Saturday, August 24, 2013

Fourth Leg: Irkutsk to Ulan Bataar

Time to embark. 
The train for Ulan Bataar left Irkutsk at 10 PM. I walked over to the station, crossing the large Angara river on my way, to catch the evening light. Dusk continues on until 10:30 or so at this time of year in these latitudes, which made for some lovely walks at dusk, though it also made getting to sleep harder. When I got onto the train, I knew immediately that this ride would be different from the first three. First of all, Michiel, the affable Dutchman who I'd spent some time with on Olkhon Island, was in my compartment; secondly, the entire carriage was full of backpackers. In fact, there was only one Russian passenger in any of the 36 beds. Thus, a good deal of banter extended up and down the corridor, though neither night turned into the rolling party that I thought might start up. My other cabin mate, a Bavarian transplant named Simone, said that her compatriots took their holidays far too seriously to go to bed late (though I later met another German, fresh from military service, who professed to like Shanghai because "Dey make beeg pahty!"

In any case, I slept well the first night, as we happened to be riding in a more modern and comfortable car, with soft, regular bunks. Around midnight, we could see the southern tip of Baikal out the window. At first, I was sorry that the sun had gone down, but the glow from the moon gave the water a beautiful luminescence. This was really fun train travel - fine sights viewed in comfort and good company. We passed Ulan-Ude sometime in the night - no need to worry about new passengers coming into our full cabin - and when I awoke, around 9:30, we were slowly passing through a much more steppe-like region, clearly close to the Mongolian border. There were still trees, but they were separated by large expanses of grass. The train began to stop briefly but frequently at a number of small, poor towns, where none of the residents appeared to be ethnically Russian. For much of the way, our tracks followed the valley of the Selenga River, which drains much of northern Mongolia. Birds were flocking on its banks.

Naushki Station.
Longer than that apartment block in Novosibirsk!
Around one, we reached the border. Here, the train pulled up (we had lost about half our carriages in the night, probably at Ulan-Ude), and Russian customs officials came on board, first for a cursory glance, then to actually collect our passports. Passengers then disembarked, having been informed by the providnitsa (one of whom was actually male) to return in three hours for further questioning. Michiel, Simone, and I took the opportunity to explore the town of Naushki, which diverted us for about thirty seconds, and grab a little food for a picnic lunch in a filthy park outside the station. Simone had a bag of cucumbers with a deliciously subtle, sour taste, while Michiel had some sweet apricot bread. I doled out some little sweets from a company called Alenka. Its logo is a girl with a headscarf, staring straight out at you with big blue eyes and rosy cheeks. She is supposed to look classically Russian and cute, but her eyes are so wide that the overall effect is rather eerie. Stray dogs hung around us, hoping for a taste of our bread, and we eventually acquiesced, mostly out of boredom.

Very persistent.

Cabin mates.
After lunch, we still had lots of time to burn. All the foreigners sat around on the station platform, chatting, reading, staring into space. Several enormous freight trains, loaded entirely with timber, both raw and finished, passed by. Our carriage, now totally alone, sat in front of us, a little international orphan. Eventually it gained two new Mongolian engines, old blue and yellow workhorses that had been decorated on one side with a couple of ponies tossing their manes. The coupling precipitated a lot of photo-snapping, which also led to some spontaneous silly shots next to the customs signs. It was very hot out. Some folks retired into the carriage itself. Customs came back to hand out our passports and make a cursory investigation into our baggage. Then we still sat. I began making a chess set from paper ripped out of the back of my journal.
Attaching the new engine.

Just over the border in Mongolia.

In the early evening, we finally crossed over into Mongolia. One of my first sights of the new country was a distant yurt sitting by the river, surrounded by several grazing horses. However, the Mongolian border town, Sukhbataar, was uninspiring. Its customs officials gave us a hard look as they passed through and provided us with a new set of paperwork to complete. One tough old lady inquired why I didn't have a visa - when I replied (Americans don't need a visa for Mongolia), she nodded in assent and moved on. Was this a test? We watched people outside on the platform, which Michiel compared to a theatrical stage. The players included street vendors, money changers, idle kids, the police, and various smaller roles of people rushing too and from their trains. When the chess set was done, Karim, the one Russian passenger, beat me in about ten moves. The internationals in my carriage went out to get a snack after we were finally released, but the chips I hurriedly bought were some sort of pineapple steak flavor, which I was not yet hungry enough to eat.

Fruit of my labor.
Dehydrated noodles are popular on the Trans-Siberian. Michiel was a fan.
We finally got going not long after it was dark. The carriage quieted down quickly, as everyone anticipated the dawn arrival. Indeed, at 5:30, the Germans promptly queued for the bathroom. The landscape was now entirely steppe - green, endless grass undulating across rolling hills. Concrete paddocks announced the Ulan Bataar suburbs. 

Sunset while waiting for Mongolian customs.
When you're in Mongolia, the thing to do is to get out into the countryside to camp and explore the country's nomadic roots. This was my original plan, but because trains run only once a week from Ulan Bataar to Beijing and the schedule changed after I had gotten all the other tickets, I only had twenty-four hours before catching the next choo-choo. Perhaps I will return and gain a better sense of the country's vast, restless hinterland that I've heard about from several friends who speak passionately of it. 

Mongolia is a strange land.

Very strange, indeed.

In any event, my day was occupied with finding my hostel (no, Lonely Planet, Zaya Backpacker is not in a 12 story, orange building - it is 8 stories tall and yellow and next to a tall glass skyscraper that you strangely did not mention as a landmark), seeing a Buddhist monastery, the National History Museum, and Sukhbataar Square. Michiel came along for these adventures, which made for a pleasant time. We did some shopping in the cashmere stores, and I had a very amusing time at the State Department Store (motto: "where every need is satisfied), but my general impression of the place was similar to that of most cities in less developed countries. One interesting note was that English-speaking Mongolians talk with an American accent, which was a surprise after several weeks of the English-accented variety among foreigners. My hostel manager was thoroughly American in his demeanor, slouching and wearing a ballcap low over his eyes. My sense is that Mongolians see the United States as a lever to ward off excessive Chinese and Russian influence, which of course they have suffered from considerably (and vice versa, but you have to farther back for that!). 
Pigeons come to pay their respects to the Buddha.

What was it with the Communists and their squares?
Mongolian youth.
I got up at 5:40 the next morning and walked a mile or two to the station to catch my 7 o'clock train to Beijing. All this constant movement and sleeping in different beds was beginning to take its toll, as I felt very exhausted after I had gotten board. That's where I'll leave things for now. 

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