|6179km from Hong Kong.
The world's deepest Lake with 20% of all of the worlds fresh water.
From Ulaan Bataar to Moscow on Train Number 5, The Trans-Mongolian Express, or Mobile Gulag No5, or, across Siberia on a Multi-stop delivery vehicle with a bunch or raving alcoholics.
After the very pleasant, friendly and comfortable trip up to UB from Beijing I was expecting similar from Train No5. I walked to the station as I had 2 hours between checking out of the hostel and getting on the train. There was a big traffic jam around the station when I got near so maybe it was a good idea not to catch a taxi. The cause of the traffic jam was a person collapsed in the middle of the road, surrounded by his drunken friends, there was no sign of an accident so I assume he had a bottle of vodka too many.
I got on the train fairly quickly when it pulled into the station to nab the box under the bottom bunk to store my bag, there was one Russian guy in the compartment when I got to it and although he looked fairly merry he seemed harmless enough and reasonably friendly. We were soon joined by two Mongolian women and their 2 tonne luggage allowance (and the guide books say that the luggage allowance of 35kg is strictly enforced).
As soon as the train pulled out of the station the Mongolian women disappeared for a while and the Russian guys mates all turned up and were all extremely more pissed than he was. The worst was an absolute wreck (Nik 1) who kept talking and talking to me in Russian and, however much I tried to explain that I couldn't understand a word, he carried on and on and on. By this time the vodka had come out and they were trying to force me to join in the drinking. I was worried about getting out of Mongolia as my visa had potentially expired depending on how they count the days and wanted my wits about me so refused, probably offending them but I don't care. At some point the Mongolians came back with another consignment of luggage and started shuffling that about and trying to stash it about the carriage and all of the Russians except for Nik 1 went back next door. I eventually found out that they were a group of 5 Afghan Veterans working in the gold mines of Mongolia going home for a week for New Year, 3 Niks and an Alex in the next compartment and Jane (Yevgeny) in mine. Eventually Nik 1 gave up on me and went off to join the others.
At 9pm we reached the Mongolian side of the Mongolia/Russia border which passed without incident only taking an hour or two, the guy just stamped my passport with barely a glance at the visa. As all of the forms were in English and Mongolian, I had to help the other 3 to fill them in, when the girls asked if they should put Mongolia in the "Citizenship" box I said yes (I did wonder why they didn't use the Mongolian side of the form) but when the immigration officer came round I saw that they actually had Russian passports. Fortunately, the passport stamper saw the funny side and made a joke of their mistake.
The Russian side was much more eventful, first off a customs bod came along dishing out currency declaration forms, I took a quick look at it an realised that the entire form was in Russian, I ran down the train chasing him and eventually got one in English. Then Helga, the shot-putting Immigration Officer, came into the compartment demanding passports. We were all made to go into the corridor and look her in the eye when she checked our passports, she then asked me for some other form, but I had no idea what she wanted. She screamed down the corridor for the Provodnista to bring an English Entry-Exit form and gave her a right mouthful for not having already given me one. I filled it in then handed it over to Helga who then obviously went off for breakfast as we didn't see her again for another few hours.
Then the fun really began when the "customs mechanics" came along with their screwdrivers and spanners and tried to dismantle the train. My compartment was actually untouched and the young customs interrogator was very pleasant and spoke perfect English with me, I think that might have been part of the reason that the "Mongolians" stashed most of their loot in the compartment with the foreigner. The next door compartment was almost down to bare structural steelwork, the floor of the corridor lifted and the ceiling space fully checked. The Provodnista got another hard time from these guys as they asked her lots of questions and checked all of her compartment.
When Helga came back with our documents we were then free to get off the train. According to the timetable we had about an hour until the train left so I went looking for a currency exchange but when I reached the end of the train my confidence deserted me and I didn't want to be out of running range of the train, I've heard many stories of people getting left behind and at -10C I didn't feel like a night outside. My choice was good as about 10 minutes later the train trundled off into Russia although it didn't go very far before reversing to what I assume was a different part of the station, finally getting under way properly on time at 3am.
I was surprised but happy to find that everyone hit the sack soon after we started off again, Jane's snoring was bad but not as bad as Nik 1's incessant Russian babble. I must have fallen quite heavily asleep as I only just woke up at about 6am when we arrived in Ulan Ude and the 2 Mongolian Russians left the train with their cargo. This was the start of the time confusion zone as all trains in Russia Run on Moscow time, I tried sticking to local time. The sunrise was either at 9:30am or 3:30am depending on which you use, at this point I got out of bed and made a coffee and had a read. I was making another coffee when Jane, Nik et al came piling into the corridor to tell me that we had reached Lake Baikal. I went back and we all watched the lake roll past. Having just got out of bed, NIk was obviously very low in his blood alcohol levels so quickly opened a beer and more vodka to correct the imbalance, again I was offered and, although I did want to have a drink with them as their intentions were good, I couldn't face it that early in the morning and had to pass again. I was charging my mobile phone when they headed off to the restaurant car so I stayed to watch Lake Baikal.