The World by Train / Part 4

What can I say about the Gladiator? He was scrappy and sinewy, about 40 years old. He wore his hair cropped short, with a small bald patch on the back of his head and a widow’s peak. He had hawkish eyes and a mouth full of gold teeth when he smiled. It seems he smiled often, always joking with the other passengers or friends he ran into. He drove our small 16-seat Peugeot van 85 mph over roads that looked like the surface of the moon. He drove so fast over roads with massive potholes that the entire side window of the van shattered.

We pulled over, and I thought we would need to wait hours before someone came to pick us up. The Gladiator had a different idea. After stopping the van for less than five minutes to assess the situation, he decided to complete the remaining one and a half hours of the trip without a window.  Dust and glass flew into the van as we flew down the dirt road. He still managed to get the van full of senior citizens and a shy and frightened young Chinese couple to their destination ahead of time. The Baikal lake narrowed into a small sliver of water that separated Olkhon Island and the mainland. Only two small ferries were available to make this crossing, each holding six or eight trucks and cars. This limited volume caused the wait to be anywhere between four and six hours, depending upon how long the lines are.

While we waited for our turn at the crossing, the Gladiator gathered up a black trash bag and a roll of duct tape. He replaced his broken-out window with opaque plastic, making fun of the Russian soldiers patrolling the pier as he worked. He knew the boss of that crossing. The boss made friends with Russian EDM girls and danced as if in a disco as he calculated the load in his head while gesticulating with his hands, deciding how many trucks and cars could fit onto each ferry without them sinking.

Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, is in a strange stage of development. There are bars, restaurants, and cafes, but the streets are still wild and decaying since the Russians no longer maintain their infrastructure. Everyone in the city is a taxi driver by default. You can hail any car in the street and negotiate a fare with them, and they are happy to take you to your destination. 

Sometime in the wilderness we ran into a young boy running an errand on horseback for his parents. He galloped full speed past us as we were packing the van, only stopping because Ochir called out to him. He recognized him from a previous visit to the area. He wore a blue tunic, and had short wiry hair. It was early in the morning, and he was passing through the small cluster of gers where we had spent the night.

Ochir woke us up early. We wearily followed him out to the ger of a family that was living nearby. The man of the family had just retrieved a goat that was to be slaughtered for food.The man and his wife dismembered the goat with surgical precision in less than 15 minutes. They killed the animal before slaughtering it by making a small incision with a knife into the animal’s stomach, then reaching one’s hand up into the chest cavity and crushing the veins to the animal’s heart with one hand.As soon as the man did this, he used his pocket knife and made many cuts into the animal. It was not his first time performing this ritual and he moved his blade with mesmerizing speed and agility. He pulled the skin off and took out the intestines and stomach sac, which he handed to his wife. She began cleaning, squeezing the waste out of the guts. Nothing, not even the animal’s blood, went to waste.

A group of Korean girls stood outside of their ger, shocked, a few feet away. Later that night I laid on the ground, seeing the Milky Way for the first time. My father had told me he’d seen it many times and in both hemispheres whenhe was on a submarine in the Navy. He’d told me it lives up to its reputation.I traced the path of a satellite with my index finger, its orbit gliding across the screen of the sky. I argued with Mischa about whether or not falling stars always had to fall down. We all debated the location of various constellations, trying hard to recall buried knowledge.

After three days in Ulaanbaatar, we decided to do a 12-day camping trip that would take us through the Gobi desert and Central and Western Mongolia. It was just Mischa and I, our guide Ochir, and our driver Tszogo. Ochir was only 22 and had lived in Canada for a short period. He wore a flat brimmed Yankees cap and a white cotton tank top.Tszogo had a thin mustache above his lips, very high cheekbones, dark eyes. He chain smoked. For this 1000-mile trip through the steppe and desert, we rode in a Russian UAZ van. The van, as utilitarian as they come, was painted grey with big chunky wheels, a solemn grill, and two placid round headlamps. In this minimally outfitted vehicle, we crossed roads and rivers that seemed impassable. Tszogo didn’t use a map or GPS; he navigated with the landscape and the sun alone. He could drive back to camp in complete darkness, cutting through the velvet black desert without one wrong turn.

This is the dining car on the train from Mongolia to Beijing. We met a really sweet Japanese couple here who were in their mid-80s. They had waited their entire lives to make this trip. I wondered how much longer trips like this would be possible. Would my children be able to ride an overnight train across Europe, or have a meal in a dining car as beautiful as this one? At 2AM when the train reaches the Chinese border, each wagon of the train is lifted off the rails by a crane.

Next the Mongolian gauge wheels are removed. Workers in blue hardhats scurry underneath, toiling under large work lamps as they expertly attach a new set of Chinese-gauge wheels to the undercarriage. Meanwhile passports are checked, and the small compartments underneath all seats are searched for contraband. We all wait on the platform, many smoking cigarettes. Soon a whistle is blown, and the green-uniformed attendants ask us to reboard the train. In a few hours we will be in Beijing.