Yubanaswa Chakraborty: We next moved to the vast grasslands of Khustai mountains. This is the only place in the world where wild horses roam free. It was a delight to see the majestic animals, living a free life in the wild.
Mongolia and China
We left the sophisticated electrified trans-Siberian railway for the rustic trans-Mongolian railway. It was an emotional goodbye to the new friends we made – bubbly young Ivan from the hostel in Ulan Ude and Viktor the retired engineer / software developer who was now driving a taxi as he decided not to retire!
We were on a rickety old Chinese train (with their flagship dirty toilets) being hauled by an even older Mongolian Diesel locomotive. We were in the soft sleeper class though, so the cabin was a bit luxurious (International trains do not offer third-class / hard sleepers).
The next morning was magical as we woke up in a snow-covered Mongolia. The thrill of being in the land of the great Khans made us excited. The train slowly meandered through snow-clad hills and meadows and finally pulled into the main railway station in Ulaanbaatar.
A country that had ruled half of Eurasia, whose empire was spread till Hungary, is now left with three million people. They have been ruled by the Chinese and the Russians. Most of its population now lives in the capital Ulaanbaatar. Once you get out of the tangled mess of skyscrapers of Ulaanbaatar, the roads are endless. Cutting through the vast grasslands. Only 15% of Mongolia’s roads are paved, making it the Mecca for SUV lovers and off roaders. There are sixty million large animals around – including the wild and the domesticated.
We spent the first day settling into a decent guest house and arranged for the next few days – to go out in the wild and be a nomad.
Everything was covered in snow when we left Ulaanbaatar on a small car. The landscape was fascinating, and soon we were in the hilly terrain of Terelj. By the road side we saw lots of Nomadic camps. There were people buying and selling animals – mainly sheep and horses.
We spent a day with the local nomads. At night, we had a Ger to sleep in. A friendly sheep dog became our best friend here. We climbed some hillocks and hiked up to one of the most picturesque monasteries of the region. It seemed right out of a Kung-Fu movie!
We next moved to the vast grasslands of Khustai mountains. This is the only place in the world where wild horses roam free. It was a delight to see the majestic animals, living a free life in the wild.
It was a day of driving off road. Khustai is a huge region and one can keep driving for days, stay in Gers or in tents. However, our time was limited and we had to get back to Ulaanbaatar.
Horses has been central to the Mongol history. They formed the basis of the Mongol empire, and their invasion of Europe. Not only they provided a fast mode of transport, an edge over the enemy in a war, but they also provided the necessary food for the army. In the winter the Mongol army was unstoppable with their dried horse meat, which would last forever and provide for the army!
Ulaanbaatar is a modern metropolis now, with the great (Chingiss/Genghis) Khan sitting on his throne on the main square of the city. Reminiscence from the Soviet past is just too evident. Along the square Soviet buildings are lined up. But the skyline is dominated by modern looking tall buildings.
Not far from the center, we visited the notorious Naran-Tul market – complete with its band of pick-pockets! It is a great place to bargain and hunt for relics though. Just be careful with the money!
Central to the city is the Genghis Khan square – complete with a throne, a huge statue of the great Khan, and his officers on horses. Sitting on his throne on the square, Genghis still rules the country he created for his nomadic race. As our days in Mongolia was over, we were getting ready to move to China. It was rather funny at this point of time, how empires have risen and fallen over time. Russia, China and Mongolia have been playing around and gained control over each other’s territory for thousands of years!
As the great Khan looked on, the square was rather busy. Children on model cars were having a Gala time. On one side, there was a statue of the great traveller – Marco Polo. After paying our respect to one of the greatest, we got busy packing for our next leg of the Journey!
Next morning, in the bitter cold, we boarded the train to Beijing. This time our Chinese train was in much better condition, looked brand new and clean. As we pulled away from Ulaanbaatar, we passed through the snow-covered hills, and fields dotted with Nomadic settlements, huts and Gers and horses.
Soon we reached the outskirts of Gobi Desert. The landscape dried up. Dust storms surrounded us. The tracks would almost disappear in the sand. After miles of barren land, tiny settlements with small wooden cottages would appear.
For the rest of the day, we crossed the desert. Dragged slowly by the ageing Mongolian Twin diesel. We were following the path of the ancient Mongols. Those who crossed the same desert time and again, to invade and conquer China. And then they built the wall.
Soon the desert got dryer and dryer. There was hardly any sign of life left. Sadly, the area was dotted with carcasses of dead animals. Horses, cows, sheep and deer. Probably died of hunger and thirst. Or from some epidemic. Their un-decomposed corpses lay along the track.
By the evening we reached China. The immigration was followed by the usual gauge change procedure, when we switched to the Chinese railway system.
That night, we slept comfortably in our fine linen beds of the soft sleeper. The next morning, we were in a whole new world! First, we passed lush green paddy fields and small villages. Then we passed some towns. Every home had the red flag flying high. Bullet train tracks rose from the paddy fields. Elevated expressways went past our tracks, overhead.
As we approached Beijing, tall buildings, broad roads, bullet trains, all appeared from behind the mountains. Outside Beijing’s main railway station, everything looked chaotic. As expected, it was overtly crowded, and there was no sign of English language anywhere. Anywhere except the metro. So, we decided to drag our luggage underground and take the metro to our hostel.
For the next couple of days, we sampled everything that Beijing had to offer. From the bustling Hutongs (alleys) to eat delicious food, to the overwhelming show of power around the People’s square (formerly or better known as Tien-An-Men square). Soldiers marched as families enjoyed in the square. Across the road, the gigantic portrait of Chairman Mao looks over. Behind the huge gate lies the empirical past – the forbidden city.
The city is not forbidden any more. The emperor is gone. People throng to see the colossal palace buildings and temples. But there are many fruits of the modern world that are forbidden here. Like google and Facebook. It may have become a part of everyday life elsewhere in the world, but most people here were unaware that google exists. Same with Facebook. Such evil western influences are forbidden here. The great wall has been replaced by the Great Firewall of China. Authorities are working 24×7 to keep the invaders away. Trying to stop polluting the minds of their people. I leave it here, open to interpretation of the readers!
The nights were exciting. Language barrier doesn’t bother much here. We could easily go around and mingle with the crowd who were enjoying the weekend. From toddlers to the wrinkled, everyone had a smile. There was something for everyone.
Usually cities have street food. Beijing has food street. The entire ecosystem is on the offering, some of them dead, some alive. It is a busy place, almost a madness.
Commuting around Beijing is very easy, with a metro map typed in English. Fast, efficient, comfortable and cheap, it is truly for the common people. Much of media hype has gone after blackening the pollution problems in Beijing. Things have improved, I guess. We found it pretty clean, and never got stuck in epic traffic snarls.
One cannot spend two days in Beijing without visiting the great wall. We took off on a bus packed with foreign tourists to see the wall. With the limited time in hand, we did not have the luxury of exploring much of it. One more wonder of the world ticked off! Another true engineering marvel from the ancient world!
The time had come to move on from Beijing. There was absolutely no sadness about it, because the most exciting part of Journey was finally here. Honestly, Beijing was just a stopover and a place to wait while our permits for Tibet were getting done. Finally, our permits and train tickets to Tibet arrived our hostel by post in an envelope, and we rushed to the Beijing West railway station to catch the most exciting train of the world – the train to Tibet.
Words and photos: Yubanaswa Chakraborty
About the author: Yubanaswa Chakraborty is a software developer based in London. Born in Siliguri, India, he has a degree in engineering and has been a techie for almost two decades now. A passionate traveler and biker, whenever time and money permits, he travels to faraway places to experience new cultures and make new friends.