As recently as 1989 it had taken up to two years to get a visa to Mongolia and UB had been devoid of traffic with the exception of a few Lada’s. 30 years of cold war with China had a legacy of wide Russian style boulevards (I’m romaticising), Soviet military planes and the odd tank. Now the same visa is not even required such is tourists importance, particularly in the summer months. The cars are Japanese and Korean; the buses all Korean; the cosmetic shops all Korean; everywhere Korean restaurants and Samsung investment in property development. The economic neo-colonialism of Mongolia by the Korean Cheobals is entering the mature stage. Understandably the Korean economic miracle is revered in Asia I just hope the Mongolians fail to adopt the same character traits symptomatic of SK society, that is disingenuity and misguided superiority.
There’s always a romanticism around great train journeys and the characters who inhabit a shared space for 24, 48, 64 hours or more. In this instant the purser whose sole aim in life was to turn milk sour and the lady who appeared to have a background in finance as she poured over hand written notebooks full of numbers. Every item of clothing clashed from the green and fascia roses on her fleece to the charcoal and turquoise abstract patterns on her blouse. She was though extremely kind providing me with a Russian style vapour rub to help my cold. Is this a front? Is she involved in espionage? Is she reporting back to Putin? Will I meet my maker in Red Square?
The carriages on this Russian behemoth are less accommodating than the Chinese ones. Stan Laurel would rest comfortably but for us Oliver Hardy’s it’s a little cramped. I slept most of the 10 hours to the border where a scam was in full swing a local entrepreneur climbed aboard. Mongolian currency has little or no value outside the country. I had piles of it worth around £1. He of course could change this for Russian rouble at a less than favourable rate which equated to 50p. As he exploited each cabin he pointed to the station toilets (the train toilets were closed for the 2 hour stopover) where his partner manned the equally exploitative desk. £1 for a pee! Guess who didn’t pay?
The bearded Aussies next door had seen and done more than any travellers in history. One thing I can confirm is that they probably made more noise, 21 years old and Marco Polo is pants to them.
The guards come on board as the purser reads his tabloid staying alert at all times. It is surreal, like a movie scene where passengers cower waiting for the Gestapo to lead them off for interrogation. I smile profusely, lovingly making eye contact which has the effect of making them rush; their intimidating behaviour reduced to the impact of a Tory government on social mobility. I realise quickly these are probably the secret police because they are swiftly followed by a handsome smiling fellow with immigration written on his one piece uniform. “Look at me” he says grinning ear to ear, ” it is you” he titters as he takes my passport to check the visa records.
We’ve waited around 5 hours at the border and I settle down to read “Last Call For The Dining Car” as the sun rises over the graveyard of outdated railway machinery. We are but two carriages still awaiting the addition of a Russian locomotive and it’s entourage. Goodbye Mongolia brief but relatively sweet; This is Russia, my first and probably last visit, though I gave been offered a job interview in Moscow. With Putin’s grace I’ll be here for 10 days before heading to Prague.
The purser appears with tea for the accountant, polite and courteous to her he obviously hates foreigners; we agree. It must take an immense effort to conduct your life with forced schizophrenia.
The rumbling of the Aussies continued punctuated with what sounded like a Wigan accent. It turned out she was adopted in Beijing when a war erupted between her and a now ex fiancé. How travel so often broadens the mind but often destroys loving relationships. The accountant dipped stale bread in her builders brew while I sucked on the now global fallback of Halls Mentholyptus. The “travellers” discussed their $15 a day budget and left no one in any confusion as to how important their existence on planet earth is. I descended into my classical playlist and wallowed in the drama of Bartolli’s Ma Mama Morta and the shorts contained in my reading matter, all relating to train travel. At times like these my Cans are ambrosia to my ears.
We eventually leave the station at 10:08am some 6 hours after we arrived! To my left are some intriguing mounds, what do they contain? The remains of Russian dissidents? The landscape is Scandinavian, rolling hill covered in snow, risen rivers and silver birch in abundance, evergreen pines kiss the horizon. Time for my playlist of Sigur Ros, Choir of Young Believes and Asgeir. This landscape is utopian. Twentieth Century Schizoid Man locks all the windows because the eternally enthusiastic travellers are leaning out to record their snaps and selfies. Oops we stop again for another security check, the present leg just 19 minutes old! This one consists of stern looks only lasting some 3 minutes, there must be full employment in Russian immigration.
Occasionally my companion says something in Russian, I smile and shrugs, she giggles and we both move on, her to her notebook and me to this blogging lark. An Eagle soars over the train, it’s impressive wingspan more noticeable as it stops by the window. Now there’s are two, do eagles live in Pairs? I think Blue Peter taught me that they do.
We stop again and I discover they think one of the carriages is not connected properly. I feel I’m on a movie set, all the world’s a stage and everyman must pay his part. Panic over we proceed, Bjork and Antony fill my Momentums. Then the bombshell, there appears to be some kind of no man’s land; we haven’t yet negotiated the Russian side of the border. Our previous interrogators must have been Russians on the Mongolian side. The travellers discover it will be sometime before we reach the Russian officiators and during this time the lavatories will remain closed!
Jose Gonzalez informs me to Stay Alive as he did to Walter in the Mitty movie. We pass 800 metres of cylindrical rolling stock containing hazardous waste which is surely destined for the veins of opposition leaders. Listen to Jose and agree with Putin. A very young, blonde and sapphire blue-eyed immigration officer got on board and scanned my visa followed by a butch female rottweiler who apparently was the drugs and illegal immigrant initial sniffer dog. All this of course adds to the experience. The real sniffer dogs arrive and the Aussies are asked to open all their bags but this decrepit old creature is left alone; it’s 11:35am. My head was still thumping from the cold so I took meds and closed my eyes. 12:15am and we’re still here but I’ve made a new friend Chuka Myamba an artisan jewellery maker who despite having no English implores me to follow his Facebook…..12:51pm still stuck here……bitch of a train. 13:20pm I’ve just been informed that the whole crossing should take 10 (Ten) hours so at best we could leave at 14:00pm at worst 20:00 pm. We eventually left at 15:15 pm, my espionage theories were in tatters. My accountant had clasped her rosaries and prayed most of the way but now switched carriages, maybe she’d prayed to get away from my coughing and spluttering. She was replaced by a young Russian businessmen who looked uncannily like a stocky Steven Gerrard.
30 minutes later Mr Schizoid and his female counterpart came into my cabin smiling. Previously unable to communicate in any way about station stops, access to food and water or any other essential pieces of information, they managed to smile and say “items for sale”. Sod off! Stevie G continued to make a series of calls to enhance my aural pleasure. I retired to the comfort of my playlist still feeling groggy from the effects of cold meds. What do we think bruised knuckles signify?
Meanwhile I’m becoming FOBY I want to nap all the time, how relaxing is this train melarchy? 21:45pm Russian time, Ulan Ude. Lots of shunting as more stock is added still no information about length of stopover or money changing facilities. I have 70 rouble and have eaten 3 apples in 24 hours!
At Irkutsk some 36 hours after departing UB I was elated to find my hostel the Dobriy Kot was only 500 metres from the station, hallelujah, no mafiosi taxi drivers to negotiate . And how impressive large double room, great WiFi, lovely bathroom and a kitchen if you want to save more pennies. All for £12 a night.
I was still ill but soldiered on. Irkutsk is a rather dull place of decaying property, no public conveniences, churches and graffiti but with some pretty good coffee shops and a new area called 130. This has faux old timbered wooden houses doubling up as modern boutiques dissected by a modern mall. Apparently it was a Siberian place of exile in the past…poor bastards. According to Wikipedia:
“By the end of the 19th century, there was one exiled man for every two locals. People of varying backgrounds, from members of the Decembrist uprising to Bolsheviks, have been in Irkutsk for many years and have greatly influenced the culture and development of the city. As a result, Irkutsk eventually became a prosperous cultural and educational center in Eastern Siberia. During the Communist years, the industrialisation of Irkutsk and Siberia in general was heavily encouraged. The large Irkutsk Reservoir was built on the Angara River between 1950 and 1959 in order to facilitate industrial development.”
So its gone the way of other industrialised cities, downhill and I see little encouragement for its renaissance.
Tomorrow at 1:02am my 4 day train journey to Moscow begins.