Waking up bleary but somewhat refreshed, I step into the train corridor and look out the window at – nothing. Nothing much of anything.
Patchy grass and scrub in bleached-out greens blends with the sandy yellow and light brown of the Gobi desert. In the distance, low blue-brown hills rise up, not much, and plateau. After you’ve looked out the window for a while, you start to notice little lumps of brown and white on the ground – carcasses. Horses, presumably, maybe some sheep and cattle too. The 2009-2010 Mongolia winter was apparently the worst in two or three decades, with millions of dead animals scattered across the country. In the short-term, this means me and Tama can play “old corpse, new corpse” out the window. What this means for our hearty meals in the wilderness, we are yet to find out.
We stop for a few minutes in this tiny town called Choyr, long enough to duck out and pose next to a wild Soviet-era statue of a heroic Mongol thrusting a missile or a space rocket triumphantly into the sky.
Then, we roll on again. This place is blanker than the Nullaboor, but somehow more beautiful, and a bit more hilly. When I head through to the dining car, it has metamorphosised from bland Chinese functionalism into ostentatious Mongolian kitsch – carved, lacquered wood archways, fake gold deer heads jutting from the walls.
And the view continues to be nice and desolate and repetitive, then the plains slowly give way to more and more hills, soft vlleys, then hills with pines (trees look startling after hours of desert), then the odd ger, more gers, houses …
When we arrive in Ulaan Baatar around 1.30pm and get dropped off at LG hostel, the view from the window is kind of like The Wire – big ugly Hamsterdam-style falling-apart apartment blocks, kids playing among concrete and rubbish in this bleak-arse courtyard. UlaanBaltimore. Awesome.