Trans-Mongolian Express: Day 1

Trip Start Jun 01, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"Remember what Bilbo used to say: It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to..." - The Fellowship of the Ring

The day dawned bright and fresh. There was something electric about the atmosphere, some whisper of excitement that we couldn't touch, couldn't hear, but could feel to the very depths of our being...

Today, Luck willing, we were going to leave Moscow.

We left our bags with the hotel and got on the underground at 12. The train didn't leave until 21:40 but we wanted to make sure we had the right station and we knew how to get there. It turned out to be a good thing, because we didn't have the right station. But, half an hour of wandering later, we did.

And then we saw the sign that said "Don't forget if you're on the trans-mongolian express you need a Mongolian Transit Visa BEFORE you get on the train".

Now we had heard somewhere that you could pick this bad boy up at the border, but we couldn't for the life of us remember where.

So we got ourselves to the Internet Cafe as quickly as possible, and started Googling. The first bit of information seemed promising - we could get it at the border. But it was five years old. The second site, a new one, said that the law had changed and no you couldn't get a visa at the border.

Bugger, said we.

So we searched for the Mongolian Embassy in Moscow, and as luck would have it, it was only a twenty minute walk from that very spot. And as yet more luck would have it, Tuesday was the only day of the week they didn't close at lunchtime. We explained we needed a visa rather quickly and were told to hand over some money and go away.

We went to the McDonalds round the corner and were disgusted to find that they still do Supersize meals... So when they took all those adverts out in papers saying that they were aware of the health issues and were stopping them, all they meant was that they were stopping them in the UK and USA... Who would have believed that you can't trust a corporation?

Anyway, we went back to the embassy and got sent away again, this time to have some pictuers taken. Time was running out. But the picture place was nearby, and we got back to the embassy 6 minutes before it closed, and were given our visas.


Then we went back to the hotel to collect our bags, and they could tell we were kind of on the fence about whether or not we had enjoyed our stay with them, so just to stick it in and break it off they charged us 6 quid for leaving our bags in a store room for six hours, and another four quid for two little bottles of water.

As it turned out, and for all our stress and worry, we got to the station two hours early.

As we stood in the light rain (a final farewell from Moscow), we watched the pantomine of drunks being led away by police only to return five minutes later and thought about who we would be sharing our cabin with.

There was a scale, it was decided, from 1 to 10. A 4, 5 and 6 would be variations on the theme of a Russian family who pretty much ignored us for the entire journey - perhaps an old Matriach mothering us slightly, or a son practising English on us. A 3 would be Russian Xenophobes, a 2 would be Russian drunks, and a 1 would be drunken and violent Russian Xenophobes who also liked to steal and start fires.

Going in the other direction, a 7 would be a couple of backpackers we didn't really like, an 8 would be a couple of backpackers that we did like, a 9 they would also be female and attractive, and a 10 would mean the above but with a penchant for casual sex thrown in for good measure (sorry mum).

When the train finally showed up we got on with minimum fuss. Our room was small but not too bad - although the beds were made from a material with the density of lead and the comfort of broken glass.

We had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would probably be sharing with a couple of 3s, maybe even 2s. In our experience, it was good to aim low. We had already planned to engage the drunken Xenophobes in drinking competitions to win their trust, and sleep in shifts of five minutes each.

So it was with some surprise that we were met by two young, polite and English speaking girls. One from Canada and one from Estonia. They were on the train as far as Ulaan Baator, Mongolia's fair capital, which would mean they would be with us for five and a half days.

Not much happened that first night. We didn't want to explore the train as we feared there wouldn't be much to see and wanted something to do for the next week. So as night fell we quietly went to bed, considering where our new roomates fit in to our scale.

Could it be that we had lucked out? Could it be that we had landed on our feet yet again? Could it be that we had found ourselves in a room for five days with two nines? Or tens?


It could not.

But we wouldn't find that out until the next day.

And it was going to be a long way to Ulaan Baator.
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