This train ride was less eventful than the last, probably because we were sleeping for most of it. Our train departed Ulaan Baatar at 9 p.m. and after traveling for a night, a day, and another night, was due to arrive in Irkutsk around 7:45 on the second morning. We were traveling by second class again, but this time there were only two of us (Liz and my mom had left a few days prior.) It turned out that of the two carriages bound for Irkutsk (the others would be detached at Sukhbaatar, on the Mongolian border,) most berths had been booked by foreigners. Our carriage, with the exception of our compartment, was full of people on a guided Trans-Mongolian tour, bound for Ulan-Ude. We shared our compartment with a friendly Scottish couple who had booked a Trans-Mongolian package, including transportation and accommodation but no guide. It seemed we were the only ones who were traveling completely independently.
On a map, Ulaan Baatar and Irkutsk don’t seem so far apart. Though the journey time is similar, the distance covered isn’t nearly as far as the Beijing- Ulaan Baatar leg. After our first night on the train, we discovered the reason for the drawn-out timetable was the border crossing. We didn’t have to change rail gauges this time (thank goodness,) but the time spent waiting at the station far exceeded our expectations.
We pulled in to Sukhbaatar station around 5 a.m., but the immigration officials were not yet at work. Sometime a few hours later, our passports were collected. It didn’t take long to get them stamped and returned, since there were only two carriages. Our cabin attendant, a Russian man, told us that we’d have a couple of hours before departure at 11 a.m., so I got off in search of fresh air and a mailbox. I had forgotten to mail two postcards before leaving Ulaan Baatar, so I walked all around the station and tried to ask the ticket vendors where to go, waving my postcards in front of the window. They pointed away from the station, but I was afraid of venturing too far, so eventually I gave them to a receptionist at the station hotel, gesturing that I would be so obliged if she could send them for me. Hoping they’d get to their destination, I hopped back on the train for the short ride to Naushki.
The Russian border procedure was similar to entering Mongolia—we handed over our passports, had the compartment inspected for contraband, filled out a customs form declaring how much money we were bringing into the country, and had our passports returned. Most of our time was spent waiting for officials to arrive at our compartment. They weren’t slow about their work, but they weren’t exactly fast either, and while the train is off, the AC is also off. Each minute felt longer and sweatier than the last. Finally we were allowed to get off the train and wander around Naushki, a dusty border town if there ever was one. I even saw tumbleweeds blow through.
Considering that international trains pass through Naushki on a regular basis, there seemed to be very little commerce. We made our cup noodles on the train and carried them off to eat, and were we glad we did. There was one mini-mart, where everything was behind glass cases and only obtainable by asking a grumpy Russian woman, and a small market with five or six stalls, where there was some candy for sale among the clothing. After determining that there was nothing tempting in Naushki, we headed over to the park in front of the station and planted ourselves on a shady bench for a couple of hours, waiting for our 4 p.m. departure.
Returning to the train, we saw that extra carriages had been added, but we still weren’t sure why we had stopped for so long. Crossing from Mongolia to Russia, we put our watches ahead (due to Russia being on Daylight Savings,) but even allowing for that, over the past ten hours, we had progressed maybe 20 kilometers. I can see why some travelers opt for buses over trains on this section. The best theory we came up with to explain the delay was “so we don’t get into Irkutsk in the middle of the night.” Which I admit, I am grateful for.
We had traveled through northern Mongolia in the middle of the night, so we hadn’t been able to watch the scenery, but between Sukhbaatar and Naushki, we had seen real, tall trees: a suggestion of the scenery to come. After departing Naushki, the landscape became even more green and lush. The colors and the barrenness of the hills beyond still reminded me of Mongolia, but we were moving out of the desert.
Perhaps most shocking of all was all the houses. After the emptiness of Mongolia, I was surprised to see so many signs of human life. They were just small cabins, but there were so many of them. They were probably summer homes for people who live in towns or cities. It’s very common for Russians, especially city-dwellers, to have a small summer home, called a dacha.
When we weren’t looking out the window, we played cards and chatted with the Scottish couple. I wanted to stay up to see the first view of Lake Baikal, but as everyone else predicted, I fell asleep (and it was too dark to see anyway.) Early in the morning, I woke up due to the sunlight streaming in my window, and rolled over to go back to sleep, but Bob told me to look out the window. Wow. There it was. I was too sleepy to get my camera out, but I knew I’d have plenty of chances to take photos in the upcoming days.
I couldn’t sleep for much longer, though. Our train was due to arrive early, and I knew I had to get to the bathroom before it was locked. The carriage attendant stopped by again to hand back our tickets. Seeing that I was still under the covers (I was getting dressed under there,) he waved his arm and repeated in insistent Russian that we were going to arrive in Irkutsk very soon, looking disdainfully at this lazy foreigner who was still in bed. I told him that I was just getting dressed, but he rolled his eyes and left. On the whole, though, he was much nicer than the Chinese carriage attendants, and actually did his job properly.
Shortly before 8 a.m., we chugged across the Irkut river and into Irkutsk station. We bid our Scottish friends farewell, promising to find them on Facebook, and went off to start our Siberian adventure.