Trans-Siberian Trains: Mongolian Dreams

mongolia and my yurt

Off your typical backpacking circuit, arriving in Mongolia at dawn via Train 362 was shock to the system. For starters, our epic border crossing meant that I had only slept a total of 3 hours. Bleary-eyed and gazing around the chaos and noise of Ulaanbaatar’s train station after the stoicism of Russia proved jarring indeed: cars and minivans competed for space in the small lot, parking haphazardly in circles or squares and stuffing themselves into any space possible. Buuz (steamed meat dumplings) sellers were screaming for attention, competing against the many men yelling “taxi? taxi?” and popping themselves into our frame of vision with gusto. The scene was no different from the chaos of many other cities I’ve visited along the way, but after several weeks in Russia, it was certainly an adjustment.

Mongolia after the Trans Siberian Trains
Mongolia after the Trans Siberian Trains

Mongolia in a Nutshell

Sandwiched between two powerhouses that occupied (and pillaged) its resources and manpower, Mongolia is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. When, in the 15th century, the Manchus united with the Mongols to create the Qing dynasty, Mongolia’s decline kicked into overdrive, oppressed and exploited by Manchu Rule. From 1644 until 1911, when the Manchu dynasty crumbled, Mongolia was under Chinese rule, and despite the Soviet rule that followed (from 1915 on), Mongolians save their bitterness and anger for the Manchus. Under Stalin, some 30,000 Mongolians were killed (most lamas) and the USSR’s influence within the country gathered strength throughout the mid to late 1900s.

When the Soviet Union unspooled in 1990, Mongolia became, as Lonely Planet puts it, “a de-colony by default.” Once liberated, Mongolia was declared (and has remained) a democracy, but without the large Soviet subsidies paid to keep it “buffering” between China and the USSR, Mongolia tumbled into further poverty. Too poor to mine and process the raw metal and materials within the country, Mongolia’s economy collapsed with its totalitarianism.

Mongolia remains attractive to foreign investors and aid because of its stable democratic government (minus a blip in 2008 where the opposition party burned down its opponent’s headquarters, killing five) and favorable investment laws. Nonetheless, the infrastructure of the country and its lack of basic roads, plumbing and running water, make it one of the poorest countries in Asia.

You only need to look outside the gates of the dirty, jumbled capital to see the contrast in action: filthy sheep and goats roam hungrily on the thin strip of grass between the roads leading out of Ulaanbaatar, urged along by a nomadic shepherd dressed in tattered traditional wear. Go out of the city a bit further, and the infrastructure all but disappears: the roads are in such poor shape that we needed to off-road it 8 hours to the nomadic family where we were staying, with nothing for hours but sky and land and the occasional soom (small village). It was a stunning drive, punctuated by huge, roaming herds of sheep and goats, grazing in perfect harmony, and the steady gallop of horse herds criss-crossing the Gobi desert, but I was shocked at how bad the roads really were.

Outside of Ulaanbaatar

Of course, Mongolia wasn’t always this poor.

As the country that flung the Hans, the Turks and the fiery Mongol warriors into the world, the scale of Mongolia’s empire stretched between continents and numbered in the hundreds of millions. Officially founded in 1206 by Chingghis Khan, born Temujin, Mongolia saw a stratospheric rise to power with the Mongol empire, followed by a catastrophic fall when its rulers (Chingghis Khan long dead by then) became too greedy to manage what they had wrought. Since Mongolia was a nomadic society from its inception, there are few tangibly historic “sites” to visit. What’s left of Karakorum is encapsulated within the Harhorin’s Erdene Zuu monestary: a lone stone turtle statue, the only vestige from Khan’s Royal Court. As a result, understanding Mongolia necessarily requires you to breathe in its overwhelmingly grand history, marvel at the many rules and mores that still govern modern life and sit for hours in the silence of the Gobi, with the sky looming closer than you’ve ever seen. Horse culture is so deeply ingrained that it is inseparable from other aspects of Mongolian existence and Mongolians have a deep-seeded, formal respect for the land and its abilities – degrading or altering the landscape is considered blasphemous to most.

Superstitions abound in Mongolian Culture

One of the truly surreal aspects of Mongolia is all the rules and superstitions that are wholeheartedly embraced, even today. To name a few:

  • You can’t touch feet with someone. If by mistake you do touch their feet with yours, you have to shake their hand immediately. Even waitresses at restaurants do this, to Bryce’s surprise. We met an Irish guy, Brendon, who drawled miserably that, because he had such huge feet, he spent a good part of his day shaking hands with random Mongolians.
  • You can say hello when you arrive, but not later on that day, or the next day. Hello is limited to one visit only – why say hello again when you just saw the person? After all, chances are that you won’t see them again for many years to come.
  • When being offered fermented mare’s milk, you must hold the bowl with your right hand, supported by your left hand (resting under the right elbow). No drinking when holding the bowl with your left hand.
  • If offered vodka, you must dip your ring finger of your right hand into the glass, and flick one drop toward the sky, one to the air, one to the ground – and then put the same finger to your forehead and say thanks. No one can drink until you’ve followed this to a T. The same customs apply to Buryat Buddhist villages in Siberia, but were less strictly enthused.
  • You can’t point a knife toward anyone, ever. This includes passing and cutting: against my mother’s best instincts, you must cut toward you, not away, and pass holding the blade itself.
  • You can’t point your feet at the hearth/fire, or at an altar. You have to sleep with your feet pointing at the door in the gers, and each ger is set up for this scenario: each single bed’s pillow is arranged so your feet are facing the door whilst you sleep.
  • You can’t stand between the two supporting columns in the middle of the ger. Items must be passed around them, and you must also weave your way around the columns when moving about.
  • You can’t stand on the threshold or in an open door. If you make the mistake of saying goodbye when the door is open, you must close it, rise and repeat. No allowances for mistakes here.
  • Goodbyes are sacred and no one wants you to bring bad luck when you leave.
  • For food: you must drink your tea from the bottom of the cup and not the rim, not put your tea down on the table until you’ve had your first sip, or cross your legs or stick your feet out in front of you while you eat.
  • And my favorite: when approaching a new ger you do NOT say “hello”, you yell Nokhoi khori-o! (“Please hold the dogs!”). I’ve seen these dogs in action: this phrase is the essence of survival in Mongolia.
Inside the family's ger (yurt) in the Gobi desert
Inside the family’s ger (yurt)

The Mongolian language: not so simple

And then there is the language. Travel writer Tim Severin famously noted that the Mongolian language is akin to “two cats spitting and coughing at each other until one throws up.” I’ve tried to think of a more accurate depiction of the guttural, phlegmy and often garbled sounds that make up the language, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Mr. Severin was dead on in his assessment. Learning the basics (hello: “Sain bai nauuuu“, thank you: “bay-thzar-la“) was an exercise in audio-imitation, and a ton of fun. My friend Bryce and I had plenty of time to practice our Mongolian (and coax our guides for “bad words” in exchange for bad words in English, French and Spanish) on our long drives through the Gobi. Incidentally, there is no Mongolian word for “please”. We found this out when a guide asked for something and I jokingly said “say please!” and was met with two blank stares of incomprehension.

* * *

Into the Gobi

Gobi Desert

People often ask me what my favorite moment was on the trip thus far. These people are rarely fellow round-the-world travelers, as my “kin” are apt to know that it is quasi-impossible to synthesize the many living, breathing memories into one definitive thing that was particularly better than the rest. I used to answer that my first night on Salkantay remains the most vivid, unreal moments I experienced on the trip thus far, but after my nights a ger in the middle of the Gobi, I now have a new answer.

Bryce and I were shepherded from Ulaanbaatar to our tourist van and made our way to the Bayangobi with our guides Gana and Soyolbayar. The first thing that struck us was how unbelievably smile-y the country was. After Russia’s sober cynicism, the constant smiling was a breath of fresh air. I mentioned this to our guides and their response was that Russia had a “hard history”. True, we said, but Stalin’s terrorizing reach certainly crossed into Mongolia, both culturally and economically, and it was also pillaged by China – and Mongolian still smile. The response: a breakdown into giggling, for a good 10 minutes. Lots of giggling during my time in Mongolia.

We ended up with a nomadic family about 8 hours out of Ulaanbaatar. No running water, no soap, no showering. There was little to no cutlery: the family would use their hands to mix and make the food and mare’s milk; eating was communal, out of a huge metal bucket. We watched 5 year olds ride horses bareback through the Gobi. Fires in the gers were kept alive with dung instead of wood. No short supply of dung there, but our ger definitely smelled like shit. A short drop outhouse a few minutes walk from the ger (photo is in my Mongolia album. Outhouse was usually surrounded by sheep and goats. Ever try going to pee surrounded by goats and sheep? It’s an experience). The family stays put for one season and then packs up its gers and animals and moves to a safer place (more sheltered for winter) for the next one.

We were given a 2 bed ger that we realized soon enough was actually where the grandparents slept. The grandmother (in Mongolian, Em-ehhh), a stocky, tough woman of 59 with a great sense of humour, would come and light our fire in the morning, handing off the 1-year-old grandson to me while she bustled about. She’d then give an offering of fermented mare’s milk to the Buddhist gods (tasting that? Also an experience – we are talking 7% alcohol here) and leave to do her chores. The milk is called airag in Mongolia, but kumis elsewhere in Central Asia. It’s … an adjustment.

The ger would be stifling hot at night and we’d wake up with our noses running and the fire dead. Needless to say, we both got a “ger cold” as a result of the temperature fluctuation.

After dinner our first night, we wandered into the kitchen ger where our guides, drivers and the whole family (host and hostess, 2 sons, both sets of grandparents and the host’s 2 brothers) were gathered. We learned that it was the host’s birthday, and Bryce proceeded to spend a good part of the evening drinking mare’s milk and smoking with the men in the family. Our guides were working overdrive in translating the cacophony of conversations, and we stayed up very late with the family, laughing and drinking. When we all finally went to bed, we were told (in translation) that they had never received tourists who became a part of their family, and they were honoured to have us. We, of course, were honoured to be there. As Bryce and I stumbled back to our ger lit only by the moon, we reeled from the authentically Mongolian welcome we received, and how unbelievably lucky we were to have experienced it. If my travels can be boiled down to one evening, that evening was it.

Now in Beijing

I am currently in Beijing, having arrived here on the shwanky Train 24 from Ulaanbaatar. Spotless dining car and cabins, perfumed washrooms and even a shower. The Trans-Mongolian line is clearly the way to travel! Our border crossing at Erlian was painless – we gave our customs forms, watched in fascination as the trains were mounted 5 feet in the air and the bogies changed so that we could continue on to China (which meant waving at the people in the other carriages, since all the carriages were mounted in parallel), and were then lulled to sleep by the rhythmic motion of the train. We woke up early to get a glimpse at what was rumoured to be the best scenery of the trip and were not disappointed: steppes gave way to rice paddies and finally rocky mountains as we tunneled through China on route to Beijing.

Bryce has returned to the USA (it was so great to travel with him!) and since I am still coughing (sigh), instead of heading to Nepal (is cold) I will likely head to meet my friend Jared in Borneo to explore the Malay peninsula and then we will make our way up to Southeast Asia.

And to address the obvious: no, I’m not using an onion router to post this – Blogger is no longer blocked by China. Wee!

– Jodi

Some Photos From Mongolia

Erdene Zuu Monastery in the Orkhon Valley, site of the from great city of Karakorum.
Erdene Zuu Monastery in the Orkhon Valley, site of the from great city of Karakorum.
Erdene Zuu Monastery
Close up!
mongolian yurt
Mongolia gobi trip
Bird’o prey
Camels in the Gobi
gobi desert mongolia
Our resident goat (500) and sheep (500 strong too) coming home for the night.
TIL magpies are assholes.
sheep mongolia
About to be dinner (will spare you the skinning/preparing part but of course wonderful to see people use every single part of the animal, including the skin and offal, unlike North America where we waste oh so much.
camping gobi desert
Preparing dinner
gobi desert trans mongolian train
The contrast of the deep blue sky and tawny earth never got old.

Mongolia Fast Facts:

Population in 2008 when I visited: 2.6 MM
Horse to person ratio: 13:1
GDP: $2100 per capita (125 of the 182 countries ranked in terms of poverty)
Literacy rate: a surprising and wonderful 98%
Average life expectancy: 64 years
Percentage of people living below the poverty line: 36%
Cost to buy 1 sheep: 50,000 Togrogs (50$)
National sports: Wrestling (more like Sumo wrestling), archery and horse racing.

13 thoughts on “Trans-Siberian Trains: Mongolian Dreams”

  1. amazing. maybe because it is SO alien to me, this part of the trip is the most captivating to read about.

  2. an impressive history rich post…and great to read all the interesting superstitions / code of conduct(s)…you did mention last night Mongolia might just be your favourite destination, great to read in this post that it was your favourite.

    I look forward to getting there myself someday soon…I'll be asking your guidance of course.

    stay adventurous,

  3. Thanks Craig. Great to meet you at happy hour yesterday! Happy to help you in planning your Mongolian adventure.


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  7. Great story Jodi! Mongolia is one of the first countries that lit the travel bug within me. I don’t know why but I really want to go there. I also want to take the Trans Mongolian train as well. I would love to do this circuit – Russia, Mongolia, China – sounds amazing!

  8. Thanks Bethany! There is something captivating about Mongolia and I felt similarly about Burma. Both countries remain fairly isolated and untouched, and thus the connection to the locals I met felt quite real. Looking forward to reading about your travels in 2011!

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