From Ulan Baatar, Mongolia we took an overnight train across the border into Russia.
It’s hard to believe that we’re leaving Asia, and that we’re just past the halfway point of our journey! We have been so curious to see when we’d notice the ‘shift’ and feel like we were in Europe… would we notice it immediately once we’d crossed the border into Russia? Could it be that different that quickly?
Prior to this trip, I’d only been on international train journeys around Europe, where you either don’t need to go through customs and immigration checks, or where (like the Eurostar from London to Paris), they do the immigration at the departure station, so the ride itself is uninterrupted. It’s very different taking international trains in Asia!
Crossing the Border on a Train
Both of our overnight, international train journeys have been badly timed (Beijing-Ulan Baatar, and now Ulan Baatar to Ulan Ude). We didn’t reach the border until very late at night, and then it took hours to get through – so we ended up sleeping hardly at all.
For this journey, we boarded the train in Ulan Bataar at 3:30pm. We reached the Mongolian border at 10pm.
At the Mongolian border you remain on the train while several officers come through to do their work. First, immigration, checking your passports and visa to make sure you’re within your acceptable permitted travel dates. Also they give you an entry or exit stamp in your passport. Then customs paperwork to fill out (to check if you’re bringing anything not permitted like agricultural products, commercial samples, too much alcohol/cigarettes etc). Then the customs officer comes through to collect your paperwork and sometimes search your bag. Then there was another guy who didn’t speak English who asked us to open one of our bags and looked in. And finally, the train security people who are checking for smugglers – they ask you to leave your cabin and they search under the bunks and in the storage areas to make sure nothing is being smuggled in.
This process took over an hour, and around 11:30pm we were off and moving again, but not for long…
30 minutes down the track, we reached the first Russian station, where now we had to go through the same procedure but for entering into Russia.
We didn’t leave the Russian station until 2:30AM! And we were arriving at our final destination at 5:50AM. Not a lot of time to sleep!
5:50AM we arrived in Ulan Ude, checked into our hotel, and immediately went to sleep for several hours (just until 9AM though, so we could catch the end of the hotel breakfast!)
I Don’t Think We’re in Asia Anymore
At breakfast, it was immediately clear we were no longer in Asia.
First, all the people were our size/shape (Tall! Broad!)!!! Amazing!
Second, there were dairy products everywhere! Cheese! Milk! Yogurt! And a big bowl of Sour Cream (which made Zak REALLY happy!)
Also, they offered us options like “still or sparkling water” (such a european thing, we didn’t get asked that around China) The chopsticks had disappeared. And because it is Russia, there were big bowls of homemade pickled vegetables, beets, cured fish, and gorgeous pots of honey with walnuts in them. YUM!
The Buryiat Republic
Ulan Ude is in a part of Russia called “The Buryiat Republic”. The Buryiats are essentially nomadic mongolians, but who ended up in Russia when the country lines were drawn. So walking around the town, you could see some very Russian looking people, but also very Mongolian looking people, and many people who were a blend of the two. So you’d get beautiful Mongolian looking women in big fur coats and hats and heels, because they’re Russian women – but just with a Buryiat Ancestry. It was a really cool blend between where we came from and where we were going!
And – probably because of the extremely cold places we’ve been in the past month – Siberia doesn’t even feel cold!
I mean, of course it’s cold – but it’s tolerable (read: your facial hair doesn’t get icicles like it did in Mongolia and Harbin!)
And with a day of bright sunshine and clear skies, it was really nice to walk around (a bit slippery on the sidewalk which required constant attention, but other than that, really pleasant.)
Visiting Ulan Ude
The thing to see in Ulan Ude is the giant head of Lenin.
Yep, it’s a big huge head. Of Lenin. The biggest in the world.
Zak was more excited to see this than I was.
After that, we went to visit the National Museum of Buryiat Culture. It all looked very similar to Mongolia: the clothes, the ger they had setup for visitors, the discussion about horse riding, archery and wrestling. We found it underwhelming because we’d just spent several days living in an actual ger with actual mongolian herders. So seeing this stuff in a museum felt really flat.
However, there was a special exhibit of a Buryiat jewellery artisan which was amazing. He had a gothic style that reminded us of Tim Burton, with lots of stylized insects, animals, and human figures. They were really beautiful!
Then, it was admin time!
- Get Russian SIM cards for our phone (we found a phone shop staffed by two early 20-something women who spoke no English, so it was a nice long process of using Google Translate back and forth to get our SIM cards – but everyone was good natured and laughing and it worked in the end!)
2. Visit a Pharmacy! Our chest colds linger, and now mine has moved into my lungs, so I wanted to get a serious decongestant. Both the pharmacy in Mongolia and this one in Russia were similar – everything is behind glass and you have to speak to the pharmacist to get it. So you walk into the pharmacy and it’s a wall of glass cases, with the pharmacist behind it, who you talk to through a little window. I used Google Translate to write “I have a cough and my lungs are congested. Do you have medicine for that?” and passed through my phone. She grabbed an orange bottle which had a picture of lungs on it (all the writing was in Russian), so I bought it. Fingers crossed it clears out the rest of this cough!
3. Grocery Store! On this trip, you always need to be thinking ahead to the next leg. Our next train was tomorrow, and it would be an 8 hour daytime train ride … so we’d need food. We found a grocery store (“Sputnik Supermarket”) and were THRILLED to have options beyond instant noodles!! Tomorrow on the train we’ll have rye bread, cheese (!! CHEESE!), mushroom pate and sausage. And two bottles of kefir yogurt to drink for breakfast. And a real proper bar of dark chocolate! It was definitely starting to feel like Europe…
And after all the admin errands, time to eat lunch! We had lunch in the Marco Polo cafe and we were in heaven. I had a big bowl of hot borscht soup (beet soup) served with sour cream, and zucchini fritters with a sour cream dill sauce. Plus we had a big plate of homemade pickled vegetables. It was SO delicious! Maybe we won’t miss the Chinese food after all…
Tomorrow we’re off on our first West-bound train, heading from Ulan Ude around Lake Baikal to Irkutsk. We’ll spend a few days at Irkutsk to visit the lake, go dog sledding and enjoy Siberia.