A Travellerspoint blog

October 2005

Playing Poker with the Ulaan Baatar police

Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia

sunny 15 °C
View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

2005 10 31.. Baator.JPG

"Don't give your passport to the Ulaan Baatar Police. It's just a scam to extort money from you."

That was the advice I was given by a nice Russian woman on the train from Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar. The problem is, she never said and I never asked what I should do if I am surrounded by 3 police officers and they are demanding to see my passport.

So, when walking to catch my train out of Ulaan Baatar, and the police demanded to see my passport, I handed over my passport.

  • * *

2005 10 31 B Ger.JPG

Ulaan Baatar is the capital of Mongolia. It's a nice city, a mix of gers (traditional huts used by Mongolian nomads), wood shacks and new high rises. I saw Gandantegchinlen Khid monastery and the winter palace of the Mongol Khans. The museum of Mongolian History was closed on Mondays for "winter hours," even though the weather was beautiful, sunny and warm.

2005 10 31.. Prayer.JPG

As dusk falls, I had 3 hours to kill until my train is leaving and everything is shutting down, so I decided to grab a beer at a local pub. After 5 rounds of South Korean beer in 2 hours, I headed out and towards the train station. After crossing a major street, I was approached by three men in police uniforms.

2005 10 31..is Beer.JPG

"You're drunk," one said. He seemed to be the "leader" of this pack, a short Mongolian with a very unfriendly face. Shorty had two buddies with him, Grabby and Bashful. Grabby and Bashful seemed to be hanging back a bit, so I started talking to Shorty.

"Not drunk," I replied, using simple English. "Just two beer. I go to the train station. I leave Ulaan Baatar."

"Drunk. Walk," replied Shorty, indicating that I should walk along the line in the sidewalk to prove that I wasn't drunk. Now, I had seen a few drunk people in Ulaan Baatar, so I don't know that being drunk is an offense, but that was beyond my capacity to communicate to people who don't speak English, so I tried to walk the line. I got 4 steps off, but on the 5th step I stumbled.

"Aha!" exclaimed Shorty. "Drunk! Passport," he demanded. If I wasn't tipsy (not drunk, just tipsy), I probably would have pulled out the photocopy I keep of my passport, rather than the passport itself. But I was tipsy, and feeling quite threatened being surrounded by three police officers, so I just handed over my passport. I did think enough to slip the customs form out of the passport before handing it over. The customs form had listed that I was carrying $US 500 (hidden in a money belt), and I really didn't want the Police to know that.

Shorty looks over my passport, and starts patting me down. "What's that," he said, feeling a bulk in my left pants pocket. I remove some loose change, and Grabby takes it from my hand, and holds it. From my right pocket, Grabby takes my wallet. From my right jacket pocket, Grabby takes my train ticket. They find my camera and guidebook in my left jacket pocket, and Grabby's hands being full, Bashful is recruited to hold those items.

This is obviously a shake-down. I figure that I am going to for sure lose some money here. I am hoping that the $US 60 I have in US Dollars and Mongolian currency will be enough to cover the costs. I would hate to after retrieve my money belt so they could see the $US 500 stored there, and I am hoping that they won't feel it in the pat downs.

It's a little like playing poker at this point. The pot is my money, and I don't have much of a hand at this point. I am facing 3 police officers (3 Kings) and with my drunkenness as an excuse (almost like another King) they are holding 4 of a kind of the second highest card in the deck. I am going to lose this hand, my only hope is to manage the pot, and try and lose as little as possible.

Shorty points at my backpack, and indicates that I should open it. I put the pack on the ground, and then crouch down to open it up. As I am opening the pack, I hear a crash in front of me. I look up to see my camera lying in three pieces on the ground. I look at the faces of Shorty, Grabby and Bashful, and see a change. This was not in their plan. They may have four Kings, but I can see in their faces, I've drawn 4 aces.

  • * *

The camera I brought with me isn't much of a camera. It's a Fujifilm digital camera that I bought for $200 to travel with. It's smaller then my nicer camera (the one I took to Africa), but easier to push into my pocket and forget about.

$200 is not much to me, it's a night out for dinner and drinks. I think of the camera, in some respects, as being "disposable," in that if I lose it or it breaks, it's not a big deal.

However, in Ulaan Baatar I had only spent a total of $30 so far, and that includes all the museum entries, picture taking fees and my drinking binge. It was a big day of spending for me. $200 would buy dinner and drinks, plus the rest of the meals for the rest of the week, probably. $200 is probably a big deal to an Ulaan Baatar police officer, and I could see in their faces that they were scared. They'd broken my expensive camera, and that suddenly opened up a whole range of options for me.

I could complain about the camera, demand to go back to the station and see their supervisor. That would take most of the wind out of their sails, if not put them off completely. But I have a train to catch, and I want to get going. I decide that I can discount my extortion fee using the camera breaking, and get out with a respectable loss.

I stand up with my broken camera in my hand. Bashful takes the camera, and desperately tries to put it back together. Grabby then does the most amazing thing, he gives me back everything he took from me. My wallet, my money, my train ticket. Just hands it all back. I quickly stow it in my pockets.

Shorty still makes a show of it, rummaging through my bag and suggesting that my pocket knife could be an offensive weapon to stab the poor people of Ulaan Baatar, but already Grabby is backing away from the situation, and Bashful is looking more scared as he can't repair my camera. I scoff at Shorty's suggestion.

Shorty looks at his two mates, and realizes that he has lost control of the situation. He hands me back my passport, and makes a show to say that I need to go directly to the train station, and never darken the streets of Ulaan Baatar again. His way of saving a little face in the situation. I thank him, grab my camera from Bashful, and hurry down the street away from them.

I arrive at the train station and jump on my train. I pull out my busted camera and look at it. The three pieces, I notice, are all modular pieces. I snap the camera back together, and turn it on. It works fine. I snap a few celebratory pictures of the train cabin.

Somehow, I managed to bluff my way through this situation, and wound up not losing a cent. I'm not usually much of a poker player, but somehow I managed to walk away from this hand with the whole pot.

2005 10 31 G Horse.JPG

Posted by GregW 16:44 Archived in Mongolia Tagged travel_dangers Comments (1)

Beer is the universal language

8 hours of drinking in between Naushki, Russia and S├╝khbaatar, Mongolia

sunny 15 °C
View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

2005 10 30.. Baator.JPG

Back on the train from Irkutsk to Ulaan Baator, Mongolia. If Irkutsk is a frontier town, the scenery to the border with Mongolia and through Mongolia is definitely wild west ranch country. It's like passing through 1890s western USA, just with less buffalo to shoot. I see lots of grassy plains, rocky deserts, herds of wild horses, cows and sheep.

2005 10 30.. Plains.JPG

Loading up at Irkutsk, I find I am sharing a 4 bunk cabin with one other person, a man around my age who speaks no English. Next to us is an incredibly drunk young Mongolian guy, who is bouncing off the walls he is so drunk. The train attendant is not amused with his disruptive behavior, so she locks him in his cabin for the night.

I also meet Alexei from Moldova (a former Soviet territory near Romania). He speaks some English, so we spent a few hours talking.

On our way to the border crossing at Naushki, Russia, my cabin mate and the drunk Mongolian from the night before enter the cabin and shut and lock the door. From under their shirts, they pull out 3 half-liter cans of beer, and offer one to me. Apparently they have locked the door because they are afraid of getting caught by the train attendant, who already has a dim view of the Mongolian fellow. I pop open the top of the beer.

2005 10 30..ah Alex.JPG

Through a little English that the Mongolian speaks and the little Russian I know, plus a lot of hand signals and drawing of pictures, I find out the following information about the two. The Mongolian is called Soonay (not sure on the spelling) and is studying in Irkutsk. He is studying to be a police officer. The Russian (who I am sharing the cabin with) is called Alex. He operates a gold digging machine in Mongolia, and is from a town in South-west Russia.

2005 10 30 D Cows.JPG

We arrive at Naushki, where we have to wait for the train to arrive from Mongolia, which will hook up our car and take us to Ulaan Baator. We are allowed off the train in this small town. Cows roam the streets. There isn't much to do, so Russian Alex and Soonay grab more beers. As we are sitting in the sun, drinking and waiting, Alex pulls up his pant leg to reveal a wicked scar on his knee. "Chechnya," he explains, and mimes that he also got shot in the shoulder. He was in the hospital for 13 weeks before he was discharged, and that's when he went to school and learnt geography and became a gold digging machine operator.

Russia is such a big country, it's easy to forget as you pass through it that things are pretty unstable down in the Balkans. Just before I arrived in Russia, there was a large battle fought in one of the Balkan states.

We wait in the sun, and drink a few more rounds. Finally the train arrives, and we get back on and clear Russian customs. I am unsure how to fill out the form, especially the "Printed Materials or Other Purveyors of Information." I have a few books, does this count? I decide to put no. It's also weird having to put down how much money you have. It feels a little like you are just telling them how much the bribe should be.

2005 10 30..ongolia.JPG

We then move 21 km south, entering Mongolia and arriving at Sukhbaator, where we clear Mongolian customs. After another hour, we finally start moving, 8 hours after arriving at the border, and we've managed to move 21 kms. It's late, I'm tired and I know we arrive in Ulaan Baator at 6 am. I'm ready for bed. Just then, Alex and Soonay enter the cabin and pull three cups and a 2 L bottle of beer from under their shirts. It's going to be a long night...

Posted by GregW 16:33 Archived in Russia Tagged train_travel Comments (2)

Wild, wild east...

Irkutsk, Russian Federation

sunny 11 °C
View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

It's good to be off the train. Irkutsk, Russia has a feeling of a wild west town. Siberia has often seen itself as Russia's answer to the USA's wild west. Siberia is the wild east of Russia. There are lots of little wooden cabins lining big streets. I kept expecting Black Bart to step out and challenge me to a shoot out.

2005 10 29 D Irkutsk.JPG

I only had a day here, which I spent wandering around. The weather was beautiful for Siberia for this time of year. The sun was shining and the temperature was around 11 degree Celsius.


I'd love to spend more time here. Irkutsk is a great gateway to the Lake Baikal region. Lake Baikal holds one fifth of all the fresh water in the world, more than Canada / USA's great lakes combined. Lake Baikal is small, only a 100 miles or so across, but is very deep, up to 2 kilometers in some points. Lake Baikal was formed as two continental plates have pulled apart slowly. Eventually, these plates will pull completely apart and separate Asia by a newly formed ocean. Does this mean that if I had waited a couple million of years, I could have done 3 continents on this trip?

Next up, heading South towards Mongolia. Senor Lenin, which way is that?

2005 10 29 L Irkutsk.JPG

Posted by GregW 18:21 Archived in Russia Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

A 4 day land cruise - life on the Trans-Siberian

Moscow - Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian train

View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

2005 10 25..Station.JPG

"Aficionados of going nonstop from Moscow ... compare it to being on a sea voyage or having a beach holiday indoors. It's a chance to catch up on sleep and reading, perhaps sharpen your card playing skills with fellow passengers, while the landscape unreels in cinematic slow motion outside."

2005 10 26.. 4 Days.JPG

So says my guidebook about the trans-Siberian journey. And I wasn't doing all seven days non-stop. I was only doing 4 days before getting a break in Irkutsk. And it is something like a cruise, assuming a cruise includes being in a cabin with three people you don't know, and not having a shower or hot water to bathe with, and not having a pool to lounge by. It's a pretty low budget cruise.

It does have it's benefits, though. While not all you can eat, food is incredibly cheap. Firstly, because I was doing nothing, I was eating little - just a couple small meals a day. And most of those I bought from vendors along the way on the platforms. Usually a couple of dollars and I would have a small meal of meat baked in pastry and a bottle of water, coke or beer. Of course, given that I can't speak any Russian, it was always a bit of a mystery what was inside the pastry until I bit into it. Sometimes meat and onion, sometimes cheese, sometimes hotdogs. But it was never an unpleasant surprise.

2005 10 26..od eats.JPG

My cabin was quite small, and had four bunks in it. For the first day, all four bunks were full. I was joined by a sullen, 20 something who spoke to no-one and a couple of older ladies who chattered to each other for a bit. The strange thing was, though, that they all went to sleep around 6 in the evening. So I went to explore.

2005 10 26 I My Bed.JPG

There was no one else on the train that I could find that spoke any English, so no lively conversations to be had. There were a couple of army-recruits playing cards and drinking a few cabins down from mine, and I thought briefly of joining them, but then decided playing cards with drunken soldiers (who probably have weapons) my not be a winning proposition for me (even if I end up winning at cards).

There was a nice dining car attached directly to our car. It was quite fancy, but kept incredibly dark. I only ate there once, but it was an excellent meal and only 12 dollars for a chicken with potatoes and beer. But really, I was never that hungry again, and the platform purchased pastries were much cheaper.

2005 10 26..latform.JPG

Sometime in the middle of the night, my fellow cabin mates the sullen 20-something and one of the ladies left, leaving the four person cabin just to myself and the other woman. This is a situation that would persist until late on the 4th day, when we had another man join us and were 3 in the cabin again for a short while, until the woman left. The man joined us at Krasnoyarsk, getting on the train with nothing but a brief case and a cell phone, which we was chattering into. After finishing his call, be threw his briefcase in storage area, took off his pants and collared shirt, and spend the night reading a Tom Clancy-like Russian thriller in his shorts and underwear. Very casually, life on this train.

I did a lot of reading and staring out of the window. The scenery was nice, but repetitive at times. to start, leaving Moscow and climbing into the Urals, there was birch and pine forests punctuated with drab industrial towns. As we climbed into the Urals (which are really just big hills at the point where the trans-Siberian crosses them), we had more forest, less drab industry and more snow. On the third day we descended from the Urals and crossed into Asia and Serbia proper. Strangely, the snow disappeared, replaced by lots of sun. The landscape alternated between fields, agriculture, birch and pine forests and boggy swamps.

2005 10 26.. Scenes.JPG

2005 10 27 B Siberia.JPG

There was little to see at nights looking out, except a blackness. If you looked up, however, there was a wide array of stars on display. I was a bit shocked to look out one of the north-facing windows and see the big dipper framed perfectly. I had expected, like Africa or South America, that I wouldn't see the same stars as at home. Of course, logically thinking about it, we both see the same Northern hemisphere stars. But I must admit that I feel if I am this far from home, everything should be different.

A couple times I got really antsy and thought I couldn't take much more on the train. At one point (around hour 52 of straight train travel), I wrote in my journal, "I am feeling restless and overheated. I need a good jump in a cool pool. I am sick of reading and staring out the window. This all feels so disconnected."

The 4th (and final day) aboard the train I was pretty antsy as well, but luckily had getting off the train (at least for 9 hours) to look forward to in Irkutsk, and thus it muted my jumpiness a little bit. But I was running out of things to do, finally spending time translating things from our alphabet into the Cyrillic the Russians use.

2005 10 27 D Siberia.JPG

Finally, some 90 hours later, we passed Zima, the last major stop before Irkutsk and my day off the train. And now the longest part of my journey is over, and the stranger parts begin. A day wandering around a Siberian town, the sights of Lake Baikal, the Gobi desert and the Great Wall ahead of me.

The 4 day cruise is over...

Posted by GregW 08:54 Archived in Russia Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

Crossing into Asia - Km 1777

Europe-Asia border in Russia aboard the trans-Siberian train

snow 0 °C

To track your progress along the trans-Siberian route, markers have been put up at every kilometer telling you the distance you have travelled since Moscow. At kilometer 1777, you come out of the Ural mountains and enter into Asia. There is an Obelisk set up to see at this site, if you are quick eyed and it is daylight out. I was passing by at night.

I have a notebook that I keep with me on my travels to make notes and jot down things to remember. Often it is point form, and not very interesting. Things like "bought gooey meat filled pastry for lunch from guy who looks like lead singer of Radiohead" or "riding the train is a quiet existence." Occasionally, though, I feel inspired (or bored) and write something out in long form that is coherent. The following three paragraphs I wrote with a glass of wine in hand as we approached kilometer 1777 and my first time in Asia.

  • * *

I am not sure if I will know when it happens, as it is too dark to see the kilometer markers, and I don't know if they light the Obelisk up at nights.

I feel strangely muted. This doesn't have the immediacy of landing some place in a plane, when I get a nervous and excited energy. There will be no ceremony except for my silently raising a tin cup of Moldova's finest Merlot (straight from the cardboard). And there will be little change to my onboard life - more relaxing, reading, sleeping and eating. Asia (at least to start) will be no different than Europe.

2005 10 26 H Wine.JPG

I wonder what the Russians make of their bi-continental country? Do the people in Yekaterinburg (just across the continental boundary in Asia) feel Asian or European? Do they even have a sense of continental identity the way I feel both Canadian and North American?

  • * *

I never saw the marker, so I wasn't sure I was in Asia until we reached Yakaterinburg. And I don't have the language skills to ask my fellow Russian travellers what they feel about being "Asian." And so I bolted down the last of my Merlot, put on my shoes and got ready to jump out onto the platform at Yekaterinburg, and put my feet down in Asia for the first time ever.


Posted by GregW 08:38 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

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