Editor’s note: Travel writer George Dunford is sending us the occasional trip report from the road as he makes his way from Beijing to St Petersburg on the Trans-Mongolian train. This is his second trip report, catch up on his first post here.
China seems to be behind us as we pull into Erlian, to cross the border into Mongolia. Already we’ve seen the landscape growing drier and stations have lost their grim institutional look. Actually crossing the border is a formality. Customs officials snatch up our passports and give us no idea of when we’ll see them again. We begin the long slow wait for the gauges to change.
Mongolia is temptingly close but really it’s the distance between two gauges. And how long does it take to cross that distance? At least two hours as our bogie is lifted onto a new set of wheels. Swapping bogies makes trainspotters giggly with excitement, but it’s dull for anyone else.
The guidebook chirpily tells you that once you get your passport back you should explore this “lively” border town. In fact it’s a plain train station that does duty free. To be fair I did ignore the instructions about getting your passport back and hopped off for a few minutes to go to the bathroom. I’m about to leave the terminal when I notice there’s now a guard on the door. I smile sweetly and push on the door but it’s locked. I ask the guard and she says, “you wait. 10:30.”
This means more than an hour of looking in the duty free area which, on closer inspection, is more of a supermarket with a dozen bottles of Malibu and a collection of obscure whiskies. I’m a little nervous without my passport but buying a few sachets of Coffee King in “American Flavour” keeps me amused for at least 10 minutes.
The rest is striking up conversations that consist of “Hello” and “I’m out of Mandarin now”.
Back on the train and we get a second serve of customs – Mongolian style. The green uniforms are similar but the Mongol version is tricked-out with more military bling. And the female inspector has higher cheekbones with more makeup. Her approach might have just been bossy in China, but here it’s refreshingly brassy.
Trans-Mongolia: Way of the rails #1
We splurged between Datong and Ulaan Baatar on a 2-person soft sleeper. This cosy cabin is like a pokey hotel room – only one of us can open our bag at a time and stowing on the top bunk makes more space. The top bunk folds down and there’s a convenient ladder. There’s a share shower – basically a hose, sink and drainable floor, but it does the job for a train. You also get a large thermos flask that conductors will re-fill (or let you re-fill depending on their friendliness) from the coal-fired boiler at the end of the carriage. As well as tea and coffee, it makes for budget-saving soups and noodles.
Of course there’s also the dining car. Our ticket includes dinner which, in China, was a couple of dollops of meatballs, rice and carrots, celery on the side. It’s bland but bearable. And you can throw in a couple of beers if you’re after flavour.
In the morning and on the other side of the border, we couple with a new dining car complete with ornately carved woodwork and a Mongolian ala carte breakfast. My sausage omlette comes with a sauerkraut-like slaw of carrots and cabbage. It’s springy and flavoursome, making a change from cup noodles.
Beard weird: Walking up to the monastery I get my first beard freeze. It starts with a moistness that hardens as I scrape my hand across it. It’s best prevented with a scarf or shaking off the icicles as you go.
Trans-Mongolia: Galloping gourmets
After the long train trip we go for a big meal. In the carnivalesque cuisine of Mongolia, meat is cheaper and hence more plentiful than vegetables. But it’s cooking based in the scarcity of the steppes, so all parts of the sheep are eaten (including the testicles). The first dish I order is mutton porridge, a glutinously thick stew with suspicious globs of meat in it. It reminds me of a hearty Scotch broth, minus any of those annoying veggies.
As the Mongols were nomads they needed meat in any form, including their national animal. So the horse is eaten. Which brings me to the main – skip ahead if you’re a Black Beauty fan. The Cowboy dish has three hefty horse ribs with potatoes on the side and a doughy dumpling pancake over the top. Perhaps this pancake is for modesty or to grandly unveil the meat beneath.
And what does Mr Ed taste like? A nutty meat that could even be another cut of mutton. It’s definitely no racehorse as there’s fat lining the bone, though another piece is rangy like good game. It would have been good to wash down with koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) but the menu only runs to beers. Dessert items include peanuts, chewing gum and cigarettes – all good walking foods, so we take the hint and head out.
Trans-Mongolia: Holier than thou
We got to the Gandantegchinlen Kiid just before dusk. We were given the tip “In Mongolia, every car is a taxi” and waving at a passing car proves it. The monastery itself feels vital after China. Young monks wander the grounds being cheeky and older ones smile. There’s close to 200 monks here all part of the resurgence of Buddhism in Mongolia. With the snowy mountain backdrop it feels more like Tibet once would have.
In the morning we head out into the steppes to another monastery, Manzushir Kiid. It was given a kicking by the Chinese in the 1930s; now it’s all crumbling ruins flanking a restored temple that’s a modest museum. Snow starts to feather down as we hike up to the monastery and we’re exploring the temple just as it gets heavier. The museum has relics like wand made from a human shinbone and several masks used during ritual dances. The Buddha is from a different period to Yunguang, but is definitely more sensuous.
But up behind the temple there are small shrines built around faded and burned rock paintings and we head up there as the snow sets in. Offerings are still made here with blue ribbons tied around the poles as a form of prayer. Our guide, Tsegi, tells us that blue is for the Mongolian sky and as the snow flurries down it seems a stretch.
We saw several poles with blue cloth tied around them as we drove in. Our driver, Ogott, proves to be a man of few words but many beeps. As we pass his preferred shrine, we don’t have time to stop so he blasts the horn three times in tribute.
Trans-Mongolia: My ger or yours?
After the temple we stop for lunch in a ger (yurt-like felt tent). The dome structure is designed to shed snow and keep the heat in, while being mobile enough for nomads. In winter there’s a little antechamber by the door to keep the heat in.
As we come in we’re met with the mewling of newly born goats, soaking up the warmth. We are offered a milky tea, though Tsegi warns us our stomach might not be able to take it. We have a few polite sips. It’s a little awkward with our hosts as we’re having a translated conversation back and forth.
A neighbour arrives with a sticky newly born goat which he places by the fire and we all watch it struggle to stand. The neighbour wants to ask us about sheep. We work out this is because we’re Australian and hence must know all about sheep (in the same way Brits know all about growing tea and Americans can detail the ins and outs of their foreign policy.)
I sneak in a toilet break and notice that the outhouse uses cow dung as a glue to hold the wooden structure together. Back inside dung is burnt in the fire and it has dried so much there’s no smell. Our tea was prepared on this fire and there was no noticeable stink. The whole ger is cosy even despite the snow.
We head back to Ulaan Bataar with another train to catch. We encourage Ogott to break the drive at his shrine and honour it by doing a three circumnavigations. We solemnly pick up three stones, dropping one on each lap and making a little prayer that we’ll get to the train on time. Ogott makes a single lap, tossing all three stones in one go. We ask Tsegi why.
“He is lazy,” she laughs.
But as we pull out we see some lazier worshippers, who do a quick lap in their car. Nirvana has developed dive-thru.
Trans-Mongolia: Smuggling into Russia
Our train to Mongolia sets off in the early afternoon. It’s not long into the journey when several ladies start wandering the carriage with huge bundles of jeans, T-shirts and handbags. At first I think they’re just selling them and awe see few pairs are exchanged for money, so a simple ‘nyet’ gets us out of trouble. But one of the conductors comes to plead their case – would I do them a favour of carrying two blankets across the border for them? I’m being dragged into a notorious blanket-smuggling ring.
They’re following the route of the Russian tea caravan that linked Europe with India and China. The route became less popular when shipping routes became quicker than overland routes.
At Darkhan even more small-time crooks push onto the train. The new smugglers have to work fast with the border at the next stop so they shark the corridor, their eyes darting around each compartment for any empty space. Their eyes plead. Don’t we have room? Couldn’t we just take a few pieces?
The border crossing is arduous with lots of poking through cabins from both Mongolian and then Russian border guards – the Russian bashes the walls for hollow compartments and jumps up like Action Man to inspect the luggage. A 20-year-old Mongolian makes a show of looking sternly at our passports before whisking them away for eventual stamping. The whole event takes five hours.
We settle in to sleep. It doesn’t last. I step out blinking into the corridor and the smuggling has become a military operation. The corridor is lined with bodies and bags – one unwrapping and stowing the other. Several of the people walking the corridor have lists and are checking them. They are calculating where each item is for quick swaps at stations.
It must be 4am by the time they finish and the train lurches on. Even then there a few knocks at the door and requests to carry blankets. I sleep fitfully having been tangled in this elicit blanket, salami and jeans trade.
When we pull in at Slyudyanka the smugglers begin their furious work. They hop out onto the Russian platform and begin haggling and hustling. You can barely get to the doors for the trading. Some platform Russians are doing old fashioned barter.
And what do they have to offer? A local smoked fish, omul, in plastic bags and swapped for pair of jeans. It’s the modern version of the tea caravan and our first glimpse of Russia.