Trans-Siberian 2: 16-18 January
We had a pleasant surprise boarding the train in the evening in Irkutsk - it was shiny and new and didn't smell of cheap Russian cigarettes which made for a more pleasant journey. There was also the notable lack of blasting music, no ice on the inside of the windows and the hot air wasn't suffocating us. Result - or so we thought, the cabin wasn't any more comfortable though - the design and layout was exactly the same, just in newer materials (and the toilets were just as unpleasant, but with the added feature of a ventilation hole in the floor so you got a cold draft up your legs when going!). I think the trade off was worth it, but there was a bit less character with nobody trying to sell anything, no restaurant car and a complete dragon of a carriage attendant!
The scenery more than made up for any shortcomings though - we were travelling South from Irkutsk on the trans-Mongolian line and crossing into Mongolia - lots of snowy plains, mountains and wooden villages seemingly in the timber trade - it certainly seems like a tough life to live in these parts.
The border crossing itself was a bit of a flaff - we stopped on the Russian side for 3 hours before anything at all happened. We had to get off the train (much to our surprise) which meant hanging around in a cold waiting room in the station (not a cafe or vending machine in sight and it was -17C) whilst watching our carriage being shunted around the station and being connected to a different train. It was quite an odd feeling watching it pull away the first time with all of our stuff on! Then we went through the passport check, customs, paperwork and cabin-search processes on the train before moving 10 minutes down the track and repeating the process on the Mongolian side. All in all, I think it took 6 hours (during which time the toilets are out of use - there were a few desperate people when we got moving again!). Our passports were checked by 5 different officials in the process!
We arrived into Ulaanbaator on time though, 2 days after setting off, at 6am and transferred to the hotel which fortunately had a room waiting for us, so we got a couple of hours in bed, breakfast and a shower before heading out to explore.
The city seems to be quite long and narrow, orientated around two main avenues and while it isn't a pretty place, it has a certain charm and a hand full of impressive buildings, most of these around the central Sukhbaatar square. It must be bigger than it feels (it's home to 1/3rd of the population), there's a lot of neighbourhoods round the edge of town comprised of shacks or the traditional Ger tents rather than actual buildings, although we only saw the edges of these as they were a bit intimidating and there's only so long you want to be outside in -25C. In fact, Ulaanbaator has the distinction of having the lowest average temperature of any capital city in the world (one for the next pub-quiz Nutts!).
Talking of temperatures, we have found taking photo's in Ulaanbaator quite a struggle. By the time you get your hand out of your glove, camera out of pocket and positioned to take the photo, your fingers are so cold that you can't press the button to take the picture. I swear I almost cried at one point cause my fingers were so cold! The other thing which is difficult to deal with is that you cover your face with your scarf to stop your cheeks from freezing but this causes condensation to form which in turn makes your nose run but when you try to sniff your snot has turned to icicles! All rather uncomfortable I must say!!
In an effort to find out more (and to get out of the cold) we visited the National History Museum which was really interesting - the Genghis Khan years obviously - but more so the recent history from transition from a USSR-dependent communist state to a democracy in the 90s with an open market and massive strides in education - something that they are obviously very proud of. In fact half the people here seem to speak really good English and most of the shops/restaurants/attractions have English signs and translations which is a big surprise. There seems to be a large number of Westerners working here as well. Another lasting impression is the number of recognised tribes in a country with a total population of less than 3million (and one 80% majority tribe), ranging from a few families through the low thousands, all with their own traditional dress etc. Interesting.
We visited the Gandantegchinien Monastery today - an active Tibetian-style Buddhist monastery towards the edge of town which features a 26m high statue of a Bodhisattva in it's main building - really impressive which we've sneaked a photo of (weren't sure of the etiquette re photos..). We also couldn't resist visiting the equally cultural establishment of the Grand Khaan Irish Pub although they didn't have the desired bottle of Magners (for 'Irish Pub' read 'ordinary pub with green chairs that sells Guiness').
So we're all packed now for the next leg - up early tomorrow for the 7:15am train to Beijing where it's a massive -5C, we can't wait!
Dan & Sue