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5655 km in a Nutshell

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The Russian portion of the Trans-Mongolian Railway covers over 5600km and 5 time zones.  To ride straight through would take nearly a week.  The journey took us through vast stretches of untouched Siberian wilderness where it would sometimes be hours between any signs of human settlement.  After visiting this area of the world I find it difficult to argue that the earth is getting too crowded.  After our longest leg (50 hours) I was glad that we chose to make several stops along the way.  We met some people who made the trip straight through and they had the look and smell of drunken derelicts.  The particularly long stretches of track made us appreciate the little things in life…taking a shower after 50 hours, eating food that is not just made by adding hot water or being able to piss without the ground swaying under our feet became absolute treats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed in 4-berth cabins so we normally had 2 additional roommates.  Everyone would practice their English skills on us and if they could not speak it they would find someone on the train that could in order to translate.  We were repeatedly asked to compare and contrast the U.S. and Russia.  One girl happily told us that she loved American music and followed up with, “Do you like Russian music in America?”  Not being able to recall a single Russian artist I said, “Sometimes, but we love Russian vodka.”

Another cabin mate of ours, Vladimir, was an older gentleman who was on the train for 5 days after a trip to visit his grandkids.  He was amazingly nice yet had body odor that had the same effect on my eyes as a sliced onion.  He shared some beer with me that tasted like a microwaved Colt 45 and insisted on showing us hundreds of pics of his beach holiday where he wore a banana hammock that would have been tiny on Nug.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One time after tiring of noodle bowls we broke down and went to the restaurant car.  We were the only ones and the rubbery “chicken” confirmed our suspicions as to why.  I asked the attendant for the “best Russian beer”.  He came back with a Budweiser.  I looked at him skeptically but he was dead serious.  “This is best beer from Russia!” he proudly stated.  He waited while I took a swig.  “How good is that, huh?”  I smiled and gave him the thumbs up.  “Great recco,” I stated.

As we ended our Russian train journey in St. Petersburg I could not believe how much more European the city felt compared to our entrance to the country in the east.  The Russian people we met along the way were so much more helpful and friendly than I had expected especially after our run in with the female Ivan Drago several weeks prior.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

The Unwelcome Visitor

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Several hours west of the Russian border we had an unwelcome visitor…food poisoning.  Apparently the market at the border crossing infused us with something sinister.  Nug and I both succumbed.  Being a bigger glutton I must have eaten more of the tainted vittles because I was hit much harder.

Pre-food poisoning happiness

On my way to the bathroom for the 2nd time I was horrified to find the door locked.  Trains on the Trans-Siberian system lock the bathroom doors 15 minutes before and after any stops to stymie stowaways.  I scrambled to find a bag and violently wretched into it as we entered a station.  People on the platform looked mortified and a male train attendant laced me in Russian as I cringed demoralized in a corner.  He had happened to catch me smack dab in the middle of my previous performance and was none too happy that time either.  The female Ivan Drago grabbed my arm.  “Zyou mus see za doctor here at zhe station!”  My attempts to resist were futile.  I found myself in a dingy, faded all white room with a bright white light that flickered on and off constantly.  I was poked and prodded and had my temperature taken…38.5 Celsius…crap that’s 101 Fahrenheit  I thought.  The questions came fast and furious in Russian and were translated clumsily by the attendant.  “Howz meeny times zyou make za voh-mit?  Where zyou come from?  Whaz zyou eat?  How zlong zyou sick?  Howz meeny times zyou make za toilet? (accompanied by a sign of squatting and imitating an explosion from her backside which would have had me in hysterics if I had not been so scared)

The male train attendant and several nurses began to argue loudly and point at me.  “What’s happening?!” Nug interjected.  The female Ivan Drago pointed at me, “Zyou mee-ust stay here and go to zhee emergency room!”  I started to argue and was beat down with “Zyou will znot argue weeth zhis!”  The doctor made 4 or 5 phone calls and 2 uniformed army officers entered the room.  “Whaz zee problem?” they growled.  At this point all 6 of them argued heatedly and took turns pointing at me.  “I’m okay,” I lied, “It was from a sandwich I had earlier.  I have to keep going to Irkutsk.”  The doctor started shoving numerous pills at me and ordering me to take them.  “NO, allergic,” I said as I pushed them away.  “Zyou have no choice.  Must take is good for you.  Zyou no take zhen we mee-ust give zyou zhe shot.”  One of the army goons flashed his gold teeth and used his finger to simulate a shot in his neck.  I was sick again and held as best as I could while lying that I had to pee.  I barely closed the door behind me.  Heated arguing commenced as I disposed of my stomach contents as quietly as I could.  I am normally an exaggerated, theatrical  vomiter so this was a major accomplishment.

As I returned to the argument I could see that Nug was working magic and was somehow turning the tide.  We swore that I was getting better and took a stand that we would not stay in this tiny backwater town.  The burly guys finally left and I had to sign some paperwork saying that I refused to go to the emergency room at my own peril.  In Irkutsk I would not be allowed off the train until another doctor inspected me to insure that I was not a carrier monkey of some Mongolian bird flu.  The night ride to Irkutsk was miserable.  I was in the bathroom every 30 minutes for the next 6 hours but eventually it subsided.  We pulled into the station, I passed the medical exam and before I knew it we were on the shores of beautiful Lake Baikal, the world’s largest lake.  Only then did I finally sigh with relief.

Lake Baikal sunset

The Female Ivan Drago

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The train ride from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk, Russia is about 30 hours.  Unfortunately 10+ of those hours are wasted on border crossings.  We were rustled out of bed at 630am as we approached the Mongolian border.  The Mongolian officials searched the train, our bags, and our persons while mean mugging and inspecting our passports.  Then the train rolled several hundred yards down the track so the Russian border guards could do the same.  The entire charade was repeated yet this time German shepherds and armed military personnel joined in on the fun.  There was a lot of angry sounding yelling and instructions over the train’s loudspeakers.

Waiting game

It will drive you to the drink

We were imprisoned in our train berth for the 1st 4 hours and endured the process with a slightly older Aussie couple.  Despite numerous attempts at communication with others on board it became obvious that we were the only English speakers on the train (imagine that in a non-English speaking country).  We had no idea when the train was scheduled to depart or what was going on.  Our train carriage attendant was the stereotypical Russian woman.  She looked like a female Ivan Drago with short red hair, a deep voice and a stern, stoic face that looked as if it had never smiled.  We watched her dress down several passengers in Russian until each retreated like a tortoise into its shell.  She used her limited English to dominate the Australian woman in our cabin to the point that the Aussie hid under the covers for 3 hours.  While the kangaroo was hiding and Nug was sleeping (thank God or the Cold War would have restarted) this Russian gem came to our room with a basket of garbage packaged food.  “Wood zu like?!”  The Aussie guy and I looked up from our respective books and declined.  She stayed put, “Zah…  mah-bay…zyou don’t… oon-derstand….PICK ONE!”  It sounded like a threat.  We repeated that we were good.  She exploded, “Zhis eeez ree-diculous!  Zyou don’t buy… eez very BAD for zmee!”   I tried to use my big kid voice when I repeated, “No, we don’t want…”  There was silence as she glared at us and we all waited to see who would fold first.  “Zhis is unbelievable!  ZAmericans and ZAustralians hab no money is VERY bad,” she screamed and slammed the door as she stormed out.  Dave looked at me and we burst out laughing.  “If she was nice I would have bought the whole bloody lot,” he said, before continuing, “Either way I think we are the 1st ones here to win a battle with her.”  Several hours later we started our 5000+ km journey towards Moscow.

At the border

We need to check your bags

The Arachnid War

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Nug had been like a broken record for the past month, “When we go to Mongolia, I want to stay in a ger and ride a camel!”  She would repeat this seemingly every day.  I personally didn’t see the big deal but she had put up with tons of my requests so I agreed.  After our drive to Terelj National Park we stayed in a local family’s ger for the night.  We had a magnificently paired dinner of spaghetti bolognaise with hot sauce and soy sauce.  On the side we were given pickles and yogurt which was washed down with beautiful instant coffee…what a treat!

Unpretentious dinner

Settling in for a nice game of rummy….we thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After dinner we retired to our ger to play rummy and escape the cold.  The 1st hour or so was fine until a spider the size of my palm rappelled onto our bed in the creepiest manner possible and sprinted for a dark corner.  I shrieked in terror while smashing him into oblivion.  At that moment we got the strange feeling of being watched.  A scan of the ger revealed my biggest fear materialized and I got chills.  It was infested by (this is a conservative estimate) hundreds of these creepy crawlies.  Apparently the arachnids were nocturnal because where there had been none before there were now countless 8 legged beasties.  There were several spider varieties of different colors, size and hairiness.  They were scuttling on the floor, in corners, on the other beds and on the ceiling.  The closest town was miles away and the outside temperature was in the 30’s.  For all intents and purposes we were captive.  I was absolutely terrified.

One of the creepers

Midget bed

 

 

 

 

 

 

The only saving grace for me was that it was Nug’s idea.  If I had proposed the ger stay the wrath of heaven would have crashed down on my head.  The arachnid war commenced over the next several hours.  The spiders would charge and we would dismantle their forces.  They would retreat, regroup and hit us again.  It was like the movie “Kill Bill” with Nug and I employing our ninja skills and standing back to back as the spider corpses piled up.  As the attacking spider numbers started to dwindle we squeezed onto one of the single beds and wrapped ourselves like burritos for protection.  We spent the next several hours (sleeping is not an appropriate term) taking periodic 3 minute naps and jolting awake to check for enemy intruders.  It was mostly random kamikazes at this point.  As the sun rose we stepped out of the ger like survivors of a zombie apocalypse.  We were greeted by the Mongolian host, “How was sleep?”  We lied in unison, “Okay.”  After breakfast (4 cups of coffee) and a bit of national park exploration we fulfilled Nug’s 2nd Mongolian dream.  We rode camels.  I must say it was a much more pleasant experience than her 1st idea.

 

I hate spiders.

This sure beats a ger.

Mongolia Bound

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From the train the Mongolian countryside appeared to be continuous rolling hills with nomadic herders dotting the landscape like small islands in the ocean.  After missing our original train from Beijing and having to wait 3 days for the next we were excited to be en route.  As we approached the capital of Ulaanbaatar the view changed.  Dilapidated block buildings, soot, dust and sprawl scarred the picturesque view.  UB has the dubious reputation as the world’s ugliest city.  As we drove through the streets I could not imagine a single counter argument to refute the claim.  The bumper to bumper traffic offered plenty of time to observe the surroundings.  It reminded me of a movie set from a post nuclear war flick.

We made the train this time.

Mongolia!

Ger Life

Within an hour of arriving we made arrangements to leave for Terelj National Park first thing in the morning.  The drive there required a 4×4 and passed dramatic alpine and countryside landscapes.  We stopped at a local family’s house for lunch.  We were given “milk tea” which tasted like warm seawater mixed with milk that had been left out on the counter for several days.  This was accompanied by biscuits and “cream” in a 5 gallon bucket.  The cream was a curdled concoction with more farm animal hair than milk based liquid.  It was not edible by our antiseptic western standards.

Milk Tea…yuck!

Took 15 minutes to get to this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cream with your animal hair?

Ger sweet ger

 

 

 

 

 

 

We chugged the tea as fast as possible to keep from being rude but drew the line at the creamy mess.  We pushed on to a local village where we were set to spend the night in a ger or yurt as the Mongolians refer to them.  I climbed the mountain behind the village to watch the sunset.  It was a wonderful escape from the wasteland of a city we had left earlier in the day and I was blissfully unaware of the horrors that awaited me later that night.

Trans-Mongolian Train Time…Or Not

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130am- Finish packing for our train journey and set the alarm for 530am.

530am- The alarm drags us out of our stupor.  That was 4 hours already!  The Great Wall hike from yesterday exhausted us.

545am- Jump on the subway and promptly take the wrong connection.  Takes a stop to get us righted.

6am- Get to Beijing Railway Station and it is a circus (like everywhere in this city).

610am- Reach the front of the line to get into the station and “talk” to 4 different people who all understand English to varying degrees.  We are told to go to a ticket office inside the station.

630-645am- Wait in line inside the station.  Upon reaching the front the rep waves us off.  “No English,” he shouts.  Someone takes pity on us and leads us to another area with “English Speaking Line” which is #16.

650-7am- After reaching the front of line #16 the attendant tells Nug, “You go to line #1.”

700-725am- Line #1 sends us to Line #33.  We are skeptical so on the way we ask no less than 20 people if they speak English.  The ones that do offer us conflicting info on where we “must” go.

730am- A girl who might be 12 and speaks the best English yet tells us Line#33 is the E-ticket line.  Things are looking up!  We booked our tickets online through Real Russia.

735am- On the way to line #33 Nug spies E-ticket machines.  She takes out our passports and waits in line.  The machines only take Chinese IDs.

750am- We are at the front of Line #33.  The teller takes our passports and looks back blankly.  We speak no Mandarin and he speaks no English.  He kicks us out of line.  Someone tells us we need an E-ticket number.  What is that?!?!  We are frantic and desperate.

Where do we go?!?

Fail

8am- Our train leaves the station…without us.

830am- After wandering for 30 minutes with bags that feel like they are full of lead we finally find a hotel that will let us use their wifi.  Wifi access is terrible in Beijing.

845am- Nug finds a cheery email from Real Russia saying we need to pick up paper tickets at a location other than the train station…sent at 1130pm last night.  The included map to find the Chinese agents office is laughable.

845-945am-  Walk around on our own and ask a minimum of 40 people how to get to the ticket office based on the map we have pulled up on our computer.  Half the people shrug and the rest invariably send us in assorted directions.  Eventually, looking like we went for a swim we walk into the office.

955am- We finally catch a break…kind of.  We are told that our $700 tickets are worthless after 10am.  We can change the date before that for $80.  Sign us up!  The next train is in 3 days.  Do we want to wait in the office for the tickets or come back?  We wait.

1130am- We walk back into the hostel where we started at 530am this morning…defeated.  We book for 3 more nights.  We must look pitiful because they upgrade us from the dump we stayed in before to a much larger and nicer room…for the same price.  We fall on our faces and immediately pass out.