Trans Mongolian Railway

Friday, September 21, 2018
Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
The Trans Siberian railway journey is as much about the company as it is about the scenery. The guidebooks are full of advice about packing that extra bottle of vodka that helps make new friends and keeps the conversation flowing. We felt that our own garrulous spirits are more than the equal of any distilled spirits and boarded the train. In any case, our train originated from Beijing (the Trans Mongolian branch) and one does not expect to see many vodka drinkers coming from that city. Our entire coach was almost entirely Chinese and the sounds of that language formed the soundtrack of the 23 and a half hour planned ride into the Lake Baikal region - with that small matter of a border crossing into Russia. For this journey, we would stay within the same timezone that includes Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore.
V used his sparing Chinese skills to befriend the conductor and a few fellow passengers. Our companions in the 4 person compartment turned out to be 2 young Mongolian men, neither of them tourists in the strict sense of the word - they had an exterior purpose that went beyond experiencing the journey. One of them was given an emotional send off by his mother who took pains to signal to us that she would disembark before the train left. Her son is a student at a Czech university and he was journeying to Irkutsk by rail and from then on to Prague by air. Turns out that Irkutsk has better air connections to Europe than Ulaan Bataar. He also had Peruvian ascent through his father and could speak several languages, only one of which mattered to us, English. He had studied Czech for a year in Ulaan Bataar before beginning his studies abroad. 
The other Mongolian young man did not possess the linguistic skills of the student, but advertised skills in other departments. Initially quiet, he soon opened up and would blurt out an interruption in Mongolian without any non verbal signal. The young student would pause mid-sentence in whatever he was telling us and translate for us. A significant portion of the journey proceeded in this bizarre fashion. This other young man did not have the typical Mongolian look and not just because he was tattooed over 75% of his body. We could see the dark green hued artwork extending to his arms and up his neck to where his beard would have been had he not been completely shaven. He claimed he had gypsy ancestry.
His first question to us was whether we were interested in art. This odd sweeping question would have been strange coming from anyone and particularly so when translated from Mongolian. We carefully constructed a bland and inoffensive answer and waited for the young man to reveal why he had baited us thus. He said he was off to St. Petersburg to display his own artwork and then showed us a sample on his smartphone. Our carefully composed expressions intending to convey respectful enthusiasm gave way to genuine admiration at the scope of his vision and craft. And then he added that he also had a couple of invites from other parts of Russia (Irkutsk being the first on the way) for him to practice his skills as a shaman to effect cures on chronic maladies. He had inherited this side from his father who used to read palms in Novosibirsk. He revealed he is a practising Wiccan and read Tarot cards which at some point he pulled out of his bag to show us. He kept surprising us throughout the journey by offering unsolicited and unprovoked expositions on our profiles and future. We kept up our attitude of bland tolerance and chose not to challenge him on his inferences or his methods. He made keyboard gestures with his fingers suggested that we played the piano etc. Curiously, his inferences were made for both of us as a couple, something that we found odd, but again chose not to break this open any further as we did not really want to invite any more of this.
We need to bear in mind that for those coming in from Beijing, the border crossing into Mongolia involved an additional process of moving the coaches to a different bed for the wider track width used in Mongolia and Russia. But it is the process of entering Russia on the train that we had been waiting for with curiosity and dread (losing a night's sleep).
As the train neared the border, the attendant issued several blank forms. The Russian immigration form was bilingual if a bit unkind to those with long names. The other forms were entirely in Cyrillic. We could slow read the text, but needed the help of our Czech university student to decipher. We allowed him the use of our pen in return. Curiously, he was confused about one of the forms. Even though we could make out the word Mongol on the top of the form, he insisted that it was a Russian form. So why were there 2 separate Russian customs forms? He was unable to explain. Turned out he was wrong, it was a Mongolian customs form. We completed the Russian form through guess work and hoped for the best. In addition to all this separate sets of lists were drawn up with each person writing their passport number, seat number etc. Strangely one of them was in Chinese only. When we tried to pass on these papers to the Chinese woman in the next compartment, she snorted it away in contempt as if it was some kind of fund raising pledge for freeing Tibet. So we kept it until the attendant hurried in looking exasperated (he spoke only  Chinese, no other language) and took it away. Obviously, these lists were to be submitted to the officials of both countries. Curiously, the Chinese list had 4 digit numbers against each name that could not have been birth year. We guessed it to be currency (but what country and denomination?). What if this list was just handed over to midnight bandits waiting at the border?
The Mongolian exit formalities were a trifle and the train stopped at Sukhbataar station for about 90 minutes. Mongolian customs and immigration officials checked documents, asked that all bags be placed on the beds so they can check under the seats and overhead compartments etc.
The train then crossed into Russia (almost at midnight) and stopped at Naushki for the 110 minute halt to complete the Russian formalities. Two sets of customs officials conducted proceedings. The first one conversed with the Prague scholar exclusively (presumably in Mongolian, since our student friend did not speak Russian) and he in turn translated. For his efforts, only his bags were opened for search. Our bags were left untouched (dismissed with a casual wave). Then a smartly dressed woman checked our passports one by one, making each person stand up and look at her as she directed her unfriendly gaze at each of us. She had a magnifying eye piece that she used to check the authenticity of the visa sticker and mouthed each name carefully before stamping each passport and arrival/departure forms with a disappointed sigh. Then another customs official appeared with a German shepherd and shooed everyone out in English. The dog entered and sniffed away and then the man smartly climbed up the compartment walls to look at the empty bins at the top and then down under the seats before grunting to let us go back in. He went to the next compartment and repeated the commands in Chinese as befitting the occupants there.
It was 2 am when they all lost interest in us as potential illegals or drug dealers and allowed the train to proceed through Russia. We were in! And celebrated this with a mad scramble to empty our bladders that had been filling up unseen while the two countries conducted their crossing rituals. The toilets were now open and everyone wanted to hit the bed on an empty bladder. 
The big scenic highlight of the journey was the appearance of Lake Baikal in the morning as the train hugs its southwestern edge for several hours before heading north for Irkutsk. Irkutsk itself is 70km away from the lake but is connected to it through the Angara river. The dark blue ocean like appearance of the lake brought out even the hardiest sleeper on the coach and soon every window on the corridor was occupied. As the lake kept company with us for several hours that morning and afternoon. Over the course of the journey, our coterie expanded to 6 with the addition of 2 young Mongolian women who were bound for Moscow and were feeling lonely in their compartments among a sea of Chinese. And so we ended up trying to stay afloat in the sea of Mongolian. 
At the westernmost apex of the lake is the resort village of Slyudyanka with the train station a short walk from the lake. We did not plan to get off as the train only stopped for a few minutes there. At least, that was per the schedule. We found ourselves sweating in the afternoon heat before finding the fan switch as the train stayed put for 4 hours at the station. Our plans to explore Irkutsk on foot that afternoon were cast away. As the train skirted around the lake and started climbing steeply, we saw a derailed goods train on an adjacent track with several cars lying on their sides precariously on the cliff side. The lake vistas with fall colors and snow capped peaks looked magnificent. We pulled into Irkutsk station at 6 pm. And set foot on our first Russian destination!
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