Day 3 22nd Feb
Ulan Ude to Irkutsk
Last night we left Mongolia about 10 pm. Fairly straight forward. A few questions, a cursory look at our luggage, passports stamped. Then into Russia. Here times become complicated; the station times and train timetable are on Moscow time which is 5 hours behind, however the dining car and living times remain local, So officially we crossed at 7pm but in fact it was at midnight. Now this crossing was impressively thorough. Our passports and visas checked by passport officers, both Belarus (why ? We are nowhere near Belarus!) and Russian, military officers, and then we were asked about the purpose of our visit by a friendly yet somehow not, plain clothes official ..KGB perhaps. I kept wondering if he knew who I had been to hear last summer! Next came the security check… they dismantled the carriage, took the panels off the walls and ceiling, checked behind the pipes, shone torches into every cavity. Then they used a thermal imaging camera, followed by 2 dog patrols (the Spaniel took a great interest in our picnic bag, now there’s a surprise!). This was for every carriage on the train. We were at the border with no heating (so they could check behind the pipes) and no toilets for 2 hours! They did take a cursory look in one of back packs. By 9pm Moscow time, 2am local time we were on our way, straight to the toilet and then to bed!
As we awoke the next morning the views were stunning, we were passing Lake Baikal, completely frozen and glistening in the sunlight. Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake, 300 rivers empty into it and 1 exits. Before the railway ran the length of the lake winter transport involved an ice breaking steam ship, then in 1901 they tried putting rails on the ice and running a train across the frozen lake, it sunk! We , fortunately were travelling the shore. There were long ribbons of blue ice piled up like giant ice cubes, we figured this must be where fresh water had flowed into the lake pushing up the ice in huge chunks. Fishing holes had been made in the ice and the locals have elaborate means of leaving nets to catch the fish which can then be bought at the station. We were not ready in our warm clothes to disembark at this stop so missed that. We made our way to the dining car; the Mongolian car had gone and was replaced by a shining modern Russian car. The food was becoming more European, not a noodle in sight! Despite reading that we could pay in Chinese Yuan on every leg of the train and that card was not acceptable, the Russian dining car wanted Rubel or card (when the internet worked), they still fed us with a smile and started a tab as we were travelling with them for the next 4 days.
The lake scenery remained stunning for another hours, I had planned to write an assignment for my local preacher’s course but just kept gazing out of the window! The train made a 47 minute stop at Irkutz in Siberia.
This time we were well prepared in our winter clothing and carrying our passports (just in case!) made a dash from the train and the platform to the station entrance. We found an ATM but it was only in Russian, then another…still in Russian, third time lucky and we had local currency. Then to a phone shop (still in the station) Russian Sim bought for about £8 but no idea of network or detail. Back to the train,,,phew it was there! Sim inserted (tip: if you are travelling bring one of those “pin things” for accessing Sim card…we unwound a spiral note book!) and back in contact with the world…no Russian needed to access the internet then we could use google translate to find out the number etc. easy peasy! The rest of the day passed with catching up with world news ( why did we pop our media isolation bubble!?) and family (that’s why!). I eventually wrote my assignment (2 more to go to remain on schedule) and Steve occupied himself with “leadersmithing” by Eva Poole. He is totally engrossed in this and will be looking to lead something or someone when he gets home…watch out! A shower (quite a feat on this train), a delicious Russian Goulash and a few episodes of Joanna Lumley’s The Silk Road and we were ready for an early night.