The Year of Living Differently #9: Train-Shopping – Ulaan Baator, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Russia

8: Train-Shopping

ULAAN BAATOR, MONGOLIA to IRKUTSK, RUSSIA – 16 July, 2002
As it was my last day here in UB, I had wanted to visit two main sights that I had not gotten the chance yet. However, after the Museum of Mongolian History, Pablo’s diarrhea and my insufficient Mongolian Togrog prevented further activities.

We returned to Nassan’s Guesthouse and negative-energy couple was…. Wait, hang on. They had packed up and left. Oh great! Well, although they had left with their guitar, they had left behind their guitar pick. Pablo picked it up, eyes twinkling with evil glee.

The couple had been selfish and inconsiderate when we shared the room and we had schemed to rip off the last page of the books they were reading. But, we respected books. We couldn’t do it. Well, we did not share the same respect for guitar picks.

I reached for my pair of scissors and snapped the guitar pick into two. I kept the left side, Pablo the right side. For a laugh, we promised to reunite the guitar pick when we meet in Buenos Aires in six months time, or when I eventually get there…

Ulaan Baator had not been the most pleasant city we were in. We had been victims, near-victims and witnesses to quite a few crimes. Many buildings and parks appeared to be neglected and some were downright dilapidated. To me, it never really felt safe at night. But Mongolia in its entirety had been unexpectedly wonderful because of the things we did together as a group and the friends I made in Beijing. Outside of UB, Mongolia was breath-taking. The people were hospitable and incredibly friendly; the smiley children had great personalities. There were picturesque rolling hills and steppe all around. Then, out of nowhere, you see a few gers or a lone horsemen or two-humped camels and horses grazing in the wild…

Well, I was leaving for Irkutsk today and Pablo would be leaving for Moscow on 19 July. Pablo struck upon an idea for a meeting – that I should wait at the Irkutsk Train Station when his train pulled up on 20 July and we would meet for 20 minutes. Imagine: dark, misty night, steam from the train, platform crowded with jostling passengers and porters, me in a hat (with feathers) and mink coat… Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina popped into mind and we couldn’t stop giggling about it.

Then, he suggested I try to get on his train on 20 July to do the rest of the Trans-Mongolian Railway together. Well, that would be great but I was not sure as it would give me very little time in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

He saw me off at the train station. Well, we would meet again… maybe in Moscow, maybe in Buenos Aires… Hasta la vista.

To IRKUTSK, RUSSIA – 17 July, 2002
We had stopped at the Mongolian border for at least four hours before some sort of border activities began after 9am.

The border guard took my passport away. The French guy in my cabin had stayed 31 nights in Mongolia, including last night on the train. So, in a way, he overstayed by one night as he was given a 30-day visa. The Austrian couple in my cabin did not even have entry stamps. They said no one was at the counter when they arrived at the UB airport. So, with these dodgy train companions who seemed more ‘illegal’ than I was, I couldn’t believe it when the border guard stamped their passports and yet took mine away.

After one and a half hour’s wait, I stood at the train-door and saw the border guard chatting with his cronies on the steps in front of the office and passing my passport around. Ah, must be my gorgeous photo again.

Finally, they returned it to me wordlessly and the train moved off eventually. Two hours later, we arrived at the Russian border and played the same waiting game. In total, we spent at least eight hours on the border.

I had expected to arrive in Irkutsk in 24 hours time but no…it seemed I had another night on the train.

For dinner, I added hot water to my pack noodle in my lunch-box. The train jerked and my lunch-box made a spectacular crash to the floor, spilling the water on me and scattering the noodles everywhere.

The Russian train attendant, with a full set of gold teeth no less, rushed out and ooohhed and aaaahhed over my predicament. She tossed me a wash-cloth to clean myself and proceeded to pick up the noodle to throw it out.

“Er…. Nyet nyet nyet (No no no)!” I hazarded, a tad embarrassed by what I intended to do next. I picked up the main unbroken square of the noodle and indicated I was still eating this. “Spasiba. I’m sorry for the mess. Spasiba… (Thank you)”

Well, when you’re hungry, you’re hungry.

IRKUTSK to LISTVYANKA, RUSSIA – 18 July, 2002
We arrived eventually after 8am in the morning. I had several things to do first and I wanted to get out to Lake Baikal by today, if possible.

Left my backpack at the Left Luggage. Plodded into town on foot to locate a bank. Had the presence of mind to stop and buy a sketch book, pencil and sharpener because now, I felt inspired to start drawing on my trip. Hunted for a cafe for food. Unable to locate one. By then, had walked across Irkutsk to the bus station. Used the phrasebook and the universal language of numbers to buy a bus-ticket to Listvyanka, by the Lake Baikal. Hunted for a cafe for food again. Finally, found one. Ate awful microwaved food. Returned to bus station. Boarded bus. Realised I FORGOT to register my visa.

In Russia, it was not enough for you to have a visa for entry and you have an entry stamp at the border. You still need to register your visa with a hotel or tour agency within three days of arrival into the country. I officially crossed the border on 17 July. And today was 18 July and I had just hopped on a bus to a tiny village by the lake. So, 19 July would be my third day and I would need to register it if I did not want trouble in Russia. Argh!!!

I guess I could not stay too many days by the lake. I had to return to Irkutsk the next day and get the registration done. It seemed I would be able to get on Pablo’s train on 20 July, after all.

Found a youth hostel for only R50 (R31 = US$1). The toilet was an out-house with a hole dug in the ground… China flashback. And for the life of me, I could not find running water. When I asked the babushka of the hostel where I could wash my hands, she simply yelled at me and waved me away.

So…after toilet, where did I go? I furtively trudged out to Lake Baikal to wash my hands.

Lake Baikal, if I may briefly impress you with some statistics here, is the ‘Pearl of Siberia’ – crystal clear, drinkably pure (er… not for long) and surrounded by mountains and little wooden cabins. It was the world’s sixth largest lake and the world’s deepest lake (1637m) and contains nearly one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. There!

LISTVYANKA to IRKUTSK, RUSSIA – 19 July, 2002
Back in Irkutsk, I found Hotel Arena without problems. But the fat middle-aged woman in the hotel could not register the visa for me and would not accept me if my visa was not registered. With no Russian, I tried my best to inquire where I could get it registered. It got frustrating as we simply could not understand each other.

Then, I looked up and saw a familiar face and a huge smile. “Hi,” he said. “BEN!!! Ben! Oh great!! How are you??” It was Ben from USA whom I had met in Beijing hostel. Great to see a familiar face in this daunting country. And even better if he spoke Russian. “Do you speak Russian?” Nope. We agreed to share the room to split the cost but first, I had problems to solve.

The fat woman very kindly (!!) gave me the address of the Registration Office. OK, I would try and get myself registered. I waited for the office to open at 3pm and by then, there were already about 50 men and three women waiting outside.

When the office opened, everyone squeezed in. The building was in one of those old eerie buildings that was not designed as a waiting room. It was tiny and had no ventilation. I had no idea where to queue. The 50 men, some fat, some skinny, all smelly, had glued themselves behind one another at some queue or other. I asked a few ‘staff’ and was pointed to different doors and the last door pointed to was shut.

With the summer heat and no ventilation, I nearly blacked out. My claustrophobia took over. I knew I could not do this alone, especially with no Russian and with no one willing to smile or help. I staggered out and headed to a more expensive hotel.

I had thought I needed to be a guest before the hotel would register me. That would mean I had to ditch Ben in the other hotel. Surprisingly, for a fee, they registered my visa there and then within five minutes. Strange bureaucracy…

Ben and I headed out for dinner later and stumbled upon a delightful little local cafe. The voluptuous babushka from the next table, we learnt later she was the owner of the cafe, came up to us and tried to explain each and every item on the menu.

She was probably half-drunk by then, as it appeared she was celebrating something with her friends or family. When she reached ‘chicken’, she did a wing-flapping thing and then, literally grabbed her ample right breast to tell us, this one was breast meat. Then, she slapped her buttock to indicate the next one was chicken thigh. She was splattering her saliva away in Russian, trying to read the menu with her reading glasses, licking her fingers to flip the pages in rapid speed, etc… She was hilarious.

The party was celebrating the birth of her grand-daughter. And everyone at the table was offering us cognac and vodka and toasting us. Soon, Voluptuous Babushka was using my phrase book and telling Ben ‘It was nice to meet you,’ ‘Hope to see you again,’ etc…

Later, they wanted photos and Voluptuous Babushka wanted some where we planted kisses on her cheeks and yelled, “Mama!!” and then, she would squeeze us with one gigantic hug. One of the guys at the table, some half-pissed fat guy named Igor (IGOR, for heaven’s sake!) got me to dance. Ben waltzed around, looking for a partner and the half-crazed Voluptuous Babushka bulldozed her way into the cafe to snatch Ben up. It was one crazy, fun and drunk night.

IRKUTSK to MOSCOW, RUSSIA – 20 July, 2002
The fat woman from our hotel banged on our door at 8am in the morning and woke us up. I opened the door and she indicated to Ben, wanting him pay her for the room tonight. What was her problem?? It was 8am! We ignored her.

At 9am, she returned and hammered away again. She entered the room and wanted payment again. She demanded to know what time I was leaving. This was beyond weird. If Ben was paying for the entire room tonight, why did she care what time I was leaving. I was getting used to being yelled at inexplicably by Russian women by now.

Bought the train ticket for Train 5 without problems as the ticket-seller spoke English. Heaven-sent!

I got on the train and was issued a berth in a cabin with a Russian family – a very kindly babushka with her two beautiful 7-year-old grand-daughters. Although I did not speak Russian, the girls were chatting with me all the time and looking puzzled when I couldn’t reply. I felt bad I couldn’t communicate. So, I just played with them. They were a sweet family.

Then, I walked down the wagons to see if I could locate Pablo. Many of the wagons were filled with Mongolians with huge baggage. Chinese-Mongolia border flashback.

In one near-empty wagon, I found Pablo and we met again! We were overjoyed to see each other. He had walked around the Irkutsk platform and as he didn’t see me, figured I had decided to stay longer at Irkutsk.

Well, his cabin had a silent Japanese guy who spoke little English and in the next cabin, one Irish girl Liz. That was it. The wagon was a tad boring. Strange that they segregated the tourists from the Mongolians, we thought. My wagon was probably an add-on as the design was different and it was filled with Russians.

He later joined me at my Russian wagon. He had learned Russian for two years previously and was now eager to try it out. Yet, surrounded by so many friendly Russians asking him questions, he panicked and kept saying ‘Wo’ (‘I’ in Mandarin) and ‘Ni’ (‘You’ in Mandarin). This happened when you couldn’t separate the various foreign languages in your head.

However, my Russian-made wagon was stuffy as the windows could not be opened. Perspiration was dripping off me. I felt claustrophobic again and headed to Pablo’s breezy Mongolian-made wagon.

Soon, I realised why the Mongolians had such huge baggage. They were traders. At each stop, they would hurriedly rush down to the platform with shoes, lamp-shades, blouses, pants, umbrellas, blankets, etc… and sell them to the waiting Russians. Then, it connected! The Mongols I had seen with the huge baggage crossing the Chinese-Mongolia border were actually selling the merchandise on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

The train attendant on Pablo’s wagon was a Mongol-Russian woman. She was a huge, hefty whale of a woman, and in this heat, wore a tank-top with no bra. Her breasts dangled around and her teats poked through distractingly. Looking at her, my thoughts flashed to a milk lady milking her cow… left, right, left, right, squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. She shall henceforth be known as Milk Lady.

She too took part in the hectic selling at each stop, promoting the flasks, blankets, pants, etc… with vigour. I wonder what was her take in these sales.

After dinner, Liz was harassed by a drunk Russian guy who followed her to her cabin. You could smell vodka from many men early in the day. Either they had been drinking since morning or they were using a popular brand of aftershave called ‘eau de vodka’.

Milk Lady drove him away and suggested Liz move her stuff over to Pablo’s and Silent Japanese’s cabin for safety. Then, she spotted an intruder and pointed her finger at me and wagged ferociously. She was demanding to know why was I, a Mongol, hanging around with tourists?

She thought I was a Mongol? Geee… I am pretty much Pan-Asia. I had now been mistaken as a Japanese, Korean, Hongkonger, China’s Chinese, Vietnamese and Mongol.

Pablo explained to her in halting Russian and she relented. Later, I popped my head into her cabin and asked sweetly for permission to take the last remaining berth in Pablo’s cabin since it was empty. She nodded and took a slow drag off her cigarette. Milk Lady was nice.

Late that night, close to 11pm or so, the sky still had the special after-sunset-blue and a faint orange spread. We were bulleting west. We were chasing the setting sun.

I stuck my head out of the window, smelling the taiga (and soot) in the glorious air, feeling the wind (and soot) on my face, soaking Siberia (and soot) in my hair…

I felt an immense joy bursting in my heart as I clung to the window. The perfect blue in the sky. The vanishing orange in the distance. The moon danced about as the train rounded curves after curves. The taiga forests zipped by silently. The repetitive and now comforting ‘tuk-TUK tuk-TUK’ was the only sound in the night. Fog caused distant lights to be hauntingly vague and eerie. I still couldn’t believe I was on the Trans-Mongolian Rail, which will eventually transport me one-third round the world. This was special. This was magic.

Giddy and giggly with joy, I returned to the cabin and announced, “I have Siberia in my hair.” I asked Pablo to come out. He was suspicious at first, thinking I was about to play a prank on him. Soon, he was really grateful to me for showing him the magic. We hung our heads out, gigantic grins on our faces, our hearts flushed with child-like gaiety.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – 21 July, 2002
The Mongol traders had been hardworking through the night. At every stop, we were momentarily woken up by running footsteps, dashing down to the platform to sell things and returning to retrieve new items. The rest of the wagon was now filled with new Mongol traders.

We looked out at the platforms solemnly. Regardless of the time, weather and train delay, the Russians were waiting at the platform for this train. During the brief 20 to 28 minutes, they would surge forward anxiously, crowd around and desperately inspect the goods hawked by the Mongol traders.

They placed the pants against their bodies, compared the shoes against their feet… and had to decide quickly there and then, whether to buy or not. They were not buying them in bulk. So, I believe, they were the end-consumers.

I imagined a conversation that went like this: “Gee… nice lamp-shade / blouse / blanket / whatever… Where did you get it?” “Oh. Don’t you know? From Train 5. It arrives once a week on Sunday, 2205 hours.”

It was a little sad. These Russians were rather fashionably-dressed too but all these seemed a little ‘desperate’. But I guess, we would never be able to understand how it was like living in a remote and possibly bleak town in Siberia, so far away from anywhere… where the train would be like magic, appearing once (or rather twice for the return journey) a week in the main town, with goodies for sale.

I had read about these Mongol traders on the Trans-Mongolian Rail in a National Geographic issue. Still, seeing it was a different experience. I believe this only happened for Train 5. Other trains, originating from Russia would not have the Mongol traders.

An appropriate quote: “The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” Dr. Johnson, English writer, poet and conversationalist (Conversationalist??? oh, whatever) 1709-1784.

Now, to contrast this with what I usually saw on other train journeys was the lack of people at the platform selling stuff to the passengers on the train. Previously, whether in Peru or Egypt or China, at each train stop, vendors would materialise from nowhere and grateful passengers would scramble down to try and buy some food or drinks. Here in Russia, amongst the shopping crowd, the vendors were difficult to spot and I suspected, very, very few.

We had run out of bread after my first day. I stuck my head out and yelled, “Bread!! Bread!! Gee… What’s ‘bread’ in Russian??”

An elderly lady walked by with a shopping bag and a loaf of bread under her arm. We were uncertain. Was she selling? Or did she just complete her shopping? “Madam!! Gee… What’s ‘madam’ in Russian?” I had to improve my Russian.

She held up her cucumbers, tomatoes and finally, her loaf of bread… “Nyet, nyet… Da da da!! Skol’ka? (No, no… Yes yes yes! How much?)” A quick exchange transacted through the window and the train chugged away.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – 22 July, 2002
Out of character, Silent Japanese muttered something to us and indicated the train window along the corridor.

I heard “Muttermuttermutter…” But Pablo intelligently inferred it to mean that today would be the day we crossed the Ural Mountains and there was apparently a monument indicating the end of Asia and the start of Europe. All clamoured to the train window and waited.

“I bet it would just be an obelisk that has two arrows – one pointing east to Asia, one pointing west to Europe.” I stated.

Then, we saw an obelisk that had two arrows – one pointing east to Asia and one pointing west to Europe. We hugged one another symbolically. A new continent for all of us now.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – 23 July, 2002
Arriving in Moscow, after so many days on the train resulted in mixed feelings for us. On the one hand, YES!! Llegamos! (We arrive!). ‘Moscow’ sounded so romantic to our ears. On the other hand, we had grown comfortable and secure in our cabin and used to Milk Lady’s dangling assets. Stepping out meant fussing over new currencies, new metro stations, new maps, new language… and being able to walk steadily on firm ground.

Pablo and I bade farewell to Silent Japanese and Liz.

The hostel we headed out to said they could not accommodate us because we had no reservations. We plunged into the centre of the earth, traversed a few more metro lines, wandered around in town, totally lost, before finally finding a reasonable hotel, about two hours later.

We paid for two nights and left our passports at the reception. Finally, we thought we could relax and celebrate our arrival in Moscow tonight. Tomorrow, we would visit the Kremlin and the day after, Pablo would leave Russia as his visa ended on 25 July.

However, bad news awaited us. The hotel receptionist informed us that Pablo was on a transit visa and hence, he had to leave Russia in 24 hours. This was strange. His visa stated he had until 25 July. The Russian Embassy in Ulaan Baator knew he would arrive in Moscow on 23 July and fly off on 25 July, and even told him he had two nights in Moscow.

The receptionist was firm but polite. She refunded one night’s payment and insisted he must leave Russia tomorrow. Pablo, who had been rusty in his Russian on the train-ride, argued politely with her and even managed it in past, present and future tenses. But to no avail.

Sigh…. nowhere on the transit visa mentioned anything about a 24 hour time period. If the hotel was right, Pablo had been grossly misinformed by the Russian Embassy in UB. He was miserable. He had been looking forward to spending the precious day tomorrow at the Kremlin.

We were tired. We were hungry. We had not showered for days. And now, we were miserable. We had no choice but to accept the Russian bureaucracy as it was for now. We discussed and decided he would visit the Argentinian Embassy tomorrow morning and see if they could advise him what he could do – could he stay one more night, or did he have to change his flight to tomorrow?

I tried to console him as best as I could. Let’s treasure this night in Moscow and not fret over things we could not control. After shower and food, we walked towards the first place we had to see in Moscow – the Red Square.

The sun was setting, casting a brilliant orange towards the reddish Kremlin walls. We sat to admire the beautiful red and white State History Museum. Then, Pablo gasped, “Look at this!!”

We saw a tiny portion of the St. Basil’s Cathedral through the Resurrection Gate. My goodness, we were stupified beyond words! We hurried across the gate and onto the Red Square, totally dazed.

The sky was wondrously blue. The clouds pink. Before us, glistening like a cluster of gems, basking magnificently and confidently in the orange spot-light, was St. Basil’s Cathedral.

I do not gush normally… and I hope I am NOT being cliche here, but the world around us seemed to be moving in slow motion for a while and strangely, was quieter. We really could not believe our eyes. The sight was incredible. The lights, the mood, everything was perfect out here on the square. We were jumping up and down the square, squealing like happy mice.

MOSCOW to ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – 24 July, 2002
The Argentinian Embassy was closed until afternoon, it seemed. In our misery yesterday, we had decided the embassy was the solution to our problem. We did not envisage it would be unavailable to assist us.

Pablo could not wait until afternoon. Last night and this morning, he had seen many tourists and Russians being stopped by police to inspect their passports. Actually, I had been stopped once in Irkutsk too. So, Pablo never felt secure in Moscow, knowing that he might be ‘illegal’ by tomorrow. He headed to KLM and changed his flight to today. So, he was leaving today.

I felt rather disappointed and sad. We had become good friends and now, we had to say goodbye one day earlier.

I had to check out of the hotel as well as I could not afford the room myself. I did not know where to go. I was still quite tired from the train-ride and still felt quite apprehensive here in Russia. I did not fancy trudging around town again looking for a hotel. Also, I wanted to go with him to the airport to see him off. So, I decided to try and take the night-train to St. Petersburg. That would, at least, solve my accommodation for tonight and I could leave my backpack at the train station.

I hurried to the train station and queued at a counter for fifteen minutes. The lady tapped away at her keyboard when I told her ‘St. Petersburg’. But when she asked me further questions, most likely, which train, what time, what price, or whatever… I couldn’t answer her except to say the Russian word for ‘cheap’. She got fed up and yelled at me, waving me away.

Argh!! It was so frustrating to get anything done here. I did not expect them to know English but they could at least try with numbers and some patience. I walked around, dazed and found a travel agency which managed to get me a ticket in five minutes. Then, I left my backpack at the Left Luggage and hurried back to the hotel.

Pablo waited for me. I couldn’t be sure when I would return so he agreed to wait until 12:30pm. Well, I was late but I was really glad he waited. We then headed to the airport.

Now, it was really adios, hasta la vista for us.

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