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Notes From an Expedition: Through the Looking Glass

by David A. Andelman

ABOARD THE TRANS-MONGOLIAN RAILWAY—The train pulls out of central station in Irkutsk, the sprawling capital of Eastern Siberia, precisely on time at 10:15 p.m. and swings into its route, around the southern shores of Lake Baikal and off to the separation point just past Ulan Ude—where the vast rail lines across Siberia diverge—the Trans-Siberian heading due east to Vladivostok on the Pacific, our line turning south toward Naushi and onward into Mongolia at the border crossing of Sukhbaatar.

Ours is the third car of an eight-car train. It is a shiny, aluminum second-class car belonging to the Russian rail system and is coupled to its olive-drab cousin from Mongolian railways. They are the only two cars that will make the entire journey from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital—just the first leg of the 7,865 kilometer route we will be covering from Irkutsk to Beijing, the entire length of the official Trans-Mongolian Railway. Ours are scarcely luxury accommodations—four berth sleeper compartments, lucking out with the bottom bunks. We’ve just installed ourselves when an ample Mongolian lady blows into our compartment clad in sweatshirt and leather coat, toting two large yellow plastic shopping bags, each weighing conservatively 40 pounds. They are filled with watermelons. Together with a small handbag, they are her only luggage.

Jennah, she explains, has a 24-year-old daughter studying accounting in Mansfield, Ohio. Since she was a small child, the only place she ever wanted to be was in the United States. And now, next year, she expects to win her green card in America. Still, Jennah isn’t very happy with the accommodations. So a half hour into our wait at the station platform, when the young woman conductor appears in our doorway, she negotiates her way out of our compartment and into the quad next door, occupied by a single Dutch backpacker named David. Jennah wins the other bottom bunk.

When the train pulls out of the station, the conductor unlocks the doors of the bathrooms at either end of the car, since the toilet flushes directly on the tracks through a trap door at the bottom, activated by a small bar operated by our feet. And it turns out there are stretches—often interminably long stretches—when the conductor believes we are too close to any settled area to allow effluent to flush through the hole onto the tracks and simply locks all of us out. Still, in an hour, we’ve made up our beds and switched off the lights as the train clatters on into the night.

Mind you, this is hardly the Metroliner or Acela. The tracks were laid, often by German and Japanese forced labor, at the end of World War II and have hardly been replaced since. The Russians are about to begin developing high-speed rail links, and Mongolia is about to make a momentous decision on the expansion of its rail routes to bring to market the vast riches of coal, copper, uranium, and especially gold that are on the verge of being torn from their earth at a record, and extraordinarily lucrative, pace.

All this is to say that sleep is an often elusive dream with the clicking of every tie (I lost count of the sheep, pacing the clack of the wheels, well into the five figures). That, plus the fact that the train is effectively a milk run and hardly misses a station. Through the night, we pass enormous freight trains/synonym—some comprising oil tanker cars. I count one with at least 45 cars before losing sight of it, another carrying coal, ore, and oil that stretches past 100 cars before disappearing around a bend.

The longest stop, just after dawn, is at Ulan Ude, the station carrying the proud, red neon sign “Ulan Ude: Republic of Buriat.” The Buriats are the region's natives, closely related ethnically and culturally to the neighboring Mongols and Kazakhs. But when Stalin’s Soviet forces blew through the area in the 1920s, they were quickly assimilated. Today, they are largely a historical curiosity—a minority in their own land.

The dynamics on the track at the border station are quite extraordinary. Basically, there is one switch engine, which performs an eternal pirouette. First, it unhitches six of the eight cars from our train that are dead-heading at the frontier, leaving our lone, second-class Russian car with “Irkutsk-Pekin” stenciled on the side, and a second, third-class olive-drab Mongolian car which would deadhead in Ulaanbaatar. Then, it juggles a second set of two cars that are headed in the reverse direction to Irkutsk on the next siding, attaching some short-haul cars, and finally the engine that would drag us across the border. At this point, it’s clear the Russians are in charge.

Five hours later we are off again, pushing across the Mongolian frontier to our first stop in Sukhbaatar, the border town named for the early communist revolutionary who helped bring the nation independence from China more than a century ago, but who ushered in Russian communism as well. Still, the former seems to trump the latter, so his name remains on every landmark, from this remote border crossing to the central square of Ulaanbaatar.

 At the very moment the train grinds to a halt in Mongolia, a half dozen money changers spring aboard, under the watchful, though apparently at least mutely complicit, gaze of our Russian conductor. “Change money,” they cry. I pull out a 1,000 ruble bill (about $29) and hand it to him. He promptly pulls out an enormous wad of tugruk (the Mongolian currency) and quickly begins peeling off bill after bill. “What rate are you giving?” the conductor asks, in one of her rare forays into English. The money changer remains mute. I wind up with some 30,000, the largest being a fistful of 5,000 tugruk notes—each worth about $5.

Inside the terminal, two stone-faced women stand guard over the toilets. It’s 150 tugruk each, or about 15 cents, to use what turn out to be wooden stalls of porcelain squat toilets—holes in the ground with grooves in the surrounding porcelain to brace your feet. She exchanges two squares of brown toilet paper for my cash and admits me.

On both sides of the border, we are subjected to quite meticulously searches. There are two drug-sniffing dogs (who seem attracted to our pastrami we’ve brought from New York)—a German shepherd in the hands of a Russian customs handler and a small, black and white mixed-breed closer to cocker spaniel than anything else guided by his Mongolian counterpart. The Russian border guard—the only such official who seems a holdover of a communist past—barks “no photographs” as I point my camera out the window at the switch engine.

As night begins to fall, we pull out of Sukhbaatar for our final run into Ulaanbaatar. Eight hours later, shortly after 5 a.m., the conductor raps smartly on our compartment. “One hour to arrival,” she warns. “Toilet will close 30 minutes from now.”

Dawn has already broken as we churn through the outskirts of the Mongolian capital. It is a bleak landscape. Small groups of gers—the circular felt tents that are a staple of the Mongolian countryside—squat incongruously in front of ramshackle wooden homes, framed by decaying tenements. Here, the poverty of the countryside has been transplanted to an urban setting—misery that the nation’s rulers hope will be short-lived. With the discovery and exploitation of vast mineral resources, they hope, all Mongolians will soon live in comfort and prosperity. But as we shall see, there may be many hurdles to cross before that can become a reality.

On time, to the minute, at 6:06 we pull into central station Ulaanbaatar. A throng of porters converges on the train. We have arrived at the end of the first leg of our travels along the Trans-Mongolian Railway.


David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal, is on a five-week expedition through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China. Wednesday morning, he arrived in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar via the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

[Photo by David A. Andelman]

You can read his next dispatch, A View From the Square, here, or visit the Notes From the Expedition homepage here.

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