A journey on the Transmongolian Railway

Mongolia part 1

It feels like some kind of end is near. Initially you think you can stop all those intangible kilometers that run outside your window, then you realize that faces, instants and those winding roads cannot be fully seized. Russia, Siberia and their golden icons will end soon while Zaudinsky, Zagustav and Gusinoye Ozero (Goose Lake), disappear rapidly out there. The train stops at Naushki: on the other side Mongolia awaits. Russia and Mongolia use the same rail gauge, so no bogie-changing is required. However, something impalpable must have taken place on this imaginary line as I spent 7 hours there and I still don’t know how it was possible. Customs procedures liken a slow circus: border guards collect my passport and I don’t dare moving until I get it back. I start flicking through its pages, and wham!

A flashy red stamp is the end of Russia.

You can now get off the train. You end up taking 342 shots of train tracks: they will all look painstakingly the same. You chat with travelers whose path will never cross yours again as they come from Bhutan. You are invited to join endless chess tournaments. In the meanwhile, customs guards chew out long-eyed traders. Europe doesn’t matter on this vanishing border. Genghis Khan’s land begins at Sükhbaatar, some 20 kilometers further south where customs and immigration process is repeated by Mongolian officials within one hour. While the lush green Selenga Gol basin runs outside my window, I keep wondering whethere those 20 kilometers between one border and the other were still Russia, or already Mongolia. Who did they belong too?

A guy and a girl are waiting for me at Ulan Batoor Central Station. His name was Guurt? Or Gjrt? Or maybe Gart? Let’s call him G the Guide Guy. He drives me through the capital streets, through a bizzare cocktail of crumbling Soviet-built apartment blocks, satanic smokestacks and derelict suburbs of gers. Our destination is Gun Galuut, but all I can think of is: hopefully this guy is not going to burp. Her name was Bjrt? O Bjort? Let’s call her B the Barbie as her eyes strangely move like a doll’s: open – pause – close – pause – open.
G the Guide Guy says goodbye to B the Barbie after an hour: before parting, though, the two lovers kiss for an embarassing amount of time and the sounds produced by their passion is similar to a modern blender.
B the Barbie gets off the car in front of a dilapidated building that is so dirty that I look immaculate even after three days on the train without a shower.

Maybe it’s because I am continuously jet-lagged. Maybe it’s the horror I feel when I am confronted with that blender-like kiss.I am so tired that not even an atomic war could awake me and I pass out. After an undefined amount of time, G the Guide Guy shakes me back to life, and he shows me to something. I believe that if something bad has to happen, it could happen even in your own street, so I follow Mr G without thinking that he could kidnapp me in the middle of this nothingness. My passport and my Nikon are the only things I bring along a after getting off the car. He shows me something, down there, at the end of this immense valley. My knowledge of Mongolian language equal Mr G’s of any European idiom so I ask him in Italian “what’s that?”. He finishes his sigarette, and he mumbles something like “Gengis Khan”. That thing at the end of the valley is a 20-meter high statue of the best known Mongolian hero.

Next stop is the natural reserve of Gun Galuut. I am hyper when I get to meet the family I am going to spend the few following days. Their costumes look like a rainbow. Their smiles immediately erase our linguistic and socio-cultural distance. There’s no electricity in the camp. A huge bed, a stove and four candles await me in my ger (the typical Mongolian tent). The roof is open to a limitless sky. Silence is church-like around me. Wild winds blow around the camp, through a target shooting made out of cow skin. Some carved saddles rest on worn-out fences. Everything feels so big, or am I small, for once?

The following day I am asked to join the family for a day on the horses. I accept their invitation, but I realize straight away that the first step of a day on a horse is … getting on the horse. I am as gracious as a hippo while I try to get on the saddle. Kiddies are laughing their lungs out while my horse is taken closer to one of the fence from which I miraculously I manage to get onto the saddle. I feel like a Valkyrie now. We will be away for a couple of hours, I think while we leave the camp.

The following ten hours were a balance mixture of pure horror and endless emotions: from one of the hills sorrounding Gun Galuut I see Mongolia, and for a fading instant I grab the immensity of this land. Some days afterwards, families are gathering in the camp. There will be a folklore festival here.

Tiziano Terzani wrote that “some days in our lives pass by eventless. We will not remember anything about them. They will fade traceless, as if we never lived them. If you think of it, most days pass by like this. When the end of our lives comes closer, people wonder how it was possible to let so many days slip away. People tend to appreciate the past only when our days are gone“.
When my life is over, though, I am sure that the days of this festival will be one of my brightest memories. I will think of their pointy hats, as colourful as peacocks, their bows, their cows pasturing around, their kids wearing those tunics. Their smiles, their Mongolian wrestling tournaments. Those huge pots in which goat testicles boiled.

Those teenagers that could not figure out how my Nikon could steal their images. How could we be in your box? My last memory of Gun Galuut is the night sky while I am laying in my bed. I wonder if my world was changed for good after Mongolia. Everything is so simple here that it becomes incomprehensible. Violence, dividing differences, difficulties coming from a job that you don’t want to do anymore are immensely far away. I just want to keep travelling and discovering, and I will bring with me the certainty that I will never be able to bring away this dawn, and these smiles.

 Lake Baikal   Mongolia part 2 ● The Absurdity of Violence 

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