The Trans-Mongolian Railway


In the openness of the train station the sound of my rolling luggage disappears into the muted sound of other passengers hurrying to board with their unwieldy belongings. We are making our way down the Beijing Railway platform and my companion is speaking, but that too dissolves into the intangible –  I’ve glimpsed the train upon which I will spend the next 30 hours. Ours is the second carriage from the front, and our berth is private, with two benches that double as beds, and a modest table that separates them.


The Trans-Mongolian is the kind of train I imagine Graham Greene wrote about in his book, “Orient Express.” Each carriage is held together by sturdy steel riveting, stalwart in its bearing. Lace curtains shade the windows. The forest green cars seem almost an antiquity as it deliberately and dutifully pulls away from the station, passing the new, sleek-nosed trains and their pearlescent shimmer.


“Nor were the noises of the train regular enough now to be indistinguishable from silence. There were many tunnels between Herbesthal and Cologne, and in each the roar of the express was magnified.”

-Graham Greene
“The Orient Express”


I awake on a train bearing me across the Gobi, north to Ulaanbaatar. The temperature is still cool. Another passenger, a tall man with glasses, has pushed down one of the corridor windows and is leaning into the wind, his elbows propped on the glass. Everything, but the movement of the train, is still.

Sand has changed to grassland and pasture. There are number of herders out, husbanding their livestock. I see horses, sheep, goats, and cows, nimble, hoofed creatures that are gazelle or antelope, and a camel here or there.

If you’re in the desert and you see sheep, then don’t worry, there are probably herders nearby. If you see horses, there are people, but maybe further away. If you see a camel, pray to God, because you are definitely lost. -MZ

The undulation of the train riding the tracks has reached a regular cadence. I have the impression of time travel. Impossibly, I feel myself going faster than time. Thank you Mr. Einstein.

I am struck by how immediately one’s body, one’s comportment adjusts to the space on the train, to the compactness of a shared cabin, to the narrowness of the corridors, to the leaning of the carriage as the train follows the curve of the track. There’s no phone, no Internet. It’s you within your mind, you and your fellow passengers. You contract, you make yourself smaller, you create a temporary world in your cabin. If you steal a glance into other compartments, you can see it happening there, too, the creation of these micro-worlds – lunch is spread out, laundry is suspended between berths, a child tiptoes and jumps for a better view, a tired father naps, a woman fans herself against the heat, a card game is underway, friends call to each other between cabins. Our small cosmos, defying time, shuttles towards a distant place.


The dining car is arguably my favorite part of the train. It’s here these little worlds intersect.

We had the great fortune to share a table with an elderly man and his charming wife. They were en route to meet their daughter in Ulaanbaatar. The couple had just attended the wedding of the son of a close family friend in Beijing, and during their short stay in China, had also found time to trek to the Everest base camp. We learned that their daughter was not only a journalist for the New York Times, but a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who also led the paper’s foreign office in Moscow (she wrote the piece “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”). Impressed, M inquired, so what do parents have to do to raise their child to be so accomplished? With some mischief in her blue eyes, the woman pointed at her husband across the table and revealed that he was a former U.S. diplomat. For the rest of the dinner, we enjoyed hearing them recount their experiences being posted in Bulgaria, the former Soviet Union, Central Asia, and Indonesia.


We are maybe an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar. What do I feel at this time, in this place? Anticipation. Brimming potential. Departure from a past self. This is the point where I believe you must jump off, with a deep breath and both feet in the air.


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