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Trans Siberian Onwards

Onto the Steppe

MONGOLIA | Thursday, 11 September 2014 | Views [476]

Crossing the border to Mongolia was a hum drum affair, enlivened only marginally by the changing of the train's wheels for the wider Mongolian tracks.  A young, cheerful Chinese lady collected our passports, a few people bought cheap booze, and we re-boarded for the trip to the wheel changing factory.  I had expected giant cranes, swinging us to and fro, up off one set of wheels and down onto another.  I had visions of us dangling, swinging and swaying in mid-air.  It was not like that.  Huge iron rods were inserted below us and we were raised by huge motors, lifted imperceptibly into the air.  Imperceptible it definitely was.  I intended to video the whole process for posterity, but a more boring scene would be hard to imagine.  But for the workers scuttling beneath us, occasionally hitting our metal undercarriage with giant mallets, arguing, or pretending to argue - but for the human element, the video could only be titled "Stiil Life in a Locomotive Factory".  The noisiest part was uncoupling the carriages and, as we discovered the next day, swapping the engine for a Mongolian one with a picture of a horse.


Done and dusted, we rolled over the border into Mongolia.  Passports returned and collected, forms filled in.  With only two pages left in my passport, I wondered if there would be any questions or complaints.  I wondered how much space the Mongolian officials would use up.  Would they start a new page?  The good news was they stamped me through without batting an eyelid, the bad news was they started a new page.  Just one blank page left, facing my Russian visa, which the Russians would surely stamp.  And then, where to put the full page Belarus visa which I will later need?  A question for another day. 


As we got back our passports, the doors opened and into the train poured Mongolians.  Our peaceful, half empty, four person carriage gained a slightly rotund Mongolian lady with vast quantities of luggage.  A chain smoking Chinese man that we had already bumped into at the duty free shop helped her to carry it.  Were they related?  Married?  He clambered up and around, somehow helping her to secret her cargo into the walls and floorboards themsleves.  She could speak Chinese, about ten words, and better English.  Her son was working in Beijing.  She had bought a phone there which didn't work in Mongolia.  She tried to teach us thank you in Mongolian.  It involved sounds and noises my mouth and brain were not prepared for.  I usually make a point to learn at least to say think you in the language of every country I visit.  Gam urn in Vietnamese.  Ar goon in Cambodian.  Shock ran in Arabic.  An Egyptian man taught me - it's like you got an electric shock, then you ran away - "shock ran".  I'll never forget.  But Mongolia - I'm here for five nights, and I'm not sure if my tounge can be reprogrammed in that space of time.


It must have been after two when we moved off finally.  I slept straight away in the hard bed.  The dorm bed in Beijing was hard as well, and I was looking forward to a proper bed in UB.  I woke early, excited to discover what scenic delights lay behind the curtain?  Desert or steppe?  Desert!  We were in the Gobi.  Yellow, brown, wide and flat under the dim dawn sun.  I have travelled through the Gobi before in China - Gansu province, and I didn't feel the need to get up and examine its well documented vastness one more time.  I went back to sleep and awoke a few hours later.  This time, my preconcieved notions of Mongolia came to life in an instant.  Steppe.  Half an inch of curtain and window, followed by grasslands as far as the eye could see.  Mostly flat, sometimes undulating, like a carpet from us to the horizon.  The carpet was a dry yellowish brown, not evenly laid like a lawn or a field, but rather tufts of grass sprouting up, calf high, knee high, from a dry barren earth.  Occasionally there were small bushes, the size of a footbal, green or brown, but sometimes with a pink-ish hue.  Sometimes splodgies of brown grass amongst the rest, forming a darker patchwork with the ligher yellow tufts.  The steppe, with its dry yellow look didn't appear very nutritious, and it is hard to imagine that Genghis Khan fed an all conquoring army of men on horse back with the produce of this land.  Perhaps the grasses grow stronger and thicker in the spring than now, the early autumn.  Perhaps it was the eternal promise of greener grass in the next valley that led his horses galloping to all corners of the then known world.


The steppe had a featureless, abstract beauty about it.  A swathe of light yellow in the foreground, darker yellow behind.  The sky providing a brilliant blue back drop.  The thin black curve of a telephone wire strung from left to right, hoist up by a vertical pole, sagging under its own weight between this pole and the next, sagging again, then hoist by the next pole, sagging and hoist, sagging and hoist upwards by the poles as the train whizzed by.  Apart from the grass, the poles, the wire and the train, everything else was the brilliant blue sky.  It struck me that photoraphing the steppe would be difficult.  Someone once explained to me that a good photograph should have a foreground, mid-ground and background.  For the most part, the steppe had no fore, mid or back ground - it really was just grass and sky.


In places the land was utterly flat, in places it undulatd and formed small hills.  Here there were no mountains, never brooding in the distance.  Just occasionally, a hill here or there.  Sometimes the lay of the land meant we couldn't see but a few hundred meters, sometimes were were on a hill ourselves and we could see for countless dozens of miles.  Perhaps hundreds.  There were no features, no scale or reference to judge the distance.  We could have been looking past the end of the world itself for all I knew.  After some time we passed by a ger in the very distance.  A nomads home.  Everything that family owned in one round tent.  It was naught but a fleck of dust half way to the horizon.  Their livestock, the reason for their nomadic lifestyle, a few more specks dotted around.  Those few dots, almost invisible to us, but their entire lives, seemed to be the only traces of humanity for hundreds of miles in any direction.


Of course, there was one more obvious scratch of human activity running through this part of the steppe.  Us, and our train.  And logistics being as they are, a paved road, telegraph poles and an occasional power line, always following the same route.  At times this corridor of human activity was no more than fifty meters wide, at times a few hundred or half a kilometer.  If one wanted the perfect view of the steppe - unsullied by human touch - one just had to jump off the train and walk the fifty or two hundred meters past the road, and then before you would be nothing but grass.  Or better yet, mount that next little hill and see further, deeper into Mongolia.  It occurred to me that this is what has always driven me to travel, the urge to see more.  Over the next hill, into the next valley.  It was the same in Iceland - a place of extraordinary beauty, where volcanic crags leap up practically by the side of the road.  I would always wonder, but what is over that peak?  Can we not just rush up and have a look?  It is an urge that has driven me far. 


Gradually, we drew closer to UB.  We passed more gers, more human settlements, small at first, just a few colourful houses, then more, small villages.  We saw horses, standing around, drinking from a pond.  Closer to UB the land was hillier, we cut through ravines, trees appeared, then, suddenly, the sprawl of UB itself.  UB is not a large city, about 1.2 million, but it appears to have an incredible sprawl, you can practically see colourful buildings climbing out of the valley and dragging themselves up the surrounding hill sides.  Perhaps it is the lay of the land, below the railway line, or the low buildings stretching out but not obscuring the view into the distance, but somehow UB looked much larger, sprawling and more colurful than a city of twice its size.  Suddenly, the station platform came into view.  The Beijing - Moscow train we were on would rest here for an hour, so there was no rush, but we leapt from the train with the excitement of travellers arriving in a new, alien, fascinating, not just city but country.

Tags: ger, grassland, mongolia, nomad, steppe, train, ub, ulaan baator


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