This was the view I had waking up Thursday morning after we’d crossed the Mongolian border. It was really unbelievable; it just went on for miles and miles of vast nothingness. I’ve bicycled across some of the great open spaces of the U.S. – Nebraska, western Montana, North Dakota, Iowa – but I can’t remember ever seeing anything like it. Just unending miles of rolling yellow and brown fields, with an occasional glimpse of green, going on seemingly forever.
To say that Mongolia is kind of empty is pretty much an understatement. The U.S. has one of the lowest population densities in the world, with 89 people per square mile. (I suppose I could do the arithmetic, but I’m curious what it would be if you took out Alaska; it would probably make a measurable difference.) Canada has a lot more open space, with 10 people per square mile. That’s practically crowded compared to Mongolia, though with just five people per square mile, lower than any country in the world. Canada, with 10 people per square mile. This is the ultimate – in no other country in the world will you see this much vast emptiness.
So you had to wonder: How did he do it? This is a big, open space with a climate that’s not exactly inviting; as we approached Ulan Bator on May 30, there were still large patches of snow scattered everywhere. How did Genghis Khan – the son of a 12th century Mongolian widow whose tribe abandoned the family in this desolate part of the world – become arguably the world’s greatest conqueror? At his death the empire reached from China across much Central Asia, while his heirs pushed deep into Europe. A couple of years ago Mark & I both read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, a really good read, so I’m thinking I should know more about it. But even if you know the history, or maybe especially if you know the history, it begs the question, how did he do it? Maybe, like so many of his statues in Mongolia, he was just really big, but there was probably more to it than that.
Then, wondering about Mongolia and the Mongolians and population density and vast spaces, I started wondering about the Canadians, too. What is it about the Canadians? Mark and I have traveled in a lot of interesting and occasionally remote places in the world, and we always meet Canadians. The more remote we are the greater chance that there’ll be no Americans and at least a few Canadians. Here’s a clue: if you’re traveling somewhere and meet someone who sounds like an American, don’t ask if they’re from the U.S. They’re probably from Canada and you’ll just piss ’em off.
(Except for Dave, one of the twenty-something Canadians on our train. Dave is a big, burly guy traveling with Hannah, a remarkably pretty woman who was either his wife or girlfriend [he described her as both interchangeably]. He drank a lot of beer, shared his beer and snacks generously, liked and talked to everyone, was the biggest personality on the train. And was wearing a t-shirt and a mid-thigh black skirt, with a modest slit up the side. He was quite the character, and you just didn’t get the sense much was going to upset him…)
Sure enough, on this first leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad the compartments closest to ours were taken by two Canadian couples, one from Nova Scotia, the other from Vancouver. As far apart as you can get in North America, but as always, Canadians. We met spent lots of time with them and met a number of Australians, a Dutch couple, a German or two, Bernard from Hong Kong … but not a single other American. It’s not just this trip or just one or two experiences: time and again, anywhere in the world with the likely exception of western Europe, if you meet North Americans they’re probably Canadians. Of course, I suppose the question isn’t what is it about Canadians, but what is it about our fellow Americans?