As we moved south towards Mongolia, the landscape began to change dramatically.
Day 30. So I've been on the road a month now and I'm not even halfway done time-wise. I'm definitely missing New York and all of the things and people I've grown accustomed to. But this voyage continues to be fascinating and educational, not to mention productive. I'm able to work so much better without the distractions I'm always being faced with back home. Of course those distractions pretty much define life. And life has always been a problem when it comes to work.
So 5:00 am rolled around and we dragged ourselves downstairs where another one of those magical tour people was waiting to take us to the station. It was still dark when we arrived at Irkutsk station with its giant red digital clock proudly displaying Moscow time which was five hours earlier than local time. Our track was announced shortly and we became aware of the fact that there were a lot more tourists running for the train on this part of the trip than on any other.
I always find it highly amusing when people who are tourists themselves complain about tourists. And that's precisely what we did. Some of these other people really can get to you pretty quickly though. Like the flock of Germans who felt that it was perfectly fine to cut ahead of everyone waiting to get onto our train carriage simply because they were part of an organized tour. In fact, we soon realized that these were the *same* Germans who had taken over the dining car for hours on the last leg of the trip! And in the back of my mind I began to recollect that they were also in the dining car on the first leg when I tried unsuccessfully to get seated by myself. And then there was another German who had decided to live in our cabin for the past three days even though he was supposed to have been sharing another one with some Russians down the hall. Not cool. And to top everything, our windows were sealed shut meaning we were stuck with that lived-in-by-a-German-guy-for-the-last-three-days smell. We also had some loud and stupid Dutch guys on our car which thrilled Hanneke and Sasja to no end. And then we realized that the German tour group was in the cabin right next door to us. And *they* were complaining about everything around them. If there's one thing I find annoying, it's hearing other tourists complain. Especially if I can't understand what they're saying.
We started on our way and I realized that I would soon be leaving Russia. I understand now the love/hate relationship that so many people have with Russian culture. I met so many nice people on this portion of the trip, like the provodnitsa from the last train whom I couldn't understand at all but whose words were obviously giving grandmotherly advice like put on a jacket or you'll freeze. So many aspects of life in Russia seem to be run by grandmotherly types. That can be both good and disastrous. Think of your grandmother running a country and you should get the picture.
Even the backwards way of doing things and the endless paperwork will have a special place in my heart as I think back on Russia. I'll remember the arguments heard over train station public address systems complete with resounding echo as the station announcer would scold a train employee for one thing or another and he would defend himself in the same manner. I really wish I understood the language because the descriptions I've heard sound better than what you would hear listening to a scanner.
Russia's train system particularly impressed me. What it lacks in speed is more than made up for in distance and consistency. Once you become familiar with it and know more or less what to expect, you're rarely surprised. I don't think I've ever seen so many freight trains anywhere. In fact, each freight car has an eight digit number painted onto it. At first I thought that was overkill but now I really have to wonder. And the sheer number of train workers you see everywhere is also pretty impressive. A network like this has to be constantly maintained and without these people, Russia would literally disconnect from itself.
As we chugged towards Mongolia, I came to a realization. Our provodnitsa was a real bitch. She was only in her 30s but she seemed to carry the venom of a lifetime of bureaucracy. If she passed you in the corridor she would push or poke you out of the way. She insisted on blasting heat into the cabins which made it really hard for those of us not used to tropical environments to breathe. And she made a strict rule against plugging laptops into the wall outlets in the corridor because, according to her, they would cause a power surge and disrupt the train. Other cars had nice cool air, happy people, freedom to do whatever was needed, while we were stuck in our own mini-repressive state where people lived in fear. In fact, it was hatred and fear of the provodnitsa that actually got us on friendly terms with the Germans next door who up until then had only communicated with themselves. We would later conspire with them to get a window open using a special tool and hide our deed with the curtain.
While I've been to so many different places and covered such a wide area on this trip, surprisingly I had yet to visit a new country. Until today. In fact, from this point on every country I enter until returning to the States will be a new country to me. And Mongolia is the first.
Mongolia had been controlled by the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century. That's how they came to use a cyrillic alphabet and name their capital Ulaan Baatar (Red Hero). So you would think the border crossing between these two supposedly friendly nations would be a fairly painless one. Oh, you would be so wrong.
Again, knowing what to expect will yield no surprises. A look at the schedule posted inside every train car reveals the staggering wait times: over 200 minutes at the Russian section, over 100 at the Mongolian part. When it's all over, you will have spent well over five hours just sitting on a dead train. The bathrooms are locked, the air is turned off, there's no entry or exit out of your car (except for a welcome bit of time spent outdoors on the Russian side), and all you can do is just sit and wait. And of course fill out forms. I'm hard pressed to think of any time in my life where sitting and waiting for five hours in a confined space is considered the norm. But when Russia and Mongolia meet, anything is possible.
We had no real problems crossing over, other than a little confusion on what to declare or not declare on the Russian form and some big confusion when the Mongolian forms were only available in the Mongolian language which I don't think a single person on our car spoke. The eventual solution was to have a representative come to each cabin and explain what each part of the form was.
So far the people from this country seem quite friendly and not too obsessed with paperwork. We won't actually arrive in the capital until tomorrow morning so I'll be attempting to sleep on the train for a couple of hours. This time I get to try out the top bunk with no gates or barriers of any sort to prevent one's toppling over the side. Should be an interesting night.