Our night train to the border was very relaxing – we were on a Russian carriage and the two attendants were very friendly. The male attendant was particularly friendly, as soon as he checked our tickets he shouted out “welcome aboard” and when we cleared immigration in Russia ha added “welcome to Russia”! He spoke very little other English but he didn’t need to – his gesture of hospitality relaxed us a lot and we found the whole border crossing process to be very relaxed. It did take a full day to clear both border posts but that is standard – why I don’t know but that is how things work. We were a little worried about being locked in our cabin for 10 hours as some horror stories suggest can happen, but with a bucket of fruit ready to turn into a toilet, we weren’t even sweating that eventuality! We did wake up in Mongolia to find that we had lost the rest of our train – I got off for a walk around early in the morning, wondering when immigration would come to clear us out of Mongolia and found that we were all alone. Our lone carriage sat at the station and there appeared to be no real activity that was going to see us move on in the near future. So I sat in the sun, shivering, and read a book until we had to get locked in an hour later.
At Naushki, the Russian border town, we stopped for several hours and after passport formalities were complete we were able to get off and wander around. The town was small and I managed to find the second worst toilets I have encountered, ever. One very large pit, not deep, piled with poo, on top of which sat two sheds with two squat toilets in each. I don’t know if it was the piles of poo on the top side of the squats or the fact that the pit itself seemed to be growing outwards, ready to swallow the sheds that was most off putting………..
Late in the afternoon we stopped opposite a big Russian Air Force base with fighter jets doing take off and landing exercises, but otherwise the journey was almost entirely one of spectacular scenery.
Arriving in Irkutsk early in the morning, 36 hours after leaving UB, we found out how extreme Siberia can be. It was 4 degrees, raining, and people were dressed as an Australian would for a Melbourne winter. We didn’t have much in the way of reserves for keeping warm so grabbed a taxi and headed for the city centre. The taxi and hotel we chose were both very expensive and we started to wonder just how expensive Russia would be. However we also spent the morning wandering around town and realized that the greatest obstacle for us in Russia would be language. No English signs, no English speakers and no cheat sheets in restaurants and cafes to assist the accidental tourist (you know, the tourist who accidentally turns up 6000km from anywhere, in deepest, darkest Siberia and then discovers they speak another language!).