Railways and Mother Trees

I wandered along the platform, looking at my paper ticket, wondering if I can manage this new form of transportation. And when I say new, I mean new to me. Mongolia has had trains for the last 50 some years, but the trains don’t even begin to reach my far flung western aimag. Up until a couple hours ago I didn’t even know I was going to be embarking on a 8 hour journey to visit my Pre-Service Training site, but having just returned to Ulaan Baatar after Close Of Service conference, my host sister Ulzii wrote me a frazzled message “When are you visiting my home??”. Promptly, after asking fellow volunteers what the word for “train station” was, I packed my backpack at the hostel and took off.

I show my ticket to various train attendants who point me in various directions till I find the correct car number. I actually have a seat on this journey, a rarity in Mongolian public transportation, and I’m welcomed with hot coffee, to which I’m amazed. Third class on a Mongolian train was luxurious to me, especially compared to the 30 hour off roading bus rides I was used to. Later my host sister called me to point me towards a friend to help me disembark at the right station. This turns out to be incredibly helpful, as the train arrives in the soum [small village] at around 5am, in the dark, and it looks no different then any other remote train platform. Good Samaritans push me off the train, and I watch the train depart, sparks flying out of the flukes of the cars , lights fading into the distance. Another Samaritan gives me a ride to my old khaasha, where my host dad escorts me to the house, waving their ferocious dog away in the dark. At least I’m assuming it’s a dog, I have never actually seen the animal in the daylight. Safe in the room where I stayed my first summer, I promptly fell asleep.

I woke up to a normal breakfast and explored the khaasha. Their goats and sheep were in from the countryside, in a little corral in the corner of the yard. It not as green as I remember as its not quite gardening season here. My host family, surprised at my slightly improved Mongolian skills, asked about life at my site, what type of work I do, and just about life in general. I must of not have spoken Mongolian at all when I left training, cause they were happy as clams to be able to actually converse with me. To convey the idea that my site was 30 hours away on nonexistent road, was not something I could have talked about when I was in training.

I spent most of the day taking pictures of old haunts. The trees in front of school where we would take naps during training. The river where we would hang out for lazy weekends. I visited families that hosted volunteers for my training summer, to which they asked “why didn’t so and so come?”. Host families remember ‘their Americans’ , for a long time after they’re gone.

After a tsuivan dinner, my host dad and sister took me to the Eje Mod or Mother Tree. It’s a site sacred to many Mongolians and seen as the place where all trees originated. It’s atypical for its blend of Buddhism and Shamanism, with people leaving offerings of milk, tea blocks and the deels of those that have passed away. My host sister gave me a small bottle of milk and a bag of brown rice to toss on the site as I circumambulated three times . ” You must make good thinks” my sister told me, “also so that you will return, very fast”. No one else was there, so we walked the edge of the site in silence, the only sounds the birds in the surrounding trees and the soft rustle of falling grains of rice. The dusky light filtered though the trees, highlighting bright khaduks wrapped around poles and draped over towers of tea blocks.

We drove back in the cab of my host dads pickup, through a maze of dirt tracks through the woods, listening to the first Mongolian song I ever learned, Ayani Shuvuu, or Traveling Bird. As the sun was setting, and the light fading through the trees, I felt an incredible sense of grace . As much as I have felt tested beleaguered and worn down living in this country, at that moment I also felt incredibly privileged to spend time in the place where I first got to know and learn about Mongolia.

I made promises to visit this summer, and my family dropped me off at the train station the next morning for my return trip to UB. They kissed me on one cheek, instead of both, leaving the other side “for when you comeback” . The train came to whisk me back to the city, and I watched the green hills of Selenge aimag turn into brown flat terrain surrounding the capital. I do hope I can come back soon. Its hard to imagine that, sooner rather then later I will again be catching the train, but instead of getting off in this little village , I will instead keep on rolling by, past the trees, past the khaasha, past this little corner of the world I know so much about, to someplace completely new and different.

Till next time- V.



  1. Great post. And we love your blog name

    1. Thanks! The name reflects my roots. I love yours as well!

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