A Posh Ride

We had roughed it. We had drunk water we pump-filtered ourselves. We had warmed ourselves over fires we built ourselves. We had erected shelters for ourselves. We had carried and cooked our own food. And at the end of all that, we found ourselves in the lavish surroundings of a second-class train cabin.

There were complimentary sheets, pillows, and blankets for the beds. The samovar was always full, the providnitsa was pleasant, drinking water was provided, and everything on the train worked. It was like being in a large airplane, with a flat-screen TV in our little room and little reading lights over our seats.

In layout, our compartment was similar to the platskartny cabins we had spent most of our time on, only about 4-5 feet wide with four bunks and a table along the sides. The main difference, however, was that on the side which normally had the walkway and another two bunks was a wall with a door to the train’s hallway. It was quite ritzy, we thought.

Matt and I settled in, tossing our stuff all over the cabin as we are wont to do (this may be exaggeration, but we certainly still had a lot of stuff, although less than before the camping trip). We had gotten some food and drink at a little store in Irkutsk so we had supplies. We also had two roommates. One was named Laura and she was a tour guide for an Australian company. Her route was from St. Petersburg to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She had done it a few times before, and new her way around the train and the schedule pretty well, which was an asset to us who, as always (and by our own choice), were winging it.

Laura and her group rode second-class almost the entire time, so she was also completely comfortable in these swanky surroundings. Our other companion (whose name I don’t remember) was not so pleased to be in such a comfortable cabin. She was a Russian 21-year old who had moved to Paris with her family when she was young and lived there since. She seemed to be a bit unhappy with her life in Paris. She explained to us a lot of how the immigration system works and told us of all the protests she enjoyed attending, throughout the EU, including a recent protest at the G8 summit.

The rest of the passengers on the train were the quintessential tourists. They all had their cameras, they were all in little groups, most had tour guides, the young people were all into drinking… it was a lot of the kinds of things we had dealt with in Europe and had been frustrated with. People who don’t really appreciate the culture around and are there just for the sake of saying that they were there.

That first evening as the train rolled away from Irkutsk toward the Mongolian border, Matt and I enjoyed a good discussion with Laura and the Russian girl about what makes a good traveler and what makes a bad tourist. Laura, being a tour guide, said that a good tour group with a good guide can really see a country and get to know it well, while being able to move through it at a fast enough pace to see even more things.

Our Russian friend was more of the opinion that to get to know a country and make it worthwhile to visit it you needed to really get in touch with the people of the country, especially the people at the bottom end of the economic and social ladder. She had ridden from Moscow to Irkutsk by platskartny and had stayed with local people when possible and walked instead of taking taxis or cars. She claimed this had allowed her to connect with the people of Russian in a much more meaningful way. Of course, we countered with the fact that she spoke fluent Russian whereas Matt and I spoke barely a few dozen words, so of course she would be able to connect more easily with the local people.

It was a heated discussion that lasted for a few hours during which Laura popped in and out seeing to the needs of her group. Eventually it was evening, we all broke out our evening meals and shared bread, cheese, jams, and candied fruit around. The main course for all of us was bowls of instant noodles made with the hot water from the samovar (Laura’s Top Train-cooking Tip: “Chinese rice noodles don’t work real well if you can’t boil them,” she said as she crunched her semi-cooked, but delicious looking noodles.)

We fell asleep late-ish that evening and woke up the next morning still in Russia (It’s a huge country!). Matt and I both read for a while (I was reading Worldwalk, a highly recommended book about a young Ohio journalist named Steven Newman who walked around the world in four years back in the late eighties. Matt was reading the last chunk of The Idiot which I had finished during the hiking trip.)

After a few hours, the train stopped at the border and we all got out. The train would be there for several hours, so Matt and I set out to explore the town after taking a picture for some tourists from Minnesota. As we explored, it turned out that pretty much the only thing in town was the train station and a small freight-yard. Matt and I decided to explore the decidedly sandy countryside and went hiking up a nearby hill where we sat and drank some Orange Fanta we had gotten in Irkutsk. After seeing all there was to see on that hill, we headed back into town where we bumped into the Russian girl again and all three of us walked down the tracks for a bit exploring in the opposite direction and talking about the things we had seen on our travels and what our lives were like compared to where we lived.

At the end of the several hours, we got back on the train and were informed that the train would be leaving in another half hour, but that the bathrooms would be closed for about 3 hours. Matt and I decided not to risk it and went to the train station where we found an 8-ruble price tag on the bathrooms. Well, I wasn’t going to pay that so I went around to the back of the train station and found a small, ramshackle latrine shed and used that. Not pleasant, but free!

We got back on the train, had our passports checked and stamped and we were off for half an hour to the other side of the border. At that side the train once again stopped for several hours after we had gotten our passports checked and stamped on the Mongolian side. The sun was setting and we had started this border crossing business at about noon and we were getting a bit impatient. After the stamping, the Russian, Matt, and I got out again, walked around the larger Mongolian town for a bit admiring the Soviet architecture, the Buddhist temple, and the basketball court.

Just as the sun dipped below the horizon, we were along the train tracks about 15 minutes north of the train station when all the sudden our train came chugging past. It stopped a few people waved calmly at us as we stood gape-mouthed. A switch snapped and our train chugged off again around the corner. As we watched, it steamed off in the direction of Ulaanbataar, leaving us at this small border town!

We decided the thing to do was book it back to the train station and see if there was anything we could do. When we arrived at the train station, we were relieved to find our train sitting there on the tracks, just on a different siding and all of our touristy companions were milling about the platform. We joined them for a bit before it started getting cold and we got back on the train and stewed up our suppers again. Half an hour or so later, we were off again after about 9 hours of border crossing formalities.

That evening, Matt and I both slept well. Well, that is, until 5 AM when the providnitsa knocked loudly on the door, opened it up and shook both the Russian and I, leaving Matt and Laura alone. Well, I groggily got up, washed my face, unmade my bed so the providnitsa could have the linens and sat down, still mostly asleep. Out the window, the pre-dawn light began slowly dimming the darkness. The greyish light illuminating the gers (round, cloth tents Mongolian nomads have been using for centuries, since before the time of the Khaans) scattered throughout the countryside.

As the sun rose, we approached the city of Ulaanbataar and just past 6 AM we arrived. It was still mostly dark and it was freezing cold, and we didn’t quite know where the guesthouse was that Matt had told we would be staying with. We said goodbye to the Russian and Laura and set off, but not before a lady on the platform gave me a card for the Golden Gobi hostel.

It was a bit of a rough introduction to Ulaanbataar, a city nestled in the beautiful countryside that makes up Mongolia. It was about to get rougher.

One Response to “A Posh Ride”

  1. Hi Daniel,

    It’s been great to follow your blog and I’m going to miss it! Sorry that I didn’t respond more often.

    Wow! Mongolia, I’d have loved to have done that trip with you. When I was in Israel after highschool I dreamed of backbacking through Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Greece to London before flying home, but unfortunately I never managed that. All the best and I can’t wait to hear about the rest of your trip!

    Feel free to send me an email if you have time!

    Peace,
    Nathan

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