A Travellerspoint blog

Russia

Driving Miss Daisy’s Train

sunny

Irkutsk to UlaanBaator - 6th October 2011

The train from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator spends more time stationary than in motion. With all of the stops I have worked out that the average speed that we have done over the 33 hour journey was 31.8 km/hr. The total distance is only 1052km, of that there is 715km between Irkutsk and the Russian border, a 21km hike from one border to the other, and finally a 316 km slog from the Mongolian border to Ulaanbaator.

The 9 hour stop and customs exercise was a good example of what mass job creation does for the efficiency of a country like Russia and Mongolia. There are 36 passengers in the train travelling across the border. This means that it took 25 minutes to process EACH passport. All I can say is that they must have looked long and hard at every single one of those passports.

So just to breakdown what makes up a 9 hour Russian and Mongolian Train border cross works I have made another list.

The procedure goes something like this:

1. Stop at Russian checkpoint for 5 hours, for the first couple of hours you are free to walk up and down the train station, and if you like you can go into the village where the drunks and mosquitos hang out. Only after 5 hours will the Russians come and take your passports from you and disappear for an hour or two. But for a period i witnessed some nice things in this remote Siberian Village
a. When there I saw some drunks
b. I saw some feral cows roaming the streets
c. I saw a funeral procession, with an open top velvet casket box and some guy throwing evergreens to the side of the road.
2. They will send in sniffer dogs and people to search your cabin, different officials will come by and ask you to stand up, sit down, come outside take your bag here, put your bag there, hop on one leg, bark like a dog...
3. If you are me, then they will pick you out of the carriage like a guilty drugs mule and take you into a large empty room. An important looking Army official will then have to be disturbed to check you out, he will then look at a passport for a good 20 seconds, he will then look at you so intensely your bottom lip will begin to quiver…. He will not flinch nor show any emotion, 3 more officials will be beckoned over, they will look at a passport and then look at you with just as much venom, they will do this for until you are ready to confess everything, starting from the time that you ‘once wore your mothers tights just to see how it felt to be mammy.’ If you’re me and you’re in this position, you will also be surrounded by big ugly looking Russian thugs wearing Long Black Gestapo style leather overcoats. If it is you, then look at the passport and make sure it looks like it actually belongs to you, if it doesn’t then they could be comparing you to some Russian fugitive. You will probably, like me, tell them (in English) that it is not your passport, they will then tell you in no uncertain terms to shut the f**k up, you are not out of Russia yet….. After a while longer of complete fear and total intimidation they will turn the passport around to show you, if it isn’t you as it was in my case then they will laugh with their enormous bellies and tell you to get the f**k out of there and back on the train, you will then struggle to walk to the train as they have been overcome with a jelly like sensation, you may then wish to visit the toilet but will find that they are locked as you are at a station….. If it is indeed your passport then you have my sympathy.
4. Once they are through with you then you, your family, your friends and your soul, the train will crawl to the Mongolian border which is 21km away.
5. Mongolian Army mount the carriage at the first Mongolian checkpoint, you will be relieved to have made it out of Russia and into a friendly country.
6. If you are me and happen to take a photo of the lovely scenery outside you will shouted at by an Army Official, you will then be told to see the army official who is waiting for you at the bottom of the train, you will then be made to make the walk of death past all of the passengers on the same coach, who have also taken pictures, but if you are me then you will be made an example of….. You will be told to delete your photographs, and he will have to witness that you have done this……
7. If you are me at this point you will sit down and not say or do anything until you are safely out of harm’s way…..
8. Once at the Mongolian border you are given the same treatment.
9. Police, security officials, more Army and Custom Officials jump on the train with more sniffer dogs, you have to stand up, sit down, look at them, show them your bags, lift up your seat, part your cheeks!!!….
10. You fill out some forms
11. They take the forms and passport away with them
12. Two hours later they will return and your passport will be stamped.
13. Local Mongolian currency exchangers will then be allowed on the coach to terrorise the already nervous tourists, including me who has curled up in a ball in the corner of the carriage. Each of them will have a huge wad of cash with them trying to sell you Mongolian Currency at a favourable rate I'm sure….When one leaves another one arrives and goes through EXACTLY the same, the only words they know is ‘Maximum Price’, ‘Dollar’ and ‘Euro’….
14. The train will then crawl away in the wrong direction for a while, the passengers will panic as they think they are going back to Russia.
15. The solo cabin as we are in now containing the virus that is the tourist bubble then gets attached to a domestic Mongolian train.
16. We then begin to move in the right direction albeit a little slowly.
17. Whilst ALL of this is going on the temperature in the cabin is 28degC and the toilet is shut for security reasons.

So my advice to anybody doing the Russia and Mongolia train crossing is basically just, sit tight, don’t take photos, don’t get mistaken for a fugitive, and take a good book. Or if you are sensible, do it by bus, I later learned it will take half the time …

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Train
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Feral Animals, tearing up the Hood
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Some friendly dog..... i was bored
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Static Train.....

Article By David Beattie of Rounton Coffee

Posted by beatski 23:22 Archived in Russia Tagged crossing into border mongolia ulaanbataar trans siberian Comments (2)

Irkutsk to Ulaanbaator

sunny 14 °C

Irkutsk to Ulan Bator – 5th-7th October

When I first started thinking of doing the Trans-Siberian I was told of the ‘Vodka Train’. So I went on their website and checked it out, they advertised the Trans-Siberian and said that you would get the Real Russian experience…. So I called them up to find out a little more… The phone was answered by some highly energetic and animated 18-30 holiday con-artist who had probably never even left his native hood. I soon got the gist of what the silly punk was saying…. For £2k they would buy my train tickets for me and it was “guaranteed” it would be a party train….. you would swig vodka with the Russian locals and you would have the complete lifetime experience that your dull miserable life had been missing all these years….. So what was I waiting for, make my life complete please punk…..?

I hung up.

I wasn’t going to take any sales pitch and I wasn’t going to go on any party train that had been prearranged with some Mickey Mouse tour operator, and as for £2k…. well, I wasn’t going to pay that.

The Trans-Siberian you must remember is a domestic train line, local people use it to get from A to B, it is not exclusively for tourists, most of the journeys I have travelled on, tourists have been a rarity, which is ideal…. To get the Real Russian experience you try and mix with the locals and do not travel in a bubble of other Europeans and Fat Americans.

So about 5 hours before the train took off I booked the journey to Ulan Bator, I was looking forward to seeing something other than Russian hostility and wanted to get out into Outer Mongolia before it turned bitter cold. I had made the decision that I was not going to go to Olkon island on Lake Baikal which was a place I really wanted to visit, but since it was out of season I could not get a boat from Listvyanka which is where I had happened to be, so I would have had to return to Irkutsk twice to do it and although Irkutsk was a relatively nice city, I didn’t want to spend another 2 or 3 nights there to do the island.

The journey sorted out my accommodation problems as I didn’t have any for that night as well….

The train I was pleased to see that it was one of the more luxury cabins that I had been on, fairly modern with a TV in each compartment, comfortable beds, newer and clean drapes on the windows and a Semovar that looked that it had been bought in the 21st Century.
As we all began to board I realised that there seemed to be quite a few Europeans on this train carriage, more than I have seen before on my travels. The Russians must have put all the tourists together in one carriage to keep them away from the locals, I cant say I was best pleased especially as all of the other carriages on the train were practically empty… (Only after thinking about it now it could be because the Russians hardly travel outside of their region nevermind their country.)

So I was with 3 German guys, one of which had won bronze medal at Judo at the Athens Olympic games, he had arms like Kebab Meat on a stick, did he know I was a novice at Thai-boxing???

The train set off and then the 1litre cans of beer got cracked open, I had had an episode in Irkutsk train station (earlier blog) where the police had tried to physically drag me off somewhere for trying to plug my laptop into a socket in the train station, so I wanted a beer, I needed to calm my nerves which were totally wrecked at this point.

The carriage I was on was full of those people who move around the world in a big tourist bubble, and I had joined them….. These tourist hobos were from Denmark, Germany, Australia, Belgium and I guess plus one from England!!…..

When the tourist bubble went to sleep it was just getting started in my cabin, oh yes, I was buzzing about that…… Jimmy Cranky from Denmark invited herself in and started taking pictures of everybody, she was followed in by a well-manicured Lionel Richie, then a crack smoking Les Dennis stumbled in…. This was fantastic…. I was crushed into the corner of 4-berth cabin with 3 Z-List Celebrity lookalikes and 3 moronic Germans, I was shortly without a beer and wanting to crawl into my top bunk bed and sleep. It was only when Ric Waller stood at the entrance to the cabin to try and get in I almost went in to anaphylactic shock. My interest level at this point was zero. “One in one out” I said as I stood up to let the horizontally challenged party participant squeeze into the room before grabbing a pillow and finding a spare bed to kip on. The party apparently went on for a while, I'm glad I stayed out of it, Les was still cut up about his split with Amanda Holden and got the crack pipe out, Ric Waller took a hit and went loopy, he started imitating Jean Claude Van Damme and put poor old Lionel in a head lock, right in the middle of his performance for the Germans of his all time classic “Guten-Tag aka Hello”

Weirdo’s, I much prefer mixing it with the Russians, even the hostile ones are better company than this bunch…..

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Article By David Beattie of Rounton Coffee

Posted by beatski 23:14 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Irkutsk - Paris of Siberia

Irkutsk – October 2011

If there is one city which will welcome you in their own special way and then send you back a nervous wreck then that City has got to be Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, or according to the guidebooks, “the Paris of Siberia”. Don’t believe the guidebooks, the place is certainly friendlier than our Frog Eating Surrender Monkey European cousins, but that is hardly a compliment, I was still in Russia. Within Russia, the further east you go, the more chance you have of getting a Ruski to crack a smile. The difficulty in Siberia is that their 50 yard stare is normally frozen into their hardened craniums.

My Arrival

I had arrived on the 1st October at the pleasant time of 02:30. My task at this ungodly hour was to trek 4km to my hostel armed with only my Russian phrasebook and an almost primitive street map. I could have walked but Grandma started fretting and was worried I would be attacked and robbed. Typical grandparents ey? So my adopted grandmother jumped off the carriage onto the platform and started heckling people until she eventually got the attention of a soldier who had been travelling on the same carriage with all of his Russian Soldier comrades. These were the same soldiers that I had been trying to avoid on the journey to Irkutsk. And now Grandma had put all her faith into one of them making sure that I got home ok. Thanks Grandma. Now I had an entourage of about 20 Russian soldiers who had a new toy to play with. Was I going to be safer with the soldiers or out there with the Russian Heavy mob? I stuck with what I had, let me see where this takes me. I got pulled by the bag from one place to the next making sure I was kept in check with them and didn’t wander off anywhere I shouldn’t, I was their property now. Outside the train station they were met by more soldiers who had arrived to pick them up. My new soldier buddy was knocking on doors to legitimate taxis to try and get them to take me to my hostel, gypsy cab drivers were swooning around like vultures to try and get in on some tourist action. I was in a predicament. None of the taxis would take me, they had been booked already, or at least that’s what I interpreted from the ensuing action. The soldiers, now wondering what to do with me grabbed my bag and threw it in their army truck, like the one that you see in the films. Shit, now I was in for it, I jumped in to grab my bag and then the van pulled off. I was surrounded by 20 Russian soldiers who now had me to themselves, and this is when the interrogation started, in broken English.

“Where are you from?”

“Are you a spy?”

“Are you James Bond?”

Yeah, these punks were having a right old laugh at my expense….
There was one particular soldier that I was quite wary of and it was when he said I was going to be taken back to the army barracks with them, it was at this point that I stood up and told them to stop the truck. “Drop me here” I said nervously. I figured I would be better off on the dark Siberian streets than in this mixed up, potentially politically sensitive scene. The truck stopped and I grabbed my bag and bailed out onto this disgusting damp street. I had no idea where I was. The soldiers used this stop as an impromptu fag break, so I was again surrounded by 20 soldiers. This time, they were trying to flag down a Taxi. Now, if you were a taxi driver and saw 20 soldiers, an Army truck, and some strange looking tourist at 3 in the morning, would you stop? The answer is no, of course you wouldn’t stop, and plenty just drove on by. You would want no part of this potential scene from Platoon. It was only when the group blocked the road entirely that one taxi had to stop. I jumped in it straight away. My adrenaline at this point was going through the roof….. I took off in the taxi, my guardian soldier had even negotiated the price for me….. I’d have paid anything to get out of there in one piece.

I didn’t sleep that night, I was pacing up and down the hostel until breakfast time.

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My Departure

The train leaving Irkutsk was at 22:15, I had made the journey from Listvyanka early afternoon to buy the ticket for the night, last minute as always but it has worked so far. I had to wait around Irkutsk for the day which wasn’t so bad, I found a café that was modern by Siberian standards and I parked myself there for the day.

When I got to the train station I had bumped into some English guys I had travelled about with briefly so we grouped up and hung around for the train. I have mentioned before that there is a lot of job creation in Russia, and Irkutsk of course was no different. On this night they had 4 policemen who were stood behind a giant desk as you entered the main entrance. By another entrance there was another 3 or 4 security who were keeping check on people for whatever reason. We had sat down in an area where some Russian TV was blasting out some pathetic Russian Soap Opera and we had some time to kill. Looking back now it did seem to me that we were getting a bit more attention from the security than we needed to.

I took my laptop out of my bag. As luck would have it, where I was sat there was an electric socket. Excellent, I took my power lead and plugged it in. At that I was jumped on by this boy who had clearly wanted some excuse to pounce on us and capitalise somehow. He looked like Albert Steptoe with a big padded black jacket, black baseball cap and a big badge that said something that gave him some kind of authority. He grabbed me and tried to pull me away, shouting something in Russian. I sat on my chair, there was no way that I was going to go with this scruffy jobsworth. My Crime was to plug my laptop into a socket? It was hardly grounds for any real punishment, perhaps a harsh word would do. Albert was intent on taking me some place away from the area, presumably to fleece me from my money or some possessions.

This became a bit of a scene. I was rooted to my chair, he was trying to coerce me into following him. All I could say was “Nyet, Nyet”. He towered above me in my chair, he kept on going on in his Vile Russian. He knew I was not going to go with him without a struggle, he walked off and spoke to a mob of what I can only assume to have been plain clothed security. They were skinheads, had the obligatory fat jacket on and had enough presence to scare the shit out of innocent civilians.

It was not safe to be where we were, we moved to the populated area where there were more passengers and more tourists. Of course they followed me and stood behind me, our group went totally silent. I had agreed that if they had tried to grab me or if they make some kind of move then the guys would take all of my bags onto the train with them, somehow I would make contact with them and relocate my stuff. I didn’t want my stuff in the possession of Albert the sruffy scrap merchant. We waited for what seemed like an eternity for the platform number to be announced on the board. I had heard that a common trick that the pesky Russians use is to detain you until the train is almost ready to depart when you are at your most eager to get on it, at which point you will pay almost anything to be able to board it. As soon as the platform number was displayed I made a dart for the train, leaving my bags for the others to carry. I got caught up in melee for the train. I didn’t look back to see if they followed me, I got on the train and sat in my carriage until the train rolled out of the station.

Goodbye Irkutsk, the Paris of Siberia, I will miss you I thought as I struggled to open a 1 litre can of beer…

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The Great Escape

Article By David Beattie of Rounton Coffee

Posted by beatski 22:53 Archived in Russia Tagged russia class irkutsk trans ulaan siberian kupe baator Comments (2)

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