Ulan Baatar

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How many people can you fit into one sleeping compartment on the transMongolian? A few aussies, kiwis, a russian, american, spaniard, austrian and a mongolian or two ....... made 21.

The train trip from Ulan Baator to Irkutsk involved a lot of waiting around clutching passports and immigration paperwork on both sides of the Mongolian and Russian borders. The theatre of custom officials and the Mongolian smugglers hiding salamis sausages, clothes, you name it, in every nook and cranny including foreigners luggage, made for great entertainment.
I slept with several strings of salami sausages hung above my upper bunk.
A cold russian beer and a couple of passengers doing the macarena, cossack dancing and other steps in the middle of the tracks, also whiled away the time. As do the nonsensical shuffling of carriages and engines.

Words and photographs cannot describe the magnificence of the Mongolian steppes. A five hour bumpy drive to our camp 300 km out of the capital, traversed vast sweeping plains without fences, trees and often any other living thing in sight. At the crest of every hill another stunning vista greets you, a landscape of a thousand roads as the Mongolians 'make their own' road when other tracks get cut up.

When sharing the road, it was with herds of wild horses, goats or cows, watched over by Mongolian horsemen mounted on wooden saddles, in their traditional clothes and long boots. Unbelievably beautiful and sexy. At night asleep in the felt tent it was so quiet except for the pounding hooves of Mongolian horses trotting past.

Welcomed into a nomadic family's ger the warmth and hospitality of these stunningly beautiful people was demonstrated by their sharing food and drink with us, dressing me up in a gorgeous hand sewn ceremonial costume, and laughing with us grappling with the wooden saddles when riding their horses.

Occassionally the outside world was apparent on the steppes - the young Mongolians chatting away on mobile phones, satellite dishes outside gers and a shopkeeper near an ancient temple in the middle of nowhere reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

However, in the ancient temples and on the steppes of Mongolia, an overwhelming sense of serenity pervaded. What a magical and astounding country.