Day 9 Saturday 3rd September 2011
I had boarded the train Saturday evening ready for a 7pm departure, due to arrive into Irkutsk on Monday morning, then meant I had all day Sunday and parts of Saturday and Monday on the train, 34 hours in total. To spend that much time in such an enclosed space I would need to have somebody I could talk to. In my compartment was an Australian couple in their late 50’s. They quickly introduced themselves as John and Trudy, and they were making their way from Beijing all the way to St. Petersburg and from there flying to England, it turned out Trudy was originally from not far away from me in England and had emigrated to Australia over 25 years ago where she had met her husband and now they were making a trip to visit her relatives.
Their story interested me, as there’s a very strong possibility I will end up living in Australia at some point in the future so I was eager to ask why she had left and which did she prefer. She told me she hadn’t regretted moving for one day and had even renounced her British passport in favour of an Australian one. We chatted for a bit but pretty soon we were all changing our seats into beds and calling it a night.
Day 10 Sunday 4th September 2011
I woke up fairly early which was useful as we were approaching the Mongolian – Russian border at around 8am. We had been told to expect a delay of about 4 hours while guards on both sides of the border checked all the passports for valid visas and making sure nobody was taking anything in to Russia that they shouldn’t have been. We gave our passport to the Mongolian side and then started to wait. We weren’t allowed to get off the train on this side, we had to wait while they processed the passports, the train had decided to stop outside a building that said “welcome to Mongolia” which seemed a bit silly as I thought that as many people left Mongolia as arrived at that entrance. 2 hours later we heard movement that turned out to be sniffer dogs coming on board. 2 full hours later and we were finally on the move again. The train moved for about 3 minutes and we were through the fence in to the Russian side. We gave our passports up again and were told to wait again only this time we were allowed to get off the train, which we hadn’t been allowed in Mongolia. This was much needed as they lock the toilet doors when the trains are stationary so everybody had been waiting for several hours and the train emptied as it pulled into the platform.
I was slightly wary of Russian hospitality before we got here and that stereotype was not removed from my first encounter with the border guards, their first and only words to us were “ticket, ticket now” and “get out your bag”. I shared my concerns with John and Trudy and John who had travelled extensively in his time told me a story of when he flew with Aeroflot in the 1980’s.
“I was travelling to do some business in Russia and somebody close to me pressed the button to get the attention of the flight attendant, after a minute or two a large Russian lady walked down the aisle and turned off the light before going back to the rear of the train. Nobody pressed the button again for the rest of the flight”. This did not help me to change my expectations.
We spent 4 more hours sat at the platform in the Siberian sun, I spent the time mainly reading but I also met a young Canadian couple who had spent the last 6 months travelling around the world and the trans-Mongolian was just another step, they were unusual as they had actually been to Korea to visit, which in my experience nobody does. Normally people go right from Japan to China.
Eventually after 8 hours in total we were off and on our way in to the largest country in the world.
The rest of the journey I spent reading and chatting to the Aussies, despite the age difference we had a lot in common, they had been to see the ashes in Perth just 6 months ago, this got me talking about the ashes as a whole, its not often an Englishman can talk cricket with an Australian and have the upper hand so I made the most of the chance. They also let me know how much youth hostelling had changed from their days to what the modern traveler can expect to find. The train had started to move again around 4 and that left about 5 more hours of sunlight before, I had some noodles made with hot water from the boiler that each carriage had, as the food I had bought with me was starting to run a little low. When the sun went down it was time for everybody to call it a day, as even though we hadn’t actually done anything tiring ourselves it had still been a long day, coupled with the stress of getting over one of the worlds heaviest armed borders.
Day 11 – Monday 5th September 2011
We were woken up around 6am by the larger of the two Russian carriage attendants; she told us we were 30 minutes away from Irkutsk our final stop on this train and also my destination for the next 3 days. After departing from Irkutsk the plan was to get a guide to drive me the 1-hour’s trip to Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world, so large in fact that 20% of the worlds fresh water was in this one place. After departing the train I found my guide and surprise, surprise I had the same guide as the Australian couple, so we piled into a rundown Russian car, which looked like it had been in russia since it was used in one of Roger Moore’s’ Bond movies. I sat in the front and listened to some Russian pop music with the driver while the Australians were in the back talking about water conservation issues in Australia compared to here where there were no such issues.