The second half of the Trans-Mongolian Railway takes you from Ulaanbaatar to join onto the main Trans-Siberian line at Ulan Ude in Russia. We shared our second-class 4 berth cabin with Ingrid, a German lady travelling solo in our direction. She told us of her unfortunate incident getting her camera stolen by local teenagers the day earlier. Pick-pockets are a real danger in Ulaanbaatar.
Our other companion was Anastasiya (or Nastya as she preferred), a young Russian theatre actress who had visited her Mongolian boyfriend/fiancé’s family (now happily married since then I might add!). She was returning to St. Petersburg and offered to show us around when we eventually got there. She showed us on her laptop, the unique hand-puppet theatre company she was a member of. We had never seen art like that before.
She also introduced us to “Durak” (meaning something similar to ‘stupid’ in Russian), the most popular Russian card game played by train travellers and Russians of all ages. If you don’t play this game with locals during some point on the Trans-Siberian Railway, well…you didn’t fully experience the Trans-Siberian Railway! Similar to other “trump suit” style games, it uses the standard 52 card deck where each player starts with 6 cards and takes it in turns to attack and defend cards on the table with ones in their hand. There is no winner, just the loser who is last to rid their hand of cards. I assume traditionally the loser would then have a shot of vodka. Right?
Leaving Mongolia behind, the great expanse of the world’s largest country, Russia, awaited us. But not before a stupidly boring nine hour wait on the train at the Mongolia-Russia border to get through passport control and custom checks. Twice. So we were essentially stationary from 5:00am to 2:15pm. Ugghhh.
Eventually away, the scenery slowly changed. We were definitely in Russia now and entering Siberia; some of the most inhospitable wastelands in the world. Each small town we passed through had deserted factories, train yards and decaying house ruins.
You can get an idea of why people were exiled here so many years ago. But some stations were more lively than others. Even had a quick dinner of Russia’s famous staple, pirashki (spicy mutton dumplings). Tasty.
We bid goodbye to Anastasiya in Ulan Ude as she would fly back home to St. Petersburg from there. Our train now joined onto the main line and the Trans-Siberian now led us to our first Russian destination, Irkutsk.
Travelled 17th and 18th August 2014.