Irkutsk >> Ulaan Baatar
'Peace Train' - Cat Stevens
I don't normally 'do' taxis, seeing them as an expensive alternative to buses or bothering to make the simple effort to walk, but it was such a hot day in Irkutsk that I didn't really fancy sweating out half my body weight carrying my backpack to the train station. So I booked a taxi and, by the time three Americans at the hostel heading for the same train had joined me and split the fare, it was only a pound or so each. Our bags filled both the boot and the front passenger seat so the driver wouldn't let us open the windows for fresh air incase the police might see him with four guys squeezed into the back seat on top of each other. We got to the station and the train duly came and went on time, as they all seem to in Russia, despite the huge distances involved.
In my mind, all Americans are called Bob. Even the women. And they greet you with a firm handshake and a broad smile saying "Hi, I'm Bob!" And so I found myself on the lower bunk with Bob sitting opposite me. He was a seventy-five year-old taking a tour through Russia and China before ending up staying with an old college friend in Thailand. He was generally a bit bewildered by the craziness of this whole travelling lark and not a fan of some of the long waits, but seemed to be dealing with it with a relaxed state of mind as best he could.
We were joined by two guys on the top bunk who were part of an eight-strong group of South Koreans from a university in Seoul, all of whom were extremely friendly and chatty. Jay (spelling almost certainly wrong) was a lecturer. He was also, so the others told us in reverential tones, a very famous man in Korea for his work as a 'peacemaker'. In the top bunk above me was Lee, a dentistry professor, which allowed us to often protest that we didn't want him to come near our mouths with his drill, in a way that makes for a funny visual joke when verbal jokes don't translate so smoothly. A student called Tyin (spelling, again, pure guesswork) was brought in and introduced enthusiastically by Jay as his most successful student because "she does the best work and because she is the most beautiful". He even lauded her as the most beautiful woman in South Korea. If they weren't all such nice people, this might have seemed a bit suspiscious, but after a while you saw that she could be quite nervous or shy at times and it was sweet the way he built up her confidence so much. An eighty year-old Korean also came in, apparently upon hearing about Bob's prescence. He was perhaps the grinningest (just because it wasn't a word five minutes ago doesn't mean it isn't now) man I have ever come across. Whenever I saw him throughout the train ride, he was always beaming from ear to ear or sharing a joke with anyone who passed him in the corridor. He had worked as a translator for the Americans during the Korean war, although he had forgotten most of the language now, so was keen to 'reminisce' with Bob as he was an American of the same generation. But he also wanted to share what he had in common with me; I was eating some grapes and he had worked as a fruit seller before he retired.
The train rolled around the edge of Lake Baikal as the sun finally dropped from the sky. Some of it looked great in the gloom but the photos just produced blackness and the view still wasn't close to what it might have been in normal daylight.
When cleaning my teeth at the end of the night, I found the toilet doors locked so wandered into the next carriage looking for other options. They were locked there also but I found a new group of twelve Koreans, also mostly from a Seoul university and also incredibly friendly. These included Lee, a researcher for a congressman, and Simon (spelling actually correct, he gave me his card) who was chair of political science. They were all taking the scenic route to an international conference on the subject in Mongolia. I was there for about half an hour and saw that the carriage attendant there was fiercesomely angry and scary the whole time. At one point, Bob opened the door to the carriage looking for open toilets like I had, but she came the other way at the same time and physically pushed him all the way back to his own carriage until the attendant there intervened and stopped her.
The next day shortly before two in the afternoon we arrived at the town/village on the Russian side of the border for a delay every bit as long as its notorious reputation. First of all we were allowed off the train to wander around for a couple of hours. There was a tiny market for passengers, but I felt they would have done a brisker trade in the strong heat if they had sold big hats or sunglasses rather than all six stands selling children's clothes. After a bit of aimless ambling, I hooked up with Susanna, an Italian girl who'd been sleeping in the bed under me at the hostel in Irkutsk, and researcher-Lee and we walked slowly through to the far end of town. The roads (well, road singular rather than plural - it was a small place) essentially only existed to handle the border. But, that still meant it required a couple of rudimentary shops, a school, a church etc to support it.
By four we were back on the train in anticipation of the passport checks. I brought Lee back to our cabin to meet our famous friend and she politely told him how pleased she was to meet him, but confessed later that she had no idea who he was. Perhaps he looks different in shorts and t-shirt than a suit?
Passports and documents were checked and taken away and the train was thoroughly checked by soldiers who even opened up trapdoors in the floors and ceilings to look around with torches for people or anything else suspicious. After an age, the passports came back and then we waited some more before the train finally started moving after seven O'clock whilst everyone on our carriage cheered and clapped. We crawled to the actual border point where Mongol soldiers examined the under-carriage and then crawled into Sukhe-Baatar, the border town on the Mongolian side. Here, the whole process of passport and document checking was repeated. When they were brought back to us at about half-past eight, we were then allowed to get off the train and stretch out legs while we waited the final hour until the train was due to depart.
This was a bigger town, but no one left to explore it this time. The station had many lines of track, two of which separated us from the only platform. So, you simply had to walk over the tracks on which dogs were playing and walk around the other train to get to the station itself. Occasionally a train would come along the interevening piece of track tooting for people to get out of the way, which they sometimes did with seconds to spare. All around were locals trying to sell currency. They were allowed on the train to do business whilst the passport checking was in progress, but another guy was told off for passing me a leaflet for his tourist company through the train window, which seemed odd. I didn't fancy buying cash, figuring that the exchange rate would not be a favourable one, but this meant that I couldn't pay 5p to use the station toilet, which I was very keen to do. Whilst standing on the platform, I saw our train suddenly start to move off into the distance. I tried to tell my fellow travellers of this, who just told me that my train was simply behind the bigger train sitting by the platform edge. "No, I have just watched our train go off into the distance" I tried to explain, but they didn't seem to understand. After a few minutes I saw the Americans from the taxi come marching up to me with a look of panic in their eyes. "Where's our train??" they demanded to know. I told them what I had seen, but a few minutes later our carriages reappeared to be attached to the back of the other train.
In time we reboarded, partly to avoid the gathering mosquitoes, and the train finally recommenced its journey at around ten O'clock. Shortly after departure, a rumour went through the train that we would now have to pay 5p each time we wanted to use the train toilets. Contingency plans were made involving empty water bottles and dentist-Lee put some cash he had bought onto the cabin table for us all to use, but it thankfully turned out to be a false story and they remained free.
As we rode though the plains in darkness, we were treated to a magnificent display of lightening against the pink sunset that would put a Hogwarts firework show to shame. Everyone gathered against the windows crying "ooh" and "ahh" as each new blast appeared bigger than the last. Bob wasn't impressed though; "Don't you have lightening back in London?" It was impossible to photograph, not least on my camera which has a three-second delay from first pressing the button.
The whole atmosphere on the train was incredible with everyone mixing and talking to each other. I exchanged a handful of email addresses, including from the South Koreans in the next carriage who I visited again. Back in our carriage there was Julian and Delphine, French nationals on holiday from their jobs at the embassy in Seoul. He had a strong French accent that almost reminded me of Monty Python & the Holy Grail whilst she had managed to develop a home counties accent stronger than my own. She told me how much she loved the English accent whilst Julian stood behind her, rolling his eyes and making a yapping mime with his hand that suggested he had heard it all before many times. By the end of the night, Julian and I stood alone in the corridor with our heads pushed right through the window looking up at the perfectly clear stars in the sky. Our attempts to pick out the constellations would do a disservice to the phrase 'abject failure'. Another view that would never work as a photograph.
We were all up early the next morning for the 06:10 arrival into Ulaan Baatar. Of the three carriages that had come all the way from Irkutsk, ours, the middle one, was the oldest but therefore the only one with windows that truly opened. This meant we could all take many more pictures as we rode towards our destination. Upon arrival, I spurned the taxis in favour of walking the quarter of a mile to my hostel. At one point, a car came to a screeching halt alongside me. A woman jumped out and asked me if I wanted a hostel. I told her I was already booked somewhere. When she asked where and I told her, she urged me to come with her to a cheaper hostel and seemed surprised when I declined.
I then stumbled across Susanna, who was looking for the same place. We walked around some dodgy estate of tower blocks for twenty minutes before eventually finding the location in our guidebook. Inside this grim building, we dodged the odd locals outside, walked up a few floors and found our apartment. Neither of the doorbells on the unmarked door seemed to work and knocking produced no results either. We sat around outside, wondering if the host was simply delayed coming back from the station where we knew he did pick-ups. After another twenty minutes we decided to risk the cost of an international phone call. It turned out that he had moved to a new place a few minutes walk away four years ago. I could forgive my guidebook which is five years old, but Susanna's copy of the Lonely Planet was brand new! The real location was much nicer (it's all relative...) and the building more modern, so it felt a bit better to finally arrive at our destination.