The Wheels Come Off

Heading to the Orient

I’d been booked onto Train 4 from Ulan Bator to Beijing – the actual direct train that runs around half of the globe from Moscow to China.

It’s the service I’d wanted to catch originally from Moscow.

Special route plaque

There’s a degree of romance attached to it I think, the fact that the carriages spend their entire life shuttling backwards and forwards between two of the most secretive countries in the world, over a distance of some 5,000 miles. There’s only one service in each direction each week, proudly displaying their special plaques on the side of the carriages.

A dawn departure from Ulan Bator

After being slightly disappointed it was fully booked from Moscow, I was pleased to get a place onboard at Ulan Bator – if it was full here, I had a four day wait for the next Mongolian train service to Beijing the following Thursday.

It meant an early start as the train left Ulan Bator station at 7.10am. With our drop-off leaving the hostel at 6am, there were a few blurry eyes as the alarm clocks went off at 5.30am.

At the station, the train was already waiting. Steam and smoke from the coal fires burning in each dark green carriage filled the air, while travellers were walking around trying to find their respective compartments. This was a Chinese train, the train guards and carriage attendants, dressed in their smart uniforms and hats, proudly stood to attention by each door. Ahead, the sky was purple and orange as the sun began to rise.

I took my bags onboard and then went outside for some photos. My carriage was the first passenger carriage behind the engine, so it was easy for me to run up to the front and get a few shots before we left Mongolia for the 1,100km journey to Beijing. As I was kneeling down at the front, trying to get a steady, sharp photo, the driver got out of his cab. Then he whistled to me, and at first I thought he was telling me to either move out of the way or get on the train. And then he motioned me to follow him.

He disappeared up some steps on the engine, cleaning the handles as he went, and signalled for me to follow. I clambered up, first into the engine compartment, and then into the drivers’ cab. He moved the chair, grabbed my camera and smiled as he told me to sit down. I couldn’t believe it! He got me to hold the controls, the dead mans handle which controls the power, and took a photo.

At the controls!

What a privilege! There I was, in one of the most far-away, isolated countries, at the controls of one of the most famous trains in the world! I could tell the driver is rightly proud of his job, and I guess he was happy to see a Westerner taking an interest in his loco. It was far from plush in there, with lots of peeling green paint and metal everywhere you looked, but the seat was relatively comfy! Now I had a photo I know I’ll always treasure – the time I sat in the drivers’ seat of a Trans-Siberian express train on its way from Moscow to Beijing.

One of the diesel engines

After a quick shot of the powerful diesel engine on the way out, I thanked the driver as he dashed back to his controls, and I ran back to my carriage where the attendant was waving me on. The door closed behind me, and with a long blast of the horn from the engine at the front, we pulled out of Ulan Bator.

The timetable and stop schedule from Moscow to Beijing

Like most passengers, the early start had knocked me for six, but the beauty of these trains is that you get a bed, so I enjoyed a few more hours kip. I woke again as we were approaching Choyr, on the fringes of the Gobi desert. Inside the cabin was a Mongolian couple, who seemed to be avoiding eye contact, and Arian, from Hong Kong, on his way home.

Camels through a dirty window

We passed a herd of wild camels, slowly making their way through the desert, but I was unable to take a photograph as the windows were filthy. It may be one of the most famous direct trains in the world, but it needed a serious dose of Windowlene. Worried I won’t get any decent photos, at the station I took it upon myself to clean the windows. Unfortunately, my backpack supplies were lacking in glass polish, so it was down to toilet roll and bottled water.

Rub-a-dub-dub

Its fair to say they were filthy, with what was obviously months of dirt thrown up through umpteen thousands of miles of too-ing and fro-ing between Europe and the Far East. The toilet paper wasn’t strong enough, so in the end I got a dirty sock out of my bag and used it as a cloth. Much better!

The Gobi desert

Able to see out of one side now, much of the day was spent writing my blog, as a busy few days in Mongolia meant I’d fallen behind a little. After another few hours, we stopped at Saynshand in the south, where I cleaned another window on the opposite side thanks to a better platform.

I gazed out of the window as the vast plains of the Gobi desert drifted by, complete with wild horses, camels and the occasional isolated yurt. For much of the journey, there was nothing but sand and a horizon. It was incredibly empty, but for a railway line running straight through.

As darkness fell, we approached the Mongolian border and stopped at Zamiin Uud while officials came onboard to check passports and stamp us out of the country.

Station stop on the way to the border

There was a long wait while we waited for clearance to go across the border, during which most people got something to eat. I’d bought a Spanish sausage (Santi and Galli’s influence rubbing off on me!) a small loaf of bread and some more cheese spread to make a sandwich or three. I then carried out probably the dumbest thing of my trip so far, by trying to clean my penknife with my fingers.

It was a momentary lapse of concentration which saw me forget it was actually quite sharp – and slice straight into my thumb. Arion instantly asked if I was alright after watching me do this particularly stupid act – and hearing my suppressed yelp as I tried to hide my stupidity.

Blood mopped up and Tesco first aid kit plaster attached (I knew I’d need that kit!) we slowly began to inch forward. We travelled for about two miles at a crawl, regularly sounding the horn, passing through various gates and fences, before arriving at Erlian. We’d reached China- and what a show they put on!

The first station in China

All along the platform, officials and guards stood to attention, looking dead ahead as the train slowly pulled into the platform infront of them. The Chinese writing that adorns the station, combined with the patriotic music blaring from the station’s speakers, really made it feel like you had arrived somewhere special. Just a few miles before, it was a dusty desert town, now we were in a whole new world – neon lights dazzle in the sky around, while smart-looking hotels and offices rise above the well-kept, smart station.

There was a strange moment though – I recognised the Chinese music I could hear through the window. For reasons unknown, Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, with a distinct Chinese twist, was the music of choice for the station after the patriotic welcome. It was slightly surreal, but perhaps apt with the travelling theme – it always reminds me of the film Titanic!

Entering the bogie changing shed

China had one more trick up its sleeve to welcome us however, and something I will never forget. Thanks to Russia being awkward, it built all its railways with tracks which are further apart than anywhere else in the world.

Lifting the carriages

Apart from Mongolia of course – but that’s because Russia built their tracks too! It’s known as gauge, and it leaves trains heading elsewhere with a big problem. Once they hit different sized track, the wheels would quite literally come off!

So, in what can only be described as the most amazing pit stop on the planet, the entire train’s wheels have to be changed so that it can run on the tracks in China. After much bumping around, sounding of horns and going backwards and forwards through the station, we are eventually being shunted around the back of a huge long shed, over some points and in through a large door.

One carriage up, wheels off

Inside, powerful bright red jacks, and a workforce of dozens of Chinese engineers, are waiting. The whole train is then hoisted up into the air, leaving the wheels – or bogies to give them their proper name – on the ground.

Taking the wheels off

The whole procedure is fascinating. To feel the carriage being lifted up while everyone is still inside is a strange sensation. Outside, a row of bogies is set up and ready to be rolled underneath.

The new wheels start rolling in

A special pulley system is built into the track, and suddenly it starts moving. In one straight move, the new bogies roll in from outside the shed, knocking every old bogie out of the way, all the way along a line of carriages jacked up in the air.

The row of new wheels moving under the carriages

Incredibly, it takes less than an hour to change the entire train. It’s a procedure that leaves me, and many other passengers, in awe. I was lucky enough to have a helpful carriage attendant who opened up the back door for a few of us to get some great photographs of this unique procedure.

Nice wheels!

With new wheels on, soon a shunter was back at one end of our carriage, and we went bumping along as all of the carriages were pushed back together again, each with a firm thud that jolts everyone back and forth. We pulled out of the shed, and then reversed again, with the now familiar bump, bump, bump as we meet yet another carriage. We go forwards again, passing more carriages in a siding, before reversing into them to pick them up. It creates an extremely long train, which waits until the early hours before being given a green light for the Chinese capital.

The next morning, it was distinctly China outside, and yet again the scenery had changed overnight. We were passing through small villages, lush greenery and winding our way through some incredible gorges, although thick fog in places meant we couldn’t see further than about half a mile from the window.

I woke up with the sound of coins being played with on the table next to my head. It was all the loose change from my pockets that I had dumped on there the night before to prevent one of those ‘loose change noisily rolling around on the floor after falling out of pocket’ moments.

The Mongolian man, who so far had not said a word to me, was studying each and every one. I glimpsed and saw that he was studying a £2 coin, looking at the Queen’s head and running his fingers over the engraved writing. I turned away and smiled to myself. It was all new to him. Coins that are part of everyday life for me, that you scrabble around for in the car to feed into parking meters or vending machines, were a source of fascination, particularly featuring the Queen.

Santi and Gali giving China a wave!

I looked back and he was sorting them into piles – British, Russian and American. I decided it was a good way of breaking our language barrier, and grabbed a few Togrogs out of my wallet. I showed a two-pence piece, and then lifted a 10 Togrog note, and he immediately knew what I was doing. He smiled as I went through various comparisons, and seemed amazed when I showed him the £2 coin was worth getting on for 5,000 Togrogs, which of course in Mongolia is a lot of money.

Free lunch!

Now awake, it was time to venture out into the corridor. At the border we’d been given a green and white ticket, which at first we thought was some sort of immigration formality, but instead turned out to be a free meal voucher. Naturally, the first place for us to head was the dining carriage, some five or six carriages behind us.

We were met with quite a funny scene, as there were very few Chinese people eating in there- they were still sucking on freeze-dried noodles in their cabins – and instead, the dining car was absolutely full of foreigners, all sat swapping travel stories and memories of the journey. We’re obviously suckers for some free grub, and the rail operator knows it!

The first Chinese meal of many!

The food wasn’t bad though, some kind of squishy mystery meat in a ball, potatos and sauce with some rice. It filled a gap for a while, and on an opposite table, Santi and Galli got speaking to some fellow Spanish travellers.

With just a few hours to go before Arion went his own way, he gave me his camera SD card so I could download some of his shots onto my laptop. He’s got a fantastic digital SLR camera, with an even more impressive fish-eye lens which has produced some brilliant group photos. The only problem was, my netbook battery was on its last legs, and I needed a power supply. I went in search of a power socket on the train with enough voltage to keep the netbook operating. Twelve carriages later, I found myself in the uber-first class carriage, where the compartments even get a posh little armchair. But all the poshness and fancy woodwork fell into insignificance, as everyone on the train was after a powerpoint, and I knew these luxury cabins had one in the form of a shaver socket.

 

New Chinese engine - getting nearer!

I got talking to a German lady, who had been on the train all the way from Moscow in one direct journey. She told me it had been her life’s ambition to travel on the trans-Siberian from her home near Frankfurt. She’d been travelling for over a week, and will spend just a few days in Beijing before flying back home. For her, the destination didn’t matter, it was the travelling that was the holiday. The same for another German woman in the same carriage, travelling with her son, who had even left her husband at home because he didn’t fancy spending all the time on the train.

“With flying, you miss all the scenery and the people you meet on the way,” she said.

 

“It’s all much more of an adventure, and we’ve passed through scenery and places that otherwise we would never see. And you meet wonderful people on the train who become friends.”

Plugging my netbook into their socket, I wholeheartedly agreed – and there was an added bonus in that their windows would open, so we all stood around taking photographs and generally having a lot of fun and laughs. All along this carriage, everyone had clearly become really good friends since leaving Moscow, and as they tried to take group shots between themselves, I offered to become official cameraman and promptly had around six cameras dangling off my arm!

Back in my cabin, and with an hour to go before arriving in Beijing, I caught my cut thumb on my bag as I was packing things away. The cheap Tesco plaster had fallen off, and the Mongolian man could see that it was sore. He said something to his wife outside in the corridor, and then began looking in his bag before handing me a plaster. He gave me a few spares too, which was a lovely gesture, and we began to have as good a conversation as we could in our respective languages.

Oggoo and I approaching Beijing

I found out his name was Oggoo, and that he was travelling with his wife. With the help of a map in my book, he told me they were originally from Japan and will be heading back there next year, as I think his son or daughter is having a baby. He’d seen the photographs on my netbook, and could tell he was trying to have a look, so I showed him the pictures of us all in Mongolia, followed by my photos of home. They both sat on their bed smiling and looking at the photographs, pointing at similarities between me and my family, and gasping when they saw a picture of my house. Its only a three-bed terrace for me, but for them it seemed like a palace as they pointed at the windows and smiled with each other.

Beijing suburbs

When you can’t talk the same language, I’m finding that showing photographs gets you a lot of friends. While you can’t tell the people you meet about your life back home or where you are going, you can show a bit about who you are. It obviously breaks down a bit of the mystery, and makes you into a person rather than ‘that foreigner’ sharing a cabin.

By now, we were in Beijing’s suburbs, and the small rural villages have turned into high rise apartments and towering office blocks festooned with neon and advertising. With my belongings all packed away, I kept a £2 coin separately in my hand. As Oggoo began getting ready to leave the train, I tapped his arm.

“This is for you,” I said.

His eyes lit up. I could tell how fascinated he was by this strange, two-tone coin with a very famous head on it. From a country that doesn’t seem to use coins, it was an alien concept anyway.

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” came the reply, as he smiled, stroked it again and put it in his shirt pocket. He then reached into his bag and I could tell he was looking for something.

“For you, very good,” he said, handing me a shrink-wrapped pack of Mongolian sausages.

I said there was no need, but he insisted, and before he left, I made sure I got a photo with him and he said he’d look at my blog, so hello again if you’re reading!

We made it!

With sausages safely packed away, we slowed to a stop at Beijing Railway Station. After almost 8,000km, five time zones and some of the most amazing landscapes and cultures, the trans-Siberian leg was complete.

It was a far cry from the icy cold open-air Moscow station that I left exactly two weeks before – it was covered, the weather was warmer, and we’d pulled in next to one of China’s incredibly smart ‘Bullet’ trains.

The sleek, modern technology put the East German-built carriages of yesteryear that form the trans-Siberian train, complete with their coal fires and dodgy bathrooms, to shame.

But however modern the new trains are, they will never be able to compete with the spirit of adventure, the mind boggling distances, the laughs, the friendships and the incredible feeling of travelling to the far side of the world over land that you get on the trans-Siberian. Tomorrow, they do it all over again, as the train heads back to Moscow.

It beats flying any day!

Goodbye trans-Siberian!

Far from Nowhere

Catching up with the Mongol Messenger!

Outer Mongolia – a part of the world that’s really only known for its remoteness, synonymous with isolation and being on the edge of the world. So much so, it’s even become a figure of speech around the world, and probably one of only a few claims to fame for the country. There’s been the odd joke banded around by certain sections of my friends that at times have wanted to send me to Outer Mongolia – well shortly after 6.10am on Thursday, October 27th 2011, that wish was granted

Stepping onto the platform, it was cold. Snow had settled around the tracks, and the air was filled with everyone’s breath. We were supposed to be met by a representative from the UB Guesthouse, the hostel we’d booked by email in Irkutsk. It offered a free pick-up, but instead another hostel representative told us that nobody was around, admitting it was unusual.

After a cold early morning hike, our rep found us!

Getting cold, we looked at a map and decided to walk to the hostel. It didn’t seem too far away, so en-masse, we threw out backpacks on and marched out of the station. We’d picked up a few more now – Daniele, from Venice in Italy, was on the train and had booked the hostel too; and Arion, from Hong Kong. For some reason, I was elected as the group leader, in charge of getting us to our final destination, and it was quite a sight to look back and see the line of backpackers stretching along the main road into Ulan Bator, marching together and following me!

Street signs (and understandable writing) are back!

Thankfully, English letters are widely used around the city, and it was nice to be able to read shop signs once again! There were even signposts helpfully pointing us in the direction of tourist sites!

Statue in Ulan Bator

Eventually, we reached a point where the map didn’t seem to tally-up with the landmarks. It took me a few minutes to work out, by the shapes of the road, where we were, before everyone followed me again and down Peace Avenue. By now, it was dawn, and the sun was rising over the mountains in the distance. We weren’t far away from the hostel when suddenly there was a shout from behind. Daniele had been stopped by Bobby, who runs the UB Guesthouse, who had all our names on pieces of paper ready to meet us off the train. She couldn’t apologise enough – she’d slept in!

Madness in Ulan Bator

We were grateful of the cars that took us and our heavy bags to the hostel, where Bobby ran over a few ground rules and told us about trips we could go on. I was only in Mongolia for a few days, so wanted to see as much as I could, and a tour of the Teralj national park and a night in a Mongolian Yurt was recommended. I signed up for $45 and booked my onward rail ticket to Beijing.

Main parliament building in Ulan Bator

We spent the day looking around the city, taking in the parliament building complete with giant Genghis Khan (he’s everywhere!) and our group went for a Mongolian lunch on one of the main streets.

Ghengis Khan hats are all the rage!

I don’t know if 10 days of bland Russian food was responsible, but it was by far the best meal I’ve had since dinner in London’s China Town the night before I left the UK.

Mongolian lunch

There was a Mongolian starter of meat in pastry, then a main of chicken and mushroom stir fry with rice – it even had fresh vegetables in it, how I’d missed them! Hot, tasty, and incredibly cheap, coming in at a grand total of 4,600 Togrogs (yes, Togrogs!) so about £2.20, including a drink. To be honest, they could have charged a lot more and we’d have been more than happy, it was just nice to be able to use our tastebuds again!

Hurrah for fresh veg!

Mongolian money is an interesting currency, aside from the comedy name. There’s around 2,200 Togrogs to the pound, which meant to pay for my trips and onward rail fare, I needed around a quarter of a million of them. A trip to the ATM is like playing Deal or No Deal on the screen, with various huge amounts available to withdraw.

2p...or not 2p?!

They don’t seem to use coins here, although the guidebook mentions something called Mongos which make up Togrogs. However, it throws up the lowest value note I think I’ve ever come across: I introduce the 10 Togrog note, worth the equivalent of 2p! Talk about whether its worth the paper its printed on!

Ulan Bator twinkling away from the observatory

That night, inspired by the dark, clear skies the night before, we noticed there was a trip to an observatory high in the mountains above Ulan Bator. A few of us decided to go, and that’s when we first experienced Mongolian roads, and in particular, Mongolian driving. It really does seem to be every man for himself on the streets – cars don’t stop at streetlights, speed limits don’t exist, lane markings seem to be merely road decorations. Everywhere you look, someone’s just been cut-up, someone’s just pulled out into someone’s path, a pedestrian is running for their life. And everything is done with a blast of the horn. We held on as our driver overtook on blind bends and into oncoming traffic. Now, Mongolia is a sparsely populated country – for somewhere the size of western Europe, to only have two million inhabitants is quite good going, considering the vast army that must have been amassed for its conquering past.  But I think I’ve worked out why: the combustion engine was invented, cars found their way to Mongolia, and now their bad driving is keeping the population down. Its some of the daftest, scariest driving I’ve ever known!

Icy walk up to the mountain observatory - we'd survived the roads!

Somehow we survived the journey to the observatory, and we had a fascinating few hours looking at different stars, including the Andromeda. My favourite part was looking at Jupiter – its moons and markings, including its famous red stripes and huge spot, were clearly visible through the telescope. It’s something I’ve never seen before, and the lack of street lights and light pollution in this part of the world means you get one of the best opportunities to have a good look at the night sky.

Mongolian countryside and yurts

We were up early the next morning for yet another terrifying drive out to the Teralj national park. With some overnight gear, we were heading to spend the night in a traditional Mongolian yurt, a white tent, with a nomadic family.

Our camp for the night

After about an hour and a half of being flung around the roads, we arrived in the park, and it was incredible. Snow covered mountain sides, rocks which rise out of the ground from nowhere, a view down a valley- and complete and utter silence.

There was a yell from somewhere high above me, and Daniele had climbed his way up the rocks. I took some photographs of him before following him up. The view was spectacular – snow capped mountains in the distance and valleys all around. It reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of areas around the Grand Canyon, as the rocks were of a similar colour and shape.

Staying alive...just!

We sat and took in the view, and before long the entire group was up there for photographs.

We entered the yurt, and surprised to find it toasty and warm inside thanks to a wood-burning stove which was crackling away in the centre. Its surprisingly homely inside, with patterned cloth covering the walls, and five or six beds positioned around the outer edge of the tent.

The family arrived soon afterwards, and told us dinner would be ready in an hour.

Me and my yurt!

A few of us ventured up the snow covered hillside on the other side of the valley, taking a seat on some tree stumps, no doubt left behind after some firewood-hunting.

How long until the beach?!

After a few laughs and the odd snowball, we all fell silent. It was a weird moment – after all the hustle and bustle of Russia, trains and the madness of Ulan Bator’s roads, we now had extreme natural beauty and complete silence – a silence that doesn’t seem real, as if your ears are playing up. We probably sat for around 20 minutes, looking out and taking it in.

Isolated

Lunch was stir-fried noodles, vegetables and meat – I’m not sure what sort of meat, but I’m told goat is quite popular with the locals. Whatever it was, it was quite nice!

Someone had the hump

After lunch, there was concern about how cold the yurts had got. We’d all presumed the family would keep the fires going, but apparently not.

Me man...make fire!

I opened the lid on the stove, and there were just a few dying embers. Most of the group were heading to try and find a lighter, but I thought I could save the fire. I blew onto some of the ash, and found a bit that was still glowing. With a bit of paper out of my notebook, and a good handful of the dead wild grass from outside, I set about blowing and moving the items over the embers desperately trying to get them to light.

Success! Twisted firestarter!!

Thankfully, my male pride was left intact as suddenly there was success, and the paper and grass ignited. It was smoky at first, but with others bringing more grass and a few logs, we soon had it going again. Someone shouted ‘Willlssoooooon’, mimicking the scene out of the film Cast Away when Tom Hanks manages to make fire for the first time. With a wood-burning stove in my living room at home, I’m just used to trying to salvage a fire from glowing embers – but it got me the role of chief fire starter in both yurts for the rest of the stay!

Giddy up!

There was a good few hours in the afternoon when we went horse riding. It was something I’ve not done for a long, long time, although I am quite good around the animals thanks to my first girlfriend having a horse. However, my sole attempt at riding her – Lulu was her name – wasn’t much of a success and instead just made Kerri and her mum laugh (Hi Maria!) However, the horses here were much smaller, and young Khana, the 16 year old son of the couple who run the camp, took Arion and I out for a ride.

Khana behind highly amused!

It was great fun, and much easier than I remembered. Khana found it hilarious to send my horse galloping off every now and then by waving his rope around, in between using his English skills to ask us where we were from and telling us how he was studying in the city but loved the countryside. He said his family had more than 60 horses, six cows and a camel. He asked me what my horse was like in England, and I tried to explain how it was expensive back home to own one. He then met his friend who was walking up the hill, and obviously offered him a lift up to his yurt.

Ride home cowboy!

“Just make your way back now,” Khana said, obviously oblivious to the slight concern this put into both of us. As he disappeared over a hill, I tried to make the horse go faster. Kicking him in the ribs didn’t seem to work, but eventually I found the accelerator by shaking the reins and leaning forward. As if by magic, off he went, despite the occasional pause (too many Mongolian takeaways I think!)

Daniele, Khana and I, along with the family dog

We got back in one piece, and having clearly impressed with our equestrian skills, were then tasked with taking the saddles off and riding them bareback to the stables – a bony spine made for an uncomfortable few minutes!!

Cosy yurt at night

The night was spent huddled around a small table, swapping traveller tips, photographs and eating meat and rice by candlelight as the stove crackled away.

Candlelight supper in the yurt

It was very relaxing, and before bed we all went out to gaze at the stars once again.

The next morning I was woken up by the freezing cold – the fire went out overnight -the sound of a horse munching grass next to my head, and Daniele asking if I wanted to see the sunrise. We ventured up the rocks, but it was too cold to be sitting up there for long so I headed back to bed for a few hours. After breakfast, we said goodbye to Matieu and Daniele, who were staying for two nights, and headed back to UB. We came across a young lad with an eagle and a condor at the side of the road, so we stopped for photos.

He put the eagle on my arm – it was an incredible animal. Its eyes were so alert, scanning the horizon and looking at me. Its sharp, hooked beak just a few centimetres from my head, its powerful wings outstretched. I could see and hear it breathing next to me.

Condor

There was part of me that feared it, another part that was in awe. It was amazing to be so close to such a majestic bird.

The rest of the day was spent looking at the temples at the Gandan Monastery, picking up a couple of souvenirs and buying some food for the train the following day.

'My big fat Mongolian wedding'

Ulan Bator isn’t going to win any awards for its beauty or character, nor for its standards of driving, but Mongolia has some incredible landscapes. While its capital city is clearly polluted – a haze of smog was clearly visible hanging over the city like, well, a bad smell – its interesting to note how its locals, be them in yurts or in high-rise apartments, live happily side-by-side. Its not often you see tents squeezed inbetween offices and apartments, but that’s life here. It’s a real mix of different cultures and influences – you could be forgiven for thinking when you see some of its modern buildings that, along with the dusty setting, that you were in the Middle East. Then there’s the English everywhere, mixed in with Russian and Chinese signs, along with a bit of Korean.

Had to be done!

It’s as if it can’t quite make up its mind where it belongs, and so goes along with a bit of everything. There is undoubtedly a lot of poverty here, but it was an exciting city to visit and I’ll always remember my night in the middle of the Mongolian countryside in a tent, riding a horse through its mountains and getting to grips with a huge eagle, thankfully before it managed to get to grips with me!

Random people on landlines everywhere!

When it comes to being far away from home, you can’t get much more isolated than sleeping in a tent in the middle of a mountain range in Outer Mongolia…but tomorrow, its time to head back towards civilisation once again, and the hustle and bustle of Beijing.

In the words of Arnie!

Destination Mongolia

On track at the Russian border

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.

Catching the train at Irkutsk

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.

Santi, Matieu, Gali and I getting settled in the compartment

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.

Goodbye Irkutsk

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.

The line to Mongolia

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”

Bread buns for a cheese sandwich....

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.

Surpriiiise!!!!

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!

On our way

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 scenery changed overnight

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.

Pesky Ladas getting in the way!

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.

That's Km from Moscow...

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!

Making noise in the corridor!

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.

Missing carriages made for great shots like this!

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!

Trying to behave!

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.

Heading to the border

 

The border town of Naushki

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.

Gali chases after our carriage that's being 'nicked'

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.

Even if you keep all your limbs intact if you walk on a line back home, you face hefty fines or prison for trespassing.

Watch out!

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 European Union!

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.

Hanging - and larking - around!

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.

Too many Strongest Man tv shows!

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.

Shunting us around

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!

Connecting us back together

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.

The sun sets as we pass Russian border lookouts

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.

Welcome to Outer Mongolia!

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.

Slowly roast overnight...

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.

Cold!

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!