A Travellerspoint blog


Somewhere South of the Russian Border

Day 14 Ten Hour Border Crossing - UB to Irkutsk on the Train and we've hit a slight technical difficulty

sunny 18 °C

Our cabin proves remarkably cosy, the rhythmic motions and gentle clunking of the train means we sleep soundly, occasionally stirring as we passed through towns. I woke up during the night to some shunting and banging of carriages but snuggled back into my bunk and back to sleep. Gradually as morning dawned and our neighbours began to stir, we noticed the train wasn't moving. Usually that means the toilets are locked so not ideal first thing in the morning. When the train is stopped at a station, it is possible to hop off and use the toilets at the station, but one must be sure to know exactly when the train departs as it will leave without you, no whistle or warning.

Jen and I decided to get up and see what was going on. To our utter amazement, the scene that presented itself was unreal. We'd hit a slight snag...no train.
During the night, at the border town of Sukbaatar, our train had departed and all that was on the track at the deserted platform was our one and only carriage at an empty station. Nervous laughter and realisation that there was not much we could do about the situation took a little while to sink in. Definitely no dining carriage and no chance of the train leaving without us!

Our "friendly" steward of course did not offer to share any explanations or timeframes for when we might be again in motion.

A very helpful man with a satchel full of foreign exchange swapped our remaining Chinese Yuan and Mongolian Tughrik to Rubles - at surprisingly competitive rates (all without the aid of a calculator or wifi). Even at 5am there was a lady sitting at a desk in front of the toilets collecting 200 TGT from each person. We and our fellow marooned westerners now had to wait here for about 4 hours until the Mongolian border control came on to check our passports, and then customs, and a procession of uniformed officials inspecting us, our papers and our lonesome carriage. Once that was done, we got connected with a new engine and we were back in motion toward the Russian Border.

I did have a run in with the lovely (not) Russian train attendant who told me very sternly not to take any photos of the rolls of barbed wire fencing that was laid out at the point we crossed the border into Russia. "It is forbidden!" she barked, after I'd taken a photo (even though there was no prior explanation).
During the crossing, we were confined to our cabins. This didn't bother us too much as we had surprisingly good cappuccinos courtesy of our trusty boiler and a packet mix.
After about 30 minutes, crossing the border we pulled into a station at the Russian border town of Naushki. We figured we'd spend a short time here, passports, papers and the usual procession and we'd be on our way. But, again, with some banging and shunting, our engine departed, and we were once again, abandoned.
We waited at Naushki for another 5 hours of Russian border control and eventually, rejoined to a full train, we were back on our way heading towards Irkutsk.
All in all, the border control was not as tight a security as I thought it would be, just painful having to sit around to go through the process but still all part of the travel experience. The rest of the day was enjoyed in our carriage, chatting with other travellers, eating snacks, reading and catching up with diaries...until our devices' batteries died.
The Russian scenery is totally different to Mongolia and now we are seeing rivers, forests and greenery along the journey. Fortunately, we could rest and get over our colds and begin our challenge of Bananagrams and Yatzee - not that we're competitive!

Posted by tszeitli 10:25 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train siberia technical_difficulties Comments (2)

Goodbye UB, Hello Two Nights of Train Travel

Day 13 UB to Irkutsk

sunny 26 °C

Jen started the day with a run in with the “Toast Nazi” at breakfast. Not wanting to be the cause of her electrocution, while the "Toast Nazi" was out of the room, Jen decided to cook her own toast. Upon returning to the room, discerning that Jen was happily munching toast, her face changed and instant dagger looks were directed at Jen. She was clearly not happy. We suspect if Jen had gone back for another piece, there would be a curt “No toast for you!”
We used the day to walk the streets of UB as we were pretty confident to get around. First order was to see “Dr Shoe” and get the soles of Jen's trusty Keens reglued. We found this shop yesterday with the aid of the guide otherwise as all it was a small sign in Cyrillic and a brown front door. I was happy to be able to purchase dice in the market we found by chance - let the Yahtzee Challenge begin! We did a big loop of the town leading eventually back at the main business district and the Blue Fin café for a long lunch - beers are certainly big in Mongolia. With a litre of beer each on board, we stocked up on supplies at the supermarket as we'd been told that this leg of the train has no dining car. Going to supermarkets was a challenge in a real fun way. Trying to read the packaging to understand ingredients, the cost in Aussie and walking amongst the locals is perfect for seeing how the locals do it - great way to get a feel for everyday life. Lots of pointing and gesturing in the deli.

Our Driver to the airport zigged and zagged his way to the train station, a virtual game of dodgem cars in peak hour, Jen and I gasping, squealing and exclaiming "Eeek!", peering through our white knuckles as we weaving through, traffic sometimes on the opposite side of the road.
Fortunately we arrived without a scratch with plenty of time.
A fellow traveller wasn't so lucky earlier in the day, and had to run three kilometres with baggage due to traffic jams to catch his train.

With a dust storm rolling in, the stark empty platform was a little unnerving.
Venturing inside, we were surprise with the impressive interior architecture - harking back to an era long gone. Magnificent white marble, vaulted ceilings and chandeliers seemed so out of place.
Notwithstanding its grandeur, no Noticeboards to detail train times and platform numbers to be found. After watching the 5-star German luxury liner on Platform 1 warmly greet its guests and settle down for sumptuous dinner in the Dining Car, eventually the Westerners at the station began to congregate as the word had gotten around that Platform 3 was were we needed to be. In stark contrast our battered and weary train, that desperately needed a wash, rolled in.
Our first exposure to Russian hospitality was our female train attendant, slouching at the carriage door - her posture clearly depicting her ambivalence to the prospect of the next two day. Unimpressed with our enthusiastic faces excited by the prospect of boarding our train, she snatched our tickets, glanced disinterestedly at them, snarled and tossed the tickets back at us. Jen described her “joyless, contemptuous, and arrogant”. Sadly, she likely grew up in the cold war soviet bad days.
We boarded the train, and were immediately aware that our accommodation was quite a step down from our Red Velour China carriage. Harder seats, common toilet at the end of the carriage that is locked 30 minutes before and after each town, built in the 80’s and a classic coal fired hot water boiler in each carriage.
Clean laundered sheets and linen was distributed, but best not to investigate the rolled up sleeping mats too closely. Oh the stories the bed bugs could tell! There is no option to purchase 'First Class" tickets, but buying all four seats in a cabin means it is now classified as “First Class” - purchasing one seat means "Second Class" and you don't know who your bunk buddies might be. Unfortunately the romance of the Trans-Mongolian Train lost a little of its shine and this train does not look like the ones James Bond always got travel on! It is nevertheless, spacious enough, warm and quite clean (after Jen diligently cleaned the little table with three rounds of antibacterial wipes).

Once all passengers appeared accounted for, the train groaned, squeaked, rattled and clickity-clacked its way out of the station at 8:45pm and we're away. Our fellow travellers are a friendly bunch. Our 'neighbours' are a retired couple from Sydney and two ladies en route back to England. We made up our beds and tucked ourselves into the top bunks with a little apprehension to see what morning would bring and the border crossing into Russia (still traumatised from our previous crossing).

Goodbye Mongolia and bring on the land of “those crazy Russians”!

Posted by tszeitli 13:12 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train border_crossing mongolia passports reality_check Comments (2)

Big Sky, Genghis Khan and Mongolia’s Past & Present

Day 12 Ulaanbaatar [or 'UB' as the locals call it]

sunny 25 °C

A simple western breakfast to start our day featured death defying feats by the waitress, who we later dubbed the “Toast Nazi”. The toaster would cook better on one side than the other so diligently managed the toasting process for each guest, wielding the metal tongs to pluck the toast out of the operational toaster, rotate and reinsert the bread to ensure even toasting. Whilst the result was a crunchy golden accompaniment to the morning meal, Jen and I just laughed waiting for sparks to fly and a scream to fill the room while we drank our coffee.

A lovely young man, Carl, was our guide for the day, an IT graduate with a love of Hollywood movies. His English was fantastic as a result, and often we could communicate impeccably with movie references. Our day tour started with a walk to the Children’s Square featuring a statute of Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj, the father of modern literature in Mongolia - poet, writer, and playwright, and founder of the Mongolian Writer's Union. More information here It is also outside a building that saw some bloodshed in the early years of democracy with a politician being killed. Riots and molotov cocktails were thrown when the people objected to the political party elected. The building has been restored and is a sparkling white government administration building.
Whilst modern Mongolian language is written in Cyrillic, the traditional script is a unique beauty. It is featured prominently in the city, and still understood by many (Carl could read much of it, including centuries old artefacts).
Mongolian history is filled is icons, including the turtle as its national symbol.
Next to Chinggis Square. Located within the centre of the square is the statue of Damdin Sükhbaatar, Mongolian revolutionary. More information here He led the army that liberated Mongolia in 1921 after 200 years of Japanese imperialism.
The previous building, a drab grey stone building housing mausoleum and harking to a drab past, was torn down and replaced with the quite magnificent government building today.
The new parliament house stands at the end of the square with a huge statue of Genghis Khan sitting on a throne with 2 Mongolian soldiers riding horse guarding the building and symbolically protecting the countries leader and the country.
We entered the government building and were able to explore a small display of the governmental history of Mongolia with some unique memorabilia of the Great Khans (Genghis, his son Ögedei Khan, grandson Kublai Khan and the rest of the dynasty) as well as past presidents through to more recent times as the country slowly modernised, including presidential laptops from the 80s, some of the first mobile phone bricks were funny to see displayed in glass cases, and a Rolex watch that shouldn't be locked in a case, but out being worn.
We were struck by how many antiquities from historical Mongolia had been retained, including official seals of the Great Khans, and old forms of 'travelling visas' - usually a metal tablet embossed with the official seal giving the bearer the approval of his ruler to seek trade, commerce or diplomacy with faraway lands. In addition, there were nasty letters exchanged between Ögedei Khan and later Kublai Khan with the Pope in the Vatican - from what we could gather the Vatican wanted the Khans to relinquish their immense power to Rome. Obviously, the response was not friendly.
After coffee at a most cosmopolitan French cafe, we visited the National Museum and spent the next 2 hours going through a chronological history of Mongolia.
Mongolia had existed for a long time but it wasn't until Genghis Khan came to power, that the region had a huge impact on the world and shaped history forever. He was born in 1162 and died in 1227 and ruled from 1206 until he died. The Mongolians have a reputation of being brutal and great warriors, wiping out 11% (40 million) of the world’s population. Carl told us the story that often Genghis Kahn would send messengers to the nearby tribes wanting them to trade and be part of the global power he was developing. Often these messengers were killed and Genghis Kahn retaliated. He was a brilliant military technician, unified tribes under rules of what we now call constitutions and allowed all religions to continue.
It is also said because Genghis Khan controlled so much of the world that 50% of males can traced their heritage directly back to Kahn through his numerous wives.
His empire extended as far into Europe as Hungary and this is where it is believed the Hungarian nation started with the Mongolian Tartars. Being of direct Hungarian decent myself this fact was quite interesting to me. Carl explained that one surefire way to determine lineage as a descendant of Genghis Khan is blue birth mark / spots on their bum. I will save you the sight of not adding a photo of the one I have on my bum. So Jen has probably married a descendent of the Great Genghis Khan - that's my story and I am sticking to it!
We were really impressed with the National Museum - artefacts and archaeological treasures. There was a great display of brilliantly coloured robes of kings and queens including the traditional boots of nomadic Mongolians. The boots feature a curled toe so the sharp point of the boot doesn't touch the ground and disturb the earth. This represents the respect and reverence the Mongolians had for their land. Unfortunately, it is a little ironic when you see how rubbish is strewn all over the countryside especially outside UB today. I wonder what Genghis would think of modern day Mongolia with its sprawling power stations and mining operations extracting precious resources from the earth...
The robes were fascinating and Carl was able to bring in Star Wars references, explaining George Lucas' extensive research into Mongolian Queens as the inspiration for Queen Amidala.
Not just were the costumes inspired by Mongolian Matriarchs, it was as if he modelled the Star Wars Saga on Mongolian Dynasty - Diplomacy first then the Force strikes back!

The museum was a great snapshot and a superbly presented history including the breadth of the empire, Genghis Khan’s family history, clothing, life in a Ger, weapons, the rule by the Japanese Manchuria, domination by USSR and the major turning point of independence in 1990, gained through perseverance and diplomacy - a bloodless exit from Soviet control. I recommend anybody going to UB they need to take the opportunity to see this museum.

We then hopped on a trolley bus up to the hill to walk around the Gangdantechenling Buddhist Monastery. We got to walk around the building clockwise and spin the prayer wheels, quite mesmerising and calming. Inside is the largest Buddhist statue in the world at 26 m.
The day with Carl was very informative and both Jen and I could not believe the history on Mongolia. We also got to walk the streets of UB and could get a sense of the strong nature but very welcoming Mongolians especially the women. A highlight of the day was a lovely lady with her child coming over to us on the street, in the most sincere genuine way, saying "Welcome to Mongolia" with a wide smile.
Women seem to be empowered, very business like, seen out and about impeccably dressed and very much in control. Even on the bus a young lady next to us took to chastising a drunkard on the bus giving him a mouthful for being a lazy drunk. Mongolian men are said to be "relaxed" which comes across as lazy, hence it would seem that women are taking up the challenge and driving Mongolia forward.
Our day with Carl was great. He was so generous and informative - even though we were his first ever guests.
The night finished with a wonderful dinner at the Silk Road restaurant with our Jacobs' work colleagues residing in UB for the Oyu Tolgoi project. They told us some great stories of day to day life and just reinforced how much progress is going on in UB with new hotels, office buildings, the number of westerners and restaurants. One area always good for a laugh is the traffic and how they drive, often 4 cars pushing into one spot and the end result is just gridlock. A strange fact is they drive on the right hand side but most of the cars are imported from Japan and Korea so the steering wheel is on the right hand side. Numerous left hand drive cars are also there which sometimes you need to have a double look at who is really driving the car.
Next stop is 2 nights on the train to Irkutsk, Russia.

Posted by tszeitli 02:00 Archived in Mongolia Tagged mongolia ub ulaanbaatar modern_city big_sky feisty_women Comments (2)

Chinese Border to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Day 11 - 6 hours of Border Control

sunny 20 °C

We trundled in to the Chinese border town at 9.45 pm. What proceeded was a series of knocks at the door to hand over our passports, be given a series of forms to fill in (some which inconveniently required passport information) and a bizarre protocol of checking our rooms including an infrared heat sensor to check our temperatures in case we were suffering from some nasty disease. Jen was quite nervous as she was carrying a fever but fortunately the guard in charge of the sensor, giving us only a cursory swipe, was more interested one of the other westerners who received a closer examination with medical bags and officials cramming into her room. Thinking all was okay (even though we hadn't seen our passports or tickets in quite a while) I laid down to rest to see if I could get some sleep. However, the next 3 hours was a series of banging and shunting of the train that involved quite an engineering feat. Jen said my running commentary of bewilderment as I stood in our little doorway, at each step along the way was hilarious (well, she was laughing on the inside through her cold and fever)
The train track between China and Mongolia is a different gauge (and the Mongolians and Chinese are adamant that they will not make it the same) so every carriage has to have its Chinese bogey removed and then replaced by a Mongolian gauge bogey. We stayed on board through the entire process as we'd been warned. The train was moved into a massive shed and then one by one each carriage was disconnected and aligned against a pair of hydraulic hoists. Once half the train was disconnected, carriages were pushed forward and then back onto a parallel track, again disconnected and each carriage aligned with another pair of hoists - the whole train is now separate carriages in a big illuminated shed.
The whole exercise at near midnight obviously meant everybody on the train was woken up and unable to get to sleep. Tip: do not get off the train or if you do be prepared for a 2 to 3 hour wait standing out in the cold on the track with nothing to do. Many a traveller has been caught out watching their train go off into the dark night wondering if they are now stuck in China with no passport or tickets.
The bogeys are unbolted and then ever so slowly the carriage is raised up about 1 metre, the Chinese bogeys are pushed out of the way and the new Mongolian bogeys are rolled into place. The carriages are now lowered and the new bogeys are bolted on. Two guys per 2 carriages perform this task and the train then goes back through the shunting process of reconnecting all the carriages. Yes, no chance of getting any sleep as each connection is a massive jolt to the whole train almost shaking you out of the bed. It is hard to describe the true experience of recoupling train carriages at 2am - they slam together with such force the whole interior shudders. If we were to do this trip again, we would recommend a bottle of hard liquor and down a shot with each collision would make it less traumatic.
Once complete the Train trundles back to the station and collects anybody who got left behind, passports given back, then we begin the process of Mongolian customs and immigration forms, our passports are collect, we suffer the indignity of a burly Mongolian guard inspecting our carriage and we head off to Mongolia. We are now about 3 am and we stop at the Mongolian station. We eventually fall asleep but not for long as we get woken up again to have our passports given back to us. This whole border crossing takes about 6 hours.
We woke up to a view of lunar landscape as we are now crossing the East Gobi desert. The view for the next 7 hours was basically a dust bowl, flat nothing, 2 hump camels, one main road, small villages dotted with Gers (traditional Mongolian tents for nomadic locals), coal train loadout and the odd station with one guard standing at attention and holding a yellow flag - probably his only and most important task for the day.
About 1 hour out from UB the scenery starts to change and we saw the landscape had changed to a cover of low green grasslands. The outskits of UB are pretty ramshackle and after a 27 hour trip we arrived at UB station. We were met by our ambassador, Carl and drove us to our hotel located about 1 km away from Genghis Khan Square. Whilst UB greeted us with blue skies and sunshine, during the drive to our hotel, it started to sleet. Carl assured us that this was unusual as the previous days had been warm. Fingers crossed tomorrow would be better.
As both of us were suffering from a cold we quickly picked up cash and Carl took us to a Pharmacy. It was an interesting discourse trying to explain what we needed, coming away with sachets of Mongolian "lemsip" and a curious bottle of brown liquid that worked wonders for our sore throats. We decided we needed the afternoon to recover and not venture out.

Posted by tszeitli 17:11 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train mongolia trauma head_cold Comments (4)

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