What was going on? Asking the attendant (or Provodnitsa) how long before we would get going, she said ’Five’. ‘Five minutes? That’s okay then’ I showed her my watch. No, no - five hours was the impression she gave me. Five hours in nowhereville? Such are the train timetable differences between countries; and so we sat for hours as the heat became oppressive.
We could get off, and frequently did, but there was nowhere to go and nothing to do except watch an old man stand on the platform looking at the carriages.
He was undernourished and poorly dressed and appeared in need of sustenance, but seemed too proud to ask for help. He never once put his hand out or pleaded for alms, just stood waiting for something to happen. A Russian man in the next compartment went out to him and they started talking. After a minute the Russian motioned to his wife to pass down some cigarettes which he then gave to the old man. Later, before we left the station, the same Russian passed some bread rolls to the old man which he gratefully received before opening his overcoat and putting the rolls under his armpit to keep for later. All the time he kept his dignity. A far cry from the ‘professional’ beggars that we so often come across in towns and cities across Europe.
By 11am it was all go and the platform filled with lots of people with even more bags. Our carriage had been reconnected to an engine and we even had a couple of other carriages join us. A load of big buxom Mongolian women got on the carriage with bag after bag after bag of purchases. Everything from knickers to flip flops, and large inflatable beds to cured sausages similar to giant chorizos. The woman who came into our compartment was amiable enough and seemed pleasant. She would say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you very much’ over and over again in English. Admirable words and enough to make friends anywhere. I could only say thank you in Mongolian so I was at a slight disadvantage.
She was sweating profusely and seemed quite excited and agitated. She would jump up and down and run from the compartment to talk to her compatriots in other carriages. Then as we started to make our way to the border crossing through green fields and tree lined waterways I offered her some of our food. I had heard that sharing your food and drink was normal practice on the Russian rail network, so I figured it would be welcoming for me to offer her first. She graciously accepted and wolfed down everything offered and finished with a ‘thank you very much’.
Within 15 minutes she began tipping out her bags and produced 10 whopping great foot long sausages on strings. She handed me three of them and I thought what a wonderful gesture. I said ‘for me?’ She nodded and said ‘thank you very much’. I said the same and was touched by her generosity. Then she shook her head and pointed to the window. I didn’t understand. She removed the sausages from me and took the curtain pole off the window frame, then slid the strings along so the sausages were hanging from the pole. After replacing the pole in its holder she pulled the curtain around the sausages so they couldn’t be seen from the inside of the train. As she did this for the other side of the window it finally dawned on me that she was a smuggler.
Sausages were hidden all over the compartment along with bottles of booze, clothes and electrical items. She moved them around the seats so it looked as if they were ours as well. We watched incredulously as she smiled and kept saying ‘thank you very much’. As the first set of customs officials came around - Mongolian - she talked her way round any problems as did her partners in crime in the other parts of the train. Passports were taken in no-mans land and scrutinised as before on the China/Mongolian border. We sat for ages waiting for their return. During this time more soldiers and border guards stood outside the windows to prevent escape. Searches of every possible orifice in the train was carried out again and again, just to be sure. This smuggling was even bigger business than the monastery!
Finally, passports returned, we slowly moved into Russian railspace and just as slowly stopped a few hundred metres up the track. Passports were studied and taken, customs clearance forms filled and refilled and stamped, questions were asked of the regular and obviously familiar faces of the smugglers.
Cabins were searched and re-searched. Yet no-one saw the sausages behind the curtains! One bag remained unclaimed in another compartment and a Mongolian man was taken in for questioning. Our girl, whose bust size had now increased dramatically with 20 pairs of knickers stuffed in her bra, got away with it. She relaxed and stopped her sweating as we pulled into the little station of Nauski, our first Russian settlement. I thought that maybe she would have given us one of her sausages at least considering that she had used us as a human shield for her pork products, but no. All she said was ‘thank you very much’ took everything away and scurried off to leave us with curtains smelling like a butcher’s shop.
We got off the train to be told that we were stuck there for another few hours. There were little wooden stalls outside the train station. I recognised one of the things that were for sale - SAUSAGES! The same sausages I had just shared my first Russian border crossing with. Another long wait in the relative no-man’s land of border crossings and we were eventually re-connected to another train. It was 4.30pm. It had taken us 10½ hours to cover about 5 kilometres. A long day doing very little. Before this we had been on GMT+8 hours to tie in with China and Mongolia.
We went to the restaurant car, an old fashioned affair like something out of the old movies; all dark wood and heavy green velvet curtains. The man who ran it, a big Russian with a deep vodka voice informed us we were now on Moscow time. In fact it was MT+5hours, which was the equivalent of GMT+9. An hour extra even though we were further west.
We passed our first Russian graveyard, all fences and light blue paint. Incongruous, but pretty in a way. Why blue paint we wondered? We retired to bed with the window slightly open to take out the last sausage fumes and during the night it rained in on our heads. Ending the day with thoughts about the Russian dead in the graveyard, little did we know that we would begin the next morning with death on the rails upon our arrival in Irkutsk….