As the stern looking babushka descended our compartment steps, complete with red hat emblazoned with a hammer and sickle motif, our train could not be going anywhere but Russia. She would be our provodnitsa ( carriage attendant) for the thirty something hour journey from Ulaanbaatar to Irkusk in Siberia. Something about her appearance fulfilling every stereotype of an older Russia lady (in my head) made the prospect of finally getting to ‘The Mother land’ all the more exciting.
But we werent there yet. We where still in Mongolia, this meant that signs for train number or destination where non-existent… train station staff members to tell you where to go… pffft don’t be silly. Train running at the time on your ticket, your joking right? Mongolia had just re-introduced daylights savings time after an absence of 13 years, but apparently had failed to tell anyone, this meant that every clock in the city was on a different time, meeting people was a nightmare, and our train left one hour later than our tickets told us! A fitting end to our time in Mongolia.
For the journey from UB to Irkutsk there was only one class of seat available, and it was not unlike the soft sleepers from Chinese trains. Each Carriage was lined with 4-berth compartments full of softish beds and a small table. We were joined in our carriage by a few other tourists (a few kiwis and an ozzy who mainly talked about trains the whole journey) and a group of around 30 8-year-old rhythmic gymnasts, decked out in tracksuits all emblazoned with their troupe name… “starlets”. As you can imagine there was a high level of noise and excitement from this set of passengers, who spent a good deal of the journey practising their moves up and down the corridor much to the provodnitsa’s annoyance!
When we reached the Mongolian border we were once again greeted by grumpy Mongolian border guards who once again took a long time over Ryan’s passport, probably believing that it belongs to a female relative based on the long-haired photo, but eventually cleared us to leave the county. As we waited on the Mongolian border (there was a five-hour stop) we where highly entertained by the starlets doing laps, and performing un-human high kicks up and own the platform, while the prodivista, with cigarette in mouth, looked on whist stoking the fire used to heat the elaborate water heating system… who needs TV eh?
We finally trundled over the border to Russia for another long wait, (around 4 hours this time) in which a huge number of stereotypically Russian looking border guards, customs officials and even sniffer dogs came to have a good look at us. Unlike at the Mongolian border here the Russians had all the technology; face recording equipment, scanners for our visas and they even had a look at our bags too. With a big sigh of relief we were stamped into Russia and wondered the streets of the dusty town to celebrate…it felt distinctly Russian… soviet era monument and a shop full of smoked fish, bread and cheese, yes we were in!
After another night on the train we finally reached Irkusk and our first stop on the trans-siberian railway. It was almost a reverse culture shock for us. Here people looked Russian and for the most part European Russian, not that different from us, and I almost jumped for joy when we read the sign in our hostel that said we could drink the tap water!
But more about Irkusk next time.