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Published: October 16th 2005
I left Irkoutsk on the evening of Friday, the 1st of July, for once making it at the train station in ample time. I very much liked Irkoutsk for its charm, old wooden houses and grand stone buildings.
The only reservation I would have about it is that the mosquitoes are the size of Mig 29's and do just about as much damage.
Before leaving, I filled up on provisions as I had been warned that there was no restaurant carriage on this leg of the journey, mainly cans and packaged products (been told to avoid fresh fruits and lettuce)
I was, by chance, on the slow train which takes a couple of days to reach Ulan Bataar. I left at 15:10 Moscow time (actually 20:10 Irkoutsk time). The Mongolian train is not quite as smart or luxurious as the Trans-Siberian but at least has windows which can open. This was to my greatest relief. The Russian train relied on air-conditioning, which is a bit much for 5 days.
My carriage was, once again, filled with foreigners: a large group of mixed nationalities, all heading from St Petersburgh to Beijing and stopping over for 5 days in
Ulan Baatar, and a British couple who lived in the West End and had left their jobs to travel around the world for about 6 Months.
My compartment was, to my greatest delight, filled entirely with cartons of cigarettes, thousands of them, and, somewhere underneath all that, there were two Mongolians: one Short and Fat, the other Long and Thin. Quite a bizarre pair.
My bunk was covered in cigarettes, the floor was covered in cigarettes and they just kept coming. Every few minutes, a huge box would be brought, filled to the brim with contraband cigarettes. I pointed out politely that, however fond I am of sleeping in a bed of cigarettes, I would much rather have my original mattress. They looked much distressed at this thought and called upon the controller lady to sort me out. She dully trotted along the corridor, looked repeatedly and at woringly increasing speed at my ticket and at the numbers on the door so many times that I felt like pointing out that, however entertaining this was proving to be, I was also rather keen on sleep. She said something or the other to the pair and Long and Thin
duly cleared my bed. It seemed that Short and Fat was in charge of the operations. After all, he wore the badly fitting suit with the labels still showing on the sleeves.
I installed myself on my bed as well as I could and prepared for the journey, while keeping an alert eye on the goings in and out of my compartment. I estimate that there must have been at least 5000 packets in my compartment plus another 3000 under the train, which was only accessed underneath the corridor by a tiny trap, and another 5000 packets in one of the toilets which, as such, became kaput as the controller pointed out when I tried to use it. It is locked and broken, no one can go in. What was even more bizarre is that the other Mongolian passengers brought to Short and Fat their own stock of cigarettes which he duly noted down on paper and placed in our compartment...
When the train left, I could barely see out of the window for the wall of cigarettes with which I was faced.
I thought the controller women of my Trans-Mongolian carriage took quite a liking to
me, as she brought me a cup of tea before we even started the journey. Turns out that, with the cup of tea, she was bringing her own personal stock of cigarettes to give to Short and Fat and asking me to move to another carriage. I refused as I was anticipating quite a lot of fun out of seeing how they would manage at the borders, trying to hide 15000 packs of cigarettes. Short and Fat gave me a carton of cigarettes and waved me away. I politely returned the carton and played annoying toursit pointing at my ticket and pointing at my bunk. He grumbled and mumbled but left it at that.
We soon got under way. After a couple of hours, we arrived at lake Baikal. By that time, I had gotten to know the tour leader of the other group and the British couple (John and Helen). They agreed to look after my bags and luggage. I did not trust them with either Short and Fat or Long and Slim, nor did I have any space left to put it in my carriage. I also feared that they would take advantage of the time I
was not looking at my bags to stuff them full of cigarettes.
Lake Baikal is one of the most incredible sights one can be ever given to see: a huge lake of pure clear blue water, surrounded by majestic cliffs and gentle slopes. There are islands sticking out of the lake simillar in a way to Halong Bay in Vietnam.
I was lucky enough that the train followed the shore line of the lake for over 2 hours, which gave me a chance to see the sun set in it, followed by a clear blue night and a reflective moon which bathed the lake and the surrounding countryside in a smoothing light. There is a long history of man against nature with the lake: it is one of the largest in the world (600km) and the deepest in the world. The Russians wanted the train to cross the lake, as it was deemed to be financially impossible to drill through the cliffs surrounding the lake.
They first thought that they could put the train on board of ships and transport it across. They duly bought two ships from Britain, to be built on the lake. The two
ships were delivered and assembled, the first train was placed on the first ship, it started to cross but then stopped and promptly sank with the train and all on board. The second ship is, since then, a museum.
The second attempt was to transport the russian troops to Manchuria to fight the war against the Japanese. In winter, they placed rails across the frozen lake, launched a train full of soldiers, which also made about as far as half way through before the ice broke and the train plunged into the icy water, taking all with her. They then agreed to drill over 300 tunnels and build 200 bridges to allow the trans-siberian to follow the lake safely on its shores.
We had a number of stops at train stations along the lake. Short and Fat and Long and Thin insisted that they had to buy large quantities of dried fish from the lake, which they ate with gluttony when back on board. The stench was quite awful, enough to make me feel as if I would be violently sick, preferably on the remains of the fish. They merilly ate it all with the help of a number of bottles of vodka and a few packs of cigarettes, to make it pass better. They were both stinking drunk by the time dinner was finished but they soon collapsed in a satisfied sleep, amongst the countless packs of cigarettes. They remained there, engaged in a loud snoring competition, until morning. After having arranged my belongings so as to provide for maximum security (I sleep in a sleeping bag when I don't trust people and stack all my valuables at the bottom of it, harder to get to. I had also repatriated my bags and other belongings to another compartment), I nevertheless spent the better part of the night with my head out of the window, in such a manner as a dog might, trying desperatly to avoid the stench of strong dried fish, cheap alcohol, sweat, bad perfume, and millions of cigarettes.
I was determined not to give up and retire to a more civilized compartment. I left the Russians on the trans-Siberian, I would not leave the Mongolians on the trans-Mongolian. Such are the joys of travelling. In any case I was far too curious to see how the border checks would happen.
Next morning, the scenery had changd dramatically: gone the high mountains surrounding Irkoutsk to be replaced by a vast deserted plain with nothing much on it. I went to the brits to sleep and chat for a couple of hours. When I returned, my bunk had been transformed into a sorting station and, unfortunately, there was little I could do about it. I did fetch the controller; she arrived (still wearing her confused look), saw the situation, asked Short and Fat and Long and Thin to vacate my bed. Short and Fat gave her a few bank notes and a slap on the bum, she giggled stupidly and trotted back down the corridor leaving me with a furious envy to stick her head, instead of logs, in the hot water boiler.
After much negotiations and patience, I regained my bed only to find it absolutely littered with packs of cigarettes. By this point, I started fearing that, should the border guards lock up my gang of two, they might take me along for the ride as an accomplice.
I proceeded to wash vigourously. It has become one of my favourite activities. I discovered the joys of washing thoroughly in a moving train, from a tiny basin, quite an art, I assure you. I also discovered the versatility of soap: it can be used for shampoo, shaving cream, washing powder and can also become a dangerous slipery object in the toilets of a moving train.
I counted that I had already spent 10 days and 9 nights on board trains.
At about 12:00, we arrived at the Russian border town and were told that we would be stuck here for 4 hours before we could get on with the customs. We all got off (apart from my two) and went to the little market near the train station. The reason given for such a prolonged stop is that the train has, once again, got to be lifted and placed on new rails of different sizes, as the russians, of course, feel that they have to do things differently. I expect it is a left-over from the cold war but it must be slowing down trade between Russia and its neighbours.
The market looked like much any other market in Russia: fake goods imitating big brands, fake CD's and DVD's, a few bars with shashliks, beer and cheap vodka but what surprised me was a stand well furnished in western pornography of various origins, all countries represented in all sorts of fashion. I struggled to understand. It is only later that I grasped where it all came from. I watched (while enjoying a delicious shashlik with raw onions) a foreigner on my carriage buying such material; immediately, the woman behind the stand said a word to a young boy standing nearby her, he rushed off to a Russian border guard nearby and pointed at the foreigner who had just bought the merchandise. Sure enough, when we were searched some 5 hours later, his bag was thoroughly searched, the merchandise found and confiscated and he was given a fine of 2000 roubles. I expect the magazines have already been sold back to the store. Win-Win situation (for the Russians, anyway).
When I returned to my carriage, before the inspection, most of the cigarettes had magicaly disappeared: they were being passed through the window facing away from the station to a couple of other Mongolians outside the train, who were loading them up in a truck. The operation was swiftly concluded and once the operation was done, the Russian border officer, who clearly liked to get to the bottom of things (including I expect, his bottles of vodka), searched the compartment and my bag but found little of interest, apart from my dirty washing.
We passed the Russian checkpoints with few problems (apart from the foreigner who got fined). It involved, of course, endless administration and papers to be filled in but that was to be expected.
A half hour later we arrived at the Mongolian border, where we were in line after other trains and had to wait another 2 hours before we could get through customs. As I stared blankly out of the window, guess who I saw? The truck with the cigarettes was back, he drew up alongside the train and started loading the cigarettes back in the compartment. I was once again suffocating amongst enough cigarettes to kill all of Mongolia, including the yaks.
The Mongolians came on board, inspected thoroughly each carriage but, for some strange reason, forgot to check mine. The chief customs officer insisted on doing it himself. He came in, looked in my bag and left, pretending not to notice the new red and white decoration of the compartment. After endless paperwork and an attempted scam to try to sell us insurrance which they said was compulsory but which turned out to be absolutely not, everyone left.
The chief officer returned 10 minutes later, with two other officers, they came into my compartment, seemed to be taken a bit aback at seeing me, grinning at him stupidly and striking the pose of the Malboro man with my Cambodian Straw Hat. He was reluctant to come in while I was there but there was little he could do to throw me out. I helped him by pretending that I was most intrested in a book about Gengis Khan and could not possibly take my eyes off it. They sat down with the two truck drivers (who had conveniently brought a couple of bottles of mongolian liquor with them) and they started joyfully drinking away toast after toast. They offered me some but I politely declined. I noticed that, as they left, they each took a large plastic bag filled to the brim with cigarettes. The CO had two bags and also received a see-through plastic container with some notes in it. Rarely have I seen such blatant corruption.
The day fell into night and, as we made our way into Mongolia, I was given the chance to see one of the most incredible sunsets of my life, over the dry and arid mountains of Mongolia.
The night was spent yet again sleeplessly, as Short and Fat and Long and Thin kept drinking with the controller gigly girl to toast their success. There was also an endless convoy of people knocking at the door to reclaim what they had given to Short and Fat at the beginning of the journey (minus a small percentage, of course). He kept good accounts of it all. The trap door was opened and everything was again stored in the compartment to the point where the cigarettes from the floor would reach as high as my bunk. During the night, Short and Fat dissapeared, as well as most of the merchandise. I expect another truck was waiting for him somewhere along the way. Long and Thin also had a couple of helpers at the platform of Ulan Bataar to help him unload the cigarettes. I noticed that something seemed to trouble him during the night: he was restless, breathed heavily and kept twitching. I don't know if it was guilt or the loss of the boss or some illness related to the heavy drinking. I was not sorry one bit to see him worried. Sadistic, I know, but such is life.
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