We had to get up early to catch the bus. It was a struggle but I pulled the old girl out of paradise, we quickly did our business then called a taxi. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a guy staying in the hostel who Jamie told me about the night before. He’s a young Canadian making a documentary with an American guy. The premise of the film is to travel to every country in the world. Though the only reason I wanted to meet him was to assess how much of an idiot he looked. Apparently this guy is a real piece of work. I was told that on the night we were enjoying ourselves in the wilds of Mongolia, the people in the hostel all went out with the owner to a club. All was going well until this guy picked up two locals. The hostel owner, being Mongolian was quick to figure out the situation.
“No, they’re not.”
“No, we’re not.”
“Yes, they are. Yes, you are.”
The yes/no conundrum I was told went on for longer than necessary until the Canadian abruptly left with the girls in tow, dragging them back to the hostel.
“Did they get in?” I asked Jamie.
“Did they fuck.”
As our hostel, lovely as it is, is situated in a square that wouldn’t be out of place in the next series of ‘The Walking Dead’, you have to knock on the door to be allowed entrance. When John Boy knocked, the housekeeper, a tiny girl with a squint, took one look at the state of affairs and confidently bellowed that they were not coming in.
“Did they leave peaceably? I asked Jamie.
“Did they fuck.”
Apparent how it occurred was he told the ladies that the housekeeper was his girlfriend, ostensibly blaming her for the state of things.
“Did they take that well?” I asked Jamie
“Did. They. Fuck.”
That’s when it kicked off. These ladies started pummelling the housekeeper. Pulling her hair, scratching at her eyes. All manner of madness went down until they finally got bored of attacking the help and trotted off.
“Then at breakfast this guy saw it as a big joke, didn’t apologise and just started hitting on the owner.”
As I mentioned, these guys were making a film about travelling the world and they’d booked a ten day excursion out in the Gobi and asked Jamie to join.
“Are you going to go?”
I assume to can guess Jamie’s response. Don’t think I’ll be tuning in to that one.
The taxis as well as the buses in Mongolia are all Korean hand-me-downs. As we sped down Peace Avenue I said my goodbye’s to Mongolia. If truth be told, Ulaanbaatar won’t be a city I pine for on cold evenings at home, but I’ll be back here for the countryside. A beautiful place. We whizzed past the nice bus station and were dropped off in a run-down car park, full of criminals and rapists. We hopped on our Korean bus and kept an eye on our bags.
I passed the time by reading my book and watching the scenery change. YJ spent her time in different levels of anxiety, worrying about the border crossing.
“It’s famous, Russians don’t like Asians.”
“What, all of them?”
“They’ve got skinheads there!”
“I not sure how many skinheads are making their living as immigration officers.”
“Well, if one does, they’ll be at my desk today.”
We got into the town of Hiagt at around noon. Like a lot of border towns, it wasn’t Disneyworld. It wasn’t even Disneyland. We stopped at a building that may have been a Russian gangster’s holiday home in the 70’s. It was dilapidated, save for a forgotten little café tucked away down and through many passageways. I had myself some goulash which was delicious and a cup of tea which wasn’t. After lunch it was Mongolian immigration time.
And here’s the thing: nothing happened. There was hardly any line and when we got there, they looked at our passports, stamped them and we left. They even let Youngja through without so much as a side glance or a spit on the floor. Well, we’ve still got Russian immigration to go.
Before we were allowed into the immigration building a butch, shaven soldier man jumped on our bus and checked us all out.
“Skinhead! Skinhead! Skinhead!”
This one did take a side glance at the wife. But he side glanced everyone so it wasn’t too bad. A scary fella this Russian, but after the usual japes he was off and we were lining up.
The Russian immigration building looked like a British pub: white, double glazed patio doors, homely interior, karaoke. Well, okay, maybe the interior wasn’t that homely but it wasn’t the grey, iron curtainy locale I was expecting.
I tried to sooth YJ’s troubled mind but she was all aflutter.
“Now remember, it’s their job to ask somewhat strange questions. They’ve been trained to do this so they can identify strange behaviour. So just be calm and truthful. You’re not doing anything wrong.”
“They’re going to ask me what I’m doing in Russia.”
“Well, then tell them.”
“But what if they don’t believe me?”
I’ve always found these kinds of questions hard. What am I supposed to say?
“Well, then they’ll probably stick you in the cells for a week or two until someone can be bothered to ship you to the Kremlin for questioning.”
Unbelievably, this was perceived as ‘not helpful’ but we had no time to quarrel, she was up.
And again, nothing happened! She was through. As I went through, the immigration officer, a young thing with at least an inch of makeup on her face asked me some pretty taxing questions.
“Is your name Thomas Peter Robb?”
“Are you going to St. Petersburg?”
With the interrogation over we found ourselves in front of the DRUG INFORCEMENT OFFICER, and if there was ever a face that fit the description, this wasn’t it. She looked and sounded like a Russian Hyacinth Bucket. She asked us in her flighty flowery Russian.
Back on the bus, we looked at each other with amusement as we found ourselves in Russia. Only another 5 hours in this cramped bus and we’re home and dry.
After what felt like days on the bus we get into Ulan Ude. When we arrived at the bus station we had no idea where to go so we asked a local woman where the train station was, after failing to explain in Russian she pushed us into her hired car and drove us there. At journeys end she sticks up three fingers for payment, I give her 300 rubles and she gives me 270 back. 30 rubles, 40 pence. We get to the ticket office and a heavily and impressively buxom lady manages to understand where we want to go and gives us tickets for the train leaving in a few hours’ time.
I’m sure a better writer than myself could really sell Ulan Ude, but here’s my view: there’s a big statue of Lenin’s head in the middle of the town. It’s massive. Have a look, then leave.
It wasn’t actually all that bad. There weren’t things to see in abundance but the atmosphere was friendly. Lots of pretty adolescents in the squares and parks hanging out, BMXers jumping around the big head, roller bladers falling over, young couples holding hands.
We saw the head, then got back to the train station. We had a night train booked to take us to Irkutsk, a city to the west of Baikal Lake. Dinner was had: soup, beer, salad and a bottle of pop: 2 pound, I love Russia!
As we were in Siberia we packed for the snow, but it was bloody boiling. The train was like a sauna. There was a jolly, fat Ukrainian sharing our cabin who had a dizzy spell at one point. I was scared if he fainted he’d tip the train over, but he struggled on. He took a liking to Youngja and I let it slide, not only because he kept giving me beer, but partly.
The route we were on is part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which we will be getting on proper soon, but this part of the trip is famous for being the most beautiful because it snakes around Lake Baikal. And let me tell you, it was so unbelievable dark that I saw nothing. It was night time after all.