It’s winter in the coldest capital city on earth, Ulaan Bataar, precisely why I’m going there.
Perhaps it’s the curse of being born in the tropics, basking under the sun all-year round. Winter, snow and glaciers intrigue me so much.
While I ponder how to survive minus thirty degrees Centigrade in Mongolia’s capital, my utmost concern was finding my boarding platform in the dark chill of dawn.
I’m travelling solo on my first international train, on the historic Trans-Siberian Railway!
But my heart sank when I reached Beijing Station’s Friendship Desk, supposed to be manned by someone who can speak English. It was empty and the guards only blabbered to me in Chinese.
When a couple of blonde backpackers trudged in, I tailed them to the waiting room and was relieved to see the boarding status of the trains flash in English.
Everyone raced to Train Number 23, a giant steel snake seemingly stretching forever into the mist.
Unsmiling conductors stood stiff as soldiers in attention before each door. My ticket says coach number three, soft sleeper, berth number five.
I plunged in the sea of fur and down coats and was promptly lost.
In the narrow doors and corridors, my heavy backpack got wedged in the tide of frenzied humans lugging huge suitcases and shoving both ways – front and back.
As I stood trapped, a matronly Mongolian lady beckoned. “Dochka,“ she called out. It’s a Russian term of endearment for a daughter. I’ve read that from a novel somewhere.
The lady can’t speak English but gave me refuge in the cabin she shared with her kids. When the crowd thinned out, she helped heft my backpack to my compartment.
My cabin mates, two Mongol brothers – Uurgun and Benderya, have already fixed their berths and a model-pretty Mongol girl, Nara, lounged on the bunk above me.
It was dreadfully cramped. The brothers helped hoist my backpack in the upper storage bin. They have already crammed their bags under the seats. Now, they urged me to have breakfast and handed me a still warm potato hash from McDonalds.
An attendant barged in, handed us two thick wool blankets, a cotton sheet liner, plus a regulation pillow each. I realized the heating doesn’t work and nobody has peeled off their coats.
Good my cabin mates speak English. They were all born and raised in Ulaan Bataar. The brothers have been to America and Britain. Benderya aspires to be a banker in Tokyo. Uurgun studied in Beijing and had Filipino classmates.
But this week, he wants to visit his son, who lives with his geologist parents in the capital. He showed me a toy car and a stuffed horse he bought for the boy.
Mongolia is the land of great horsemen. Nomads of the steppes can gallop on horses by age two. But Uurgun laughed and shook his head when I asked if he can ride the stocky, half-wild steeds unchanged since the time of Genghis Khan.
All three have never been to the places I seek – Bayaan Ulgii, on the border with Kazakhstan, the abode of hunters on horseback who take down wolves with wild-caught eagles, and the Altai Mountains.
“I’ve seen wolves near the city and they’re scary,” Benderya shuddered.
Yet they’re fascinated with my obsession for the wildness of their country.
“You should meet my grandparents. They still follow the old ways,” Nara chimed in from her perch.
Her folks live in an “aimag” (province) in a traditional “ger” – the circular tent made of animal skins. They also speak fluent Russian because they studied in Moscow.
“I used to visit them but I can’t sleep in a ‘ger’. You hear every drop of rain, every breath of wind,” she shrugged. “They tried to teach me to ride when I was eight, which was too late.”
Her folks herd lots of animals too. “Here, we’ve more livestock than people, over 31 million heads, versus a population of under three million, most of them in the capital.”
It was wise for me to come in winter, Nara added. “It’s the best season. People are more relaxed. They have time for story-telling.”
Summer, from mid-May to late August, is the busiest. People work from dawn to midnight, milking the horses every two hours to make “airag” – milk wine which tastes like beer and cleanses the body of toxins.
Yet soon, the rhythm of the train’s clackety-clack lulled us. By mid-noon, the three had been transported to dreamland while I watched brick cottages flashing by, golden maize drying on front yards, cattle and burros yoked together, trampling cracked earth.
For all its barrenness, the land is beautiful in monochrome, all sepia, beige and gray.
Everything went black as we hurtled through tunnels deep in the heart of the mountains. Coal trains clattered by on the opposite tracks. Hard to imagine my Trans-Siberian train will plow through winter wastelands, devouring over 2,200 kilometers of track in five days until it reaches Moscow.
Reluctantly, I dozed off. Immigration officials woke me for inspection before midnight at Erlian (Erenhot), the border between China and Mongolia, on the three-hour stop to change bogies.
They change the wheels of the Trans-Siberian because the track is Chinese standard gauge from Beijing up to here, then it’s Russian gauge onwards to Mongolia.
Next passport inspection was at Zamun Ude, the Mongolian border.
The third time, the cold roused me. It was morning in the Gobi Desert – a red featureless expanse.
Past noon, I spotted eagles circling beneath the blue sky. Then the “gers” came to view – white button shapes against the red brown of the steppes.
The scream of metal ripping against metal startled me. The train braked, slowing down to a full stop. Outside my window, reddish smoke mushroomed. Fire! My cabin mates scrambled from their berths.
A military jeep collided with our front coach, killing both passenger and driver.
For many hours, the train stood on the tracks. My cabin mates called my guide to pick me up, gave me food and water and left me in the care of a Mongol family before hoofing it out on the highway to hitch a ride to the city.
The family huddled around me protectively. The grandma, in her traditional padded “del”, soothed me by hand gestures because they can’t speak English.
Outside, it was so cold and yet I felt so warm.