I sauntered into the station at 3.15pm prepared to board the 3.47pm to Ulaanbaatar and I was a little surprised to discover it had been waiting at the platform since 3.02pm.
Perhaps I was becoming a little blase.
I hurried to platform, waiting for the train to Moscow to chug away from a standing start so I could cross the tracks. I’d gone native.
This time I was catching a Chinese train through Mongolia.
Was it any different to the Russian trains? It had far fewer carriages than the Russian trains but perhaps that was linked to demand for the route.
Internally, the towels were more flowery but the facilities were largely the same – four bunks with bedding per cabin and the samovar at the end of the carriage.
I passed Irene, who I had met at the hostel in Ulan-Ude, in one cabin. We later compared notes on the passengers as it seemed we were travelling with a huge group of women from Ulaanbaatar who were in every cabin the length of the carriage. There was much coming and going from each cabin as people moved the length of the carriage to visit.
It was a very sociable carriage.
Early arrival to the cabin on this journey was apparently the key to territory.
I was the last to stagger in, still with 25 minutes before departure.
Two women from the larger group were already in place along with a younger man who was travelling alone, for a tour of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia before heading home to Korea.
As had been the norm on journeys so far, I asked if the older lady sitting on the lower bunk allocated to me would mind moving so I could raise it and move my rucksack beneath it.
The lady was not for doing so. She indicated that she was already comfortable, had her belongings where she wanted them and I should place my rucksack up on her bunk. She commanded the younger man to assist.
He was not going to argue.
Hmmm. I didn’t mind sharing the bunk while we were sitting but I thought her refusal to ‘allow’ me to stow my rucksack was rude. I pointed out that it was my bunk just to ensure there were no misunderstandings.
Feeling that I’d get even further by being polite… it’s not easy arguing when you don’t speak the same language… I decided on a charm offensive, and offered chocolates to everyone… the older lady gradually cleared her stuff away.
The train pulled out of Ulan-Ude through fairly mountainous scenery.
After an hour we reached Zaudinsky and Russian border officials boarded the train to check visas and passports. I wasn’t expecting them until we reached the Mongolian border at Naushki in another five hours. They handed the passports back to us.
However, I think they may have been checking how many people were on board to inform the official checks when we reached the border later.
The provodnitsa returned to take our passports again, then return them.
Meanwhile, the train left Zaudinsky following the Selenge River, before crossing at around 5701km East of Moscow.
I found the scenery at this stretch more interesting than that I had previously seen.
I love forests, especially in Autumn, but the Trans Siberian Route takes you up close and personal with the trees, and I like to see a distant view. Especially when I’m trying to take photos.
Here, there were herds of cattle grazing across low, green hills beside a wide river, and villages of wooden houses.
The train reached Zagustay and the railway followed the shoreline of Gusinoe Ozero (Goose Lake), surrounded by thick woods of pine and birch.
I was relieved that all of the windows on the carriage were open. It was a very hot day and the breeze was refreshing. I was particularly appreciative of this when my companion, the older lady, opened a tin of mackerel.
As the sun set, it became clear that my cabin companion thought she was commandeering my bunk.
One thing I have learned in Russia is that it is advisable to stick to the rules and, while I felt it wouldn’t appear to do any harm to swap bunks, I decided against this because:
- If visa checks were taking place in the night, I wanted to be found in the correct bunk. Let’s not introduce any unnecessary complications to an already convoluted process. (My passport had been taken and returned twice, I had a customs declaration and an immigration form as well – there was a fair amount of paperwork already).
- What if this lady was getting off at a different stop to me and the provodnitsa woke the wrong person?
- I did not for any reason want to provoke the provodnitsa… the guardian of the samovar and tea drinking facilities.
My companion lay down.
I pointed out that her bunk was the one above. Her friend asked if she could just lie there for 20 minutes, which was fine. I explained that I didn’t want to spend the night in the wrong bunk.
That didn’t seem to offend anyone and, really, tough, if it had.
I settled down for the final Trans Siberian Express rite of passage that I hadn’t yet experienced… pot noodle (though apparently seasoned travellers refer to it as ramen, as if that makes it sound more sophisticated than it is).
It was lovely… the spiciest food I’ve eaten since leaving Manchester.
My companion got up and went to the carriage corridor to look out of the windows.
Another woman, obviously one of this larger group of women entered the cabin and, flung herself down on my bunk. My previous companion moved and quietly sat on the bunk opposite, squeezed in between her friend and the younger man.
Other than my companion briefly complaining at this woman, to no effect, nobody said a word. I wasn’t planning to allow her to stay but I was interested to see how this would now play out.
This was turning into quite a surreal but entertaining train ride.
By the time, we arrived at Naushki, the woman had left. This was the border town for the passport checks. We were locked on the train for an hour.
I chatted with Irene. The woman, who had come to sleep in the compartment I was in, was travelling in hers but was annoyed that because everyone was talking she couldn’t sleep. That explained her appearance on my bunk.
She had also persuaded a boy in Irene’s cabin to swap bunks with her.
Irene felt this was unfair because the top bunk is much cheaper than the lower. I had no idea.
My companion was definitely not getting my bunk…no matter how far she spread out her sheets and bedding.
My earlier politeness would have to become a little more blunt. I’d finished the chocolates anyway.
The Russian border staff entered the train. Passports and visas were checked. Photographs were compared with our actual appearances which was unfortunate as I look like a serial killer on my passport.
A search of the compartments was undertaken, except my belongings and those of the other tourists – Germans, Swiss, Scottish and French – were not checked. A second search followed and everything was searched.
The officials left and the passengers waited on the train. Russian border security was satisfied and my exit visa was stamped.
A small posse of the ladies’ tour group arrived at the compartment to inform me that I needed to move to the top bunk.
I disagreed. My companion and her friend seemed to have forgotten that I had already told them that this was my bunk. They were quite embarrassed when I showed my ticket to their friends but I really think they thought I would just fall online with their behaviour.
Forty minutes after pulling out of Naushki, the train came to a shuddering halt. This time it was the Mongolian border checks though the provodnitsa seemed most concerned with closing the blinds on the windows.
Another forty minutes later and my passport was again returned with the Mongolian visa stamped. I’d officially arrived in Mongolia and there was nothing else to do but sleep.
An hour, a whole hour, before were scheduled to arrive at Ulaanbataar, the provodnitsa woke myself and the younger man. If I’d known that was likely, I’d have set a letter alarm clock. I was up and ready before I realised the time.
Maybe we were just among the first to be told as she did her rounds… but it wasn’t a big carriage.
Besides, I had tea and watched the sunrise.
The guy from Korea and I talked about work-life balance. Korea has been known for long working days but apparently that is changing now.
His biggest issue was his older colleagues wanting to know why he was travelling and not getting married and going on honeymoon.
As for my bunk companion and her friend…. they were NOT getting off at Ulaanbaatar so I’m very pleased that I didn’t swap bunks.