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Mongolia

There are three trains that transverse Siberia from Moscow, two of which arrive in Beijing. The trans-Siberian stays in Russia and ends in Russian Far East city of Vladivostock. The trans-Manchurian takes the same route but dives into China at the last moment and ends in Beijing and the trans-Mongolian that also ends in Beijing and also transverses the trans-Siberian track but comes through Mongolia to Beijing. It was this last option that we took obviously from Beijing to Moscow, hoping that it was the most interesting and it was absolutely superb. Excuse the photos from the train – they’re awful, but I hope it gives you some idea.

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The trip lasts 5 days, but we would break after 24 hours in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar for 6 days before resuming our run up to Moscow. We would have liked to have been able to stop in Siberia along the way, but the Russian visa is so ridiculously hard to obtain in Beijing even without stops that we didn't push our luck.

The trip north from Beijing goes through the sandy and dry Gobi desert. Why people choose to live in desert regions is always beyond me as life is so hard and this was reinforced on the first morning as first a vicious sandstorm whistled through followed by snow - and this in early summer! Along the way horses, the occasional camel, sheep and goats wandered around wondering, I suspect, why on earth they were there and what on earth were they going to eat. As the summer snow grew more intense the horses formed lines with their backs to the wind so the last horse would bear the brunt of the weather. It was, like all deserts, an inhospitable place but also beautiful in it's barrenness.

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Later that second morning we left the Gobi and started through the rolling grasslands of the Mongolian steppe. Dry as a bone and almost equally harsh, this where most Mongolian nomads live in their ger (felt-walled, circular tents). The nomads move their ger four times a year in tune with the seasons and take their livestock with them. It is a simple and hard life. Mongolia plummets to more than -50C in winter before you add the wind-chill factor and then soars above 30C in the summer. But the Mongolians are a tough bunch and many apparently don't even bother to wear a hat at -30C!

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We went straight out from Ulaanbaatar to spend a few nights in a ger and visit the countryside. After weeks in Chinese cities it was literally a breath of fresh air. The landscape is vast and only broken by the tiny dots of nomad's gers and animals on the dry, brown, dusty soil. It reminded me of the Tibetan plateau in colour and scale.

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Scale is a very hard thing to judge in Mongolia. The hills in the background are something like 25kms away.

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A typical nomad camp. The goats, horses and sheep nibble on the brown grasses. There’s not a lot to go around.

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Inside our ger. Such a peaceful place to be.

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A beautiful Mongolian nomadic grandmother. She was such a sweetheart!

Chinggis Khaan, or as we know him in the West, Genghis Khan is Mongolia's most famous, or infamous son. In the 13th Century the Mongolian empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean thanks to incredible brutality, superb organisation, deft diplomacy and supreme fighting technologies and skill. Charmingly, one of Chinggis’ most famous quotes is “the greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters."

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Fortunately, modern-day Mongolians, as it turns out are absolutely delightful. Unlike their big neighbours they smile, laugh and couldn't be friendlier. We spent a wonderful 3 days in the ger, wandering the landscape for hours and visiting nomad families. Again, the contrast to the bustle of life in China to the complete peace inside of the ger, even with the freezing Siberian wind howling outside made for a real break. Food in Mongolia also turned out to be great. Some Mongolians believe that vegetables are bad for you and so refuse to eat them apart from potatoes, onions, garlic and a few other roots that go with their meat.

Back in UB we spent an interesting couple of days visiting the rebuilt Gandan monastery and some of the cities museums, including an excellent palaeontology exhibit of local dinosaur finds.

Mongolians are or were Buddhist and followed Tibetan buddhism. However, sandwiched between two massive communist neighbours was always going to mean a tragic existence. After the Japanese were kicked out with Soviet assistance the Mongolian government became Stalin's puppet and almost all the monasteries and religious possessions were destroyed. The largest statue from Gandan, Ulaanbaatar's main shrine was shipped off the St Petersberg, or as it probably was at the time Leningrad, and was never seen again. There is speculation that it was melted down to make bullets. A small museum in Ulaanbaatar is dedicated to the human rights abuses of the time and details some of the many violent purges. The final exhibit is a pile of monks' skulls, some of the thousands that were killed, each with a single bullet hole.

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The huge replacement statue in Gandan monastery.