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Published: March 15th 2019
R: Once onboard we got a good nights sleep. We were in a very similar cabin to the one before, with the same configuration of beds and once again no compartment buddies. This train is a daily shuttle service across the border and into Mongolia. As such, the train is more of a locals train than the first long distance one and it stops more often. That being said they have grouped the foreigners into one place. Our new Provodnitzas did not allow the foreigners off the train at these stops as they clearly weren't for us and they didn't want to lose track of us - the train only stopped for a minute or two at each station. In fact there were no good stops today.
The scenery is now totally different to the vast Siberian forests we had been travelling through - there were hills in the distance, scrubby bushes and a lake that is apparently called Goose Lake. Here and there were Buddhist looking stupas on hills that I wasn't expecting to see within the borders of Russia but the interesting thing that has changed is that we are now in Asian Russia instead of European Russia.
Everything you think about when you think of Russia doesn't apply here. The Russians that look here look more Asian than European as well.
The elderly French group in our carriage were wondering around, loudly discussing things with each other and generally seeming restless.
We got to Naushki, the border town, and were told this would take several hours; to get off the train but don't go too far. We watched as the train got pulled away with our luggage inside it, hoping it would come back some day. The station itself was a large empty building with a ticket office and some seating and nothing else. I'm not sure it even had a vending machine. So there was not much of interest there. We then headed out to look around the town / village of Naushki. There was a small park and a number of houses, but there just didn't seem to be much else. Strangely, the air was filled with drifting fluffy seeds or pollen which made the place look like it was stuck in a blizzard. A small shop was open just outside the station, where we managed to get some cool drinks and an
ice cream. All around us were lazy dogs sleeping in the shade. It was that kind of place. It clearly lived on the arrival of the train as the most activity we saw was immediately after the train arrived, then nothing until it was nearly time to leave.
An announcement sounded across the tannoy. It sounded like it said Irkutsk but we couldn't tell. Our train appeared to be standing on the platform again, so we approach it, but the signs only said Irkutsk - Naushki. It seemed like half the train was missing. Along with the French tourists we tried our best to ask what was going on. We "think" that half the train we arrived on had been disconnected and was being sent back to Irkutsk. Working on this assumption, we went and sat back down, hoping we were right and our bags weren't going to head to Mongolia or Irkutsk without us.
Then the rest of the train arrived ; now with signs for Ulaanbaataar on it. Phew. We got back on, and then
they started the border process. Departing Russia was pretty straightforward really, but I don't really understand why they can't do this
when everyone is off the train. We had been joined in our compartment by Mary - a Mongolian trader who had several packages tied up with string which now filled the rest of the compartment. The traders cross the border in to Russia to obtain items that can't be bought in Mongolia, or vice versa. The Russians were quite keen to search the compartment, so we were thrown out briefly - but politely - while they lifted all the beds and looked on the shelves for contraband. They didn't seem interested in us, but Mary got a grilling. Further up the train, there was some disagreement going on. The elderly French, upset that the process was taking too long, were trying to push past the border guards and access other areas of the train (like the toilets which were actually closed). Now call me dull, but I don't think pushing past Russian border guards is my idea of a good idea. You wouldn't run through airport security because you needed the loo! The group were forcefully put back in their place, but each time, they tried to get up again and escape passport control. This went on for some time
until eventually they had all been checked but there was lots of French expletives involved from start to finish.
Then we gradually started to pull away from Naushki. We didn't pickup much speed as we approached the border and suddenly the amount of chain link fences increased dramatically. There was one down each side of the train track here, whereas previously there had just been open land. There were also guard towers watching on as the train travelled below them. We passed the official border which was marked by two large obelisks in the ground with Russian and Mongolian flags painted on to them. I struggled around for the camera but maybe was a little too late. We had made it to Mongolia and already everything felt a bit exciting.
The train then pulled in to Sükbataar - the Mongolian border town. As we pulled in, the platform was lined by Mongolian officials - all saluting the arrival of the train. They swamped the train and took our passports in a pretty officious manner which was slightly unnerving, but after about an hour of sitting on the train with the A/C turned off in the baking heat, we
were given them back. They searched the compartment again for contraband and we were allowed to disembark. There was no platform here, we got down on a middle track, in between live train tracks and walked along the stones to the main station.
First things first - money change! We had some Roubles left but not too many. The station was filled with money changers who were not trying to conceal the wads of money they were clutching. Preferring to go down the "official" route we asked in the station for the official money changer. The attendant grabbed his mobile, called someone and told us to wait here. Soon a money changer from outside had come to meet us, and at that point we realised this is just the way it is done. By the time we started transacting, several more had also surrounded us trying to get our business. Using xe.com I knew what we were hoping for and we didn't get too bad a rate for the Roubles, but Richard changed some USD which didn't do so well - apparently we found the place in the world where they don't care for the dollar! Though we did
count the money extremely carefully before walking away - hoping the money (Mongolian Tögrogs) was actually real - it was all pretty battered. We had a look around the station building which was packed with people waiting for some other train, and the (grim looking) restaurant was closed - so that was the dinner plan out the window.
There was another abandoned steam engine outside the entrance to Sükbataar station and the outside garden areas were filled with people out sitting, chatting, and socialising outside the station. There wasn't much to do here, but we did have a look in a small station shop which seemed to have a rush on. We still had noodles, bread and cheese that we had bought at stations along the way, so this became dinner once we got back on the train - Mary, our previous compartment friend was gone.
The next part of the journey was absolutely stunning. There were plains, filled with herds of animals, dotted with yurts scattered across a green and gold landscape. I scrambled to photograph the first yurts I saw before realising that there were many MANY more yurts to come. The nomadic lifestyle is definitely
alive here, with huge numbers living this way - more on this in the next post. We had a great evening just watching the sun go down, and think about how far we had come. One thing is for sure though, the infrastructure is more downtrodden here, and the railways were suddenly much less smart.
Having the compartment to ourselves again, we hit the hay, and awaited out 6am arrival in Ulaanbataar.
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