Transsiberian, Day 12: The 28-hour Trans-Mongolian train experience

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

At 6am we all wake up in the Irkutsk Rolling Stone hostel, ready for our long 28-hour train ride ahead. A car picks us up and we’re off to the train station. Time to head to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia via train!

We get to the train station and we board around 8am. Now THIS is the Trans-Mongolian train we were all hoping for. It’s older than our last train, so it has its charms, like frost and snow accumulating in the doorway where the train cars connect. There is an old dining car with golden lights, wooden tables and aged yellow curtains, where we run into two guys who recognize us from our Moscow hostel. They got on the train in Moscow and this is their third day or so, and look, here we are running into them again!

Three of us end up bunking with a young German guy named Lukas, who is in his early twenties. He has been on the train a while as well; he’s off to China to meet up with his girlfriend. JC is placed solo in a room with a schizophrenic, as diagnosed by Calvin, who upon meeting JC spouts a ton of random things that make no sense and cause Calvin to use his Mandarin to talk to the train conductor to convince him to allow JC to move. JC moves in with Calvin, so we’re now three and three, each with a stranger in our rooms.

But Lukas becomes our adopted friend, and while some of the group sleeps or hangs out in the dining car, Lukas takes advantage of one of the few empty rooms down the hall to take pictures and relax. I join him to write my blog. This car ends up being our group’s "hangout" car, since the lack of luggage allows us to somewhat easily fit seven people inside comfortably. We chat and eat and chat and eat, and I have more than my fair share of chocolate and cookies and junk food. Regardless of Lukas’ preference, Calvin busts out the smoked fish in our cramped little cabin. Lukas partakes, so he doesn’t seem to mind that we just opened a smelly fish in an enclosed space. We take advantage of the hot water samovar at the end of the train for cocoa, tea, instant coffee and cup noodles. It’s a Russian train, so of course the thermometer on the side indicates 110*C (230*F).

Around three in the afternoon, Calvin and the gang decide to jump out of the train at a thirty-minute stop to take a picture of the world’s largest Lenin head that is a twenty minute walk away. I fear they won’t make it, despite Calvin’s backup plans and assurance that they would return if it cuts close. I volunteer to stay behind and watch all six people’s luggage in the event that their plan fails.

The result? They return in less than fifteen minutes, with complete success, which hinged on a cab driver happening to be just outside, and promising to wait for them as they took pictures. Calvin likened it to a SWAT team, as their faces were obscured by scarves, and upon arriving at the monument, they rushed out of every car door and ran through crowds of people to the monument. Snap snap snap, photos done, they hop in the car and here they are back on the train. Calvin almost wanted it to fail, because then we would have something fascinating to write about. Sorry, no travel nightmares here...all you have is this boring success story instead.

In celebration of their victory, our group decides to drink the Lake Baikal vodka and share it with Lukas, who happily obliges. Taylan now realizes that their wine is missing, as they must have accidentally left it in the van from the hostel. Taylan won’t make the same mistake twice on this trip. LaiYuen bought some sort of Russian beer that shows a burly man taking a selfie in front of a bear, which is why she bought it. Best decision. The celebration runs into the night, with us running out of cups and me asking the conductor for a knife so we can fashion the two ends of a water bottle into a couple cups. He returns with a massive and super sharp butcher knife and shortly after, we have two train-ready glassware.

We play cards until we have to do border control around 8pm. They check everyone’s bag in my cabin but mine, not even asking to see my luggage. They also seem a little suspicious of our party room, as we left a ton of drinks and things in there but no one is actually sleeping in there. The officers repeatedly ask David to get his coat out of the room, even though it’s not his coat, and when he leaves the room, another officer tells him to stay. After some confusion but very little fuss, we enter Mongolia. Lukas tells us his guide book says that crossing the border to enter China is “in competition for the most obnoxious border control experience.” So, we’re excited for that in a few days!

Before bed, we bid farewell to Lukas, who will continue on the train without us tomorrow morning, and we all head to sleep around midnight.

(24 hours since last shower)