My first glimpse waking up this morning through the window was a view of a mountain-wrapped, dead flat valley with waterways feeding Lake Baikal. Villages sprinkle the edges with single story, detached houses and proper 5’-high wooden fences succinctly staking out each owner’s territory. Its clean air and water is disrupted by a parade of toilet paper shreds populating the railway line. The pieces were all dried out, caught in the brambles, and sadly waving from neglect.
You could say it’s the Siberian town you would expect to see, somewhat bleak and tragic. Unfortunately, we are only passing through and have no impression of the liveliness or livelihoods of the people who live here. It could be completely different from surface impressions.
Yesterday produced a winner and a loser. Some of you may have already noticed my one-hour escape to Wi-Fi Heaven at the Ulan Bator Railway Station. I sang my Hallelujahs as I sent my three latest posts and added images to those that wouldn’t behave in Beijing. It was exhilarating to walk into a dead railway coffee shop and ask for Wi-fi Access, and “You can alway get what you want”, contrary to Mick Jagger. Just ask.
Immediately after our return to the train, the car attendant informed us that all the first class 2-berth compartments were fully booked out by a Chinese tour group that just embarked. So no upgrade. Wah!! That took the wind out of my buoyancy from a few minutes beforehand. What an emotional roller coaster!
Without any option, Gee Kin and his optimism kicked in. He loves to dig into the “toughing it out” adventure he had always imagined. I was grumpy. No toilet to ourselves, only the single grungy one for the car. OK, so we were the only ones in the entire car except a late-bake single woman who mysteriously appeared in Ulan Bator. She had the nerve to occupy “our” car.
As I continued to pout, the car attendants (2 for each) tried to convince us how fun it would be to have access to the entire car (except for the invader). What’s the difference between sharing a toilet in the first class, polished wood compartments with Chinese carpet runners along the corridor and ours, anyway?
We had carpet runners too, and even the first class ones had stretchy lumps that you tripped over predictably on the way to the dining car. And we had our “shared” toilet, full access to the shaver outlets in the wash room for recharging our devices, and hot hot hot water for tea on demand from an urn. Bedding was fine, and not much difference in quality to the embroidered upholstery. But I was sure I liked the goopy gold filigree on red version than the flat blue-on-blue plain jane in ours.
In the end, like the crazy horse that grows mature and gets tamed, I resigned myself to the fact that we are stuck in the second class compartment. Although it was not our choice by design, it is growing (more) hair fondness on my chest. Live like the locals (except no local in their right mind is doing this). Get to like taking a half-bath in the railway station mop sink (which I did). Eating doses of Instant Oatmeal packets and Chinese Noodles is perfectly tolerable for 5 days. Packaging is fun when you can rip the tops off with your teeth.
Waiting for the customs and immigration officials to embark and do their thing certainly wasn’t any different. Between first and second class you get treated equally. After being forewarned at the border between China and Mongolia (remember the dry-docking of the cars?) between 10pm and 1am, this one should be a piece of cake. A two hour stopover from 8-10pm according to one schedule should be plenty of time for the crack team to do its thing.
Instead, we didn’t have to re-wheel. Mongolia and Russia had their act together, but China must have missed this detail on track standardization. We skimmed right through any workshop in the station straight to the barbed-wire lined border station (Naushki). Hefty drug-sniffing Russian Shepherds glazed past us, then the Brunhilde-like inspector came in.
She did a good job investigating each and every compartment in our car. She adeptly and impressively mounted every ledge or protrusion to scale and anchor her Doc Martins to reach the ceiling of each room. She found every architectural piece of hardware used to close or hinge metal ceiling or wall panels and either opened them herself or had the compartment attendants do it. We heard her for half an hour commanding, “KAI!” for “OPEN!”. And yes, each and every one was opened and the empty space behind was thoroughly inspected.
Meanwhile, her cohort looked down below. Empty compartments were already prepared for this customs search, so lower bunks were tipped up in order for space underneath to be visible. We got to see the show for our compartment, since we had been sleeping until the border patrol arrived. The agents were courteous, but made us get up out of bed so they could “look at us”, full-height (clothing not essential) against our visa photos.
After this “interesting” experience, we were grateful that border patrol was completed. Gee Kin got his adventure, and me my experience to share.
For the foodies out there, our food improved with the Mongolian dining car. It was attached during the dry-docking, and the bad Chinese food left for the next gig. We had beef and onions, rice, and pickled carrots. Perfectly decent. Looks like a Russian dining experience is next. The only thing we can’t figure out is when lunch is. There is six hours’ time difference between Moscow and Ulan Bator. We are traveling west. Every time we check the time, it seems to be an hour away to lunchtime. Can anyone figure this out???