Back on the Trans Mongolian Railway: Nearly two weeks since I started discovering Russia. Now on the train to switch countries. Mongolia, here I come!
A new train color
After traveling on the Russian trains between Moscow and Yekaterinburg and then again on the train between Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk, I was getting used to these trains. So much to my surprise when I came on the platform in Irkutsk, there was no grey-red Russian train waiting for me, but a green one, a Chinese operated train. The person who greets me even wears the Chinese Railway uniform.
And I remembered indeed that the Chinese Railways operate some of these lines on the Trans Mongolian Railway, even in Russia. My cabin looks different from the one I had on the Russian trains. Where the Russian car had two lower beds, this one has the beds superposed.
There’s a shower between two compartments (mine doesn’t work, it seems) and not as much storage room as I would have hoped. So far I have the 2-persons cabin for me, but I know that can change in every station along the road.
Windows that open
Another, a rather nice surprise is that the windows in the hallway actually open. For a photographer that makes all the difference. For one of my projects, I need good movies from the moving train, so instead of relying on attaching GoPro’s to the outside, I can now do some filming from the inside out! Since we needed some train footage for reporting project I’m working on, this is perfect. Now hoping I don’t drop a camera while doing this.
During my first walk to the restaurant car (all the way in the back of the train) I notice a weird situation. In the first cart, I enter via the loud door, I bump into a Chinese train attendant, who is cooking his meal, on a coal stove?! And indeed, in that place, there’s a storage of coal,. Turns out that the samovar, the source of life (and warm drinking water – I discussed that in my first leg on the train) onboard is heated with coal on these trains. Who would have thought I’d be on a train that needs coals in 2016?
Another observation, while the women who managed the Russian train managed their car as if they would be inspected every possible second, these Chinese operators (most of them men) take it a bit easier. That results in a bit relaxed way to deal with them, but also the fact there is no paper in the bathroom. I’ve traveled enough to be ready, no worry, thanks for asking!
With the restaurant all the way in the back of the train, it’s a bit more convenient to meet people. There’s a different crowd on this train. While the Russian trains had mostly Russians on board, this is more of a backpacker’s train. I expect many of these passengers to get off in Ulan Bator (Ulaanbaatar?) and explore the countryside in Mongolia, just like me.
The first long stretch of the train goes, as I learned yesterday, around lake Baikal. The first real stop after Irkutsk is Ulan Ude. It is also the last real long stop (45 minutes – they change locomotives here) before we’ll hit the border. I found what I did not find in the center of Irkutsk, some postcards. I’ve been searching for some postcards from the places where I go, and every once and awhile I find inspiration to send a card to someone I know. Irkutsk, however, is missing in the collection of cards. If you come along this trip and find postcards here: please do send me one, the address is on the contact page!
The Mongolian – Russian border
On the train schedule, it says that we’ll need 110 minutes (yep, pretty precise) to clear the Russian border, leaving the country and that we’ll need another 2 hours to enter Mongolia.
Our train comes to a halt in the station of Naushki, and we’re not allowed to get off. The Russian officials will board and inspect the train. First, we feel the shaking of the train when the workers outside disconnect our Restaurant car. Restaurants on the Trans Mongolian Railway don’t cross the borders. The operators replace them with local ones after each border crossing. Even this Chinese train had a Russian restaurant car until this point.
The first Russian officer to come on board is a woman who checks the passports. The systems look pretty advanced, including some portable scanners and devices to check the validity of my passport. I get my stamp of departure and go back to the waiting.
The next group to arrive is a military-looking team. An officer orders me out of the cabin and starts searching for it. Not in the luggage but obviously to see that no person is hiding in the cabin. And when they don’t find anyone, it’s time to sit and wait some more.
The third person arrives at the cabin, and she announces she’s using a body camera, and that she’ll be inspecting the luggage. She looks around, asks me to point at my luggage, asks if I have anything illegal, and walks away.
Since we stopped here, 1 hour and 45 minutes have passed. Now our Trans Mongolian green caterpillar starts making its way again, through the no-mans land between Russia and Mongolia. After about half an hour, we arrive in Suhe Bator.
Suhe Bator, Mongolia
On the Platform in Suhe Bator, there’s a soldier at attention every 100 meters. They salute the incoming train while some music, a military mars, plays in the station. Not loud enough to go over the sounds our halting train makes, but the gesture is here. It started drizzling, and it’s now clear we won’t be able to leave the train here either.
A group of men and women leave the station building, carrying a small briefcase. Each of them makes its way to a wagon and goes collecting the passports. They load them in the suitcases and head back in the station building. I go back to what I’m now very good at: patiently waiting. And I’d get the action I secretly asked for when the women who deal with our wagon boards the train again and comes to my wagon. I have to follow her, off the train and into the building.
It turns out that, despite the info I got from VisaHQ, I do need a visa to enter Mongolia. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the border patrol can provide me with that right here and now. So here am I walking back to the train to get me US$60, so they can let me in. About 30 minutes later, we all get our passports back. Mine now with another used page for a Mongolian Visa.
Black market boarding the train
Can you imagine: the train is surrounded by military, no passenger can get off or on the train and all of a sudden a Mongolian man and woman arrive at the door of my cabin, asking me if I need Tugrik, the local currency that is hard to find outside Mongolia. With a new restaurant car that is probably attached to the train that will only accept Tugrik, I decide to change some Rubles into Tugrik. I check my currency app and seem to be paying a 10% premium on the exchange rate. The free market, demand and supply, these people have understood how that works.
And so, we’re off to Ulaanbaatar. The Trans Mongolian Railway is now in Mongolia. It’s now a bit past midnight. But I want to check out that new restaurant wagon first now. The Russian restaurant in the train was a wannabe-modern-interior. This is a Mongolian-Rustic style. The food is better than what the Russian restaurant served, but it’s twice as expensive. Not even counting I’m paying with very expensive Tugriks. After the meal, time for bed. In less than four hours the attendant will kick us out of bed to be ready when we reach Ulaanbaatar (or Ulan Bator, still figuring out what the right way to write this name is)
There are a few countries where my global roaming isn’t working. Mongolia is one of them. The next days will be known for less activity on my Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. So before I hit the bed, I switch off the data on my cellular devices.
Stops on the Trans Mongolian Railway between Irkutsk and Ulan Bator/Ulaanbaatar:
- Sludyanka, Russia (2 minutes)
- Ulan Ude, Russia (45 minutes)
- Dzida, Russia (1 minute)
- Nauski – the border, exiting Russia (110 minutes)
- Suhe Bator, Mongolia (105 minutes)
- Darhan, Mongolia (18 minutes)
- Zonhala, Mongolia (10 minutes)
Koen Blanquart is a strategy consultant, journalist, and author.
Wanderlust is one of his driving factors, and he shares his travels here on Boarding Today. Koen is also the skipper of SV Bagabonda, a sailing vessel making a slow circumvention of the globe..
Koen recently published a book on how to manage a remote team: The Suitcase Office.