Wed 12 Jun ’13 – day 32 Departing Irkutsk
Ivan arrive on time to pick me and was driving a Land Cruiser rather than his small mini-bus, but it was still a Japanese right-hand drive import vehicle as he said these can be bought relatively cheaply and are much more reliable than Russian cars. It was a quick trip over the river and then around the one-way system to the station and we went straight to the platform ahead of any of announcement; it was the wrong one the first time, so back down into the tunnel and then up to the correct tracks.
The train was alongside the platform but was not yet ready for boarding so I took a few photos before the carriage door opened and the Provodnista came out and cleaned the hand rail. Ivan talked to the Train Manager and I am allowed to board, so up the steps and into my compartment – the lower aft facing berth yet again. I had just finished changing and stowing all my luggage when the door opened and a Dutch couple entered, so I left the compartment while they got themselves sorted and then we made introductions before the train departed on time.
When I said that my surname was Smith, they asked whether I was “The Man in Seat 61”; unfortunately I could only claim to share the same surname with Mark, but am a great fan on his website which I used extensively when planning this trip.
The carriage is by far and away the best that I have been in so far and although it retains the standard nine compartments of a Kupe carriage it has been totally upgraded, that is except for the toilets which were still a direct flush system. The sleeping berth now fits against the compartment wall and when stowed is the back of the couch, so you now longer have to sit on your made up bed. There are also lots more stowage space on the wall for small items plus better lighting and heating controls and certainly more electrical sockets.
There are five Russia coaches in front of our carriage and another five behind, but no restaurant car. We chat until after departure from Slyudyanka then it’s time for bed.
The Trans Mongolian route from Moscow to Beijing is the newest of the three Trans-Sib lines, but it is the one most used by tourists.
Thu 13 Jun ’13 – day 33 Hurry up and wait
I slept only in short bursts through the night as the carriage, although an upgrade, still had hard berths. We arrived at Ulan-Ude at 06:30 hours and the carriages behind had been uncoupled and shunted away; they had been full of people coming to do a day’s work and who will be returning to Irkutsk overnight tonight.
When we departed the line made a long loop around the city before our track branched off and then came back over the main line on a bridge as we now headed south. I had to wait until the train was well out of town before the toilet was reopened and then had a strip wash in cold water yet again – do these trains ever have hot or even warm water?
The tracks were following the course of the Selenga River which we will shadow all the way to the border.
Michael and Nat finally arose at about 08:00 hours, so I tidied up the compartment and folded my bed away.
The scenery was wide open plain with the occasional signs of human habitation. The train stopped two or three times every hour, but in some places no one got on or off as it was quite a deserted landscape.
We had worked out that this was the only through carriage to Ulan-Bator or UB as everyone calls it and so the passengers were very a cosmopolitan bunch; there was an English lady who got in a Ulan-Ude and is probably slightly older than me, Dutch, Spanish, German, Korean, French, one Italian and even a couple of Russians. No Mongolians though.
The train made a twenty minute stop at Zagustay but as it was raining heavily no one got off; a gent got on further down the train and made his way through the carriages in order to stay dry.
Had a snooze and when I awoke the rain had stopped and the sky was clear, so good views across miles of nothing; if people actually live here, what do they do?
Tried to get off for a walk at the long stops but ‘She who must be obeyed’ said “Nyet”. Nat has christened her ‘Bertha’ after the housekeeper in the comedy TV series 2½ Men as she was the same size and had the same temperament.
‘Bertha’ hoovered the carriage and it didn’t matter whether you were sleeping as the door would be flung open and in she came with her noisy machine.
The sun had come out.
The train arrived at Naushki, the Russian border town, at 13:45 hours local time and we were told by ‘Bertha’ to be back at 16:00 hours local time. So Michael, Nat and I wandered off to find the café listed in the Lonely Planet Trans-Sib guidebook, but there was just a small shop with a stall next to it; both were selling food and drink so I bought a large bottle of water. Heavy rain started so we rushed back to the station only to find that the train had gone and we had to dive into the station waiting room.
The carriages were being shunted around so that the five Russian coaches were attached to the carriage that had left UB at 19:15 hours last night.
We watched Russian immigration officials handing passports back to Mongolian workers who had come over the border by bus.
A diesel loco came passed on the nearside track and then it was attached to the northbound train which left at 15:10 hours and will arrive in Irkutsk tomorrow morning.
Our carriage was shunted back so I got on what will be a one coach train across the border.
This was a five hour five minute stop with the vast majority of the time spent just hanging around, so it was a case of hurry up and wait. We were here for three hours before anything happens, then a gent and lady with most bright pink lipstick that I had ever seen came on and checked the passports. After this another lady checked the passports against a list compiled by the train company; she was followed by a two ladies in uniform who checked the passports and then took them away.
A very long train carrying logs and with oil tankers attached and probably nearly a mile long passed as it headed south.
After another ½ hour it was the customs check – ‘Anything to declare?’, ‘No’ – “Please lift bunk and open headrests” – all done quick and easy. However a couple in the next compartment who were backpacking were given the full treatment and had to empty all their bags because as one of the German ladies who spoke fluent Russian said later “You were picked on because the man was unshaven!”
There was then a drugs search but the Golden Labrador looked extremely bored and disinterested.
A long empty goods train heading north pulls into the sidings and every wagon is searched, what for I have no idea.
Our passports were brought back and then the compartments were searched by two Mongolian ladies in black uniforms and they were more thorough than their Russian counterparts.
A Mongolian engine was attached and we then departed on time; once we got out of town it is a fantastic landscape as we travel south on the east side of the Selenga river valley which stretched off into the distance to a low row of hills three or four miles away.
At the 5900km marker the train arrived at the Russian / Mongolian border where the station was called Dozorny which we were told was Russian for controlled. The border was a high electrified wire fence, complete with watch towers and was reminiscent of the Inner-German-Border during the Cold War, even down to what looked like a ‘Death Strip’ and this stretched away as far as the eye could see.
Almost immediately I saw my first Ger, the round tent used by the nomadic tribesmen and as we neared habitation there were even some in peoples back gardens.
First on board was a smartly dressed gent in a blazer and tie who checked everyone’s passports and wanted to know how long we would be in the country, where we would be staying and when we would be leaving. Then an attractive lady in a well styled military uniform complete with one of those huge hats you see Russian officers wearing came in and checked the passports, visas and the entry forms that we had completed before we left Russia; when she left she took all the passports with her. Next was the customs lady who checked the entry form, but especially the currency declaration and finally was the compartment search (yet again).
One thing that was immediately noticeable was that all the officials spoke very good English unlike their counterparts on the other side of the border.
We sat and waited until the passports were returned which didn’t take long, so just an hour after arriving we were free to get off and go for a look around.
A black-market money changer came on-board mainly for those people who wanted to get rid of their roubles, but when another tried to get into the carriage ‘Bertha’ promptly ejected him; whether she was getting a kick-back from the first gent was anyone’s guess. I used an ATM in the station building to withdraw 10,000 togrög, about £5; this was one of the two currencies that I was unable to get from my bank, the other being the Belarus rouble.
When we entered Mongolia the clocks went back an hour so we are now at GMT + 8.
The stroll around the town took no time at all as there was very little to see, so yet again it was a case of hurry up and wait.
The local train from UB arrived and this comprised of some very old and tired looking green carriages and our coach was then shunted to the back of the train and we were connected up. Crowds of locals were boarding the train for the journey south, but they were all in the green carriages as ours was probably too expensive.
South of the town the river valley widened and the landscape became huge with views into the far distance. I saw a Ger by the river with two western style 2 man tents near it; as there are virtually no camp sites anywhere in the country people just stop where they like.
As it is getting dark it’s now time for bed as we will have an early rise tomorrow.