Border LoveOctober 11, 2016 in Mongolia
Another day, another train cabin. It is a view that we are becoming used to on our odyssey home.
There was only one long stop this morning, where we would have the chance to get off the train, and stretch our legs. It was at Ulan Ude, and it was at something like 0615. We slept through the stop. And when we woke, the 20 carriage train that we were part of when we left Irkutsk the night before, was now a single carriage, being pulled by a rather large engine, seemingly more used to pulling 50 cargo wagons, than a single carriage of tourists.
We shared breakfast with our Uzbek cabin mate, who had drawn the short straw, and found himself stuck on a train full off tourists, none of whom he could communicate with particularly well. He spoke Uzbek and Russian, and no one on train had a language in common with him, other than than the huffy carriage attendants.
Without the ease of verbal communication, we were able to acertain, that our Uzbek friend was a dolphin trainer, of all things (he had many photos to prove it), and he was heading to Ulan Bataar to continue with his work. It feels quite strange that a man from a landlocked country, would travel to another landlocked country to work as a dolphin trainer, but it was all very real. He had travelled from Tashkent by plane to Irkutsk, landing at 1am, then waited until 2100 to get on the train to Ulan Bataar.
Courtney had a long conversation with him, using a world map on her tablet, to try and explain where we were coming from, and where we were going to. We also exchanged passports to show him some more of the travelling we had done, and for him to likewise show us, where he had been.
After breakfast, and a few hours spent chatting to others on the carriage, it was time for part one of the border crossing - leaving Russia. This process took five hours. It involved our carriage being dropped off at a switching yard, and repreatedly shunted along the a few sets of tracks, as more carriages were added to ours, and then the whole resulting train rearranged, just for good measure. When there was a break in the shunting, you could quickly jump off the carriage and make your way into the switching yard's main building, which provided very litttle, other than a toilet (16 R) and a small shop that sold dry goods, plus water.
Courtney was left on the platform for 45 mins by herself, as the period to get on or off the train was so short, maybe 30 seconds at most. So unless you were stood ready to get on or get off, at any given moment, you were stuck where you were. There was only so much pacing up and down the platform to do, and only so much perusing of the tiny little shop that could be done. 45 minutes alone was about 40 minutes too long. Courtney was however, joined by two cattle on the platform who kept her company until she could be reunited with the train.
The toilet situation was especailly bad, as while the train was at the yard, the on board toilets were locked. They don't vent to a septic tank under the train, but instead drop straight onto the track. At major stops, the toilets are locked to prevent human excrement building up uncontrollably. When you are stopped for hours at a time though, it can become an issue.
As the train was being shunted around, the huffy carriage attendants were inside, furiously trying to conceal the many boxes of bananas they had on our carriage. Some people had them in there cabins, and some were piled on the floor. Before the customs inspection took place, they would be systematically concealed in underfloor compartments, ceiling compartments, and cupboards. Quite why someone would want to smuggle 100+kgs of bananas into Mongolia was beside us, which led us to think that perhaps there were other things concealed with the bananas.
After three hours of being shunted around the switching yard, and another hour's wait on the train for Customs and Border Police to show up, it was finally time for some excitement. We were all confined to our cabins as first passport control, and then customs control took place. The Russian passport police were as humourless and abrasive as every stereotype would lead you to believe. The customs control wasn't much better, we were all asked to empty out our bags at the same time, in a tiny cabin, where there is absolutely no space to do so, and the customs control people got angry, that we couldn't do as they asked. What they asked was the equivalent of fitting 50 people into a mini.
Six hours after arriving, it was now time to depart Russia, and head into Mongolia. Our first stop in Mongolia was short. It was to pick up a couple of soldiers, who would escort us to the passport/customs control point. And it wasn't long till we got there, during which time, the toilets were unlocked for a grand total of five minutes. Hardly sufficient to satisfy the needs of 30 something people.
Processing through Mongolia customs was similar to that of leaving Russia. We were greeting by a man, whose first question of the cabin was "What drugs do you have? Cocaine? Heroin? Marujuana?" When the answer was none, he then gave us a big harumph, and as with the Russian customs people, demanded everyone empty their bags for him in unison. Something that is physically impossible in the space that we had available.
Next was passport control: phase one of two. Our passports were reviewed by a border guard, and then returned to us. Then five minutes later, the same border guard came back and collected everyone's passport, to take off the train, and process. It is unconfortable when your passport is taken away from you like that. You are always more confortable when it is within sight. There was a long conversation with our Uzbek friend in Russian, and then our passports were gone for half an hour.
When the passports came back, our Uzbek friends was taken off the train for further questioning. It seemed that he didn't have the right visa for his travel to Ulan Bataar. After another hour waiting on the tracks (this was scheduled), our Uzbek friend returned to grab his things and dismbark the train. He was being held at the border. It was hard to communicate, but it was really sad, so we gave him some chocolates, some kiwifruit, and said our goodbyes, after helping him off the train.
And then, it was time to leave the control station, and head into the real Mongolia, behind the border control. But it was pitch black, so we have no idea what it might have looked like. We sat in the cabin of some other travellers, and drank what remained of our collective booze supplies. A bit too much beer, wine, and vodka was consumed, but a good time was had by all, as we drank to the future fortune of our now departed Uzbek friend.Read more