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December 28, 2015

Into the Heart of Manchuria

I’m pretty confused about the border ahead – I can make no sense of the timetable and everyone has a different version of it, so I’m going to need to be flexible with my planning. 
 
Valerie has taken to passing me notes with helpful things written on, as his English is nearly as bad as my Russian. This morning his note says just one thing “-31C”. This kind of ties in with my bathroom experience, as the toilet had frozen solid. If you want a technical explanation, this is because the water supplying it should be heated, but my WC is at the other end of the carriage from the samovar, which I guess provides the hot water..
 
My sleep was pretty mixed last night as the train has frozen brakes again, and every time it slows down my carriage lurches backwards and forwards. This is impossible to sleep through. I also got up before each stop during the night to re-seal my window – it’s a high maintenance activity, but worth it as I can get the temperature from 29C down to a more manageable 21C without getting into trouble.
 
Looking at the map we are now headed South East, so I’m surprised by the continued drop in temperature. The landscape has changed dramatically overnight. We have been slowly climbing on to a huge plain and my view this morning is of tundra and the Great Khingan mountain range in the distance. It’s much drier up here and my throat and eyes are a bit painful today. I have started to cough too, not a good sign. I wonder if the altitude is now a factor in the low temperature as well. 
 
 

Our 40 minute stop at Borzya reveals that we are carrying a lot of post, but few passengers. The RZD staff and security greatly outnumber us. One of my guide books says that this place was built to move military equipment into eastern Mongolia during the Japanese invasion of 1939. Most of the factories and buildings look deralict today, so I’m not sure why the long stop. On the platform I wander about trying to keep moving and warm. I notice that the moisture from my breath has actually frozen my beard for the first time. If it is like this in the sunshine, it must be quite chilly at night!

Looking at the timetable our next stop will be Zabailask in a few hours time, and this is where I say farewell to the Russian restaurant carriage (aka “Robin’s Nest’). They are busy moving things back into the Russian zone of the train that will be detached before we reach the border – I had better make sure I am in the right part of the train when this happens. I shall miss the Russian restaurant and feel sad to see Valerie and the team go. They were very kind to me. I exchange small Christmas gifts, and before I go, I ask Valerie if he minds if I take his photograph. What he does next surprises me – he insists on changing into his full uniform and poses very formally for me behind the bar. He explains that he doesn’t want to smile as he is hiding his gold fillings. What a thoroughly genuine and nice chap he is.