Beijing is awakening. It is nearly 6AM, there is no cloud in sight and the first sunbeams foreshadow a hot early-summer day. I soon make it to the central station, and as I board train K23 bound for Ulan-Bator, I realise it is the first time I am travelling west since I set off nearly eleven months ago. My indefatigable wanderings eastward are coming to an end. There are still over 11.000 kilometres to go before I reach France, yet the start of this journey with the Transmongolian railway has a foretaste of return.
Hitchhiking is a prominently social way of travelling. Nevertheless, long train journeys can also be rich in encounters. Leo, a gregarious man from Sri-Lanka, relates his most entertaining travel anecdotes while we watch the picturesque scenery of the Chinese countryside go by from the window. Crossing the border takes substantial time. The track gauge being different in China and in Mongolia, the train has to be lifted the wheels changed. The young Mongolian man that shares my cabin has bought a few beers and we have plenty of time to exchange stories. I already have many things to ask about Mongolia. We finally leave the border around 2AM and I am soon lulled to sleep by the repetitive rumbling of the locomotive. When the morning sun wakes me up, I steal a glance out of the window and realise we are going through what must be the Gobi desert! After a 27-hour journey from Beijing, the train calls at Ulan-Bator station.
First shock: the streets are almost empty! Where are the people? The contrast in terms of density of population is striking. Coming from China, the most populated country in the world, I now find myself in Mongolia and its mere three million inhabitants. Even though Mongolia was never properly part of the USSR, some areas of Ulan-Bator have a soviet look owing to their straight and grey architecture and the use of the Cyrillic alphabet. Narantuul, a huge flea market, reminds me of some neighbourhoods of Tbilisi or Yerevan. The population however has strong Asian features. Just as Nepal was a sort of middle step between India and China, Mongolia represents now a real transition between China and Russia, both geographically and culturally. After a few days in a hostel finishing my notes about China, meeting fellow travellers and walking around the city, it is time to head to the countryside.
Once again, workaway.info proves incredibly useful. I was lucky to find a nomadic family who lives in the steppe and needs a hand to look after their livestock. A good occasion to share their daily routine and get a deeper insight into the local culture. I also use the opportunity to work on a photographic essay about the evolution of the nomadic lifestyle in the country (click here for the full version).
Lamzaw and Oyunaa first welcome me in their small house in Gurvanbulag, a small village 300 kilometres west of Ulan-Bator. Unlike their daughter who speaks good English and put us in touch, they speak only Mongolian. There is no choice but to learn their language. With my notepad in hand, I point to essential objects or mime basic actions and write down what they tell me in phonetics to increase my vocabulary. Within a day or two, I have already acquired enough words to survive and we can communicate better every day.
After a few days in the village working in the garden and playing basketball (the national sport in Mongolia after wrestling) with Batbataar, their younger son, we’re off to live in the ger, yurt in Mongolian. Living conditions in the countryside are harsh. Yurts obviously don’t have running water, electricity is limited to what they can get from their little solar panel, there is no toilets, etc.
We’re in June and it is shearing season. Everyday we herd the two hundred sheep in the pen and go about shearing them… with scissors! They ask me mainly to bring them the sheep so I become quickly adept at catching them by one of the rear legs.
The climate in Mongolia is very arid, hot and dry in summer and freezing cold in winter: growing any kind of crops is a real challenge. That’s why most of the nomads’ food comes from their livestock. They eat mainly beef, sheep, horsemeat and dairy products. Given I eat only little meat, I decided to bring vegetarian food from Ulan-Bator because I really can’t have sheep or horsemeat for breakfast… Usually I always prefer to do as the locals do but it’s too intense for me here. On the other hand, I have a lot more respect for people who eat the meat of animals they breed than people who consume industrial meat yet refuse to see in what conditions it is produced.
The days go by, I have the impression to be cut off from the world, without a phone or internet. A refreshing break from tumultuous Chinese megacities. When we are not working, I have time to read, use the family motorbike to explore the steppe, watch the heavenly sunsets where nothing stands in the way of the horizon…
Back in the capital, I make some research to complete my essay about the evolution of nomadism and find out about huge yurt districts that are sprawling around the urban-centre of Ulan-Bator. I am taken aback; I spent five days here without noticing anything of the kind. And yet, all you have to do is to jump on a local bus for half an hour to end up in a neighbourhood like Denjiin Myanga.
Over the past 30 years, about 600.000 nomads have been forced to move to Ulan-Bator to find work because of climate change and its deadly repercussions on the livestock. The dramatic expansion of those ger districts, which are now home to over half of Ulan-Bator’s population, presents considerable challenges to local authorities in terms of infrastructure: supplying and disposing of water, building schools and hospitals, etc. During the harsh winter – Ulan-Bator is the coldest capital city in the world – dwellers burn a lot of coal and whatever they can find to stay warm, causing tremendous air pollution that reaches higher levels than notorious Dehli or Beijing.
I have barely spent three weeks in this country but I will keep strong memories. It is time to hop of the train again; soon I will be in Russia!