Arriving in Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing, I wondered where everyone was. In China, there had been crowds everywhere, the dense human mass overwhelming even to someone from India. But just miles after we crossed the border with China, an eerie void defined Mongolia.
This shouldn’t have been so strange—after all, the Gobi Desert covers much of southern Mongolia. But when I thought of Mongolia I pictured the multitudes of horsemen that swept across Central Asia and Russia in the 13th century, all the way to Central Europe, creating the greatest land empire the world has ever seen.
All through that cold morning, pastureland rolled past my train window. I saw an occasional ger—the white circular tent that is the Mongolian version of the Central Asian yurt—and horses accompanied by a cowboy with an uurga, the Mongolian lasso. And then there was emptiness for hours on end.
The blank landscape seemed to have subdued the Chinese attendants in my coach. Huddled with their pals over beers in the dining car, as the Trans-Siberian Express began its long journey from Beijing to Siberia via the Gobi Desert, they had barely glanced up as I stumbled through my phrasebook-aided request for hot water. In the bright Mongolian morning, they seemed withdrawn.
The Russian couple in the compartment next to mine also looked sullen. They’d had a terrible night. At the border crossing the night before, the Mongolian immigration officer had told them that their visas had expired and had threatened to throw them off the train into what seemed, literally, the middle of nowhere. Sitting in my compartment, I had heard their tearful pleadings. Then, even the Chinese attendants looked sympathetic.
It had finally been sorted out, after a delay of almost two hours. The Mongolian officer relented and gave new visas to the Russians. He may have been bluffing after all. The Chinese attendants looked relieved, the Russians grateful, if worn out by their ordeal.
It was an odd scene—the assertive Mongolians, the subdued Chinese, and the terrified Russians. It hinted at great historical shifts and ironies: the hierarchies of the Cold War, when Mongolia was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, had been overturned. But it was after a few days in Mongolia, with a greater understanding of what it meant to be a modern Mongolian, living in a country sandwiched between Russia and China, that the fuller meaning of what I had witnessed would become clear.
Though surrounded by giants, Mongolia itself is no slouch. It is twice the size of Texas, but with a population of fewer than 3 million people—it has the lowest population density in the world. More than a third of Mongolians reside in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, which lies on a plateau surrounded by high mountains. It was only late September when I arrived, but it felt like December in the Himalayas, the air full of the smell of snow. Temperatures can drop by 55 degrees in a single day.
I would soon leave Ulaanbaatar for the northern borderlands, where the Mongolian steppes yield to the Siberian taiga, into a purer void than I had seen from my train. But the city, I discovered, holds plenty of surprises for the flaneur. I had imagined something more Chinese, or Asian: a staging-post or a market town, with nomads on horseback and crimson-robed monks in its narrow alleys. In 1924 Mongolia had been only the second country in the world after the Soviet Union to go Communist. If I was unprepared for the Soviet, faux-European architecture of Ulaanbaatar, and the signs in Cyrillic everywhere, I was even less ready for the gridlock traffic on broad avenues, the new cafés, beer bars, beauty salons, and discos packed with both expatriates and trendy Mongolian youth, or the cranes everywhere, one of them constructing Mongolia’s first five-star hotel. Being a vegetarian, I had prepared for the austerity of Mongolia, stocking up on processed cheese and crackers in Beijing. I realized I had wasted my time when I found myself on Peace Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, surrounded by multiethnic cuisine and fusion restaurants and department stores and supermarkets.