Beanies and Bikinis -Summer on the Trans-Mongolian Railway travel blog

Cabin from UB to Ulan-Ude

Border crossing shop

Worlds largest Lenin head

Borscht and dumplings

Dumpling class

The finished product!

Ulan Ude train train timetable, tricky.

The trip through to Russia was off to an auspicious start...rocking up to the train station and climbing aboard our carriage only to discover our Mongolian cabin mate had filled the entire cabin with black market stock ranging from camel blankets to DVD players to goat hair socks so there was no where to sit, let alone put our packs. As if that wasn't enough, the bags containing her illicit items were made of some sort of toxic substance that would be outlawed in any other country. The noxious fumes that rose as the plastic heated in the sun were making us both nauseous but she didn't take kindly to being asked to remove them and began yelling at Boris. She emphasized her point by wiping her sweaty underarms and considerable girth with a face wipe and throwing it in my bowl of noodles. So began the journey. 

Once the train began to move it became apparent that she was part of a wider racket of at least 15 black market operatives lurking throughout the train. Each carrier had a different stash of goods and there was a hurried slashing of packages and a rapid dispersal of goods in small innocuous amounts in each cabin, so as not to appear in commercial quantities when inspected at the border. They even went in to cabins of backpackers and tried to hang pants etc from their rails in an attempt to make it look like the goods belonged to someone else. This rushing back and forth between cabins went on hours and as my other cabin companion, an elderly Russian woman with only 4 teeth, had constant flatulence I sought refuge in other cabins.

There is a definite sense of camaraderie on the train and I've seen may of the same face again and again, wether it's on another train, at a different city or a border crossing and everyone is up for a chat, a tea or even a game of Pass the Pigs. Both Arttu and Arman were both on this train as well so their cabins were another place to escape the fumes and an opportunity to catch up on each others travels. Unfortunately the dining car doesn't get attached to this particular train until after the Russian border so the sought after beer we'd been hoping for was out of the question.

Exiting Mongolia took about 2 hours and then we rolled on through no mans land to the Russian border where we stopped for about 5 hours. About 3am I found a small shop on the platform with one harried girl behind a metal cage selling everything from sandwiches to spirits and puchased my first Russian beer. 

Customs went through our cabin with a fine toothed comb, interrogating our Mongolian friend for about 15 minutes and ransacking her greatly depleted pile of belongings. How they managed to overlook the 250 pairs of innersoles she was sitting on I have no idea, but she seemed to come through with no problems. Once Boris and I were settled into our respective beds she tried to smuggle in the toxic sacks again, thinking she was safe. Boris sprang from his top bunk declaring he wasn't ready to die and I think the whole carriage heard the yelling that ensued. Highly entertaining!

We arrived bleary eyed about 7am in Ulan-Ude  and I immediately wondered why I thought to stop here. The city's only claim to fame, or indeed point of interest, is that it is home to the worlds largest Lenin head. Wow. The hostel is probably the best thing about that town, very friendly and I learned how to make Russian dumplings. I also had my first bowl of that Russian staple, borscht (beetroot soup), today which was much better than I had thought it would be. 

The urban sprawl of Ulan-Ude isn't likely to inspire anyone to linger longer and I quickly realized why every other traveller I'd met so far had opted to roll on by and make straight for Irkutsk. In fact after a very short discussion Boris and I decided we would do the same and changed our train ticket to leave the following evening.

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