After squealing like a little girl in the waters of Lake Baikal we returned to Irkutsk, where we had a few hours wait until we caught our next train to Mongolia. At thirty hours, I expected this train journey to be much tamer compared with the previous ninety hour trip from Moscow. Not only because I wasn’t sharing with Russians this time around, but because of Mongolia’s much stricter attitudes toward train drunkenness.
Irkutsk is known as the ‘Paris of Siberia’. Like calling a ’chav’ fashionable, this was a complete exaggeration. With a distinctively ‘wild west’ aura, I felt there was more chance of seeing a cowboy riding down the road than a Russian lady decked in the latest Chanel and Gucci fashions.
Apart from a never-ending procession of wedding parties at every turn, there’s little to hold your attention in Irkutsk and we arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare. Even a minibus exploding and bursting in to flames outside the train station entrance, like some dramatic action-movie scene, failed to add to Irkutsk’s appeal.
You would never have guessed the Mongolians viewed binge-drinking negatively from watching our new neighbours in the adjoining compartment. Intrigued at sharing a carriage with foreigners, it wasn’t long before we were invited in to their compartment to become more acquainted. I turned down their offers of handfuls of greasy mutton but upon my new Mongolian friends finding out it would be my first year wedding anniversary in a matter of hours, I had no chance of turning down their vodka toasts.
As the vodka flowed, I began to learn more about my new Mongolian ’bezzies’. It turned out that they were none other than Chairman Number Three of the Mongolian Railways and his personal assistant. With 16,000 workers under his control, Chairman Number Three was probably one of the wealthiest people in Mongolia, a country of extreme poverty. After being offered ‘first class’ tickets for the next train journey in to China, and with Chairman Number Three becoming more and more incoherent, I made our excuses and retreated to the safety of my own compartment. I left just in time. Within twenty minutes, a big bump and loud retching sounds could be heard coming from next door. This was followed by quickly moving footsteps.
I couldn’t help but take a closer look. The personal assistant had fallen off his bunk. Upon hitting the floor, he’d exploded his greasy mutton and excessive alcohol consumption all over the floor. Chairmen Number Three was oblivious to the current commotion. He was passed-out wearing nothing but his boxer shorts. A Russian porn magazine was placed across his lap, hiding his modesty. Two train attendants were frantically scrubbing the puke from the carpet, trying not to wake their boss, knowing that if they did or dared to voice their discontent, it would mean losing their jobs.
Upon reaching the Russian border the following morning they both sheepishly left the train to catch a bus onwards to Mongolia‘s capital Ulaanbaatar. Whether this tactic was down to embarrassment, broken promises of ’first class’ tickets or to get their stash of top shelf magazines over the border will forever remain a mystery.
Spending nine hours at the Russian-Mongolian border isn’t most peoples idea of how to spend a first wedding anniversary, but there were some welcome distractions. A covert operation led by the Mongolian train attendants and passengers saw enough alcohol to keep half of Asia intoxicated for a month smuggled across the border. I knew there was a reason why they insisted on keeping the toilets locked for the duration of the border crossing! Meanwhile a wild dog spotted the chance to traumatise a group of children who were happily feeding a few pigeons some bread. Using the children as cover, the dog pounced at lightning speed, not for the bread, but for one of the pigeons, ripping it to shreds in a matter of seconds before the screaming children. And with that lasting memory I left Russia behind.
Watch towers and barbed wire filled no-mans land between Russia and Mongolia. The Mongolian beaurocracy was much less painful than the Russian side and within two hours we were racing (well, chuffing along at 40mph!) on our way towards the capital, Ulaanbaatar. A line of Mongolian army personnel saluted the train as we left the border. I don’t know if this was common practice, or the fact that they were wishing us luck as we were headed towards swine-flu central and a capital city in lock-down. The endless birch tree forests had now given way to a mountainous, snowy wilderness.
Mongolia is known as the ‘dinosaur graveyard’ and upon reaching Ulaanbaatar, I can see why the dinosaurs decided to give up the fight of life. With very few striking features, Ulaanbaatar comes across as a smoggy, dirty, polluted city, with few sights of any interest. It’s also home to some of the most dangerous driving I have ever witnessed. The only endearing feature is the people, who seem to survive on a diet of nothing but mammal. I tried my best to emulate my Mongolian counterparts and enjoy such culinary delights as slices of lard, horse, intestines, sheep’s tail fat and a ridiculous amount of mutton, but after two days of nothing but meat, I admitted defeat. Maybe if I’d tried the fermented mare’s milk things would be different!
Thanks to the governments ‘free 70m² plots of land for every inhabitant’ scheme, almost two-thirds of Mongolia’s population live in Ulaanbaatar. The city is now surrounded by nomadic ger (traditional tents) districts. Imagine Glastonbury built on a rubbish dump, multiply the size by four, take away sanitation, toilets, running water and add an unlimited supply of cheap, potent vodka, and you get an idea of what it is like to live in such a place. Throw in minus fifty degrees Celsius winter temperatures and it shows what an inhospitable place this environment can be. With temperatures so low, inhabitants normally do their excreting business in bowls in their own gers before tossing it outside for the mangy, starved dogs to fight over. I wish I had known this before letting one of these near-death creatures ferociously lick each and every finger of mine.
Before catching the onward train to our final destination, China, we had enough time to leave Ulaanbaatar behind and spend twenty four hours living the nomadic life for ourselves, away from the realms of civilisation. After a long hard day of horse-riding, trekking and crossbow shooting I was able to relax to the sloppy sounds of our tour guide and a fellow traveller noisily getting to second base outside my tent. It’s amazing what privileges a spot of French kissing and a quick grope with a tour guide can get you; breakfast personally brought to you in bed, bags of sick hand-picked from you and disposed of, and pictures taken when you’re too lazy to do it yourself. Luckily as I mentioned in my previous email, I have no problem handling my alcohol!
After checking Facebook, YouTube and BBC for the last time in the foreseeable future thanks to political sensitivity, it was time to catch my penultimate train in to the country of my final destination: China.