Chasing The Sun, First of Jan in Mongolia

(This article was published in the UB Post, English language newspaper of Ulaanbaatar)

At precisely nine a.m on January 1st 2012 I found myself 95km outside UB, a good 300 yards away from a reserved seat on a train that started pulling away. At this point I would have felt calmer had I at least been able to say it was pulling away ‘from a station’, or indeed any form of habitation. However with temperatures average for the time of year and snow falling, as far as I could tell, all it was departing was a sea of snow and isolation. And of course about 500 hungover locals.

This sounds a lot like one of those done to death film plots where the proverbial hero finds himself (it’s always a he) miles from where he is supposed to be with an improbably small amount of hours in which to get there. Often they involve stag-dos, copious amounts of alcohol and little or no recollection of how he ended up in this situation. He may be scantily clad to boot and about to get married. In my case, up until the now worryingly rapidly moving train made me think otherwise, none of the above were the case and things had seemed a little more thought through.

Folded in my pocket was my invitation to the improbably long titled ‘The Mongolian Railway Tour Bureau First Sun Rise Trip of Year 2012 Which Starts From Ulaanbaatar Railway Station at 06.00 am 2012’. Incorporating the departure time and place into the title was perhaps a stroke of organisational genius, though it didn’t lend itself to easy advertising slots. Maybe something is lost in translation and such a title works in Mongolian? This might explain why, as the ‘Special Train’ rolled out of UB station on the dot of 6 am, there were roughly 300 locals onboard and only enough ‘foreigners’ to squeeze into a breakfast compartment.

Thankfully, a megaphone of sorts started blaring out reassurances, so I was told, to the passengers, some of whom were now making a valiant attempt to bridge the widening gap between frostbite and safety, that ‘there are still 10 mins until departure’. The train then stopped. Until the MRTB revealed it had further surprises up its sleeve, it signalled the end of perhaps the most interesting, colourful, cultural and certainly earliest experiences of any of my 36 January firsts. I felt privileged, a word I use advisedly, to have witnessed it and if this article serves any purpose, it is to urge any expats planning on seeing in next year in UB, to set their date alarms for 5 a.m Jan 1st 2013.

If you do, you will begin next year, assuming the seemingly well-received ‘programme’ will be repeated in twelve months time, roughly as follows; 6 am departure on the dot (without being familiar with the Trade Descriptions Act of Mongolia) a sunrise chasing train which arrives after the break of dawn would presumably result in some form of claim for reimbursement? Sit in sauna-like temperatures in an air of faded, yet very comfortable, elegant, carpeted four person compartments, as the, for the occasion, beautifully adorned sleeper train, usually bound for Moscow, drives through the countryside in pitch darkness. Guards with stylish uniforms of pristine white and deep cobalt blue that ooze officialdom, will invite you to the dining car to partake of a champagne breakfast. Two hours after leaving UB you will jump, quite literally about a meter into a snow drift and you will have arrived.

I don’t feel especially qualified to go into the ritual significance of what followed. I have managed to determine that seeing the sunrise on the first of January brings very good luck for the upcoming year. However this appears to be a relatively modern ‘tradition’ with the ceremonies which accompany it once again permitted after 1990. Certainly for Tsagaan Sar the much more significant start of the lunar new year celebrated since at least the 13th C, only men are traditionally permitted to watch the sun rise.

The male and female friendly programme on this occasion, allowed for an hour in what was now softly falling flakes of snow, from an ominously overcast sky. The improbability of actually seeing any form of sunrise through such conditions, did nothing to dampen the spirits of the crowd, many of whom had driven from UB to witness it. The national anthem, speeches, three or four large bonfires, gers, the chance to have your photo taken on a horse (very popular with local children) were concluded with a ‘fire festival’.

Three, what I took to be Shamans, though whether white, black or the more recent  Buddhism-inspired yellow, I cannot say, performed a dance, recited what sounded like verse and danced. As part of the Tenger animistic belief system all humans, animals and things in nature have a soul- a spirit. Unlike many world religions, in Tenger, woman is represented by the Golden Sun; beautiful and constant. The dances concluded, the crowd as one moved towards a long slope where rows were formed in anticipation of her imminent rising.

I have been in enough ‘whiteouts’ on skis to know that there was absolutely no way we were going get a sunrise, at least a visible one, that morning. As we all lined up, milk offerings at the ready, I did wonder for just how long this crowd was prepared to stand and wait and what would be the reaction, when they did, assuming they did not already, realise that the only thing coming from the Eternal Sky that morning would be snow.

What set it off, for it was certainly not a red ball rising over the horizon, I don’t know. A young man draped in a Mongolian flag in front of me let go a very wolf-esque sounding cry, which was immediately echoed and repeated up and down the long line of spectators. Milk offerings were thrown into the air, the droplets hitting the ground already frozen. It didn’t look like much of a sunrise to me, but looking around at the multitude there was not one disappointed face.

I learned recently that supposedly in 1299 AD Mongolians invented lemonade. Maybe they also therefore came up with that saying ‘if life hands you lemons, make lemonade’? It was quite remarkable how not one person seemed in the slightest put out by the star of the show not putting in an appearance. However, once back on the train a slightly concerned looking MRTB official preempted to the crowd of possibly less easily appeased expats that in fact snow on January first brings much better luck than any sunrise could ever hope to, so we were very blessed indeed. Life and lemons?

That same official then presided over a ‘Folklore and Ethnographic Concert’, once again for the expats in the now converted breakfast car. Throat singing, dancing (yes dancing on a train) and traditional music performed live as we rode though the snow and (now) blue sky towards the looming UB smog. The pressure was off with no sunrise to chase and there was certainly an air of almost communal well-wishing, one could almost push it to love, on the return journey. Officials smiled more, the singers stayed for a drink and even the ladies who had been shovelling coal into burners at the start of each car stopped this back braking labour to wish a Happy New Year to anyone who passed.

We were back in UB comfortably and reassuringly late, around 12.30 lunchtime. The sun was up, it was January First.  We’d been snowed on, warm, cold, I think blessed, inspired and not least educated. They say everyday do something you have never done before. Being a passenger on the First Sunrise Trip of 2012 made that a certainty for one day. She may have neglected to appear and a year is a long time to wait even for a lady, but I am sorely tempted to return next year and see if the sun will rise along with what she will have brought to this amazing country in the interim.

The trip this year cost 60 USD through Mongolian Railway Tour Bureau.

www.railcom.mn/mrt This ticket includes champagne breakfast, hot wine, seats in a 4 seat compartment and the folklore concert. A cheaper version is available for 20.000 Tugs without the thrills. The price for 2013 has not been released yet.

~ by 2ndcupoftea on January 26, 2012.

2 Responses to “Chasing The Sun, First of Jan in Mongolia”

  1. Glæder mig til at læse mere, det lyder som en fantastisk oplevelse – selvom du ikke så solen 😉

    Kh Mia

  2. Enthralling stuff Thomas. You never cease to amaze.

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