Day 35: Irkutsk to Sükhbaatar , The Train to Mongolia

Passing through haunted lands.
Passing through haunted lands.

When I awake, it’s already after 9.

The cabin blind is down, and my body is telling me to keep sleeping, but my mind is urging me to get up – and make some music.

The sounds our train makes are fantastic, especially at night. As well as the usual clackety-clack, there is also deep bumping. It reminds me of the previously unconventional basslines on Monolake‘s Gobi and Hong Kong albums. Within the context of my trip, his album names begin to fall into geographical line, marking inspirational highlights on a musician’s journey.

A horn stab marked our departure from the ordinary. As the train gained momentum, the chanting call and response of the bogies grew ever louder, and more urgent.

As night fell, the groove died and was replaced by a deep rumble. Our visual and auditory points of reference were banished and we were at the mercy of the spirits.

A barrage of moaning, ghostly choirs and wind blown accusations assailed us from beyond the grave. We were passing through haunted lands.

But it’s daytime now and it’s the ghosts which have been banished.

It’s about a million degrees on the train, which is filled by about a million Dutch tourists. I guess that’s what they mean by a Dutch Oven. They are all very nice though.

People wander around and talk with one another in the hall, in their private compartments and on the platform at scheduled stops.

Most seem to be spending between 3 and 9 days in Mongolia. It’s hard to network, knowing that they will be rushing round doing local tours, while I will be focussed on working from afar.

I gaze out the wide windows, yearning for lush, green Mongolian steppes.

They are the ones I saw on Tom Allen’s blog (opens new window). The ones which I feel entitled to, now that I’m here.

But the landscape outside the train window is more of the same, autumnal browns, things I’ve already seen. And I do love being on a train, but it pours ridicule over the idea of riding a humble bicycle through these huge landscapes.

I find an old brochure, which shows an artist’s vision of the future ger. Modern designer dwellings with million dollar views projected onto green steppes. Modern day oases, if they are real. Perhaps it depends on the season.

We stop briefly at Djida.

Every stop is a chance to stretch our legs and a critical intermission from the stifling heat on the train.

At 1:45pm we reach the Russian border town of Naushki.

Compared to the bus crossing of the Chinese-Russian border at Manzhouli-Zabaikalsk, the rail crossing is relatively relaxing. No hauling of heavy baggage on and off of buses is required here.

The guards are serious, but polite. But they still have me worried. I’ve read horror stories of people having money or gear confiscated by corrupt officials. Keen to avoid undue attention to my expensive belongings, I haven’t declared my bike or any of my electronic gear. If anything goes wrong, I only have a day up my sleeve to sort it out.

Despite there being no issues, it still takes over an hour for the guards and the well-behaved Alsatian sniffer dog to do their job. They come through the carriages and check that everyone is who they say they are and have a quick look at where our bags are stowed.

After this we’re let out of our cage for a couple of hours. Our carriage disembarks, a motley contingent of Dutch, Swiss, American, Canadian and New Zealand tourists. We roam the small township, which isn’t anything to write home about, and try to spend our remaining Russian roubles by buying more munchies for the train.

There are tanks and soldiers at the far end of town. We stay well clear and head to a local cafe instead. The interior reminds me of a church hall, basic but functional. With 26 days of basic Russian under my belt, I manage to order four bowl of dumplings rather than just four. It’s a good way to make friends though.

We all bundle back on to the train for the border crossing into Mongolia.

It’s 6:36pm, Moscow +5 but now referred to as Local time.

The train is moving much more slowly now. It gives us much more time to appreciate the local scenery. But nature doesn’t respect political boundaries and the Russian forest has stubbornly followed us into Mongolia. Only the odd patch of steppe indicates that anything has changed. Borders really are just lines on maps.

The climate didn’t get the memo either. Despite the reports of 250 rainless days per year, it’s raining with big drops.

At Sukhe-Bator (Sükhbaatar) we wait in the carriages again, while the Mongolian guards come through. They do the same jobs as their Russian predecessors. And despite what I’ve heard about friendly border police here, the man with the black uniform and sewn on Immigration badge is as serious as any Russian official I’ve ever met.

I decide not to declare my bike. The customs rules state that items for personal use need to be declared, if they have a value of over USD 1500. But my research has determined that not declaring your bike on entry doesn’t create a problem on exit (opens new window), whereas declaring it on entry just makes things harder (opens new window), which isn’t appreciated on the way in and is of no benefit on the way out. And a cyclist visiting Vietnam (opens new window) added that if you were questioned by border police, you just needed to explain that the bike was used and you would be taking it with you when you left.

In the end, no-one asks me about the bike, but I include it as one of the eight pieces of luggage on my Mongolian customs declaration.

Running out of time, but eager to get off the damned train, we walk a couple of blocks to a Mongolian restaurant.

There we enjoy some big plates of cheap food. I have an enjoyably stodgy pork stir fry for 5000 Tugrik, NZD 3.95.

The cafe has a relatively nice fit-out and the men running it are clean-cut and well-dressed. Michael Jackson heads up a playlist of romantic songs, providing a light and quirky backdrop to our heavy meal.

The digitally dependent among us (all of us) are excited to find a Wi-Fi signal, but unfortunately there is no internet to back it up. Our waiter did say as much, but we’d hoped that he was wrong.

Running late, we quickly stuff our faces, before jumping back on the train, just in time for our 9:55pm departure.

Despite the shortcomings of Naushki and Sukhe-Bator, I feel an undeniable sense of adventure.

Thirty-five days and counting. I reflect on my time in Russia. The beauty and boredom, the excitement and frustration. A short amount of time, it’s already packed with memories.

As I lie on my bunk with my earbuds in, I realise that my culture travels with me. I can listen to dub techno anywhere. And I can find myself and realise that it’s all worth it for the epic moments I’ve had, and which I’ll continue to have.