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The Train Ride from Irkutsk to Ulan Bataar, Crossing From Russia and Into Mongolia

The group with our Honcho in the front. Ready for departure from Irkutsk

Getting on the train in the late evening was great, just getting to bed, wake up and have around a third of the train ride over with in just one sleep. The Mongolian trains were also a bit different, where the toilets were even nicer, the compartments had colorful curtains and table cloths, and the walls were a grayish white instead of a brown wooden color in the Russian trains. There were also outlets for electricity inside every compartments and had no restaurant carriage, but except from that everything was pretty much the same as on the Russian trains.

The one thing that had changed the most was the landscape outside as we were going through the mountains separating Russia and Mongolia, which was much more interesting to watch than the vast Siberian landscape from the last train ride. Once crossed into Mongolia there were also tunnels built through the mountains instead of long rides around all the mountains. Wild cows and horses were also common sights, and all the platforms had hungry stray dogs waiting for the passengers to throw out some food for them.

The border crossing at Naushki Sükhbataar was a long and boring one, with five and a half hours waiting on the Russian side and around three hours at the Mongolian side. The toilets were closed the whole time, and the only option on the Russian side was to pay a few rubles to visit Russias worst bathroom (picture on this link). The border cities on both sides are also quite small, with few restaurant options and shops. Our solution for food was to ask the carriage attendant to borrow her kitchen to make some Pelmeni, a Russian dish which tastes and looks like a mixture of meat filled tortellinis and dumplings.

For the whole two day and two night ride to the Mongolian capital we were also lucky to have the whole carriage to ourselves. With no one but us on it it was also more easy to catch some sleep before waking up and leaving the train at 5 o’clock in the morning in Ulan Bataar, the capitol of Mongolia where we will spend the next five days.

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Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

We arrived Irkutsk early in the morning and our local guide was already waiting for us at the station. Like every other city in Russia, you have to complete a registration when you arrive to confirm that your itinerary fits the one on your visa invitation. Once we had that done we jumped on a bus that would take us to Listvyanka, a small village right at Lake Baikal where we would spend the next three days.

Listvyanka was a really small village, being the total oposite of or previous city Moscow. The contrast being the much cheaper prices, more laid back life and the stunning nature opposed to the hectic city life of the capital.

As we arrived really early on the first day, we had enough time to walk around the lake and get familiar with the town in the morning and around noon we were already off to go dogsledding. Without getting much explanation of how everything worked, we were told to stand at the back controling the sleigh, while the guide jumped into the sled shouting “ruski huski” meaning “go dog”! Some of hills were quite steep and some of the curves sharp, so it was really important to hold on as hard as you could and push the handle to the side that you wanted the sled to go. It was a must do winter experience, that comes highly reccomended if you ever have the chance.

In the evening before dinner we also got to try a traditional Russian “Banja”, which was quite a cultural experience. A Banja is a Russian sauna, consisting of several phases, repeated as many times as you can handle:
– First step was heating up the sauna to around 80 degrees, and then staying in for around 7 minutes.
– Step two was going outside in the cold for one minute, running or rolling around in the snow.
– Third phase was sitting in a average inside/room tempered room, drinking herbal tea for around five minutes while the snow was turning to water.
– The fourth and last step was standing up, letting a grow up Russian male hit you with branches, which supposedly did wonders for the blood circulation

Doing it with someone we had never met before was a bit strange, and it all felt like a test where we got to see who was the most manly, depending on how much snow you could gather on your body the minute you were outside and how much heat whipping you could take in the sauna. A great chance for us Norwegians to score some credential points. Even how strange it was, it also felt great afterwards, feeling like our bodies had turned into jelly.

The second day was all about skiing in the day and afterskiing in the evening. Something I had never thought of before getting here, and at a price lower than I had imagined possible (500rubles/75kr for a daypass). The slopes were small, and the temperature was cold (around 25 celcius degrees below), but there was a great funpark and the view from the top was just spectacular, reaching past the lake and over to the mountains on the other side.

The last day was just spent walking on the icy lake, some taking photos, others riding snow scooters and hovercrafts, before we catched an afternoon bus to Irkutsk and the 11 o’clock train to Ulan Bataar. The city of Irkutsk was nothing special, feeling a bit more and hectic, dirty and polluted compared to the calm and quiet Lake Baikal on the country side. The departure time was perfect for some reading on the bed before once again going to sleep on the Trans Mongolian Railway.





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The Long Ride Through Siberia, From Moscow to Irkutsk

The Trans Mongolian train journey is a full seven days if you are doing it straight. We had it split up with stops along the way, where the first leg between Moscow and Irkutsk would account for almost five out of these seven travel days.

With the first and longest leg of the train journey coming to an end it is almost sad to get off the train and on the ground again. The four walls of the train compartment has been our home, kind of like a hostel on wheels, where our sightseeing has been limited to observations through the window, the small walks on the stops and the evening trips to the restaurant. It feels like we have gotten pretty close to our train carriage attendant, the Provodnitsa, who has been like our mother on the train. She has been coming into our compartment to vacuum the floors several times a day, standing up for us when some punks took our computer, and smacking peoples butts (literally) when our compartment has been particularly dirty, or when one of us had lost the toilet brush through the toilet and onto the tracks.

The days on the train has been just like being back to the early teens, where we would just be hanging around, being careless about time, and staying up for no particular reason, making us more giggly by the hour, where also the vodka played its small part. It has been very convenient waking up in the same swimshorts as the days before and just putting on a t-shirt and slippers for the hallways and a set of hat, jacket and jeans for the small walks in the minus twenty degrees there were at most of the stops.

It has been really easy getting used to the simple daily ritual mix of feeding, reading, socializing and sleeping. The clock has to be adjusted every day to keep up with the time zones, but to us it does not matter what the time is. We eat when we are hungry and sleep while we are tired. Our diet has also been quite simple, where todays diet consisted of the following:
– 4 packs of noodles, mostly combined with instant soup for more nutrition and for more variety of tastes
– fruits: two pears, an apple, a banana and a couple of slices of a giant orange (picture from last post)
– four cups of tea, half a litre of water, some beer and vodka. The cheap wines here are synthetical, tasting nothing like real grape wine, so we try to stay far away from it
– a bag of chips, some biscuits, two potato croissants (delicious) and three (extremely cheap) ice creams from the hallway vendors

Even with a crappy diet and no exercise it has been no problem falling asleep at night. Siberia is called the sleeping land, and when getting to bed in the evening it is enough to watch endless trees and snow passing by together with the familiar train sounds which feels like a lullaby. I have loved every minute of the nearly 100 hours spent on the train so far, and getting off at Irkutsk where the temperature lies at a stable minus 30 degrees is going to be interesting.
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How the Trains are on the Trans Mongolian Railway

Although most people have heard of the Trans Mongolian Railway, and many also have it on their bucket list, it is not all just a bliss. The ride is long, the trains are old and if you are not going with an organized tour you will be thrown together with some random people, not for a few hours like on a plane, but for days, or a whole week if you are staying on for the whole ride.

The speed of the train is slow, going at some stable 50-60 kilometers per hour through the whole of Russia, the biggest country in the World, bigger than the whole of Europe and the USA combined. Most stops along the way are short, giving people just enough time to get on and off, or just enough time to go out for a cigarette, but several breaks a day last for half an hour or longer, where people can go for a quick meal at nearby restuarants or just a trip to the supermarket to stock up on supplies.

The compartments are small, around 6 square meters, fitting four berths and a small table in between. For the two lower beds the storage are in boxes underneath the beds that are turned into benches during the daytime. Every bed also have a small shelf, big enough to hold a set of clothes while you sleep or your snacks during the day. You have to keep your things somewhat organized, as it will be the place you spend about 90 percent of the time. Your compartment will be just as comfortable as the people you are sharing it with.

For Electronics there are several outlets for charging in all hallways and in all toilets. They are all standard European 220V outlets so that no adapter is needed. The carriages have fold down seats to sit down while you charge your device, but I had bought in a three meter long micro usb cable that was hanging acrross the hallway to have power in the carriage. The compartments have reading lamps, wall speakers with a volume button for Russian music and heating turned on full at day where it gets very hot, and then they are off at night where it can get a bit cold.

Safety of the belongings in the carriages should not be of concern, as there is plenty of space to put your valuables that are hard for thievs to get to. The “provodniskas” will watch the carriage entrances at the stops and only let on passengers with tickets. They also have a general overview of who belongs to the carriage, so when we had our computer charging in the hallway and two skinheads from third class took our computer, our provodniska helped us find the thieves so that we got it back from them. Others seem to  it was possible for us to go and get it back. This seems not to be a common problem as most people still use the shelves in the hallways or the fold down seats to leave their electronics in the hallway unatended. Most people were also calm and quiet onboard the train. The only big exception is the resturant turning into a bar with dancing and music in the evening, and at late night we witnessed a barfight and thats all.

Food is vailable in the restaurant carriage at a descent price and the most important stuff like snacks, alcohol and toilet paper can be bought from the carriage attendant or at the kiosks at the stops. Most people stack up on soups, oatmeal, noodles and water before they go so that they could make their own meals with the samovar, the hot water tank in the back of every carriage. My most common meal on the train was a mix of a pack of the cheapest noodles and a pack of instant vegetable soup, a meal with both nutritients and filling at a descent price.

The restaurant turns into a bar in the evenings

Drinking tea on the train is most common among the locals, and not vodka as most people would think. Drinking can be a way of passing time though, so we used to gather in one of the compartments in the evenings to drink, passing around big 3 liter beer bottles and what must be the worlds cheapest vodka. As long as you close the door to reduce the noise for others, and move onto the restaurant when its late and people want to sleep it is no problem having a party on the train. In the restaurant there was music and people coming for beer every evening, and it was not uncommon to see the waiter drunk and dancing with  strangers. People will be really interested  in talking to you as well, so it is smart to bring the phrasebook there as well, as most locals we met on the train did not speak a single word of english.

The toilets are simple with a metallic design, looking like on the picture. Every carriage has its own, and the carriage attendants cleans it several times a day and makes sure that they are stacked with toilet paper at all times. Flushing is done by stepping on a pedal to dump it all on the railway tracks, so locking the doors is simply just to keep it away from the stations. The carriage attendant also locks the bathrooms at all stops including the several hour long border stops.

The departure time schedule hangs in every hallway and will tell you when the toilet will be locked and when you will be able to go out for a walk. The schedules are in Moscow time and it can be good to have an extra watch with you to make sure you know what the time is in Moscow at all times. The trains leave on their exact scheduled minutes so the extra watch can be a good investment that can keep you from getting left behind in the Siberian no mans land.