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August 12th, 2003

Somewhere on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, Mongolia

Upon waking I immediately looked out the window to see if there was any indication that we were nearing the fabled Mongolian steppe. The scenery still looked Siberian, but over the course of the day the forests thinned out, the grasses turned from green to yellow, and the flat landscape became slightly hilly. There were hardly any settlements along the way, and although the train stopped dozens of times, not once did we stay at a station for more than five minutes, and not once did I see any produce-wielding babushkas on the platforms. I resigned myself to a day of crackers and top ramen.

We reached the border town of Naushki in the early afternoon. I waited tensely for the border guards to board -- hoping that my visa registrations would be in order -- but two hours passed with no sign of any officials. Several times the train would move forward a few hundred meters, stop for a few minutes, then move backwards for a few hundred meters. It wasn't until I stuck my head out the window that I noticed that the train was shorter than when I boarded it, and could only assume that the carriages were being separated one by one -- perhaps to simplify the customs process.

Eventually the Russian customs officials boarded our carriage and took away passports. More waiting ensued, but we eventually got them back and were able to carry on into Mongolia. The customs process in Sukhbataar, the town on the Mongolian side of the border, was slighly more efficient, which is to say it only took a couple of hours. Between our arrival at Naushki and our departure from Sukhbataar, eight-and-a-half hours had passed and it was starting to get dark. So much for watching the Mongolian countryside scroll by. As darkness obscured the view from the windows, I settled into bed to sleep my way to Ulaan Bataar.

Village south of Baikal, from the train
Village again
Mongolian sky at dusk

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