Ulan Bator Train Station, Mongolia

After a tough night of bogie changing and border crossing, we woke up to Jude screaming for milk while the Mongolian countryside rolled by in all of its splendor out of our cabin window.

From what we saw of Mongolia today (our only day in the country), it closely resembled South Dakota (which we had visited earlier on our trip), with mile after mile of plains, deserts, and grasslands.  Much to the delight of Jude, we also saw many horses (tame and wild), cows, sheep, and sheepdogs, as well as the odd yak.

According to some Finnish travelers that I met in the dining car, who had just spent a week in Mongolia, over one million Mongolians (of a population of approximately three million) live in yurts, owing to the country’s nomadic history.

Some yurts

Indeed, you see yurts everywhere, from isolated yurts in the middle of a plain, with maybe some cows and a motorbike parked outside, to suburban yurts outside of Ulan Bator (the capital), sectioned off from the neighbors’ lots by picket fence.  The houses themselves mostly have brightly colored roofs; salmon pink and a particular shade of lurid green seemed to be the most popular.  The whole experience was fairly captivating, and we spent most of today gazing out of the window.

Although our border-crossing had provided a minor inconvenience by keeping Jude up past his bedtime, that experience paled in comparison to what had happened to a Canadian photographer, Gabor, we met today.  Our train (the no. 3) runs once per week, and Gabor had been on last week’s train.  Crossing the Mongolian-Russian border, Russian troops discovered that Gabor’s Russian visa (which he obtained through a Canadian travel agency) provided for an entry date of October 2011, instead of September 2011, i.e., according to the visa, Gabor was one month too early to enter the country.  Was Gabor temporarily detained or fined?  No.  He was thrown into a Siberian prison where he spent two days and two nights.

Gabor said that in his lightweight jacket he was freezing while his guards stayed warm in their full down jackets.  His cries for help were ignored.  Moreover, though he is diabetic, Gabor was not given anything to eat for his first 24 hours in prison.   He was ultimately saved by his Blackberry, which fortunately was not taken away from him.  Gabor got in touch with his wife in Vancouver who contacted the Canadian consulate in Russia, and he was eventually let go, sent back in private car to Ulan Bator, where he stayed for five days waiting for the next train (ours).  Incidentally, when we crossed the border into Russia this time around, the same guards reviewed Gabor’s papers, and were apparently extremely sheepish.

Gabor playing with Jude

Hearing Gabor’s story, and several other stories involving sniffing dogs and Russian soldiers tearing apart travelers’ train compartments looking for contraband, we approached the border with a good deal of trepidation.  We heard from a Californian couple we met that the Russian soldiers had given them quite a hard time, and had painstakingly gone through much of their luggage.  Alex was fined 60 Euros for excessive luggage, after a lengthy negotiation process where each piece was weighed on a scale, and the soldiers initially demanded over 1,000 Euros.  Fortunately for us, the soldiers (Russian and Mongolian) were very considerate.  No one even took a close enough look at our luggage to know whether it was excessive or not.  Although we can’t be certain why we received seemingly preferential treatment, our best guess is that traveling with Jude did not hurt our cause.  We generally got a friendly “vibe” from everyone who came in, and we sensed their curiosity about the tent and that there was a young child traveling on the train in the first instance.

Rather than unfriendly soldiers, the most unfortunate aspect of the border crossing for us has been that the facilities go into lockdown, forcing everyone to hold it for four or more hours per crossing (our cabin has one shared bathroom at the far end of the hall).  The reason is one of sanitation; the toilet dumps directly onto the train tracks.  More than that, for the changing of the bogies, the Chinese mechanics would risk having an, uh, deposit dropped directly onto their heads.

MORE LIKE THIS: Trans-Siberian Railroad: Day 1




  One Response to “Trans-Siberian Railroad: Day 2 – Mongolian Countryside and Gabor’s Story”

  1. Jude the “Protectorate”! In the 60’s, I dreamed of building and living in a Yurt – another unfulfilled dream (for which I am sure my family is thankful)!

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