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End of the Line!

sunny -22 °C

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I have arrived at Ulaanbator (UB as it's called round here), the coldest capital city in the world. Last week the temperature dropped to around -33C! Today it's expected to reach an unseasonably mild high of -7C! Just 3 changes of train from London St. Pancras (would have been 2 if the TransMongolian had run) has got me 5,611 miles and I'm now just a few degrees further West than the East coast of Australia, where I won't arrive for well over a month! Sadly though the train journey has come to a premature end because of the situation in China. The photo above is of the Mongolian diesel loco that did the last 150 miles or so.

After saying goodbye to Emma at the hotel, John came with me to do a bit of shopping and to see me off from Yarolsavski station. Russian Railways Train number 2 "Rossiya" was waiting on track 1. Much to the annoyance of my provodnitsa (guard/carriage attendant), I boarded the train which was to be home for 4 and a half days just a minute or two before departure and found my compartment. I opted for a first class 2 berth compartment but ended up being the only occupant for the whole journey. My roomie was meant to get on at Kirov, 12 hours from Moscow but they never turned up. The rest of the coach was made up of two Russian couples, 4 Americans who kept themselves to themselves, a Swedish couple and a pair of posh Londoners who were up making a lot of noise until about 4am on the first night.

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Everyone kept asking me if I was going to get bored. I can honestly say, I didn't get bored at all! I have loved travelling by sleeper train ever since my first one from Paris to Munich about 10 years ago (the now withdrawn City Night Line service run by Deutsche Bahn). But the one downside is worrying about getting enough sleep to enjoy the day ahead or, depending on the route and country, having to worry about getting up in time for your stop. No issue like that here! There is something fantastic about not having anything to get up for and having nowhere to go. One of the ways I have been passing time is watching the now 30 year old TV series of Michael Palin's Around The World in 80 Days and can't help feeling really jealous at the relative ease in which he turned up at ports and arranged passage on cargo ships all over the world. Things are very different 30 years later.

In just 80 hours, the Rossiya took me 3189 miles, travelling through 6 timezones in constantly sub-zero temperatures with amazing punctuality. During the entire journey the biggest delay arriving at a station was just 3 minutes. This is just as well, because I had a relatively tight connection onto train 306 to UB.

Talking of timezones... One qwerk of the TransSiberian that I was quite looking forward to was that in the past, regardless of where you were on the route, trains and stations ran to Moscow time. So if you were leaving from Vladivostok in the far East, the time printed on your ticket and shown on the station clock would be 7 hours different from the time on your watch! This system was dropped only a year or so ago. I did get a feel for the reason for the old system on one night though, when I tried to arrange my dinner in the restaurant car for 18:30. This was flatly refused, despite the restaurant being empty and I later wondered if this was because we were due to move forward an hour at 18:00 and 18:30 wasn't going to happen that day!

Train 306 was already waiting at Irkutsk when I arrived, but I had time to top up on bottled water and noodles from one of the platform stalls. All Russian trains have a samovar at the end of the carriage where you can get boiling water whenever you want, so all station stalls are well stocked with instant coffee, noodles and Cup a Soup etc! This train was made up of 6 much older carriages than the last one so only 4 plugs for everyone on board, no shower and no restaurant. But it was still kept spotlessly clean by the provodnitsa who spent all day walking up and down with different cloths and dusters! Like the train I took with Jack from Bucharest to Chisinau last year, the heating on the older stock is still coal fired which wafts a lovely smell down every now and then that makes it feel like you're on a steam train, despite it being pulled by a relatively modern electric loco!

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The train left Irkutsk bang on time at around sunrise and for almost the entire first 7 hours of the journey there were stunning views as it skirted the South end of the completely frozen Lake Baikal (which is as big as Belgium according to Lonely Planet!). It was quite hilly at this point and the train had to slow right down to navigate some hairpin bends. It's the first time I've noticed any sizeable hills since Poland! A few miles from Ulan-Ude, my long journey East which started in Paris over a week ago came to an end as the train took a definite turn to the right and started heading South towards the Mongolian border.

I was quite nervous at this point as I only have a transit visa for Mongolia which is valid for three days and when I applied for it I had to say which border crossings I was using. Sadly I'm now going to be using Chinggis Khaan International Airport, rather than the train checkpoint at Zamiin-Uud on the Chinese border. The checks leaving Russia were even more thorough than when entering Belarus. I was visited by no less than 5 different people and the room was searched 4 times! Twice with dogs (one of which, a massive alsacian put it's two front paws on the bed and seemed to take a liking to my jeans), once by immigration and once by customs. My passport was returned and the train trundled about 10 miles to the other side of the border where the Mongolians had their fun. This time, 5 seperate people came to ask questions and one also checked my temperature!Thankfully they seemed a lot more interested in checking my health questionnaire than the type of visa I had! The whole process, to cross one border took around 4 hours. Just before setting off several people got on offering to exchange money. This sounds a bit dodgy but I had already read that it was very common and the rate offered wasn't horrendous. So 3,000 Russian rubles became 115,000 Mongolian tögrög. By then it was around Midnight so I went to bed and I was woken this morning by the provodnitsa 15 minutes before rolling into Ulaanbator's main station spot on time. I got a bus to the city centre and I got here just in time for breakfast!!

Posted by around129 16:05 Archived in Mongolia

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Nice to hear from you again

by Hgtehunters

Fascinating detail - amazing. (I am just about to cross the border into Sheffield …. see you in Mongolia if I take the wrong turn).

by RayEliz

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