Notes From an Expedition: Training Day

ABOARD THE TRANS-MONGOLIAN RAILWAY—We wake up to dawn over Mongolia’s Gobi desert. Endless tracts of sand and rock, flat, relieved only by the occasional rolling rocky dunes that stretch across 500,000 square miles, punctuated only by the thin power lines that parallel the railroad tracks and the wood and wire fence that prevents the stray two-humped Bactrian camel or cashmere goat from wandering into the path of our speeding train.

We are still on the Mongolian side of the frontier, speeding toward the crossing into the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region where the Gobi spills, one would think seamlessly, into neighboring China. But appearances and names, as we shall discover, can be quite deceiving.

From time to time we pass long stretches of freight cars, a hundred or more coal-and-ore bearing cars, open to the skies, joined into a single long train bringing the product of Mongolian mines to a market with an all but insatiable appetite for such resources—the industrial powerhouse that is China. We are barely a third of the way through a 26-hour train ride that will take us to Huhhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The border crossing itself is unlike any other in the world. For openers, the entire process takes somewhat in excess of five hours. First, there are the Mongolian formalities, several passport and customs officers taking a perfunctory glance at our passports (no visas required for Americans entering or leaving their nation). Outside the window, a short row of trucks, laden with goods bound for the Mongolian marketplace are lined up for what appear to be a set of equally routine formalities.

Then we roll through a no-man’s land—barbed wire fences crossing the dry sage and sand of the Gobi, but scarcely a watchtower in sight. Then the train grinds to a halt at Erlian station. Lining the platform at full attention is a picket fence of unsmiling Chinese border guards, each in his (no women here) freshly pressed deep-khaki uniforms. A guard appears in the doorway of our compartment. “Passports, please, he says in impeccable, barely-accented English. “Remove your glasses, please,” he says to my wife, whose passport photo was taken without eyeglasses, and examines both of us critically. He takes both our documents and beams, “Welcome to China.”

Twenty minutes pass, and we are “invited” to leave the train. I had wanted to see the process that would follow—the changing of the bogies—which highlights more than any other single aspect the sometimes fraught relationship between China and Mongolia. The gauge, or width of track, is different in the two nations. Mongolia uses the standard Russian gauge, common to the rest of Europe; China a slightly narrower gauge unique to itself. At the border crossing, therefore, the train retreats to a changing shed where each car is lifted and the Mongolian set of wheels (known as a bogie) are slid out and the Chinese set are slid into place.

Instead of being allowed to witness that, however, we are cast into the streets of Erlian—a dusty, Chinese border town where there is virtually no English spoken and only a succession of tiny, aging shops line a single street across from the railroad yards. An hour later, we are herded back into the station and onto the train, which has reappeared, apparently equipped now with a whole new set of bogies.

As we roll out of Erlian station into the Inner Mongolian countryside, however, it’s clear that as Dorothy exclaimed to Toto, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.” We are certainly, as the terrain suggests, still in the Gobi—that much even Chinese energy and ingenuity can’t change—but how that nation deals with this reality is simply worlds apart.

Just outside of town are rising 12 long rows of spanking new apartment blocks in various stages of completion—each impeccable, identical and waiting to be filled. This is the promise of China to its people deep within its interior, many still living in marginally squalid conditions—that their lives can and will get better, quickly.

But there is much more to the Chinese miracle in the Gobi. In the distance there looms the first of what will be a succession of wind farms—towering, starkly modern windmills, slowly turning, their ranks marching off to the horizon, hundreds in each set. Clearly the Chinese have discovered that there is at least as much gold above the ground than beneath the desert’s sands. “I believe the future of our country is in renewable energy,” says one young fellow passenger in our rail car, an eager Mongolian who just graduated from university and is hoping to build his future on such a dream. The difference, of course, is that China has chosen to put serious capital behind such a vision, while Mongolia is still hoping to build on the coal, copper, iron and uranium, not to mention the gold and silver, that is being discovered beneath the surface of its sprawling territories.

As the train speeds through the Gobi, other anomalies appear. Off in the near distance, we catch up to a large truck, barreling down a paved highway that bisects the desert. Chinese leaders have clearly understood that in the vast stretches of their undeveloped interior, roads come first, then the people. The Mongolian Gobi is still criss-crossed by a spiders-web of rutted dirt tracks where the only speed limit is whatever the shock absorbers of a car or the bone jostling of its passengers can support—rarely over 30 miles an hour. In the Chinese Gobi, paved roads have carried the material to build wind farms and, as we are to discover in our hotel at our destination, experts in oil and gas production and mining.

The train makes a succession of brief stops. At Zhe-Ri-He, parked on a siding is a long stretch of military equipment on flatcars—olive-drab trucks, small-scale mobile artillery pieces, each with a single vigilant guard standing on the rail car. The direction is clearly pointed north. Toward Mongolia. This is a border with no discernable tension, at least for the moment. But China is always vigilant.

As we approach our destination, Inner Mongolia’s provincial capital of Huhhot, the stations become more elaborate—some boasting (empty) VIP and “soft seat” waiting rooms, with the hard-seat sectors favored by most Chinese workers teeming with travelers. At Jining, there is an ultra-modern four-platform station with an underpass to reach the further tracks. Our first stop in Huhhot is the brand new Huhhot East station that will eventually become the capital’s principal depot, then it’s quickly onward to the venerable Central Station, barely a 20 minute drive to our hotel.

We have arrived in Huhhot. It is 10 pm on a Saturday, and the broad thoroughfares are lit like Times Square. There are vast patches of darkness, though—what we will discover when we awaken are sprawling development sites across the city, a forest of building cranes and hundreds of workers who are in the process of scrubbing traditional, decaying four-or five-story buildings in favor of towering skyscrapers—apartments, malls, and offices. Now only China’s 48th most populous city, and home to a larger Mongolian population than its entire neighboring nation with the same name, a decade from now Huhhot will be a much different place. Five years ago, longtime residents say, the road from the airport to downtown was just a dirt track.

No longer. China’s interior is coming of age. Now, these cosmetic improvements must keep pace with the aspirations of its people.


David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal, has arrived in Huhhot, capital of China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on the seventh leg of a five-week expedition through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China, winding up in Beijing. 

[Photo by David A. Andelman]

You can read his next dispatch, All That Glitters…, here, or visit the Notes From the Expedition homepage here.

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