The Train and Cabin
There was much less fanfare boarding the Mongolian 362 train from Irkutsk. We handed our tickets to the attendant, who just glanced at them and waved us on. Whilst the train was distinctly more old-fashioned than the ultra-modern Rossiya train we’d taken from Moscow to Irkutsk, the wood-fired samovar and matching kitch table cloths and curtains did make it feel homely. But it was absolutely freezing.
The train itself was Mongolian but run by Russian staff until the border when a Mongolian team took over. We’d thought the sub-zero temperatures were because the heating had long since packed up, but when we crossed the border that all changed and we were treated to some famous Mongolian hospitality. Not only did they flick the heating on, they rolled out decorative carpets in the aisle ways and put their head round the door of the cabin to welcome us to Mongolia in fluent English. We’re not in Russia anymore, Toto.
In this train we were in a shared 4-bed cabin, though we had some extra space as there were only three of us for the whole journey. Our carriage was full of European backpackers doing similar trips, and boarding at Irkutsk felt like a big multi-national school trip with everyone bumbling around finding their cabins and making up their bunks. In the lucky dip of who shared with whom, we hit the proverbial pot of gold with our Irish cabinmate, Shane. We also bumped into Jordan who had been at the same hostel as us in Moscow. He soon invited us all to his cabin (where he’d hit the jackpot with the whole cabin to himself) for some Israeli tea and a few rounds of Taki – Israeli Uno.
Eating and Drinking
A few rounds of tea and Taki soon became a few rounds of vodka and pickles, until the attendant knocked on the door and with a big beam said “Now – Night night!” Fair enough, you don’t argue with the guy in charge of your samovar.
The samovar was crucial for keeping us plied with instant noodles and coffee, as this train was missing its restaurant car. Once in Mongolia there was a (shopping) trolley service of snacks going up and down the train. Had we known this, we might not all have descended on the tiny kiosk at the border crossing to stock up on supplies.
Other than the essentials in the kiosk, there was a woman selling homemade misc potato-based things. We all shuffled around skeptically until Shane took the plunge. We all followed suit once we’d realised they were the perfect comfort food for a long, cold wait on the windy platform. Once you’ve had your fill of misc potato products and checked out the kiosk, there are more shopping opportunities to be had at a couple of market stalls selling a disproportionate amount of stripy flares. We decided to save our Rubles to exchange for Mongolian Togrogs.
Stations and Scenery
From Irkutsk the train rolled south past Lake Baikal overnight, stopping at every tiny village station from there until Naushki at the border. Whilst London is still debating a 24hour tube service, midnight doesn’t mean the end of the party for Siberians who can hop from village to village throughout the night. Luckily we weren’t woken by anyone joining our cabin, though.
Most of the next day was spent in the company of border police. It took 4 hours to leave Russia, with multiple checks of our passports, visas, cabin and luggage. We spent the first hour or so watching a complicated reshuffle of the cabins from the platform, potato snacks in hand. In the process of reorganising the order of the train you’d sometimes have a nervous wait while your carriage was pulled off into the distance (all your belongings inside) to make space for new carriages to be added in the middle. This proved too much for some people who found an unlocked door and pulled down the steps to be reunited with their bags. We followed, and the remaining three hours at the station let Timian and Shane discuss All Known Facts – Past and Present – of The Premier League, and Rebecca spend some quality time with her Kindle and progress from a measly 20% to an unimagined 28% of the way through Anna Karenina.
Approaching the Russian border the groups of ramshackle wooden huts were getting fewer and farther between. Once in Mongolia we passed much more modern, built-up towns, and you could tell we were heading towards the capital.
By the time the 2 hours of checks at the Mongolian entry border were complete it was time for a dinner of samovar noodles and few more rounds of Taki with Shane and Jordan. After a while, our beaming attendant was back: “Now, night night! 5am, good mornings!”
We travelled overnight from the Mongolian border and arrived before dawn at Ulaanbaatar station. Straight off the train we were greeted in perfect English by a crowd of ticket touts waiting for the backpackers trying to sell us hostels, taxis and tours. We left our Irish and Israeli train buddies, and went in search of our Davaa, who was driving us out to a ger camp to stay with a Mongolian herder family.
To see how and why we chose this route, check out: Trans-Siberian: Planning Our Route