In 2006 I rode the trans-Siberian express. Apparently the train I took was technically the trans-Mongolian express, since it made a right turn after lake Baikal and headed South through Mongolia rather than proceeding East to Vladivostok on Russia’s Asian extremity, but few people bother to make this distinction.
In any case this story begins in Helsinki, where I spent the night in a hostel before an early train to St Petersburg. As luck would have it, the gentleman in the bunk below mine was a fellow Australian by the name of Patrick. When I told him that I would be traveling through Mongolia, his tone became cautionary and he explained his personal experience with the Mongols. Patrick had spent a year living in China, where he shared a room with a young Mongolian man. Apparently this guy often rushed back to their room panic stricken and pleaded with Patrick to hide him somewhere because his Mongolian friends were going to murder him with knives. Plus, Patrick went on, he had plenty of scars from knife-wounds to indicate he wasn’t exaggerating.
I didn’t say it at the time, but I had the feeling that Patrick himself was probably exaggerating and I promptly forgot his story as I set out on the longest train line in the world. I encountered no foreign tourists on the train in Russia until the final Russian leg of the trans-Mongolian express, from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, when my carriage was almost completely populated by them (or should I say ‘us’). Two of whom were Englishmen by the names of Steve and Paul, funny lads, who I decided to hang out with in Mongolia’s capital.
In early Spring, the area around Ulaanbaatar is a dusty moonscape of rolling hills covered with fist sized rocks like those that line the thousands of miles of train track between there and Helsinki. We spent the first day in that scenery on interesting, wholesome activities that continued until Steve, Paul and I hit the bars for dinner and beyond.
The first place we visited was a large and apparently popular bar slash restaurant with a live band. Here an American man, approaching 50, uninvitedly joined our table. He was in Mongolia for work on some geological project, the details of which I can’t recall, but what I do remember is that he was loud and crass, particularly about local women – I pitied any of the bar girls who were unfortunate enough to stray within calling distance of the fellow. This American man had loitered at our table for around an hour when Steve went to the bathroom in a normal state, but returned visibly shaken. He told us that in the bathroom some locals had set upon him with knives and that he only managed to escape thanks to a timely interruption by a security guard.
Steve was hastily pressing us to leave when one of his would-be attackers calmly joined our table. To our surprise he was quite polite, even charming, and spoke excellent English. After talking with us for a while, and out of earshot of the American, he said that we all seemed like nice guys and asked us why we would be friends with that other rude man. The news that we had only just met him seemed expected, then the Mongolian, still quite calmly, told Steve, Paul and myself that he intended to murder the American as soon as he left the bar.
I was shocked and said “I understand why you don’t like him but you can’t just kill him! If he’s offended you just punch him in the mouth or something.” But the Mongolian was unmoved and he told us “that’s not the way we do things here.” He, ironically, held out his hand in the “thumbs up” signal, then jabbed his thumb into his own throat, heart and groin to demonstrate how things were done.
“What about the police?”
“They understand how we do things in Mongolia.”
I never saw the American again.