The Train Ride Part 2 – Ulanbaatar to Irkutsz

The UB-Irkutsk train was the second longest and definitely the worst train journey of the trip. It started off in flying colours with the arrival of a Mongolian family on the Mongolian side of the Russia-Mongolia border, where we had arrived at some point in the middle of the night. She promptly began pulling hats, scarves, underwear, boots, jeans, salami, vodka and a variety of other bits and pieces out of her bags and from under her clothing. She stuffed them into various compartments in the cabin and sat down looking quite pleased with herself.

We passed smoothly through the Mongolian border with smiles all around and crossed to the Russian side of the tracks. It was here where the fun and games started. The Russian customs officials, obviously used to the smuggling trade, pulled the cabin to pieces and took away most of her (and a lot of other people’s) “luggage”. Her pride turned to quite a vicious, but obviously put on, tantrum complaining that it was all for her mother. It didn’t get her anyway except in the bad books of the Russian customs officials. However, as they left the train to verify our passports and visas, the smugglers started removing their items from the provodnista’s cabin and stowing them back into their bags, a process obviously supported by the provodnista’s they kept watch at the end of the cabin. First and most importantly came the salami and the vodka, followed by most of the other items.

Passports were returned and our carriage (the others having stopped in the Mongolian border town) crossed over the border to Russia. The Mongolian smuggling family quickly left the train never to return, leaving us to spend several hours waiting for our carriage to combine with other carriages and make the 24 hour journey through to Irkutsk. This time around, there were no interesting characters and no foreigners in sight. With no dining car, we whiled away the time reading, writing in journals, eating and sleeping. We were pretty damn excited to arrive in Irkutsk at about 7:30am.

The border crossing

The gorgeous girl

Some of the smuggled items

Irkutsk and Bolshoe Goloustnoe

In Irkutsk we were met by our lovely guide, Ivan, who whisked us away to the nearby village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe where we were to spend the next two days. Arriving around 10am, we were given breakfast. Ten o’clock breakfasts were the norm for the next couple of days as if we were planning on waking up every morning with a hangover. Anyway, the first morning we were fed a breakfast of buckwheat with slices of salami, tomato and cheese and unlimited cups of tea. After lunch, we had an hour to sit around (the whole package was a pretty relaxed deal) before heading for a walk down to the lake. Lake Baikal, for those of you like me who have no idea about Russia, is the biggest lake (by volume) and is 20 million years old. For those of you Americans who believe that your lake is bigger, this one definitely has more water and is about 1.8 million years older. In fact, it nearly equals the volume of water in all five of your “great” lakes combined.

We wandered back to the homestay via the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been rebuilt since the wrath of the Communist period by locals who had also managed to hide away many of the relics. For those of you who are interested, you can tell a Russian Orthodox Church by the sign of a cross with a small diagonal line across the bottom of the vertical cross.

On the way back, I managed to make my first ever snow angel – and captured it on camera.

After our walk it was time for our own private banya, a banya that was heated to the extreme but well worth the effort as we could finally wash our hair and feel clean again after the long train ride. Then it was time for more food and I could already feel my stomach stretching and requiring more food each time. This time for dinner we had meat patties with mashed potato, something to cross off my list of things to eat when I get back home. Then it was off to bed, again something that I was looking forward to after two days on the train.

The next day we got up for ten o’clock breakfast and left for a walk around the lake. It was beautiful scenery and the lunch at the midpoint was fantastic. Tried and loved borscht (like minestrone with meat and potato) as well as Russian pancakes. The fish was a little bit to be desired but by that stage I’d definitely had enough food to last me for a week. Struggled to get up and do the return stage of the walk but enjoyed the scenery especially as the sun was beginning to set.

Random but cool huts

A strange piece of fungus…

Rock covered in ice…

These cows are literally knocking
on the fence because they know it
is time to come home.

One of the coolest police cars
that I’ve seen in a long time.

Returned for another banya… getting used to them now… followed by dinner (yes more food!) and learnt how to play a Russian card game called Donkey. Will attempt to teach you all when I get home… could be an excellent drinking game. Off to bed, ready for the trip back to Irkutsk in the morning.

After travelling back to Irkutsk, we took a short city tour that included the war memorial to victims of the Great War, the Cathedral of the Apparition of our Lord (amazing paintings on the walls), the Church of our Saviour, and the statue of Tsar Alexander III commemorating the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the early 1900’s. We also saw a lot of snow!

A short stop at the supermarket, which facilitated the purchase of bread and cheese, and we back to the train station ready to embark upon the next leg of our train journey – Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg, the real Trans-Siberian railway.