Starting an argument with someone who you’re going to be sharing a small cabin with for the next 25 hours in the first five minutes of meeting them is not necessarily a lesson in how to win friends and influence people. None the less that’s exactly what I do before the train has even pulled out of Ulaan Batar station.
I’ve just stowed my bag and sat down when the first of my cabin mates appears in the doorway. He’s a plump Mongolian, sweating mightily and wearing a pale green hand towel over his bald head. He’s lugging a huge suitcase (almost 1metre x 1metre), which he deposits on the floor with a grunt before disappearing again. A moment later he appears with another suitcase of the same size, squeezes it in the cabin and leaves. A few minutes later he comes again, with two more suitcases and his wife (a tiny woman, well under 5ft tall, with long hair bleached blond and pulled back in a tight pony tail). They all squeeze into the compartment. I am now sitting in the far corner, almost obscured by luggage. To my horror he disappears again and comes back with four smaller bags. It’s about now that I start shouting.
We don’t speak the same language but he gets my point: there are too many bags in the cabin. He starts shouting back. I’m pretty sure he says something along the lines of ‘well where do you expect me to put them?’. I tell him in no uncertain terms and we begin a lengthy discussion that only ends when the conductor appears. He shrugs and says ‘only 35kg per passenger’ then departs, leaving us to it.
We stop shouting and stare each other out. In the end, with more sweating, Mongolian cursing and a lot of grunting and heaving, he moves two of the large cases and all the small ones onto his bunk and his wife’s bunk. That still leaves two monstrosities blocking our leg room and, once the fourth and final occupant joins us with his two bags, we’re well and truly squeezed in.
I mutter and glare but there’s nothing to be done. ‘Are you moving house or something,’ I ask in my most cheesed off voice. He doesn’t understand anything but the tone and we glare at each other some more.
The train pulls out of Ulaan Batar and within 10 minutes it becomes clear that they are not moving house, they’re indulging in some Arthur Daly style wheeling and dealing. A steady stream of Mongolian passengers begins to appear at our door and Bob and Tina (not their real names but they’ll do!) start digging out new jeans, t-shirts, jumpers and souvenirs from their huge cache of luggage. Money and goods change hands and our cabin is a busy as TopShop on a Saturday morning.
Still in a huff, I wander off to take some shots of the Mongolian countryside that we’re rolling through. We’re following the tracks of a wide river. Herds of horses, pine forests and Gers sit bathed in late afternoon light.
I explore the rest of the train and meet a Swiss couple, David and Carole who I first met on the way from Beijing. They’re sharing with an American guy called Dylan and the air conditioning in their cabin has broken down. I sit with them a while and we fantasise about cold beer.
When the train takes a scheduled 15 minute stop, Dylan and I are on a mission for beer. The small store on the platform doesn’t have any but the shopkeeper sends her young son to guide Dylan to the nearest corner store. I stand nervously at the entrance and watching both the train and the road.
The minutes tick by. All the other passengers get back on board. I run to join them. ‘Wait, wait, we’re one short, we’re one short.’ I’m desperately calling to the signalman as I pull myself back on board. I can’t see Dylan anywhere but stand by the open door, hoping the train won’t move without closing the doors.
Two more minutes pass and I’m frantic with worry. Missing trains and planes is a particular fear of mine and being stranded in the middle of Mongolia as the daily Trans Siberian pulls away from the platform ranks pretty high in my worst nightmare list.
Eventually I see Dylan in the distance. ‘Run!’ I call to him and he breaks into a trot. As he heaves himself up to the train the signalman gives me an enquiring nod and I give him the thumbs up with shaking hands. The train wastes no time. A few seconds later it begins moving.
Dylan is laughing – in his hand he’s carrying an ice cold 2litre bottle of beer. We take it back to the cabin and manufacture glasses by cutting water bottles in half. We drink it and eat peanuts and crackers, enjoying the icy refreshment and giddy with relief that he hasn’t missed the train.
As we approach the Mongolian border I go back to my berth. The atmosphere in the cabin is one of tense calm and as we cross the border I realise why. My cabin mates are planning to smuggle their goods into Russia.
We pull up on the Mongolian side and customs give our room a cursory glance, stamp our passports and let us be.
As soon as the train begins to move, a hive of activity breaks out in my cabin. Bob and Tina begin ripping things from their bags, hiding them under the mattress of their beds and underneath sheets and blankets. They dash off with piles of clothes that the give to friends on other parts of the train.
As we approach the Russian border Bob is sweating more than usual, mopping his face and neck with his pale green towel every minute or two. He smiles obsequiously at the border guards, hands over his forms and then dashes off for a restorative cigarette. It’s after 10pm and we’re scheduled to be here for three hours so I lie on my bed and try to sleep. Bob paces up and down. We hear guards walking along the roof of the carriage; a sniffer dog is brought through; the bags are cursorily searched. I doze. Bob smokes and wipes his sweaty palms. Tina whispers instructions to him.
Eventually our passports are returned and with a final squinty-eyed look, Russian border police leave the train. As we begin to move Bob and Tina are wreathed in smiles. They’ve made it through undetected.
Some five hours later I wake to find that I’m in Siberia and have left Asia behind. I know that technically I’m not in Europe until I cross the Urals but one look out the window and it feels like Europe is already here.
Painted wooden houses with pitched roofs stand in neat gardens. Behind them is Lake Baikal, a vast blue sea. More wildflowers than I’ve ever seen before fill the grassy meadows with colour.
Mint green pine forests ring the blue of the lake and families camp and cook their breakfast by the lakeside as the train runs alongside. By 2pm we arrive in Irkutsk, the pretty Siberian town that is the stopping off point for travellers like me who want to explore a little bit more of Siberia.