Early in the morning, I rode out of Beijing on K23, the train line direct to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The train seemed almost deserted: maybe twenty westerners, half as many Chinese and Mongolians, and a bevy of sullen train attendants. The few passengers all seemed excited, however. The train compartments were decorated with heavy woolen rugs and blankets in patterns redolent of Mongolia or Siberia. The fan bolted above the window could have easily been soviet issue, as it clanked to life. I shared my room with a young 20-something Brit couple: Dave was a wind-power engineer who had been working in Beijing (and sometimes inspecting turbines in Inner Mongolia province... in the dead of winter); Susan had been teaching school kids in Ningxia province (another desolate part of northwestern China). She sported a mischievous sense of humor and a miraculous ability to figure out how the various 'Soviet-era' fixtures and mechanisms of the train could be made to work. Sean, an Australian programmer/surfer dude, settled in by himself in the compartment next door. Not counting our one train attendant, the rest of our train car was empty. The attendants, occasionally marching past our door, were stolid in physiology and brusque in manner. It almost seemed as if they weren't happy to be returning to Mongolia... or perhaps they just had hangovers.
Initially, the train passes through dry, wrinkled mountain ranges--possibly under but somehow past the Great Wall without our noticing it. Narrow valleys house brick villages as well as the occasional factory steaming in the morning light. Rivers rush onwards towards Beiing and the North China plain where they will soon be entrapped in reservoirs, sucked dry for irrigation, and polluted with runoff. But here in the mountains, the river still runs in unfettered enthusiasm.
The landscape rises higher and drier. Inner Mongolia spreads out beyond the wall once meant to keep it out. The province, after centuries of fighting back and forth over its border, finally fell to permanent Chinese control and cultivation in the Qing dynasty. By now its Mongols are a minority, their culture submerged in the same bathroom-tiled homogeneity to be found anywhere in China. This shaving sliced from the Mongolian heartland contributes to the general enmity Mongolians hold against China. More on that later. The land becomes more inhospitable by the hour. Isolated sheep ranches, coal mines, wind power turbines, dot the horizon. Desert sands appear as dusk falls.
We reached the Chinese-Mongolian border at midnight. The visa process and inspection was painless, although we were all subjected to an instant temperature reading from a laser thermometer beamed at our foreheads--an ode to the swine flu in its carmine gaze. The train was refitted with new bogies because Russia and Mongolia have a different standard than the rest of the world (an attempt to slow down any attempted invasions). Passengers were confined to the customs control house during the process. As we waited, a British fellow who sold insurance in Ulaanbaatar and Beijing told me about his first run up to UB (expat nickname for Ulaanbaatar). At the border, the engine exploded into flames and had to be decoupled and allowed to burn to the ground in isolation. Such a wonderful anecdote to have swimming in my mind, as we got back onto the train and tried to fall back asleep--now in the empty vastness of the Mongolian Gobi.
I woke up mid-morning, bright sunlight reflecting off the desert sands of the northern Gobi--we'd crossed most of that desert in the night. Breakfast proved that bogies hadn't been the only thing to have changed in our train car: a Mongolian dining car had replaced the bland Chinese one, complete with a sullen Mongolian attendant drinking vodka (and carefully pasting the seal back onto the bottle after she was done sipping) in the corner. The car itself was ornate, with dense wooden carvings, bows, horsehead fiddles, and other Mongolian knickknacks for decoration. The land became greener, bit by bit, as we ate.
Around 2 PM we came over a mountain ridge, and into UB itself. The transition was startling, as most of Mongolia is a grassy wilderness undeveloped by outside standards in which nomads still live more or less as they have for thousands of years (with the addition of satellite and motorcycles, however). Even up to the edge of Ulaanbaatar (population 1 million out of the 3 million or so people living in the whole country), there is nothing but grass and grazing livestock until one breaches the city's central valley. Tents or 'gers' were the most common domicile to be seen in UB's suburbs. Wooden fences cross-hatched the hillsides, each defining a family yard in which sat a pure-white ger. We had arrived at the heart of Mongolia, a city exemplifying nomadic Mongolia's modernized future as well as its Soviet near-past. Our hostel, The Golden Gobi, was located in a residential quad next to the 'State Department Store', one of UB's main malls and a remnant of that former Soviet-satellite era. The Golden Gobi, a typical backpacker hostel benefits from a sense of the traditional hospitality of a Mongolian family. It is family run, and the first thing you do after coming in the door and removing your shoes and backpack, is to sit down and enjoy a nice cup of tea. Whether or not one stays in this hostel (or in one of the many others that have sprouted up in UB in recent years), it was quickly apparent to us that the Golden Gobi was a sort of nexus for traveler activity, with many backpackers just stopping by to band together and share costs (guides and transport are fairly necessary to traverse Mongolia's desert wastelands, frigid peaks, and grassy steppes if one doesn't have months of spare time) on their travel plans. I was fairly quick to arrange a trip into the Gobi and up through central Mongolia. My companions were two Danish girls, Bina and Louisa, as well as an American, Stephanie. I became a millionaire (after exchanging Chinese Yuan into Mongolian Togrog), checked up on Facebook (no Chinese censorship!), guarded my day pack and money zealously (Susan had her wallet snatched right out of her backpack by a pickpocket), and finished with an evening out on the town with companions once and future. Despite the misadventure of being assaulted by a dwarf beggar and the realization that a Tuesday night in UB is not prime time for nightlife, a good time was had by all.