Saturday, July 5: We are anxious to cross into Mongolia and some new scenery!
We arrived at the Russian border town of Naushki at around 7PM. The guards board the train and you can’t get off until they finish their inspections. But there were no vendors here any way. Which is ridiculous as the train sits here for at least 4 hours. But to continue….I gave the guard our passports and she looks at my mother’s and says “Visa problem”. Uh oh. She calls over another guard who spoke rudimentary English. Unfortunately he was also the most loutish looking one of the bunch. He tells us we have to get off the train and go into the station (which is very grand as you can see above, for such a tiny town with unpaved streets). Of course at this point I am thinking, well, we’ll bribe our way out of this. Surely they will take American dollars and let us go on our way. They sit us in the station while they go behind closed doors in an office. Once in a while someone would come out and look at us, but without saying anything. Finally the guard comes out with some others who look more in command but they don’t speak English. They do not want our money (did we meet the only honest guards in Russia?), they will not say anything except we have to go back to Ulan Ude to get a new visa! I yelled “Ulan Ude!! That’s 6 hours from here!” Now I was starting to panic. There was a train at 1AM that was going back to Ulan Ude. In my mind I start visualizing the whole process. Getting our stuff on this horrible local train, one of us having to stay awake the whole time to guard our stuff, getting off the train and trying to find a hotel, a cab to take us to the visa office, etc. etc.
(By the way, the visa problem was that it had expired the day before. The idiot in Prague at the Russian embassy gave a 4 day visa to my mother instead of a 14 day visa!!!)
I begged the guards to let us go on, I said are you really expecting this 78 year old woman to have to do this? (every time I spoke she got older and older!! she’s only 76 but I thought 78 sounded better, and then later I said 80! hoping to get sympathy but there was none to be had in that place!)(for example, when my mother asked where the restroom was, a guard took her outside to an outhouse! We found out later there were brand-new toilets upstairs. Terrible, huh?)
By this time we had gone back on board the train to pack and basically throw everything into our suitcases, explain to our train companions what was happening (to gasps of disbelief), and got back to the station. Where we sat for another couple of hours. They would not give us back our passports until the train left the station. I said, What do you think we will do? Make a mad dash for the train? What idiots. And the train did not leave until after 1AM. Can you imagine, it sat there for over 5 hours? (nothing to do with us, apparently this is normal).
Anyway as we are sitting in the station, numb with shock, a man (with gold teeth!) comes up and hands me some letters to read. I thought this was some more bureaucratic crap but read them anyway. Basically the first letter said, “If you are reading this letter, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is you have met the lowest form of humanity, the Russian border guard. The good news is the man who gave you this letter can help you” He went on to describe his situation which was similar to ours and how Vassily had helped them get their visas. The letter said that without him it would probably take us 5 or more days to get the visa. Yikes!!! Can you imagine being stuck in a dreadful Siberian town for that long? Anyway there were other letters from other stranded travelers that he had helped (and all said we could not do it alone) and so my mother and I looked at each other and said, What choice do we have?
Vasily lives with his wife right down the street from the station. He has helped about 25 sets of people since the new law went into effect in March 2007 that you can’t just pay a fine at the border, you have to get a new extended visa. The stupidest law I ever heard of.
My mother had said a few times as we passed these Siberian huts along the way, “I wonder what they are like inside” Well, unfortunately we were about to find out!!
We arrived at a locked corrugated metal fence which his wife opened for us. There were a few freestanding huts inside the “compound”. One is under construction (financed by us unlucky tourists I imagine), there is a main house, a free standing sauna (which all Siberian houses have, and which is actually quite nice) and a few other misc buildings including the outhouse. But since it was dark we didn’t see all this until the next day. A very big garden and chicken coop completes the picture. Anyway we went in and put our luggage in our room (two beds, a small nightstand and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.) No running water in the house, the kitchen has a table with 4 stools, an electric hot plate with two burners and a big vat of water. How this woman cooks big meals in this I don’t know but she does. As I sit having a cup of tea, Vassily shows my mother to the toilet (she wanted to know where it was in case she had to get up in the middle of the night). I wish I had had a camera to record the look on her face as she came back and said “I can’t do this!” Total panic!! He did leave a light on outside and the two of us did walk together later that night all the way to the outhouse – with its hole cut in a wooden floor. I’ve done holes in the ground before and so has my mother (and so have many of us who travel in out of the way places) but somehow it was always for just a quick visit. When you have to use it for EVERYTHING it is indescribably horrible.
Sunday, July 6: The next morning (I finally fell asleep after worrying that maybe we were in the clutches of some mad husband/wife murder duo…. Obviously, I read way too many murder mysteries!!! But seriously, no one knew where we were, and we were trusting ourselves to this total stranger!) we had a nice breakfast of fresh eggs and tea and then we drove about 30 kilometers to a photographer. Vassily had arranged this knowing that we needed 4 photos plus all this paperwork. We spent the rest of the day reading and went to bed early in order to get up at 5 the next morning to get on the road for Ulan Ude.
Monday, July 7: Ulan Ude is the most awful place I have ever seen. Really. Most of the streets except for a few downtown are dirt. No sidewalks. Crumbling buildings everywhere. When I think of staying in a hotel there, I was horrified. Can you imagine what it would have been like? Not that our Siberian hut was better, but it was clean. And the people friendly. When we finally got to Ulan Ude after our 3 hour drive, we discovered that the government visa office is actually on the outskirts of the city. How the heck we would have found it on our own is a mystery to me. We got there at 9AM and because Vassily knows all these people in the visa office, we were able to get the paperwork started then, even though technically the office doesn’t open until 2P M.
Normally, the Visa office is open ONLY TWO HOURS A DAY….. except Wednesdays. When it is not open at all!!! So without Vassily we would have been there forever, not knowing all the forms to be filled out. Plus finding a photographer. And by the time you find one its too late to go back as the office is closed. I can see where this process could take over a week. And in order to pay the visa fee you have to find a bank that has a government account to pay into. The whole process is absolutely ridiculous. I think someone should tell them that the Communists are gone.
Anyway, luckily we did get the visa at around 4 PM (the amount of paperwork to be filled out is quite amazing). And rushed back (over pot-holed roads) to catch the 10PM train for Mongolia. This is just an overnight trip but luckily the train has compartments – a little different than our original train but quite comfortable and air conditioned! Of course the air conditioning is turned off while you sit sweltering at the station but at least it is nice when it’s moving. Woke up to beautiful rolling terrain of Mongolia with its yurts and horses and pretty little houses. So happy to be out of Russia!!!!
Tuesday, July 8: We decided to fly to China since we had lost so much time in Siberia. We flew from the Genghis Khan Airport (!) in Ulan Bator on Air China to Beijing. I was so anxious to get to China that I was willing to fly Air Mongolia if we had missed the Air China flight! (I had asked my husband to check online for flights out of Ulan Bator to Beijing. He called back and told us about the Air China flight. And said there was an Air Mongolian flight later that day but you can’t buy tickets for that on Expedia! ha ha Really?) By the way, the Genghis Khan Airport is very modern and has a great coffee shop and souvenir shop. I was so happy to be back in civilization!!
China was great. Of course they also use holes in the floor as toilets (porcelain, self-flushing!) even in nice restaurants (tip: use the handicap stall, they are regular toilets!). We stayed at Raffles hotel and boy was it fabulous. When we arrived they sat us down at a small round table in the lobby (no check-in counters here!) and served us an iced fruit drink. And there we were, dirty, sweaty, exhausted and hobbling. All I wanted was to get to the room and here this manager was being so pleasant, explaining everything. The minute we got to the room we had our bath/shower and sent all our clothes to the laundry! And ordered room service!! AAAHHHH! I had an infected toe (from a stupid blister!) which was so bad I could barely walk. And my mother also was limping around since her foot was killing her. (turned out she had a dislocated toe which we did not discover until she got to Florida!) So we were really two basket cases. But still enjoyed China, and realized it was a great time to visit right before the 2008 Summer Olympics. Everything looked beautiful, people were very friendly. The city is huge but the buildings are really fabulous – very creative. It is a super modern city but right in the center is the Forbidden City. We saw everything, including the Great Wall. We got there late with our guide and all the crowds had gone. So we had the wall to ourselves. What an experience!