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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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!