Click the link to follow the journey in the series, Train Of Thought
From Irkutsk, I took the Trans-Mongolian Train 6 to Ulan Bataar in Mongolia. I had befriended a Swiss national, Richard Steffan, on Olkhon Island and he got his tour guide to give me a lift to the station.
Aah, the pleasure of sharing other people’s wealth. In fact, the previous night, Steffan had treated us both to dinner in Irkutsk. Steffan was on a three-month sabbatical and was travelling on the Trans-Siberian route to Beijing for a month.
I was travelling Second Class this time and was pleased to have the whole four-bed cabin to myself. It was on this train that, at long last, I got to meet the fabled “Olga” character after whom I had named every dour, large, weather-beaten Russian woman of authority I had met on the trains.
Olga Romanova, the provodnitsa (conductress) in charge of my carriage, was as dour as they come, though a tad too young for the wrinkles.
Next door to my cabin was a young Dutch couple, Jouke Put, 26, and Inge Elzinga, 23, embarking on a trip around the world. Put had sold the house that he had bought at the age of 24 to do this. From them, I learnt about the offline map called Maps.Me which allows you to download maps of different cities on your phone or tablet and access them when you’re out and about without a 4G connection.
In the next cabin were Henna Massinen and Antti Eronen from Finland who recognised me from the Homestead. I thought I had seen enough hysteria from middle-aged, ignorant Russian women but suddenly a woman from a cabin a few doors away came charging towards Eronen, saying something in Russian and beckoning him to follow her. I went with them and we ended up in the toilet. Unsure of what was required of him, Eronen said to her, “Yes, this is a toilet,” and we went back to our cabins, puzzled.
The Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian trains have toilets that discharge onto the tracks. But whenever the train is approaching a station, the toilets are locked.
At Naushki – the Russian border with Mongolia – up came some Russian guys who looked like commandos. One of them came into my carriage, flipped the step and clambered up to the top bunks, looking under the mattresses. A bit of overkill, I thought.
The train stopped here for some three hours. Usually the border checks only take about an hour. I was bursting for a pee and Olga refused to unlock the door until I threatened to do it in the cabin.
The next morning, we were welcomed by a brass band at Ulan Bataar. The UB Guesthouse had also arranged for a car to collect me, at no extra cost.
The hostel was in a convenient location, comfortable, with free breakfast and cooking facilities. And laundry service, which was a godsend as I had not had a chance to wash my clothes since I left Moscow nine days earlier.
On Facebook, I learnt that solo biker Anita Yusof had arrived in Ulan Bataar the previous day. I messaged her to see if we could meet but was told she had left that morning. Anita was hosted by a Kedahan, Kelvin Chong. I messaged Chong, and he agreed to meet me.
I had not met any Malaysians since leaving Berlin, so it was wonderful to meet Chong and his lovely Mongolian wife, Tumur Ochgerel. I told him I was hoping to take a trip to the countryside for a couple of nights. I saw some posters at the hostel about a Mongolian ger camp and was pleased to learn that Chong had a similar camp in Nalaykh, in Telelj National Park, 35km away. The next morning, he sent his driver to drop me off there.
Mongolia’s great warrior emperor Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) was born in 1162. He founded the Mongolian empire, which continued to grow after his death in 1227, under his sons and their descendants.
Chong’s driver made a detour for me to see the statue of Chinggis Khaan. From a distance, the 40m-high gleaming equestrian statue stands gloriously in the middle of the barren Mongolian Steppe. It was here that I learned about Chinggis Khaan and the Golden Whip.
Guarded by Mongolian soldiers in bronze, the 250-tonne steel statue (completed in 2008) was built by the Tuul River in Tsonjin Boldog where he was said to have found the fabled golden whip. It sits on a round base made up of 36 columns, to represent the emperors from his lineage.
The base is a museum complex where I discovered portraits of all the Mongol emperors, and took delight in seeing the European year together with the Mongolian version – for example, 1342 was the Year of the Black Horse.
At this educational and fun place, you can hire some traditional Mongolian costume for selfies, by the gigantic leather boot on display in the lobby. You can take a lift and walk up to the horse’s head, from where you can get a panoramic view of the surrounding area. Outside, for a small fee, a man will let you pose with an eagle.
It was a bright, sunny day with the beautiful blue sky that Mongolia is famed for. As we approached Magic Rock Tourist Camp, I was excited to see the white Moroccan ger (tents) scattered on a grassy area surrounded by hills.
The camp is run by Ochgerel’s mother, Serengbatam, a retired doctor and her nephew Ider Bayar, who took me to my two-bedroom ger. There are three- and four-bedded ones, too. In the middle is a wood stove with a long funnel that directs smoke out of the ger. The wooden frame is beautifully decorated with traditional Mongolian motifs.
Back at the restaurant, the table was already set. The views from the restaurant windows were spectacular. I made myself a coffee and settled down on the verandah. Amid the tranquillity of the multi-coloured forest and hills, matched by a deep blue sky, without a sound but for the birdsong and the whirring of grasshoppers like miniature lawnmowers, I could sit and gather my thoughts.
The camp, which opens in the summer months, started off as a hobby in 2004. Chong enjoys nature and has enough to offer his guests. “We do horse-riding, trekking, hiking and motorbike tours.” He is building 10 log cabins with ensuite facilities, which would enable the camp to open in the winter when the temperature can dip to -40°C.
With no distraction from social media (there is no WiFi at the camp), I was able to catch up with sorting out my photographs. For entertainment, apart from the television, Serengbatam taught me to play the traditional Mongolian game using sheep knuckles.
From 30°C, the temperature goes below zero in the middle of the night. I slept with two jackets and a hoodie, plus all the blankets from the other bed. It was tough going to the toilet in the middle of the night.
The next evening, Serengbatam gave me a bucket – a small gesture that went a long way. What a relief, as they say.