Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Trans-Mongolian Experience

So I got on the second leg of the Trans-Mongolian train, from Ulaanbaatar to Ulan-Ude, and unlike the previous leg, it was completely packed. Every seat was taken. I shared the compartment with two Thai guys and a Dutch guy named CJ, who was kind of a hippie-looking train enthusiast. He had been working in Hong Kong, and had gotten laid off, so he was headed back to Holland. The two Thai fellows were not very talkative, but CJ and I got into some conversation on the train. Since there were four in the compartment, all the berths were taken, both upper and lower. The two on the to say on the lower seat until bedtime, when they clambered up to bed. I had previously thought there was no ladder to the top berths, but it turns out there is one that unfolds from the wall on both sides of the compartment door.

All the tourists on the train were pretty friendly, and there was vodka aplenty generously passed around for anyone who wished to partake.  Some of CJ's former co-workers had given him multiple bottles of vodka for the journey. Most of the tourists were with one tour group led by a Russian guy named Alex. The people on the train were from a mix of countries all over the place. I spoke in Spanish to Isidro from Coahuila, Mexico, and in French to Linda from Quebec. There were a lot of Canadians, some Brits and Australians, and many others.

We had a pair of female provodnitsas, or car attendants, on our train car. The provodnitsas share a living compartment and work in shifts out of the working compartment. The first provodnitsa was really nice, but the second one was from hell. She kept snapping at people to go back to their compartments when they were taking pictures ("go back to your compartment!" was probably one of the few things she could say in English), or doing just about anything outside their compartments. So I decided to be super-nice to her all the time, even when she was being a complete dick to me. Of course, this pissed her off more, almost to the point of losing control. I just kept engaging her with smiles and hellos, and she would yell at me to return to my compartment, and as soon as she turned the corner, I would be in the exact same place as though nothing had happened with a smile, a hello,  and a thank you.  I was probably lucky I didn't get abandoned in the Gobi Desert somewhere just so she could be rid of me.

This whole series of interactions I had with the provodnitsa was a source of complete amusement to people in the compartment. I was in an unusual travel situation where the average age in the car was about my age, and many people were older. So I felt well accepted and part of the group. Dang, maybe it is ageism when I'm traveling among a bunch of twentysomethings and they blow me off, or don't include me in their group. But the folks on the train would watch my antics with the provodnitsa and laugh, realizing that she didn't like anybody, but she didn't like me especially. CJ started calling her my "girlfriend" and a couple others picked up on that. People were making faces behind her back when she would pass by, and sometimes when she would snap at me, I would make an exaggerated face of mock chagrin.

There was only the one international car, though some domestic cars would get periodically attached and then detached. We got to Sukhbaatar, Mongolia at four in the morning as most were asleep. I woke up around five just in time to see the sunrise. But we were all locked in the train car, and not only that, the bathroom was locked as well.  Guess they don't want it emptying its contents on the tracks at a station. So people were slowly waking up, and howling when they found they couldn't relieve themselves. Then the Mongolian authorities came on board to do their exit check. It wasn't terribly intrusive or anything.  After the Mongolian inspection, around seven-thirty in the morning, they finally unlocked the car so people could use the restroom at the train station. Along with many others, I zoomed over to the train station to use the restroom. But you had to pay an attendant, and I hadn't gotten my money off the train in my haste. I thought I'd have to return to the train to get money, but a kindly gentleman paid my fee. It wasn't much, just 200 tukriks, which is about ten cents when you convert Mongolian money to US.  We were stopped at Sukhbaatar from four to eleven in the morning, but after they unlocked the train car, they gave us two hours to explore the city, so I wandered around and checked it out, taking pictures. In Sukhbaatar, one of the wives of CJ'S former Mongolian co-workers met him at the station with a load of Mongolian food and some beers.

At this point, the train car was just sitting on the tracks by itself. There was no locomotive or caboose, and all the other cars had been detached. But by the time we were ready to leave, they had attached an engine and a few other cars, and we rolled on.

When we passed the Russian-Mongolian border, there was a small marker, a few buildings with some soldiers, and a chain-link fence along the border with razor wire circled on the top. We didn't stop there, but we speed at the next big town, Naushki, for the Russian border inspection. They came aboard with about four groups of officials, some asking redundant questions. The last group came through with dogs. We were stopped in Naushki for four hours, and they have us a couple of hours to wander the town. It was just a tiny Siberian town with hardly any businesses, and the ones that were there were just in houses. I walked all the way across town and found a little out-of-the-way cafe, and ate lunch there. Then about fifteen minutes later, Alex the tour guide led his whole group in there. Hey, I picked the right place...the same place the experienced guide took his people to. And I was glad I got there and got my food before they arrived, because I would have had to wait a long time while the large group of at least twenty or so ordered and got their food.

After returning to the train, we all had a lot of stops. Some were just in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. We spent much more time on this train stopped than moving. I looked on Google Maps and saw that it was only an eight-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar to Ulan-Ude, but the train took about twenty-five hours.

When it was time to get off the train, I was the only one getting off at Ulan-Ude. Everybody else was going to Irkutsk, which was another night's journey. But the train kept stopping as we approached Ulan-Ude. I was pretty sure that the provodnitsa would not tell me when the stop was, so each time it stopped, I would gather my stuff, hobble out to the end of the car, and get snapped at by the provodnitsa to "go back to my compartment, not yet!"  Of course, I would smile at the mean lady and sweetly say thank you in Russian. This repeated overt and over in what seemed like an interminable pattern, until we finally did actually arrive at the Ulan-Ude station. I got off, made a point to say thank you and goodbye to the provodnitsa while she coldly ignored me, and set off to find a taxi to take me to my hostel.


  1. Haha, after you left the train she thawed out a bit. I even saw a smile on her face...

    BTW, I like your description of me :-)

  2. Ah, the warm embrace of Russian officialdom. Like a big loving hug from Winnie the Pooh.

    Great story!