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The Mongolian detour

Ewan Kingston

22nd July, 2009

Ewan deviates from his odyssey to check out Mongolia, and finds a friendly country full of surprises but fully in thrall to King Coal...

A friend from Aotearoa gave me advice before my travels began:
'Have a plan, but don't stick to it too closely'.

That approach has served me well, so when I found out that the Mongolian consulate in Irkutsk could issue a visa overnight, I switched my route. Instead of taking the Trans-Manchurian train, via Haerbin, to Beijing, I would now follow the route of the Trans-Mongolian, via Ulaanbaatar. This way I could cut 500km off my journey, and hopefully reach Mongolia in time for Naadam - 'the annual 'Nomad Olympics'.

It was good advice. Ulaanbaatar during Naadam is full of pickpockets, and occasionally worse, but it was worth the grime. The festival was an exotic feast of traditional costumes, archery competitions and a 30km horse race on the steppes (disturbingly, three horses died). Nadaam also involves a delightfully ritualistic wrestling tournament and, most bizarrely 'anklebone shooting'. This is kind of a cross between marbles, snooker and knucklebones - a sport where competitors flick bone wedges towards other bone wedges and try to knock sheep anklebones into a target.

With my desire for nomad sports sated, it was back to the low-carbon travel game. When I got to Mongolia the first place I headed was an email cafe. News from home? That's always good, but my mission this time was to get onto the International Energy Association website to find the energy mix of Mongolia's electricity. Suprise, suprise – pretty much 100 percent coal.

I didn't fancy my train trip south-east being coal-powered, so the trip from the Mongolian border was made by bus, (starring two sociable English-speaking teenagers and a very cute puppy) and shared car (starring a Mongolian driver who could hardly speak English, but could name all the members of the Eagles).

There are hardly any motor vehicles going from Ulaanbaatar to the Chinese border though, so it was with reluctance that I booked a seat on the train, only to realise my time on the IEA website was chasing red herrings – it's back to the (cough-cough) diesel engines!
 
The train from Ulaanbaatar to China is one of the most scenic I've been on. From the rolling hills outside Ulaanbaatar to the mesmerising flat ochre plane of the Gobi. Company was good too: young Mongolians shared games of checkers and music with me. Planning a two-night stopover at the little town of Sainshand gave me a chance to hitchike into the desert proper and visit Khamaran Khiid – Mongolia's desert monastery on the site of a traditional 'energy centre'.

I'm at least a part-time sceptic, but lying on the red rocks, surrounded by stupas, I felt a kind of earthly power, renewing my strength for the sometimes trying, but always fascinating journey across this beautiful world.

Mode of transport Distance CO2 emissions
Train (electric), Irkutsk to Ulan Ude 465km @ 54 g CO2, per passenger kilometre (/pkm) 25 kg
Minibus, Ulan Ude to Khyarta 218 km @ 300 g CO2/pkm 4 kg
Shared car, Khyarta to Darkhan 87 km @ 180 g CO2/pkm 4 kg
Coach, Darkhan to Ulaanbaatar 230 km @ 29 g CO2/pkm 7 kg
Train (diesel), Ulaanbaatar to Zamyn-Ud 609 km @ 75 g CO2/pkm 46 kg
TOTAL 1609 km 86 kg

Equivalent if I had flow direct (although there's no airport at Zamyn-Ud), 1117 k, + 9 per cent routing addition @ 248 g CO2/pkm (short haul) = 302 kg
 
Note: For lack of info on Mongolian and Russian train efficiency, I'm sticking with Defra's emissions factors here, as outlined in their methodology paper.

 

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