The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Khan of Khans

My idea to turn getting laid off from work into a round-the-world trip might have seemed a bit odd, but I didn’t actually get called crazy and have my life choices questioned until I was on the train to Ulanbaatar.

To be specific, I was sharing a four-person berth on the Trans-Mongolian train from Irkutsk to Ulanbaatar, along with two Icelandic fellow travellers and a Russian tour guide. Being that they were doing the same thing as I was (as were the rowdy crowd of mostly Spanish travellers whom the tour guide was shepherding), that in itself wasn’t a problem for them. No, what bothered them was the fact that I was crossing the Russian-Mongolian border twice.

My Icelandic fellow travellers, whose contact details I sadly lost, somewhere on the Russian-Mongolian frontier.

Why was this a silly, nay crazy thing to do? Because not only does the bureaucracy of post-Soviet states result in a multi-hour, passport-less ordeal of tedium in a settlement that’s essentially a neglected border town from a forgotten era, but the fact that Russia and Mongolia use different rail gauges means that the entire train has to be taken and, carriage by carriage, lifted from one set of bogies to another (look it up). During this, all you can do is to roam around the content-deprived wasteland and hope to god that you’ve remembered to bring a decent book.

And I, knowing none of this, had volunteered to do it twice. Because my visit to Mongolia was a two-day add-on for my Trans-Siberian experience, and I would be returning to Russia when I was done. All of this only occurred to me when I was counting the minutes and seconds in an empty and little-used waiting room, and while I didn’t regret my choice, I could only hope that the company for the return trip would be as good. As it turned out…

Much of the Trans-Siberian is single rail. Have I mentioned that?

But that’s getting ahead of myself. After the sun went down and our passports were returned (and I bought a bag of “Khaan” chips to sample the local fare) we boarded the train again and slept through the night until we were dropped off at Ulanbaatar railway station. Farewells were said, though temporarily in the case of the Icelanders, who I’d run into again before leaving, and I was collected by my own personal tour guide. It turns out that travelling solo on an eclectic schedule in the off-season gets you a little bit of attention.

Cue a drive in a sensibly priced, medium-sized sedan out of the city and past the outlying tent suburbs, into the first taste of the Mongolian steppe. From here, world-conquering armies once arose. Somewhere in the vicinity anyway, even if the sole remaining sign of them was the Chinggis Khan Country Club golf course. What I was being brought to was a tourist tent camp for that authentic, ersatz Mongolian experience.

Your author at his rest beside the wood-burning stove in a Mongolian ger.

Try not to judge me too harshly. I’d booked the entire trip quickly and was relying on Trailfinders to get me from A (St. Petersburg) to B (Vladivostok) with a stop in C (Ulanbaatar) along the way. They did a good job, and while I might do things differently now, I was excited then and remain excited now to actually have been in Mongolia.

My tour guide did her absolute best to guide the clueless, oversized Irishman around a range of traditional Mongolian activities. A little bit of archery, some pony trekking on a steed who was far more in control than I was, and a bit of clambering over the famous Turtle Rock. Even getting dressed in traditional garb and sampling some traditional tea and curds. My first and only night in the tent camp ended with some knuckle bones in the company of some Norwegian tourists who were the only others in the mostly deserted resort that night.

Mongolian knucklebones with genuine Mongolian sheep knuckles.

The highlight of my stay though, and indeed one of the highlights of the trip, came the next morning. Looming over the camp was a decent sized rocky hill, and I decided I wanted to greet the dawn from its summit. The night before had been one of the most startlingly clear I’d ever known, with a blazing full moon, and I scrambled up the slope in the pre-dawn, dodging marmot burrows and their ankle-threatening depths in time to see that same moon descending towards the horizon, even as the sun rose on the other side of the sky.

Not to descend too far into a mysticism I don’t pretend to indulge in, but as I sat there on the hill, I could see a lone rider cutting a path across the heart of a broad valley. I could feel for a moment distant from the modernity that had brought me here. And I could feel, for a moment, a strange kind of balance in the world, with me sitting at the fulcrum point. No wonder the heart of Asia has given rise to so many empires when it inspires such thoughts.

Golden Eagle and Black Vulture by the roadside.

I had a few hours more in the camp, but before too long breakfast was done and I was on my way into the capital once more. We paused for a moment or two to say hi to a kid with a few hunting birds perched on roadside stakes, but before too long I’d been dropped off at my hotel for the second half of my Mongolian visit.

The important thing to know about Ulanbaatar is that it has layers. The age of the Mongol Empire may be restricted to the museum and celebratory statues in the public square, but there are the famous dinosaurs of the Gobi Desert there too, as well as Buddhist temples and palaces from the days of the Bogd Khan, the last independent ruler before communism. Then too there are Soviet era trains rusting in a neglected railway museum, and tall glass skyscrapers overshadowing tiny shrines.

Skyscraper and shrine, living together in harmony.

It’s a fascinating city that was in the throes of rapid change when I visited, and I felt more comfortable roaming it than any city I had since Stockholm. Even if the occasional absence of pavements to walk on was a problem, I still managed to fill every hour going and wear down my shoes a little more. What Mongolian cuisine there was on offer, I sampled, but it was mostly my eyes and ears drinking things in.

Looking back, it feels like it was in Ulanbaatar where I finally clicked into travel mode properly. The initial concerns of dealing with Russian bureaucracy in St. Petersburg and Moscow faded away, and I was able to just enjoy new experiences. As with Japan later, I regretted not having more time to spend in Mongolia, but I didn’t regret a single second of the time I did spend there.

A four-person berth on the Trans-Mongolian.

Eventually the time did run out, and I had to get to the train station. For the return trip across the border, I didn’t have any fellow tourists to travel with. Instead, I was bunking with a few members of the Mongolian security forces, travelling to Russia for training. They didn’t have more than a word or two of English, so there wasn’t much conversation, and after sleeping and living through the return trip across the border (this time without any distractions at all, so I got plenty of writing done, I got into Ulan Ude towards the end of the day.

Ulan Ude sits on the eastern side of Lake Baikal. If Irkutsk is where European Russia meets its ultimate limit, then Ulan Ude is where Asian Russia truly begins. The city felt more Mongolian than Russian, even with its famously massive head of Lenin dominating the town square. I was lucky enough to be hosted by the family of a famous writer for my one night there, but roaming the city while waiting for my train onwards only emphasised the feeling of being in a truly distant land that I felt.

A really big head of Lenin. Really big.

So distant from home was Ulan Ude that the local Irish pub (for there is always an Irish pub, no matter where you go) is known only as “The Irish Pub.” No other identifier would be useful. The local museums and art galleries are well worth roaming, but even more worthwhile is just taking the time to admire the traditional wooden architecture that remains in the post-Soviet era. Much of it might be decaying, but it’s a taste of the Siberia that was, before the Russia swallowed but never digested it.

For it was Siberia that awaited me now. This last part of my train trip would take me across four days of Siberian wilderness, around the northward spreading bulk of China and from there to Vladivostok. From the very heart of Asia, the Pacific was calling, and the iron rails were ready to take me there.