Taking the Train to Asia: Mongolia
Taking the Train to Asia: Mongolia
Air travel has been a major catalyst for globalisation, linking people, places and products throughout the world. However, advances in aviation have removed a certain sense of adventure from travel and shifted the emphasis from the journey to the final destination. As young medical students starting out exploring the world, we wanted to experience the slow travel of old and experience the element of adventure that can be lost sitting 35,000 feet above the ground.
Therefore, in June 2015, we travelled on board the Trans-Siberian Railway from Latvia to Hong Kong. The aim of our 9,800 mile journey was to see how Europe merged into Asia and explore cultures that would be bypassed by long-haul flights. Here we chronicle our journey, particularly reflecting on our experiences travelling through Mongolia and the insights we gained into this fascinating country.
Our journey took us through the imperial palaces of St Petersburg and to the heart of Moscow’s magnificent Red Square. We travelled across the glistening Volga river, over the Urals and through the time zones and endless Taiga of Siberia. After a short stop in Irkutsk to visit Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island, we took a southward turn towards the Mongolian border.
Mongolia Монгол Улс
Mongolia is one of the least densely populated places on the planet and occupies a fascinating position in the world, landlocked between Russia and China, countries which are increasingly dominating the world stage. Modern Mongolia represents only a small fraction of the larger Mongol empire, founded by the infamous Ghengis Khan in the early 13th Century. At its height, this great empire stretched from the Korean peninsula to the Baltic Sea and introduced innovations such as currency and postal systems. The Mongol empire eventually disintegrated into several smaller dynasties and was invaded by Russians, Japanese and Chinese forces. In the 1920s, Russian Communists assisted Mongolia in defeating Chinese forces occupying the country which led to the establishment of a communist state. Mongolia remained in the orbit of the USSR until the 1990s when a peaceful revolution introduced democracy to the country. Mongolia is now undergoing a rapid economic expansion with increasing activity in the mining industry and exports growing by over 20% year-on-year.
We entered Mongolia at the Naushski-Sükhbaatar border crossing. We disembarked the train at the small village of Naushki in Russia where our passports were searched by customs officials. We had about 3 hours in total to explore the station and surrounding streets with our new-found Swedish friends while the customs officials searched the train. The remnants of the Soviet rule still permeate the far corners of the Russian state. Similar to other Russian cities and towns, the Naushski train station is magnificent and ornate – a palace celebrating the values of workers and communist ideals. This was in stark contrast to the humble village which contained several fading hardware and food shops. Despite the language barrier, the locals were extremely friendly, giving it a warm colour in an otherwise grey and barren landscape.
Once the train started moving again, we were handed Mongolian custom declaration sheets and passed a series of barbed wires. We were in Mongolia. Later, a second group of custom officials checked our passports. Being a former satellite Soviet state, Mongolia clearly inherited many of its neighbour’s culture, with Cyrillic writing visible on most signs.
The Mongolian food carriage was also attached to the train, giving us our first taste of the country’s meat-laden, vegetable-free cuisine.
The pine and silver birch forests of Siberia were quickly replaced with the endless green hills of the Steppe, dotted with the occasional pristine white ger tents of a nomadic family. Over a third of the population still lead such nomadic lifestyles, spending the summer months roaming the countryside with their herds and entering towns and cities for the harsh winter months. Our early morning arrival in Ulaanbaatar was surreal. Sprawling ger tent suburbs, high-rise glass buildings and dusty streets were illuminated by a bright red sunrise, creating an ethereal, martian atmosphere.
Ulaanbaatar (affectionately shortened to UB by locals) is like no other city we had visited before. It has the notorious reputation as being the world’s most polluted city – a fact we can unfortunately verify. It has a peculiar mix of nomadic culture and modern metropolis – UB citizens continue the tradition of sleeping in ger tents located in their suburban gardens, jazz festivals occupy the same venues as traditional Mongolian wrestling games, Starbucks can be found next to shops that supply equipment to nomadic sheep farmers. Wide streets are lined were with dilapidated, soviet-era apartment blocks and filled with retro Russian model cars.
Ghengis Khan has an omnipresent feeling in modern Mongolia. His statue dominates government buildings, his name is given to the main UB airport and many shops and products are called after him, including the local UB Irish pub. Speaking to locals in our hostel, it is clear that Ghengis Khan’s global exploits are the foundation for their nationalism and sense of pride in their country – he is seen as a father-figure for the Mongolian people. It is no surprise that idolisation of Ghenghis Khan was suppressed during the soviet era as it was feared that the myth and folklore surrounding Khan would inspire a nationalist revolution.
The highlight of our trip to Mongolia was staying with a local family in a ger tent in the Steppe of Central Mongolia. In the morning, we were taught the local board game shagai which involved using dice made from Sheep ankle bones, we observed local family traditions and we chased horizons on horseback while riding across the steppe. It was amazing the connection the nomadic families had with their environment, however this was not surprising given their reliance on it for their livelihoods.
We left Mongolia to travel through the Gobi desert and onwards to China. As we approached the Chinese border, we started to note increasing construction sites with Chinese workers and notices. We crossed into China at Erenhot during the night and immediately noticed increasing development of modern China. The Chinese border was a much tenser and serious affair compared to the Russian-Mongolian frontier. CCTV cameras and red lights welcomed us to China – it felt that big brother (Xi Jinping and colleagues) was watching our every move. We were delayed for around 5 hours at the border and were checked by two series of Chinese border guards. We also had to change the wheels to suit the narrower Chinese train tracks. The Chinese food carriage was attached to the train, signalling our arrival in China. Chinese-Mongolian relations are historically strained but can nowadays be characterised as one of respectful interdependence. There is an inherent fear in Mongolia that Chinese expansion may threaten their territorial integrity in the south of their country as China’s economy and population booms.
Lasting Impression: Росси́я Монгол Улс 中国
Our initial idea was to travel through Russia, Mongolia and China to experience cultural diversity and see how these cultures merge into one another. However, on reflection, this trip did not create many cultural shock moments – possibly due to our gradual acclimatisation to Asia as we travelled slowly overland from Europe. Therefore, rather than highlighting cultural differences, this slow pace of travel shined a lens on the similarities that exist between people. It is fascinating how people from different parts of the world tend to converge on similar values – such as the ambition to build a brighter future, the desire to find meaning in life and assist their fellow human. While facial features, language, religion and customs may change, certain values are independent of geographical location.
This trip also gave us an experience of crossing land borders involving customs and passport control, a thing that has become a rare experience for us due to European integration. We observed how borders can really give us an impression into the heart of a country’s history, values and attitudes. For example, in Mongolia, we could clearly sense an openness to Russia and a sense of hostility and mistrust to the Chinese. The border infrastructure on the Chinese frontier was much more developed and even the requirement of changing the train tracks at this border depicted Mongolia’s historical reluctance to engage with China. This is also borne out in Mongolia’s strained diplomatic relations with China – they still believe the Chinese government has ambitions to invade Mongolia. They perceive Russia as an old ally, a friend that helped in the development of the modern Mongolian state. Borders can indeed give us a perspective on a country’s values and fears. Taking this observation to other countries closer to home, we can see Trump’s Mexican Wall and indeed the wider Brexit movement as manifestations of internal anti-migration movements.
We would highly recommend this trip to anybody interested in Asia and discovering a fascinating country that is undergoing rapid development. There are benefits to getting your head out of the clouds. What we lost in air miles, we gained in rich cultural experiences. What we lost in time efficiency, we gained in lifelong memories.