The Trans-Mongolian Railway

Trip Start Apr 17, 2001
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Just south of Ulan Bator, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert begins to show itself. Giant birds of prey, hawks perhaps falcons, swoop overhead. Camels graze freely, while sheep dot the endless brown plain.

Ellen and I managed to have a cabin to ourselves for the first four of six nights. The second last night, a young Mongolian girl named Munkhtsetseg (flower always in bloom) and her male chaperone shared our little 8'x 6' space. Eighteen year old Munkhtsetseg was returning to Ulan Bator after spending two-and-a-half years in Poland on some ambiguous course of study involving clothing design and learning the Polish language. Why a family in Mongolia would send their sixteen year old daughter to another continent to learn Polish is a mystery. I spent three hours giving Munkhtsetseg an ESL lesson. Whenever a language barrier developed, Ellen and Munkhtsetseg were able to work it out using a Polish/Slovak mish-mash.

Earlier in the week, in northern Siberia, we rolled past thousands upon thousands of birch trees. By early October Siberia is covered with snow and enormous nests sit empty in the birch. I wondered if giant pterodactyls might live in this land that only the train has not forgotten; and if these prehistoric bird-creatures have flown off to the warmer climes of fabled Utopia or perhaps Shangrila.

After five nights, I'm still fascinated by the continuity of movement on the train. I sit in the darkness listening to the wheels, watching the silhouette of the birch that is illuminated by a far-off moon. Then the chaperone rolls over, farts, and the moment is lost.

Other Downsides: We've been living on a diet of Russian chocolate, noodles and green tea. The left side of my mouth is sore to the touch. I'm worried that I may be the first Canadian to contract scurvy in 250 years. There is little water on the train and no shower facilities. My hair is standing in the centre of my head like Martin Short's, Ed Grimley. My pillow smells like someone else's socks. Ellen and I have gotten into the habit of waving goodnight to one another. On the final night, a Mongolian family of three shared our cabin with us. They spoke neither Polish nor English so all we could do is smell at them.


It's 12:20 a.m. I'm sitting under the desk lamp in a dingy Beijing hotel room putting the above notes together. Just after midnight I'm awakened by the sound of a cat outside our hotel window, on a roof or perhaps wandering the alley. Ellen sleeps. The cat makes loud, baleful noises, not like a male wanting sex, or two toms threatening one another over the same prize. The sounds are of fear, dreadful fear. I can feel it. Then a thud. I remember my father's butcher shop; the sound of the heavy cleaver on the cutting block. Suddenly the night is silent.
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