On the train to Ulan Bator
"On behalf of the railroad we wish you a pleasant trip, and will try to make it one in accordance with Chairman Mao's dictum to serve the people of China and the world." This announcement at the Peking railroad station in not only Chinese but English sent our train toward Mongolia
and Siberia in late July, 1981.
[quoteright]First we traveled north to Ba-da-ling, a wide spot in the Great Wall, and then paralleled the wall to the west until mid-afternoon, when we resumed our northerly direction and started across the barren plateau of China's Inner Mongolia. Scattered guard towers and fragments of old walls littered the green loess-clad hills and valleys. The builders of the Great Wall had spliced together a number of older walls to build their new one, but these lonely remnants had been bypassed and left to crumble.
Even though the countryside grew increasingly barren with fewer and fewer signs of civilization, there were still those who snapped away their film; rumors of Mongolian border guards opening our cameras to check for contraband prompted us to wind up our film with the day's exposures. The clicking fingers of the railroad buffs among us became even more aroused as we passed through a town which was reported to have the world's only remaining steam locomotive factory. They took pictures of where they thought it was, but with high walls obscuring most of the buildings there was no way to differentiate one building from the next.
Necessity halted our train in Erenhot, a few miles from the Mongolian border station. This same train would go from Peking to Moscow but first its wheels had to be adapted to Russian tracks, since the Soviet bloc has adopted a different rail gauge from most other countries. Both a long shed and an adjacent building were stocked with trucks, units of wheels, and axles. Our train glided into the shed where workmen separated the cars, jacked up each end of each, and replaced the trucks with wider ones of the same serial numbers - both the old and the new sets had serial numbers matching those of the cars.
Unlike the Russians, who forbid picture taking of or from trains, the Chinese didn't care where we aimed our cameras. Here, they invited us to take pictures of the gauge changing process, but the photographers had to remain inside the car to allow the workmen room. A few stayed aboard while the rest of us changed money in the station. Returning to the shed, we quietly snapped pictures of the mechanics, while those in the cars leaned out of the windows and strained to see.
We crossed the border into the People's Republic of Mongolia around midnight without threat to ourselves or to our film, and traded the July heat and the open, friendly climate of China for the moderate temperature and the closed, suspicious climate of Mongolia and Russia. The Gobi slid by during the night. Next morning brought us the flat and grassy terrain of Outer Mongolia with low, rolling green hills slowly increasing in number as the day wore on - another west Texas except for the constant presence of political signboards and statues of Stalin. Sparsely settled, Mongolia has approximately one and one half million square kilometers and the same number of people, with a third of the population in the industrialized capital, Ulan Bator.
Our two days in Ulan Bator proved to be plenty of time: Mongolia is not tourist-oriented and has very little for visitors to see, do, or spend their tugriks on. The only points of special interest for us were the natural history museum, the Museum of the History of Religions, and an active lamasery.
Since dinosaur eggs were first found in Mongolia, the natural history museum had an excellent exhibit of them among its extensive fossil displays. Most of one room was devoted to nests of the eggs. Not scattered randomly around the nests like chicken eggs, these eggs were as they were found -- in pairs, with the pairs scattered randomly. The curators believe that dinosaurs had double egg tubes and always laid eggs in pairs.
The religious museum displayed relics of Mongolia's Buddhist past when, as our guide said, "the monks used to stupefy the people with their false doctrine." Here we saw some of the local art and the personal effects of the last high lama, which included a yurt (the traditional circular tent used by the nomads) made entirely of snow leopard skins.
The lamasery, a block-square compound containing several small but richly decorated buildings where the lamas lived and prayed, looked almost empty, with just a few people in sight. We entered the largest building, which was filled with benches occupied by rows of chanting monks reading from scriptures. The periphery of the room was lined with small shrines and statues. Our circling the room did not interrupt the chanting that mingled with the incense in the air.
Outside there was a row of prayer wheels which passers-by spun from time to time. Other small buildings seemed to be living quarters, and we had to content ourselves with peeking through doorways. In one building people were paying the monks to say prayers for them.
Apart from these sights we saw very few traces of Mongolia's precommunist past; there is a Ghengis Khan museum, but it was many hours away in the desert. Our sightseeing at an end, we boarded the train for Irkutsk and continued north toward the Russian border through country that grew increasingly hilly and forested.
Once again we reached the border around midnight, and once again people were careful to empty their cameras. At this border crossing our train stopped on a siding with high fences along both sides, rows of spotlights shining on us, and darkness beyond the fence. Armed soldiers patrolled on both sides of the train, and there were footsteps on the roof of our car. Still, the border guards were very polite and only looked at our papers and checked the compartments to make sure that no one was trying to sneak into Russia. With these formalities completed we continued on our way to Ulan Ude and the end of the Trans-Mongolian railroad, to continue on the TransSiberian into Irkutsk.
Erland Jensen's hobby is photographing eclipses, which is why he was riding the train through Mongolia. He plans to bag a good one in Indonesia soon. Forrest Lee is a science fiction writer.
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