Saturday, November 26, 2011

Young, Shirtless and Loud. The Train from UB to Irkutsk.

Sunset from our train window over the Angara River.
Young, shirtless and loud. That is how I would describe most of the passengers on the second leg of our trans-Mongolian railroad experience. The others? Smugglers, illegally bringing goods from Mongolia to Russia. Not illicit goods, nothing exciting like drugs, weapons, or even pirated DVDs, just ugly sweatshirts, socks, towels, and bras for women with giant breasts (appropriate for a Russian mama, babushka?). Oh, and sausages, obviously.

After a good night’s sleep (The train left UB at 9:00 PM) we approached the Mongolian-Russian border. At that point a women who had not slept in our kupe (our 4 bed room on the train) marched in with two giant sacks of booty and began methodically stashing their contents throughout our cabin. She took sweatshirts out of their plastic wrapping, pulled the tags off them, and hung them from each of the four hooks in our room – making it look like she, Jesse, the other Mongolian fellow in our room, and me had at least 12 identical, though in various colors, hooded sweatshirts out and ready to wear in case the train got lost for the rest of the winter. She took her sausages and stuck them in the compartments meant for small personal items, like glasses or a cell phone, and so on with all her other goods. A few minutes later a friend of hers, an older, heavier, and more seasoned smuggler it seemed, joined in the unpacking process, revealing some of the veteran tricks of the trade. She took another handful of sausages and strung them up along the curtain rod and then hid them behind the curtains.
The (partially obstructed) view form our cabin window.  Those sausages were being brought from Mongolia to Russia.
Surely this wouldn’t fool the Russian customs inspectors, or their dogs, but it did give the odd impression that our cupe was actually a butcher shop. On and on she and her friends brought more stuff into our cabin; children’s shoes, men’s dress shirts, kitchen utensils; it was a sight to see. As we reached the Russian border, and all of her goods were carefully distributed throughout our cabin the Russian customs agents came through – with dogs! – saw me and Jesse, and made us take out and open all of our bags, and then OK’d the compartment! The dogs didn’t even alert to the dozens of sausages literally hanging all over the place! About 6 hours later when we finally pulled out from Russian customs and immigration she and her friend reversed the whole procedure. Like watching a magician they pulled hidden goods out from everywhere. A whole storefront had been stashed in our presence and no one was the wiser. Oh well, hopefully the black-market goods will push the exorbitant Russian prices down some.
Hiding the goods
Shirts, shoes, bras & unders
Warm clothes, dress shirts, bras
Everything was stashed by the Mongolia/Russia border.
As for the rest of the passengers? Well, it seems that we were booked into the Mongolian student carriage. Besides our smuggler friends, the rest of the cabin was filled with young Mongolian men. Because none of them spoke English, and we learned somewhat rural-specific phrases in the Gobi - such as, “Are you a herdsman?”; “Can we play the ankle bone game?” “How many cows/sheeps/horses/goats do you have?”; or “Your food is tasty” –we didn’t have many appropriate phrases to ask our compartment mate as he chatted on his iPhone or played on his iPad.

So, the thirty-six hour train journey was somewhat quiet (except for the loud, guttural grunts that passes for the Mongolian language). We did have power on the train, and the compartment itself (besides the hours in which it was actually a black-market shop) was rather comfortable. It was hot, and thus the reason all the other men were shirtless or in wifebeaters (Mongolia, as our tour operator explained to us, is a “male oriented society, and men are honored and respected.” As a footnote our guide also explains “high respect is also given to women and mothers as the caretakers.” Yeah, right.).
Anyway, like us, they bided their time on the train watching movies (they actually watched a Nadam highlights video), reading or walking up and down the carriage looking into one another’s, and our, cabin. Mongolians sense of personal space is somewhat different from Americans. They don’t have a personal space. At least a few times each hour someone would swing by our cabin – even if it was just Jesse and me in it – walk in, look around and check everything out, as if their friend might be hiding somewhere in the tiny little room. They would even do this if the door was shut, they would just open it up, and then play detective. In fact, it just happened while I was writing this, and he tapped me on the shoulder so that I would swing the computer screen around for him to check out. Good thing he can’t read English. Oh well, it’s the experience we signed up for.
Just a shirtless Mongolian, checking us out.
As for the rest of the ride?  It was pretty easy-peasy.  Before we rode the train I headed to the bathroom in the Mongolian train station:
I paid 150 Turgik ($0.15) to use the bathroom and this was all the TP I got.
Good thing we always BYOTP
Stall 1 Stall 2
Thanks Mongolia.
You had to shit on me one last time, didn't you.

I should have waited until we got on the train, it was much nicer, and had plenty of TP:
At least, it was nicer for me.  When the train pulled into the station, however, it was not as nice for the train attendant, who had to clear, our, uh, waste....

We did some work (surrounded by smuggled goods):
You know, salami, PB&J stuff, instant coffee, a Macbook Air, and of course, a half-dozen salamis
And enjoyed our coffees:
Look at those fancy mugs!  Nice with our Nescafe Gold!
We ate lunch:
Comfy, modern kupes.
Relaxing in our kupe
PB&J.  With mango jam from Kampot, Cambodia.  Yum.

And, of course, we spied on the Mongolian's lunch selections. 
We couldn't wait to get out of that country.
Gross.  Gross.  Gross.
Though, I did like this flavor of Lay's (it tasted like BBQ)
Its still unclear if we would have been better off paying more and going with an organized tour. This way, we would have a group of friends, who hopefully spoke some English, and were interested in sharing the experience of the train travel with us. As I write from our train car today, that has not been the case. And while its been a different experience then what we expected it hasn’t been all bad. We’ll see how this evening goes…

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