Into Mongolia

Mongolia flagCrossing the Russian frontier into Mongolia was not without a moment of theatre. We were to stop in the town of Naushki, just on the Russian side of the border. As we approached, there were cattle all along the track, and we could hear frantic whistling from the locomotive. Then we stopped suddenly, short of the Naushki station. You don’t need to guess what had happened — we had hit a cow, and in fact had run over it with the locomotive and first two carriages of the train before we came to a stop.

Robin and I saw the unfolding drama from both sides of our carriage. On the right side, the train crew and the engineer were assessing the damage to the bogie. They didn’t care about the cow, as that poor creature was now past being an object of care. Then a man rode up on a horse with a bridle but no saddle. I think it was his family’s cow. Attempts were made to dislodge the remains, but I was too squeamish to be a first-hand witness to that.

Sad as this scene was, a more comic one began to unfold on the left side of the train. A beat-up old Lada trundled along, driven by a young man with an older man in the passenger seat, and a boy sitting outside on the trunk of the car (until he bounced off of it). The older passenger I would guess to be the patriarch of the family, and he cradled a bottle of vodka in his lap. When he stepped out of the car, I would say that that bottle was not his first of the day. He stood silently, expressionless, looking under the railway carriage, clutching his bottle. Then the matriarch of the family came along, riding a bicyle of all things, and immediately set about doing the most practical thing under the circumstances; she had come prepared with a long wooden switch, and proceeded to shoo the remaining herd of cattle away from the train tracks (thus protecting her family’s remaining assets). This, to me, was an object lesson in why the best-run Russian families are matriarchies, and it was taught to me right outside the windows of a railway carriage.

We were informed at dinner that there was damage to some of the carriages, and the wheels were flat. I didn’t know that the steel wheels of a railway carriage could “get a flat,” but it makes sense. Luckily for us, Naushki has a substantial rail yard, and they were able to take the affected carriages away (including our own) and fit them with new wheels. We lost no time at all, as we were stopped in Naushki for Russian border control in any case. By 2 a.m. on July 10 we had cleared Mongolian customs and were rolling through the night towards Ulaan Baatar.

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