‘Hello Mongolia, Goodbye Russia’
Here is one of the great entries for ‘Best Written Piece’ in our Vodkatrain Traveller Awards that we have received so far. This one is written by Joel Carnegie and you can read more about his Vodkatrain journey on his blog ‘The Space’.
‘Hello Mongolia, Goodbye Russia’ by Joel Carnegie
With our cabin curtains left open overnight, flashes of light from passing trains and remote villages create shadows of dancing light through our cabin. As we continue on this leg of the journey from Irkutsk, Russia to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, I somehow manage a few hours of napping, waking to the movement of the rocking train around 08:00 local time. Whatever time that is. The thing about this type of train travel is that whilst you might not sleep as well as you would normally, you honestly don’t need as much. Even the simplest of things, like making breakfast, seem to take half the morning.
As my eyes shift into focus, I survey the scene below. My fellow roommates are nowhere in sight. They’re out in the hallway by the window, staring into space. The old man takes a cigarette out of his pocket, lights it and wanders off down the hallway for a smoke. As I examine the landscape through the window, I notice that something has changed. Mountain ranges and half frozen lakes have sprung up around the train, a welcome sight from the flat and mostly barren Siberian landscape that we experienced on the previous leg of the journey.
Every now and then, we pass a station or two, but don’t stop for long. In the light of the new morning, our carriage has become the final carriage of what was a multi-car train the previous evening, with good views from the vestibule enabling some interesting photograph opportunities of a disappearing Russian countryside. I wonder what the Russian and Mongolian border crossing experiences will entail.
By lunchtime, we arrive at the Russian border town of Naushki. Border officials, police and security staff wield frightening powers in this part of the world. Known for being long and tedious, the border crossing process is expected to be an exercise in patience and tolerance, but with a good dose of intrigue and suspense thrown in for good measure. We are told to stay in our cabins as Russian border authorities storm the train, checking passports and arrival/departure cards left over from our arrival into St Petersburg, some weeks ago. We are able to get off the train at this point, and having made friends with some fellow travellers – we entertain ourselves in the snow, taking photos and checking out the happenings on the platform. There isn’t much happening.
However, as we do this, we realise that we are the only solitary carriage left on the train tracks. No engine, no other carriages. Our little green Mongolian carriage looks so lonely amongst the towering goods carriages in the backdrop of a grey Russian sky. An engine is finally shunted back onto our carriage and we jump back on board. We exchange our Russian roubles for Mongolian Tugrik with some unofficial money changers over some chocolate and a cup of tea. Three men are lead off the train in handcuffs and rope. Snow falls.
Toilets on the train are locked during this time, so we again pull on our puffy jackets, and run through the gracefully falling snowflakes, across the train tracks, past the shivering stray dogs, and into the station toilet block. Ten roubles are exchanged for our first experience of squat toilets on this journey. I’ve had worse.
More security personnel board the train. Again, they go through the same passport checking process (clearly once wasn’t enough) and our passports are whisked away to an office somewhere for processing. As the afternoon progresses, our cabins and baggage are also thoroughly examined by Russian border control. Time passes. More specifically five hours pass. In the meantime, I join mother and daughter combo, Luda and Marsha (my Russian roommates) for lunch. Bread and butter is served, with milky tea. I pull out expresso flavoured dark chocolate from London and we share this together, breaking up the silence with banter (in Russian). With my phrase book at the ready, my mate Andy also joins in. Communicating with words, hand signs, pictures, smiles and laughter, between the four of us we work hard to maintain a flowing conversation. Of course, we’re not able to get into deep and meaningfuls, but to find out more about the lives of everyday Russians is a priceless opportunity and is one of the most rewarding aspects of this train journey thus far.
Spot on time, the train moves off from the station, crosses over the Russian border, and we chug slowly over to the Mongolian border town of Sukhebaatar to do it all over again! Fortunately, it is scheduled to last only 2h30 or so. We look out the window as we approach the border town, but curtains are quickly drawn closed by the provodnistas and we are told to return to our cabins for the border crossing process. Dogs and officials dressed in green uniforms with peaked caps board the train.
A stern women clothed in full military attire with thick makeup appears, demanding passports and visas from each of us. She flicks through my passport and examines my passport photo, staring up at me to determine whether I look like who I say I am. She seems content enough and files the passport into a brown leather satchel for processing, alongside all of the others. We can’t really move around, as the border officials seem to take up most of the common areas and hallway. Cabins are searched again. One woman is lead away for more questioning. She doesn’t return.
We are allowed to exit the train when passports are finally returned. It’s well and truly dark now, and whilst being on the platform offers a change of scenery, the station itself is nothing to write home about. A small kiosk, a ticketing desk, a few seats.
We chat to Marieke and Misha (our Dutch backpacking friends) in the warmth of the station waiting area before heading back to the train, only to find that another train has arrived in front of ours. We have to walk around it to reach our sad looking solo carriage on the platform further over. But as we approach our carriage, it suddenly springs to life and takes off! Safety in numbers, we’re not too concerned however, hoping that it’s just shunting down the tracks. Fortunately we are correct, and we join the train as it returns to the platform, with engine in place ready to depart. We depart shortly afterwards, and prepare ourselves for an early 06:10 arrival into Ulaanbaatar the following morning.
With a squeal from my roommate and a sudden stream of neon light hitting my eyes, we’re being told that we’re now at Ulaanbaatar station. Huh? We have another 50 minutes before we’re meant to arrive. Apparently not.
From opening my eyes, we have just minutes to collect our gear and get off the train. Grabbing my clothes, toiletries and food, I realise I’m stuck on the top bunk until the others clear out. Throwing on my jeans, I stuff my belongings into bags, throw on a sock or two and make my way down the hallway and out into the crisp early morning air. It was 05:10. I had good intentions to find out what the Russian translations of “it was nice to meet you” and “all the best with your travels”, but there is no time and my friendly roommates have already disappeared.
So, this is a fairly rude awakening. We wonder how we got the timing just so wrong. I do remember someone knocking on our door earlier, but I clearly had written it off as a dream. Eugh. So, hello Ulaanbaatar. Capital of Mongolia. Coldest city in the world. And we are here in winter. Good call, Charlie Brown.
We search the platform and station for any sign of our guide but no one appears. We decide to get out of the cold and sit in the waiting area. A small kiosk opens around 06:00 and we buy water, but still no sign of the guide. The train station is full of sleepy travellers and wide-eyed locals, coming and going about their business. By 06:30, we call appropriate contact numbers, but no answer. Our guide shows up shortly later, and with so much as a shug, he acknowledges our existence and we move with him to a waiting mini bus to take us to our hotel. Fortunately, we could check into our accommodation, and despite the awful state of the place, any form of bedding is welcome. We crash onto our beds and start the day again.
When we surface later in the morning, we are taken on a guided tour of the city, but one can’t help thinking that we’ve been slapped in the face again by a new country. New vibe, new people, new food, new culture. At the Houses of Parliament, street sellers flog postcards, whilst another entrepreneurial fellow offers a combination business of telephone calls, chewing gum and the ability to weigh yourself. Just what you need – you can weigh yourself whilst be on a phone call, chewing gum! We go to the Natural History Museum, but like so many museums before it, it looks like it’s been closed since 1995. We move on.
Risking our lives on a local bus, we take a trip out to a city monument. Climbing the several hundred stairs to reach the summit, my mate Andy and I decide to race each other to the top. He’s just in the lead when I realise that this is not a good idea. The temperature of a single digit (Celsius) and the degree of height makes breathing rather difficult. We have to help each other up to the top. No regrets, but probably not a smart idea.
As we descend from the monument dedicated to the victory over the Japanese in WWII, we find ourselves back on the streets, dodging live wires, stray dogs, construction works, cars, potholes. At a nearby palace, we take shelter in rooms full of Buddhist artworks, and examine the collections of past Mongolian royalty. Finding an Indian/Mexican restaurant for dinner, we dine on nachos and curry before turning in for the evening.