After the sedentary madness of the train, Moscow was an intimidating place in which to find ourselves. Our old friend John held our hands and took us toward the metro. Showed us how to get a ticket and bid us farewell. A nice bloke was John. I hope he becomes president. We navigated the metro, which thankfully wasn’t too complex, and had a good old stare at some real Russians. From a single train carriage I counted:
3 women in headscarves
1 USSR badge (pinned on to a girl younger than me, no less. Do Russians ‘do’ irony?)
4 KGB spies
1 woman holding a bear
The first three are true.
We woke up at 9am which turned out to be 8am. We’re not only travelling through the wilds of Siberia, we also seem to be travelling through time. Many times zones will be passed over the next few days.
“Time for a spot of breakfast! I´ll slice the bread” I bellowed from my plinth of confidence. What could be easier than slicing bread? Well, dearest reader, it turns out that absolutely anything in the known world is easier. Where to start? First of all, we had no knife so had to make do with the corner of a piece of plastic which was as blunt as a drunken Irishman. The bread as well seemed to resist the temptation to be sliced and much preferred crumbling into an inedible and unbelievable mess. The cheese and salami which we bought fared no better. It was a culinary massacre and I was the perp.
This evening we will be getting on a train and not leaving it for three days. What a stupid thing to do. I mean, you could fly the same distance in 6 hours or so. Skip the hassle, watch a film on the in-flight entertainment and enjoy those suction toilets that make my ears go pop. Instead of that we will spend the rest of the week in incredibly close proximity to strangers, eating from tins and trying not to lose our minds watching endless Serbian pines whizz pass the window. Can’t wait!
But before that, we have to see the sights of Irkutsk.
We were up early as the train got in at 7am. Besides the Jolly Ukrainian farting and an odd sound of screaming through the night we slept quite well. These trains were not built for the sensitive traveller but they are actually comfortable enough, once you’re settled. We had a quick wash using some soap paper we took with us and went ashore. Irkutsk train station is not the prettiest, It has a KGB safe house feeling to it, but it was a considerable improvement to Ulaanbaatar. No sheep running around this one. We had some information about a hostel but somehow we managed to lose the info in our train carriage. Pretty impressive considering it was the size of a toilet. But as luck would have it, there was a woman with a hostel sign inside the station. She was waiting for a couple of guests and we latched on to her.
“Can we stay in your hostel?”
“Are you Charles and Max from Singapore?”
“Well I’m not Max, and she’s definitely not Charles. We don’t have a reservation, do you have any beds free?”
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.”
Woke up with borderline hypothermia. Since the ger had no light whatsoever, I had to crawl into my sleeping bag liner/extra liner/sleepbag in the dark. This was fine when I went to sleep as the fire was still on and burning bright, but through the night as my vitals fell, I realised I mustn’t have utilised the layers as well as I should. I woke at 6am with just a thin liner and half the sleeping bag covering me. I was so cold I couldn’t zip the sleeping bag back up as my hands were numb. On top of that-if you’ll pardon the phrasing-my arse was still pounding from the horse.
We got ourselves to the main ger a fill ourselves with Kazakh bread a tea. The tea they drink here is very milky and since there isn’t much caffeine you can drink it all day. We both got a real taste for it. For the rest of the morning we either lazed around or hiked the farm. The lambs were up so we played with them, saw a few yaks strolling around. The dogs made an effort of trying to chase them but thought better once they got close. Big buggers, yaks.
Toury time. We fumbled and rumbled around our things, remembering things to forget and forgetting things to remember. Had a quick breakfast in the hostel: tea and bread and the like, we then asked the hostel to pick up our bus tickets to the Mongolia/Russia border, as we won’t get time.
“We will go to the bus station for you and get your tickets then bring them back. Though we will charge a fee because it’s far.”
“3000 tugrik (80 pence)”.
With that sorted we ventured to our van, met the driver and shortly later met our guide. Her name was Soko. She gave us details of the day ahead then we were off.
We started at Zaisan Memorial, a Russian/Mongolian monument nestle high on a hill. The momument commemorates the years of friendship and corporation between the two nations. Russia has had a very big part in Mongolian history and still continues to fund a large part of its economy. The monument wasn’t much to my taste but the real reason to go is to see the complete view of Ullaanbaatar to the north and the Bogd Khan Mountain Range to the south. It’s a good spot for a capital, and they should know. Apparently the capital has changed location no less than 29 times.
We got to sleep quite soon after hitting the road again and I woke to see the sunrise over the Gobi Desert. It was a beautiful, once in a lifetime sight and I realised that if I had a better seat I may not have had the best view to see the sunrise. I stared for some time, watching the sky turn from a dark, somewhat drowsy blue to a cool pink, then on to an electric orange. I got a couple more hours sleep then woke for the last hour of our trip. Somewhere close to the boarder there started popping up myriad dinosaur statues. Scores of metal brontosauruses dotted across the landscape. I guess things get boring in the desert.
We finally entered the border city of Erlian at around 7am. A huge, forgotten city, many times bigger than what I had expected. It was an altogether strange area that looked like it could have been something of a nice place to live, but then just stopped caring about itself and sunk into oblivion.
We were once again told to watch our pockets in this town as the people around here were ‘inner Mongolian’ and not to be trusted.
Getting across the border isn’t as easy as it sounds, or as it should be in this part of the world. For one you can’t just walk across, you need to be driven. But there is only one or two official buses every day so the general way is to get a local to take you in a truck. My wife-who likes to steer on the safe side of the road-didn’t like the sound of this but there were other things to consider. We had read that crossing the border could take hours and we wanted to get the train to Ulaanbaatar that day. We certainly didn’t want to get stuck in this town for any longer than what was completely necessary.
I woke before YJ, but not before our guest. I sat for a minute before checking my clock, hoping it was before our symphony of alarms would be set off.
“You have many alarms.”
“Yes. Sorry about that.”
“No, problem. I think you need some more.”
At least she took it well.
As we overslept we have no time for breakfast. We packed essentials and hoofed it to the train station, having to pass through Beijing’s blisteringly inept security policy and catch the train. Subway trains in Beijing are incredibly frequent. The 10 or so trains so got in Beijing were either waiting for me at the platform or were there within a minute or two. The stations are clean but retain a nice sense of old fashioned mustiness and gloom. About on a par with the London Tube.
We arrive at the station with 5 minutes to spare, hurrah! After the high fives and back pats with find out that the train is full. Sunken, we line up for the next train, hoping it won’t be 4 hours later. With some luck it is only an hour away at 9:05. We get the tickets, pass through another security check and wait around with half of Beijing. Since we have 50 minutes to spare I decide to grab a coffee from KFC (capitalist pig dog!) and by the time I get back there is a somewhat chaotic queue forming.
“What’s going on? We have 40 minutes before the train goes. Why are we lining up?” I testily ask the other.
“You think I chose this? It’s group mentality. One lined up and the rest followed.”
After pointlessly lining up for 20 minutes they opened the doors to the platform. Perhaps I haven’t explained yet that Beijing is big. On top of being big, it’s long. The buildings are big and long and so are the trains. Not only was our train big and long, but they decided to park it a big, long way away from where the tracks come to an end, rather conveniently by the door. A Good 300 metres from it.
The morning of our trip started with tea and apprehension. A quick shower, brekkie and last minute triple checks. We have been waiting for this trip for months, even years, and now it’s here I don’t really want to go. Why are we even going? I have a good job here in Korea, Youngja’s doing well at work and we’ve decided to pack it all in and live in sweat house dormitories, showering in toilets and sharing sleep patterns with strangers. I know the dignified reason for travel: it broadens the mind, you experience cultures out of your comfort zone and realise how small and big this world really is. It’s an incredibly fortunate situation to find yourself being able to get out there and have a jolly good look around.
Though, one shouldn’t forget that travelling is hard. You’re constantly on the move, from plane to bus to subway to whatever next. You flitter and flutter about more than a whippet in heat. If you’re not moving you’re preparing to move, and for a man who has declined whole careers for an extra hour in bed this can be seen as a tricky spot to place oneself.
We said goodbye to Youngja’s mum and set off. Youngja gave her little hug and a pat on the back and tried to make the best of it. They’re a sturdy bunch at the in-laws and public displays of affection are few and very far between. After we were dropped off I asked “How was your dad?” “He was quite upset” the wife told. This came as a surprise, to the untrained eye he seemed his usual self. “He seemed okay to me” I put forth. “He couldn’t look at me.” She confessed, through her blues.
At the airport we met a tiny Chinese man who was very jovial and proceeded to push in front of everyone and get to the front in record time.
“How did he manage that?” Asked the wife.
“Maybe everyone thought he was looking for his mummy.”