Onboard the Trans-mongolian Train 24 from Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) to Beijing (China)

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China)

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

PB130424Train 24 on the Trans-mongolian Express route from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (China) was such a nice change from the Chinese stock I took from Moscow to UB.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingWhether or not due to the presence of the unsmiling Mongolian provodnitsa, the interior of the compartments were comfortingly clean and the bunks properly-made. The bed-linen wasn’t stained or dusty.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingOur compartment attendant was on her knees scrubbing the corridor several times during the 1 day-journey. And naturally, the stainless steel toilet almost sparkled.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingInstant coffee and salty milk tea were provided, and paper cups in which to mix your drinks with the hot water from the samovar at one end of the carriage. I shared a second-class compartment with an elderly Korean sailor who had been in Mongolia for the last 6 years. Or so I think he said – he either changed his story several times in the course of the journey or we were suffering terribly from the effects of Babel. Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingWe shared food – I brought biscuits to the table, and he, some fried bread.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingHe proved to be quite a character – I would awake suddenly from naps to find him staring intently at me, not too far from my face. In the photo above, he is standing and staring into the provodnista’s compartment which she had just entered with a change of clothes.

For a change of scenery, I headed to the restaurant car: Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingThere were some Americans there, one of whom was throwing a tantrum about foreign food and how the cook was not doing his steak just the way he liked it back home. Felt bad for his friends who were trying to explain to a thoroughly confused waiter what the problem was, and then trying to counsel him that this was all part and parcel of travelling.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingSat back and enjoyed the passing beauty of the Gobi desert. Here, a family of wind turbines; there a few yurts or gers; in the distance, a cluster of dots – cattle? camels? It was fun to speculate along with the rest of the restaurant car. “I see a hump!” “I see two humps!”

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingSoon, we pulled into an assembly line to have our bogies changed at the Chinese border from the 1,520 mm Russian gauge used by Mongolia, to 1,435 mm standard gauge that the Chinese use. Now, life on board the train revolves, amongst few other things, around the loo and its availability. It’s usually locked at railway stations (for hygiene reasons) and here, it was out-of-action for more than 2 hours, causing a little distress amongst those who hadn’t the foresight to do a little bladder management.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingIn the morning, the view outside the clear train windows had changed remarkably. There were golden fields of wheat, and mountains just out of a Chinese painting. I finally understood the scenery my Chinese art teacher was trying to get us to portray.

Q: How much does the different sort of native scenery impose on artistic method (versus, say, easy availability of materials)?

Q: Further to a previous musing, how much do political borders delineate existing differences in genetic pool, culture, language, ideas, worldviews, and how much do they incite differences in these areas?

Curious minds want to know.

Meanwhile, here’s a gratuitous photo of what some fellow passengers claimed was toilet waste: frozen toilet waste, Trans-mongolian TrainYou’re welcome.

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Ger District and the Hustai National Park, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)

Ger District, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaIt was still early morning as we kicked-up a mini sandstorm climbing the steep hill to one part of the ger district. The ger district consisted of a mix of traditional Mongolian tents and basic houses in a vast informal sprawl around central Ulaanbaatar.

Ger District dogs, Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaMost of the residents had been nomadic herders who had set down their gers forever after a bad winter killed their cattle (their wealth and savings) or drawn by the erroneous promise of having a good life in the bright lights. But once they arrived, they found they didn’t have the skills the big city wanted, and many fathers and husbands cut off from the wide fields and to stave off  the pain of uselessness, turned to drink while the women worked at several menial jobs to keep the family fed.

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaThe rumour about the ger district was that you could grab as much land as you liked as long as you enclosed it with a fence to denote your claim to that land. So instead of open fields, the district is full of fences guarded by fierce dogs. Nothing much grows in the sand here.

water building, Ger District, Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaUrban planning didn’t seem to have quite taken off in a long-term or comprehensive way in UB, and certainly there wasn’t not much in the way of common utilities in the ger district. A rubbish-collection truck came once or twice a month, and a water truck arrived on certain days a week to fill a communal tank in a water house – each household would then collect water for household needs in any way they could – with old oil jerry cans, in plastic tubs etc. In the east ger district, there was a shower house at the bottom of the hill where the whole neighbourhood could get washed.

Ger District, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ger District, Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaMembers of families huddled in simply decorated houses and gers, a crowded but good way to save on heating in winters where the mercury dropped to -40°C. Coal was expensive in small quantities, but many were unable to take advantage of economies of scale because, being daily-waged if at all, there was usually just enough money for a night’s heating. Sometimes, they burned tyres and plastics if work hadn’t been available all week or if too much salary had been spent on vodka.

Ger District, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ger District, Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaInterestingly enough, the telly was running in each ger district house we visited. They’d all somehow managed to get themselves hooked up to the electricity grid and satellite transmission thingies.

Ger District, Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaSeveral times re-used tea bag that tasted more of the latter than the former (but we were very grateful for the hospitality), and a боорцог (deep-fried Mongolian dough snack).

Ger District, Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaOne wonders what the future holds for the half the population under 25 years of age.

Then, we headed out of Ulaanbaatar into the countryside. The contrast was stark.
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
How depressing to have had to exchange all this vastness for the claustrophobic ger shantytown.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Sunflower fields.

sheep, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
A nomadic herder’s wealth.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
In the Hustai National Park (or Khustain Nuruu National Park), this horseman hailed us to ask about buying a car. Stay away from the big city, we wanted to shout.

After dolling out some advice, our driver enquired if he had seen the wild horses (or takhi or Przewalski’s horses) any where. They were the last true wild horses (genetically rather than historically since these came from zoo stock around the world). Just across that hill, he pointed vaguely.

Przewalski's horse, Wild horses,  Khustain Nuruu National Park, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Takhi, Przewalski's horses, wild horses, Hustai National Park, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

And practised eyes spotted the horse-like specks from afar. They were calm creatures who continued to chew the grass thoughtfully as we approached.

partially frozen river, Hustai National Park, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Wild and free to roam anywhere under the sun!, we exclaimed. Ah, replied J wisely, but they have to find their own food and water. And in the winter, they have to crack the ice on the rivers with their hooves before they can even get anything to drink.

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaA while later, J’s eyes lit up and he hurriedly produced a carefully folded plastic bag from his pocket.

dried horse poo, Hustai National Park, Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaDried horse poo! He was gleeful. Perfect for the ger fireplace. It smells good, he said, so your food smells good. Better than disused tyres and discarded plastic.

Mutton and Süütei Tsai (Salty Milk Tea) in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)

Locavore, self-sustaining, free-range, and even…organic, might be some adjectives used of Mongolian cuisine if these historical nomads were minded to describe their food in terms understood by the Western city folk.

But the vegetarians, vegans, pescetarians, and other plant-based diet fans for whom these labels are gold would be sorely let-down. Mongolian cuisine consists mostly of meat (with very little seasoning), animal fat, and salty milk (tea).

Exhibit 1:
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Бууз (buuz) in oil-slicked soup.

(An aside. I’d like to trace the history of dumplings in the world. While in Latvia, we had pelmeņi at the self-service weight-priced XL Pelmeni (7 Kalku, Riga):
XL Pelmeni, 7 Kalku, Riga
XL Pelmeni, 7 Kalku, Riga
XL Pelmeni, 7 Kalku, Riga

In Moscow, it was khinkali (Georgian dumpling) at Duhan Chito-Ra (Kazakova Street, 10/2, Moscow 105064):
Duhan Chito-Ra Save Kazakova St., 10/2, Moscow 105064

and also good old-fashioned pelmeni with sour cream:
pelmeni with a side of sour cream

A great idea for cooking meat in bite-sized portions. But who had the idea first and what would the passage of that idea through different geographical areas over time tell us about the exchange of ideas in human history? Curious minds want to know.)

Exhibit 2:

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
More Бууз (buuz – Mongolian dumplings) and сүүтэй цай (süütei tsai – Mongolian salty milk tea).

Exhibit 3:

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
хуушууp (khuushuur) which is basically buuz flattened and deep fried. Yum. We ended up at this shop because Mongolian friends were reminiscing about the Naadam Festival and how the area around the competitions would be full of people frying and selling khuushuur.

Many tourists complain about the food in Mongolia. “Just mutton and more mutton and animal fat,” they grumble.

Should there be a universal standard for taste, or even, what might be considered healthy? How many foodie magazines consider the environment from which different cuisines emerge? How many “scientific” studies consider the impact of environment on the nutrients and calories needed by a person living in that different situation?

The sub-zero temperatures of Mongolia make eating mutton and drinking salty milk tea a great pleasure (and even, a necessity), especially when one is not being driven around in a vehicle with more than adequate heating. Much more so for the nomads cattle-herding on the steppes outside the cities.

“You must drink this,” advised several Mongolians,”It will warm you up.”
“And you must eat the fat of the meat, it will keep you strong.”

For this reason, they were leary of vegetables and fruits, seeing them as pernacious attempts by the Chinese to weaken their constitution.

Oh and by the way, Mongolian barbecues? Not Mongolian. They were popularised in Taiwan in the 1970s and then exported to America, then re-exported (or imported?) to Mongolia! The fable put about was that Mongolian soldiers would gather large quantities of meats and prepare them with their swords on their upturned shields over a large fire.

I just had to partake of this irony, so decided to check out BD’s Mongolian Grill, part of a U.S. chain:
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
It cost 5 times as much as a meal in an ordinary Mongolian eatery. The meat was overcooked and, because I did not want to pay for the buffet, not enough for the amount of trekking I was doing. Boo.

Street Scenes in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

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.

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaThe 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!”

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaThe 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.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaIn 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.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaThere 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.

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaAround the corner from them, a man was selling secondhand books by the road. I loved the incongruity of the deel and the mobile phone.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

There were quite a few other deel-wearers about town, looking very warm and comfortable, and some fashion magazines might say, stylish.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

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.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

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)

Trans-Siberian Trans-Mongolian Express Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] ->

An old Russian lady came up to me outside Рижская (Rizhskaya Metro, the site of the 2004 Chechen separatist suicide bombing) to ask how to get to Рижский вокзал (Rizhsky Train Station). The subway wasn’t very visible with all the people milling about the food booths around. Without thinking, I replied in English. There was a bemused pause before she thanked me and trundled off with her luggage.

“вокза́л” is an interesting word – apparently the short form of “vocal hall”, the setting for concerts. The internet has several theories how the genesis of this was London’s own Vauxhall station.

A while later, I exited Комсомо́льская (Komsomolskaya Metro) straight into a group of rowdy men smelling strongly of cheap alcohol. Several other commuters tried to give them a wide berth before beefy security emerged from Яросла́вский вокза́л (Yaroslavskiy Train Station) to ask them for identification. Say what you like about the ubiquitous police presence in Moscow, this traveller (and many locals) greatly appreciated them.

This marked the start of my train journey across Russia, Siberia, to Ulaanbaatar (or Ulanbatar or Ulan Bator) where I would hook up with S. People make far too much of the trans-siberian (or in my case, more specifically, trans-mongolian) train ride, employing adjectives like “epic” and phrases like “once-in-a-lifetime”. If I’d trekked across to Mongolia, that would be “epic”. If I’d crawled across Siberia on a sledge harnessed to a pack of giant snails, that would be “once-in-a-lifetime”. This was just a long trip on a locomotive following an ancient tea caravan route (says Wikipedia), over 4,887 miles and several time-zones to Beijing. Plenty of people use it to get to work/home regularly.

(For the first time in my adult life, I’d used an agency, Real Russia, in London. Since the whole trip had been a decision made on the spur of the moment in the early hours of the morning, a fortnight before I had been due to leave London, I’d thought it worth paying a premium to save the hassle of obtaining travel documents while also attempting to say goodbye to everyone and pack all my personal effects. Real Russia – highly recommended. Efficient, knowledgeable, and kept me informed of their progress in obtaining tickets and the Russian visa (the only one I would require on this trip – whew, Singapore passport!).)

Photograph Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

This weekly Tuesday night train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia was of Chinese rolling stock and came with Chinese male train attendants who might have left their toothbrushes at home. The upholstery and carpets were frayed and dirty, and the stainless steel loos looked and smelled like something out of a prison. I sorely missed having obsessively clean Latvian or Russian provodnitsas in charge.

But that and having dry showers for 5 days was no biggie. And neither was the emptiness of the train. Many online accounts of the journey waxed lyrical about the companionship in the compartments and how there would be an exchange of food and vodka with Russians travelling the route. There was no one in my compartment because the cold season meant low season. I went exploring and wandered into the carriage beyond the restaurant car where most people seemed to be, there was a ruckus and their very stout provodnitsa grabbed me by the arm and pushed me out.

So stayed in my carriage and made chat with the only other people on it – an English couple in the neighbouring compartment. Otherwise really enjoyed the solitude and quiet to reflect on the last few years and to think about the future, and to mope a bit for friends left behind in London.

Photograph dog on platform, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Most contact with the English neighbours and the outside world came at the frequent stops. We particularly liked the longer pauses at stations where:

Photograph another engine, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph another engine, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

train engines were changed,

Photograph coal delivery, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph coal implements, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

and coal was delivered – necessary to centrally heat the carriages and the hot water boiler, and the onboard water-tanks were filled from taps along the tracks.

Photograph warning sign at train station by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph warning sign at train station, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Liked how un-complex things were. Warning signs simply served their intended function. They were not fetishized as poster or postcard designs or printed on t-shirts.

I sleep best on moving objects – boats, trains, buses, cars, so thoroughly enjoyed the nights onboard. And it was good fun to awake each morning to new scenery outside the blurry window:

Photograph first morning on Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph view from Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph sunset, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

there was the sun rising amongst birch trees and setting over partly frozen rivers,

Photograph view of wooden houses, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph abandoned factory. view from Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph water tank? view from Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
there were wooden huts, and abandoned? factories, brick water tank towers,

Photograph view from Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

there were little colourful huts huddled together at the foot of mountains, with a few cattle roaming in the grassland, and there were smoke-spewing industrial buildings,

Photograph view of man fishing, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

and sometimes, there were people possibly ice-fishing.

I’d brought along Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook: The guide to the world’s longest railway journey with 90 maps and guides to the route, cities and towns in Russia, Mongolia & China. The minutiae of markers and historical titbits helped both compartments to understand the regions we were passing through a little better, but after a few days, I found myself far more content just to stare out the window and think.

Photograph passengers, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

At times, my revery would be interrupted by the Chinese train attendant pointing at one of the English neighbours and saying,”她问我什么? 她说什么我不明白.” And at other times, it would be the English woman saying,”Could you please tell this man…” I was pleased to have been so useful, especially since hardly anyone who knows me will even allow me to order food in Mandarin.

On food. I brought most of my own stuff to save money:

Photograph Dorset cereal porridge on the Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Dorset Cereal instant porridge for breakfast,

Photograph Russian bread, smoked cheese, sausage on Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Russian bread and cheese and sausage for lunch,

Photograph Mama instant noodles and a pdf book, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

a variety of instant noodles for dinner.

Photograph hot chocolate onboard Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

That samovar (hot water boiler) was good for hot chocolate and tea as well.

Photograph chocolate to eat on Trans-mongolian Express from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Alenka chocolate for snacking on Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Russian chocolate, some of which I would have to ship back to London to the church cook who’d requested specifically for “the one with blue packaging and bears” (Mishka Kosolapy, the bears coming from a painting, Morning in a Pine Forest), all sorts of goodies from Alenka from the Red October Confectionery Company. The pointy-ended packaging was a great way to enclose the chocolate without adhesives.

Photograph sunflower seeds, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

And roasted sunflower seeds.

Photograph Restaurant car on Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph borscht in restaurant car, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph fried eggs in restaurant car, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Towards the end, I got bored of dried stuff x hot water and went to check out the restaurant car. The borscht was a welcome change and the English couple (“we’ve come here every day for lunch and dinner and have only seen one other customer from the carriage beyond ours”) said their fried eggs and ham were satisfactory.

Photograph woman selling dried fish on the platform, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

At none of the stations did we see any hot or homecooked food being sold. The closest we got to authentic local cuisine were the babushkas selling dried fish near Omsk (i think).

Thus self-contained, we jiggled along, observing changes in the flora and fauna and human habitation and facial features and dress, across Siberia and into Mongolia, where I disembarked at Ulaanbaatar.

After the density of the cities like London, and Amsterdam, and to a lesser extent, Copenhagen and Sweden, just the experience of travelling all this distance (and that’s not even much in terms of circumnavigating the globe) helped me understand a little more how big our Creator must be.

It was like the Disneyland ride where you sit on a tram that brings you through various country-themed halls with robots in traditional costumes singing “It’s a small world after all” in high-pitched voices, except it isn’t small in the sense that as we passed through towns and villages where real people lived, with their hopes and dreams and difficulties and needs and wants and thoughts and ideas and traditions and wisdom and foolishness, there was a sense of the vastness of this world that cannot be contained but in the mind of God.

PS. If anyone wants proper, accurate, up-to-date information, I heartily recommend, as at the date of this post, The Man in Seat 61 as the fount of all train-riding wisdom!