Mongolian banana smugglers..
(Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2)
The first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey was about 77 hours. This next leg, as our train veered South from Siberia into Mongolia, was a paltry 30 odd hours. Nothing for battle hardened rail pros like us… we thought.
The train was a Mongolian one. Rather unshockingly, the staff were also Mongolian. Instead of our scruffy jack the lad Chinese carriage guards, we now had carriages staffed by a battle* of smartly dressed, diminutive, and severely efficient Mongolian ladies. *Unsure of collective noun for female Mongolian train guards.
Our carriage was totally packed with rowdy Mongolian blokes, we guessed maybe returning home for the weekend (Work can apparently be scarce in Mongolia these days). When we showed the guards our tickets they began to swear and fret amongst themselves, and seemed pretty unsubtley annoyed with us. After some heated debate they shoved us through the throng into our room, where we immediately gathered the cause of their annoyance. We had the tenacity to have prebooked beds, which happened to be in the cabin the staff seemed to have commandeered as an extra chillout room. The table was full of tea flasks and various train guard paraphernalia and the under-seat luggage storage was full to the brim with boxes of Bananas (Yes, we were puzzled too). We attempted to shove our luggage where we could and were just about to get settled in, when the guards burst in and began pleading to us in Mongolian, whilst starting to collect our bags and coats. We gathered they wanted to move us, but we were slightly reluctant and tried in vein to explain (reasonably in our view) that we wanted to keep the beds we had paid for, with the numbers printed on our tickets. By using a mixture of bafflement and bribery (we gathered through mayhem that they were trying to assure us we’d have the new cabin to ourselves), the whirling guards somehow managed to get us into another cabin.
So, bruised an bemused, we once again began to settle in, this time without interruption Our Mongolian matriarchs were also (almost) true to their word, and we did have it (almost) to ourselves for the duration. Bizarrely half of our luggage space was still full of fruit. It seemed that a couple of the blokes on the train were traders, and had some sort of dodgy deal going with train guards – It did cross our minds that we may get done by customs for trying to smuggle in fruity contraband, but thankfully the border crossing went smoothly.
The border crossings on Trans-Siberian/Mongolian trains are still something we are yet to make head or tail of. The train is checked by both countries on their respective sides of the border, and there is a huge amount of time where absolutely nothing happens, and nothing is being done by anyone. Our total Russia-Mongolia border took around 8 hours, and apart from a bit of crawling and shunting, we were stationary for nearly all that time. Passports, Visas, immigration and custom forms are all checked, and rooms and (sometimes) bags are inspected. This happens on both sides of the border, and usually only takes between one and two hours each side… What’s going on for the remaining 4-6 hours is total mystery (apart from when they change the undercarriages to fit the different gauge of track when trains enter or leave Russia).
Our Russian part of the border crossing was in Ulan-Ude. The station is in the middle of nowhere but we were allowed to get off and stretch our legs and use the toilets – train toilets are out of bounds during stops, and 30 minutes before and after. This makes timing toilet visits one of the foremost concerns of the entire train journey… Anyway, at Ulan-Ude the train was split, most carriages carried on across Russia, but one carriage was left to enter Mongolia. Because of this, anyone who was destined for Mongolia from the other carriages were all quickly bundled into our carriage, and so a couple of Mongolian students promptly sat on our beds and cracked open the instant noodles. We left them to it and went for a potter around the train station. As we ambled around taking pictures and enjoying the leg stretch, we noticed a train engine couple itself to our carriage, and slowly begin chugging away. Our brains were telling us that there was no way the train would just leave without us, without any indication or signals at all, but our eyes told us a different story. In the true British tradition of running-for-a-bus-but-trying-not-to-look-like-you’re-running-for-a-bus we briskly walked after the train politely trying to get the guards attention who was hanging out of the back door. He made an indiscernible hand signal to us, and the train carried on into the distance. After we realised our power-walk-pursuit was futile, we stopped and stood in silence watching our train shrink in size, as is the nature of perspective. Just as the shocking realisation that all out bags, money, and documents were heading off without us, we noticed the train actually stopped shrinking, and then began to look as if it was growing again. Initially I thought this must be an optical allusion, akin to that when a wheel looks to be spinning backwards at a certain speed, but low and behold, it was really coming back towards us. It was of course, just changing tracks. We slowly turned around, only to see groups of locals chuckling to themselves on the platform. The train reversed passed us at an agonizingly slow speed, as more locals peered out of the windows, laughing at the numpty tourists who thought their train was leaving without them. We pretended not be embarrassed but the colour of our faces may have suggested different.
The Mongolian border crossing consisted of stopping just outside a remote ramshackled farming village, at a small hut with the words ‘Mongolian Customs’ spraypainted on the side. The train was saluted by a row of smiling soldiers and then the standard border crossing procedure began. Our cabin door slid open, and we were strangely saluted by a tall Mongolian GI Jane. She didn’t seem too friendly and proceeded to almost take out cabin apart, taking of roof panels and all sorts.
Considering all you have to do is fill in a couple of forms, and sit there for hours, eating and drinking tea, border crossings are a remarkably stressful experience. They also do an amazing job of shattering romantic Trans-Siberian notions. Because you can just sit there and chill out while it all happens, it’s still slightly preferable to the cattle market treatment you have to go through when flying, it’s just the length of stationary time that’s the main downer.
Although it has the lowest average temperature (over a year) of any capital city, UlaanBaatar apparently has clear skies most of the year round. We arrived at six in the morning, to a -6 degree blizzard and a good few inches of snow. Of course.
Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2
30/03/13 – 01/04/13