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  • Day17

    All aboard the Trans-Mongolian Express

    September 11, 2019 in Mongolia ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    Tuesday morning and a 7.20am taxi pick up for Train 306 from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia departing at 8.13. The journey would take almost 23 hours. We are now leaving the Trans-Siberian route and embark on the Trans-Mongolian line.

    Research had suggested that our train was a Russian owned operation, however the sight of bright blue uniforms (rather than Russian railways grey and red) and interesting looking carriages indicated that our service was actually a Mongolian train and crew. After three Russian trains it seemed more exciting to have a change.

    We were in first class on this leg of the journey (don’t get too excited - we didn’t!) as that meant there were just two berths in our compartment instead of the usual four. It looked OK, if a little old and tired, and the seats were a bit hard on the bum area but the staff all seemed in good spirits and our Mongolian equivalent of a Provodnista was full of smiles as she brought us a big flask of hot water.

    About 20 minutes after leaving Irkutsk Station we had a minor panic... We decided to close our compartment door for a while, but when we tried to open it again we couldn’t. We thought we must be doing something wrong so tried several times without success. The prospect of 22 hours locked in our compartment did not appeal and as there was no window on the compartment door to plead for help, we had no option but to bang hard on it to attract attention. Fortunately a member of staff came to our rescue and despite a total language barrier showed us that all that was needed to open the door from the inside was pure brute force. We practiced this manoeuvre a few times with mixed success so decided the wise move was to leave it marginally open at all times to avoid further embarrassment.

    Once again the train journey went really quickly as during the morning our route took us alongside Lake Baikal, then the afternoon travelling past rural villages, lakes and mostly open pasture land often populated with cattle and horses (sorry photos thin on the ground due to dirty double glazing). There were just three stops during the day before we reached the border area around 7:30pm.

    Our first border challenge was to leave Russia. This consisted of being confined in our compartment and being visited by a Russian Border Control lady who took our passports from us, compared us carefully with our photos and then put our passports in a leather briefcase and disappeared. The next visitor was a Russian Customs lady who asked us if we had anything to declare. We answered in the negative and she requested that we clear our bench seats and lift them up to show her the storage area under them. This done she had a quick look and said OK before moving off. She was swiftly followed by another Russian lady in a camouflage uniform and spiky punk hairstyle accompanied by a friendly spaniel who she brought into our compartment for a good sniff around. They both seemed happy enough and departed. The final caller appeared to be a man in a blue uniform who had been forensically examining the walls of our carriage corridor and looking under the carpet. At his request we had to get our cases down from the overhead storage area which he then examined by taking off a ceiling panel and looking carefully with his torch to check there was nothing hidden there. Then of course the original Border Control Lady returned to give us our passports back containing a nice red exit stamp with a little train on it!

    Nearly two hours from our arrival at the border area we were ready to leave Russia. No one could accuse the authorities of not being thorough and their attention to detail certainly keeps plenty of people in employment.

    We then immediately had a more interesting visitor to our compartment. A Mongolian lady (apparently a friend of our carriage staff) who offered to exchange money. Now John had carried out some research this afternoon on the bank exchange rate for the Russian Ruble against the Mongolian Tugrik and therefore felt in a good position to negotiate. Haggling commenced but just as it appeared agreement was imminent, one of the train staff appeared, whispered in her ear and the exchange lady disappeared out of the compartment at some speed without a goodbye. Five minutes later she ran down the corridor past our compartment with an unknown man running behind her. Strange we thought. Anyway ten minutes later John saw she had recommenced her compartment visits and enticed her back to the negotiating table. A short time later both parties felt they had concluded a good deal and John is now the proud beholder of 598,425 Tugrik which equates to the princely sum of about 180 quid!

    The train then left Russia and 15 minutes later reached the Mongolia entry point. Here we go again! Firstly two forms to complete, these being Arrival Card and Customs Declaration. Then an instruction that all curtains and blinds in our compartment be closed whilst we are at the border point (unsure what we’re not supposed to see). Then a green uniformed Customs lady came and stamped our forms. Next was a very smart Border Control lady in a smart blue uniform, heavy make up and high heels. She asked for our passports, checked our appearance against them and then left with our passports. Swiftly behind her was another young lady wearing a beret and camouflage uniform, together with a rather nasty looking truncheon on her waist. She asked to look under our bench seats so we cleared them and lifted them so she could inspect underneath with her torch. All of the Mongolians are very nice but this is getting rather wearing! The total time taken to cross the border between the two countries was over 4 hours.

    I should mention another way we passed the journey, that is eating. For some reason there is no restaurant car on this train (we had been warned) so it was self-catering all the way. Our all day grazing consisted of half a sandwich, hard boiled eggs, a small croissant, a banana, some crisps, an apple, a beef flavoured mashed potato pot meal with Tuc biscuits, Maltesers/ M&M’s, Russia’s version of Oreo biscuits and some Pringles, rounded off with a vegetable pot noodle and more Tuc biscuits. You wouldn’t want to see it in a bucket but it seemed to work OK for us!

    Now whilst we have been very good in our dealings with authority today we must admit that an overdose of officialdom resulted in us being naughty. A sign in our compartment states quite clearly that no alcohol can be consumed on board, however we had secreted some supplies on board so felt the need for a sneaky vodka and tonic with our Pringles and a glass of Rioja with our pot noodle to round the day off. We know how to live!

    By the time we had finished all Border activities it was gone midnight until the train started moving through Mongolia so with a need to awake at 5:30am for a 6:50am arrival it was bed time and the good news was that the beds were nowhere near as hard as we thought and we had no problem sleeping through to the alarm.

    We are up, packed and ready for arrival at a new Capital City....Ulaanbaatar!
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