The Trans-Mongolian Express follows the Selenga River. The lakes are frozen and painted izbas, the local Siberian homes, are lightly dusted with snow.
The Trans-Mongolian Express follows the Selenga River. The lakes are frozen and painted izbas, the local Siberian homes, are lightly dusted with snow.

Mongolian nightmare

FILTHY toilets, no toilet paper, a urine-stained floor, no ability to flush and dribbles on the seat immediately indicate we are heading further east.

First class feels like "no class" and we are grateful to be on this Ulaanbaatar-bound train for only 26 hours.

At 5.15am, the train pulls out of Irkutsk station and chugs along the banks of Lake Baikal heading south to Zaudinsky. It is here that our route shifts from the Trans-Siberian and becomes known as the Trans-Mongolian Express following the Selenga River. We will arrive at Ulaanbaatar tomorrow morning.

"Gidday, mate, do you know where the dining car is?" I asked the man walking past. He is the first western tourist that I have seen since leaving Moscow.

"It's that way, but I doubt you'll get there," he replies.

"Why not?" I ask.

"Because it's full of Mongolian traders and the corridors are jammed with their goods."

The corridor is a hive of activity with manikins dressed in women's clothing hanging on the windows. Boxes are stacked on top of each and traders wheel their trolleys impossibly attempting to pass each other.

The air is full of cigarette smoke and grubby old women sit on the floor packing items into plastic bags.

At the dining car, eight Mongolian and Chinese traders in tattered, old clothing follow me with their eyes and continue smoking. It's an eerie atmosphere, cold and uninviting.

On the way back to the cabin, I notice one of the bottle lids looks tampered with and uncertain of whether the water and bottle are original, I ditch it.

"How did you go?" my new friend asks as I pass his cabin.

"Well, you didn't exaggerate, did you," I reply. "What is going on here?"

"They are Mongolian traders and they've been on the train since we left Moscow," he advises.

Unlike us, this couple had not left the train at Irkutsk, instead deciding to travel all of the way from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar. They have endured the chaos on this train for five days and nights, eaten very average food in the dining car and had no sleep because there is no padding when their seats convert to beds.

Hot air is blasting out of the small heater making the cabin stuffy, forcing us to keep the door open. Seedy-looking traders pass our door wheeling their goods on trolleys through the carriage. Backwards and forwards they go. We cannot determine if they are returning from Moscow with Russian goods to sell or returning with leftover stock that they couldn't shift.

As the day passes, the scenery changes. We follow the Selenga River all of the way to Mongolia. The forest is not as thick and we can see snow-capped mountains and ski runs in the distance. The lakes are frozen and silver birch trees are scattered among the gently rolling planes. Brightly painted izbas, the local Siberian homes, are lightly dusted with snow.

There's a strange noise coming from the corridor. Two women lift up the floor of the train and remove goods stored below. Another woman is completely submerged below the floor. They are not happy that we have seen them so I return to my cabin and shut the door.

When the train arrives at Ulan-Ude, it takes less than a minute to transform into a busy trading market. Hundreds of traders have left our train to set up stalls. This is Saturday morning at the markets and the locals have come to shop. It's busy, chaotic, loud and manic. Local Russian women wearing big fur hats bargain with the Mongolian traders. It's buzzy and exciting.

Our carriage attendant runs on and off the train excited and out of breath. She's retrieving money and more goods to sell. I laugh, realising why we have no toilet paper in the toilet.

She has sold the lot!

Female traders hold manikins in brightly coloured striped jumpers in the air while another holds on to a large bag stuffed with identical items to sell. Money is exchanging hands everywhere I look.

Fathers carry children on their shoulders. There are blankets, doonas, shoes, jumpers, scarves, dresses, socks and lots of children's clothing. Jumpers are being held up and viewed for size. Wallets are out and roubles are flashing with traders counting out change.

With all of the fur coats it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between the traders and the shoppers.

Traders run back to their cabins, locking and unlocking the doors and return to the platform with more goods. Only the attendant is supposed to have a set of keys to our cabin but in the action, I see that every trader seems to have a master key to the cabins and realise that we cannot leave our valuables alone.

There's less than two minutes until our scheduled departure. No one moves, the frantic sales continue and goods remain scattered across the icy platform. A warning voice can be heard advising that the train is about to depart.

With less than a minute to go, a few start to pack up but no one hurries. Some traders are back on board, some are laughing.

Slowly the train moves out of the station and begins to pick up speed. Only now do the traders gather their goods and run towards the train. Doors are banging as they jump back on board.

On reflection, we probably should not have been so surprised. This train is travelling along one of the oldest trading routes in the world. The only difference today is that a train, rather than camels, is the vehicle to transport the goods.

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