Day 34: Irkutsk , International Aid

The side of a green railway carriage of the Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk train.
Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk.

Real Russia don’t let me down and my ticket to Ulaanbaatar arrives first thing.

It’s a massive weight off my mind and I celebrate with a lovely piece of heart-shaped cake.

But although my 10pm departure is still many hours away, I feel quite anxious about the impending deadline.

Eager to diffuse this, I leave the hostel two hours earlier than I have to. This is partly so that I have time to organise things at the station and partly because I have to shift my heavy gear down five flights of stairs before I’m going anywhere! Thankfully, a friendly man from South Korea appears from nowhere and kindly helps me with the unpleasant task of moving out.

But the short ride to the station is fraught with difficulty, and I spend the next hour in a frustrating battle with the roading system and the usual lack of signage. Where exactly is the station turn-off?

When I finally reach the station, the waiting room is full of people and access to the platform appears to be blocked by large metal gates. Since I don’t know which platform my train is leaving from, I head back outside and quickly break the Troll down on the steps leading up to the waiting room. This is getting easier, but in the absence of gaffer tape I have to use my tent base and various straps to package the frame, racks and wheels together.

The train arrives and I have 17 minutes until it departs. Unfortunately the platform isn’t actually accessed through the waiting room, so I have to cart over 40kg of packaged bike, tent and pannier bags a couple of hundred metres around the other side of the building to where the train is. So much for being prepared.

Luckily, as obviously often happens in Russia, another man appears from nowhere. This one is a young Russian with passable English. He carries my bags, and I carry my bike. When we get to the platform, the female train wardens take over and the man disappears again. The ladies stow my wrapped bicycle at the end of the carriage and help ferry my bags onto the train. Their help allays my stress so much more effectively than the needless bureaucracy of the ball-busting wardens in Zabaikalsk.

I board the train, dump everything else in my compartment and meet my roommates for the trip to Ulan-Bator / Ulaanbaatar / Mongolia.

Erma and Martin are a likeable young Dutch couple. They are travelling the popular Trans Siberian route before heading on to China and South East Asia. We get along well and it’s relaxing to be roomed with English speakers for a change. Thank goodness all these Europeans learn English!

The train pulls away from the station and I can finally relax after a full day of being on edge. Customs is the next hurdle, but that’s a worry for another day.

A timetable on the carriage wall shows a total of 42 stops. Apparently we’ll cover a distance of 1113km! This is more than double the 518 km that I expected.

After some boiled eggs, sugary tea and Nutella sandwiches, I fall into bed and read the Russian/Mongolian customs rules until I grow sleepy, rousing only to make train recordings.

Perhaps it’s the stress of the departure, but I’m not feeling the best.

I’m going to start documenting my health, in case things become more serious and I need to explain my symptoms to someone.

Current symptoms:

  • I experienced some stuffiness and sneezing on the loo this morning.
  • And my neck and upper back are stiff. This could be due to hunching at the table last night while hungover.
  • Moving on down, my hands get sore and lose their power in low temperatures. This happened during my wander down the Great Baikal Trail and was quite disconcerting at the time.
  • And finally, there’s residual numbness in my toes, especially the tips of my second toes. This could be due to the cold weather, my drafty Specialized sneakers, or the insoles they came with, which don’t match my foot type.