Thursday, August 1, 2013

Beijing to Ulan Bator, Mongolia (29 hours)

Scarred by the  Hanoi experience, and tired and frustrated with Beijing, I have a panic attack the night before my early morning departure from Beijing when I realize that I’ve failed to ask my guide to give me my ticket. He’s scheduled to pick me up in the morning and deposit me on the train, of course, but I can’t shake off the worry. Then I remember that Adam is the Chinese Rain Man, and I calm down a little. The half of a valium and beer help, too.

There station is monumental and impressive.  Built “with the help of the former Soviet Union,” it’s all high ceilings, marble, muscular communist fixtures. It also has the same leather seats the Soviets must have installed decades ago, and now they are cracked and stained. Naturally, Rain Man and I are early, but soon enough groups and pairs of western travelers appear. One woman and asks if she can follow me since she thinks I know what I’m doing. I tell her that I don’t, but Adam does, and when it’s time to board, Adam remembers, finds her, and gets her and her husband on the correct carriage. Later, I will buy them both a beer so I can break a US $20 bill and will talk too much.
Mongolian boy and Schulz practice whistling

I get lucky with the housing lottery on this train, having paid for it with the mice and the staring, (spitting and yelling), half-dressed Chinese men on the other one. My roommates are Australians: she an anthropologist and he a writer of novels, and learner of languages. The bonus is that they lived in Ulan Bator for a year while she did field work for her PhD, researching lay priests of Tibetan Buddhism. Our carriage seems to be mostly local travelers, but up ahead on the way to the dining car (which, by the time I get there, has degenerated into a messy, smoky club car -- just my style),  where they keep the rich western travelers. The two-berth compartments are wildly upholstered and cozy. They look exactly like the color photos the Trans-Siberian advertises, and absolutely nothing like ours.

Ours is fine, however, and because Saskia speaks a little Mongolian we get to make friends with some of our fellow travelers, including a hyper-active 8-yr old boy, who, once invited into our orbit, will not leave. Most of the annoyance is forgiven, however, when he engages the whole lot of us, including the old, rich white people in 1st class, at one of the two protracted and uncomfortable border crossings in a game of “knock over the plastic milk bottle in the middle of the room with the wobbly sparkly ball while throwing from a lazy sitting position.”

Outside the window, the world is changing. The red brick buildings and cultivated fields of settled people give way to more open space, herds of horses, sheep, cows, and goats. The sharp limestone and granite hills of inner Mongolia soften and wear down. Before too long white ger, the traditional – and current – home of Mongolian nomads begin to pop up. These are round tent-like structures, made of felt and now plastic sheeting, with gently domed tops with openings for chimneys. They can be dismantled and relocated as seasons change and the need for pasture demands. 

Mongolian people love their ger so much that they’ve imported them to the city, simply packing themselves up and setting up house on a piece of land and building a fence around it. City planning and infrastructure in teeming Ulan Bator, where half of Mongolia’s 2 million people live, has not quite caught up to this trend, and many of the ger “suburbs” are little more than slums with no running water or sanitation facilities, breeding grounds for alcoholism, violence, and infectious disease. Outside the city, however, the ger are as elegantly suited to their environment as anything you could imagine.
Something outside the window, somewhere.
The nomadic herder settlements thin out as we approach the Gobi, and when I wake up (too) early in the morning, I’m treated to a sunrise over a landscape I’ve only imagined and read about: desert, going on forever, roadless, muted, unforgiving. I am giddy about seeing my first Bactrian camels, first one, then a pair, then small herds sitting or standing, waiting for something to happen or someone to spit on.

After the Gobi, the land turns to steppe. I don't have photographs of the camels, or sunrise in the desert, or the graceful ger camps set in the gentle green hills with animals grazing around them, or the the solitary Mongolian horse and rider racing up a ridge where some sheep have strayed, looking like his ancestors have looked for centuries.It all goes by too quickly to capture any of it on camera, and it's one of the challenges (and gifts) of this kind of travel to learn to relinquish the acquisitive instincts to possess images and fix experiences into metonyms and artifacts. Since I may be a little like Don Draper in only liking the beginnings of things, looking at the unknown world out the window is a pleasurable exercise in writing first lines of stories and poems I'll never have to do the hard work of finishing. 

"Two children wrestle down by the stream, a boy and a girl. Like all Mongolians, they love to wrestle, and she is not yet at the point where someone will tell her she'll have to give it up because she's a girl. Today something changes in their game when she finds herself kneeling over him and bends down to kiss him as if commanded by the wind." 

"He liked to sit at the back of the garden alone and look upon all their possessions: the rows of vegetables, rusted satellite dish, the old house his parents built where he was born and where he and his wife raised their children before they all moved away and she died. He wonders if they've wandered from the old, straight path or whether the same people who build the big building that blocks his morning sunlight have hidden it from them."

Coming up: Ulan Bator to Irkutsk

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