[gallery ids="https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/COVER-IMAGE_Mongolia-7.7.15-045.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-7.3.15-011.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-7.5.15-005.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-7.7.15-Nikon-1-077.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-7.10.15-187.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-Trek-7.2.15-118.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-Trek-7.2.15-165.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-Trek-7.6.15-18.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-Trek-7.6.15-24.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-Trek-7.6.15-218.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-Trek-7.6.15-454.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-Trek-7.6.15-696.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-Trek-7.6.15-822.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mongolia-Trek-7.6.15-860.jpg|"]   An overnight train, with the constant click of wheels upon rails lulling you to sleep.  The romance of venturing to the dining car with white coated waiters providing excellent service and five star meals.  Watching the countryside flash by, little children waving at stops along the way, with beautiful landscapes as far as the eye can see. This was the vision I had for the Trans-Mongolian railroad from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing.  If we  squinted our eyes a bit, and took a generous view of life, perhaps that is what we experienced. Instead, we found desolation.  Trains and train stations are generally relegated to the less attractive parts of town, and this was the case along our journey.  As we left UB, the landscape quickly transitioned from slightly green to a dull sand beige.  Horses grazed on scrubby tufts of grass for a few miles before we entered the Gobi desert. Hoping for great dunes and wonderful light, we instead found gravelly sand as far as the eye could see.  Periodically, we’d come upon a herd of camels, who seemed resigned to the misery.  They usually were huddled in a group, their long legs folded under their bellies, waiting for something, anything to break the monotony. The UB train station is in a sad part of town, with weeds growing through the sidewalks and trash along the roadway.  There is nothing pretty about this section of UB.  The inside of the train station is soviet utilitarianism at its best — linoleum floors topped by plastic chairs in large rooms painted a faint green. At each stop, we jumped off the train, hoping to see something that was photo-worthy.  The towns with their dirt roads did not rise to the level of photogenic and the highlight of the stop was finding that one lady with a shopping cart full of drinks who was clever enough to freeze the water bottles before she peddled them to passengers.  The highlight of our sightseeing was a statue of the only Mongolian cosmonaut, appropriately encased in silver and reaching for the sky. The most astounding feature of the railroad was the room attendants.  As the train pulls into each stop, these white gloved ladies with stern visages polish each handrail and wipe each window.  They stand at attention while we all exit the train in search of something unique to our journey.  They police the cabins for the slightest item out of place. We should have known that the ease of finding a seat in the dining car was an indicator of the meal to come.  The plastic menu showed photos of food that didn’t appear on anyone else’s plate.  After much pointing and intervention by an off-duty train employee, we safely dined on khorkhol—fried meat pockets that had been the best of the bland Mongolian food we had found during our earlier trek. Early evening, our train reached the China-Mongolian border.  Efficient officials swept through the train, taking our passports and returning within an hour.  During that hour, the train sped forward and backwards—different tempos, different end points, but constantly moving.  We crossed into China and the process repeated—passports disappeared, and the train moved with great purpose, but no progress.  Late in the evening, the train was moved into a large dark warehouse, where, impossible to see, but described in our guidebooks, the underpinnings of the train were removed and replaced with fixtures that worked with Chinese tracks.  By this time, we were tucked into our crisp white sheets and dubious blankets, our heads resting on pellet filled pillows. Unexpectedly, we awoke to a bright green, agrarian landscape. Corn fields stretched to jagged misty mountains, reservoirs provide a lovely setting for family boat trips as they wound throughout the hills.  China’s large scale infrastructure projects were apparent, as we passed behemoth dams and massive highway overpasses. We left a country that had stopped in time and entered a country that is blasting towards the future, heedless of the cost or impact of their relentless growth.  The haze thickened as we pulled into the shiny modern train station to start our Beijing adventure.

Michelle Guillermin
Michelle Guillermin is a photographer, writer, and senior Diplomatic Courier correspondent.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.