Trans-Siberian Trains: Mongolian Dreams

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

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.

Ulaanbaatar

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.