Sunday, 24 September 2006

The Amazing Race 10, Episode 2

Juyongguan (China) - Erenhot (China) - Ulan Bator (Mongolia) - Terelj National Park (Mongolia) - Gachurt (Mongolia)

When they start to imagine their fantasy trip around the world, many people include a trip from Beijing to Moscow, by way of Mongolia, on the Trans-Siberian Railway. But it’s typical of real-world travellers that not until this week, in its tenth season and ninth around-the-world (more or less) journey, did “The Amazing Race” make it to Mongolia or to any part (a small one at that) of any of the branches of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and even then not to its main line.

Why is that typical? Mongolia may be interesting as having once been the center of one of the greatest Eurasiam empires, but today it’s a “flyover” country for most travellers. I’m fairly typical of even many experienced world travellers in having seen Mongolia only from the air. It’s not a place you’re likely to pass through on the ground en route to anywhere else. There are fewer ways to get in and out of Mongolia, either by air or land, than perhaps any other comparably large inhabited landmass.

I’ve seen Miat Mongolian Airlines planes on the ground in Irkutsk and Seoul, but Mongolia’s only airline connects Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulan Bator with just three international gateways in Europe and five in Asia, some of them only once a week and/or seasonally. The only places with daily flights to Mongolia are Beijing and Seoul — followed by flights five days a week to, perhaps surprisingly, Berlin, where many Mongolians were employed as contract workers in the days when Mongolia and East Germany were “fraternal” Soviet allies. Citizens of the USA, Canada, and most other countries need transit visas to go through China, even just to change planes. So flying via Seoul is usually the most convenient route, although not necessarily the cheapest or the most direct.

But isn’t Mongolia an easy stopover along the Trans-Siberian Railway? Not really. Visa complications aside, the main line of the trans-Siberian, with daily express passenger trains along its entire length between Moscow and Vladivostok, runs through (not surprisingly) Siberia. Not through Mongolia, or at least not the current independent country of Mongolia (“Outer Mongolia”, as it was referred to on “The Amazing Race”).

A major factor in the expansion of the Mongol empire was the absence of major natural barriers on the Central Eurasian steppes. Historically, the land of the Mongols has been defined more by the movements of nomadic peoples than by lines on the ground. Historic Mongolia includes today’s Inner Mongolia Province of China (a Chinese colonialist term, analogous to the Eurocentric labels “Middle East” and “Far East”, denoting Inner Mongolia’s greater proximity to China than Outer Mongolia), where Mongols are now outnumbered by Han Chinese, and Buryatia (formerly the Buryat Mongol Autonomous Region), one of the soveriegn republics of the Russian Federation, where ethnically Mongolian Buryats are now outnumbered by ethnic Russians.

The Trans-Mongolian Railway branches off from the Trans-Siberian Railway at Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia, and runs south through Ulan Bator, the capital of independent (Outer) Mongolia, and Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, to Beijing.

In marked contrast to the enormously heavy freight traffic and frequent passenger trains on the entirely electrified 9,000 km main line of the Trans-Siberian Railway, there’s only one passenger train a week in each direction on the section of the Trans-Mongolian Railway between Ulan Ude and Ulan Bator, a second weekly train each way on the southern section between Beijing and Ulan Bator, and a couple more trains a week that go only as far south from Ulan Bator as the Mongolia/China (Outer Mongolia/Inner Mongolia) border at Erenhot/Erlian.

Berths on the through trains to Ulan Bator from Beijing, especially in summer, are often sold out weeks in advance. Many foreign tourists who had hoped to get a glimpse of Mongolia end up settling for the less popular branch rail line from Beijing to the trans-Siberian through Manchuria instead of Mongolia, or have to fly. If you want to ride the Trans-Siberian, it’s far easier to get seats on the main line from Vladivostok — if you can make arrangements for a qualified Russian organization, business , or citizen to sponsor you (provide “visa support”) for a Russian visa.

“The Amazing Race” was lucky (or carefully scheduled) that there was any train at all to Ulan Bator on the day they wanted to travel, but not so lucky as to be leaving on one of the two days a week with a through train from Beijing. As a result, the racers had to take buses more than half the way to Ulan Bator from Juyongguan, just outside Beijing, to board the train at its terminus at Erenhot/Erlian. This also ensured that they would all end up on the same train, regardless of when they left Juyongguan or which of the three chartered buses they were on.

As the racers discovered, Ulan Bator is a central city of cement surrounded by “tent city” suburbs/slums/informal settlements of “gers” (yurts) like the ones the racers have to diassemble and fold for transport as one of their tasks. Getting to the hinterlands where people still live a nomadic lifestyle isn’t easy, as perhaps we’ll find out before the race leaves Mongolia next week.

Even on the outskirts of Ulan Bator this week, where the roads are actually paved though lacking any semblance of shoulders, some of the racers got their jeeps stuck in the mud. Further afield, you could wait a long time in this big-sky country for a tow, and the tracks are fit only for horses, pack animals, heavy trucks, and the ubiquitous and sturdy Russian dirt bikess.

If that’s your pleasure, and you have adequate preparation and support, Mongolia is the one of the ultimate destinations for cross-country motorcycle or horseback touring. Just make sure you have the patience to remember that, “Getting there is half the fun.”

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 24 September 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I seem to have fallen off your email list, so I'm glad to find these reports again. I did the Trans-Mongolian in the other direction (Moscow to Beijing) in 2004, with several stops including Ulaan Baator. You're right, the Russian visa is a pain, although I had no trouble getting a Chinese visa in Vienna, and my Mongolian visa was issued while I waited in Moscow - U.S. citizens don't need one, but I was traveling on my U.K. passport. It would be much cheaper to buy the train tickets in Russia, but there are several outfits that arrange tickets, and hotels or homestays, and day trips, ahead of time. I thought I might find the Mongolian countryside boring, and only arranged for two nights in a tourist ger camp near Karakorum - I enjoyed it more than I expected - hills, lots of animals, market set up in containers, visit with a Mongolian to drink arak. I didn't use them, but met some people who did, and the Russia Experience ( looks like one of the better outfits.

Posted by: Kathy, 28 October 2006, 08:04 ( 8:04 AM)
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