The start of the train trip through Russia
24.08.2012 - 26.08.2012 19 °C
Episode 2: Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk 24 August 2012
Lessons learned; Mrs Maya; Bathroom Rules; first glimpses
First lesson learned about travelling by overnight train.....never pack your jammies and toothbrush at the bottom of your pack.
Now is truly the beginning of my trip. Left UB at 1310 this afternoon. Train No. 5 Wagon 5 Seat 14 First class. Distance 1113 km taking 24 hours and 35 minutes.
It was a rather frantic beginning as I returned from my two week trek in the Altai Mountain region of northwest Mongolia just yesterday so I only had 24 hours to make sure I had everything I needed. So much hinged on people getting things done while I was away....cancellation of my Mongolian work visa, obtaining my Russian visa, getting my train tickets. Luckily all went well and without a hitch...and the tourism company was much more efficient and friendlier once the elusive Tatiana was in the office.
The train going to Russia is no different to the one going to Beijing...a bit of rattle and roll and a fine draft coming through the window that can't be shut. I am travelling with Mrs Maya Tsunderen, a lady of indeterminate age but seems to be in her late 40's to early 50's....and who is forever hot. And very fidgity. We are definately not overly compatable cabin mates as she not only likes the window wide open, she also likes the cabin door wide open therefore not affording any sort of privacy. However, she did share her fat saturated sausage with me and her cucumber...but after cutting off the ends of the cucumber which she cut into halves and then proceded to smear the cut cucumber over her face. I made sure my knife was not used during this exercise. She loses me tomorrow about lunchtime when I get off the train at Irkutsk and she continues to Moscow. I hope her new cabin mate fares better.
The provodnitsa (the lady in each wagon who is responsible for checking your ticket, allocating linens, making sure you don't burn yourself on the ever boiling samovar, taking and eventually returning your ticket and can be either really nice and helpful or dour and snarfy) decided that Mrs Maya and I must be ok as she asked to store a bag full of shoes in our cabin which got stashed in an opening above the door. I'm sure they are heading for some market in Russia for a wee bit of extra cash. Some unknown person also asked to store two rather large bags in our cabin, but that was firmly declined. No knowing what was in those bags and they would have taken up a good deal of space...but again a good chance the goods are heading to a Russian market.
It looks like I got my visas right...my Russian visa is good as of 24 August and my Mongolian visa is good until 25 August. This was probably more luck than good planning. I think we cross the border at about 10 pm on the 24th. One of the tricks for travelling by train when you are having to deal with visas is figuring out at what time the train actually crosses the border so that your leaving and entering at the right date and not ending up in detention.
Second lesson learned travelling through Russia: train schedules, tickets and clocks in the train stations and on the trains show Moscow time. Occasionally there may be a clock in the train station that shows local time but this is rare and a joy if you find one. As you travel east (or west for that matter) you have to take into account the time difference. So after a 27 hour train ride it takes a wee while to sort out the local time and then figure out what time your next train is based on Moscow time. A mind teaser at times.
Otherwise, sheets, pillow, towel and blanket are provided as is the tea glass present on all Russian trains, so all is comfortable.
Shame about the draft.
Third lesson learned while travelling on an overnight train. Find the dining car before you get on the train. The numbers inside the wagon do not necessarily correspond with the numbers on the outside..and it's a long walk if you forgot to count wagons and all the doors are shut impeding identification of your little abode.
The train crossed the Mongolia-Russia border over a 4 hour period. Mongolian immigration was in Selenge where we arrived about 11 pm. Hung round for ages then moved over a neutral zone of sorts to Russian immigration arriving about midnight. Sat for over 2 hours. It's not so much the sitting as not really being able to sleep with people in official looking uniforms schleeping up and down the corridor and poking in their heads (wearing rather natty peaked hats and a few medals) asking questions, and not being able to go to the bathroom.
Bathroon rules according to The Sign:
"Toilet is out of operation when the train is at the passenger unloading and loading stations of the largest urban areas. This stopping time can vary from 5 minutes to 30 minutes. Bathroom is closed 30 minutes before arriving and stays closed until 30 minutes after departure."
They need to modify this sign to say that at the border you have to hold it for nearly 4 hours despite not being anywhere near an urban area (and what exactly contitutes an 'urban area' being very open to interpretation). Long wait. And yes, the toilet opens directly to the train tracks.
Totally underestimated Mrs Maya's age. She was born in 1939 making her 73. Just goes to show how Asian women can be of an indeterminate age. This discovered when I had to fill out her Russia immigration card (which was only in English and Russian) as pointedly directed by the provodnitsa.
The first stop I was conscious of after crossing the border in the middle of the night was Ulan Ude but it was still dark so I could see virtually nothing. Once we left Ulan Ude, I wandered to the dining car (very, very last car) and had an gourmet continental breakfast of sliced white bread, apricot jam, butter and black tea. At least I was given my food with a smile even though I was an hour before official opening time. The smoking and vodka drinking Mongolians got me out fast.
We are travelling through some very pretty countryside...hilly and wooded, dotted with villages with the houses made mainly of wood in the traditional Siberian style. The birch trees are already starting to turn into their fall orange colors. Still about three hours to Irkutsk.
Finally got my first glimse of Lake Baikhal.... first impression.......big and not an iota of a ripple on the water. The train hugs the southern coastline of the lake for a fair ways crossing some nice, clear streams surrounded by birch forest. Parts of the lake are foggy, other parts clear blue sky, emphasizing the size. A few villages or individual houses are scattered along the shore. Interestingly, I saw very few people outside making the various villages we passed by dead as door nobs.
Mrs Maya, meanwhile, finally woke up and seems very happy to lounge around in her braless t-shirt, gold lame' sleeping pants and slippers. She also continues to fidget incessantly, has rubbed the remaining bit of cucumber on her face, has opened the impossible to close window so she can stick her face out the window and is praying like a good Buddhist should. I, meanwhile, am freezing my little buns off.
We just stopped at a small township called Sliodyanka. This seems to be the first trading post along the train route (although I can't discount Ulan Ude)....a number of the Mongolians popped out onto the train station to sell their wares. I am guessing that they bought the goods in China and are selling them along the route to Moscow...a means of making money and getting rubles. Contraband includes jeans, handbags and t-shirts. As the stop was only 2 minutes, it was a period of frenzied activity....no trying on...just hold the piece of clothing up, make sure the waist expands and the transaction is made. This explains all the huge packages taken on the train...including my wagon mistriss' bag of boots, which disappeared during this stop.
I arrived in a rather grey Irkutsk, bit was rather impressed with the yellow and turquise train station. Irkutsk turned out to be a pleasant surprise. For whatever reason, I was expecting a run down, dusty version of Ulaanbaatar and found a tidy, clean and quite modern central part of the city. This is, of course, ignoring the congested, noisy, incessent honking traffic. I stayed at the Baikaler Hostel which was located right smack in the center of town behind the Lenin Cafe. A wee bit crowded and the Spanish couple who whispered to each other incessently raised the annoyance level a little bit, but all was tolerable and managable.
After a day of tramping around ingesting the sights, I decided to take my dinner at a the Bacabu Restaurant. Why? It was a glorious early evening and this was the only restaurant that I couod see that had an outdoor veranda. I thought it would be a lovely place to dine, overlooking a rather small patch of flowers and the traffic jammed main street. A 15 page, A3 menu was given to me to peruse.
Waitress: Silence. Just stood there looking down at me as we had already established that I did not speak Russian aside from hello, thank-you and please, and her English was even more limited.
Me: 'I will have the turkey salad' (pointing to the relevant picture).
'Ok.....then I will have the spagetti bolonaise'.
'Right...then I will have the meat dumplings.'
Sigh. 'Do you have the chicken soup'.
The waitress scribbles something down and walks away. Now this is a menu of 15 pages with at least four dishes on each page and I managed to strike out far too many times before I finally found something the restaurant could conjure up. At least I got what I ordered...in Mongolia, it is not unusual to order something and end up getting something totally different, the restaurant giving you what happens to be available and with a shrug. But still, it was very nice sitting outdoors inhaling the car fumes.
There is a lovely district to the east of the main part of town, along and near Ul Timiryazeva, that has a lot of wooden Siberian houses...unfortunately many are in disrepair but are still inhabited. Although unpainted, weathered and broken, some of the houses still have good examples of the intricate woodwork and shutters that adorned these houses. Interdispersed with the wooden houses are some fine example of tradiational brick buildings found in many parts of Russia.
Nearby, they are also creating an area with new and renovated traditional Siberian houses that are now cafes, restaurants and shops. It's still under construction, but the woodwork lace and tin lacework on the top of the downpipes are lovely to look at.
To the north of this area is the Chinese market that sells all goods cheap and Chinese, and the food market selling all and sundry, my favourites being the fresh raspberries and smoked salmon.
Next stop: A side trip to Lake Baikal.