The next leg of our Trans Siberian train journey would finally take us into Russia – and it would take us off the Trans Mongolian Railway and properly onto the Trans Siberian’s tracks.
We arrived at Ulaanbaatar’s very crowded train station in the afternoon, with about thirty minutes until our train left. The station is pretty small, which is not surprising considering Mongolia is not a very heavily populated country. A helpful guard pointed us towards our train, and we very quickly found our compartment.
We’d read a lot about Mongolian traders on the trains along this route, and Joanna Lumley actually encountered some in her documentary series. They seemed to cause incredibly long stops at the border, roamed the train compartments trying to sell things and attempted to hide goods in people’s cabins. We were kind of excited about the idea of encountering them, but also a little bit worried about the idea that they all seem to possess a cabin masterkey! We shouldn’t have worried (or got our hopes up), because we did not encounter them at all.
There are two different trains you can catch between UB and Irkutsk, the daily 263 which does not have a first class, and the twice weekly and very mysterious 005. Researching the 005 was a bit difficult online, but we thought it sounded like there was a first class available with two person berths. Luckily Yuriy at Real Russia came through for us and booked us into our own two person compartment.
Since there was so little information out there about the number 5 train, we took a few photos to document the experience. The train attendants were very nice Mongolian ladies, who didn’t speak English but always smiled a lot. They kept the toilets in impeccable condition, and this was also the only train we travelled on where the toilets were separated into Male and Female. There only seemed to be about two other women in our carriage, so the toilet stayed very clean!
The train hallway and the always helpful timetable and route map.
Our food collection – we didn’t get through it all. The Princess Of Siberia is a good book to read if you’re going to Irkutsk!
We encountered other western tourists for almost the first time in a few days. There was a German father and daughter doing a similar trip to us, and two loud American guys who we never really saw. However we heard a lot from them as they got progressively drunker in their compartment which was right next to ours.
The border crossing happened at night, and we’d done plenty of reading about it so we knew what to expect. Most importantly, we knew that they would close the toilets half an hour beforehand – the toilets always close as you get close to a station. Apparently the Americans next door to us did not know this. And as I just mentioned, they had been drinking for hours.
First the Mongolian staff checked our passports, and made sure we weren’t smuggling anything out of the country by searching our compartment. Easy enough. They were pretty friendly. Then it was time to go through the whole thing again on the Russian side of the border. By this stage the toilets had probably been closed for an hour. And the Americans next door had not stopped drinking. They were swearing loudly in their compartment about how rude it was that the toilets were locked and the fact that no one would let them in. Then I heard one of them contemplating just peeing in an empty bottle in their compartment. I have no idea if he went through with this. Finally, after several hours of intense Russian border checks we were on our way. We went straight to sleep, and I assume the Americans were finally allowed to use the toilet.
In the morning we woke up on the shores of Lake Baikal! There was snow on the ground, ice on the water and cute Russian villages to look at. After a few more comfortable hours on the train we arrived in Irkutsk.