They threw milk at our train as we pulled out of Ulaan Baatar. It is a blessing, a custom for good luck and a good journey, an offering to the local gods. When we stayed at the rural ghers, the people had a special wooden spoon for this purpose; they threw milk at dawn and dusk we were told. And as they bid their loved ones a good journey, they threw milk and our train pulled out of the station.
We were in two adjacent rooms with sliding doors and two bunk beds each. We lucked out with the car being mostly empty and we had the rooms to ourselves-eight beds when we had paid for six- the whole trip. It was nice but the rooms were smaller than I’d imagined, about 7’x7’x9′. The upper bunks had much more space than the triple-tier Chinese trains, but there was less space outside the cabin with only 4 folding seats by the hall windows. If you had only an upper bunk, you did not have access to a table. I noted all of this because I knew our next train ride, the five-day trip to Moscow, we had a similar two-bunk room, but our other seats would be upper bunks in the next car. So we enjoyed this extra space this trip.
We were on our way to Irkutsk! And Russia- yikes! Would our visas be ok? We had a bit of a wait to find out. The trip took about 24 hours, including a one-hour time difference and a border crossing that took almost four hours, starting at around 10pm.
At the Mongolian side of the border, they seemed quite strict as we showed our passports and left our beds so they could check our luggage in the storage space under the lower beds. Then, the train went on for what seemed a long time, at least 20 minutes, to the Russian side of the border. This time, they made us all stand up and smile to look like our passport photos. It was late and the kids were sleeping so we had to wake them up. The stern uniform-clad inspector woman scanned and photographed our passports and visas. Then they checked our luggage again, then came drug-sniffing dogs. Actually, I just saw one dog. It was medium sized with curly black hair and a friendly wagging tail- more cute pet than professional law enforcement. There was a lot of waiting around and eventually the train started moving again and we went back to sleep.
The next day we were treated to sunny skies and bucolic scenery. We saw Lake Baikal, container of 1/5 of the fresh water on the entire planet, and gorgeous snowy mountains. We were in Siberia! It was green and forested and sparsely inhabited with little wooden houses, gardens, shirtless men, motorcycles, pickup trucks and occasional farm animals. The lake was truly impressive as we skirted its shores for many miles. Sometime in the afternoon, we reached Irkutsk, the scene of our next adventures. Zdravstvuyte, Russia!