Moscow – Irkutstk

September 21, 2012, 07.30. Somewhere between Ulan Baatar and the Chinese / Mongolian Border.

This is the last leg of the Trans Mongolian train. I’ve already covered 9000km from Amsterdam to Ulaan Baatar. This leg will add another 1500-odd-kilometers to that, so that by the time I get to Beijing, I will have travelled 10.500km by rail.

With so many impressions, it’s hard to recall and write about the experiences of the past two weeks. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in two and a half weeks, and every muscle, every joint in my legs hurts. I’ve caught a nasty cold and sprained my ankle hopping across some tree logs in Mongolia. My body pulled the emergency brake yesterday and I spent most of the day in bed, so I didn’t get to see Ulaan Baatar. But I feel elated. What can I tell you?

I remember a night drowned in vodka in Moscow (or rather I mostly don’t). I remember my appointment with Lenin. The Kremlin, with all its churches. The supposedly fancy art district in the old chocolate factory, completely deserted when I got there. The dismal weather, the cold, the rain. And I remember the train to Irkutsk.

Crossing six time zones in well over three days and spending four nights on the train, this was by far the longest of my train rides. I had replenished my vodka stock (the bottle I brought with me was put to good use that one night), bought both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and brought chocolate and dried fruits to hand out (it “used to be de rigeur,” according to the Lonely Planet). I knew four Dutchies would take the same train and didn’t like it, but nothing could have prepared me for the shock that was to come, for in my carriage alone I found there were ten Dutch people. All in all I counted no less than 35 on the train. Of these, some 20-odd people were on a guided trip with Tiara Tours (of all travel agencies). And all of them would get off at Irkutsk, same as me. So much for an authentic experience. Thank god only one of the Dutch was in my compartment, a middle aged woman named Mechteld, the other two being Russians. By the time I got to Listvyanka, I was used to the Dutch, and four days later still, when an old diesel engine pulled the train through the the outskirts of Ulaan Baatar, I could even laugh about it, but at that time I wanted nothing more than to jump of the train – or better yet, find some clever ruse that would leave them stranded at the next station, Duffilled and all. But what was to be done? So I sat down, and handed out food to the Russians, who did the same.

The train was a modern one, air conditioned and all. Sadly, Russians turn up the heat to at least 25C in winter. I have never been able to figure out why this is so. What I do know is that this made the journey a living hell, as no windows could be opened (because of the air conditioning). At night, with four people sleeping in a compartment that is at most 10m3, with the door closed, it became almost impossible to breathe. The corridor was slightly better, though it was still stuffy. Unable to sleep, I lay naked but for my boxer shorts on one of the top bunks.
The days were slightly better. The first was a monotonous blur. Endless, dense birch forests, the train going in a straight line at a constant speed, the rhythmic clanging of the wheels on the rails. Mechteld knitted. The intermittent stops were, at least to me, the only definite proof that we were actually moving forward, and not going around in a big circle of sorts. I bought pirovsky with meat and vegetables, and pancakes with cottage cheese. Mechteld knitted. The second day brought better weather, but no change in scenery. Mechteld knitted. I found out that the air conditioning could actually cool as well – as soon as the sun was beating down on the train, fresh (relatively speaking), cold air flowed in from the vents. Bliss. Before long, it was actually cold in the train (in summer, Russians set the air conditioning to 18C. I have never been able to figure out why this is so). Mechteld knitted. On the third day – we were now well into Siberia – the forests began to give way to rolling plains. The stations we halted at became more and more basic, with the notable exception of Omsk, with its grand hall, huge chandelier and Lenin statue. Mecheld knitted. I was halfway through Anna Karenina. Then came the last night, and an early rise to get off in Irkutsk, were a transfer would be waiting to take me to Listvyanka and Lake Baikal.

Listvyanka is named the ‘Baikal Riviera’ in the Lonely Planet. With 1800 inhabitants, however, it’s barely a dot on the map. In fact Google Maps does not have a map for Listvyanka. It just shows a dead end road where the town should be. Then again, that is not too far off, for Listvyanka is in fact a dead end road lined with hotels and five dead end dirt roads that lead inland. But the weather has held and sitting near the deep blue lake, under a blue Siberian sky, basking in the sun, I have everything I need.

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