"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mongolia, A Report from the Field, Following the Tracks of Tea-Caravans

I’ve traveled first class only three times in my life.  One time was a disaster, a second time was uncomfortable, and a third time was embarrassing.

The disaster was a flight where someone, probably a child, had been sick in my seat in coach   Though the mess was cleaned up, the smell was horrendous.  Ken and I were moved to first class seats—right in front of a couple who smoked non-stop for five and a half hours.

The second time, the seats were leather and I kept sliding out of the seat when I tried to sleep.  The third time was a puddle jumper flight from Honolulu to Kailua-Kona, an extension of the slipping-in-the seat ride.   I hadn’t expected that extension to be first class, and felt very conspicuous being the only one on the plane in first class, which actually was just the front row in the cabin-for-everyone.

All three times, I never paid for first class.

I’d had a decent night’s sleep in my “suite” across the road from the Trans-Mongolian Railway depot, but not until the little grocery below my room closed up and liquor was no longer available to the rowdies enjoying the night.  As usual, the mattress was like a slab of granite and the pillow so hard that I folded my jacket and used that as a pillow.

In the pre-dawn darkness shortly before 6:30, we board the train for Ulaanbaatar.  The woman conductor scrutinizes our tickets carefully.  

This is not the famed Trans Siberian Express, the historic rail from Beijing, China, to Moscow, Russia.   This is the Trans-Mongolian Railroad that follows ancient tea-caravan routes, but still connects China and Russia within Mongolia.   It is the same gauge as Russian trains (4 ft 11 23/32), but not the narrower Chinese gauge of 4 ft 8 12 .

We find compartment No. 5 in the first class car and shortly thereafter, the first class conductor serves us hot tea.   We have the whole compartment to ourselves, all for the outrageous sum of 25,000 tug, or about $12.50.   Such a deal!

The double white horses of the Trans-Mongolia Railroad.

The two bench seats are day beds, with fold-down single beds above on each side.

For once, we can judge distance in time.  The train has a set schedule, with many stops, and it adheres to that schedule, which means we have nine hours of laid-back travel through Mongolia, this time at substantially less than the speed of sound, quite unlike our drive north.

To top it off, it’s snowing and the snow adds another dimension to the mystique of the landscape.  

This open coal-burning furnace heated water that circulated through the heating pipes in the entire car.   Each car had its own furnace, so there was a lot of coal being burned.

All this in the conductor's cubby hole.

Hot tea from the conductor, supplemented by our own supplies, made a nice breakfast.

Patti and I enjoying breakfast in our first class compartment.   Note the narrow window at the top is open to cool off the room.   We would soon learn that we'd get a blast of coal smoke if we opened it while the train was moving.

That's strawberry preserves in a squeeze container.

This vat of hot water was available for more hot drinks and hot water to reconstitute containers of instant ramen-type noodles.

I brought a few pieces of Dutch cheese made at the headquarters at Hustai Nat'l. Park, a well-known treat in Mongolia.

Cap checks out the goodie bag for first class passengers.   It contained sheets and a towel.

Cap and I burn up the memory cards, shooting through the window, opening the top window vent and shooting through it, rushing to the exit and shooting through the open door at each stop.   However, each time we open the top window in our compartment, we get a blast of coal smoke, so opening that window is done judiciously.

I have no idea why this exercise machine was in one of the car's exits.

Stockpiling feed for the livestock.

I've taken photos of broom all around the world.   Also doors and padlocks.

Some stops are actual stations with several buildings all alike for railroad employees and crews.  

Two of the typical railroad buildings at major stops.

No, the horse isn't standing on the roof.   It's actually behind it.

Others are simply a spot along the line where people wait on horseback, on foot, or with ox carts.

All in all, it’s a wonderful way to travel through the landscape, especially with the dusting of snow.

Each car conductor used a similar flag to signal that his/her car was ready.   The engineer waited for this person's signal before starting the train.   This was done at every stop, though usually the signalman stood on the red and white piece of concrete.

Pigeon house.

Note the power pole.   The wood does not touch the ground, but is fastened to one or two concrete pillars.  All the poles I saw were like this.

Cap taking a photo of Patti.

Curious cows.

Smoke break.

Mid0afternoon, we arrive at the Ulaanbaatar depot.

Many, many people got off the train carrying jugs of milk in all kinds of containers.   I don't know why.

Inside the Ulaanbaatar depot.

Inside the UB depot.

And there's my dinner--a hindquarter of chicken.

Riding the bus from the depot to our hotels.

This lady was very friendly.   Cap and I would run into her the next day downtown.

And back at the Sunshine Hotel, the cream and red four-story building.


  1. You always make your posts interesting. The homes in Mongolia look very much like what you find in the boonies in the U. S.

  2. It is nice that it is actually winter now as it is in the post. This post sure took us back to the train trip. Great photos and we really enjoyed the post. I could do it again and how. Smiles .. Patti and Cap

  3. Great to travel the rails with you again on this trip. While we made it TO Sukhbaatar at the speed of light, it was relaxing and rewarding to be able to savor every slow mile back on the train. You really caught the flavor of this delightful journey! Hugs. Patti and Cap

  4. Great to travel the rails with you again on this trip. While we made it TO Sukhbaatar at the speed of light, it was relaxing and rewarding to be able to savor every slow mile back on the train. You really caught the flavor of this delightful journey! Hugs. Patti and Cap

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