Trip 4: Irkutsk - Ulaan Baatar


I had a little bit of trepidation about this part of the journey. The Australians were taking a train a day later and would get to Mongolia at the same time as I would. My train, I read, was older, slower and a little dicier. It turned out that the train was exactly the same, and in fact, I had only one berthmate, a Mongolian trader named Hansho.

At first, I was a little mistrustful, making sure I had my camera and passport within arm's length. I think he was a little cautious too, since he had all kinds of goods, and huge wads of cash. After a bit of conversation, I guess he decided that I was all right. He went to the dining car, and came back with two sandwiches and two bottles of beer, which really broke the ice.

This train was filled with Mongolian traders. They do good business going back and forth between Irkutsk and Ulaan Baatar, selling whatever they can get their hands on. Hansho had saws and hammers, and I saw other people with sodas and various other things. Everyone who travels from Russia brings dozens of eggs back to Mongolia, since eggs are a delicacy and there don't seem to be any chickens. We made local stops, with more Mongolians coming on board. A lot of the traders seem to know each other, since they probably take this train quite a lot.

My guide book said we would have a customs check at Naushki and leave at 5:00. But at 2:00 we pulled up to a town whose station, by strange coincidence, said "Naushki". It started to dawn on me that I would start to know a lot about the place. I was looking out the window, and someone behind me spoke to me in English. It was a woman who worked for a travel agency in Ulaan Baatar. She had worked as a scientist in the dairy industry, and had studied in Denmark, but had switched to the travel industry when Mongolia changed its political system. She was on her way home from Russia with her mother, husband and daughter. Her mother, a very elegant looking woman in her 70's with a long fur coat, is a Buryat. They were coming back from visiting the in-laws in Russia, and caught the train at 6AM in Ulaan Ude.

We walked out on to the platform, realized that there wasn't a whole lot to see of Naushki, and made our way back in again. As I see it, Naushki's only feature, salient or otherwise, it that it has the most disgusting toilets in the universe. When the train is in the station you can't use the toilet, and the same should be said for Naushki. Anyway, when we got back into the train, it turned out that this woman's husband knew Hansho from school, and we had a small reunion in the cabin. This was doubly nice. Not only was there vodka and hospitality, I could talk to my berthmate on an equal footing since we had a translator. As host, Hansho would fill the cup with vodka and give it to each guest. The guest drinks, passes it back, and on to the next guest. He asked if I thought it was strange and unsanitary to share a cup like this, but I replied that I thought it was a great custom. It was.

Later on that evening we had a visit from some of the other traders who Hansho knew. Two of them looked like Curly from the Stooges, with big, shaven heads and flat caps. They played a three-card version of blackjack for a while. They were particularly amused with my Mongolian phrase book, and made me say all kinds of silly things in Mongolian I would never need to say. They were very interested in English, since now that the Russians are gone, trade has opened up. They read the English half, and I transliterated it into Cyrillic. It was a pleasant enough way to pass the time.

The Russian customs officials then came on the train. It was business as usual, and everyone knew each other. One of the customs officials asked the Curly guys if they were brothers. Why, he asked, because they had the same wide faces, and he reached over and pinched one of them on the cheek. They joked and searched until they had had enough. The customs officials didn't have the slightest interest in what I was carrying, since presumably, the bribes were better from the traders.

We drove on for a while, and then repeated the exercise at Sukhbaatar in Mongolia. Where the Russian officials were good-natured, the Mongolian ones were out to prove something. My theory is that these were the ex-communists who were sent way the hell out to the border where they wouldn't bother anyone anyone but the traders and me. Anyway, they were everything you would expect from petty, power-hungry and tiresome people with nothing to do. And as with all people with nothing to do, they did an awful lot of it. Everyone had to stand up so that someone could look at the passport and look at them. Each declaration had to be given one at a time. No one could use the toilet. The crowning moment was when they demanded $10 for a life insurance policy, which probably wouldn't cover the cost of the bullet. I filled out the form, and they told me to keep it, as if to drop any pretense that this was a bribe. Of course, as an employee of Standard and Poor's Insurance Rating Services, I'll see to it that the Mongol Daatgal National Insurance and Reinsurance Company gets the write-up it deserves. The Mongolians are great people, but these missing links aren't out to make any friends for them.

Sensing that they weren't wanted, the Mongolian border guards stayed on the train, annoying people and collecting bribes for the rest of the trip. The mood changed among the traders, and everyone was drinking and making a nuisance. One of the traders decided it was time to practice his English and German, and told me that he was a customs official and what did I have in my suitcase. Luckily, my berthmate was the most sensible of all the traders, and we set the alarm, locked the door and went to sleep.

We woke up at 5:30 the next morning. It was very dark and very, very cold. Hansho's schedule said that the train would arrive at 6:00, and mine said 6:20. He was right. This was the first and only glitch in the entire trip. First, he got lost in the shuffle and I didn't get to say goodbye, which bothered me, and also, there was no one on the platform waiting. I went back and forth looking. The station was heaving with people, who were pushing all over the place. Some were dressed in jeans, others were dressed in traditional dels, and some belonged to a Japanese television crew. It was all mildly surreal. 

I realized at that moment that I had left my guide book for China on the train, and I probably wouldn't find another one in that part of the world. I could stay put and perhaps meet my lift, perhaps find them on the platform, or perhaps get the book. Perhaps anyone of those actions could cause me to not find my lift, and perhaps getting back on the train, it could pull out and take me somewhere I didn't want to go. There was a lot of noise and confusion, so all the choices seemed about equal. I finally decided that if I were to be stuck anywhere, I should have a book to read, so I made for the train. I had to get past the flats that they were loading up with Russian sodas and then back out again. At least it gave me something to do.

Finally, someone on the platform asked if I was Australian and knew a girl named Evan. This was the woman they sent to meet the 6:20 train.