Irkutsk – Peking

(part two of my Transmongolian trip. See below for part one. On a side note, there are now photos online)

I spent the rest of my time near lake Baikal pedaling around on a crappy bicycle.

And then it was time to head to Mongolia. The train left Irkutsk at 10pm, arriving some 32 hours later. The distance between Irkutsk and Ulan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, is only 1132km – that works out to just 36km/h on average. Indeed, everything about this train is excruciatingly slow and annoying. Crossing the border takes almost five hours – and that’s only the emigration at the Russian side; the Mongolian immigration process takes another three hours. At least we were allowed to get off in Russia. The train station there has a brand new lounge, if nothing else. There is no shop, no restaurant, not even a coffee vending machine. There is a market, but there is almost nothing on sale. The two goats roaming around the station we passed a few hours ago in hindsight look like a real source of entertainment.

Mongolian customs officials are the most unfriendly I’ve ever seen.

At sunrise, the train slowly chugged through the seemingly endless suburbs of Ulan Baatar. I’ve heard it said that in Mongolia, everybody has a right to pitch a ger somewhere, put a fence around it and claim the land as their own. The apparently complete absence of any form of city planning in these parts (and the more-than-occasional ger alongside roads, apartment blocks and factories) certainly seem to support that statement.

We were picked up by the Dutch owner of the Eco Ger Camp. I had imagined this person to be some sort of hippie, or at least some sort of idealist, the type with white socks in his sandals; otherwise why marry a Mongolian woman, live in Mongolia and set up an Eco Ger Camp without running water or electricity? But the owner turns out to be Bert from Amsterdam, and upon seeing him for the first time I can’t help but imagine that in a previous life he sold fruit on the Albert Cuypmarkt, with his obesity, oily hair and bulbous nose.

In theory, they drive on the right side of the road in Mongolia. In practice, they drive wherever the road has is the least horrible. And the roads really are horrible outside of Ulan Baatars centre, leading to a crazy slalom, travelling the full width of the road, and often a bit more, to avoid to worst potholes (those that are big enough to swallow a small car). At rush hour, traffic turns into some sort of crazy obstacle course waltz, with oncoming traffic swerving over to your side while your driver swerves over to their side and drivers trying to avoid each other as well as the shock absorber crunching potholes. Adding to the fun is the fact that about 70% of the cars have the steering wheel on the wrong side since most cars are imported from Japan (where they drive on the left).
Our ger camp can only be reached by horse cart. Though not too far from the entrance of the national park (about half an hour by horse cart), the camp really is out there, set among rolling hills and outstretched plains. I was sort of looking forward to yakmeat and tea with yakmilk and yakbutter, but Bert’s Mongolian wife cooks up Dutch fare – soup with meatballs; watery chicken curry; meat, potatoes and vegetables on the side. White bread with cheese, cold meats and jam for breakfast and lunch. But nevertheless, the camp is the real deal. Traditional gers, no electricity or running water. You have to flush the toilet (the only toilet) by pouring water from a jerry can, and you can basically forget about washing your hands. The gers are cold at night, and one time I feel a mouse running over my back (I think it tried to get into my sleeping bag to escape the freezing cold).

Our Camp

Three hours of horse riding was included, and though I really wanted to go, I was also somewhat apprehensive. The last time I sat on a horse was probably 15 years ago and I am absolutely sure that my karma will kick in here, that the horse will throw me off for all those times when I laughed at my sister and said that riding is not a sport, the horse does all the work. This is the day after I sprained my ankle, and I cannot even get onto the horse without help (because my ankle offers no support, I can’t swing my other leg over the horse, like when getting on a bike). The guide, who looks like he could ride while sleeping (and he probably can, and does), helps me up and takes the reins; for the first part of the ride, all I can do is sit. But I apparently do this very well, because before long the guide asks (through the Japanese interpreter) if I can ride by myself. My reply (“I can try”) is apparently translated as “yes” and the guide trots off, leaving me to follow, nudging my horse through the scrub, crossing brooks and galloping the last mile home.

And I didn’t fall off.

The last leg of the train journey crosses the vast Mongolian plains and the Gobi desert. The train is still running slow, the landscape slowly changing to the rhythmic clanging of the wheels. From the train, nothing can be seen but nothingness. Dust-covered towns are few and far between, but make me wonder why – or how – anyone would live here.

At the border with China, the wheels of the train are changed, because Chinese trains run on a different gauge (Mongolia uses the Russian gauge, where the rails are further apart than in most of the rest of the world). At midnight, we entered China.

Next morning, the landscape was completely changed. We had crossed the Gobi, and were already nearing the mountains surrounding Beijing. The diesel engine was gone, the “air was fresh and the sky was high,” as the Chinese say about the autumn season in this part of the country. I was anxious for the train to get to Beijing, and in fact the last two hours of this leg were the only moments where I just wanted to ride to be over, to arrive.

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