Well, I ended up spending a little more time in Russia than anticipated, but not as much as I would have if I didn’t scream and bribe.
Imagine this: Thursday after we got back from Lake Baikal, Sharon and I checked our email and decided to separate to get to the train. She decided to walk part of the way and I had the bulk of the groceries (since we would be on the train for 2.5 days), so I was going to take the tram. Unfortunately, no tram came for over 35 minutes and I was past the point of worrying. By tram, I could be at the train station in 5-7 minutes and they were supposed to run every 10 minutes. After noticing the time ticking away, I started trying to furiously flag down any passing vehicle. Perhaps fortunately in many ways, no one would stop. Finally, the tram came at 20:55, only 10 minutes before I would miss the once a day train to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. I got to the station and booked it and then ran under a very long underpass, to the platform the screen said the train was on. I tried 4 different platforms and no provodnistka (conductor) knew where the train was. I came back to the underpass and was screaming like a crazy person, “Gduie jest Ulan Bator?” meaning where is the Ulan Bator train. No one knew. Finally, this young Russian girl had mercy on me and grabbed my hand. She ran so fast, that she tripped on the stairs several times, trying to get me to my train.
When we got to the platform the conductor had told her to go to, it turned out that the train was going to Ulan Ude (still in Russia), and it was going to leave in 5 minutes. I knew that Ulan Ude was a stop along the route, but wasn’t sure of what would happen next. Meanwhile, I didn’t know whether Sharon got on the other (correct) train. After talking to them for the next two minutes, quite frantically, they let me on the Ulan Ude train. I had to bribe 2 of the conductors with my beautiful smoked Omul fish, so I actually never got a chance to eat the fish. But, that fish and a few dollars saved me from waiting another full day in Irkutsk for the next Ulan Bator train. Again, the Polish came in handy when discussing what was going to happen and talking down the bribe.
I thought my ears were deceiving me when I heard them say that this Ulan Ude train would arrive an hour earlier than the train I missed (the train I had hoped Sharon would have gotten on). I met great Russian women in my berth; all spoke only a few words of English, but we communicated fairly well. There was a train engineer, an economist, a student who was studying train engineering and me! We shared food, talked and finally went to sleep only to get 4 hours of sleep until the provodnik kept coming to the door and knocking every 5 minutes from 4am on! I’ve never had that type of experience on a train where the conductor was so persistent, but it was rather humorous because two of the women got so mad and started commanding him to shut the door. He finally quieted down, but we decided to get up anyway!
We got off the train and Katya, the student and Lena, the train engineer, decided to stay with me until my Ulan Bator train rolled through. I hopped on as soon as it arrived and opened the door to my cabin and was relieved to see Sharon — she had made it on the train, although she had a close call as well. She thought she was dreaming when I first came in and then realized I was really on the train and hugged me! We just laughed and and hugged and woke up the Belgian couple in our berth, but we were too excited to care.
We met a number of great people on the train and got through the hellish 9 hour Russian/Mongolian border control, then stayed up late talking about movies, books we love, and the Catholic religion with two Spanish guys (Javi and Albert) and an Irish guy (Jason). We are in Ulaan Bator now and we’ll be taking a camel/horseback riding/ger camp excursion with this group of people we met.
On a side note, I just asked about a Catholic Church to go to for Mass today or on Sunday morning and the host of our hostel tried to set me up with a Mormon Church who wants to “receive me” tomorrow afternoon. I said no thanks… so hopefully, I’ll find the Catholic side of things since I know they are here in the city somewhere!