By DAVID A. ANDELMAN
ON TRACK | Ganden monastery in Mongolia
THE TRANS-MONGOLIAN Railway leaves in the dead of night.
It departs from an ornate station in Irkutsk, Russia, where wooden houses built by exiled 19th-century intellectuals mingle with blocky Soviet-era buildings. It winds past Russia’s vast Lake Baikal, traverses the Mongolian grasslands that Genghis Khan rode his horsemen across on the way to Europe and rattles through the Gobi Desert into China, pulling into Beijing 1,820 miles later.
It is one of the most storied train rides in the world, a journey through raw landscapes and historic realms. For decades, I’d longed to experience it for myself.
A train chugging through the Asian steppes
I first fell under the spell of Genghis and his Mongol horde—a rapid-strike force of mounted warriors who invaded civilizations as far apart as Baghdad and Budapest—more than half a century ago, when I studied with Francis Cleaves, the renowned translator of “The Secret History of the Mongols.” Into the 1980s, my dream of visiting was all but impossible, with Khan’s land run by one of communism’s most brutal Stalinist dictatorships. But last year, with Mongolia moving toward a full democracy, the time finally seemed right for a rail trip with my wife through parts of Russia, Mongolia and China.
I knew the five-week expedition, involving multiple legs, odd stops and extended side trips, would be a test of our travel mettle. So, it turned out, was the planning—few travel agents could make arrangements across three countries with different languages, cultures and bureaucracies. All told, it took five months to arrange our visas, guides, hotels and transportation.
We had decided to embark in Irkutsk, where the also-famous Trans-Siberian Railroad stops en route from Moscow to Vladivostok, connecting to the Trans-Mongolian that runs south toward Ulaanbaatar. At 10 p.m., we appeared at the bustling station. As our guide checked the track, we dodged the locals pushing through the doors, laden with all manner of bundles and packages.
“Irkutsk-Pekin” was stenciled on the side of our train in Cyrillic letters, but otherwise it was unromantic-looking. The inside, even in first class, was clean but not much more inspiring. Our compartment had a window, a fold-down table and simple berths for four. At each end of the car was a tiny metal room with a toilet that flushed waste through a trap door.
“We’d been warned that train passengers could easily find themselves the victims of brigands. ”
Our guide glanced around our spartan quarters and pronounced us “safe” before taking off. What that meant wasn’t quite clear—we’d been warned that passengers could easily become victims of brigands, their luggage, cameras, wallets pilfered as they slept or took breaks on platforms. But more pleasant company soon appeared. A conductor (they are invariably women) clad in a blue skirt, white shirt and apron poked her head into our compartment and asked if we’d like some tea. Darting down the corridor to a wood-fired samovar tucked in a cupboard, she reappeared moments later carrying glasses in filigreed silver holders and tea bags of Siberian milk tea, thick, fragrant and soothing.
We claimed the two lower bunks just before a third passenger arrived—a rotund Mongolian lady carrying bulging shopping bags. She plopped them on the top bunk and sat next to us, smiling but clearly unhappy. A few minutes later, she disappeared, then returned for her bags. She’d negotiated a bottom bunk next door. Helping her with her purchases, I discovered they consisted of large watermelons she’d bought in Siberia and was planning to sell for a handsome profit in Mongolia’s capital, where fruit is scarce and expensive.
Precisely on time, the train gave a shiver and started moving into the countryside, chugging around the southern end of Lake Baikal. In June we’d have been treated to spectacular views of the world’s deepest lake, but it was September and the sun had set 90 minutes earlier. Gazing out at the darkness, we nibbled at the food we’d brought—granola and packaged cheese from home; sausage, black bread, chocolate and shelf-stable milk from Irkutsk. Lulled by the rocking, we fell asleep in our bunks, though not before wedging a backpack against the door.
A temple in Inner Mongolia, China
Dawn broke as we hit the border. At Naushki, on the Russian side, a guard with a German shepherd briskly announced himself at our compartment. We briefly panicked that the canine might take a shine to our sausage, but the guard curtly checked our papers and left. Just across the barbed-wire border in Sükhbaatar, friendlier Mongolian guards glanced at our passports. Mongolia is a nation trapped between superpowers—as one shepherd told us, “We may hate the Russians, but we fear the Chinese.” It’s no longer either nation’s poor cousin, thanks to its vast mineral resources, though you might not know it from a landscape that was so empty, it seemed Genghis could gallop past at any moment.
Riding the Trans-Mongolian felt like being on a milk train. It clicked and swayed along on tracks that have seen better days, making frequent stops that allowed us to quickly explore tiny depots in towns surrounded by wide grasslands.
After two more nights, the Trans-Mongolian pulled into the capital of Ulaanbaatar and we set off for three weeks of exploring—to the nearby Ganden Buddhist monastery, northeast to Hinti province for fly fishing, south to the Gobi Desert. We bounced over the steppes, sleeping in gers that were warmed only by a stove and stood a half-mile from the nearest outhouse. We awoke to stunning sunrises over flat, hardscrabble earth. The simple lives of the nomads—many possess a few pots, some basic clothes, a tiny, solar-powered TV set and sheep—reminded us just how few belongings people really need.
Early one evening we re-boarded the Trans-Mongolian in Ulaanbaatar’s dim central station (the lights go on after night truly sets in, to save electricity). On this leg, the train didn’t boast austere Russian fittings but a seedy, old-word décor—wood-paneled walls, fringed table covering, an Oriental carpet.
We entered the 500,000-square-mile Gobi Desert around dawn. Except for a few 20-story-high dunes on the far western fringe, it’s a flat wasteland of scrub brush and sandy soil, and on the Mongolian side there is little to see. But when we passed into China’s Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, brand-new towns began to fill the landscape. Wind farms whirring with hundreds of turbines. And, despite the ostensibly friendly relations with Mongolia, on sidings were flatbed trains loaded with tanks pointing north toward the border.
THE LOWDOWN: MONGOLIA
Planning It: If you just want to take the train from Irkutsk to Beijing, with a break in Ulaanbaatar, book the first leg in advance (about $300, russiantrains.com) and the remainder of the train trip once you reach the Mongolian capital. If you are venturing beyond Ulaanbaatar, a local travel consultant is essential. We used upscale Nomadic Expeditions (nomadicexpeditions.com). Tseren Tours (tserentours.com) is one of many lower-priced options. China and Russia require visas for American visitors; allow at least a month for processing.
Getting There: To follow the entire Trans-Mongolian route, you can begin in Beijing or Irkutsk. Beijing receives flights from around the world; for Irkutsk, fly from Moscow. Aeroflot has spanking new Airbus and Boeing jets and surprisingly warm service.
Staying There: The new, locally owned Ramada Ulaanbaatar Citycenter hosted Vice President Joe Biden’s advance team last year. It is centrally located and has full Mongolian and Western menus (from $180 per night, ramada.com). Book a car and English-speaking driver through the concierge.
What to Bring: Temperatures can vary dramatically, especially in the Gobi Desert, so pack layers to wear. Mini-flashlights are indispensable. There are few porters, so be prepared to carry whatever you bring.
Before we could go much further, our train had to undergo a process known as “changing the bogeys.” The distance between the rails changes between Mongolia and China. So at the border, each car is lifted off the Mongolian bogeys and Chinese ones are slid into place. The process gave us about an hour to explore the Chinese border town—a single street lined with stall-like shops selling spices, rice and clothing. I had to restrain my wife from adding a load of fragrant foodstuffs to our already backbreaking luggage. Then we got back on the train, heading south toward the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot.
We arrived in late evening, and drove through the brilliantly lit streets. Hohhot, the regional capital, has a large Muslim population, and our guide pointed out minarets, including a hulking structure that he said was a mosque under construction. The next day we learned that many buildings sporting minarets are department stores that authorities hope visitors will take for mosques. Somehow, it felt like being back in Russia under the kommissars—or for that matter, China under Mao—except that the mall at our hotel boasted Louis Vuitton, Ermenegildo Zegna and Bose boutiques.
We boarded the Trans-Mongolian for our final leg at Hohhot’s chaotic central station, where we were nearly engulfed in the masses of people. There were two mates in our compartment. One, a student, slept the entire ride. The other, a garrulous Chinese entrepreneur, regaled us with tales of his mine safety invention, his business and his lpans to emigrate to Vancouver.
We’d heard it was dangerous to leave our compartment for a moment, since you risk finding locals without first-class tickets in your place. But we encountered no thieves on our trip—only people who were friendly, generous and curious about us, invariably the only Americans around. In fact, the most thrilling part of our trip wasn’t the ride itself, but the kaleidoscope of humanity we encountered, from Scandinavian missionaries to students from Eastern Europe to watermelon vendors on their way to Ulaanbaatar.
We pushed through more densely populated areas, stopping at small towns during the 10-hour trip to the capital. In the early morning we passed canyons and rivers, craggy hills, even a glimpse of the Great Wall of China, designed to keep out the Mongols with whom we’d been consorting.
Finally we pulled into Beijing West Railway Station. As we disembarked, I breathed a sigh of relief and accomplishment. Then we humped our bags up a steep staircase, and into a maelstrom of taxis and people.