Transsiberian Part 9 - Ulan-ude and the Border
We pull into Ulan-ude late afternoon. The trip on the train is quite beautiful as it runs around the bottom edge of Lake Baikal. When this section was built, travelers were freaked out by the tunnels as there were no tunnels in European Russia at this time. Previously, a ferry was used to carry the train across. Now there is a winding track that goes through the mountains. It's a nice change from all the flat track we've been on so far. This train is an older train and doesn't have fancy card locks or power sockets in the cabins. So despite my scoffing earlier, do bring a British gas key with you!
My first impressions of Ulan-ude is that it is more grim than Irkutsk! As we walk down the platform, a Russian asks me where I am from. I tell him and he shrugs his shoulders, opens his arms wide and says something like "why did you come here?", followed by "good luck!". At first I thought he was taking exception to my scarf but looking around, maybe he just didn't know why tourists would stop here? The train yard borders some big factories and old Soviet blocks. Pretty bleak to say the least. As we wander towards our home-stay, things improve little. The blocks don't look pretty, the grass is brown and the pavements broken in many places.
The weather doesn't help either. It's grey and overcast. Given the fact that we are in the mountains for the first time, this is probably not surprising. What little snow there is, is confined to compacted brown ice, scatted with grit-balls and slush. The melt has happened on this side of the lake. Unless Ulan-Bataar is really cold, we'll be cursing our arctic gear as we carry it through China.
Perhaps the fact that the tank count has just gone up from one to many explains why Ulan-ude is a bit rough. For a long time this town was off limits to visitors as it was a military town. As we enter on the train we see about 5 tanks go past on flat-beds, followed by a walled off compound containing many, many tanks. I guess with such proximity to the border with Mongolia it makes sense, plus the train allows for easy mobilisation.
We are met by a lovely Buryat lady called Olga who speaks French and Russian. Katie pretty much takes over the conversation from here. Despite outside appearances, the flat is quite lovely inside. It's quite clear that she isn't Russian in the way I would think of Russians. She doesn't look European at all, the furnishings are more from Asia and her attitude is less serious and much more like a grandma.
Ulan-ude has two separate areas. Up the hill is very Soviet, including the main star attraction - a big bonce! Ulan-ude has the largest Lenin head in the world. It is fitting really, that our last stop in Russia should feature his massive visage! Down the hill however, is the older town, complete with more Tsarist architecture and yes, you guessed it, wooden buildings. The stylings and the people also show that really, this isn't like western Russia. We take a look around one of the museums, learning a little more about the history of the place. Turns out Ulan ude was important for the tea routes into Russia from China. Wandering around the square we hear the PA from the station, funneled by all the concrete. Again, it sounds like the Papers, Please tannoy and is somewhat disturbing when complimented by all the remaining Soviet buildings.
We decide to celebrate our last stop in Russia by ordering Russian champagne at a Mongolian restaurant. Mongolian food is mostly made up of meat, specifically mutton but others too, and dumplings known as Buuz. I've been pretty happy with the food in Russia so far. Russian champage I actually prefer to French; it doesn't make your breath smell horrible or give you a nasty headache. It's also about £5 a bottle if that.
After a broken night's sleep, we are greeted at 6am with a lovely cooked breakfast. Olga tells me I must eat up to be strong, and then orders me to leave the table and get all the bags ready for Katie! A grandma if ever there was one indeed! We say our goodbyes and head to the station on via taxi. As we enter our cabin we meet a young British girl who we met at the hostel in Irkutsk a night before. Soon after, a man introduces himself as a Mongolian returning to Ulan Baatar and we have a little chat. Our English girl is quite eager to chat despite being woken up. I suspect not being able to natter to anyone in your native language for two weeks or so can drive you a little crazy.
The train winds out of Ulan-ude and the scenery changes to dry looking hills and plateaus. Pretty much all of the snow is now gone and there is only scrub-land punctuated by the occasional sad looking village, cow or rubbish dump. Some of the areas are quite nice however; some of the large lakes and streams are still frozen over and look quite pretty. The train stops off at some places that don't even have a name. The train is very quiet with only a few passengers in our carriage.
Before we reach the border we decide to try the restaurant car for the last time. The Russian restaurant car stays over in Russia and another won't be attached to the train until we leave Ulan Bataar. We work our way down the entire train; at one point passing through a carriage full of soldiers. It's a bit disconcerting, and the smell doesn't help too much but it's not as bad as the restaurant car. It is by far, the worst carriage I've been in thus far. Stinking of smoke, we order a sandwich to take away. A sandwich, it seems, consists of one slice of stale bread, a slab of butter and processed cheese. We leave rather quickly.
It turns out that perhaps Ulan-ude isn't our last stop after-all. Before the border with Mongolia there is the town of Naushki. Naushki is, without a doubt, the grimest place I've seen for years! Initially, the station building is quite nice and modern, but that is where the fancyness ends. The park behind the station has seen better days, the roads are dirt tracks and the only thing here seems to be a railway repair area that has fallen into disuse. There are no Lenin statues here but there is one Red Star on a plinth commemorating WW2. We are scheduled for a wait of about 3 and half hours.
Officials come to check our passports. Despite having serious Russian accents, they say "Passports, Please" and not "Papers, Please" - disappointing. Still, there's time. Plenty of time. We have chance to wander around the train yard looking at abandoned carriages and one that has been turned into a home by all accounts. For some reason, one building has a set of bogies and engine parts, cleaned, painted and lovingly displayed. Clearly someone here has some love for the place. We end up walking all the way down the tracks to our carriage, which stands with an engine, having been removed from the rest of the train. We try to convince the engine driver to let us back on but he mimes 10 minutes.
Only one carriage on the Russian train crosses the border. We are attached to a Mongolian carriage, whereupon we are checked for passports again. Now we are back on the carriage with passports in hand, we can get back off if we please. In fact we have to if we need to use the toilet. Before we leave we are boarded again for what I can only describe as the real deal. Russian police board the train and ask us for passports. We are then asked, in turn to stand-up as our photos are checked against our faces. Both our companion and Katie get through fine but I am subject to a lot of scrutiny. So much so that a second policewoman is summoned. The funny-not-funny bit about this is Katie is playing Papers please at this point and I can hear the music! Real world and virtual collide in a scary-funny way. Back in the day I had long hair, and my eyes look so dark in the photo as to be brown. Also my hair is whiter in places. Typical mid twenties to early thirties transition. But still a little scary.
Our cabin is subject to a search, which is slightly worrying because I've nabbed two railway nails from the track as souvenirs. Rusted and discarded, yet still pretty nasty in the wrong hands, but our rather mean looking police lady seems not to notice or care. After this interrogation we need sit around at the station some more. All in all, we end up spending over three hours in a town that could be described as the "arse end of nowhere." Still, it certainly feels like an adventure.
As we finally pull away from the station, our Mongolian train friend (a middle-aged man I spoke to earlier), meets with his wife and their daughter. At the same time, another family with two young boys join the train. For the next couple of hours we become the strange and interesting people who want to play with us. My laptop has nothing on it to entertain a child but a Russian hat, the iPad camera app and drawing pens and paper seem to work wonders. Seeing a small boy wearing a massively over-sized ushanka is unbelievably cute and funny. At one point I add some fizzy vitamin C to a glass of water and their minds are literally blown. Clearly, I'm a wizard judging by the look on this kid's face! We end up entertaining small children for about an hour before they are all setup to leave the train.
The actual border is somewhere between Naushki and Sukhbataar; the first town we come to in Mongolia. Between these two towns, is the first proper train fencing I've seen since we left London. In Russia, it seems, you can walk wherever you want on railway tracks almost. Not here though. The scenery has improved a little. Sukhbataar station is an odd mixture of styles. The signs are mostly in Cyrillic but there are odd differences here and there. Customs is quite relaxed, though our passports are taken away for longer. After another long wait of at least two hours, our train becomes mobile again and we slink off slowly in the night, towards Ulan-bataar.