Mongolia's current rail system, spanning about 1,100 miles, was built by Soviet engineers in the last century, long before China awakened as an industrial power. Chinese trains, in contrast, run on a more narrow gauge than the Soviet one. As such, while a northbound train from Mongolia can pass seamlessly into Russia -- with which Mongolia has little trade, save gasoline imports -- it wouldn't be able to move along the tracks of Mongolia's best customer: China.
Many of Mongolia's businesspeople want the country to add new tracks using the Chinese gauge standard. Wary of its neighbors’ territorial expansion ambitions, however, Mongolian politicians have opted for more of the Soviet gauge.
“The Mongolians recognize that the railway would not slow the Chinese. It's the symbolism that matters,” says author Jack Weatherford.
Left: A freight train loaded with containers travels near Sainshand.
To read the full story by Yuriy Humber and Michael Kohn, click here.