Saturday 20 May
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Train number 364 (Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar).
We'd heard the border crossing from Russia to Mongolia was arduous and could take anything up to nine hours. We were also suitably wound up by our guidebook that alluded to some Russian border scam involving our custom declaration form and bent custom officials determined to fleece us out of cash. This 'scam' had been a running joke with all other travellers we met on route who also owned a copy of 'The Trans Siberian Handbook' by Bryn Thomas. Bryn had us all suitably paranoid. The same guidebook also offered other 'helpful information' advising us to treat Russian custom officials with caution as a recent survey found 80% of Russian border guards to be diagnosed as mentally unstable. The book informed us that the survey was conducted following an incident where one border official shot four of his colleagues in an unprovoked attack. We'd also been told that Mongolians often used the crossing as a trading route and we might be asked to stash various 'goods' in our rucksacks.
In the end the border crossing was a bit of an anti-climax. There were no 'scams' and no traders on board, just a very tedious nine hour wait. They lock the toilets for the duration of the crossing! Our boredom was momentarily lifted when a Russian guard discovered 12 boxes of wallpaper in one family's compartment. All hell broke loose as the Russian guard shouted, waved her arms and threw the boxes on to the platform. Wall paper rolls scattered everywhere in the wind whilst one poor guy frantically chased after them. We watched the commotion with amusement until we were told that we'd be further delayed because the guy who'd been ordered off the train had one of the Mongolian girls passports. Having been signed out of Russia the train couldn't continue until the girl's passport was returned. We waited anther couple of hours. It was now 10 hours since the toilet doors had been locked. We finally arrived in Ulaan Baatar 7am the following morning, and I was more than a little bit relieved!