If you should happen to glance back at my previous posts from the Big Trip you’ll notice that I’ve updated them with some pictures. You can now see the Forbidden City and Rahul’s family and the street dogs of Kathmandu and stuff like that. Email subscribers: you lot will need to visit the blog site itself if you want to see these treasures.
But anyway. I was last seen leaving Beijing on my first Trans-Siberian train. We were lucky enough to have the whole 4-berth compartment to ourselves, which was a bit of a luxury. The day passed in a haze of lounging on the lower bunks, snoozing, looking out of the window and playing cards. The train ambled along at a gentle pace, creating a soothing rocking movement that acted like an anaesthetic; one nap blurred into the next. This was just as well, as we approached the Chinese-Mongolian border in the evening and the intricate process of passing from one country to the next meant that we didn’t get to sleep properly until after one in the morning.
The Border Boogie (as I began to refer to it in my head) is a complex process at the best of times, but it was made more complicated by the fact that the countries of the former Soviet Union have a narrower gauge of railway tracks than the rest of the world. This meant that our train was shunted into a shed, separated out into its constituent carriages and hoisted into the air so they could change the bogies. We could have got off and waited in the station, but Chris and I were both curious about the process, so we stayed on board as our carriage was slowly lifted up about ten feet into the air – so slowly you could barely sense the movement – then the wheels rolled out from beneath us, and new ones rolled in. It took about an hour. Before that some Chinese officials had come round and taken our passports – it’s amazing how readily you submit to having such important documents taken away for upwards of an hour at a time.
After we were lowered back down and reconnected into a train the border guards handed back our passports and we shuffled on a few hundred yards into Mongolia. Here we stopped again, in a dim and half-deserted station in the middle of the night, where a line of Mongolian military types stood to attention outside, ‘welcoming’ us into the country and making sure no one made an illegal break for outside world. In a sleepy haze, we handed over our passports again then were woken an hour or so later when they were returned, and we finally started to roll on through the dark steppe.
The following morning we woke up to a glorious view: the beautiful golden-green grasses of the Gobi Desert, underlaid by pale sand, streaming past the window. In the first few minutes after I woke up I saw horses and gers (the Mongolian equivalent of yurts), but the emptiness was the most breathtaking feature of the view: beautiful nothingness.
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar at around lunchtime and were met by some people from Horse Trails Mongolia, with whom we had arranged to go horse trekking. I had also arranged for someone to meet us with our train tickets for the Ulaanbaatar-Irkutsk leg but, much to our consternation, she didn’t show up. This created a problem that grumbled on throughout our time in Mongolia, but as we got hold of the tickets in the end and the story isn’t that interesting I’ll say no more about it.
It was lovely to meet our guide, Amaraa, and our fellow horse trekkers Richard, Margaret and Ruby. Richard and Margaret are from Byron’s Bay in Australia, and Ruby is a stand-up comedian who lives in Los Angeles. There was a thirty-odd year age gap between Chris and I and the rest of our party, but no gap at all in terms of enthusiasm or energy; we all got on well from the outset, and I feel really lucky to have met them all. Our time in Mongolia wouldn’t have been half as fun without them.
After lunch we inched our way through the dreadful traffic in Ulaanbaatar and out into the steppe. From then on until the afternoon we left, we didn’t see another town, shop or advertisement. We hardly even saw any houses or roads, for that matter, and when we did come across what passed for a road often they were so bad that cars drove along parallel to them rather than chancing their suspension on the bumps, potholes and enormous puddles. The above picture shows our accommodation for the first four nights of our stay; our last night was spent in a ger camp near UB.
This was the ‘field’ we camped in on the first night; it was quite crowded by Mongolian standards as there were a few other families within sight, all camping in anticipation of the Naadam Festival’s horse race that was due to happen the next day. The weather was lovely – a dry heat that was far more pleasant than the humidity of China and Nepal. But the temperature plummeted as the sun went down, and the first night was quite cold – I unpacked my fleece for the first time, and slept in it. Having spent the last twenty four hours on a train I arrived in the country already craving a shower, only to find that we would be without such luxuries for the next few days. The only bathroom facility was the open steppe. You strode off into the distance ‘until you’re a speck’ as Ruby put it, and everyone looks the other way. Wet wipes and bottles of well water provided the only kind of wash. It took me a while to get my head round it.
But I loved the steppe. The wide emptiness gave me a feeling of freedom that I’ve never experienced anywhere else in the world – the feeling that you could wander for days and days on end and never be turned away, never find yourself fenced off or be called a trespasser. The grasses of the steppe, close-cropped by hungry sheep, goats, camels and horses, give off a glorious scent when you walk, and more so when they are crushed by horses’ hooves; the ground is covered in a type of spicy, minty wild thyme that we eventually identified as the source of the scent. Ruby found tiny bright shoots of rhubarb near us as well, and wild flowers grew everywhere.
The steppe is inhabited by a hilarious species of grasshopper, one of evolution’s best jokes. It has a double-butterfly wing system, cumbersome and inefficient; you get the sense that they have hardly any control over their flight at all. Their wings come in lovely delicate shades of pink and lilac. Walking through the steppe stirs up waves of the creatures ahead of you, rising with a whirring click; they land a few feet ahead only to be shooed on further when you reach them again. Apparently later on in the year they grow so large and fat they can’t fly at all, and then are crushed in vast numbers.
After we arrived at our first camping site our horses appeared, led by two horsemen, one of whom (Baynmunh, on the left) stayed with us for the whole trek. We didn’t get to ride them until the afternoon of the next day, though: the morning was spent at the horse racing field of the Naadam Festival, which I will describe in my next post.
Fear not, you won’t have to wait so long for the next instalment. Chris and I are due to have a little ‘Bloggers’ Ball’ lunch next weekend to celebrate our return, and I’ve been told most categorically that if I don’t update my blog properly by then I’ll be uninvited from my own welcome back party, despite the fact that it’s happening at my house. So I intend to have the whole of Mongolia written up by next weekend, to be on the safe side.