Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Farewell Russia, Hello Mongolia

After the peaceful bliss of Olkhon Island, we had one night back in Irkutsk prior to boarding an early morning train to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We were excited our new friends Andy and Jane would be on the same 3o hour journey, but slightly apprehensive that we had second class tickets and our cabin mates could be anyone from quirky backpackers to drunken military personnel. We thought it would be a lot easier to bunk down with Andy and Jane, but Russian trains are quite strict with utilizing the cabin designated on your tickets and there's no messing around with Russian Rail staff.

The #4 service from Moscow to Beijing, via Ulaanbaatar. We planned to continue on to Beijing two weeks later.

A classic Russian scene on our way out of Irkutsk: the active smokestacks of a factory.

We were excited our train was scheduled to leave Irkutsk in the wee morning hours (5.40 AM), as it meant our train would circle the south coast of Lake Baikal just in time for sunrise. Many trains traveling in the opposite direction travel this part of the route at night.

Train #4 circling Lake Baikal just after sunrise. We enjoyed the views of Lake Baikal from our shared cabin for a few hours before heading further east into Siberia, then south toward Mongolia.
Oh, right, that shared cabin. As written in previous posts, we had been very lucky to travel through Russia all the way to Lake Baikal in a first class, private cabin. Since we were traveling the next leg of our journey during the highest of high seasons, and only a few days before Mongolia's famous Naadam Festival, all we could secure were second class tickets. Knowing this can be a great way to meet people, and share an epic travel experience, we were eager to meet the two lucky individuals fate would connect us with for the 30 hour journey. Upon waiting on the platform for our train at 5.20 AM, it could have been any of the fellow backpackers we noticed, or the dodgy looking geezers passed out in the waiting hall or, as luck had it, the lovely Belorussian mother and daughter team traveling to Ulaanbaatar to visit grandma and grandpa. We knew as soon as we entered our cabin and met Yana (aged ten) and Larissa (her friendly mother) we got lucky and wouldn't have to worry about a knife wielding drunk sleeping in the bunk above us.

Yana and Larissa pose as we roll along the Trans-Mongolian Railroad.

We were pretty sure Yana and Larissa were also relieved having us as their cabin mates and we immediately became friends. All communication was done with either gestures or through Yana, who had just enough English skills to make her mother proud and us pleased. The four of us shared our food during each meal, played card games, shared photos of family and kept each other's spirits up during long and hot border crossings. Rachel and I felt very touched when we woke up from a snooze and were presented with a freshly smoked olmut fish, courtesy of our new Belorussian friends. A smoked olmut, a native fish of Lake Baikal, is by far the most delicious piece of local cuisine for sale on the Russian Railways.

While our train hugged the southern shore of Lake Baikal, Yana and her stuffed pig, Harussa, gazed out the window.

A gorgeous slice of Siberia as our train took a right-hand turn heading south toward Mongolia.

As with previous long-distance rail journeys, nothing passes the time better than gazing out the window with a fresh breeze on your face.

Having our new friends Andy and Jane on the same train made the 30 hour journey to Mongolia fly by even faster. We enjoyed visits to their cabin for games of Uno and a trip to the restaurant car for a few beers and a chat about League One English football. Jane commented how impressed she was to meet an American who knew anything about League One (its actually the third league after Premiership and Championship) football. I mentioned how I've been a supporter of Huddersfield Town since my first visit to Yorkshire and tend to check the standings and results from time to time.

Andy, Jane, Rachel and I at the Russian-Mongolian border.

This vendor had neither meat dumplings nor smoked olmut and was therefore deemed not a viable recipient of our final few rubles.

There's always plenty of security personnel on a Russian train platform.

Rachel teaches Yana the classic card game "Memory". I believe Yana won the three games I witnessed and probably would've won more if I hadn't dragged Rachel away for an Uno rendezvous with Andy and Jane.

We had mixed feelings about leaving Russia. We were going to miss the well-operated rail system, inexpensive cheese blinis and the monstrous Soviet structures you see in every city. We, however, hoped warm lager would be a thing of the past and Mongolia would provide us with a few more English speakers, smiles and ice cold beverages.

Our Chinese cabin attendant (conductor #232 according to his badge) enjoys a quick toss of the frisbee while we waited for nearly five hours to clear the Russian border.

Next on Donkey Crossing: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and the Naadam Festival, Mongolia's annual culture extravaganza focusing on the national wrestling, archery and open-steppe horse racing championships.


Anonymous Chris Schaden said...

Hi you two, Fred and I are going to Italy on the 7th of Aug-22nd but certainly not as spartan as any of your travelling. but there is a part of me that wishes that I had the courage to take off and travel that way.. Brooks and Tiffany are finally starting to get settled into Hyderabad India They have been there 2 weeks and the house they were supposed to be moving into was no where near finished. luckily they just found one in a finished neighborhood . So tomorrow they are unpacking boxes and putting all of the things they sent over, including boxes of furniture that of course customs opened and parts are falling out all over the driveway???? Another amazing adventure.. I will send you #'s for them as soon as they are in the house I thought you were going to India .. at least another face from home would always be welcome enjoy Chris Schaden

10:39 AM  
Anonymous rich neville said...

this is such an interesting way to travel. Meeting the people from Belarus also enriches the trip. Karen and I are going to Mongolia within a year or two. So we will save your donkey crossing itinerary.
Rich and Karen Neville

6:16 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Hey ho, world-beaters!

If I'm not mistaken, you're a bit behind on your blogging (You're already in Mongolia. You should throw some actual dates in--not just what the blogger throws up. Anyway, who am I to tell you what to do?!!:)

The train seems like it's turned out to be anything but a nightmare. It's a pity more travel still isn't done that way. Looks like you're meeting locals and foreigners alike.

I await with bated breath and sweaty palms your Mongolia excerpt. Just the name alone sparks the imagination, as if it were some far-off kingdom that only exists as history. Anxious to hear the reality!


4:34 AM  

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