Friday 18th October
“Waking up in China to a densely built up landscape. Gone are the forests of Siberia and the golden plains of Mongolia. It is autumn again, time goes backwards and we briefly travel through more familiar pine forests and woodland. Auburn leaves cling stubbornly to branches. It is rocky and flat alternately. There is evidence of agriculture with ploughed fields, the first since Siberia. The view is changing much more quickly now. Inhabited to wild, agriculture to city scape. House construction is different, older properties with tiled roofs. Evidence of man is more frequent here…”
It felt like I’d been cocooned by the train, my home for a full 7 days and nights of the three week journey. I have come to the end of my Trans Siberian/Trans Mongolian train journey. Nearly three weeks after leaving Moscow I am about to arrive in Beijing, leaving my new family behind as we all take our own paths onwards…
Last morning on the Trans Mongolian train, dawn slowly brings China into view, Louise Kenward (2013)
My view has been framed in this way for such a long time, I will miss the train. Louise Kenward (2013)
Arriving in China, Louise Kenward (2013)
There are many great places I have visited, few are bold enough to describe themselves as such, but ‘the wall’ is one of them (and rightly so). The lakes and barrier reef others. Typing ‘the great’ into a search engine guesses the rest of the search as ‘Gatsby’ ‘Depression’ ‘Escape’ or ‘British Bake Off’! All very grounding cultural references. The Great Wall of China was a significant landmark to reach, not least because it was a true marker of the distance travelled. Crossing Russia and Mongolia marked a significant crossing from anything I had encountered before. I had truly left my known world behind, and it would not look the same again.
I needed to mark this significant place in the only way I could, I left a pebble covered in crochet. Leaving one of the ‘breadcrumbs’ at The Great Wall felt like it could be an easy decision. Of course, any landmark as big as this ‘needed’ to be marked. But I didn’t want it to work in that way, those landmarks are ‘marked’ well enough already. I didn’t want my trail of breadcrumbs to be left in all the obvious places, they couldn’t fight with such icons. I wanted them to be quiet pieces that were seemingly random, left in hidden, unsuspecting places. And, despite its size, the accessible parts of the wall are scrutinised routinely, steps swept, litter picked and few secret spots remain. I ventured to find one though, and am not under too much illusion that it will have inhabited its little space for very long before discovered and discarded.
The Great Wall of China, Louise Kenward (2013)
Trail of Breadcrumbs at Great Wall, Louise Kenward (2013)
View for breadcrumb from wall, Louise Kenward (2013)
Watched over by a black bird, my pebble left at the Ovoo was inspected. Stones are stacked as offerings to protect the community from bad spirits.
Trail of breadcrumbs, Mongolia (Leanne Vogler, 2013)
Ovoo, Terelj National Park Mongolia (Louise Kenward, 2013)
Trail of breadcrumbs, Mongolia (Louise Kenward, 2013)
View of the Mongolian landscape from the Trans Mongolian Train.
There are many stories to Mongolia and I am curious to learn more, but am already leaving for Beijing in the morning. The last part of the Trans Mongolian Rail journey begins tomorrow and it will be with mixed feelings that I leave this part of the journey behind.
I have found Mongolia to be particularly curious and intriguing. A city that has sprung up over night seems so disjointed from its landscape. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable that so much construction and ‘development’ is happening at such a pace. Pavements are being laid to connect one high rise block after another.
The landscape outside of the city remains beautiful and a day trekking through the mountains yesterday ended with a night spent at a Ger camp in one of the National Parks. It is perhaps my own wish for the landscape not to be sullied by pylons and generators, to feel you are in the wilderness, not some created sense of that, which leaves me with such discomfort. I noticed that all of my photographs were carefully taken to cut out any evidence of diesel vans and road construction.
I am left though with a sadness, the discovery that the largest psychiatric hospital in Asia is in Ulan Bataar, with the greatest prevalence of diagnosis relating to alcohol and over the counter medication misuse, with limited treatments available. A little information is often misleading so I’m cautious to make any assumptions, but I am left wondering how far the two are connected, the context of the fast paced growth of the city midst the mountains and nomadic culture of rural Mongolia. The influence of communism and Mongolia’s soviet neighbours seemingly giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The rapidly growing mining industry provides foreign investment but at a cost to the countryside and the nomads who have lived there for many centuries. Land is increasingly ‘owned’ and rocks and tyres surround areas of ground marking the spot of one persons land over another, while litter is strewn across the landscape.
After a good meal, shower and Banya, I can be a little more reflective and am feeling somewhat more poetic about this marathon train journey. Only when it isn’t there can I recall the ‘clickety clackety’ of the train which became a soothing constant for the duration, and which I found I missed last night, along with the gentle rocking motion of the carriage. It took most of the day and last night before my sense of balance and internal systems settled into a more stable world.
The journey felt almost a journey through time, with a repetitive landscape, a sense of the surreal could be had, while also a notion of the changing seasons. We started the week in the early stages of autumn, with leaves yellowing, by mid week they were shades of amber and at the end were spartan, with a fitting smattering of snow this morning to complete the transition from autumn to winter.
Along the way, I can recall the excitement of spotting the intermittent tumble down wooden cottages that sat against the backdrop of forest and wilderness alternately. They could have come directly from a fairy tale with wisps of smoke dancing from the chimney, suggesting a cosy comforting interior filled with baking and colourful blankets (or a wicked witch depending on the story book). We imagined what it would be like inside, fantasising of warmth and comfort, set against the hardship of living in such harsh and unforgiving landscape. I remember the enormous woodpiles and occasional glimpse of someone tending to their garden, of the impressive allotments (mostly growing cabbages) and the self sufficient contentment of life that might be possible somewhere so remote. Inside the train itself we became our own little community, of bartering and sharing goods, trading information about timetables and platform stops and sharing in the delight at discovering there was toilet roll and hand towels in the toilet. A liminal space, a cocoon between stations and destinations, crossing paths with some and joining in unity with others, a shared connection of a world within a world, seeing things in miniature and dwelling on the minutiae as you pass through landscapes of incomprehensible scale.
Waiting for the train at Moscow
The trans mongolian train, the longest stretch of train of the trip (and part of the longest stretch of train there is). Still only part way through but pleased to have a break after five days. Eight hours after getting off the train this morning my sense of balance is still wonky and sitting still to write, my insides still feel as though they’re moving. the overwhelming sense of disorientation is the strongest sense I’m left with. You lose all sense of time, the train (and the stations) remain on Moscow time all the way to Beijing. To avoid ‘jet lag’ and having to get off the train at 4am, I have been trying to work to local time as far as possible. This does however, cause difficulty when trying to read the train timetable to find out when the next stop is where you can get off (and not get left behind). The scenery is also subject to only subtle change. Small villages, towns and occasional cities pass but mostly the landscape is flat with row upon row of birch trees. We begin to notice the most subtle changes, attention is drawn to the light changing, animals and movement outside of the carriage. The endless rows of forest and trees of pine and birch are awesome in their persistence. Time passes surprisingly well, with lengthy conversations about what to have for our next meal, when the train next stops, how long it waits for before moving on again, and whether there will be anyone selling dumplings. After the train has pulled out of the station again there is a sharing of stories of what one another saw or brought from the platform, what it tastes like and whether there is more or less potato (or cabbage) than the last one.