London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)
In the 6 a.m. darkness, I was the only one emerging from the coal-smoked cocoon that had been home for the last 5 days.
“慢慢走! (be careful!)”, said the Chinese train attendants as they helped me off the carriage. They’d become properly motherly as the days had gone by, always looking out for me. On long train stops, I could feel their eye on me as they smoked cigarettes on the platform, while I went exploring. Also, they did not trust the Mongolians – “危险! (danger)”.
“谢谢你照顾我.(Thank you for taking care of me)” I replied.
They looked properly abashed,”不用,不用!”
On the platform, hotel touts who had been waiting for the arrival of the train swarmed up in busy expectation. But as they scanned the length of the platform, it became apparent that there was only one potential in sight and that person had a hostel booked, I had to keep repeating. But they did speak English quite fluently so as I waited to be picked up from Улаанбаатар өртөө (woohoo, Cyrillic still useful here!)(Ulaanbaatar Station), we chatted. Many were in family businesses catering to tourists – they didn’t like waking up so early, but someone had to do it (“we have hostel in city center, you want to go now?”). Oh loads of things to see in UB but best to go outside (“we have car to national park, you take this brochure?”). At the arrival of my driver (the husband of the lady running the hostel), they scattered with a smile and a wave.
The driver was a big man, wide and tall with a heavy tread. He had thin eyes that stretched almost to the edges of his wide face and a little moustache and spoke English haltingly. I would meet many similar-looking men in the days to come, some wearing only a white little singlet and shorts and complaining about global warming: “Only -15°C! Who has ever heard of it so hot at this time of the year!”
The private room in the hostel was basic and clean. Like many similar establishments, it was in an anonymous apartment block and could only be accessed from the sandy parking lot in the back, where there was little in the way of signage to identify the place.
In the morning light, a stroll through the city revealed something of a frontier town: basic roads and pavements, shiny new buildings beside shacks or older Communist era blocks, towers left to the elements after construction money ran out, uncovered potholes, too many new cars for the roads, nothing much in the way of greenery but a bit of scrubby grass, and everything covered with a fine dusting of sand.
There were snacks sold to school-children from repurposed (or stolen) supermarket trolleys, and an old couple sitting outside the post-office waiting for people to rent their weighing machine.
Around the corner from them, a man was selling secondhand books by the road. I loved the incongruity of the deel and the mobile phone.
There were quite a few other deel-wearers about town, looking very warm and comfortable, and some fashion magazines might say, stylish.
And just across the street, in front of the gianormous Genghis Khan memorial (Chinggis Khan apparently, not Genghis), electric toy vehicles, padded with fur, were hired to speed-demon kids. Here, the postcard touts operated. Wanting to support one who claimed to be the artist of several watercolours, I selected a few with Mongolian-ised nativity scenes of three camel-riding men approaching yurts lit by large stars.
“Ah, you Kkrristian?” asked the other touts, who had come over for a look at what had been sold. (“How much did s/he buy?” they asked the artist in Mongolian.)
The history of Christianity in Mongolia is interesting. The first Christian-like religion to hit the big time was Nestorianism in the 7th century. Under Chinggis Khan (Temüjin), in the 13th century, Nestorianism was tolerated alongside other religions and some of the khans even had influential Nestorian wives. Historians have concluded that the Mongolian empire was remarkably welcoming of foreign influences and beliefs, encouraging trade and commerce, putting currency (backed by precious metals) into common use, and facilitated international cultural exchange. Temüjin’s grandson, Mongke, even invited Christians (Nestorians? Orthrodox Christians?), Buddhists and Muslims to debate the merits of their faiths before him.
Since the end of communist rule in 1990, Protestant Christianity has been on the rise. I ended up at one such church on Sunday. After Bible study, we all went out together for lunch.
It was my first introduction to the ubiquitous mutton and salty milk tea that would be my staple diet in UB. I revelled in the joy of being welcomed by people I had not known previously, who not even included me in their lives, but also bought me a meal! Even though they were a mixed crowd – English teachers from America, ethnic Mongolians who had been brought back from Chicago by their parents so they would “know their Mongolian roots”, Mongolians who had gone to India to study medicine and were hoping to practice soon, they took me in because I was in reality part of their family as they were part of mine. It is as Jesus said:
29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)