Tickets for international train travel cannot be purchased at Ulaanbaatar’s train station. To get to the International Ticket Office you must walk one block north of the train station and take a left past the hammer and sickle statue. We arrive at the ticket office on a Sunday. The only open ticket window lets us know that tickets for Chinese and Russian trains can only be purchased one day in advance. Returning on Tuesday, the same ticket office can no longer sell us tickets. They point us upstairs and across the building to the wood-paneled VIP room. Two ladies in uniform sit at behind a large wood-paneled desk. To the right, a doorway leads to a wood-paneled bar.
The lady on the left books the tickets. The lady on the right takes our money and speaks a little English. Between pantomime and place names we learn that the cheap train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk takes two days and the expensive train takes one day. We pay in cash for tickets on the expensive train. The expensive train can be Chinese, Russian or Mongolian – on Wednesdays it is Chinese.
We arrive at the train station early and spend our last Tugrik on mysterious vegetable juice and a Mongolian-German-English phrasebook. When the train arrives it is already full of people travellng from Beijing. Bulky Russian men are busy trying to pack bulky black duffel bags into our compartment’s every crevice. Boxes are stored under both benches, boxes sit in the depression above the passageway, boxes are under the table by the window where your feet might go. Next door a man sits on dozens of cases of cigarettes. We stuff our backpacks into the hollow seat beneath our bench and then sit on the bench with our tote bag with the picture of a duck on it. When the train begins to move the Russian men go to the next compartment to smoke and play cards. The day is warm and the windows in the corridor are partly open, so we go over to watch grassfires and small painted homes connected by clotheslines, railroad crossings with uniformed female attendants holding one red paddle in their right hands, fields of brown and yellow grass, men in the distance on horseback.
Three hours later one of the Russian men returns to the compartment smelling like vodka. He places one bottle of water and one bottle of beer carefully on the table near the window and then goes to sleep.
You must get an invitation before visiting Russia. You can get an invitation from a friend who is living in Russia, from a legitimate hotel you have booked ahead of time, or from a cheap, sleazy internet agency. I bought our possibly fraudulent internet invitation months ago and stood on a line at New York’s Russian Embassy until the vaguely slutty Russian ladies employed there could emphatically stamp my papers and tell me to return in four weeks for my visa. Cowering on a train too late at night at the Mongolian border across from two large and slightly drunk Russian men I am wishing we did not. The taller man with the awful teeth keeps bouncing out of his seat to visit the next compartment over, only to be returned by the customs officials. I find the blanks for the address of hotel we are not really staying at and number of the invitation we have fraudulently received. Before Immigration collects the information forms Customs drops off the customs forms. These are similar to the Immigration forms, except that they have not been translated into English.
Brows furrow and pens make their best guesses. The taller and more frightening Russian man leans over. He points at the form and tries to translate.
The lights stay on in the train until far into the night. Mongolian Customs is a lady in a military uniform. She is next in the parade of officials that will be asking us things in foreign languages this evening. Unable to sleep and staring at my passport again, I quiz Mister Chen on the five acts that can lead to the loss of your U.S. citizenship. Then he tries to name all sixteen vegetables in the mysterious vegetable juice. When the parade is over the lights go out and we are safely in Russia and on Moscow time. Moscow time is five hours earlier than Ulaanbaatar time. Tomorrow the sun will set at 2pm.
In the morning when the Russian men leave they give us a bag of soft grainy apples and six chocolates wrapped in blue paper with a picture of a bear printed on it, which I discover in my pocket in Paris, and eat.
CHINESE RAILWAYS’ TRAIN K3
ONE WAY TICKET KUPE (SECOND CLASS SLEEPER) 40930 TUGRIK (APPROX $35USD)
DEPARTS ULAANBAATAR TWICE A WEEK (CURRENTLY WEDNESDAYS AND SATURDAYS) 7:40AM
ARRIVES IRKUTSK NEXT DAY 1:15PM (MOSCOW TIME)
SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Getting into Russia is easy. Just remember: Bring a book! And don’t be Asian.