Monday, October 11, 2010

No Visa! No Enter!

"Why you not have Visa! This visa not good! No visa, no enter!" The Mongolian border guard officer yells at me. Our group were imprisoned in our compartment, a guard placed on our door. This was serious stuff! Images of perishing in some forgotten gulag in Siberia flashed through my imagination. Then jackbooted guards in their WW2 era uniforms tramped towards us down the corridor. We were to be escorted off. Somewhere....

You ever have that heart sinking feeling when your dreams seem to dissolve into custard?

We'd always wanted to visit Mongolia, that land of horses, and an ancient people that set massive forces moving across the vast steppes to the create the golden age of the Mongolian Empire, stretching right across Asia into Europe. We'd finally got here, to have those dreams this cute little Mongolian Border Guard, all 5' 3"of her, on her spiky 6" heels with the nicest legs...I was thinking "I hope she's going to be our prison guard." Imagine being tortured by her in those 6'' spikey heels.

Can't help notice the shoes. I am a custom shoe designer after all. Gives me a good excuse to look at women's shoes. And legs come out of them....

My wife and I were travelling the Trans-Mongolian Railway. Starting in Beijing, 8 of us had headed straight through to Irkutsk to meet up with the rest of our Friendship Force group who'd travelled across from St Petersburg. We thoroughly enjoyed Irkutsk, a city astride the Angara river that flows out of Lake Baikal in Russia's Siberia. A few days of glorious weather exploring Irkutsk is a must for any traveller on the Trans-Siberian. Lovely ancient wooden buildings drooping at odd angles with the constant movement of the freezing and unfreezing of the permafrost, which just added to their character. We'd both enjoyed the Museum of Wooden Architecture an hour's drive out of town, and long walks along the river in the evening people watching, the promenading locals or young couples courting as they enjoyed a few hours of Nature's beautiful but short summer.
Lystvyanka on the edge of Lake Baikal has always been a place that had drawn me to it. We loved it. Little dashas and wooden cottages. The smell of smoked omul, the local fish delicacy caught fresh from the lake and smoked on the side of the road. Long walks from our hotel to the town along the lakeside. Well, we had to enjoy it. Russian hotels have a problem with finding enough food for 25 guests who don't bother to book in for lunch or dinner, and Russian hotel staff don't bother to tell 25 guests that you need to book in! Clash of cultures for sure.

But now our complete group were to retrace our tracks back to Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia. We had spent 2 days and nights travelling up from Beijing already, but heading back was going to be just as interesting, and that was the problem - our most knowledgeable travel agent had not applied for multiple entry visas! Our single entry visa had been stamped on the way through.

But we had enjoyed the ride so far. We had coped without showering for a few days and made do with ‘cat washing’ in the cramped bathroom at the end of each carriage. Sure, we had to wait until another passenger had washed their dishes or coffee cup, or even their undies in the wee basin, but we’d packed plenty of antiseptic tissues and hand wash.

We had tried out the dining car, but found most of the menu unavailable, and egg omelets get boring for anything but a survival situation. Cup-a-soup, or dried meals and coffee, mixed up with the plentiful supply of hot water from the samovar fired up at each end of every carriage at least filled the belly. Actually, we ate rather well. Packs of chippies, snack bars, biscuits, etc we had brought with us, and hunter gatherer forays at each station for local produce helped supply enough of a feast. We still remember the box of apricots bought for $3 at Erenhot, each with the sweet tang of of the way fruit used to taste from our childhood memories!

Bedding was provided and we took silk liners. The pocket knife I packed was great for making up our own meals. Our thermo mugs were invaluable, cutting down on the number of trips to the samovar.

We shared cabins with another couple of our group. Ear plugs are a necessity. Nothing worse than sharing a room with a snorer! But a 4 berth compartment is the way to go as you’ll get to meet other interesting travellers.

Do stay on the train when you get to Erenhot /Erlian on the Chinese/ Mongolian border. Here they change the bogies to match the width of the other country's track gauge. It’s an incredible exercise. Each carriage is separated then lifted up in the air by 4 huge hydraulic jacks and new bogies pulled through underneath, then the carriage is dropped slowly down upon them. It’s a massive undertaking when 24 carriages are suspended in the air all at once.

But all that was in the past and our immediate concern was actually getting back into Mongolia. Those grim unsmiling guards escorted us off the carriage. Our friends, unsure of our return, snapped away, keen to ensure photographic evidence of our disappearance!

Communist era official buildings are amazingly cold, stark and threatening when you don’t want to be in one. But we were the Friendship Force, come to make friends with Mongolians and aren’t they known for their hospitality and friendliness? But you’ve got to have the correct visa!

I’m sure we can work this out and soon be back-slapping each other. But not before lots of toll calls, right up to the Minister of Customs and Immigration. Another $50 for a new visa and we were out of there.


Somewhere $50 went missing in the exchange transaction. That sort of got them grumpy at us again. But then the note was revealed under the mound of forms that had been piled high after the massive rubber stamping ritual! Luckily. Apologies all round and we were out of there.

Passing by that cute wee border guard, I remark “I love your shoes, lady."  Not the right thing to say. Daggers glare at me. She straightens up sternly, as visions of her incarcerating and whipping me with those spikey heels on flash through my mind. “Oh dear,” I think. “Jim, you’ve really done it this time, you're in for a good thrashing!”

Then a beautiful smile beams across her face and she welcomes us all to Mongolia.

                                    Naadam Festival, Ulan Bator ,Mongolia.Held every  July 11-13.

The Trans-Mongolian is 1 of 3 alternative routes for the Trans-Siberian .
Which are-1 Moscow - Vladivostok,
                  2 Moscow - Beijing via Mongolia,
                  3 Moscow - Beijing via Manchuria. Or reverse Itinerary.

To find out where to book go here- You'll also find route maps and heaps of good info.Take your time to read the tips on what to do, and what to take.Almost everything you'll need to know is there.

If in Beijing, you can book here-the international train booking office on the ground floor of the Beijing International Hotel.

Many tour companies operate small group tours of the Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian.These can be very good value for the traveller who wants less hassle of finding their way around.Here are a few-

Gap Adventures-
If booking Gap Adventures, click on their advert right side of this page.Any bookings you make initiated from that advert link will earn this site a few dollars which all go to adopting orphan elephants at the .Every dollar this site earns goes to aiding Wildlife in Africa.
2 baby elephants so far.

This post appeared here-The Englishman Times recently as my Guest Post contribution.Check out The Englishman for heaps of exciting stories and info!


Anonymous said...

WoW, sure glad Im just an armchair traveler! I would have been sooo scared if all of this would have happened to me. Guess international travel won't be on my agenda, at least not to Mongolia! Where we going next Jim?

Sandy's witterings said...

Reminds me of a book by Paul Theroux once - Some real travelling which will be great in retrospect (probably sometime after a hot shower and a good sleep in a real bed).
Much enjoyed blog, by someone who rarely leaves his time zone.

Jim said...

Nice comments Sandy and I think it's Wanda! It was a mix up caused by our agent who didn't get double entry visas for us.When we travelled from Beijing up to Irkutsk and our visa got stamped crossing into Mongolia,my 'radar' went 'blipiddy blip' and I was thinking what on earth is going to happen when we have to come back down into Mongolia?So sure enough we got hauled off the train.But it got sorted.And we went on to have one of the greatest times of our travels.Mongolia is special and the people are wonderful.
As to where I'm going to take you next....we'll be chased by elephants shortly.
Or there's a story coming up about visiting our sponsored child in Addis Ababa.
Stick around.

Melissa said...

Wow so glad that wasn't me. Luckily when I was traveling all I needed was my Military ID card.

Jim said...

You from USA Melissa?
I think USA is lucky in not needing visas.