I'm involved in a slight altercation. I decided to have a crafty cigarette in the section at the end of the waggon we're in; it's the place where the проводник (provodniks - the cabin attendants) stoke the coal fire that warms the carriage and keeps the samovar at a steady 80degC. Smoking here isn't as naughty as it sounds because there's a little sign saying 'smoking compartment’ fixed to the wall above an ashtray. The problem is that the Russian train guard, Pavlov, is telling me I'm not allowed to smoke. I say "but the sign says you can". He tells me no because no one is allowed to smoke anywhere in any public place in any part of the Russian Federation, and that includes anywhere on a train. I say "hang on but this is a Chinese train", but Pavlov isn't buying it. I put the cigarette out. Then the Chinese provodnik who is with Pavlov says to me "it's okay, just don't get caught" and winks.
This somewhat highlights the oddness of this train journey. For the fifth time on our journey, we boarded a train in one country that was crewed by almost exclusively staff from another country. A serious language issue ensues this time: we don't speak Chinese; not a word; and all but the one aforementioned provodnik speaks neither Russian nor English. The only word in English the two provodniks for our waggon seem to know is "no", and they have used it profusely.
This train is shabby. It's a Chinese train and it's the quintessence of faded glory. The décor and fittings, which I imagine were the height of luxury back in the 60s or 70s, have seen better days and are decidedly tatty, even threadbare in places. We wait to be given our bedding (it's almost midnight when the train pulls out of Moscow’s Yaroslavky (Яарославский) station), keen to snuggle down for a little shuteye. The bedding is eventually dispensed but isn't all that snuggly. I have a conversation with a pair of Russians travelling in the next waggon; they are furious. "This is disgraceful; and to think this train leaves Moscow...". They are not wrong. Faded glory aside, the first class cabin that we've been looking forward to is a real disappointment. It's not merely shabby, it's positively disgusting. In our cabin the carpet hasn't been hovered; the white table cloth draped over our little table is covered in nasty stains of tea, and possibly other more nefarious fluids; and the shower - we have a shower (this is a first class cabin after all) - is downright revolting and emanates a smell of mildew and rotting stuff heavily masked by a creepy, sweet aroma. There's phlegm in the sink and the so-called shower emits a dribble of water that a vole would have difficulty washing themself in. The toilet is grungy though it never reaches the vile depths of the shower cubicle. NB: Something the Lonely Planet has left off its list of essentials for the Trans-Russian traveller are a peg for the nose, and a flannel to keep body and compartment as least wiped clean; oh, and a bottle of bleach.
On top of all that, the bed/benches are hard, really hard; so that we turn ourselves black and blue as we toss, turn and fidget in an attempt to get comfortable enough to fall asleep. Even if the beds were comfortable, falling asleep would be a challenge, unless we got some practice on a rollercoaster before we left; it is a far from a smooth ride and, as night falls and we take to our beds, the train driver switches on his turbo boosters and we hurtle along, round corners and over bridges at break neck speed, the waggons crashing and clanking into each other so that its like trying to sleep behind the wheel of a dodgem car. To top it all our provodniks are miserable, unfriendly and hopeless.
After the experience of a couple of quite superior Russian trains we were initially in a state of shock, but we've now got used to it. We've had to remind the provodniks of their duties from time to time. This includes tasks such as making sure the fires don't go out, ensuring there's hot (not tepid) water in the samovar (urn; every Russian waggon has one of these and hot water is supposed to be plentiful), reminding them that they need to provide toilet paper to passengers. The process is that you first point the issue out to them, they say "no, no, no", you stare at them and say it again, they say "no", and they go and sort it out. Perhaps "no" in sino-provodnik speak means something other than what I'm used to? We highlighted the state of affairs to our friend Pavlov, the Russian train guard, and he simply said that we should have caught a Russian train!
Anyway, let's cover some of the more positive aspects. Hanging out on a train for four days and five nights is a new experience for us. You have time to get to know your fellow passengers, chat to them, invite over for coffee, go to dinner with them, share a beer. Taking a journey like this isn't everyone's cup o tea and some of the people we explained our plans to before we left seemed to think we were a little mad; after all we could have flown by aeroplane to India or Thailand. The merry bunch that are sharing our waggon are like minded loonies who had the same idea as we did! That's one of the great things about the journey and makes it worthwhile. I think the state of the train and poor service (for example on the Russian trains the provodniks will make and bring you tea; even in third class) makes for more camaraderie. We're survivors; a dying breed of travellers foolish enough to buy tickets on a prison train when we could simply fly from A to B.
The others on the train are nice people and we've had some good chats. Many of our fellow travellers are Europeans, or at least speak English. I strikes me that, at least at this time of year, it's not really a route that people use because they have to; because it's the only way to get about. They use it for the hell of it or like us because its their dream holiday. We've shared tables in the Russian dining cart together and chatted about this and that whilst we watched Siberia roll by outside the window.
It's a hell of a long journey and for most of it the landscape's been rather repetitive. Since leaving Poland it's comprised mostly of swampy, low land birch forests as far as the eye could see. There's more villages and small towns than we expected; usually quaint, wooden, single story houses with their large, productive gardens with mainly dirt roads for access. Some of the dwellings are painted beautiful colours and decorated with carved fencing and such; others sport corrugated asbestos rooves. Once in a while there's a bigger, vaguely industrial Soviet-era town with larger houses and apartment blocks. Sometimes we stop at one of these towns for ten minutes here, twenty minutes there, and then we all get off and stand on the platform and stretch our legs. The Russian station buildings are often the best feature of these towns: Painted in bright colours with the name of the place emblazoned across the top of the main building in colourful letters. It's a time for smokers to have a smoke. Even though you're still not allowed to smoke on platforms, somehow it’s okay; people understand, and I've even seen a police officer having a crafty one. Obviously the Chinese provodniks couldn't care less; they're not Russian after all, and these aren't their rules to enforce. It's also a time to shop at the kiosks and 'produckti'....
If the guide book advice about the Trans-Mongolian railway is to be believed, we had expected to find that every time the train stopped a gaggle of enterprising locals would be waiting with baskets full of homemade delicacies, fruits and baked goods, not to mention the aforementioned kiosks and produkti. But this isn't what we experience. Most stops have nobody selling anything and we don't stop for long enough to go looking around to see what's available in the station environs. Alex and I watch some of the passengers who believed the hype climb down from the carriages at each stop only to find nothing to buy. It's disconcerting to see their disappointed faces, especially the young backpackers who remind Alex of Isaac and his pals interrailing around with empty tummies. We're lucky; we packed a comprehensive bag of provisions; thanks to our airbnbing experience we've become quite self-sufficient. As the journey progresses eventually some open kiosks are found on the platform. Usually it's a little wooden shack painted in cream and white with a person behind little window; these are the produckti. She (it's so far always been a woman) sells an assortment of things, but mostly ice cream, bottles of water and pop, biscuits and cakes, and crisps and other snacks. A popular one seems to be pot noodles and other instant meals where you just add hot water (from your waggon’s samovar). Only once have we found the promised local providers. On the 3rd evening we arrived at a platform to be met by a group of women holding up shawls and what looked like mink scarves. There were others too selling dried fish (that look like strange creatures from outer space) and pirozhki (deep-fried, pasty type things). Alex gets some pasties: meat-filled for me and cabbage for her. One of our adventurous friends buys a cured trout. We are keen to revel in the array of produce although unfortunately the platform is swarming in mosquitos; and not just any mosquitos but those big, nasty, tiger-striped ones. They seem especially concentrated around the woman selling the dried fish who insists on pursuing me about the platform, while I keep moving away. Of course the mosquitos love Alex too and I'm worried about her as she generally reacts violently to any kind of insect bite and so eventually we are forced to escape back to our cabin, shut the door, put the fan on and hide until the train is well clear of the place.
Food's not so much of a problem for people with bigger budgets as there's the Russian restaurant car up the other end of the train from us. This involves walking through about seven carriages that have two doors at each end. That's a lot of doors, but it's worth it. The restaurant car is pleasant, has plenty of tables, is clean and generally well kept, and the staff are pretty friendly, especially the woman who runs it who one of our new friends calls 'Mom'. It’s true that she is rather maternal and nurturing, making any visit there a delight; I almost feel as if she's glad to see us. The menu has quite a few options, including soups, breakfasts (omelette, cucumber and tomato salad, rye bread, salami on rye bread, and tea is breakfast option two for 530 roubles, or about £6.50), chicken fillets, salmon and schnitzel. My faves are the schnitzel, and the chicken noodle soup, and breakfast option two. Alex loves the blinis (pancakes) with jam and soured cream. There's beer to wash it down with and tea, and sadly not so great coffee. We've spend quite a lot of time in there; at least one meal a day and each one ends up costing between £12 and £20 for the pair of us.
This morning, about an hour after we rolled out of Irkutsk (Иркутск), we were treated to our first vista of Lake Baikal, with it's enormous splendour augmented by a backdrop of snow covered mountains. Happily we plan to come back into Russia and spend some time by the lake after our stay in Mongolia.
We've now pulled out of Ulan-Ude (Улан-Удэ), our last major Russian stop, on our way to the border with Mongolia. The landscape has changed (thank goodness) and the interminable birch swamps have given way to mountains, sweeping arid plains and glistening lakes. Even the provodniks seem to have shaken off the gloom of the oppressive Russian taiga: The loo's been mopped, the fire stoked and the samovar mended. It's towards the end of our forth day and we're now five hours ahead of Moscow time. We're running on two times here: Moscow time, used by all the station clocks and the time-tables; and local time, used by the restaurant car and the Sun and Moon. My body clock is becoming a little messed up by all of this and this on top of the difficulty sleeping means I'm looking forward to Ulaan Baatar (Улаанбаатар – the Red Hero) tomorrow morning and the hotel we've booked ourselves into for a couple of days. Between ten and midnight we cross the border and have double border control. This takes hours and it’s hard to understand why. Why are the Russian border police so severe in their scrutiny? (We have to stand up while they stare sternly at each passenger) It seems to go beyond necessity, especially as we are leaving their country. They take my propusk off me, which I'm a little sad about. The Russian interrogation is followed by Mongolian border control, including customs and passport checks that again, take ages. This is also when they unhitch the Russian dining car and hitch up the Mongolian one. We've now been stationary for about two hours when the Mongolian restaurant matron passes through our carriage declaring the dining car to be open (it’s now about 1am local time). This is great news because the car is supposed to be a beautiful sight; so we head up there. We were not disappointed and I decided to have a nightcap to help me sleep the few hours left before the train was due to arrive at our destination.
The final leg of the journey is pretty smooth and we both fall asleep to the clickety-clack of the train. When the guards wake us up and we open the blind our eyes are greeted by sights of rolling mountains and ger (yurt) camps on the hillsides. The scenery becomes more gritty and industrial as we near Ulaan Baatar; apparently at 1,300m above sea level. There’s a coal-fired power station on the outskirts pumping it’s smoke up into the valley so that it lays in a thick heavy sea in the air. We arrive. It’s cool, overcast, smoggy and there’s lots of people milling about offering us tours, camps and taxis. We refuse for a while, but then give in and decide to take a taxi. We arrive at the hotel, eat breakfast, and take a well-earned shower.