Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 8 continued
Ugka the journalist
Though we left Erlian at 17:10, it was 21:25 by the time train 685 departed Zamyn-Uud for Ulaanbaatar. The Chinese officials did their thing on the one side of the China-Mongolia border, while the Mongolians did theirs on the other. We then had a couple of hours waiting around at Zamyn-uud station while the train’s bogies were changed to fit the wider Mongolian rail gauge, before we were finally on our way again.
A young Mongolian named Ugka accosted me whilst I was on the platform. I’d been withdrawing my first 25,000 Mongolian Tugrik from the ATM when I saw the train doors closing and the train pulling away. I set off on a panicked jog, still trying to keep it casual in case the train was simply moving twenty metres further down the line and wasn’t attempting to leave without me. When Ugka saw me, he assured me that the train was going nowhere and asked if he could practice his English.
He was a journalist, just out of school, twenty years old and on his way home to Ulaanbaatar from China. I’d barely spoken English for the last week. It felt strange to be talking with some kind of fluency again as I asked him about his life in Mongolia. He told me Mongolia was a poor country. “Life is hard,” he said. “Especially in the country. The city isn’t too bad. There are jobs in the city. But soon there will be too many people and life won’t be so good.”
The city was Ulaanbaatar. It was now said to hold 40% of Mongolia’s entire population. There had been a major shift toward urbanization in the last decade from the traditional nomadic Mongolian lifestyle. Most of these migrants flooded to the capital. Indeed, a third of Mongolians still lived below the poverty line and survived on less than USD $30 a month.
“In China you can buy anything.”
“But Mongolians are a good and free people,” he continued. “Not like in China.”
I told him about Hogji who I met the day before in Erlian and asked Ugka what he thought of the Chinese. He said he had no problem with China. But many Mongolians disliked Chinese people, he said, because of what had happened in the past, when occupation and the struggle for independence – particularly in the early decades of the 20th century – had characterised the bitter relationship between the two countries.
“All these people” – he was referring to the Mongolians around us – “they only go to China to buy things. In China you can buy anything. And everything is cheap. Then they bring it all back home.”
“To keep for themselves?”
“Sometimes to keep, but mostly to sell.”
Most of their bags contained clothes. But I’d seen bags full of notebooks and plastic toys. Then there was the guy I’d seen pushing a fridge though customs during my first attempt to cross the border in Erlian.
And what about the Chinese? What were they doing coming to Mongolia?
“Mongolia needs buildings,” he said. “And the Chinese are good workers. They don’t complain that their work is too hard or their pay is too little. They just work. Soon Mongolia will have many big buildings just like China.”
Such is “progress”
But this image of a Mongolia urbanising and developing itself in the Chinese mold, just didn’t fit with a culture and a people almost umbilically linked with the land that bore them. To destroy the land that had sustained them for so long in the name of “development” seemed not only inconceivable, but incompatible with a country such as this.
Yet Mongolia was developing. Mining of its mineral-rich territory was on the increase, and with it, the rivers were becoming polluted. Forests were being stripped for timber and roads were creeping across the steppe. In Ulaanbaatar itself, the traffic and pollution problems were worsening each year, and if the Chinese model was anything to go by, environmental issues would soon be ushered to the back of the bus if the prospect of a rising GDP climbed on board.
“I would like to get out of Mongolia one day,” Ugka said. “I go to China sometimes, but I want to go back to America.” He’d been granted a scholarship from his university a couple of years ago, he told me. He’d scored highly in his English examinations and had travelled to New Jersey for a two month stint. “But to travel from Mongolia needs a lot of money,” he said. “I will have to work first, then I will go, my brother also. He’s younger than me, only just in high school. I need to stay here to make sure he works hard. Working hard is important for our people. If we work hard we can be a better country and grow strong.”
He said that if I had time when I arrived in Ulaanbaatar I could meet his friend. “I think he’d very much like to meet you. You could stay with us if you like. We could eat meat together.” But as delightful as this meet and meat-eat sounded, I knew I wouldn’t have time. I’d have only a couple of hours in which to pick up my ticket for my train to Moscow and get back to the station in time to depart. We wished each other well for our respective trips and went back to our carriages before we set of into the Mongolian night. Tomorrow I’d wake deep within the second country of my journey, 2700 miles travelled, within hours from train 005 to Moscow. I’d all but cleared my biggest hurdle. There would be more to come. But for now, I could dare to sleep a little easier.