Out of the train window, just before departure from Ulaan Bataar to Beijing on the last leg of our trans-siberian train trip, we watch about 30 Mongolians…brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents and who knows who else on the platform wave a tearful goodbye to three girls waving back at them. Bob and I chuckle and agree that we would be lucky if we could muster up just one person to see us off anywhere these days. Nearby, an older woman is waving goodbye to…husband…father…uncle? She takes a spoon and throws what I later find out is milk-tea at the train that just ends up staining the platform white…finally throwing what was left of the empty bottle and then tossing it over the fence behind her…for “safety and good travels.”.
Our companions in our cabin for our day and a half train ride through the moon-faced Gobi desert are a slim good-lucking Mongolian guy, Khurelsukh, (“I am 23 years”) and a Chinese man fluent in Mongolian. Khurelsukh has a sweet girlfriend (Saraa) in another cabin, however, who ends up joining us for most of the trip…snuggling together for the night on one of the bottom bunks we give up to them. He was born in Russia when his parents were engineering students there. He is still a student in the university in Ulaan Bataar but says he is going to Beijing on business to see about “lingua techna” machines to use for teaching languages. Saraa’s mother is a teacher and is advising him, I think I understand. I also think, however, that this trip to Beijing over the weekend is going to be much more…”you will go to discos, I ask.” He grins broadly and says “yes!”
“Mongolians don’t like Chinese,” he says later out of earshot of the still-unnamed Chinese guy.
When the train nears Beijing we all pile out to get our first glimpses of the remnants of the Great Wall and take pictures. Back on board Khurelsukh asks us why we think the wall was built…”to keep out the Mongolians,” we exclaim…watching for his reaction. “Yes, to keep out the Mongolians,” he says with a glint in his eye…probably wondering if we get the irony.