Saturday 15 September 2012

The Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Saga - Part 3

It was great to be able to stretch our legs around Lake Baikal for a few days, but our Trans-Siberian (now Trans-Mongolian) train journey was far from over.

We grabbed a ride to the station along with an Aussie couple this time, speech therapist Nic and IT professional Dave. They were on their way back home after living abroad for three years and decided replace a boring 30 hour flight with a train journey of a lifetime - top choice! Turns out we had booked through the same agent and were going to be in the same carriage on the same Train 362 departing Irkutsk at 22:15.

We weren't worried this time as it was a short one-day-two-night train ride, although it was amusing to see how much our perception of journey times had changed. Settling into our compartments, this time an upper and lower berth, we waited to see who would be our compartment comrade(s). To our surprise it was not a Russian this time, but a German couple, Anita and Stefan, tourists like us. Also in the same carriage were Finnish nurses Essi and Mari, a newly pregnant Danish couple dreaming of finding dinosaur bones in southern Mongolia, some other European tourist travellers and of course the other Australians, but distinctly no Russians. Hmm, that seemed a little odd. As usual, English worked as a common language and we chatted for some time. I got involved in an intellectual discussion with Anita about global warming and the global economy, stuff that I hadn't thought about for some time, and it was interesting hearing a German person's view of the European economic crisis.

By morning the train had made it around the southern part of Lake Baikal and stopped at Ulan Ude. Here the tracks split. One track continues the Tran-Siberian Railway towards Vladivostock, while the other heads to Ulaanbaatar on the Trans-Mongolian Railway. Our Trans-Mongolian train got shortened and we became the last carriage. I was delighted to freely take shots out the back of the train this time.

View from the back of the train - On the Trans-mongolian Railway

Back on the Train heading towards Mongolia - On the Trans-mongolian Railway

From Russia with Love - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
It was early afternoon at the Russian border-town Naushki, where we handed over our passports and jumped off the train to walk around. Hang on, we're the only carriage left? Where did the rest of the train go? Apparently it is cheaper and quicker to bus it across the border, so only crazy tourists who are simply in it for the train ride use this service. That explains the lack of Russians.

There was really not much to see in the dusty town (think tumbleweed) and there was nothing to do but sit on the station platform watching slow rumbling freight trains roll by, with carriage shunting for occasional distraction. We were not allowed back into our single tourist carriage (it was busy being shunted) so we just had to wait. Evening fell and the mosquitoes came out and still we waited. We had read that the wait could be long, but this was getting close to vietnamese time. After several hours we were finally allowed back onto the carriage, followed by border inspectors armed with torches checking every compartment with military precision, in case we were trying to smuggle anything, or anyone, out. Our passports were handed back to us and the train moved off. We will never know what took them so long, but there was no problems with our photos this time.

Compared to the Russian side, the Mongolian border processing at Sukhbaatar seemed lightning speed at less than an hour. We changed Russian rubles to Mongolian tugriks with a grinning freelance money trader on the platform. First observation: Mongolians smile more easily than Russians. By the time we were finished with the formalities it was pretty late and sleep came easily. We arrived at Ulaanbaatar at 6:10am the next morning, fresh and excited - we are in Mongolia!

Arriving - Ulaanbaatar Station

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