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From Ulaanbaatar on a train full of Buryats

Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 11


Sunset on the Trans-Siberian Railway

After Irkutsk the train had emptied. Most of the Mongolians that had been travelling train 005 from Ulaanbaatar had left us at the station. Since then, we’d been travelling less than half-full. But still, most of those onboard were still Mongolian, and most were going all the way to Moscow.

They were Buryats, I suspected, a Mongol people comprising over 400,000 – that is, about 30% – of the population of the Buryatiya Republic near the Mongolian border. This made them the largest indigenous group in Russia, who, despite Soviet encroachment and Stalinist persecution throughout much of the last century, had managed to retain their language, faith and customs, and whose Mongol-Buddhist culture was currently in a healthy state of resurgence after being released from Communism’s atheistic grip.

Many of those that had been onboard, as Ugka had told me in Zamyn-Uud, were ferrying goods from Mongolia to sell in Russia. There had been a flurry of activity not long after we had first set off. The corridors were busy with people going back and forth between the carriages, arms full of various things. Storage compartments were being filled under bottom bunks and it seemed the different bundles of goods were being split between the various traders in each carriage. It was only later the next morning, after we had entered Russia overnight and the goods were being reunited with their owners, that I began to realise the whole exercise was most likely aimed at preventing the authorities from becoming too concerned about any individual carrying too much over the border into Russia. But now those traders had taken themselves and their piles of duvets, their cowboy boots and their bags of denim shirts, and disembarked.

Yet as much as I wanted to, I found it hard to converse much with my fellow Trans-Siberian travellers. They spoke Russian with the carriage attendants and with the other Russians on the train. With each other they spoke their own Buryat version of Mongolian. They spoke neither English or Chinese. The most we managed between us was to confirm that we were going all the way to Moscow together. We shared a few glasses of beer in our compartment, but anything other than such common courtesy was beyond us.

But though my compartment was now home to just two of us, the others in the carriage, if they didn’t know each other already, were merrily reveling in their shared Buryat background. Crammed into our compartment, they spent the days playing cards and drinking from the enormous bottles of beer that had been bought at the previous station. There were few other Westerners on board. I’d seen two elderly Australian women travelling to Moscow and then on to Helsinki together. I’d see them at almost every station stop power-walking down the platform and back. There was another young couple that emerged maybe once a day during the afternoon but who I would rarely see again until the day after. Other than that, the train was pretty much Westerner free.

I’d stopped going to the restaurant after finally having my fill of the Trans-Siberian dinnerlady overcharging me. I’d hand her a five hundred ruble note, upon which she’d claim she didn’t have enough change or would ask me to come back later when she’d more likely be able to settle her debt, offering me instead a packet of crisps that would hardly make up for the two hundred rubles she owed. My diet now consisted solely of piroshky (baked buns filled with a lucky dip of either potato, cheese or meat), along with bananas, apples, peanuts, crisps, cakes, and an average of four king sized Snickers bars a day, all bought from the little kiosks on the station platforms. If I carried on like that, I’d be dead of a stroke within a week.

As for how I spent my days onboard train 005, passing the time was never a problem. We were on the Trans-Siberian for 91 hours whether we liked it or not. There was no option but to make the best of it. Hours meant nothing when the end was so far out of sight. To be bored was futile. I was either reading, writing, eating or thinking how hungry I was during the day. At night I’d sleep when we were moving but strangely wake in the silence of our overnight stops. There was plenty of staring at the endless taiga passing by the window, and there were stops every five hours or so which broke up the journey. But otherwise, time was not a factor. We would reach Moscow as scheduled on Saturday afternoon. The four days in between were simply their own self-contained netherrealm which we needed to negotiate before the world in real time could begin again. And we still had three days left.

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