For the first time, I knew there would be someone I could definitely talk to on the trans-Siberian train to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator. Over the last few days in Irkutsk, a group of us had got to know each other at the hostel, and four of us – Matieu from France, and Santi and Gali from Spain and I were all heading to Mongolia on the same train.
We’d all gone to buy our tickets at different times – yet incredibly, we’d all been put in the same compartment in carriage seven! It was a huge long train, and almost as if fate was insisting at some point we would all meet, even if we hadn’t been staying in the same accommodation.
We all set off from the hostel, knowing our time in Russia had come to an end. With just a day left on my visa, I was unable to stay any longer anyway. We took a tram to Irkutsk station, where there was a throng of people in the departure hall waiting for the platform number to appear next to our service, number 362. Just as I was debating whether to make a quick run for a famous Russian deep-fried pasty, the platform number appeared and everyone was off, scurrying down into a tunnel and out to the waiting train.
The provodnitsa, which I’ve now found out is the proper term for the female carriage attendant, was waiting at the door, collecting tickets and checking passports.
She was about 50, tall with neatly permed, bleached blonde hair, and she knew a little bit of English. It was a cold night, well below freezing, and the atmosphere on the platform was buzzing with an adventurous feeling. I’ve never crossed a border in a train before, let alone seen the dramatic scenery we were all expecting, and quite a few backpackers were around, obviously feeling the same. For the locals too, this is quite a journey, and there were hugs and goodbyes on the plaftform before I was ushered inside rather bluntly by the provodnitsa.
Inside it was a much more modern carriage – and it was full of tourists! We’d obviously all been bunched together into one part of the train. It was nice on one hand to be among people you can talk to, but part of the fun has also been meeting the locals and finding out all about their lives and where they were heading. Nevertheless, we pulled out of Irkutsk, rounded Lake Baikal and we were on our way to the border.
In our compartment we had a great time talking to each other, finding out where everyone was heading and having some good-natured cross-European banter…mainly at the expense of the French! Matieu just shrugged his shoulders in a typically French fashion from time to time, accepting some of the charges we put to him (usually about white flags and stupid foods like snails) but retaliating with retorts such as “well all your food is o’reeble” or “ow can you eat zat disgusting cheddar cheese in your country”
In fact, we were all laughing so hard, the providnitsa poked her head round our door and told us to shush. So we did for a while, closing our compartment door and trying to keep the noise down. I undid all the good work by deciding to make a cheese spread sandwich, using the bread buns I’d bought earlier. It was then I inadvertently discovered another bizarre Russian food – to my shock, whilst ripping the end of my bread bun off, hoping to dunk it my Dairylea-esque cheese triangle, I found a strange-looking sausage, buried deep within the roll and poking its end out at me! It was a ready-made hot dog, one of the strangest things I’d seen.
There were howls from the lads, amid cries of ‘only in Russia’, and it was promptly renamed the Russian Kinder Surprise. Even a simple cheese spread sandwich can go disastrously wrong in this country, another example of mealtime Russian roulette!
By now it was around midnight, and with us all cracking more jokes and laughing about some of the stranger episodes we’d all experienced in Russia, suddenly the door flew open. It was the provodnitsa again, this time wagging her finger, shouting something in Russian at us and glaring into all of our eyes before sliding the door shut so hard it almost came off its runners as she stomped off back down the corridor to her little room.
It didn’t have the desired effect – we all sniggered and laughed like naughty schoolboys who’d just been told off by the teacher. It was group bonding at its finest!
Now we all had a mutual understanding of each others wit and humour, despite the occasional language break-down or misunderstanding, and now we also had a common thorn in the side, that of the curly-haired provodnitsa trying to keep order in her carriage. I went to the bathroom, only to be told she’d returned yet again in my absence to shout at Gali for laughing too loudly.
By now, we realised she meant business, and with another day and night at her mercy, decided we ought to go to sleep.
The next morning, and for the first time on this journey, I was taken aback by the complete change in landscape when I first looked out of the window. The cities and towns, the greenery, the trees and bushes, they’d all disappeared.
They’d been replaced by open plains and mountains, by dust and sand, the occasional animal drinking from a stream. There was a Lada too, trying to keep up with the train at one point – those hardy Russian cars get everywhere out here!
More and more of the travellers onboard were waking up now, probably hearing the commotion outside the compartment doors from those of us taking photographs of the dramatically different scenery. It was mid-morning, and the sun was in an ideal spot for shots outside the right hand side of the train. There was an Italian, more French guys, a couple from the south coast of England and a guy from Hong Kong who is on his way home after 18 months travelling around the world.
After taking a few photographs, I decided to make a cup of tea at the samovar. I poked my head out into the area between the carriages, and suddenly realised half of the train had gone missing!
At some point in the night, we’d left a load of carriages somewhere, I’m presuming the town of Ulan Ude, but it meant we were now at the end of the train, and able to get some cracking shots of the tracks stretching into the distance over the plains. I was joined by a few others, and we were laughing and talking while making our respective cuppas, when all of a sudden a compartment door flew open next to us.
It was the provodnitsa – complete with nighty, hair curlers and wagging finger – who despite being laid down and had clearly been asleep, managed to shout something in Russian at us. It sounded similar to what she’s said the previous night, and while I don’t know any Russian swear words, I’m presuming there was one in there!
I did my usual trick at times of confrontation and quickly scampered down the corridor to the relative safety of my compartment, while I heard the provodnitsa’s door slam back shut behind me. Everyone else went back to their own bunks too, amid much more sniggering and laughter.
We reached Naushki, the Russian border town, 5895km from Moscow, at about 1pm. The provodnitsa –in a slightly better mood but still wearing her nighty – shouted down the corridor in English that it would be two hours before we went anywhere, and to be back on the train for 4pm. Or was it that it would be two to four hours before we went anywhere? Nobody seemed to know for sure, but we had plenty of time on our hands either way.
We ventured into the village and to a little market, where you could buy such delights as dried up chicken or browning puzzle magazines which have been basking in the Siberian sun for months on end.
We used the opportunity to group together and get some photographs of the train. It became clear that lots of different trains are brought here, and then shunted together to make one long train to head through the border.
It was still a worrying sight to see our carriage, complete with most of our belongings onboard, being hooked up to a shunter and disappearing into the distance!
It’s a weird feeling in Russia when you walk freely onto the railway tracks. It’s just a way of life here – people don’t use bridges or crossing points, mainly because there aren’t many. It goes against all our Western instincts, drilled into us to stay off the tracks or risk all manner of horrific death.
Here, you simply have to look both ways to check there isn’t 300 tonnes of Russia’s finest timber on a goods train heading your way and walk straight across, making sure you lift your feet high enough over the rails to avoid providing a comedy moment for an entire express train parked nearby. In some cases you can’t avoid it walking over the tracks, as helpfully, there’s no platform provided.
The upshot of this is that you can get some cracking photographs that normal rules in the UK won’t ever let you get, and with the sun in a perfect position, everyone had a lot of fun trying out different creative shots.
There was a bit of messing around too – like pretending to pull carriages with bare hands, hanging off the steps, and some good group photos on the tracks. From all corners of Europe, we all had a common reason for being at that station at that time – to say we’d made the longest train journey in the world – and we made sure we had plenty of memories to take back home with us.
By 4pm, our carriage had moved again – it was now stuck two tracks away from the platform, and the provodnitsa, still with curlers in her hair, let us back on. Soon after, the Russian customs officials came on, complete with all their smart uniforms and overbearing manner. Ours was quite pretty, but she squinted as she twice compared the smartly suited, clean-cut photograph of me in my passport with the scruffy, tired and unshaven mess that was in front of her. She then grilled me as to why I didn’t have an immigration card – something I can’t remember ever having, and then remembered that British Airways announced on the flight to Moscow there had been a cock-up at Heathrow and none had been put onboard.
Customs at Domodedovo had been informed so we were okay, but sadly that wasn’t the case at all the other border points in the country. She looked at me with a disappointed expression, despite my explanation, and clearly thinking I’d lost it somewhere. For once, I hadn’t!
All our passports were taken away, and returned about an hour later, complete with departure stamp, and as the sun began to set, we were shunted back into a long train and slowly inched our way into no-mans land between Russia and Mongolia.
All along the track through the border are menacing look-out posts and mile after mile of barbed wire and electric fences, and the occasional armed border guard walking beside the track. The train kept sounding its horn as we rounded a final bend, through another fence and stopped next to a plinth. On top, a Mongolian flag – we had left Russia.
Now in darkness, we pulled into the Mongolian border town of Sühbaatar, where we repeated the customs procedure but with Mongolian officials (one of whom brazenly stole my UK Digital Switchover pen, of the type handed out in their dozens around the BBC newsroom!) We had yet another scare, as we returned from the station toilets to find our train had disappeared, although thankfully yet another shunting procedure, and with our passports back, we were on our way.
Due to arrive in Ulan Bator at 6am, and strangely losing an hour of time on the way despite the travel east, we decided an early night was in order. Except the carriage was oppressively hot, at times feeling like a sauna. A temperature gauge gave a reading of 30°c at the end of the carriage, but inside the compartment it was even hotter. With a heater blowing like a furnace next to my head, I decided to ask the provodnitsa if we could have the temperature turned down. I swear I heard my compartment colleagues say a prayer for me as I left to see her at the end of the corridor.
“No…its electrical” came her short and firm reply.
The night before, she’d made an effort to cool the carriage to 25°c by opening all the windows, which is a strange position to be in considering we’re in the depths of snowy Siberia. But not tonight. I fear her payback for the disturbed sleep was to let us slowly roast on our way to the coldest capital city on the planet.
That night, I laid on my bed with the blind open, looking up at the stars while everyone else was asleep. The sky was amazingly clear and dark, the stars shimmering away. Even though we were moving, I could see so many of the constellations. Jupiter was bright in the sky. And then, out of the corner of my eye, a flash of light streaked across the horizon. I watched even more intently – and in just fifteen minutes, I counted five shooting stars.
I reflected on the journey. To think this was the part of my travels I was most concerned about just a few weeks ago – the part that prompted worried conversations with close friends about being lonely or bored, that even at times gave me second thoughts about it all – I was loving it.
Russia was a complete surprise for me – I found the people, current provodnitsa aside, among the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve ever met. Yes, the food was bland and boring at times (when you eventually found somewhere to buy it) and yes, everything, even the simplest tasks like asking for directions, trying to find a tourist site without any signposts, buying a train ticket or working out where the Metro was heading, was a major struggle. But that was almost part of its charm. People in Russia just get on with it!
Russia though is a beautiful place, full of interesting architecture and history, with some amazingly pretty scenery like around Lake Baikal. The stereotypical ‘grey, stern, miserable’ image of Russia had been blown out of the water for me – those images of queues for bread were no more. It’s a sophisticated, developed country, one I’m pleased to have visited and take away fond memories of some very special people. People like Andrey and his family, of Igor on the train who, without knowing me, gave me his number and offered help if ever I needed it (he’s even added me on Facebook and now following my progress around the world through my blog) And of course the lovely grandmother Yekaterina, who took me under her wing, fed me, watered me, and generally looked concerned for me as she tried to understand why anyone would want to travel around the world on their own.
Now the trans-Siberian adventure moves on to Ulan Bator, and the train pulls into the snowy station bang on time. Laden down with backpacks, rucksacks and uneaten food, the provonidtsa looks at me, smiles, and says ‘goodbye’.
As I walk past her, she pulls my hood up out from under my backpack strap and puts it over my head. “Its cold” she smiles, and waves us on our way.
Even she had a heart of gold really!