It is an early, early morning. I try to ignore the alarm, hoping, wishing it would go off and let me get back to the world made up of dreams. Not much luck there. The last stretch of the Trans-Siberian is calling us. I guess it is time to say do svedanye (so long) Russia! You have been a real charm. Next stop – Mongolia. First there is still 22 hours and 37 minutes to be spent in the train.
Second from the top is our train coming all the way from Moscow and going all the way to Beijing. If you do it non-stop, it will take you around 7 days.
Bye-bye Russian comfort, hello Chinese class. From here on China is officially taking over the Trans-Siberian stretch. Judging by the look and feel of the train interior, let’s just say it is good it’s only one day. The exterior – that’s another thing. I am totally loving the sleek green colour and the Chinese communist emblem.
Aboard the train another peculiar fact makes itself known – the serious looking, sometimes smiling female provodnitsa (train attendants) you see all along the Trans-Siberian stretch from Moscow to Irkutsk have all disappeared. No trace of them except the ones working in the restaurant. Instead you meet male Chinese attendants, who as you come to observe are more in favour of keep calm – take a break attitude, than actually doing their train chores.
Modernish amenities of Russian trains with more advanced A/C system are gone out the window. It is replaced by a more simplistic design of a revolving fan that makes so much noise, you really need to be desparate to turn it on. On a hot July day we were desparate. Fortunately after some time you get used to the constant background buzzing noise and stop noticing it.
Our neighbour is Mongolian speaking no Russian or English. Only Mongolian and Magyar, since she is living in Hungary. Not much chance of communication going on there. I call Google to help for general introduction. Otherwise it is just exchanging smiles and sharing my precious stash of sunflower seeds. Chewing sunflower seeds is also apparently popular among Mongolians.
While I chat away with a Canadian girl who has spent the last 6 days on the train all the way from Moscow, I notice Andreas hard at work shining the window. Then I remember – he was preparing for this stretch since home equipped with a wiping cloth. An insider tip – make sure you wipe the window close to your train compartment before the train sets off for the long journey east and south. Trust me you will not regret it. What is waiting for you is simply the BEST stretch of the whole 5.000 km Trans-Siberian ride. When the train rides south approaching the shore of Lake Baikal, hits its southermost point and makes a curvy turn and hits northward toward Ulan-Ude. On this stretch panoramic vistas of Lake Baikal become your companion.
Shining the window situation mostly applies to when the temperature hits the freezing degrees so you don’t want to risk catching pneumonia and opening the window. In the warm summer months we discovered that the Chinese attendant can unlock the small overhead windows.
When the most awaited moment finally arrives, everyone leaves the comfort of their compartments and gets glued to the windows. The narrow train corridor becomes a melting pot of nations, languages and cultures. Chinese, Mongolians, Europeans, Americans, everyone is gazing out.
As the train approaches Ulan-Ude, the lake views slowly disappear and are replaced by endless forests again. It is time to hit the restaurant before we reach the Mongolian border where we are told that they are going to detach the carriage housing the Russian restaurant so we better feast on our usual Russian delicacies of borsch and fried potatoes before they are left behind on the other side of the border.
To reach the restaurant cabin you literally have to go from one end of the train to the other, opening and closing doors. One of the doors you open, welcomes you to the first class world, mainly populated by Americans. I am wondering if there is any system or a pure draw of luck that decides which of the attendants gets to make the first class carriage his base. That guy is definitely enjoying the experience. Lounging in his cabin with a cigarette in his mouth, despite the fact that it is a non-smoking train.
The restaurant is more multicultural compared to the other trains we took across the Trans-Siberian.
We go with our usual favourites – the borsch and blini. As he carefully studies the menu, a happy smile appears on Andreas’ face. Apparently he found his childhood favourite dessert – peach compote with whipped cream. Of course he needs to have it. My feeble attempt at we just had a blini with jam, do we also need to order this, gets totally ignored. Childhood memories – what can you do? 😀
Hours roll by. Soon the bright summer day is replaced by an evening dusk and voila we reach the Russia-Mongolia border. What happens next is 4 hours on the border. 2 hours on the Russian side and 2 hours on the Mongolian. First Russian border control comes in dressed in full uniforms and armed with dogs, collects passports and disappears for 2 hours. Promising start. Passports are returned with beautiful stamps in, only to be snatched away again 30 minutes later by the Mongolian border control ladies who are less cheerful than their Russian counterparts. By the time we get our passports back it is already past midnight. The train is now cleared to continue its journey onto the Mongolia grasslands.
I get minimum amount of sleep lulled by the train noise. Waking up every so often, I give up when the beautiful light of the dawn hits our cabin. Opening the compartment door a totally different view greets you. Gone are the lush taiga forests of Russia. The vast grasslands of Mongolia welcome you to a whole new country.
It is a whole new day and a start of our week in Mongolia. Russia you have been such a charm, opening the doors to your beautiful country for us and showing us pretty corners along the 5.000 km stretch from Moscow to Ulan-Ude. It has also put my Russian language skills to test, I haven’t spoken so much Russian since high school. Pretty proud of myself. So long Russia, we will be back to explore more of your beauty for sure. Until then cайн уу (sain uu) Mongolia!
Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan