Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Trans-Mongolian (Beijing to Moscow)

After a pretty lousy night's sleep we were ready and raring to go before the alarm went off at
5:45am. We headed across the road to Beijing's Central station and joined the rest of the crowds waiting to board the train. As we'd decided to fork out the extra cash and splurge on a private 2-berth 'deluxe' cabin, we thankfully didn't have to share our 2m square compartment with the local traders and their cargo. The train departed bang on time at 7:45 and by half past ten we were ready to claim our free lunch in the Chinese dining car. The afternoon was spent snoozing as we'd been forewarned that we'd reach the Chinese-Mongolian border around midnight and would have to disembark while they changed the bogeys and completed immigration procedures. With our remaining Yuan we treated ourselves to some Mongolian vodka at the border supermarket, which turned out to be pretty tasty. Back on the train we were then subjected to the Mongolian customs and immigration process, conducted by a woman wearing an enormous hat and aided by another woman in a surgical mask and shower cap! It was after 2am when we finally cleared customs and were able to go to bed.

We woke up in the middle of the Gobi desert. After a bit of camel spotting we got chatting again to some of the other travellers in our carriage. Dave, the guy next door to us, had been sharing his cabin with a Chinese woman who was alighting at Ulaanbaatar. He didn't get much sleep the previous night as his cabin mate apparently could have been the Chinese snoring champion on an away match to Mongolia. Holly, another English lady further down the carriage, had had to endure a night with not one but two Mongolian traders who'd joined late in the evening accompanied by a substantial quantity of watermelons. They didn't even offer her any. We did later reap the rewards of the unusual arrangement when our conductors shared their spoils on the way into Moscow.

Holly and Dave joined us for lunch in the Mongolian dining car as we'd heard that it would be disconnected at Ulaanbaator (as it turned out it wasn't) . The food was ok and not overly expensive (US$10 for a bowl of noodle soup and a Mongolian beer). We watched the scenery go past for a while before heading back to our cabins for more snoozes as we'd read the Russian border crossing would be a late one again.

The reports were correct. The Mongolians weren't really as interested with us on the way out of their country, no shower capped, surgical masked women looking in the cabin going 'yes' this time. The Russians however took things a lot more seriously. Several hefty camo-clad beauties boarded the train, demanded forms we hadn't completed, then stood over us and badgered us into filling them in quicker, all the time chewing gum as her shot-putter of a colleague was prancing with great ease up and down the bunks checking every nook and cranny. It was all very James Bond-esque, floodlights, dogs, men with guns, quite exciting really.

The excitement continued for a good while as they took all our passports away for processing, leaving the customs people to rummage through the train. Donna and Mel, our Canadian friends, were put under the spotlight for a long time when the inspectors mistook the 4 gallon bottles of water they had for Vodka! When the inspectors realised their mistake they weren't so interested. They kept us all locked up on the train during this time and as we were stopped our toilets were locked. As you can imagine this had consequences to any of us that had had even a drop to drink that afternoon. To get some idea of the anxiety caused; try locking your bathroom, and any exterior doors for 4 hours after drinking just 1 pint of water. You get the picture? The dash to the toilets when the train door was opened after our passports had returned was comical. The woman charging for using the toilets had some cheek, luckily one of the two American guys paid for Dave and I (US$1 for three of us bargain!).

Eventually around 1am the train finally got going again, but the damage was done. We were late. This had a knock-on effect for the next day or so. At each subsequent stop the scheduled break was shortened to try to claw back time, which left us little or no time to pick up provisions along the way. By the evening we were glad when we finally got a break long enough to run to a small group of kiosks to grab bread, what I thought was OJ, some chocolate and several beers. The Russian restaurant car hadn't been up to much during the day, expensive and seriously poor quality and quantity.

We awoke the day after the Russian border looking out over Lake Baikal the World's deepest lake, it contains no less than 20% of all our drinking water, a nice thought that the Russians are polluting it daily with all sorts of nasties from the various factories around its shore, nice one Mr Kruschev. Its still good to look at though and with the mountains the other side of the train the morning was spent watching the last of the really good scenery drift by. Lake Baikal is so big we didn't leave it till nearly lunch time.

We spent the rest of the time watching Siberia float past the windows ( its surprisingly green, but quite repetitive, trees and huts, trees and huts), chatting with other passengers and drinking with them! The OJ turned out to be alcoholic-fanta by the way, it put me to sleep for most of the following afternoon...

Time flew once we were in the routine of sleeping, eating, drinking, counting kilometre markers, looking out of the window and jumping off and buying stuff whenever we stopped. Donna made some great purchases that she shared with us all, smoked fish at Slyudanka 1, Pro-gies at Malinsk we were more of the beer and crisps school of purchasing... Before we knew it, we were packing up our stuff and pulling into Moscow Yaroslavsky station, having swapped contact details with all our new Trans-Siberian buddies. All in all it was a great experience and in case any of you fancy doing it yourselves, we plan to put together some more detailed tips and info whe we get chance.

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