The first eventful border crossing came exiting Russia, as the man in the cabin next to ours was arrested. Russian customs officials boarded the train after dark and started their thorough departure checks. Dogs sniffed at my belongings, documents were checked and compartment walls knocked…
(Amazing Mongolians Music Playlist below)
It began with a gentle whimpering from one of the sniffer dogs, which alone didn’t entirely draw my attention. It was when the conversation took a turn that my ears pricked up.
“Do you have any drugs with you” the officer asked, with a firm Russian accent. She was a stern looking woman, mid-thirties, with excellent posture and a good grasp of English.
“I have some pills on prescription” the man said. He was Asian looking, perhaps Chinese but he could have just as easily been an American or European for all I knew. I couldn’t detect his accent through the cabin walls, on account of his unassuming vocal projection.
“What is it?” she said.
“This is a controlled substance in Russia. Did you declare it on your entry card?”
“No.” came the sad reply.
“You must leave the train and follow me. Pack your things. Your visa runs out today, so you must pay 1000 Rubles to extend it, whilst we check your prescription. These pills contain opium, so they are restricted.”
I got the sense it was a genuine mistake, one that anyone could have made. I was carrying Ibuprofen and never thought twice about it – okay, that’s probably permitted everywhere, isn’t it? But Kate was carrying some antibiotics – a prescription medication – in case of emergency. Maybe that could be problematic. Then I saw the short powerful arms of the male Russian customs officer, who was accompanying the other, pass my cabin with his arms full of the stuff. Box after box, running into hundreds of pills. Our former neighbor was in for a long night.
The Mongolian side of the border was less eventful and we were soon safely on the other side and on our way into the remote wilderness of the country. A local named Bhat was taking us to stay with a nomadic Mongolian family, a few hours drive outside of Ulaanbaatar.
Rolling green hills gave way to flat grazing plains with short-cropped grass, no longer than an inch or two. As we drove, you could see the pastures were turning into dessert slowly. We stop at a mound of rocks and Bhat tells us it is a shamanic monument. He sends us out to walk around the mound in a clockwise direction, as he takes a ceremonial hit of a DMT pipe, before giving a few rocks in sacrifice to the ever-growing hill.
Back in the car and all is silent for a while, as we digest the shamanic experience before Bhat begins again.
“All this used to be grass up to your waist.” he tells us. “The mining is ruining the land. This problem, we never had under socialism.”
Bhat is an interesting man: He was brought up under the USSR regime and had seen the transition to democracy first hand, in the early nineties. He was a talented acrobat and as such, had been invited to Moscow to study and then joined the State Circus. Now in his golden years, he was working in tourism, taking people like us and educating us in the traditional Mongolian nomadic way of life.
“Young people have too much freedom now” he said. “No discipline”. I understood where he was coming from. His discipline had served him well and led him to a life of great experiences in the circus. “We used to have conscription but no more”.
“But Mongolia is at peace and large armies cost a lot of taxes” I countered, suggesting it might be a misuse of valuable public money. He saw my point, without wholeheartedly agreeing.
After the fall of the USSR and socialism, Mongolia had struggled to maintain its economy without the helping hand of the mighty Soviet Union. This led to periods of hyperinflation, so in stepped the capitalists and the IMF to bail out their banks. Unlike a socialist regime like USSR, which is duty bound to bail out a partner on principal, the IMF bankers wanted something in return – mining profits. And so Mongolia is locked into mining its natural resources and giving most the money to the bankers of the world, with very little benefiting their own people. All whilst the beautiful grasslands of the Mongolian pastures are being ruined and “the nomadic way of life will be gone within a generation”, so Bhat tells me.
Read More: Our previous episode in Russia was off the scale!
We stay 24 hours with our new nomadic friends. They don’t speak much English – the father and mother none, the daughter only a few words. It’s not important. It’s unusual and a little uncomfortable at times but this kind of hospitality is a unique learning experience.
We round up and ride the horses, drive cattle and milk the cows. We delve into a world where language is obsolete and use of expressions and movement to communicate.
In the morning, I put both hands to the left of my head and make the international sign language signal for sleeping. I then do thumbs up and the mother smiles back at me.
“Sleep good.” I say. I follow that up with “Ulaanbataar…”. Then I mimic driving a car and shout “beep beeeeeep!” like car horns, then hold my ears. “Too loud. Here…” I continue, and point to my ears and gently say “shhhhhhh”. Nomadic mother laughs and my idiotic display but I think she gets the point.
Ulaanbaatar is noisy but it is the pollution that is most shocking. Powered by four huge coal power stations on the edge of the city, it is impossible to escape the smog. The country struggles to maintain many trees due to the climate and with mining disturbing the water table so profoundly, the wild grasses are depleting too, so there is no antidote. I leave my new nomadic family feeling absolutely desperate that their way of life is about to end.
Every year as global warming and mining reduces the viability of nomadic life, many are forced to the city but Ulaanbaatar is no safe haven. It has the worst air quality of any city in the world. The city is expanding at such a rate that the streets are jammed with cars, as city planning cannot keep up. It is a vicious cycle creating more and more toxic fog. The result is one of the lowest life expectancies, of any country at peace. Mongolia’s war is not one of guns and tanks but is against bankers and industry.
(Pic above: Coal mining site visible beyond the nomadic lands)
“Under socialism, people work together. Not anymore.” I can see Bhat’s point. He appreciated the socialist principals of collaboration under the USSR – people before profit. Living with the authoritarian aspect, having no voting rights, was a price he was willing to pay.
Bhat criticises ‘democracy’ as he puts it, but as people in the west conflate socialism with authoritarism, so Bhat is conflating democracy with capitalism – the economic system that puts profit first, above quality of life, collaboration and harmony with nature. The economic system that allows elections to be bought – in Scotland, the USA, Mongolian – all over the world.
I agree with his sentiments though and for the sake of Mongolia, its people and habitat, I hope to god we can stop this horrific destruction before the country is irredeemably destroyed.
These are the saddest three days of the trip so far.