The guidebook will tell you that Ulaan Baatar is one of the ugliest cities in the world. To me, though, it’s at least two cities, superimposed on top of each other. Downtown, steel and glass high-rises are going up; at the edges of the city, concrete apartment blocks are frantically being built. Dotted throughout are the tents of the still-nomadic majority of the population, bleeding out to a messy sprawl at the edge of the city. The signs and advertisements are a haphazard mix of Mongolian Cyrillic and English, with Korean and Chinese seasonings: J-pop, karaoke bars, neon trim on bus wheels. There is desert in the air; by day the air is hot and dry and plasters you with dust, by night it’s sharp with frost. A mountain is framed in the end of every street.
Boarding the train at Irkutsk, we were surprised to find that everyone in our carriage was an English-speaking foreigner, in sharp contrast to our Moscow to Irkutsk stretch. It rapidly became apparent that this is because only tourists are dumb enough to cross the Russian-Mongolian border by train. The train stops for five hours at the tiny, desolate Russian border town, where cows wander the streets and occasionally threaten to steal the produce sold under tarps by the inevitable few babushkas. Our main source of entertainment was the troupe of puppies belonging to the station dog, who spent hours batting around a dead pigeon while our carriages were attached, detached, shunted into new formations. Then once the border is crossed, a further two and a half hours are spent trapped on a stuffy train in the fading light at the Mongolian entry point, with the window closed against mosquitoes. Once finally on the move again, we toasted our progress with neat vodka in aluminium travel mugs.
Our companions for this leg of the trip were Charlie and Eduardo, Aussie and Portuguese, two paedatric cardiac nurses in the process of moving from London to Sydney. Sharing a small compartment for thirty hours with strangers is an odd experience; you talk, share food, drink, travel books, sleep and change together, and then go your separate ways. Like most people, Charlie and Eduardo planned to spend considerably longer in Mongolia than we were, and to take a tour to the Gobi Desert or do a homestay with a nomadic family. But we’ve got Hong Kong to reach, and then Khatmandu by September 20th.
Our 24 hours were not action-packed, but they gave us the chance to reset and restock. Stepping off the train in a chilly dawn, we endured the inevitable few hours’ wait at our guesthouse before being able to get a room. Our definition of luxury has already shifted; being picked up at the station, and having a tiny and shabby ensuite bathroom attached to our room, were rare privileges. Even more luxurious, for me, was the range of fresh fruit on offer, and ordering from a restaurant menu without blank looks of incomprehension. After two weeks in Russia, being somewhere most people understand at least a little English feels almost too easy. We picked up our onward train tickets from a tour office in central UB, then spent some time at the Gangan monastery, which is in fact a complex of Buddhist temples on a hill in the centre of the city. Services were in progress in two; we listened to the chanting, the drumming, spun the prayer wheels, and looked up the full twenty metres of the golden statue. Old women sell bird seed at the entrance, so moving around the complex incautiously after someone has thrown a handful is like walking through a storm of pigeons.
We have a new set of companions for the next 30 hours of watching the landscape change; two young Germans, Katrine and Julia. Our Chinese train is not notably more luxurious than its Russian counterparts, but it is equipped with a shower and spotlessly clean. Dispatches from China for the next week may be delayed or absent due to Internet filtering, but we’ll be back online by Hong Kong.