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Across Mongolia

Thursday, August 8th 2002

I woke up at 5.30am, and saw a fantastic sunrise over the Gobi Desert. I couldn't believe that I was really in Mongolia - to me, no country has a name that sounds more remote and forbidding. And the wild expanses were frighteningly empty. Nothing but grass stretched away into the distance as far as I could see. No signs of human habitation interrupted the view.

We sped across the country. Occasionally a single tent would appear in the midst of the howling wilderness, signifying that some solitary nomad was working the land. Then, in the early afternoon signs of people became more numerous, and we were approaching Ulaanbaatar. There were no buildings in the outer parts of the city - just tents. I'd never expected the capital to look like a giant campsite, but it seemed that even urban Mongolians did not wish to stray far from their nomadic roots, and were always ready to move on at a moment's notice.

The centre of the city was a different story. Unpaved muddy streets ran between concrete monstrosity buildings, and the whole thing seemed to me to be the ugliest place I'd ever seen. I had been talking to an Australian journalist on the train, who was about to live here for a year working for an English-language newspaper, and I wondered what she was thinking as we pulled into the station. I'd have been thinking "Screw this, I'm staying on until Moscow" if I'd been her.

We moved on. Southern Mongolia had been flat and grassy; northern Mongolia was hilly and barren. The lack of population was striking, and I had a huge craving to come here and trek in the emptiness. That would have to wait for another trip though. I watched the country go by, mesmerised by it.

In the evening I went to the restaurant car. Last night it had been a Chinese Railways restaurant car; we'd ditched that at the border and picked up a Mongolian one, so I got the classic Mongolian meal of mutton. I met a few other travellers over dinner, and once darkness had fallen we played cards until we reached the Russian border at Sukhbaatar. Last night's border crossing had been slow, but this one was even slower, despite there being no wheel changing operation. We arrived at 9.30pm, and spent a couple of hours going through the Mongolian formalities. Then we rumbled over to Naushki in Russia, and I was not surprised at all that the Russian formalities took a very long time. Part of the reason was the smuggling - a lot of people on the train were carrying a lot of goods on which they didn't want to pay import taxes, and a lot of distribution of possessions had gone on. Maybe some people get caught; more likely, a bribe or two is paid here and there. Everyone in my carriage got through the customs checks OK, and at 5.30am we powered off into Russia.

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