8.25pm, Sunday 8 May: we waved a fond farewell to Boltor, our friendly Mongolian driver, at Ulaanbaatar railway station and boarded the Mongolian 263 train bound for Irkutsk. Although our itinerary informed us there would be no restaurant car on this occasion, our arrival time of 7.25am meant that the few provisions we had would more than suffice to keep tummies from rumbling during the journey.
Our carriage was full with two large Anglophone tour groups, the members of which were all talkative, some interesting. Fortunately, we were sharing a cabin with a charming couple – a Thai lady and an Aussie chap who now worked in Thailand. Shortly after the train groaned its way laboriously out of the station, we overheard one tour guide mention to his charges that they would have time to disembark at midday the following day at a Russian border town to eat lunch. “At midday the following day!”
I here refer you to our firmly-held belief that we would be arriving at 7.25am following day. Hurried fingers fumbled for our itinerary once more. No, we were right, departing on 8 May and arriving 7.25am 10 May. So what were they……? Wait!! 10 May! $#&+!!
I looked at my girlfriend and she looked like someone had just murdered her hamster with a blowtorch. We had not had the chance to shower the night before as we had been in a ger with no facilities and now we would have to keep maturing like a ripe camembert for a further two nights. And we only had enough food for 12 hours. The following text has been removed due to excessive swearing but suffice to say we were annoyed at ourselves.
Having begrudgingly come to terms with the idea of an extra night on board, we settled down to the business of getting to to know our companions. It turns out that a pack of cards is one of the world’s greatest tools for connecting people. It also turns out that erstwhile Boston Consulting Group strategy consultants learn new games frustratingly quickly!
The night passed uneventfully and, after a very hungry morning, we finally arrived at the Russian border town. Some stern looks and a very thorough baggage check later, we (which now included a charming, retired American called Dan from Washington D.C. who, we had discovered, was on the same itinerary as us in Irkutsk) were on the platform and heading out in search of sustenance. We quickly realised that “town” was an optimistic description of this settlement, which turned out to have one restaurant and three shops. Fate would have it that we had also arrived on V-day, a public holiday in Russia, and that all but one of the aforementioned establishments was closed.
Fate, however, feeling sorry for us after pulling this trick, had provided us with a Russian-speaker, Vladimir, the DJ living in Ulaanbaatar, who had chosen to befriend us on the platform. He spoke no English and I spoke no Russian but, with the aid of miming that Marcel Marceau would have been proud of, we managed to have a good chat.
Again, “shop” was an optimistic description of the remaining open establishment. It comprised a few shelves, packed with a very odd assortment of foods, attended by a shopkeeper whose last smile had been recorded late in the 20th century.
My pointing and Vladimir’s cheerful translation resulted in us leaving the shop with a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, a bag of undefined biscuits and some water.
Back aboard the train, we were both knife and butter short of a sandwich. Improvisation was required. I broke off two sizeable chunks from the loaf then selected the thinnest, sharpest card from my wallet (which happened to be my Hong Kong driving licence). With it, I cut the cheese into slices then cut a thin central pocket into the bread and filled it with cheese. The result? Pretty decent! And all because I learnt to mirror, signal, manoeuvre.
Another night of cards and debate drifted sleepily into history and Irkutsk hove into view on the banks of the Angara river.
What happened next is the subject of the next post…..