Leaving Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian train (actually called Train 3 or 5 in Mongolia & Rossiya in Russia, Trans-Mongolian is the unofficial moniker) you exit the ancient capital to the southwest. “Huh?” blinking, careening toward the setting sun for so long you think you’ve gotten on the wrong train. It takes a while to snap out of it, before you finally notice that you are in a packed hard seat couchette car full of noisy locals moving in and out of compartments as traversing slowly out of Beijing through the Chinese countryside. And yes, the needle on your compass is spinning from its initial SSW now toward the sacred NW, into the slow heart of Mongolia. Here comes the sigh of relief.
Here comes the Gobi.
The comparison has been made before, but in many ways, with its desert lows and mountain highs, China, Mongolia, Russia, central Asia in general, reminds one of North America, if only in their common raw untapped beauty, extreme landscapes and rugged terrain, punctuated by occasional clusters of humans, dilapidated buildings, livestock and trash-heaps. The difference is that much of Central Asia is still undiscovered, sands unknown, rivers and lakes undiverged, forests uncut, and mountains unmined. This is how it looked hundreds, maybe even a thousand years ago. It is the vastness of it all that still maintains shock value: why aren’t they developing strip malls and parking lots?
The rugged terrain gives one the feeling that humans don’t reign supreme over the earth, that we don’t and actually can’t control the environment, that most of us- excepting the Mongolians who still eke out a living in the sere desert and on the harsh steppe- would die out in these places, with or without Onstar GPS. That’s why we build tracks and the coal smoke spouting trains to roll over them, invent cars that roam fast and free, and imagine jets that soar high above these unforgiving ranges: because we can’t beat them, so we go around them and through them, as fast as possible.
Five minutes after leaving Ulan Bator, the city is a memory, and so are the illiterate Chinese day-laborers who filled the train from Beijing, all of them pouring out on work visas to usurp jobs from the untrained Mongolians. As I situate myself in my empty four-bed couchette-style compartment and we leave behind the crumbling buildings and derelict factories lining the outskirts of the northernmost capital in the world, the landscape gradually empties out into the gently sloping hills and we enter an almost constantly changing topography of fluctuating extremes: from softly rolling Mongolian steppes ranging a sere brown to verdant green below cottony white cumulus clouds lolling in easy-going blue skies. It is as picturesque as it is empty, bereft of nonessential quantities. Despite the void of apparent progress, it is almost impossible to take your eyes off of the prodigious spectrum of nothingness for fear of missing something.
Perhaps surprisingly, I am surrounded by Mongolians rather than Chinese or Russians, and ones that are not so hellbent on traveling to Moscow to check out the Onion-dome architecture or eat Borscht as they are on the train to sell their wares: jeans, t-shirts, blouses, hooded sweatshirts, windbreakers, coats, jackets, suits, hats, skirts and dresses: micro-mini, mini, tea length, ballerina length, full length, midi, maxi, panties and bras, corsets, underwear and socks, doublets and singlets, everything in all manner of fabrics: denim, wool, chiffon, velvet, satin, silk, cotton and colors galore: cherry red, indigo, fuschia, amaranth cerise, all displayed on hundreds of plastic torso mannequins which line the narrow passageways and the vestibules connecting train cars, themselves stuffed with square rainbow-colored packages rammed with off-brand and copies of designer purses, travel bags and luggage. All of these are to be sold only during the one or two twenty minute stops per day from Ulan Ude and Ekaterinburg through to Omsk and Moscow.
But as I sit there, my bladder bursting with beer, I don’t know any of this yet. My naive wide-eyed assumption that everyone on the train is using it to go from A to B, rather than their own personal round-trip roadshow boutique, turns out to be bogus. Their initial smiles quickly turn to sneers and odd sniffing toward me and quick turns of the head away as soon as they realize that I am dug in and we are stuck together. They see my plastic bottle of beer and begin flicking their throats, clucking angry, gurgled messages my way. It is clear that despite my nonchalant presence, I am intruding. I must be sitting in previously marked territory. Despite my “hellos” and head bows there will be no introductions and excited gesturing, no surreptitious sharing of vodka bottles amid snickers and knowing nods, nor even smiles exchanged between strangers on this five-day journey from east to west. I am in the way.
If it weren’t for the funny and generous British couple I met at the hostel just before embarking on the train, I would not have had another soul to talk to, let alone share the two bottles of Chinggis Khan Vodka I had stowed away in the bag the Russian customs people didn’t bother to check, so busy they were trying to confound the Mongolians, who were themselves busy hiding their wares from their agent arch-nemeses. During the six-hour border delay–and over the five days train ride, my newfound Anglo friends and I discussed the history of the Motherland and potlucked on cucumber and sardine sandwiches, cheap, unpronounceable beer in 64 oz. plastic bottles and chain-smoked off-brand cigarettes while sampling the local varieties of vodka. During the ensuing four days we nursed hangovers with Jasmine tea, Nescafe, and more vodka, philosophizing about the finer points of photography, archaeology, Cyrillic and the impenetrable Russian language, Dostoevsky, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Novgorod, the birth of the Russe from the Slavs and Viking traders, the rise and fall of the British empire and famous pirates in history. Meanwhile rain, sleet and snow pounded the train as we traversed through the greasy monochromatic grays of the desultory Siberian expanse.
My favorite part of the train is the caboose. From there you can see the track as it unwinds behind you like a coda to an untold story. Staring out at this unending steel tail wagging on through curves and bends, tunnels and hilltops, and after a certain amount of time spent in almost perpetual motion, one gets to thinking. Rolling on this unfurling 1520mm wide-gauge tracks, I am reminded of the rampant neo-capitalism espoused in Shanghai in the midst of the necessary evil of the consumerism of the Mongolians, and shocked by the overall vastness of the Russian landscape and its seemingly limitless natural resources. Questions for the internet age of a time gone by, to be google’d and wikipedia’d when safely arrived, yet meant only for pondering here at the ass-end of the longest train line in the world: who built this train? Did they do so merely that we better hawk our cheap wares? How many died seeing this through? On whose bones am I riding? And how far into the soil does their blood seep?