Food Woes on the Train

Monday, March 21, 2011

Our train left the Irkutsk station at 5:18 am, local time, so we were up at 4:15 to pack and get ready for our 5 minute taxi ride to the train. We rolled into the station, and who did we see but Allan, from the dog sledding, and we found out that he was in our same train carriage.

We parked ourselves in our room, and caught a few more hours of sleep before making any attempts at breakfast and the like. Our provisions consist of oatmeal packets, excellent bread from the Niva bakery in Irkutsk, some mixed-berry jelly, instant mashed potatoes, and assorted other odds and ends. Sadly, our provisions do not include bowls, and unlike most of our earlier trains, this one was not supplied with teacups. A little bit of lateral thinking later, however, and we fashioned ourselves bowls out of both ends of an extra water bottle. They were serviceable, but mine was a little inconvenient, as I couldn’t set it down without it tipping over.

A word about our last two trains, from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk, and then this one to Ulaan Baatar. Both were clearly from an earlier era than the ones we took between St. Petersburg and Krasnoyarsk. They are missing the convenient fold down beds (instead, you just sleep on the seats, or sit on the beds, depending on how you think of it), and don’t have power outlets in the compartments. The decorations and upholstery is similar, although the blinds seemed to be in somewhat greater disrepair. And, as mentioned above, they don’t come with teapot and cups. (In fact, in our compartment on the one to Ulaan Baatar, we didn’t even have a functioning samovar. The one we had smoked, and didn’t keep it’s temperature to boiling.)

Owing to the lack of power outlet, I headed out into the hallway to charge the laptop, ipod, and kindle on the outlet labeled for electric razors, as we were going to be heading out into the countryside as soon as we arrive in Ulaan Baatar.

We were feeling a little uncertain of our supplies from Irkutsk, and whether they would get us all the way to UB, so we hopped off when the train stopped at Ulan Ude to pick up some more food. When we did, we had to fight our way through what looked like a Mongolia trade fair that had sprung up on the platform when we stopped. We figured out later that all of those traders were actually on the train with us, heading to Ulaan Baatar with their compartments stuffed full of boxes.

Our goal on the platform was to pick up a little bit of meat and cheese to augment our bread supplies. We went into the local Produckty, and saw several types of meat for sale. We asked about one that looked like it could have been turkey or chicken, with some flavoring, and were pointed at a picture of a cow when we asked what it was. We also nabbed a bit of yogurt, and some cheese spread (it was somewhere between cheese and butter, and we’d had something similar on a previous leg). When we got back to the train and actually tasted the “beef”, it seemed very much like ham, rather than beef, and without a whole lot of extra flavor. It was passable at first, but quickly became unappetizing in the 86 degree heat that our train car had gotten up to.

A short while later, we tried to make our instant potatoes. I used the flavoring packet on top, labeled “Sauce with Meat” in Russian, but Bridgit was a little skeptical of it.

However, it all ended up for naught, as it was only after we had both filled our containers that we realized that the samovar was only at 40 degrees C, and thus not boiling, and possibly not safe to drink (besides making only luke-warm potatoes). A bit frustrated, and getting hungry, we tried the yogurt. Unfortunately, the heat had gotten to it as well, and it had separated, and was quite unpalatable.

Getting a little desperate, we decided to search the train to see if there was a restaurant car. I walked all the way to the front, and found only cars filled to the brim with boxes, mannequins, and traders. We headed backwards, and several cars from ours, were rewarded with a retro-future diner of a restaurant car. The menus had English, so we counted up our remaining rubles, and ordered something that seemed to fit the bill, a salad for Bridgit and some pork for me. When the salad arrived, though, it consisted of 4 slices each of cucumber, tomato, and pepper, topped with cold peas. Not at all what we were expecting! My pork and fries were a little better, but still a bit sub-par.

Thoroughly disheartened, we headed back to our car to wait for the border crossing. We got to the Russian crossing at around sunset, and snapped a few pictures out a window that was left open.

We were a little anxious about the border crossing, as there was some confusion earlier in our trip about whether we needed a visa registration card from our first hotel, and whether we needed to get it stamped as we crossed the country (we had done neither). However, we had no trouble with the crossing, just a lot of waiting as they checked everyone’s passports (at least 4 times), had a dog check out the compartments, had someone come in to check the compartments for stowaways (nothing under the seats, nothing in the overhead bin), and had us fill out exit forms for customs. All in all, it probably took around 3 hours. We heard later from Allan when we stopped in to chat that the officials were turning over the traders’ compartments wholesale, and that that probably accounted for the time.

Done with Russia, it was on to the Mongolian version of the same thing. We filled out customs, health, and visa forms, and showed some of the insides of our bags.

Several hours later, at around midnight, we were finally officially headed into Mongolia, and the last few weeks of our trip.


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