Trans-Siberian Railway Part II: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Russia

With leg one of our railway journey already behind us and with tickets for leg two in hand, we were eager to prove to the entire universe that we learned some lessons from our first attempt.  To summarize our revised approach to boarding the train while maintaining some sanity, we gave ourselves a full 60 minutes to walk the entire kilometer from our awesome hostel in Ulaanbaatar to the train station.

To our delight, this worked out perfectly.  The train was already there, so we boarded and found our four person kupé (2nd class) compartment.  Just like on the last train, we had the whole compartment to ourselves, so we made ourselves at home and settled in.  The train left at 21:00 for the 33 hour journey, so we planned to play a game or two of Tetris (because we were headed to Russia) before turning in for the night.

That’s when the quirky parts of this train ride commenced.  Anna left to get some hot water from the samovar, and when she returned 30 seconds later she found that I  had a new friend sitting right next to me on my bed, a Mongolian man who was very interested in the map at the back of our copy of Trans-Siberian Handbook.  Other than communicating by pointing to places on the map, pointing to ourselves, and saying the names of places we were headed as well as our names, we shared some smiles and handshakes.  After the few moments of extended silence that followed, I indicated to him that we were headed to bed  by closing my eyes, leaning my head against my hands, and snoring a little.  He smiled and nodded his understanding and got up and left our compartment.  So that cleared that up — he wasn’t on one of the other berths (code word for ‘beds’ on trains) in our compartment.

We found ourselves joined by our new friend numerous times throughout the journey, sometimes involving him simply opening our door when we’d had it closed for a little privacy, but most often on mutually agreeable terms.

Other quirks along this ride included:

  • exceedingly long stops (4-6 hours long) on both sides of the Mongolia-Russia border, where all the locals get their belongings carefully examined by customs officials who pretty much don’t give a rip about westerners’ belongings,
  • Our entire train suddenly only consisting of one carriage getting tugged along behind the engine as we crossed the border,
  • Our entire train subsequently only consisting of our carriage sitting all by itself with no engine for 6 hours at the Russian border station before being attached to the rest of a Russian train,
  • Being literally the only two people who didn’t get off our carriage at Ulan Ude, where the line officially changed from the Trans-Mongoliana to the Trans-Siberian.  Our new friend disappeared before we could catch him…  Maybe that’s just the Mongolian way.

We got off at Irkutsk somewhere around 6:00 or 7:00 AM and were delighted to see it was snowing — a first for us since we were driving across Kansas way back in October.  The next few days were spent on the following tasks:

  1. Deciding our remaining itinerary in Russia so we could purchase tickets.
  2. Purchasing tickets.  After several attempts, we eventually succeeded in this without using one of those English-speaking agencies that charge you more money than if you just buy the tickets yourself.  Anna did an excellent job writing in Russian!
  3. Enjoying the old Siberian architecture on display in Irkutsk.
  4. Staying in the smaller village of Listvyanka for a few nights and hiking around on frozen Lake Baikal.  This was probably the highlight of the trip for me so far.
  5. Utilizing the banya, a Russian sauna/bathhouse.  My favorite part was when we ran outside to roll around in the snow before coming back in.

Here are some pictures for all you visual learners out there.

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