We had a great train trip to Ulaan Baatar despite our nine hour wait at the Russian border.
For much of the trip we shared our four-bed compartment with Andrew, a lovely American guy who’d worked for the Peace Corp in Bulgaria and was travelling from Europe to Mongolia and linking up with cross-cultural organistions along the way. He also has a blog at www.supercross08.com.
At the Russian border town of Naushki a Mongolian police officer joined us in our compartment. He’d been in Novisibirsk taking part in an archery tournament and was heading home to Ulaan Baatar. He was really friendly and almost straight away he gave us his phone number in case we had any trouble in the city (so far we’ve not had to call him!)
Myself, Pete and Andrew had bought a small bottle of vodka in Naushki because we’d each realised that we’d been all the way through Russia without a drop touching our lips. We had a few sips while waiting for the immigration and customs people and our police officer friend seemed a bit worried about us drinking the vodka. He suggested we hide it and not drink it until after customs. We thought he was nervous about us drinking alcohol, but he had other reasons.
Finally after hours of waiting the Russian immigration and customs people arrived. None of us had overstayed our visas and none had anything illegal so that all went smoothly. Then we travelled a few miles down the tracks and went through the same process again with Mongolian customs and immigration.
Our police officer friend left the compartment for a time at the Mongolian side of the border and came back with a man with a ‘customs officer’ badge stuck to his chest. He then, quick as lightning, fished out our bottle of vodka. We thought he was dobbing us in, but instead he poured a very large glass of it into his mug and handed it to the senior customs officer, who was sitting happily at the end of our bed.
It’s a Mongolian tradition, we have since learned, to top up the glass after a sip has been taken. So, the police officer would hand the mug of vodka to the customs officer, he’d take and sip and hand it back to the police officer who would then top it up and handed it back to the customs officer. They then had a long, jolly conversation in Mongolian, drank much of the vodka and the customs officer left. We didn’t have a clue what was going on.
The deputy customs officer then came into the compartment and stamped our forms. Pete gave her a pen so that she could sign the relevant places and she liked the pen so much she asked if she could keep it. We weren’t going to say no to the friendly customs officer. She seemed to be keen to probe deeper into the belongings of our Mongolian friend, but then all of a sudden our vodka appeared again, another large mug was poured and the customs officer forgot about his bags.
We’d read that the bags of tourists are often not opened when entering Mongolia but that the bags of locals are usually checked thoroughly. He managed to keep them from checking his bags but we’ve still got no idea what he was afraid they’d find.
He offered us the rest of our vodka when we were safely on our way, so we had a few sips of what was left.
Eleven hours, one bottle of vodka and a pen later we were on our way and heading towards Ulaan Baatar.
So we’ve arrived in Ulaan Baatar. Already Mongolia seems like a really interesting place.
On the train, the countryside that we could see looked amazing and beautiful. And then Ulaan Baatar faded into view. First the gers seemed to appear more regularly, then they were grouped together and eventually we could see the outskirts of town.
Thankfully we were met at the train station by someone from the hostel in which we booked a room. Ulaan Baatar is a bit of a sprawling city and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense so it was good not to have to negotiate the public transport or indeed the roads.
The driving here is some of the wildest I’ve ever seen. I mean I thought the driving in Russia was a bit worrying but in fact it was brilliant compared to what goes on here. It’s a bit wild west to say the least – but then again the whole town feels a bit that way. A lot that way even…