Trans-Mongolian journal: 53 hours on the train to Ulan Bator

Our Mongolian train 006WA heading for Ulan Bator.

September 9th – September 11th, 2017

First class compartment in Russian train 008HA.
First class compartment in Russian train 008HA.

Day 1: The returning bun lady

Our train 008HA heading east towards Vladivostok was pretty old, and smelled sort of like glue in the carriage. In order to save a fair amount of money, we booked the Novosibirsk – Irkutsk leg of the journey ourselves on rzd.ru, and Irkutsk – Ulan Bator through Real Russia. We were planning to spend a day or two in Irkutsk, but had to drop those plans as all the tickets were sold out on the days we were planning to leave. Because of this, we only got to spend an hour in Irkutsk, and that was on the train station.

The hallway of our first-class wagon in train 008HA.
The hallway of our first-class wagon in train 008HA.

The first leg on the journey was in first class, and this time we got a little kit of amenities to make the trip a little bit better. I must admit that I did not use the slippers, comb, sponge, wet wipe, toothbrush, toothpaste or the soap, but I guess it would have been very welcome if I had needed any of those. When we bought the tickets, there were only tickets left that had a meal included, so there was a menu in the compartment as well. We didn’t really want a meal included as these tickets seem to cost more than it’s worth, but having the dinner delivered to the compartment the next day was alright.

The good old & cold pedal toilet.
The good old & cold pedal toilet.

Since the train left the station at 01:21 AM, we were soon heading to bed for some rest.

We managed to sleep until 12, and slept pretty well. Soon thereafter, one of the train attendants walked by and knocked on the door. She was selling hot buns, I got one filled with potatoes and my fiancé got one with meat and cheese. Surprisingly good. The attendant selling these buns later turned out not to be a one-time thing, as she came knocking at least ten times. I’m wondering whether this was a part time gig she did while on her primary job, or if they were sold by RZD.

Soon after the bun selling lady had visited us for the first time, another attendant came to take our meal order. The menu wasn’t immediately easy to grasp, but we had figured out that we could choose so and so from this column and so and so from the next column. In the last selection we could, curiously enough, choose between tea, fruit or a sanitary kit with toothpicks, wet wipes etc. The attendant motioned that we could choose a delivery at either 16:00 or 18:00. We choose 18:00. It came 17:00.

Cheese, zakuski and a bottle of vodka.
Cheese, zakuski and a bottle of vodka.

As we were used to by now, the zakuski, cheese platter, beef and fruit wasn’t exactly a culinary journey through the best of Russian cuisine, but it was decent. I had brought a small bottle of vodka that I had purchased at a super market for a price so low it would have left the Norwegian health minister in disgust, and I figured this would be a nice addition to the zakuski (in this case, sausages and olives). It turned out to be true, and the zakuski tasted better. The Russians have figured this out.

The rest of the day was again spent reading Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook, writing, listening to podcasts and observing the beautiful landscape we were passing through.

Day 2: Beautiful Lake Baikal and nervous train attendants

Second class compartment in Mongolian train 006WA.
Second class compartment in Mongolian train 006WA.

Time passed quickly, and it was suddenly a new day. We were now at Irkutsk train station, where we changed trains from the Trans-Siberian train 008HA towards Vladivostok, to the Trans-Mongolian train 006WA towards Ulan Bator. First class was sold out, so we allowed ourselves the luxury of booking a full four-bed second class compartment. The Russian train attendants were upgraded to Mongolian train attendants, but other than that, this Mongolian train wasn’t as good as the Russian train we had just disembarged. I am not sure if the rice-filled pillows were the train company’s punishment for us travelling in second class, but they were so insanely uncomfortable that not using them was better than using them. The beds were as hard as expected; it was like sleeping on concrete.

Lake Baikal seen through the train window.
Lake Baikal seen through the train window.

The train between Irkutsk and Ulan Bator spent several hours along Lake Baikal, which gives you a taste of how large it actually is. The lake contains about 20 % of the freshwater on Earth, and could alone supply the entire world with water for 40 years. We were planning to go to Lake Baikal from Irkutsk had we had the possibility, but looking at it through the train window was a nice replacement. Sections of the railway is very close to the lake, while other sections gives you the chance to observe it above and from a distance. Bryn Thomas rightfully calls this part the most beautiful along the Trans-Siberian railway.

Trout, salad and fries. And pork with cheese. On Russian train 008HA. Quite good!
Trout, salad and fries. And pork with cheese. Quite good!

Although we were now on a Mongolian train, a Russian restaurant wagon was still attached as we still were in Russia. A new restaurant wagon is usually added at the border. I ate a 1000 Ruble dish with grilled trout, mostly to get rid of the rest of our Rubles, and it turned out to taste good. I was pleasantly surprised that the restaurant attendant spoke English, and that they didn’t smoke in the wagon like in some of the Russian trains.

Observing the nature outside the train window was pleasant, and the colors of the fall made the terrain look quite attractive. After looking at Lake Baikal for several hours, it was nice to see something else.

Fenced-off houses on the Russian countryside, a typical sight.
Fenced-off houses on the Russian country-side, a typical sight.

After the lake, many particularly strange-looking houses, cabins and other constructions could be seen by the railway. More than anywhere else I’ve seen, many houses by this section of the railway were tiny, shaped like an A and of several colors. It seems to be common to have fences all around your house in Russia, at least at country-side.

Horses not far from the track.
Horses not far from the track.
Our Mongolian train 006WA heading for Ulan Bator.
Our Mongolian train 006WA heading for Ulan Bator.

The nature became more beautiful the closer we got to Mongolia. Looking through the window, we observed many horses, cows, sheep and goats along the way. Some were in large or small herds, while others seemed to be alone. I wondered how many cows are made into beef and sheep are made into mutton by the Trans-Siberian railway per year, as there usually wasn’t any fence between the animals and the railway. The sections that did have a fence often had large holes, allowing the animals to easily pass through. Animals being run into by trains can be a real bloodbath, and injured animals is why at least Norwegian trains have or used to have a rifle on hand.

Along the railway towards Mongolia, there were many areas with piles of trash. In some places, the otherwise beautiful steppes were filled with broken glass. I suspect that some of this was thrown from the train, as it was well within range. Seeing that thrash was sadly a great warmup for Mongolia, which has thrash scattered around everywhere in the steppes.

During that dark evening, the train suddenly stopped somewhere, and the train attendants seemed to be very stressed because of this. They scattered around, whispering and behaved strangely. They closed the blinds in the hallway, and told us to do the same. While imagining a 1800’s-style train robbery with dynamite, a blown up bridge and derailings, I started packing all valuables into my small backpack, preparing to leave in a hurry. Thinking through this afterwards; had it been a robbery, the thugs would probably have appreciated me packing all valuables into a small and easy to carry backpack.

We soon heard one of the attendants whisper “border! border!” in the hallway, and it was now clear that we had reached the Russian border post. You wouldn’t expect train attendants to behave so suspiciously, but Bryn Thomas claims in his book that they are known to sometimes take part in smuggling operations to avoid paying tolls and taxes on goods. I can’t accuse them of doing so, but their behaviour was very suspicious.

At the Russian border post, there were a bunch of people and dogs inspecting papers and baggage, both Russian and Mongolian officials. One Mongolian police officer told us to leave our compartment, and he thoroughly checked the mattresses, luggage compartments and other places where you could put any contraband. A Russian official scanned our passports electronically and stamped our visas. Another Mongolian officer asked to see our luggage, but wasn’t interested in doing a detailed search. Yet another Russian officer came to take a look at our passports. Although maybe some seemed a bit tired, they were all polite.

Arriving in Ulan Bator too damn early.
Arriving in Ulan Bator too damn early.

Two hours later, we continued towards Ulan Bator, and we soon arrived at the Mongolian border post in Sühbaatar. We had previously filled out a form confirming that we were carrying neither pornography nor donor organs, so we were confident that this would be a quick stop. A Mongolian border officer collected our passports, and to our utter disgust, she put each passport within the next, bending each of the previous passports violently. During Soviet times, the Mongolian border used to be a nerve-wrecking experience, with border police ripping out film from cameras and confiscating items, but the only thing nerve-wrecking for me was that I had untactically been drinking quite a lot of tea and water throughout the evening, and by this point probably had urine stocked up in every cavity of my body. My fiancé was clever and asked the train attendants to open up the lavatories between the Russian and Mongolian border post. They locked it before crossing the border. I wasn’t clever, so I had to wait another two hours before we were done at the border and the lavatories were opened up again. The relief cannot be described.

We arrived in Ulan Bator early in the morning and without much sleep.

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