42 – Trans-mongolian Railway

August 4

6.15 am train to Ulaanbaatar. The entire train is Russian, except for one Mongolian carriage built sometimes in 1960s, which is of course the carriage they booked all the foreign tourists in. I get the logic. It’s cheaper and faster to fly, so basically only crazy foreigners think it’s a somewhat romantic idea to travel on the train, so I guess they let the tourists enjoy the romanticism of it thoroughly. On the other hand, it’s finally the party train I expected. Basically every compartment of the carriage is open, and people just walk around and talk to each other. And drink. The no alcohol rule does not seem to apply on the tourist carriage, or at least no one seems to care. It strongly reminds me of parties at the dorms when I was at uni. The whole corridor became one big party venue. There are Slovaks, Swiss, Dutch and Germans on the train. There is one German lady, resident in Australia who lived in the US for many years, that keeps complaining about her son moving to London for a job, because apparently “there are too many migrants”. How would you define yourself, lady? Arian?


The scenery changes dramatically. No more birch trees and lush meadows blooming with wild flowers. The land becomes nude and more and more steppe-like as we follow the river Selenge towards mongolian border. It takes forever to get there. The train keeps stopping every 5 minutes in the middle of nowhere and even when it’s moving, it never gains speed. Finally we arrive to Nantski, the border crossing. The russian passport control is quite swift, after which we are ordered to leave the train, as they take it somewhere for thorough controls. All the other carriages have russian dezhurnayas, ours has a mongolian one, which doesn’t speak english, pretends she cannot speak russian (she can) and has no notion of time. She insist that we have to come back to the train in 2 hours, while we know that the planned stop is supposed to be 4.5 (in fact we are right). The train finally moves again, only to stop after roughly 20 minutes on the Mongolian side of the border, where the whole passport control exercise repeats. This time we stop for three hours (although our train lady tells us it’s going to be an hour) and as soon as we get out of the train, we are attacked by hordes of Mongolians trying to exchange any foreign currency for tugrut. It’s a good way of getting rid of rubles, if you have any left, but there is also a working ATM inside the station that accepts foreign cards and gives official rate. In fact, they all offer 2.200 t for a euro, which I dismiss, but as soon as I approach the ATM, they come up with 2.800, which is a bit closer to reality.

Sukhbaatar border crossing

A good deed while waiting for the train to move: there was a small mongolian boy teasing (to put it mildly) an even smaller puppy. The poor creature must have had three weeks maximum. So we sat with the boy and showed him how to carress the little dog. After a while the boys mother came, and the child threw a tantrum that he wanted to keep the puppy. They ended up taking it with them. So we either found a new home for a puppy, or a dinner for a mongolian family. We’ll never know.

Me and Lenka, a Slovak girl I met on the train

We start moving again well after sunset. The dezhurnaya does everybody’s head in, as she switches the lights off by 11 and tries to send everyone to sleep. Piss off, lady, this is not a school trip. Arrival to Ulaanbaatar with slight delay, I manage to meet the girl from the agency that will drive us around Mongolia, who takes me to my hotel, and I catch up on some sleep.

a mongolian boy and a puppy

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