Adventures in Mongolia, Part 2

Welcome back to our feature of photos from Mongolia, this is part two of the three part series. In our previous post, we got a chance to see some of the territory and the noteworthy curves and switchbacks that make the Trans Mongolian line interesting to ride and view. In this post we’re going to take a few visits behind the scenes to see some of the people that work to make this railroad run.

It’s worth starting out our feature about people with the photo below:
Welcome to Mongolia!
You’ll obviously spot yours truly in the center, to my right is Temuulen, who served as my driver and guide while in Mongolia. He’s an avid photographer of many things, including trains, and knows all the best spots for photographing the Trans Mongolian line. On the far left is Natsagdorj, Temuulen’s father, and on the right is Vasiliy. Both Natsagdorj and Vasiliy work for the railroad, they are two of Mongolian Railway’s track defect experts, or as you’d more officially call them, Head Engineers of the Road Diagnostic Center. Vasiliy is from Russia, but has been in Mongolia working for the railway there for the past 22 years. Natsagdorj studied at railway universities in both Russia and Mongolia, and has also been working for the railroad for 22 years.

Here’s an updated map, showing the places we’ll be visiting in this post with red dots:
Part 2 map

Kholt

In our previous post we got to see some trains around the Kholt area, this time we visit the small platform (complete with an old, abandoned signal house on the hill above), and get a chance to meet the local dispatcher. Trains through this area aren’t using any type of Centralized Traffic Control, instead a local dispatcher controls the siding outside, and when a train arrives nearby, heads outside to visually report its passage and log the consist’s rear car number and time of passage. On the station platform is a small, raised raised spot which the dispatcher stands on to observe the passing train. Next to the spot is a long sign that reads цэг хяналмын, which translates to control point.

Kholt
Kholt KholtKholt

Khairkan

Although another small station along the line, Khairkan is slightly more noteworthy than Kholt in that it has a building that doubles as a dispatch office and a small waiting area for passengers. Similar to the dispatcher shown in Kholt, the dispatcher here controls a small amount of local territory, and goes outside to observe trains when they pass. Local dispatchers keep in contact with a central dispatching office in Ulaanbataar, where traffic plans are created and new dispatchers are trained. Upgrades to a Centralized Traffic Control are planned for the area, in which case these local dispatcher jobs will become obsolete and the central office will instead control the train traffic from afar.

Khairkan
Khairkan Khairkan
Khairkan
Khairkan
Khairkan

Backshops

As one would expect, the main backshops for the Mongolian Railways is the capital of Ulaanbataar. Much of the equipment and work completed there reminds me of other shops I’ve seen at Amtrak and around the world – from the heavy overhead crane, to the truing of rail wheels. Unlike what I’m used to at work, there didn’t seem to be much in terms of PPE requirements.

Ulaanbataar shops
Ulaanbataar shops Ulaanbataar shops
Ulaanbataar shops
Ulaanbataar shops Ulaanbataar shops
Ulaanbataar shops

On the Road

Not everything I did while in Mongolia was railroad related. One can’t miss some of the more traditional touristy things while visiting the country, including sleeping in a ger, or riding a horse. In the case of the first, ger is the Mongolian word for “home” – and is basically a round tent that’s really not too bad of a place to rest your head. The center of the one I stayed in had a nice wood stove to keep you warm through the night, and yes, it was electrified. You can charge your cell phone in a ger… though you do have to go elsewhere to use the bathroom.

Ger camp

Not far from the camp was the Aryabal Temple, which was built in the early 1800’s by Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhists. It was destroyed by communists in the 1930s, and restored in 2007. The temple is located on the mountain, and requires climbing 108 steps to reach it.

Aryabal Temple
Aryabal Temple Aryabal Temple

On the way back to Ulaanbataar was one of those tourist traps you’ll find in a lot of different places, because everyone likes animals. In this case, the animals for show were birds of prey. Of course, hunting with large eagles is a traditional part of nomadic Mongolian culture, so it definitely makes sense.

Roadside birds
Roadside birds Roadside birds
Roadside birds

Either my arms are severely lacking in strength, or the bird was a lot heavier than it looked.

This wraps up part 2 of our feature on Mongolia, in our next part we’ll take a look at another popular tourist site in the country, one of the more remote train stations along the Trans Mongolian Line, and some views from high in the air.

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Adventures in Mongolia, Part 1

Earlier this year I posted a collection of photos from some of my travels around the United States, mostly on Amtrak. While riding the rails here at home is always fun, I’m always curious about foreign rail systems, especially some of the more remote ones throughout the world. One such remote system I got a chance to photograph was in Mongolia. Many people have at least heard of the famed Trans Siberian Railway, which stretches from Moscow to Vladivostok (a distance of nearly 6,000 miles) – but that part of the route isn’t the entire story. There are a few notable branch lines, the primary of which is the Trans Mongolian line, which separates from the Trans Siberian near Ulan Ude, Russia, and goes south through Mongolia and eventually ends in Beijing, China.

Mongolia Travel Map

Last year I got a chance to both photograph and ride the line (yes, I have quite the backlog of photos to go through!) and experience the very interesting and unique landscape that is Mongolia. Beside riding the trains, I got to camp in a normal tent, as well as the traditional Mongolian ger, hike a little, ride a horse, and visit some of the tourist locations – like the giant statue of Chinggis Khan (Chinggis being the more exact transliteration of who we usually call Genghis in English).

Ulaanbataar

My Mongolian adventures started in Ulaanbataar, the capital city of Mongolia, which also happens to have the largest train station in the country. Not far from the station is also a locomotive heavy repair facility, which you’ll see in Part 2. Our photos here feature the city’s main Sukhbataar Square, as well as an intersection not far from the square – note the traffic congestion at the intersection, Mongolians are restricted from driving in the city on certain days based on the last number on their license plates. Despite the vastness of the country, nearly half of the entire population live in just this city. Additional photos show the main railway station and surrounding area in Ulaanbataar.

Ulaanbataar Ulaanbataar
Ulaanbataar station
Ulaanbataar Ulaanbataar

Khonkor

A lot of my travels didn’t take me far from Ulaanbataar, mostly because some of the most notable territory along the Trans Mongolian route is just south of the city. In order to traverse the mountainous territory south of the capital, the railroad curls in an almost never-ending set of switchbacks which are popular with photographers to the area. Khonkor is approximately fifteen miles southeast of Ulaanbataar, but over 600 feet higher in altitude. On approach to Khonkor, it skirts the towering Bogd Khan Mountain, which lies just south of the capital, and is visible in some of the photos below.

Khonkor Khonkor
Khonkor
Khonkor Khonkor
Khonkor

Bayan

About nine miles south of Khonkor is Bayan, where more switchbacks have taken us up another 400 feet in altitude. Some of the mountains that the train passes through provide perfect perches for train watching, or if you happen to be a cow, usually a great place to graze. Unfortunately before my visit, little rain had fallen and much of the grass was brown (also unfortunately, the rain decided to fall frequently during my visit, even to the point of flooding Ulaanbataar. Apparently Mongolians have few qualms about fording rivers or flooded streets with their vehicles). The land here is known as the steppe – an area made up of grasslands and shrublands that form a crescent around the Gobi Desert, which is located further south on the Trans Mongolian line.

Bayan
Bayan Bayan
Bayan
Bayan Bayan
Bayan
Bayan Bayan

Kholt

Six and a half miles south of Bayan you will find Kholt, about 260 feet higher than before. Just south of here is the highest altitude you’ll find along the Trans Mongolian, from here on out you’ll be slowly descending to 3,150 feet at the border with China. Similar to Bayan, this is steppe territory which is largely free of trees and pretty much anything else, for that matter. Looking at the desolate landscape makes you truly begin to understand how Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world. In fact, one of the few dwellings you’ll see in the Kholt photos are two houses close to the tracks, which were formerly for railway workers to stay in, but are now unused.

Kholt
Kholt Kholt
Kholt
Kholt Kholt

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this initial introduction to the Trans Mongolian route. I have two more parts planned for the future – the second, which will feature the Ulaanbataar shops, a train dispatching office, and some of the people that work on the railroad. The third installment will highlight the mountainous territory of the line from the air, and show some of the more remote places you can find along the rails.

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