Friday, 5 October 2012

Trans Siberian - Part 5 - Ulan Ude - Ulaanbaatar

Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar

This train was one of the tourist trains, so called because it is has fewer carriages train and the majority of passengers are western tourists making the trip from Russia to Mongolia. There are an assortment of travellers, independent like us, or those with organised tour groups.  
We boarded the train early again and we soon discovered that there only one Russian family in our whole carriage - the rest were westerners.
The sun rising over the tracks behind us

This time we were delighted that we had an upper and lower bunk – our favourite combination.  However, it was only about 7.30am when we boarded and there was already someone else asleep in our compartment who had obviously boarded at an earlier station.

Now it’s difficult to be quiet when you get on a sleeper train with all your luggage.  Opening and closing the doors is a noisy business, sorting out where to put your bags, placing your food and drink within easy reach, not to mention getting changed into your train gear - flipflops and comfy trousers.   We tried our best to do this quicklky and quietly but while we were stashing our luggage in the box under the lower bunk, we let it go and it loudly slammed shut rousing the poor person trying to sleep.
The railway track disappearing into the distance
We had established that he/she was French by the reading material on the table but when he got up (shortly after we had rudely awoken him) we realised he was the Frenchman who had laughed at my feeble joke at Nikitas Homestead on Olkhon Island.   He was very good-natured about the fact that we had rudely awoken him and he smoked (well, he would do, he was French), and in fact he was very, very nice.
We got chatting and he joined us for cigarette at the end of our carriage where we were all delighted to find that we were the last carriage on the train with a classic view out of the window of the track we were leaving behind. Needless to say there were some amazing photo opportunities which I probably failed to capture but it was fantastic to view our journey from a different perspective.
The sun rising over a bridge across a river
Jan, our new French friend, was travelling alone following a similar route to our own across Russia to China and beyond.  We should say here that we are now firmly of the view that the French have been much maligned as our rude European relations and quite frankly, that title should go to the Russians. Jan was great company and an easy companion to share a compartment with. You really cannot ask for more than that. 

Back in our compartment, we chatted easily, and at times read our respective books or nibbled on supplies we had brought along, sharing what we had.  It was another long journey, with long border stops so we settled in for the long ride.

The first tedious stop was for Russian customs.  We were to be held here for about 5 and a half hours.  No-one knows why it takes so long but it does.  The train follows a fixed timetable, a copy of the timetable is quite clearly displayed on the inside wall of the carriage, and there are scheduled stops all along the route which presumably need to be adhered to for any passengers joining at those stations. It’s inconvenient, thoroughly boring, but moaning about it isn't going to change anything.  

Passing Goose Lake
However, in our carriage, all you could hear were people complaining about the long stop, asking why we have to stop here for so long (ask the Russians), was there any chance that we will leave early (er, no), and so on.  Yes, it was tiresome and mind numbingly boring, I do accept that, but to be honest, listening to them droning on was more tedious than waiting 5 and a half hours on a hot station with no shade (or on a hot train – your had a choice) while you waited for the customs officials to come on duty.
There was a lot of shunting around of carriages from one platform to another. There appeared to be no logic to the shunting and often it seems that it’s just some happy Russian in a shunting engine playing with his real live train set for a few hours.
Nothing really seemed to be getting done very fast but time always passes slowly when you are just hanging around waiting. We find the best way to deal with this type of situation is just to accept it and maybe have a beer or two to alleviate the boredom.  However, there are a lot of little things to take into account when considering this particular course of action (the beer). Well, actually, there is one big thing to take into account: the toilets. Toilets on the train are locked 30 minutes before you arrive at a major station and remain locked for the duration of your stop and then for a further 30 minutes after you depart. Now that is all well and good while you have access to platform toilets (the standard of which leave a lot to be desired) AND you are allowed to leave the train.

There appear to be no hard and fast rules about customs and passport control procedures at any of borders we crossed.  Sometimes the border guards enter the train straight away and take passports and forms away for checking and generally you are advised not to leave the train was they may not let you back on without your passport.  Other times (as they did at the Russian border on this occasion) we were told we could leave the train and told to return 2 and a half hours later.

We all headed off down the platform and out of the station in search of retail facilities. There was a little area just outside the station with stalls selling various dry goods and sweet pastries, but what we really wanted was beer.  We had some vodka but were running out of beer alarmingly quickly, and we still had a day and a half to travel (and it’s not cost effective as budget travellers to rely on the "pectopah" and pay £2.50 for a can of beer in the restaurant car on the train).

In search of beer we ventured further afield and found a shop which stocked a few cans and bottles of beer. This was our final stop in Russia before crossing the border into Mongolia and the Russian shop assistant was kind enough to remind us why we were quite pleased to be leaving Russia after 3 weeks and with a permanent scowl on her face managed to be rude, unhelpful, unfriendly and generally unpleasant but despite this Paul managed to buy some beer from her, to her obvious disappointment. We gathered our supplies and headed back to the train. The beer was lukewarm but your standards begin to slip as the facilities becomes less reliable.

On the way back to the train, I dashed back to the food stalls to get some biscuits and a caramel wafer type snack which looked quite tasty, and in the time it took me to make those purchases, Paul had been propositioned by a rather worn out looking lady (who also looked slightly insane), and Jan had narrowly escaped being deliberately run over by a car – the driver beeped his horn and deliberately drove off the road in an blanant attempt to mow him down but Jan managed to leap out of the way in time and escaped in one piece with his shopping intact.

There was nothing else to see around the station - it was a typical fairly deserted border town (apart from the odd homicidal driver, miserable shop assistant and local nutter), and it was becoming increasingly apparent that to hang about outside the station much longer was not really advisable is we wanted to safeguard our health and welfare (and sanity), so we headed back to the platform, just in case our train looked like it was going anywhere.  We really didn't want to be stranded out there in the back of beyond and we always nurtured an underlying anxiety that we had failed to read the timetable correctly and/or understood the incomprehensive Russian babble and hand signals of the provodnista.

When we returned to the platform there appeared to be only one carriage (thankfully ours) but with no engine in sight so it clearly wasn’t going anywhere without us.

We settled down on a bench in the hot sun and continued our long wait.  We were dismayed to note that we had been here less than an hour. 

There was a group of travellers from our carriage sat around on the platform, having a beer, but we were reluctant to head down that track so relatively early in view of the toilet situation.

The time passes very slowly indeed when you are just sitting on the platform, waiting. When the train is moving, the hours pass so quickly but as soon as the train stops, time seems to stop ticking too.
After about 3 and a half hours waiting, and several biscuits later, we decided it was time to crack open a beer.  It was very hot on the platform but it was even hotter on the train as obviously the temperature control was unable to function without an engine attached.
Eventually, after about 4 hours waiting in the heat, we were summoned back onto the train where the (friendly) Russian border guards came along, took our passports away for checking, and the customs officers (one with his beautiful German shepherd in tow) checked the train for stowaways. After about half an hour our passports were returned (with a smile) and at long last, after all that waiting, we were finally on our way to the Mongolian border.

Then we realised that the toilets were still locked on the train and that they would remain locked until half an hour after we left the Mongolian border town.  The beer was beginning to seem like a mistake even though we had been quite sensible and regulated our intake, beer is beer!   I was beginning to wish I had stuck to vodka.

We reached the Mongolian border just as the sun was beginning to set and it was fascinating how the scenery changed almost the instant we crossed the border.  Out of the window we could see more desert, more gers and fewer trees.  It becomes patently apparent that the national borders lie where they do because they are natural borders formed in the landscape, with the terrain and conditions either side suitable to the lifestyles of the people who live there.

Just as we were witnessing an incredible sunset we arrived at the border station. With all the industrial paraphernalia that comes with a railway station, no particularly good photo opportunities presented themselves, despite the incredible colours in the sky.  It was really rubbish timing and very disappointing for everyone on board (those that weren't thinking about their bladders anyway!).

We waited impatiently for the Mongolian border patrol to carry out their checks. We knew we were in for another long wait but soon everyone's bladders started to protest.
I switched from to vodka to alleviate the boredom. Everyone in our carriage was milling about, becoming increasingly impatient, and eventually we were told we could visit the platform toilet which turned out to be located some considerable away along the platform.
There was one girl in our carriage who was rather loud and particularly annoying and we had gathered (although she hadn’t actually told us personally, but it was difficult not to eavesdrop, particularly when she repeated the story several times to anyone who would listen) that her and her Australian partner were also travelling to Australian overland.  She was becoming increasingly irritating and obviously loved the sound of her own voice, banging on about how little money they had (they had a budget of 15 Euros a day), how they had couchsurfed across Scandinavia, and we heard the word “volunteering” a lot. (The majority of volunteering in developing countries is basically taking jobs from local people and unless you properly research what you are doing, you can do more damage to local communities. There was no indication that they had done this.)

We had no choice but to hear all this because it was being repeated to anyone and everyone who nodded politely in their general direction.
Both her and her partner are the type of people that Paul and I don’t mix with very well. Despite their tiny budget they seemed to be consuming rather a lot of beer (and vodka) on this particular journey , so we can only assume that they were relying on the generosity of others for their alcohol (in other words, freeloading).  This had to be the case otherwise they had spent a week's budget just sitting on the platform!

After the extensive Mongolian border checks had been undertaken (they checked everywhere twice except our luggage!), and passports had been removed for processing, we were allowed to leave the train to visit the facilities on the station.  As I raced off the train, Mrs Australia latched on to me and we went to the loo together. Payment of some kind (any kind, they took roubles) was required and, surprise surprise, she didn’t have any cash on her. That wasn’t a problem and I threw her a few roubles to have a wee.
She then accompanied me back to the carriage and along the way we talked about the Australian Spouse Visa application process, and various other things about moving to Australia. She was incredibly enthusiastic, and I was half pissed on vodka, but don’t like being rude so felt I couldn’t really tell her to piss off.
Unfortunately, she followed me back to our compartment and carried on with our little chat (well her one-woman monologue), trying to involve Paul, who was having none of it.  Eventually she got the message and wandered off.  She was last seen with her other half taking up residence in someone else’s compartment at the end of the carriage, drinking vodka like it was going out of fashion (obviously not her own) and talking very loudly and generally being very annoying.

I didn’t hear the end of this. I had acted in bad form, bringing back the person Paul least wanted to speak to, and expecting him to be nice (he wasn’t, but in fairness, he wasn’t nasty either – he just feigned indifference like an expert). I carried on drinking vodka, apparently got really annoying myself (allegedly) before eventually falling asleep, much to the relief of Paul and Jan. Paul's still bitter about it…

We arrived at Ulaanbaatar Station early the following morning, bid farewell to Jan (we were to meet him again in Chengdu and Dali) and on the station platform we were met by our guide and driver who whisked us away to the Terelj National Park for our 4 day ger camp stay.

<<Prev Part 4 Ekateringburg - Irkutsk - Ulan Ude

>>Next Part 6 The Final Leg Ulaanbaatar - Beijing


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