Just few minutes after having left the capital, Mongolia looks completely different from the chaotic and stressful Ulanbataar.
Where just not long ago there was a sea of cars and buildings, now there is nothing but an empty vastness and an almost serene quietness.
Mongolian Fur Trader
We are headed to the Gobi Desert to stay with a local family for the night.
Our car speeding over the frozen roads makes the journey even more exciting and wild, as there are very few other vehicles.
The bus from Ulan-Ude arrived late evening when the Mongolian autumn was at its full strength (or so I believed).
I always find it fascinating and exciting to reach a place completely new to me. A mix of thrill for the unknown things to come and the fact of being in this precise geographical location, certainly unimaginable just few years ago.
Walking from the bus station, I talked to a guy on his way back home from the factory where he works. In summer he works as a travel guide but now it’s too cold for tourists.
Chinggis Square and the Blue Sky Tower
(I’ve been told that, since the tower looks like an axe pointed at Chinggis Khan, some people don’t like it)
After taking an hour-long bus from the center of Ulan-Ude, Datsan Rinpoche Bagsha appears in sight, almost like a castle standing over the city.
View from Datsan Rinpoche Bagsha
The Tibetan Buddhist temple is located in Lysaya Gora, one of the highest places in Ulan-Ude and, since 2004, it is the home of the tallest statue of Buddha in Russia (5 meters), brought from China.
The clock in the wagon says 10PM, but right after the first step outside, it’s 4AM. Feels like magic, since everything concerning time on the train (i.e. stops) follows the Moscow time, even if the train is already 5 time zones away.
This time confusion makes the “train lag” even more interesting as on the train people eat, sleep and chat at whatever time they see fit.
So, early in the morning and sleepy, I arrived in Ulan-Ude, where patiently my host and her dad had been waiting for me.
Wooden Houses in Ulan-Ude
Along the long way, it is impossible not to get lost in the wilderness and vast emptiness of the Siberian landscape while looking out the window.
View from the Train Window
At each new look, the seemingly lifeless environment first amazes and then quickly blends into a blurred image of snow and trees.
The scattered wooden houses break the frozen monotony making it an interesting exercise to imagine how such a lifestyle must be. What comes to mind are a mix of western movies, old photographs, and snow.
And, even with all those imagined adventures playing out, the train carries on.
Being confined to a train, and often just to a small bed, for days and days sounds daunting and boring, but usually twice a day the train has a longer stop at a station.
So, for about 25 minutes, it is possible to get out, breath in the gelid fresh air, walk around and buy some food and water.
Station of Новосибирск (Novosibirsk)
It doesn’t sound like much but it is truly refreshing and each station tends to have its own personality: either because of the style of the station or just thanks to the presence (or lack) of babushkas (grandmas) who sell homemade meals to the hungry travelers.
Given the long distance, after a few stops, faces become familiar, exchanging a smile or chit-chatting about the ongoing experience.
At some stations, one can feel a bit more adventurous and try to explore a bit farther than usual but that needs to be done cautiously as the train waits for no one. As promptly as it stopped, the train departs once more into the endless frozen land.
If someone wants to get to the other side of Russia, there are only a few feasible options available: either flying, the most obvious and fastest one, or taking the train, the slowest but more interesting one.
I picked the latter as it would give me not only the chance to see a bit of Siberia in winter but also to experience the famous Transiberian Train: “At a Moscow-Vladivostok track length of 9,289 kilometers (5,772 miles), it spans a record eight time zones. Taking eight days to complete the journey, it is the third-longest single continuous service in the world.”
Wanting to head to Mongolia, I would stop at Ulan-Ude (roughly 3/5 of the complete route), after 4 and a half days of train.
Preparing the Train
The train, to me, seemed very “Soviet-style”, both imposing and experienced, you could almost feel it had done the route many times before and this was just yet another day of work, nothing special. But to me, and certainly many others before, this precise moment felt historic, at least on a personal level.