It’s Sunday morning and we’re squashed into Ochidara Temple, one of the few Monasteries in Ulaan Bataar that wasn’t torn down during the Stalinist ‘purging’ of the country. During this period nearly 800 Buddhist temples were destroyed across Mongolia.
Our guide Dava has bought us here, driving us out of the Darkhid Valley into the city for our cultural tour as part of our package with Stone Horse. It’s an interesting contrast with the pomp and splendour of temples in the Thai capital we call home. Where in Bangkok we’d see glinting gold and glass, we see dust and peeling paint. Rather than immaculately swept paving there is sparse, untended grass and dusty ground. But the grandeur is there, peeking through, and the fervour is there too – inside the first temple we enter there are throngs of people praying and making their offerings to the silent watching gods. They are crowded around rows of central benches where Tibetan monks in red robes are lined together, blasting on giant horns or strumming stringed instruments. Their chanting is of the kind that reverberates around your skull and ribcage. These are Tibetan chants, Dava tells us – Tibetan Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion in Mongolia.
I love how this temple feels so innately Mongolian – it’s kind of elemental, dark and wooden and echoing, like being inside a ger.
Next we visit Migjid Janraisig Sum temple, which holds a gigantic gold plated statue of Migjid Janraisig. Migjid Janraisig (Avalokiteśvara) embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. The statue was commissioned by the Bogd Khan in hopes it would restore his eyesight after losing it to syphilis. The temple hall is a relatively small space in comparison with the scale of the 26m statue, which towers above you when you enter. Along all the walls are cabinets, dark wood with thousands of golden Buddha statues within, staring back out from the dusty glass.
They call him Chinggis here
At the national museum we learn about some of the major moments in Mongolian history. Chinggis Khan is treated with reverence, depicted via a life size model as a fearsome warrior raging from a mighty horse. I examine the maps showing the full breadth of his empire. Examine the suits of armour and the bows and arrows his armies used to conquer. I think about living in a world where I might be washing my pants in a bucket and next thing these guys come galloping in and setting shit on fire. It seems so implausible, but it was, and is, the way the world is for many.
Khuurs and contortionists
The next stop on the tour Tumen Ekh cultural show. We arrive late and as we’re sneaking in along the side under the glare of the on-timers, there’s a strange noise like a digeridoo pulsing around the room. Settled on a seat and staring at the stage we realise this is actually the noise of a man singing, in a deep, throaty, guttural voice. Sometimes, after a pre-smoking ban night out, I might have sounded like this singing Come on Eilleen in the shower the next day. But other than that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like it.
There’s an example in the video below.
The singer is accompanied by a morin khuur, a traditional Mongolian instrument strung with horsehair and played with a horsehair bow. Next a figure appears wearing a giant shamanic mask, and performs a ritualistic dance. It’s rather a beautiful show to watch, although I’m not sure the man behind agrees since he’s lying down on his bench and snoring loudly. He suddenly springs upright, however, when two ethereally beautiful female contortionists appear on the stage in red lycra and proceed to wrap themselves around each other. He must have sensed it. They are so, so strong, supporting each other’s weight with a single foot or hand on multiple occasions. Their costumes don’t leave much to the imagination, and after the show I ask Dava if the contortionists are always female? Yes, he shoots back, definitively. Hmmm.
With our cultural tour over, we’re almost done with Ulaan Bataar and Mongolia. We spend our final day visiting the winter palace of the Bogd Khan, and the Zaisan Monument, a memorial to soviet soldiers fallen in WWII.
The city does have one moment of crowning glory to offer us though. As we’re trudging back to town from the memorial, over a busy road bridge we look up and see a massive troupe of Mongolians heading out of the city on horseback. It’s not a sight I can imagine seeing anywhere else, and the riders seem to know it – we get glimpses of them waving with swagger and grinning between the 4x4s shooting past.
We get a lift to the station from our guest house owner, who, like so many people we meet on the road, apologises for his poor English. The very fact he is able to apologise, in English, for his poor English, plus speaking Russian and Mongolian, means we already hold him in high regard and makes me determined to try and get more Thai under my belt (although whenever I try and speak Thai to a Thai person they look at me like I’m having some sort of seizure).
Rolling on to Russia
Our hulking train awaits. Inside our second class carriage we’re joined by two young students, one Dutch, one British. They are chatty and buzzing, on their way home from a year studying in Hong Kong. Friendly companions are what has made this journey so pleasurable thus far, so we’re pretty relieved, especially given we have two nights ahead of us on this train. They are taking the train all the way home, hitting up Lithuania before heading back to their respective countries. Before long they’re revealing their anxiety about the Mongolia to Russia border crossing: they got confused about the dates and their visas don’t start until a day after we’re due to cross.
They gaze at us for reassurance with large anxious eyes but I do a pretty poor job because in all honesty I’m not that convinced it ‘will all be fine’, given that on the visa application the questions might as well have extended to ‘what colour underwear are you wearing’ and ‘name all the different types of jam you eat’. In contrast to my reassuring murmurs, Matt takes the approach of trying to tease a laugh out of them, but they visibly twitch at the words ‘night in the cells’ and I have to elbow him in the ribs.
We chug under a fading sky through the rolling green Mongolian landscape. At sunset, the sky turns the most astounding shade of purple. I’m tired from our day walking in the sun and wriggle into the top bunk early, happy I don’t have a border crossing to face until tomorrow. Matt stays up drinking vodka with some fellow travellers in a different carriage but I’ve blocked the outside world with an eye mask and fluorescent orange earplugs and I sleep through them all drunkenly stumbling in.
Border crossing blues
They sleep late. I do a bit of watching the world go by: settlements so small they look like spilt lego bricks on a fluffy green carpet. When he’s risen from the vodka stupor me and Matt eat the spoils of our Ulaan Bataar supermarket sweep: tomatoes and slices of ‘cheese’ squashed into flat crusty bread. I experience a moment of shock when I realise I’m looking forward to a hot noodle cup for dinner: when did MSG and reconstituted chicken become such a treat?
We pass through the Mongolian side of the border without incident, but as we reach the Russian side there’s a significant amount of wriggling and nervous hair tugging going on in our carriage. It’s weird seeing the border, a dirt track in the middle of a rural wasteland, flanked either side with spiked fences. It’s not a friendly looking border. We pull into the station and the Russian officials board. Carriage by carriage they reach us, and then they’re at the door, and I feel empathetic, guilty by association, powerless. A young male border agent enters, lanky and squinting in a grey uniform. He clocks the two girls in their short shorts and leans almost languidly against the doorway, nodding towards them to request the passports. The first girls hands hers over and he examines it carefully, asking where she’s from and what she does. Will he be satisfied and let it slip?
No. He pulls her up on the date: this visa is not valid. She stammers her excuses about the mix up. He smiles, little black voids left by missing teeth wink at us from his gums. ‘This bad’ he says, still grinning, and he shakes his head saying ‘very bad’ over and over. It’s impossible to know what the grin and the head shaking means. He barks at one of the senior officials in Russian. She comes over and inspects the girls’ passports, disappears again. He remains in the doorway. Makes a phone call. Stands listlessly in the doorway. Turns back to us. Asks us what kind of phones we have – iphone? Samsung? We’re totally bemused as to whether this is part of the interrogation. But when Matt replies ‘Oppo’ he looks totally bamboozled, then chuckles to himself and moves onto the carriage next door where two very pretty girls from Derby are sitting. I hear him making chit chat in broken English, asking them where they are going and hear him gasp in horror when they tell him they’re planning a swim in Lake Baikal. I realise he actually just quite likes chatting to people (especially if they’re young and pretty).
Who likes short shorts?
In the end our carriage companions are whisked away to the border authorities building, and we’re left to sample the delights of Naushki, the first town across the Russian border.
I’m using the term ‘delights’ loosely. There’s a small square park right by the train station where beside each bench is a bin spewing empty beer bottles unceremoniously onto the dusty ground. We cross it and reach a single, rather desolate looking street, fringed by squat wooden buildings. This appears to be the entirety of the town. We set off in search of a shop, buy ice creams, and eat them in the shade of a tree in the dirt space in front of the shop, a spot much more pleasant than the park which had an air of desperation and shattered dreams to it. We dive for cover as a battered black car roars forth and screeches to a halt in front of the shop. The driver, a rugged Russian man, stares out the window at the two girls from Derby who have just sidled into view licking at ice creams, then screeches away again. We have three hours to kill at this place. We check our watches. About 20 minutes have passed so far.
Half an hour before our train is due to leave, the two girls from our carriage appear, looking buoyant. They have a fine to pay, about £25 each, and they’ve officially broken the law in Russia, but they’re allowed to continue their journey. Apparently they spent quite a lot of their confinement chatting to border officials, who they charmed so much they ended up collectively giggling their way through the mugshots. I feel like the true saviours of the day have been their short shorts, which really deserve a special frame and pride of place on the living room wall.
Our cultural tour of Ulan Bataar was part of the Train to Ger package run by Stone Horse Mongolia (285 USD per person). This included two night’s stay in the ger and one night’s stay in a compact and well-located guest house with in central Ulan Bataar.
We booked our Trans-Siberian tickets via Real Russia which has a handy route planner and assigns you a dedicated agent on hand to answer any queries.
We stocked up on groceries for the two nights on the train from Ulan Bataar to Irkutsk at the State Department Store which has a decent sized supermarket on the ground floor. Dining cars on the Trans-Siberian range from ok to good to devastatingly expensive so it’s always worth bringing food supplies.