|Well, we finally got here but not without a few anxious moments, all my fault of course.
We had a leisurely breakfast, went back to the room to pack (again) and caught up on a bit of paperwork. Around noon we checked out and took a taxi to the train station. So unlike the train stations in China. No crowds, no queues, no security, no ticket check, no nothing. Train 005 to Moscow was the only train leaving that afternoon and the only people waiting seemed to be western tourists.
Anyway, the train turned up at 1.00 pm and we boarded shortly afterwards for a 1.50 pm departure. After boarding we found out that there was no restaurant car on the train until after Irkutsk (where we get off!) so there was a mad scramble to spend whatever Mongolian Tughrik we had left on supplies in the station shop before departure. Twenty four hours is a long time without food so we stocked up on instant noodles, fruit, biscuits, bottled water etc. The only beer available was warm so we decided to pass on it this time.
The train took off and we were on the way to Russia. A new experience for both of us and one that we were looking forward to, if a little nervously.
The journey itself was uneventful. The compartment was comfortable and we spent some time chatting to our neighbours, a German couple and a bloke from Switzerland. There was great activity in the compartment next to ours where a couple of women had boarded with many, many bags (in excess of ten). They spent the entire journey wandering up and down the train selling what seemed like handbags, shoes, clothes, blankets etc. Everything except what we needed, FOOD. All I can say is that when Russian customs boarded later, they spent a long time discussing whatever it is that customs officials discuss with the two ladies. I didn't get to find out the final outcome but both were still on the train the next morning.
It was when the Russian customs had boarded that we (alright, I) experienced our moment of anxiety. So far when buying tickets, be it in China, Mongolia or Russia, you have to present your passport or suitable ID and your name and ID number is included (printed) on the train ticket, so effectively the ticket is non-transferable.
Now, we got the agent who organised our four day trip in Mongolia to book the tickets for us (to save us a visit to the train station on our last full day). In order to do so, they needed a copy of our passports. Being the organised sort that I am, I had copies of our passports, visas, letter of invitation etc in my backpack. No problems I said and pulled out a copy of our passports and handed it to them. When we got back after the trip we collected the tickets and thought nothing more of it.
At the station, we had handed our tickets to the provodnitsa, the train version of a flight attendant, as we boarded. She checked our passports and tickets and directed us to our cabin. Fast forward to border control on the Mongolian/Russian border.
Russian customs/immigration boarded the train and collected all our passports and arrival forms and wandered off down to the other end of the train. I was just going through my pockets and found the copy of the passports I had earlier given to the agent (she had returned it with the tickets). Idly glancing at it I experienced a sudden shock. It was not a copy of our Australian passports but our Irish ones instead. I had totally forgotten that I had a copy of them as well. The issue was, if immigration checked the details on the tickets, they would not match the details on our passports. Having heard how officious they were at the Russian border, I expected this to be a problem.
The train stops for over three hours at the border crossing (don't know why it takes so long) and I spent the entire time expecting to be marched off the train. Every time we heard the stomp of footprints coming down the corridor (immigration officials don't walk, they stomp), we expected the worst. It was only when the train started moving again some three hours later that we were able to relax. Obviously the Russian officials don't check things as thoroughly as we were lead to believe, thankfully.
Anyway, we continued our journey and some fifteen hours later arrived in Irkutsk. Caught a taxi to our hotel (and got ripped off again!). Never mind, it's only money.
We spent an interesting day wandering around the city looking at the various old buildings, churches, museums etc. We also had to take time out to organise the next leg of our journey to Novosibirsk. As some have mentioned, it can be time consuming and a pain trying to organise each leg as we travel, but the upside is it gives us the flexibility we want. At the end of the day, it is what it is and we're stuck with it.
We're off now to see if we can find a place for dinner and then tomorrow it's off to Lake Baikal for the day. Will update you further after.
Until then, take care and have fun.
Brian & Katherine