Day 9: Irkutsk - Ulaanbaatar
Baikal Travel Blog› entry 10 of 34 › view all entries
Back on the train again. The train left Irkutsk at an impossibly early hour at 4:45 in the morning. The two of us staggered groggily towards our compartment, only to find it full of luggage, and an antique German traveller. The male rail attendant took our tickets, checked his list, and motioned us to move to the next compartment, which we could have all to ourselves because the train wasn't too full. Naturally he wanted to have a small tip for this 'service' (he disguised this by bringing us some tea) but we gladly paid the two euros for the luxury of extra space.
This carriage was quite a difference from the modern carriage we had on the Baikal Express, our previous train.
Another change with the previous stretch was the amount of tourists on this train. On the previous train there had been just us, Maciek and the three Germans in the compartment next to ours. On this train there wasn't a single Russian to be found. The first class compartment was filled with Dutch and French on organised trips, our carriage was filled with Danish, Kiwi's, Americans and, surprisingly, the same Germans once again in the compartment next to ours.
Maciek had ended up in a completely different carriage - we had number 8, he was in number 1, so we could only see him during stops at the stations.
It had been raining since six o'clock last night, and in fact was still raining. The combination of rain and cold usually means snow, so it didn't come as a surprise to see the lake Baikal area (which shores the train was passing for about 200 kilometres) covered in snow. A lot of snow. There was at least half a metre or more on the ground and trees besides the railway tracks, which made me wonder. If in Holland this much snow would fall in a single night, the entire public transportation system would come to a grinding halt. Not in Russia, here the train happily ploughs right through the snow, seemingly not bothered by square wheels, slippery rails or frozen overhead wires.
The trip from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia takes about 27 hours, but most of it is actually spent stationary. The scheduled border crossing stop takes a mindnumbing six-hours-and-fifteen-minutes, which is divided in four and a half hours at the Russian border, and another one hour three quarters at the Mongolian.
Not that we cared though, we ended up having a great party with two guys from New Zealand and two girls from England. We weren't sure how much alcohol we were allowed to bring across the border, so we made sure to drink all the beer, wine and vodka, just as a precaution.
So this was our departure from Russia, onto the next country. I have mixed feelings about Russia. The country seems to be hinging on two different legs. On the one hand there is the very modern, trendy and extremely expensive yuppie lifestyle mostly found in Moscow, but also glimpsed everywhere around Irkutsk.
And this is the nation that put the first man in space, yet everywhere you look in the streets there are drab, run-down buildings, where no maintenance has been done for at least thirty or forty years and seemingly the time has stood still since the seventies.
There are many things which have surprised me about Russia, and the Soviets of old. I mean, the Soviet regime was strictly atheist, and the revolution had been started as a protest against the Tsarist bourgeoisie, yet most of the orthodox churches in Moscow, which played such an important role for the Tsars, have almost all been spared by turning them into heritage museums.
The Soviet regime is also known for its industrialism, as is evidenced by all the ugly power plants in the cities (I think Moscow alone has 23 power stations within city limits), yet they also invested in many 'clean' mass transit systems like the subway in Moscow, and trams and trolley buses in almost every other city.
So Russia was definitely an interesting experience. Not particularly a favourite travel destination, or a place I'm likely to return to soon (though I still want to see St Petersburg and Vladivostok) but very interesting in the way that this is a culture so close to the Western European, yet at the same time so completely different. The only thing I couldn't get used to is the Russian psyche and their way of making visitors feel as unwelcome and unpleasant as possible.
I guess it has partially to do with the fact that there are 123 million Russians, and apparently their economy runs well-enough without foreign visitors, so they don't really need to invest in facilities for foreigners. When I thought of it (plenty of time to think in the train) it occurred to me that a country like France isn't all that different either. I work for a French company and on a daily basis I notice how the French national market is actually big enough for most French businesses. With the exception of the Alps and the Cote D'Azur you won't find that much facilities that cater for foreign tourists either (like signs in English, or people being able to speak another language).