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The Trans-Mongolian Railway

As mentioned before, I am enchanted by long-distance train travel, though admittedly I’ve never been on a train for more than twenty-four hours. Some day I will remedy this hole in my world traveler’s portfolio. Until then, I will live vicariously through those with the time and means to make such journeys.

Of course, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the stuff of legend, but legend filigreed with throwbacks to Grand Tours. The Trans-Mongolian Railway, which intersects with the Trans-Siberian in Irkutsk, Russia, has its own lore, though it is more rough and tumble, conjuring Genghis Khan and his exploits. Departing from Irkutsk and chugging through Mongolia en route to Beijing, China, some 1,820 miles south, the trip comprises long, uninterrupted views, many stops and plenty of time to meet other passengers.

David A. Andelman carved out five weeks to make the trip and wrote about it for The Wall Street Journal. He explains: “I first fell under the spell of Genghis and his Mongol horde—a rapid-strike force of mounted warriors who invaded civilizations as far apart as Baghdad and Budapest—more than half a century ago, when I studied with Francis Cleaves, the renowned translator of ‘The Secret History of the Mongols.’ Into the 1980s, my dream of visiting was all but impossible, with Khan’s land run by one of communism’s most brutal Stalinist dictatorships. But last year, with Mongolia moving toward a full democracy, the time finally seemed right for a rail trip with my wife through parts of Russia, Mongolia and China.”

Andelman continues: “Riding the Trans-Mongolian felt like being on a milk train. It clicked and swayed along on tracks that have seen better days, making frequent stops that allowed us to quickly explore tiny depots in towns surrounded by wide grasslands.”

Along with having the chance to see settlements that otherwise would be near impossible to visit, this trip also peels back a layer of the 500,000-square mile Gobi Desert, which according to Andelman is mostly flat with the exception of some towering dunes. Also interesting about this rail journey is how elements of globalization become visible as the train moves through Mongolia and nears China. The desolate flatlands of the former give way to “brand-new towns . . . wind farms whirring with hundreds of turbines.”

A trip like this not only gives you a sense for the actual size of the world, but it also makes clear how cultures rub up against one another, resulting in all sorts of exchanges. One of these days, I really hope to explore this region.

What long-distance train trip would you like to take?