Trans-Mongolian and Moscow

Taking off from the train station in Ulaan-Baatar was a strong experience. I met a young girl in my compartment who's father were about to take the train to Moscow and then to Prague. The whole family was on the station to say good-bye (except the mum - she was already in Prague). He would not be back for at least four years and they didn't know if they would be able to visit their parents meanwhile. Rolling out from the station you could see a lot of those life stories passing by - families waving of their fathers and crying, proud parents saying a last goodbye to their son or daughter or the look of hope and dreams in the faces of friends and family of some. There was hardly anyone on the platform or on the train without really strong emotions of some sort showing in their faces.

To then see all the preparations for the border crossing was hilarious. There were two women on the train, going around and distributing large amounts of jeans, pants, shirts, jackets and boots in different compartments. There is also a gorilla walking around as a lookout and making sure noone is causing problems. Then they spend all the way from UB to the border with going around, unpacking all the clothes (they are all bought in Mongolia or even China I guess and for sale in Russia) from the plastic bags and asks people to take them in their bags. They go through a lot of trouble to make sure people pack it together with their normal clothes, stove it under their food bags or hide it in other ways. They remove all tags, turn some of them inside out and make sure there are no signs of the clothes being brand new. As a spectator this smuggling is just hilarious to see.

After crossing the first border crossing, i.e. after leaving Mongolia but before entering Russia, things get even more crazy. Now they start putting on two pairs of jeans each, one pair of the new boots, hiding jeans in the bed, in the trash bin, in bags with food and even some in the roof air condition.

The bureaucracy is amazing - we have met at least six different guards now, collecting passports twice, handing out forms, collecting forms, etc... So far it has been at least seven forms - imigration, emigration, double copies, customs for Mongolia, customs for Russia and so on. Our "room" has been searched three times now and I'm not inside Russia yet. This is like a cirkus - especially with the two Mongolians looking like twin brothers with exactly the same clothes and everything. Once again - hilarious!

The border crossing then gets more and more surreal - at the same time as a blonde and surprisingly young and good-looking Russian female guard in uniform, high-heels and a short skirt is climbing around in the room, looking at all the hidden jeans she finds and saying "souvenir", two Mongolians pop in their heads and start speaking to me in Swedish - the first Swedish I've heard in a long time now. They all turn out to be living in Sweden at the moment, one even works just one block away from where I live with my mum when I'm in Stockholm. I wonder if the horse meat I got from my two "roomies" contained something strange, 'cause I started to believe I was hallucinating... :)

Sitting in the restaurant for breakfast on the first day after the border crossing gives me yet another insight into the size of the smuggling. Since we had by then passed the Russian border they didn't try to hide it at all - which means I just saw cartload after cartload passing me in the aisle, all full of jeans, shirts and so on. There must have been hundreds of jeans at least. The guys in my compartment got 150 rubel (40 SEK?) each for the favor of taking 20-30 jeans or so across the border.

On the second day the train starts resembling a fair more and more. Every compartment in my wagon seems to be selling something - my coupé got a new passenger during the night that sells jeans and jackets, while others sell shirts or shoes or even blankets. The "train lady" responsible for keeping the wagon trim, cleaning everything up and locking the toilet before every stop also cooks food in her compartment that she sells for a lot less than the restaurant. You just go and tell her when you're hungry - you can also buy tea and coffee from her. One compartment brought a portable TV and a video game - you can pay a bit to play for an hour. In the middle of this you find a lot of over-weight Russians walking around with huge shoppings bags - buying clothes from the Mongolian vendors. The few compartments that are not selling clothes or stuff are rather make-shift bars, full with Mongolians who've been drinking for three days. Just now (I was writing this one the train) a guy I haven't seen before came into our compartment, climbed up into the bed of the girl selling jeans and passed out. Iäm not sure I will have my space/bed free when I get back from the restaurant wagon.

At every stop on the stations it's equally crazy - all the vendors jump of from the train before it stops into a market frenzy - the stations are packed with Russians coming there to buy cheap jeans or stuff from the vendors on the train. People are hanging through the windows to sell blankets or shoes, while others set up regular shops (with life-size dolls showing their clothes) in the doorways of the train. On the same time the train gets invaded by some Russian vendors trying to sell canned food, cooked food or beer to the people on the train. The train stops for a set amount of minutes, usually 15-25, and then it just leaves without any warning. When it starts to move all the vendors at the station gets crazy, rips their stuff back from the customers that haven't paid yet and runs for the train - I always think that someone won't make it, but they seem to be used to running along side the train to jump on. Just hilarious!

And then, the last 24 hours on my trip: Moscow. I found Moscow a fascinating place, although I didn't have to see much of it. I was staying in a flat for 20€, just one block away from the Red Square. A real bargain - especially since me and the Mongolian girl Naraa paid for two "economic dorm" beds (which would have been a madrass on the floor of the living room), but got a huge double room instead because the newly started hotel/flat didn't have two madrasses. The double room would normally have been 100€.

Moscow is impressing - it's a mix of Soviet and West, a mix of old and new. They have the fascinating history, they have the architecture to match any city in the world, they have the old-style cafés associated with Eastern Europe cities like Budapest, they have all the Western chains, brands and shops, they have a lively night-club scene, bars, live music and of course a lot of the classical entertainment such as concerts, opera, cirkus and acrobats. To make it all at bit more exciting and adventorous they have the police - possibly the single biggest annoyance in Moscow. If they spot you as a tourist they will invariably hazzle you, check your passport and visa and try to get a bribe from you. The hotel will tell you that there are some thieves in the city, but it's the police that you really have to look out for. Never look at them, never speak to them and even if you've been robbed - don't contact the police, it will only make things worse!

Now that I'm home in Stockholm, Sweden, I've uploaded some pictures from the train and from Moscow. I will probably write some more entries in this blog - making a summary or some kind of reflection of the whole trip, but basically the trip is now over. To all the awesome friends I've met traveling, thanks for helping me make this trip a great time - and please, send me all your photos from our time together and stuff, would be awesome to have!

3 kommentarer:

Max sa...

I stopped reading your travelblog a long time ago :( it made me want to go abroad too much :)

I'll catch up later :)

Jonas sa...

Hej, antar att du inte reser längre, kan man nå dig på någon mailadress?



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