Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ulan Bator to Irkutsk on the Trans Mongolian railway

Our abandoned carriage
and some happy dogs
at Suhbaatar, Mongolia

“Miles and Miles of Miles and Miles”, “ Actually, I got kinda bored”, “Nothing and Nothing and Nothing”.  These are some quotes out of TripAdvisor on the Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian lines.  Ricky and I are on our second rail leg of the trip and the last on the Trans Mongolian route; one that follows the path of the tea caravans from Peking to Europe in the 14th Century. Just over a 1,000 slow-moving miles over three days and two nights from the capital of Mongolia to what has been called the “Paris of Eastern Siberia”, Irkutsk, in the Russian Republic.  (I suppose you could call Commerce City, CO, the “Paris of the Northeast Denver Metro Area and get away with it too.)   

Sure, those emotions of vastness and loneliness may arise, but not quite yet.  We just can’t stop looking out the windows – the scenery is so varied and at times, stunning. 

Using the delay to find some fine
Russian vodka at Naushki, the
Russian border post.
Boarding the train in Ulan Bator late the evening of the 14th was a trip in itself.  The old and gritty station was packed with travelers of all shapes and sizes, the garbled announcements were in Mongolian only, just one tiny convenience store was open, and we had no clue where to pick up our train.  After some exploration, Chris finally learned our track from a hassled ticket agent in a different building from the waiting area.  In broken English, she repeatedly warned Chris to stay close to our gear, as people like us were sitting ducks for thieves.    And, indeed, as we moved toward our train, a shifty-looking guy carrying a plastic shopping bag followed us from the waiting room, and then pivoted and disappeared as soon as we walked toward a policeman. 
The Tail End of the Russian
Special Customs Agent
After boarding, we fell asleep in our compartment to the vibrations of the moving train and awoke in a Mongolian border town, stopped.  Since we were at a station, the train's WC couldn't be used, so I wandered off the train to find one.  Looking back, I saw that our car was standing alone on the track - the back end of the train was pulling away, and there was no engine.  We were told to expect this, that the Mongolian engine would take off, and a Russian locomotive would take its place.  So, after several hours, including a Mongolian customs process, we pulled away.  Then it seems the process was repeated again in a Russian border town.  The entire engine-change-immigration-inspection-customs process took about seven hours, including two separate instances where our compartments and luggage were sniffed by dogs. At least we were allowed, most of the time, to get out and look around while this was going on.

Gusinoye Ozero (Goose Lake)
along the Selenga River
Today, we’re following the Selenga River for most of this leg.  A huge river about the size of the Missouri River at Omaha, with its headwaters in Mongolia, its normal peak flows are this time of year. The Selenga runs into Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world and our next destination.  The rivers that drain into this lake are among the small handful in the world that don’t empty into a sea.  Along the way there are natural lakes, some big and some huge, with deep blue water, surrounded by autumn colors dominated by a golden wheat against a huge blue sky. 

This is also the land of the Buryat civilization of a long time ago and the blue of the water must hold some
Blue and white everywhere even  in this old beat up coal town Zagustay
significance for that culture or for the current locals.  Lampposts, manhole covers, the bottom of power poles are all freshly painted in the lake blue bordered by white.  The roughest looking house will have the freshest blue paint on the door.  We see that blue at all the stops along the way, along with a good collection of dogs, some young adults using the arriving trains as the center of the towns’ social life, and some scenes unique to the Russian frontier – old women harvesting their back yard gardens, older men at construction sites grabbing some discarded material maybe to help get through the harsh “continental” winter to come.  (Funny use of that word.  A “continental” breakfast is light and easy; a “continental” weather pattern is apparently harsh and unforgiving.)

And we listen to the sounds of the journey.  At first, we thought we heard a string and reed orchestra as we pulled into a small town siding.  Turns out these eerily-resonating harmonies were caused as the steel wheels
This berth built for four!
Not this time
strained against one set of tracks and rolled onto the next. The sound of dead quiet as the train then begins to move again.  The European-style train whistles, the sounds of the other passengers passing time with travel stories in a half dozen languages.  The sounds of the Russian carriage steward yelling at Ricky for rinsing her noodles down the samovar drain, and at me for splashing water onto the floor from the samovar, and then hearing the sweetest tones when she stopped to sell us some of her train treats.  

Now, a rainy, moody day in Listvyanka, on the shores of Baikal. Hope it clears soon.  It looks like fresh snow on the mountains to the north!


john holden said...

Chris, Ricky,
Great, evocative travel writing, connecting me to my own memories and giving at the same time fresh context to them...keep it up! Back in Beijing ourselves today after a 47 hr train journey from Lhasa. Gotta love riding the rails!

Ken Chrisman said...

Enjoy this post you guys ar having a great time.