Editor’s note: GlobalAtlanta traveled to Mongolia last year. This story is part of a special report on the country, the second to be featured in our Emerging Market series.
Mongolia is on a mineral-fueled dash to modernity. Vast deposits of coal, gold and copper lie beneath its steppe, like magnets pulling foreign companies to the country.
Projections put its economy growing at as much as 15 percent this year, reaching more than 20 percent annually sometime in the next five years, mostly thanks to resource exports to neighboring China. Rapid changes are expected for the environment and traditionally nomadic culture.
But when I decided to travel to Mongolia, I wanted to take it slow, betting that a plodding Soviet-era train would provide a unique window on the country’s development.
People thought I was crazy for choosing the 30-hour haul from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar instead of a two-hour flight. They were justified: the train connecting neighboring capitals would take nearly twice as long as flying across the Pacific.
Out of China
I arrived before sunrise at the Beijing Railway Station, jet-lagged and loaded with luggage. Migrant workers gathered at the platforms, camped out on their own huge bags.
The green train that pulled in was more like a bumbling caterpillar than the sleek bullets blazing the routes between China’s major coastal cities. The golden horse logo emblazoned on the outside showed me I was in the right place. This was the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
My second-class sleeper cabin was clean and comfortable, if not luxurious. Four cots, two on each side, folded down from the walls. Mongolian attendants provided a set of sheets (for a fee), a heavy orange blanket and some packets of instant coffee.
I shared these ample quarters with Batbaatar, a Mongolian jewelry trader returning from Turkey via Beijing. He spoke little English and no Chinese, but even if we had shared a language, his constant sleeping and blaring hip-hop would’ve precluded much conversation.
Once we settled in, it surprised me how quickly Beijing proper disappeared. I had traveled to the Chinese capital five years before, but this was beyond the glitz of new shopping streets and the charm of old tourist sites.
I watched the sprawl for two hours as we crossed villages filled with rows of long, low brick homes. We passed through jagged mountains, dipped in and out of tunnels, snaked through narrow gorges and emerged to see frozen lakes spreading out like paved lots in open valleys. Farmers and shepherds watched wistfully from their fields. Even this close to Beijing, these areas felt forgotten – until I saw the power plants.
Smokestacks and cooling towers kept emerging, and a procession of railcars carried coal back toward the south. I wondered how much of the coal had come from Mongolia and whether these far-flung communities existed only to feed energy to China’s coastal boomtowns.
In the afternoon, the train ran parallel to earthen segments of the Great Wall abutting the foothills of distant mountains. Watchtowers set a few hundred yards apart continued for miles.
I finally peeled myself from the windows to search for food. Each car had a tap for boiling water that could be used for tea, coffee and instant noodles, but I needed something more substantial.
After sharing a car with all Mongolians, stepping into the dining car was like heading back into China. A waitress greeted me in Mandarin, and the clientele spoke with thick Beijing accents. I downed some oily stir-fried pork and green bell pepper, bewildering a few staring diners who must’ve never seen a foreigner use chopsticks.
After a nap, I awoke to see the sunset. Aquamarine spread across a cloudless sky as hints of purple hovered over the horizon. Hypnotized, I watched wind turbines spin in the distance until it all faded to black.
The Mongolia Crossing
Crossing international borders by foot, ferry, car and plane had always been straightforward – a few questions, one stamp and done. By train things were far more interesting.
As we moved from China, a communist nation with an established capitalist economy, to Mongolia, a thriving democracy still learning the ropes of the free market, many things changed, starting with the train’s wheels. China and Mongolia used different gauges, so we would have to disembark for three hours in the dead of night while workers made the routine switch.
As we lumbered to a stop, a loudspeaker announced in English, Mandarin and Mongolian that we had reached the border town of Erlian. My buddy Batbaatar, recovering from another long nap, groggily assured me my bags would be safe in the train. He led me through the brisk cold and into the station, where our group of weary travelers crammed into the lone snack shop.
I considered a few ways to pass the time. Practicing Chinese seemed like the most productive, so I approached a guy who looked about my age.
“Ni hao,” I offered, but his response caught me off guard.
“I’m not Chinese,” he said gruffly in English. As I’d soon find out, the only thing some Mongolians resent more than being mistaken for the Chinese is the Chinese themselves.
Munkhuul was a nightclub owner from Ulaanbaatar traveling back from Beijing with his two sisters, Bayaraa and Muunuu. He was quick to overlook my linguistic faux pas, and I spent the next two hours chatting with this trio about modern Mongolia.
They were fiercely opinionated, especially when they found out a reporter was their captive audience. Yes, Mongolia is a bucolic place with more horses than people, they assured me, but it’s also a cosmopolitan land filled with smart, savvy people. The Internet is opening the youth to Western ideals, and there, you can actually use Facebook. China blocks the social networking site, they noted with disdain.
All the antipathy toward their southern neighbor brought to mind an ironic fact. While the countries have fought throughout history, Mongolia’s immediate ascent is largely dependent on China’s continued growth. Living next to a giant can be worrisome for some Mongolians; many “small” cities in China have more people than their entire nation of 3 million.
Back on the train, I retreated to a toasty compartment to await customs. A young Chinese official asked me a few questions to seem stern, then stamped me through. Awhile later, a female Mongolian officer with a furry hat and a sturdy build made me stand up for a better look as she eyed my passport. She seemed to consider searching my bags but apparently didn’t peg me for a smuggler. A passport stamp of a Mongol ger, or yurt, sealed my entry into the country.
Lamb Dumplings and Pollution
Ulaanbaatar, known as the world’s coldest capital, was still more than 12 hours away when I drifted off to sleep again.
I awoke to the calming rhythm of the tracks and finally saw Mongolia in the light. I’d missed most of the Gobi Desert but was lucky enough to see a few woolly camels combing the flat, brown terrain for scrub grass. Way off in the distance, I spotted an antelope.
It wasn’t until later that we hit the steppe, an endless, grassy expanse frosted with patches of snow. The sky was a canopy of crystal blue. Sprouts of civilization began to emerge. I imagined the ramshackle railroad settlements as similar those of the old American West.
My first chance to breathe Mongolian air came in a city called Choir. At that stop, Batbaatar bought a bag of steaming buuz, dumplings stuffed with lamb, for the equivalent of 40 cents. He shared them with me for a hearty, unexpected breakfast.
Soon we began to see gers, the round felt tents that house most Mongolians. The terrain grew more hilly, and we made wide westward bends as we approached Ulaanbaatar, letting those of us in the rear see the engine chugging ahead of the rest of the train.
When the construction cranes and high-rises emerged, we were still out in the ger districts. More like slums than suburbs, these sprawling, haphazard clusters of government-granted plots are home to more than half the city’s population.
Hesitant or unable to buy new apartments rising in the city, residents here stay in their tent homes, burning whatever they can find to stay warm. The resulting pollution has begun to pose a serious health risk.
When we steamed into the Ulaanbaatar station, my trip had just begun, but I felt like I already knew something about the place.
It was a unique lesson taught by interesting people and timeless landscapes watched over by the eternal blue sky venerated in traditional Mongolian animism.
Now the world is paying attention to the country unfolding beneath it.