I woke up quite early, as my train from Ulan Ude was leaving at about 7:30am. After a quick breakfast in the hostel, I left about 6:30am to walk to the train station. It was quite a nice walk in the early morning fresh air, past Lenin’s head (the biggest in the world) and I said my goodbyes to Russia, after about 3 weeks in the country.
When I boarded the train, I found that I was sharing a compartment with an older guy from Switzerland, and a guy from Japan (who was still sound asleep). I put my bag in under my seat/bed and sat down, still half asleep and wishing I could just go back to bed.
A few minutes later, a Greek man joined us and the Greek and Swiss men spent a good 5 or 10 minutes trying to get their bags to fit into the compartment – it was highly amusing, kind of like a real life game of Tetris! The Greek man was travelling with his wife and son, who were in the next compartment and he was hoping to swap with somebody so he could be with his family. Just a few minutes before the train left, the guy who was in the next compartment showed up and agreed to swap and so was in the compartment with me.
To my surprise, it turned out to be a Japanese American guy who had been staying at the same hostel as me in Ulan Ude for the last few days and who I’d been speaking with a few nights earlier, helping him finish off a bottle of vodka – very nice of him!
It was great to have people who spoke English and who I got along well with for this 24 hour train journey – quite the contrast to the 5 days of nobody speaking English on the Saint Petersburg – Moscow – Irkutsk leg! However, on the whole carriage, there was only 1 local person and everyone else was tourists. This made it feel like a very touristy trip, and although it was great for this 1 day trip I realised I’m actually quite glad that my long trip was with locals – it really added to the experience, even if it did drive me a bit crazy at times.
Once the train left Ulan Ude, we all fell asleep before too long as we were exhausted from the early morning – and one of the main things to do on the Trans-Siberian is sleep! After a couple of hours, I woke up and made myself some coffee and instant noodles and chatted with my room mates. The Swiss guy was a bit eccentric, but nice enough and it was amazing to see that his passport was pretty much full, even though it was only about 2 years old. We asked how many countries he’s been to, but he had no idea… His answer was “50, 60, 70… I don’t know. I never counted”
When we got to the border town at the end of Russia, we were told we had 2 hours to explore the town, so off we went. First it was pretty incredible to see that they had cows wandering around with no fences – including inside the train station!
As we left the station, we realised there really was not much to this town at all – not even ladies trying to sell us food and things. We walked further, amused by the locals being amused by all the confused and lost looking Westerners wandering aimlessly through their small and dirty little town. It was actually quite a lot of fun, and after a while we found a little restaurant, and I’m sure their only business is from Westerners exploring while they were waiting to cross the border.
I had some more mystery bread, which was quite nice until we started to talk about what kind of meat it could be inside it… I started to feel quite unwell at the thought! I bought a beer too, but was not game to drink it at the time as the toilets of the train are locked when we’re at a station (as there is no plumbing, everything just goes down onto the tracks) so I kept the beer for later that evening once we were away again.
So… 2 hours passed, and we went back to the train and waited… And waited… And waited!
It was at least another hour before anybody even came to check our passports, but all they did was have a quick look and were away again. This happened 3 or 4 times over the next hour or so – people come, look at the passports and leave again.
By the time the exiting Russia formalities were complete, we’d been stopped for 5 hours!
This included multiple passport checks, searches of the train, all compartments, pulling bags out of storage areas etc. I was totally amazed, as it was so much more effort to leave Russia than to enter! Why they would care so much about what we took out of the country when they didn’t care what we brought in baffled me!
We then drove for a while longer and stopped at the first Mongolian town for the entering Mongolia. More formalities, passport checks and searching of everywhere in the train…
After another 3 hours we were FINALLY on our way. Everyone was talking about the experience, and trying to understand why it took so long, but were relieved that we finally seemed to be on our way. Although, we only drove for about 10 minutes and stopped again – the whole carriage seemed to groan!!!! Luckily, it was just a short stop and off we went.
I had a few more drinks with the Japanese American guy, we finished off a bottle of vodka I had, and started on a strange bottle of Latvian alcohol that he had. It was like Jaegermeister, Chartreuse and medicine had been mixed together – I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not, so thought I better keep having more until I could decide 😉
We watched the scenery go by while having some interesting and in depth conversations about all sorts of things, cultural differences, travels, Mongolia, Australia, America – and it made the time go by quickly and before I know it, the crazy carriage attendant lady came up to us and said “bed time. bed time. Sleep now! Awake 4am for Ulaanbaatar. Sleep!” So we thought we better do as we were told.
I lay down, and next thing I know she is waking us up the next morning – sure enough, 4:15am. Those who know me can imagine how much I enjoyed this, and the look on my face – especially after a 6am morning the day before! argh, the joys of travelling. It was especially annoying that we didn’t actually arrive at the station until about 6am, so could have slept longer!
We got off the train in Ulaanbaatar, and it instantly felt more Asian than Russia, even Ulan Ude. There were people holding people’s names up on signs, and taxi drivers trying to convince you they should take you to where you’re going. I just walked past them all, as it was only a 40 minute walk to my hostel, and as I’ve said in previous posts, unless it’s over an hour I tend to walk. Turns out the hostel had sent a driver to pick me up, free of charge and he was standing there with a sign with my name! How cool! Pity they hadn’t told me that! Oh well.
I was so happy to get to the hostel and find that my bed was ready for me straight away, so first thing I did after checking in at about 7am was go to bed and back to sleep!
It’s currently Naadamm Festival in Mongolia, which is their annual national festival that includes many festival type things like stalls, parties and stuff – but the main thing is competitions in archery, horse racing and wrestling.
It’s really cool, such a party atmosphere in the city, but the down side is that pretty much everything is closed so it’s hard to find a cafe or restaurant that is open. After walking around for a while I found a trusty Irish Pub that was open and doing Irish Breakfast (was a great fry, but where’s the soda and potato bread?)
Since then, I’ve eaten most of my meals in the hostel with food I bought at the supermarket. This is something I really should have been doing more since the start, as in Europe I’ve managed to go over my budget and it’s mostly on eating out all the time. And of course, now I get into countries that are cheaper, I finally start to cook in the hostel. Fool!
That afternoon, I walked around the city and absorbed the atmosphere… So many people, Mongolian flags, parties, music, cars beeping! Amazing!
I walked down to the main stadium where the events were taking place – I couldn’t go in as I didn’t have a ticket, but I walked around the market stalls for a while which was awesome – Mongolian street food, all sorts of things for sale and thousands of people. I saw the archery event for a while, as it was outside the stadium… And then managed to get myself stuck in another big storm, which was actually quite nice with the cooling rain after the hot day.
That evening I went to the main square to see this big party they had as part of the Naadam Festival, and I bumped into the guys I met on the train from Warsaw to Moscow! The guys with the “Weaving the Green Dream” blog, who are travelling overland to Bali from the UK. I wondered whether I’d see them again, as I thought we would be in Ulaanbaatar at the same time, but with this many people here I didn’t really expect to see them. It was great to catch up with them and hear about their adventures.
After a while they decided to go, as they were getting tired – I too was very tired and just wanted to go to sleep, but was set on seeing what this party would be like! And once it started, it was pretty incredible – it was like a big rave in the main square of the city! Hundreds or even thousands of people there, loud music, awesome lighting an electric atmosphere. After about an hour though, I could not stay any longer no matter how much I was enjoying it, as I could hardly keep my eyes open.
I’ve been quite lazy since then, not doing much in Ulaanbaatar – resting, watching tv and playing online mostly. It’s been good to be in the same place for a while and just chill. I have seen a fair bit of the city, including a Buddhist temple complex which was beautiful.
Tomorrow I have another full day, and I’m planning to stop being lazy and go for a long walk to this other temple which is a little way out of the city and at the top of a hill so gives great views of the city. The day after that, I go on a 1 week tour into the Gobi Desert that is organised by my hostel, and several of the people in my dorm will be going with me.
I’m really looking forward to it, as I’m sure it will be an amazing experience, and the guys who I’ve met who are coming along seem pretty cool. NOT looking forward to the toilet (or lack thereof) situation… But I guess it’s just something I have to get used to!
Don’t forget, you can see the rest of my photos on Flickr