TRANS MONGOLIAN EXPRESS: FROM UB TO IRKUTSK
It is a bloody big place your Mongolia. Your Outer bit, that is, which the Chinese and then latterly, the Russians controlled and abandoned.
Hence the fact that the next stage of the train journey was going to be a challenging 40 hour trek across two borders from Ulan Baatar, into Russia and to Irkutsk.
We were all incredibly depressed about leaving Mongolia. Although it has many challenges, it was a country whose spirit and energy proved a welcome relief after the challenges of China. UB is one of those cities on the trip that I already have marked down for a definite return.
On our last morning, Nemo took us on a tour of some of the re-established monasteries of the city to show us how the Mongolians had regrouped and begun to rebuild their city since the disappearance of the Russians.
But, we had to head on and, after a brief stop at the state department store to pick up a few snacks for the journey, we headed to the station and boarded the next stage of The Trans Mongolian Express.
The length of the journey is added to by the interminable border control systems of both the Mongolian and the Russian authorities.
Boarding the train at 6pm, the rest of the group and myself soon settled down to games of cards or scrabble, reading any one of the floating library of books we were circulating amongst ourselves or, inevitably drinking some of the local brews which involved both beer and vodka named after Mongolia’s most famous son.
I have to say, that at this point, I had actually become accustomed to train travel and began to actively enjoy the regular rumblings of wheel against track and the chug of the engine as it hauled us across the beautiful landscape. That is something I never thought I would say, but, God help me, I really did enjoy it.
I can’t claim to have enjoyed the special package of food that the attendants through in our direction at the beginning of the trip, but hey, it was a nice thought.
What I did not enjoy was the next morning as we clanged to a halt next at the Mongolian border where we would be sitting for the next five hours. For the first few hours we were not allowed to leave the train which was in a form of quarantine as the Mongolian customs people made sure no one was leaving with any national treasures. (I am not sure what those may be, but I am pretty sure then involved horse milk.) and to check the cases of the enormous numbers of people who travel this route taking goods from China to markets in Russia.
On top of which, because the train was stationary, the attendants also insisted on locking the toilets. You can imagine the consequences of lots of beer and vodka alongside some more benign liquids had on our bladders and we were stuck with no, shall we say, outlet.
People, apparently, have been known to fill plastic bags or even Pringle packets in desperation, but I could not bring myself to do that. Eventually, however, after nearly four kidney challenging hours, I realised I would have to do something or the whole of EAT MY GLOBE would end in disgrace in a puddle of filtered vodka.
So, I sneaked from my carriage away from the ever watchful eye of the frightening attendant and go to the small space between two carriages. Dropping my sweatpants and aiming in the gap that led to the track below I let rip, the flow began immediately and carried on and on and on until I thought I would have filled more Pringle packets than we possibly had between us. I let out a huge sigh of relief and, after couple of shakes, pulled up my drawers and headed back to my compartment.
As I came out of the carriage, the attendant was standing at the far end of the carriage watching me. Did she know what I had been up too? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I gave her a huge, unreturned smile and a big thumbs up and returned to my bed. What happens between the carriages, stays between the carriages.
When we finally began to move again, we headed for the Russian border and another long wait. At least this time we were able to get off the train, pay a few roubles and use the washing facilities. Hardly enough to make us sweet smelling, but it lowered the ripeness to a tolerable level.
Well, we were now in Russia and used our spare time to walk to the local settlement and buy some provisions, which of course, included some of the local Russian beer, Baltika which comes in categories from 3-10 getting progressively darker and more strong.
We also indulged in some of the rather odd snacks that the Russians love so much and which became a staple through the rest of our journey. Pot mashed potato. God they love this stuff. Freeze dried mash potato in a container to which they add other flavours including, bizarrely enough, croutons. Hot water came from samovars at the end of each carriage. They are pretty grim, but seemed to fit the context of the trip and I found myself eating them despite my misgivings on more than one occasion.
When we finally passed border control into Russia, the next day passed quite quickly in a blur of more card games, general chatting, eating any old crap that was being passed around and, lots and lots of much needed sleep. In fact, on recent parts of the trip as I am getting progressively more exhausted, I have dreams about the rest I had on this journey enforced by the fact there was bugger all else to do.
The next morning saw us arrive very early at the capital of Eastern Siberia, Irkutsk. This, however, was not going to be where we were going to lay our heads for the next night. We picked up our rucksacks and boarded a bus which whisked us off to the small town of Litvyanka, some seventy kilometres away from the station.
The rigours of the journey, the early start and the gentle motion of the bus made sure that, within about five minutes of getting on the bus, we were all sound asleep much to the consternation of a young woman called Julia who had been appointed our local guide and who was, in that very formal Russian way, giving us a lecture on the history of the area.
We awoke with a jump as the coach pulled to a halt on a road next to some unfriendly looking Soviet residence blocks. This is where we were going to be staying.
Intrepid, the company with whom I was staying, arrange for the small parties they guide, to spend at least one night on the edges of Lake Baikal with local housewives who rent out spare rooms in their apartments to make some extra cash. We were paired up and I headed off to meet Ludmilla who, rather bizarrely, seemed only to speak German. Never quite figured that one out.
She was immensely friendly, however and, after shower, we were soon sitting down to a cup of tea and some lovely home made biscuits. A bit of a change from the shudder of the train slopping powered mashed potatoes all over me.
Lake Baikal is the deepest fresh water lake in the world and contains nearly 20% of the worlds fresh water. It is incredibly clean and the water is pumped untreated from lake to home.
The afternoon saw tour of the small but engaging museum, some lunch at a local restaurant and a boat trip out on the lake (spot scary porno star moustache ever present in the pictures from this period). But, perhaps the highlight was a trip around the local market to sample some of the local smoked Omul and Sig. It was hot and straight from the smoker with oil dripping from it and then down our chins as we all helped ourselves to chunks of the subtle white flesh. I hate to say it, but it spoiled me for other smoked fish.
Supper was a simple but entirely delicious affair back at the home of Ludmilla (still speaking to me entirely in German) which involved a small fresh salad and a bowl of Pelimi, dumplings filled with beef and then served in a light broth. Nothing haute about it but it was filling and, after the crap we stuffed ourselves with on the train, tasted incredibly nourishing.
We were in Russia, so of course we had to go for Banya (Sauna) but this was no ordinary sauna, this was sauna, Russian style.
We traipsed a good mile or so down to the lake’s edge and ( boys firs, girls second) stripped down to our swimming trunks before clambering in to a small room which had been heated to nearly 90o by water thrown over hot coals. In a small bowl on the floor were birch twigs soaking to supple terror in some more hot water already to whip each other with.
After about fifteen minutes, we were all a nice shade of pink and, as the girls watched and took pictures, those of the male persuasion in the group flung ourselves off a narrow plank directly into the river which was, unsurprisingly, freezing. So cold, in fact, that I actually felt my gonads retreat in a sort of “quick lads, back into the torso” kind of way, by way of protection.
It actually got kind of good to use by now and, after forty five minutes of hot & cold action, we had to be forced to hand over to the ladies who, it has to be said, attacked the whole thing in a much more lacklustre fashion.
After the sauna, of course, another tradition, Vodka. Enough vodka to make our journey and first morning in Irkutsk a rather interesting one.
But, that’s for another time