Saturday 19th October – DAY FOUR – After Irkuskt – a new world of hills, proper snow, trees and a full carriage.
We were asleep until Sil barged in and he was followed down the corridor by hordes. Seems Irkutsk (stopped at 07:50 for 23 minutes) was a popular destination to hop on and off the train.
Sil was not a svelte ballerina but a 23 year-old-chef, musician and photographer from near Rotterdam. He was on the way to see his girlfriend in Bangkok. Taking the scenic route through Mongolia, as you do when you’re young and you have an urge to see the world and try out your new camera gear!
We travelled beside Lake Baikal, the longest, biggest, oldest fresh-water lake in the world.
The rails were about 100 metres away from the water. Ish. Anton and Sil couldn’t agree on that. Maybe 50 metres?
The sky was lead-low and our windows splashed with rain. At times the dark grey clouds huddled together and brushed down closer to the water.
I thought of my Spanish kids singing that old classic, ‘The Water Cycle’, going UP and DOWN and ALL AROUND.
Kiwi Mark, as the boy who’d done his homework, reckoned we’d be beside the sea (sorry, Lake) for two hours.
I asked Craig, Air NZ pilot, what he thought the future held for air travel. He said he wasn’t expecting any change in his career span. He thought he’d see his time out. He thought there was some research into electric planes, and perhaps hybrid, but at the moment size of batteries prohibited long distance travel. He’d heard of algae and seaweed biofuels but thought that technology far-fetched. He had two daughters.
Asked about the idea of fast trains as a means of transport, Craig said, until the economics works out, the cost of infrastructure is simply too much. As well, consider supply and demand. There was not that much interest in rail travel in NZ. I offered my theory that airlines could be involved in developing fast rail, certainly in Australia ie Melb-Canberra-Sydney but he thought even Qantas not big enough to cope with the expense.
In the middle of that first night, when I was so cold and the bunk bed so hard and I couldn’t sleep, I’m sure the poppy seeds helped my swirling visions of carvings come to life, Indian type elephants and humans entwining and changing, sex and music and velvety softness. Last night sleep was also elusive but too warm. Mainly I felt the darkness and movement, secure and womblike. There was nothing to be done. No responsibility. All one could do was give up, curl up, relax and be carried like a baby. Nothing to be done.
15:50 – 107 degrees East. 540 m elevation. Sleet.
I chickened out at the next stop, Ulan-Ude. Even though we had plenty of time, in hindsight, I didn’t want to have to rush and potentially slip in the wet building site that was the station. The Kiwi Brigade managed to pound out and back in the time I’d dithered. They were on the hunt for more Russian treats!
Mark excited because he’d heard the Mongolian restaurant car was arriving. For sure. Was that our Russian engine tagged on to the end of the train? It was adhered to the Russian restaurant which suggested future movement. HOWEVER, because I hadn’t bought any at the station, I went to the restaurant to buy water (70 roubles). I asked the Russian ladies about the change in restaurant. The elderly lady, head chef, in the floral headscarf said, holding up her finger strongly, ‘Only one restaurant.’ Not sure if they are three generations of one family or just representatives but the younger called the middle one ‘Mami’ so draw your own conclusions. Good biz for a family. Work together and live in the compartment next door for a week. I guessed it would be week on week off.
19:30 – 254 degrees West – 580 m elevation.
BORDER RUSSIA AND MONGOLIA – Naushki – 1 hour and 50 minutes while wheels changed and the toilets locked. This is where we parted from the TransSiberian. From now on, we would be on the TransMongolian Railway.
21:13 – 182 degrees South – 600 m elevation
Our customs dog was a little black and white speckled cocker spaniel, who appeared slightly over the whole waiting thing but leapt to attention when required to enter each compartment to search. First our passports were collected by an officer, then a customs officer came to look us over, look at each of our luggage and clear us out of the cabin into the corridor before sending in the dog handler with pup. The two women appeared relaxed and totally alert. We waited while they examined the entire population of the train. We received our passports back and in turn, handed in our filled in customs form. No, I did not take photos of the official business. What do you take me for?
For the first time, our carriage was full for the night. We chatted to a small Intrepid Traveller group lead by Kristina from St Petersburg on her ninth guided trip; Elsa from Maryland USA, Laura from Liverpool UK and John from Newcastle, Aus. The rest of the gang crowded around the phone chargers were an enthusiastic group of twenty three people from Calcutta. One lady explained to me she much preferred travel in a group. No planning, no Google, no research, no searching, no stress … Hmmm. She might have a point.
There was a rush to the windows to photograph a magnificent Russian sunset.
I flung open the grubby windows and everyone hung their cameras out into clear air until not one but both captains told me off: ‘Hi!’ ‘No! No! No!’ Suppose there must have been Russian heat seekers near-by?
Sixteenth day Tao said, ‘There is no danger’.