The Ride to Mongolia

We were standing at the top of the stairs, looking out over the entire platform where our train to Ulanbaatar was waiting, and we knew already it was going to be a problem.

Already the orderly shopping and smoking of normal Russian train stops had been replaced by chaos, people pushing, crowding and hawking. There is an energy to the third world that can be quite stimulating and attractive, but sometimes it is mostly just a mess and a hassle. With giant bags and a long journey ahead of us, mess and hassle were not want we wanted. Not that we had any choice in the matter.

We got into the carriage and went to our cabin, 2nd class, shared accommodations. For this run, 1st class was already sold out: because of the visa problems we hadn’t been able to book early. But second class isn’t usually a big deal on these trains anyway. Except this time.

It was a total joke. The sheets were crumpled in a ball on the bed. The table was filthy with garbage, dirty dishes and random sticky spots. Bags were everywhere – in our baggage spots even. We have big bags ourselves, no room to share space, so we can’t accommodate anybody else’s luggage. And especially not when going across a border. It was an absolute disaster – the more expletives you add to that the closer you’ll come to how we felt.

We were mad. The owner of the bags was, predictably, AWOL. We moved all the bags into the corridor. Not our problem. We moved the open jar of pickles into the corridor as well. You read that correctly – an open jar of pickles, sitting on the floor in the middle of the compartment. Bobbing in the brine and everything. Your guess is as good as mine, but the jar was also summarily removed. Cleaning the place was an extensive procedure, and naturally the cabin crew were nowhere to be seen. We’d spotted them taking bribes as we got on the train, so we didn’t have a lot of faith in them from the outset.

We were just sitting down after getting rid of the old sheets, getting fresh ones and scrubbing down our table – not our jobs but waiting for the attendants was clearly going to be futile – when this fat Mongolian shows up. (In fairness, there are a lot of big, stocky Mongolians). He immediately starts screaming and grunting – Mongolian can be pretty coarse to the ear. We just look at him, standing there in our doorway acting like an idiot. We were in no mood for this crap, but our cabinmate was a trilingual Mongolian and we let him do the talking. The fat Mongolian makes a throat-slash gesture.

Welcome to Mongolia – we’re not even there yet and they’re trying to kill us. Our cabinmate was trying to calm the guy down. The guy actually thought he was entitled to use our space for his stuff. Screw that.

Don’t worry, though, it got better. This journey was the gift that kept giving, for the full 18 hours. We barely had a moment of peace. We it came, we were able to enjoy the scenery as it became increasingly beautiful heading south towards the border, with forests thinning out into rivers and steppe. Those peaceful moments were sparse, what with the cavalcade of mental midgets coming by our cabin, in addition to our grunting, belligerent friend.

There was another guy, another trader with multiple bags of goods. We’ll call him Dumbass, so as to distinguish him from Fatass. He was trying to spread all his possessions all over the carriage to avoid paying customs. Yes, that’s what I want when crossing a border: some guy saying “Here, just hold onto this bag for me ‘til we get to the other side.” Our cabinmate, good guy, was perhaps a bit naïve or maybe just intimidated, and took some bags, as did most of the other Mongolians on the train, to the chagrin of the foreigners who were stuck with these bags. Not on our side of the cabin, mind you, no way.

The Russian border police, for their part, were having none of it. I was in the process of hauling giant bags out of our cabin and back into the hallway when they boarded, with Dumbass coming down the hallway to stress out about it. They had him pegged immediately – they knew it had nothing to do with us. They told Dumbass off. The bags were removed and sent down the hall to live with him for the crossing. He freaked and panicked. Normally, such histrionics would fall into the “not our problem, don’t care” file, but he did get our attention when after one tongue-lashing from a border guard he threw a big red suitcase flying down the hall, crashing by our door and spilling its contents all over the corridor.

Border crossed – after six hours I should note, most of which were under conditions of zero access to the toilet. We kept a sentry on duty while I made a beer run. If I had known we were about to lose access to our bathroom I probably wouldn’t have made a beer run but we were bored and knew it would take six hours. Fatass came by. One hour of me sitting around doing nothing, and he just happens to come by in the five minutes that I was gone? So Sunshine is sitting there by herself and he grunts whatever stupid thing he wanted to grunt, the coward not man enough to come by until he saw me walking to the store. Unreal.

With the border crossed, we rolled through the night towards Ulanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. I would have preferred to look out the window at the new country but it was night. Good time for some shut-eye, right? Maybe a little peace and quiet after all that stupidity? No, not quite.

There are two locks on these train doors, a mechanical lock where the handle is and another blunt lock that simply blocks the door from being opened more than a crack. We learned that the handle lock didn’t work when a random lady opened the door as we were sitting around reading. What? I went outside, Sunshine locked me out and sure enough I powered the door open. It had been tampered with, broken, whatever. One lock down. The other one didn’t work either. We found that out when Dumbass burst through in the middle of the night. What the hell?

He passed out within seconds of breaking in. He was drunk as hell, no doubt, the smell confirmed that. The cabin attendants, as they’d been the entire trip, were worthless. They were in on whatever was going on at the border – and if this guy was paying them then one can imagine how much help they were going to be. I did try to get their help on the matter of the passed out drunken a-hole in our room. They just laughed. Not sure what you do. The train was full or we would have moved to a different car a long time ago. You could do something to the guy, but if he wakes up you’re kind of screwed because he has a bunch of friends down the hall.

Later, we found out how this worked. His ticket was only to Sukhbaatar, on the border. He’d paid the conductors for the bed, and they’d already tampered with the locks. It was our bad luck that the free bed was in our cabin. The conductors were getting paid to let a drunken loser break into our room and pass out. We were entirely on our own, in a brand new country, rolling through the countryside with no towns of any sort, and no hope other than that things wouldn’t get even worse than they already were.

There is some humour in it, I guess. Like when Drinky McIdiot rolled off the bed onto the floor and stayed there. Our polite Mongolian cabinmate attempted to poke and prod the guy awake because he had fallen on our cabinmate’s bag, but to no avail. We tried to chill out and relax, but it really wasn’t something that was going to happen. We could not get off that train fast enough.

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