Boom Town In The Desert
My husband David and I left Beijing earlier this week, embarking on the 29-hour train ride to Ulan Bataar, the capital city of Mongolia. We traveled in a second-class cabin, which on this train meant that we had four bunk-style beds, a small table, complete with a table cloth, a fan, reading lights, and clean, crisp bedding. Our conductor spoke to us in English. On most trains in China, this would be considered a more luxurious first-class “soft sleeper” cabin.
This train, though, is an “approved” train recommended by the folks at China International Travel Service (CITS), and almost all the passengers are foreigners. Although our cabin could sleep four, when a local man boarded the train at the Mongolian border, his ticket indicating that he was to share our cabin, he was ushered into a cabin at the far corner of the coach, which he shared with three other locals who were making the journey.
The trip west through northern China was pretty, although the smog and morning haze obscured much of the finer details of the landscape. Remnants of the Great Wall were visible in places hundreds of miles from Beijing. Small villages were surrounded by decaying ancient mud and brick walls. The farther from Beijing we got, the less populated it became. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon, when we got to Datong, that we saw our first real city after Beijing. We had only a brief stop here, a pause long enough to take a stretch before re-boarding. Moments later, the train made a long turn and began its trip almost due north.
We saw fewer and fewer trees as we entered the northern China grasslands. The sky became intensely blue. Villages became more remote and then disappeared altogether. Roads were distant, gradually changing from pavement to gravel, and then to dirt. We had arrived in Mongolia and the southern part of the tremendous Gobi Desert.
The trains in China operate on a different sized track than those used in Mongolia and Russia. At the border, the underside of the train had to be switched to accommodate the difference, a process that took about two hours. During this layover, we exited the train and stocked up on beverages, fruit, and snacks, and browsed in what must be one of the most remote duty-free stores in the world.
In the lower 48 states of the United States, the farthest that you can get from a road is 22 miles. Here in Mongolia, the remoteness is striking. In the evening, as we looked out of the window from the comfort of our train, the only lights came from the brilliance of the stars. There were no towns, no houses, and no roads for hours at a stretch. The next morning, we passed an occasional herd of camels, a few horses, and a handful of sheep. In the distance, miles from anywhere, there would be a round white tent, a ger, housing a nomadic family.
Mongolia is called “The Land of the Blue Sky,” and, seeing it, it’s easy to understand why. With its almost never-ending prairie, grassy plains, and almost nonexistent trees, this part of Mongolia gave us a new depth of understanding of the word “remote.” We could see for miles, barely a cloud in the sky.
As we got closer to Ulan Bataar, we passed through an area with hills and pine trees. Gradually, we saw more gers and a few brick houses and the livestock changed from camels to cattle, sheep, and horses. It was soon evident that animals outnumber humans by a large margin in Mongolia, which has the distinction of having the lowest population density of any country in the world.
We were almost in the city before we saw our first paved Mongolian road. Out of a total of 6,944 miles of roads in this country, only 930 miles are paved, and nearly all of those are located in Ulan Bataar. Two-thirds of the roads in this country (4,278 miles, to be exact) are classed as “dirt tracks.”
We saw settlements of gers before we entered the more permanent settlements of the city, a testament to Ulan Bataar’s recent rapid growth. In this city, urbanization is in full-swing. Nomads have relocated here from the countryside, bringing their possessions and their horses with them, setting up their gers, and forming large temporary neighborhoods. As a result, the landscape is rapidly changing. Ulan Bataar is a boom town at the center of one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
We arrived in Ulan Bataar precisely on schedule, an impressive accomplishment considering the distance we had traveled from Beijing. A grandiose Soviet-era train station welcomed us to Mongolia’s largest city. I’m looking forward to exploring this remote corner of the world, the kingdom of the great Genghis Khan and heart of the former Mongol Empire. I’ll report back with my discoveries.
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