Saturday, 16 October 2010

Irkutsk & the trans-Mongolian (12th & 13th of August)

Back in Irkutsk the first task of the day was getting our train tickets, which we hadn’t managed to buy the previous day as the office was already shut when we’d got round to it. Lonely Planet said to go to counter 3 upstairs at the station, but that didn’t seem to be the place for it and we were pointed back downstairs. At counter 3 downstairs we were pointed to the other end of the station. There we queued for a while and were then pointed back down the corridor. We found some Italians queuing for tickets and joined the queue behind them where the offices were due to open in 45 minutes. Not convinced that this was the right queue I queued back down the other end and yet again was pointed in the direction of the counters we were standing in front of. At 9.00 a.m. they opened up and the Italians were told that they were indeed queuing at the wrong place and were pointed to the room almost opposite which contained three counters and some red sofas. There we got our tickets for the evening train from a lady who even spoke rather satisfactory English. Since we didn’t have enough cash some rather complicated transaction of a little bit of cash and some credit card took place.

Along the River Angarsk we looked for the Trans-Siberian railway obelisk, but couldn’t find it. We did pass a statue of a young man with a signature underneath him that looked as though it might say A. Bahnhof that we were content enough to let ourselves believe we’d found it. There are many statues in Irkutsk, which we could have posed next to, but it seemed a bit pointless not having a clue who or what they were meant to commemorate. There was one that was just pointing into the distance and looked like he could easily find work at one of the station kaccas. He was dressed for the Siberian weather, at the time 8°C, with his coat billowing behind him. Our next stop was the market where we bought more green bananas, in the hope that they’d be as tasty as the ones we’d got the day before. The market was pretty exciting and clearly where the locals do their shopping. Walking past the vegetable stalls we could smell the dill, which people like to munch upon in these parts of the world. Even nicer was the smell of the strawberries, raspberries, bilberries and black/whitecurrants. We wondered whether the stallholders had to throw a lot of vegetables away, because there were just so many of them. After we’d spent our last roubles we went back to the youth hostel to wait to depart for our train.

Whilst killing time Jenny realised she’d lost her penknife, probably in the locker at the supermarket. So we trudged through the rain soaked streets of Irkutsk with our backpacks. They don’t have any drains along the roads and the water just gathers into huge puddles and stagnates at any sign of precipitation. As the cars drove past we’d get soaked so we scuttled along as close to the buildings as we could whilst trying not to slip. No penknife found in the locker or lost property. Giving up we went to wait for the tram, time ticked on but no tram came. They came tantalisingly close, but each one turned left before it got to us. We had 45 minutes to get to the station, and it still didn’t come. Finally it came and I allowed myself to relax.

Boarding the train at about quarter to ten meant we wouldn’t see Lake Baikal again, but could almost go straight to sleep. The compartments were narrower, but the window much wider and taller. The toilets when they were actually open (closed at the border for hours!) were more spacious and better cared for.

Jenny did see the lake again through the mist and darkness at some ridiculous hour. During the day we rolled rather slowly along the Selenga River and past what looked like a nuclear power station. Drinking Baikal’s pure water might not have been such a good idea after all.

Knowing that the border crossing is going to take ages still doesn’t prepare you for the boredom. Arriving at the Russian border at 1pm and leaving at 7pm wasn’t our idea of a fun day out. For the first few hours we just sat there and filled in our customs forms, which were rather complicated even though they were written in English. We, and the two Italians from the station who we were now sharing our compartment with, had so many crossed out mistakes on our customs forms and under the direction of the border guard had to sign under each one. We could at least walk out and onto the platform during this ordeal, and when we went out for a second time most of the carriages had disappeared.

The landscape in Mongolia was incredibly exciting after the station wait and everyone flocked into the corridor to look out the window. The excitement was short lived as we got to the Mongolian border station. It was more entertaining than the Russian side through with cute Mongolian children and stray dogs to keep us entertained. A mother dog found a dirty sock and charged proudly around the station with it. When one of her teenage pups got hold of it she got very possessive and growled. They then had a sock tug of war on the platform. A stream of Mongolians calling “Change a money, change a money” came through the carriage but there weren’t any takers. 10pm (9pm Mongolian time) and we finally left the border, nine hours after we got there. Outside it was too dark to see Mongolia.

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