There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 26 July 2007

To Naushki and into Mongolia: Part 8 of the Trans-Siberian Railway

Back to Part 7: Ulan Ude (2)
Everyone knows that the Trans-Siberian Railway runs from Moscow to Vladivostok - except it doesn’t really. Once east of Lake Baikal we had transited Siberia and arrived in the Russian Far East. Vladivostok is certainly the terminus, but it is the Russian version of Hull - no one goes there unless they are going there, and for most people there is no reason to do that. We went to Ulan Baator and Beijing, instead.

The Vladivostok train arrived at Ulan Ude on time. The last two carriages had the word ‘Naushki’ in the window, and it was to one of these carriages that our tickets directed us.

I suspect our carriages were detached in the station, but I could not see. Wherever it happened, a short time later the main part of the train was continuing eastwards, while the last two carriages, coupled to a new engine, had turned south, following the River Selenga towards Mongolia.

Russian village beside the River Selenga

Rising in the Mongolian highlands and flowing northeast before turning north at the Russian border to reach Ulan Ude and eventually discharge into Lake Baikal, the 1000 km long Selenga must be one of the largest rivers that nobody’s ever heard of. It is a broad river, in this flat grassland sometimes very broad, and we followed its general direction for six hours to the border town of Naushki. It was a pleasant ride, sometimes beside the tree-lined river, sometimes cutting across the rolling grasslands. The few villages we saw clung to the river banks and were grey and wooden, much the same as all the other villages we had seen since Moscow, some 6000 km ago.

The very edge of Russia

At Naushki our provadnitza, a much more lively and intelligent individual than her colleague on the Irkutsk - Ulan Ude run, indicated that border formalities would begin in three hours. We could not sit on the train - the air-conditioning only works when it is moving – so we set out to investigate. Three hours in Naushki, we discovered, is 175 minutes longer anyone could possibly need.

According to Bryn Thomas’ ‘Trans-Siberian Handbook’ (carried, in various languages, by almost every trans-Siberian traveller) Naushki station offers a bank, a crowd of black market traders and toilets that ‘..would not win any hygiene awards.’ ‘Have your insect repellent handy’ he advises, ‘as the air can be thick with mosquitoes in the summer.’ Since the 2003 edition, the black market traders have been flushed away and the toilet block has been rebuilt. Sadly the large, clean almost fragrant toilet block is the beginning and the end of Naushki’s facilities.

We soon found ourselves, along with most of the inhabitants of our truncated train, sitting on the platform at the side of the toilet block – it was the only shade available. There were about fifty of us, almost all from Western Europe, though one older French-speaking couple turned out to be Canadians. The majority were in their early twenties, overwhelmingly students, but there were a few couples like us in their late fifties/early sixties. We were, I suppose, the same people, just a generation older.

The long wait exposed another of the wonders of Russian capitalism. Why, we wondered, had nobody thought it might be a good idea to set out some tables and chairs, even an umbrella or two? Every day, fifty or sixty people were marooned here for three hours, fifty or sixty relatively wealthy West Europeans; why not sell them tea or coffee, some cold beers and hot snacks? It was fine to banish the black marketeers, the makers of dishonest money, but why was nobody trying to make some honest money by providing a much-needed service?

After three long hours we were called back to the train. We sat in our hot compartment, filled in some customs declarations and waited some more. An official arrived, took a cursory glance at our passports and wrote our names in Cyrillic on the declarations. Cyrillic has no ‘W’ so it uses Ю, which is a sort of ‘yu’ sound. There is no equivalent of ‘H’ either, which accounts for the number of cinemas we saw showing a film concerning a certain ‘Gary Potter.’ After another wait a different official collected our declarations and passports, leaving the carriage with passports, all open at the visa page, stacked up his arm.

A long hot wait for our passports to be collected
It became increasingly hot so we were allowed out, under supervision. Having earlier sat beside the toilet block, we now squatted on the platform in the shade of the train. We heard the story of the Spanish students who were beaten up for showing insufficient respect to the head of Lenin in Ulan Ude. They had cuts and bruises and one impressive black eye, but were full of praise for the locals who came to their rescue and called an ambulance, and for the hospital that patched them up. They then had a conversation with some Dutch students, all of them speaking good English. We found this a little humbling as our Spanish is minimal and our Dutch non-existent.

We were herded back onto the train for the compartments to be searched. The smart, young border guard glanced at us, climbed up for a quick look in the luggage space, nodded and was gone. If we had been trying to smuggle a Mongolian black-marketeer over the border they would have found him, anything smaller would have remained undiscovered.

Passports were returned and, five and a half hours after we had arrived in Naushki, the train moved. We passed an air base with fighter jets hiding in oversized Nissen huts, the roofs covered with turf - camouflage which is not entirely effective from a train.

We reached the border and paused for twenty minutes in no man’s land between two barbed wire fences. Bryn Thomas advises travellers not to attempt to leave the train at this point. We wondered if the sandy strip between the wires was mined.

Then we moved on and soon arrived in Sukhbaatar, the Mongolian equivalent of Naushki.

The station has one platform and we pulled in some five or six tracks out from it. Passports were again collected and the provadnitza warned us our train would not leave for an hour, maybe two. Between us and the platform was a long goods train that looked as if it had not moved since the Russian revolution. Most of the younger travellers chose to squeeze under the nearest wagon. I looked at the space, considered my age and bulk and decided to walk round it. We had just reached the end of the train and crossed the track behind it when, without warning, it gave a jolt and set off. It seemed no more than good luck that no one was underneath it at the time.

Sukhbaatar may have been an even smaller settlement than Naushki, but the platform was much more lively, swarming with children, money changers and peddlers of water, pot noodles and anything else they thought they might be able to sell. Russia had been entirely European all the way to Irkutsk, and largely European thereafter. We were now clearly in Asia.

Hot and sweaty but in Mongolia at last,
on the platform, Sukhbaatar Station

It was hot and sweaty on the platform and there was nowhere to sit, so we decided to return to the train. As we set off a long train arrived and a party of soldiers marched out to greet it. The sergeant waved us back and deployed his men at intervals along both sides of the newly arrived train. Looking through the gaps, we realised our carriages had disappeared.

Mildly concerned we walked back along the platform. Everybody else was still milling about and it was inconceivable that our train could have gone with all the passports and left the people behind, so we relaxed.

Nothing much happened for another half an hour and we watched children playing on the tracks, right under the wheels of the train. We felt we ought to go and pull them away, telling them that trains can start without warning, but nobody else seemed the least concerned.

Rusian saftey notice - in Mongolia no one seemed to care

After a while others started to notice our missing train and there were several anxious faces. Then the two provadnitzas reappeared. Relieved faces turned towards them and they milked the moment for all it was worth, walking down the platform hand in hand and gathering their charges behind them like pied pipers.

They led us to the end of the Mongolian train to which, we discovered, our carriages had been coupled. We climbed aboard, our passports were returned and we moved off towards Ulan Baator. We had arrived at Naushki just after one and were now leaving Sukhbaator at 8.20. It had taken seven hours to cross the border, a border, at least in theory, separating two democracies. We must admit, though, that apart from the elongated waits, we were treated with courtesy and saw no signs of corruption. This border crossing is the stuff of legends, and if the stories are to be believed it was much tougher in the past. We had heard of a girl, attempting to leave Russia the day after her visa had expired, being sent back to Moscow to renew it before being permitted to leave, and of Mongolian border guards emptying cases and taking the train compartments apart. We had it easy.

All we saw of Mongolia before darkness fell was rolling grasslands dotted with the occasional ger. No roads, no towns, no industry, just a few nomadic dwellings.

A seven hour border crossing had perhaps not been the ideal way to celebrate our thirty second wedding anniversary.  We got out the food we had bought in Ulan Ude, gave the last of our roubles to the provadnitza in return for a couple of cans of beer, and improvised a celebratory meal of a sort.

Back to Part 7: Ulan Ude (2)


  1. I really enjoy reading your blog. Instead of the usual touristy cities, you have been to so many unique places. I'm waiting to read Part 9: Life with the Mongolian nomads.

    Blogger from Singapore

  2. Thanks for your comment on my blog. I kinda envy that you and your wife can retire and travel round the world. Not many people have the good luck to do that.

  3. From what I read from your trans-siberian railway journey, it seems that there will be numerous stops along the journey for you to explore the neighbouring cities. Is there a fixed time for you to return to the train station to catch the train to the next stop? Or can you choose your own timing?

  4. Thank you for comments ‘I Miss Macao’.

    We did have to work for forty years before we could retire, and we do not travel all the time (though I would quite like to), just a couple of trips a year. That said, we know we are very fortunate; we have time, enough money (though we are by no means rich) and good health.

    To answer your specific question: The Trans-Siberian Railway (which we did before we retired) is a railway like any other. There are many trains and they stop at many stations; in theory you can buy a ticket to any station, stay as long as you like, then buy another ticket for the next stage of your journey. In practice, that would be very difficult unless you spoke fluent Russian and had unlimited time. Like most other Trans-Siberian travellers we arranged our tickets, stops and local guides with a travel agent before we left home.

  5. Thanks for your reply. My earlier comments seem to discount the hard work that both of you went through for the past 40 years but I don't mean that. The good luck that I meant is that both of you are still healthy and together.

    Some people I met worked all their lives and wanted to travel round the world after they retired but they can't do it for a range of reasons (personal health, finance, children's health, etc).

  6. I'm not discounting the hardwork that both of you went through for the past 40 years.

    I enjoy reading the other China blog of yours especially on Urumqi. I always had the impression that Urumqi is a backward place and mostly populated by Uighers. I never knew that it's such a modern city and mostly populated by Chinese.

    I like reading the facts and history that you provide, followed by your own thoughts and feelings about that place. Eg, Mongolia, Russia, China, Libya, Egypt, Algarve...

  7. Up to standard David.