The train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar takes about 24 hours, the first quarter of the trip skirts the southern shores of Lake Baikal before turning south towards Mongolia.
The train on this part of my trip was sparsely populated, so even though I was in a 4-berth 2nd class car, I only had one other person in my compartment. He was a young German student from Munich who was headed to Ulaanbaatar after spending several weeks trekking along the shore and in the mountains around Lake Baikal. It had turned cold and snowed heavily over the previous days so he had decided to move on to Mongolia. I was happy to have someone around with which I could practice speaking German.
In addition to the two of us, the rest of the car consisted of 4 other people: two English tourists headed to Beijing and two businessmen, one Ukrainian, the other Mongolian. It was unclear if these businessmen knew each other, despite the Ukrainian’s gregarious nature with all of us, our Russian and his English meant communication was limited.
As the train lumbered along the Baikal shore, snow and sleet began to fall heavily. Despite the nasty weather, I knew I was going to miss Russia. My visit had exceeded all of my expectations and, before I was even out of the country, I was already thinking about returning.
For tourists, Russia can be tough; there is little in the way of tourist infrastructure and the language barrier is a challenge, particularly with the added complexity of dealing with a different alphabet. Even Moscow, a city of nearly 12 million, has no official tourist information office.
When I got off the train at St. Petersburg, I was struck by the complete lack of tourist help that one generally takes for granted at ports of entry. There are no information desks, no one hawking tours, no one handing out maps, no one asking if you need a ride to your hotel; all of which I found immediately pleasant and relaxing.
This general absence of overt tourist provisions would be a running theme throughout my time in Russia. For the most part if you’re not a part of a tour group, you are truly on your own. If you need something, it’s up to you to ask or to figure it out. You may be met with indifference or confusion; but more often you will be treated warmly and graciously. This won’t always happen but I never really cared; I don’t need a toothy grin and a “how are you doing today?” when buying a subway token or a cup of coffee.
Back on the train to Ulaanbaatar, I wandered into the dining car for one last Russian meal. The car was empty but I could hear a TV and two people chatting in the kitchen. After about 6 or 7 minutes, an attendant strolled by, noticed I was there, and handed me a menu. I was grateful for having been forced to wait as it was a last chance to enjoy the Russian scenery out the window.
Once the train pulled into Ulaanbaatar and passengers began to disembark, swarms of locals appeared on the platform offering transportation, tours, hostel rooms, money changing, food etc. I had unwittingly passed back into a place where tourist money is more vigorously pursued and it took me a few moments to re-acclimate.