Conde Nast Traveler
Mongolia, Russia, STUNTS

Battling Cabin Crashers on the Trans-Mongolian Railway

The Trans-Mongolian Railway.  Home for the next four days

Day 36: Mechanically speaking, the Russian train is superior to the UVZ. Mechanically speaking. Comfort is another matter. The UVZ was an '05, so it still had some of that new-car freshness. The train, I am guessing, is a '55, and its new-train freshness has been long since depleted. This isn't all bad. In between the cars, the vestibule spaces, where passengers wait to unload, have an extreme industrial theme, with a pervasive gun-metal grey color scheme and sharp corners that give a strong Soviet flavor. The cabins themselves have seen better times and the upholstery has swallowed its fill of dead skin and dust. Sitting down, I begin to fantasize about a long and intensive fumigation--three days of marination in chemicals and steam. But I'm not sure that would quite do it.

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Mongolia, STUNTS

Big Yak Attack

At this point, you're not doubt wondering whether or not I steer wrestled the yak, as I vowed to do during an uncharacteristic fit of emotion back in Hong Kong. So we saw a yak. We were driving out to the ger camp when I noticed a cow in the next field charging towards the UVZ. Why is that cow charging the car, I wondered. I asked Byambaa who said, "It's not a cow, it's a yak."

The yak, clearly, had read my blog. It was behind us now, but I stuck my head out the window and shouted a streak of trash talk that hasn't been heard round these parts since Genghis Kahn. The yak stood on its hind legs, pointed at his sharp horns, then at me, then drew his hoof across his throat, making the international sign of "you're a dead man." I told the yak to meet me here in four days, when we'd be on our way back. Four days later, no sign of the yak. He wimped out.

Mongolia, STUNTS

Broken-Down Russian Minivans; Wild Mongolian Horses

"Get your motor runnin'..."

Day 35: The UVZ, I'm sad to say, started showing signs of its price today. We headed out from camp, and I took a turn behind the wheel and freaking loved it. It's like driving a cross between a tractor and a minivan. The dashboard is punched out of a single sheet of metal. I have a strong sense that the UVZ factory hasn't changed much since the 1960s.

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Gear, Mongolia, STUNTS

My Sorry Attempt at Fly Fishing in Mongolia

Any of you horses fly fish?

I have a regretful episode to tell you about that took place on my honeymoon. It was a 10-day tour of Tuscany, and we were staying at a remote and once-abandoned Tuscan village that had been renovated into a charming little resort. Since it was autumn, the place was abandoned again, and we had it all to ourselves. One afternoon, Laura and I took a walk down into the valley. As we sauntered under hardwood canopies, holding hands, finding new adjective-laden ways to describe our love--something my wife can do for hours--I regretted not having a truffle-sniffing pig or dog along.

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Food and Drink, Mongolia, STUNTS



Day 33:  To ride on horseback across the Mongolian steppe is to be reminded of the cycle of life...and probably more often than you'd like.  The dun-colored expanse may vanish in great magnificence on the distant horizon, but underfoot it is just dirt, tufts of overgrazed grass, and animal droppings blackened by the sun. Horses, cows, sheep, goats, and yaks leave their marks everywhere, and when there aren't droppings, there are bones (skulls, femurs, shoulder blades, vertebrae, a horn) all scattered about, sun bleached, and sunken into the dirt.

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Mongolia, STUNTS

Great Buys in Mongolia: Cashmere and Horsemeat


Day 32: We were on our way to pick up the horsemeat when I heard the greatest sentence yet uttered in the English language: "Let's go to the cashmere factory outlet store."

Let me back up a moment. I had just spent my first night in Mongolia, in Tower A of Ulaan Bataar's Hotel Bayangol, a Soviet-style edifice notable for the fabulous neon sign hanging over its restaurant, but not much else. Byambaa, my guide, picked me up at nine that morning and we piled into a funny-looking vehicle called an UVZ 3909 and drove west out of the city, headed towards a Mongolian ger camp.

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China, Mongolia, STUNTS

Train to Ulaan Bataar..."Wow"


Days 30-31: I took a gamble on the train to Ulaan Bataar. The first class berths have two beds, and I only bought one of them. Most people will tell you to buy both, if you can afford it, because the risk is high that you could get stuck bunking with some fat businessman from Hubei Province who chain smokes and sweats garlic oil. At first, my prospects didn't look so good. There was a mad crush of people to get on the train, most of whom had half their worldly belongings stuffed into cardboard boxes or white plastic bags.  When they opened the gates to let the people board, the people stampeded.

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