Travelling in a four-berth sleeper with strangers is always an adventure. The amorous young couple settled in, appearing to share no more than age and youthful lust! She, a red haired Finnish girl and he a young Mongolian. They were at Shanghai University and planned to be married and move to Finland, she announced decisively. His parents lived in a “ger”  the Mongolian term for a yurt. They would be informed just as soon as we arrived in Ulaan Baatar. “Mongolians and Finns have a lot in common” she added, without enlarging. The fourth occupant, a Japanese lady, with a year’s leave from her job in Osaka and little spoken English, nodded politely.

I felt lucky to find a cancellation. The train had been fully booked by tour groups and returning Mongolians for months in advance. The annual Naadam Festival in Ulaan Baatar is a big deal. The weekly Trans Mongolian departed from Beijing’s grandiose Central Railway Station at 7.40 am precisely. Each occupant was issued a sheet, a blanket and a pillow. There were small folding seats in the corridor for those unable to tolerate close quarters with their newfound companions. A samovar, kept boiling by a compact charcoal fire, was available in each carriage. Tea and instant noodles are considered essentials in these parts.

I headed for the dining car as we sped by one polluted city after another. I passed through First Class where diplomats, aid workers and missionaries enjoyed private imitation wood panelled compartments with interconnecting showers at almost twice the price. The Chinese menu forced me to examine the plates of other diners and choose by appearance. I filled my patterned glass with leafy green tea, admired the sparkling table setting, and waited with optimism.

At the border things ground to a halt. Carriages were disengaged and jacked up. New wheels were fitted to accommodate the narrow gauged Mongolian line. Locals used the three hours productively; buying caseloads of cheap Chinese fruit, eggs and vegetables from vendors well stocked for this weekly routine. Our comfortable compartment became a warehouse as the young couple sought to soften their news with gifts. Endless diminutive officials with huge peaked hats and reams of questions, kept us from sleep. Finally, we passed into Mongolia.

Small stations were a welcome change to the bland, empty, arid scenery. A minimal stall here and there manned by optimistic kids, reminiscent of lemonade stands. Eventually the brown desert gave way to green grass, undulating hills, wild flowers, gers and galloping horses. After 30 hours the train pulled into Ulaan Baatar.

The Naadam Festival held between July 11th and 13th has been around since the 17th Century and focuses on the three “manly” sports of horse racing, archery and wrestling (women now participate in the first two). Nine yaks tails representing the nine Mongol tribes are ceremonially transported from the town square to the stadium. The show opens with a speech from The President as colourful paragliders drop from the sky amid fireworks, a parade of folk dancers and traditionally dressed people. 

In the ensuing days, 1000 wrestlers, some with State titles such as “Elephant” “Falcon” “Lion” will fight it out. Wrestling is exclusively a man’s sport in Mongolia. Clad in pointed velvet caps, intricately embroidered leather boots, colourful skintight Speedo’s and frontless vests  (redesigned to avoid repeating the ignominy of a woman in disguise entering the contest and winning!) These “peacocks” strut and pose for the crowd awaiting their turn. Each is accompanied by a herald who loudly chants the virtues of his wrestler in verse.

Horses are the pride of every nomadic family. They even feature on the currency, the togrog. In the nearby village of Yarmag a temporary ger city had been erected. Nearly half the population of around 2 million are nomads and are used to packing up their gers and moving them on camel carts or ancient Russian trucks to greener pastures. Yarmag is the finishing point for the races.Around 8am the air fills with dust as hundreds of galloping horses converge. Tiny jockeys, aged between 5 and 12, dressed in colourful silks and papal-type headgear, gather nervously surrounded by mounted well wishers. A father lifts his son from the saddle and kisses him on the forehead offering a final swig from a water bottle. These kids have been taught to ride as soon as they can walk. Training for Naadam begins months, sometimes years before the event.

Proud fathers emerge from the crowd leading their jockey offspring by the reins. Horseracing is not just confined to males. Together they circle the finishing post singing a traditional anthem before disappearing over the horizon in a stampede, to register for the race and head to the starting point.

Naadam is unique in the world of horse racing. A total of four thousand horses compete in 6 races. The distance is decided by the age of the horse. Seven-year-olds will run 30 kilometers while 2 year olds a mere 16 kilometers. The course is straight. Point A to point B. The first horse to pass the post, with or without a rider, is the winner.

Two hours pass. The crowd swelters in 100-degree heat. Ice Cream vendors do a roaring trade. An army truck disgorges soldiers, some surprisingly with batons & clear plastic shields. A rope cordon is held between the stand and the track. Paparazzi polish foot long telescopic lenses in readiness. Horsemen gather behind the low stands for an elevated view. In the distance a dust cloud appears like a moving tornado. Excitement grows. Emerging headlights, leading the way, are now discernable in the brown haze.  They’re coming. The crowd roars. The thunder of hooves. The leaders whip, entreat and will their flagging steeds to keep going. Thick dust. Neck and neck. The winner pulls ahead. The riderless horse in third place will be honored.

The first five jockeys receive the accolades. A traditional drink of “airag” - fermented mare’s milk, which is also sprinkled liberally on the horses rump. Poetry is recited extolling the virtues of horse and rider. I amble down the track after hundreds of stragglers have limped home. The scene is not so exuberant. I count ten dead horses on my short walk. Their hearts had simply stopped. They had given their all. A young jockey cries over his pal, his horse. Friends cut strands of hair from the tail of the fallen animal, a memento for the grieving boy. The front-end loader and open truck wait, then move on to the next corpse. They will return later. Mongolians are kind understanding people.

In the blink of an eye it’s all over. At the closing ceremony the winning jockeys are dubbed “Leader of ten thousand” The finest archers merely “Best Archer” Whilst the wrestling champion walks off with much puffery and the insurmountable title of “National Giant” - for a year anyway. The streets of Ulaan Baatar are blocked by smoke belching overloaded Russian trucks returning participants, families, and their gers to the nomadic life somewhere on the steppes for another year.



It is essential to obtain a tourist visa prior to departure. Mongolian Consulate General. PO Box 754. Suite 1800, BCE Place, 181 Bay Street, Toronto Ont M5J 2T9 Tel (416)865 7779 Fax (416)863 1515. You can obtain a 30-day tourist visa quite promptly. You will also need a double entry Chinese visa if you plan to come and go via Beijing.

FLIGHTS: There are regular flights from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar. Try to avoid MIAT, The national Mongolian carrier. It can be unreliable (as I discovered!)

TRANS MONGOLIAN RAILWAY: Prices can vary wildly depending on where and how the ticket was purchased. I was quoted over C$300 for a one way ticket from Travel Agents in Canada. A friend paid US$70 at the station in Beijing. I paid US$110 from reliable China Ocean Travel Services in Beijing ( all arranged by email). They also booked my hotel accommodation there and delivered the ticket in person. (Richard Tian Tel 86 10 6527 3676 Fax 86 10 6527 3347 email The train runs every Wednesday and fills early around Naadam. The choice of accommodation is second class 4-berth sharing or 1st Class private compartment with shared shower. Both are clean and comfortable – The train eventually winds up in Moscow.

DANGERS: Mongolians are gentle people but they sure love their vodka. Drunks, stray dogs (generally passive), street kids, potholes and open manhole covers are the main hazards. Take normal precautions against pickpockets – this is a poor country.

THINGS TO TAKE: Bug spray if you intend to visit the countryside. A wide brimmed sun hat. A flashlight for evening walks and blackouts. Sunscreen. Warm clothing – The weather can turn from boiling to bitterly cold. A fits-all plug! Instant coffee/tea/whitener. A spoon fork and mug for the train or hotel room.

FOOD: Mongolia is not a gourmet’s dream. In Mongolian restaurants, lamb is the order of the day – for breakfast lunch and dinner!! Europeans have opened more upmarket places to cater to tourists and aid workers with prices to match


USEFUL GUIDE: Mongolia – Lonely Planet – May 2001 version.


Copyright © 2002 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.