"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 squished...by 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....
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.
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.
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- http://www.seat61.com/Trans-Siberian.htm 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-
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 http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/ .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!