Leaving Mongolia: worst customs yet

It was no problem at all being up for breakfast at 7 this morning. The sun started streaming in the top of the Ger by 4 am, so I was definitely ready to get up and find a place to warm up. We went for a walk before breakfast and then headed up to the dining area. Fortunately, though we were early, it was not locked and so we were able to go inside so I could thaw out. We were treated to a breakfast of bread, fried egg, sausage, and a fried bread with jam that was quite delicious. All meals were served with tea and instant coffee. Other beverages were available for purchase.

We loaded up the bus to head back to Ulaanbaatar to the hotel we had stayed at previously. We arrived at 10:15 am and two rooms were provided for our group of 16 to give us time to shower before we had lunch. I think this was because we will be taking the train for a 24-hour trip later today and going two days without a shower would be at least one day too many!

We all had lunch at the hotel; our last hot meal until we arrived at Lake Baikal the next night. We left the hotel at 1:45 and got caught in some terrible traffic. June 1st is Mother and Children Day in Mongolia and so many, many families were visiting the city. This made for a difficult drive to the train station. We made it in time to drop by the money exchange to pick up some rubles before boarding the train.

The train we are on is a much nicer one than the Chinese train. This is a Russian train, and a newer one at that. The lower bunks are actually seats to sit in; they will fold over at night to become beds. The cabin has air conditioning and power outlets. Hey, it even has a tv, though it probably doesn’t work! And though there is no dining car, you can purchase top ramen, candy bars, drinks, and souvenirs from the cabin stewards. Heck, we even have USB ports for charging our electronics. We are living large!

Customs and immigration will start at 1:25 am tonight (ok – technically, tomorrow). We will have to go through Mongolian immigration and customs followed by Russian. At least the train gauge is the same so we don’t have to have the wheels swapped! This particular train ride will last around 24 hours. Now, time to sit back and watch the world go by…

I don’t know about you, but when I picture Siberia, I picture a barren wasteland. In my mind, I see the pictures in my Social Studies textbooks of Russian steppes. Imagine my surprise to find that the part of Siberia that we were traveling through was not at all like that! There were plenty of trees; it was not barren and bleak at all!

We would be crossing into Russia a little before 10 pm. On the Mongolian side of the border, our passports would be checked and our customs forms turned in. The train would then pull forward into Russia where border guards would board the train and we would go through their immigration process. All told, immigration and customs would take about 4 hours. There wasn’t much point in going to bed because the whole rigamarole would start at 10 pm.

The Mongolians came through and collected our forms and passports, but also wanted to inspect our cabins. They opened up the cabinets built into the headrest cushions, perhaps to look for drugs. They opened up the beds to look at the luggage underneath, perhaps to see if we were trying to smuggle anyone out of Mongolia?? Who knows, but one thing is for sure, you don’t question a border guard. Eventually we got our passports back with our exit stamps; now the train could proceed into Russia.

I must give credit where credit is due; the Russian border crossing put even the Chinese to shame. While we were in China I was continually “impressed” with how thorough the Chinese were with their security procedures. Every single person going through security at the airport got physically patted down and wanded. Every site you visited involved having your belongings scanned.

We were told that the first part of the process of the border crossing into Russia would involve getting your temperature taken. I am not sure what would happen if you had a fever, but was glad that I would not need to find out. Next, each person in the cabin would stand in front of the border guard for inspection. Some unlucky person in the group would have their luggage thoroughly searched, or possibly, every person would. The passports would be scanned and departure cards would be stamped. And, be sure not to lose that departure card – without it, you will not be able to check into a hotel in Russia. A drug sniffing dog would pass by each cabin; hopefully, it would not feel the need to go into your cabin. And finally, you would have to stand in front of the guard one last time for inspection before you got your passport back.

In a nutshell, that is what happened except that we did not have to have our temperatures taken.The drug sniffing dog was the cutest little black cocker spaniel that you have ever seen. So tempting to pet it and cuddle it, but we had been warned ahead of time not to. The unlucky person for the luggage search turned out to be our tour manager, Svetlana. She tried to pull her suitcase out from underneath the lower bunk but it got stuck so the guard ended up not inspecting it. By the time all was said and done, I believe it was around 1:30 am. At least we didn’t need to get up early the next day!