hint from the plastic bags of frozen beef sitting in the corridor, tenderizing in the midsummer heat of the Gobi Desert.

Alternatively, you can try to buy food on station platforms, but this presents a number of practical problems.  First, stops are few and far between and rarely aligned with mealtimes.  Second, stops are short and on arrival you neither have any idea what the options are nor where to find them.  Third, if you do find something food-like, it’s often unclear how many days those mince-meat khuushuurs sitting on a table have been fermenting under the Mongolian sun.  We did manage to swing some pretty decent piroshki pastries in Ulan-Ude, plus rye bread and boiled eggs in Mongolia, but it really is the luck of the draw and you can’t count on finding more than packaged snacks this way.

Finally, you can bring your own food, but with no refrigeration or heating available (aside from hot water), you’ll be hard pressed to expand your culinary horizons beyond packaged bread, instant noodles and the giant Russian rye croutons called grenki.  (Best flavor: garlic with garlic dip.  You’re welcome.)  A useful compromise is to buy a meal at your departure station: you’re not going to find much more than fast food, but even KFC is likely tastier, cheaper and healthier than the alternatives.

All that said, you can generally rely on the restaurant cars to supply lukewarm beer at only mildly extortionate prices, which brings me to…

Drink

Russian and Mongolian trains forbid drinking alcoholic beverages on board; fortunately, this being Russia and Mongolia, beer is not considered alcohol.  (Seriously.)  Needless to say, this rule is widely ignored by all and sundry, although it’s generally wise to close your compartment door if you have one and avoid tippling at times when conductors are on the prowl.

The one free drink provided in abundant quantities is boiling hot water, supplied by a coal or wood fired boiler at the end of each carriage.  If you’re lucky, there may even be a thermos bottle in your cabin, which you can use to stock your own supply.  Bring along some teabags, instant coffee or cocoa, and you can stay caffeinated.  A pedantic nit: most travelers call these samovars, but in Russian they’re actually “titans” (титан).

Non-hot water, on the other hand, is in distinctly short supply, as the water from the bathroom taps is not drinkable.  Bring along more than you think you will need, particularly if it’s hot or high outside.  As for taking a shower or a bath, forget about it.

Poop

Yes, this section has no pictures.  (You’re welcome.)

The upside to strictly functional trains is that their toilets are also unencumbered with pneumatic vacuums and mysterious blue liquids.  Instead, when you press the lever, the bottom opens up and the contents are deposited straight onto the tracks, followed by a slightly apologetic trickle of water.  While this does an admirable job of preventing the toilet from clogging, it does also mean that the doors are locked while the train is stationary, including during those multi-hour border crossings.

On Chinese trains, you will also encounter squat toilets, although there are usually a few thrones to be found as well.  The upside to these is that, no matter how filthy the rest of the room, only your feet need make contact; the downside is that whatever your feet make contact with is likely to be unpleasant.  This is why everybody on board brings flip-flops to wear.   And whether your train is Russian, Mongolian or Chinese, you’ll want to bring toilet paper and soap as well.

Sleep

Fed, hydrated and voided, it’s time to sleep.  The uninitiated are often tempted by the idea of a hotel on wheels: just slumber away peacefully on board and you’ll arrive at your destination not just refreshed, but having saved on a night’s hotel bill!  Reality is more complicated.

Even when not manufactured in the DDR, the berths are generally uncomfortable, even in the misnamed Russian “luxe” or Chinese “soft sleeper”.  The sheets are nailed to plyboard (we ended up buying an inflatable camping mattress because my dad’s back was wrecked by the four nights of the Moscow-Irkutsk stretch), the blankets are covered in stains of indeterminate origin and getting onto the top bunks requires acrobatics.  If the window is closed, it’ll be stuffy and hot inside; if it’s open, every rattle, clank and blast of the horn is amplified and your toes will freeze.   While the Trans-Siberian and most railways in China are continuously welded and thus smooth, the Trans-Mongolian is not, meaning your bedtime lullaby will be a constant clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

In addition, border crossings are both interminable and inevitably timed to happen in the middle of night.  It was past midnight when we finally entered Mongolia after two hours of inspections, and while our arrival into China was at 9 PM, we all had to get off the train and wait for 5 hours, until 2 AM, while they swapped the bogies from Russian to Chinese gauge.

Unsurprisingly, you’re likely to wake up groggy and grumpy.  If you’re at your destination already, you’ll be decanted onto the streets and condemned to wander until your hotel opens; if not, you’ll probably catch up by napping in your bunk during the day, throwing your sleep cycle even more out of whack.

So why do it?

Well, that was quite the litany of whinging, why would anybody voluntarily subject themselves to this then?

It’s an opportunity to idle.  There is way more time than there are things to do, so you can read a book, play cards, study the finer points of Russian grammar on Duolingo, or just take a nap — and all the earlier kvetching aside, your train bunk is still more spacious and comfy than even a business class seat on an airplane.

Traveling by train, you get a sense of distance.  I flew Beijing to Irkutsk in 2.5 hours, and saw basically nothing even from the window seat.  Traveling the same route by train took 54 hours, and while I still can’t say I really know what it felt like to cross the Gobi by camel, now at least I have some reference point for the sheer scale of the feat.

But above all, you see a slice of real life.  It’s not always pretty (any train traveler in India will have a hard time unseeing the spectacle of the track sides being used as a public lavatory), but simply put, without taking the train you wouldn’t see ramshackle Siberian dachas, rusting factories around Ulan-Ude, yurt cities around Ulan Bator, ghastly commieblocks around a Mongolian military base in the Gobi desert, Chinese factories spewing grey smoke into the skies of Inner Mongolia, the green hills of Shaanxi, the shaggy yaks wandering around the plateaus of Tibet, the massive scale of construction around Lhasa and more.  This trip wouldn’t have been the same at all without it, and I have zero regrets.

On to Mongolia!

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