After spending three weeks in Mongolia (helping a nomadic family migrate and taking a 12-day tour), it was time to move on. We’d come right off a 9-hour day’s drive back to Ulan Bataar to catch our train, and we were rushing. Thanks to a lengthy currency exchange (try operating in four different currencies!), we nearly missed our train. So, the black residue melting my backpack went totally unnoticed when I pulled it from the taxi and ran toward the train. It wasn’t until we were well on our way that I found it disintegrating right before my eyes. After some good advice by fellow travel bloggers, we always try to win the day. That particular day was won solely on the fact that the battery acid didn’t eat through any of my straps—just a few pockets.

Upon settling into our berth, a middle-aged man approached and chatted us up. I’m always a little leery of overly friendly strangers, even after this much travel. Sure, we’ve met tons of folks that just wanted to talk but I’m in the camp that it’s always good to keep your guard up. Anyway, I eyed this man with suspicion. Eventually, his talkative mood lapsed and he explained the dire straits effecting his family. He had a painting for his grandmother that he desperately wanted to get to her. He hadn’t seen her in x amount of years, and he was afraid she might not live to see his gift. His story was quite compelling, but not enough for us to bite. Flashes of locked up abroad shifted through my head.

Those same flashes circulated during the border crossing into Russia when our cabin mate propositioned us over and over. The train ride up to that point was fairly ordinary. We shared a carriage with several other foreigners and our cabin with a Russian student studying in Mongolia. She taught us a mix of Russian and Mongolian, which was fun. Right before crossing the Mongolian/Russian border, another woman joined our cabin. With crazy hair but the meticulousness of an accountant, she set about taking stock of her inventory. We looked like Kmart stuffed into a 7×4 cell. Purses, jeans, silk coverings, sausages, tea, and shirts littered all the beds. Holy cow, we found ourselves in the middle of a smuggler’s cabin!!

In the .expanse of thirty minutes, she hid everything. It’s one of the best sleight of hands I’ve seen. She stuffed loads of tea boxes into our garbage, behind pillows, and into storage bins. Silk coverings rolled in jeans got buried in the bottom of sports bag. Tampon and Kotex boxes were filled with silk scarves and placed on a small shelf in plain sight. Jeans and shirts got rolled into bags and placed underneath our luggage (despite me pulling them out countless times). And my all-time favorite, sausages got hung from the window, nicely hidden behind the drapes.

This is whats really meant by smuggling sausages

A great spot for hiding sausages

The border crossing takes about 10 hours, so we got to know our fellow cabin mate somewhat well. Over our morning coffee, our smuggling friend made small talk while our ideas about smugglers changed. I mean, everyone needs to make a buck somehow. Although we held our ground that we would not take part in her activities, she convinced the Russian student to claim a few purses and other items for her. That was a bad move. When the Russian border guards finally entered, they immediately recognized the smuggler. They laughed and joked with her; it was obvious they knew her. But, they were all business with the Russian student. It didn’t take long for the student to break—and just like that she was pulled off the train.

Tea hidden in what use to be our garbage

Tea hidden in what use to be our garbage

Another friend of hers a few doors down also took on some extra items for the smuggler, and she was also pulled off the train. They looked scared. Officers came to our cabin and started looking through things. But, this is the weird thing…. they missed a ton of stuff. I’d say they didn’t find anything that was hidden away. They pulled some cursory items off along with our smuggler but everything else was left (the hidden sausages, silk coverings, tea, etc).

We waited for three hours wondering about their fate until they all returned. The students were no longer their chatty selves. In fact, we never heard another word from them the rest of the trip (24+ hours). The smuggler, in turn, started packing up all her stuff like nothing even happened and exited the train. We’d hope she’d leave behind a sausage or two for us, but no such luck. These were high-commodity goods, afterall.

A long wait at a deserted Russian border station

A long wait at a deserted Russian border station

Stay tuned for more posts on our journey across the Trans-Siberian railway (sans smugglers!).

One Response to “Trans-Siberian railway: Ulan Bataar to Irkutsk”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Fascinating story — what do you think happened to them in that three-hour span of time? Love the sausages, too!