There was a real sense of nervous excitement as everyone gathered in the eastern waiting hall of the Irkutsk Station. When I say everyone that is because in addition to our trio there were a number from our hostel, those we had met on Olkhon Island, and enough others that would fill the train and meant that it was standing room only in the spacious hall.
Bye bye Irkutsk
The train arrived in a noisy swath of smoke and steam. All around us became movement. For about the first time there was a security checkpoint before the platform entrance. This negotiated and welcomed aboard by a tiny Asiatic providnitsa we thumped and bumped our luggage into the compartment. This is always a slightly manic operation. Bulky backpacks do not mesh that well with narrow corridors and compartments with little extra room than the four beds and table. A mixture of patience and forcefulness is needed to complete the jigsaw of stowing everybody’s bags and settling in.
With this completed it was time to assess the benefits of kupe class. Lurid gold furnishings seemed to be about it. Bedspreads, pillowcases, and even the table cloth (a first) all completed with tasseled fringes. Oh, and a door that could be closed which is an extreme novelty. As it was such a busy train there was no doubt that the fourth bed would be filled and it was with relief that Paulin was to be our companion. Then we got tea brought around to us in cool Mongolian Rail mugs. It makes a change not drinking out of my own duct tape repaired tan one, though the thought of farewelling this mostly trusty companion is a little sad.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning I woke in a near delirious state. With the door closed the tiny compartment had become stifling and my sheets were drenched in sweat, the shiny cloth of the pillow was slick against my cheek. I could hear my three companions murmuring, obviously also suffering. Forcing together thoughts I wrenched open the sliding door and stumbled into the corridor. Many others were also stumbling out with confused looks on their faces.
Only a few hours earlier it was a similar scene only the expressions were more of rapt wonder and excitement. It was snowing outside. The train had come to a halt at some tiny station between Baikal and Ulan Ude and the in the floodlights large white flakes could be seen fluttering to the ground. There was no times at this stop to jump out and feel Siberian snow so everyone crowded along the windows. Or did some yoga in their pjs with Jannina and Juliette.
At about this time the inside temperature dropped markedly. Politely a request was made to the little providnitsa if something could be done about this. Something had and now we were suffering at the opposite extreme. The corridor was just a stuffy and desperate for some cool air we tried to open the top windows. Only one was not locked. As everyone sucked in the freshness an enraged figure in navy blue uniform came rushing down and slammed it shut then locked it. Howls of protest went up to which she sarcastically mimed shivering and went “meh ma mee moo meh.” There was real anger in her eyes.
Like naughty school kids on a trip she then herded us all back into our respective cubicles. Apparently moving about at night is a big no no in second class. It was then that Paulin smiled in his mischievious way and revealed that our window opened. The two J’s were rescued from both their stifling room and unbearable companions and we laughed and dozed the small hours away until all aspects of the world around had cooled down some.
Mornings on the train always have a period of adjustment. Working out where you are being the chief priority closely followed by a trip to the samover to make tea. The departure time of our train had meant that we missed out on the supposedly spectacular views of the lake. By now the junction where the trans-Siberian line is departed from and becomes the trans-Mongolian is approaching. Instead of lake views we are passing towns such a Zagustay which sits in the shadow of an ugly factory belching smoke.
One of the simple pleasures of these long train journeys is working out the speed by timing the kilometer posts. For example thirty seconds between posts would mean an exceptional velocity of 120km/hr. Most of the time they are ticking upwards at sixty to eighty second intervals. The posts themselves can be quite difficult to see as they have been driven into the ground inside the gravel strip that extends the short distance away from the rails themselves. Not a problem to gauge progress from the front facing windows of the engine.
From the carriages however it is more a case of placing your cheek against the glass and trying not to go cross eyed focusing so close. Being so regular and relatively accurate, disparities of forty kilometres become relatively insignificant six thousand kilometres later, these posts are also an indispensable way to work out what sights are upcoming and move to the appropriate side of the train.
One of the last we would see in Russia.
For the first time the abundance of travelers showed reared its ugly head. This being trapped in close quarters with people who you just wished you could get away from. Juliette and Jannina hd been biletted with two Canadians. Naturally it was assumed that they were a couple but it turned out just friends and that he was married and had left his wife and few weeks old first child at home to come on this trip. It was actually this guy who grated on just about everyone and we felt quite sorry for his poor friend and tried to include her secretly. It makes you think of those people who were on the likes of the first four ships to the new Canterbury settlement. Three months in steerage with barely room to breathe. I guess I can handle thirty hours.
What he highlighted most of all was the ugly superiority of traveling experience. Inexplicably to us they had flown directly to Irkutsk, were then taking this train to Ulan Bataar where they would stay for a short time, take the train back to Irkutsk and then fly straight back to Canada. Why would you bother? It is the trip across that acclimatises your awareness. And now gallingly he would sit there and assert hypothesis. There was an amusement factor in his naive excitement about some of the more mundane elements of the carriage. Our insolent reaction to this was probably rooted in the fact that this was not our favourite train.
“Never talk to me again.”
Mid-morning the world outside started to slow down. There was little to indicate that a town was approaching. The view was still framed by distant mountains but now the foreground was more scrubby grass, smaller clumps or lines of trees bereft of leaves, and we had been following the Selengar River for sometime before it disappeared to the other side and the hills got much closer. But slowing down we were coming to a halt in front of the one impressive building in Naushki, the custard yellow railway station.
The moment of destiny had arrived. To see whether all of our accumulated paperwork would be correct enough to escape any fines. The spectre of this possibility had hung over the whole trip. Stories of US$500 penalties you never know whether to believe or are they merely apocryphal. My fine at Finland Station way back on our first day had been heeded as a warning that things could go wrong very quickly. And that was in St Petersburg. A study by a Russian news service had found that about sixty percent of Russian border guards are so unstable they should not be allowed to carry guns.
Added pressure abounded as at midnight our visas expired. But it was not even morning tea time so even with the warning that the wait for processing in Naushki was around three hours we should be out of here a bit after lunch. The samover was popular as a nice cup of coffee would help with the wait. The next hour was all rearranging. Back and forth the carriage went as part of an elongated shunting process.
With no sign of any sort of activity outside, no advice available as the providnitsa’s had disappeared into the station on arrival, cautiously we nosed out onto the platform. Our carriage now stood all alone in the yard. Here was the answer to the question of why only kupe tickets were available to Ulan Bataar. There was only one carriage that made the border crossing and so everyone had to go the whole way together.
Tags: border crossing, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, Russia, Siberia, train, Trans-Siberia, Travel, visa