The three clocks problem, or understanding the Russian train timetables

Submitted by mike on Wed, 06/08/2016 - 12:15
Train time table Ulaanbaatar-Moscow

Nerd warning: this is a short post and it’s a little bit nerdy; read on if you’re interested in train timetables, or gain mildly autistic pleasure from such things; maybe skip this one if you don’t.

Back aboard a train. This time a Russian and not a Chinese train; thankfully. Nothing personal here, but after our experience of the Chinese-run Trans-Mongolian Express service, I’m very glad to be in the hands of the Ruskies once again. For one thing the wagon is clean; our cabin is spotless; the toilet is clean, and there’s plenty of toilet paper; the provodniks (cabin attendants) are stern yet efficient; the beds are more comfortable; and the set of bed linen and a hand towel we received was laundered to the point of being the paragon of what every housewife or husband in a washing powder advert dreams of achieving. I’m sure the Shanghai to Beijing bullet train and other services are exemplary, but the Moscow-Ulaanbaatar-Beijing service is pants.

We’re rolling out of Mongolia through beautiful river valleys with people outside enjoying a dip in a river in the late afternoon early summer sun; or sitting beneath a tree; or herding their animals. It looks idyllic out there; England would be like this if you stretched it out a bit, pumped up the hills a bit, knocked down all the walls the aristocracy built around their stately homes, tore down all the fences put up during the time of the enclosures, and if about 95% of the population left for elsewhere.

We’re on our way to our next stop: Irkutsk, in Russia. It’s an overnight service that takes a day to get there. There’s a time-table of the route in each wagon, but working out what time you arrive where can be a little complicated. Firstly, the times in Russia are given as Moscow time, not the local time when the train actually arrives or departs. Secondly, the times in Mongolia are given as Ulaanbaatar time, but in winter time, not summer time; Mongolia uses summer time; Russia does not.

So this means that according to the time-table, we were to leave Ulaanbaatar at 15:25, but it was in fact 16.25 local time (as UB is six hours ahead of Moscow at this time of year, not five). This is not too bad as there’s only one hour of difference. We stop at places on our way through Mongolia adding an hour onto the time shown. Once we reach the border at Sukhe-Bataar tonight, it’ll be 21:50, or 22:50 local time. At this point we’ll have the Mongolian Border Police come and check our passports and visas, and Mongolian Customs come and make sure we’re not smuggling dinosaur eggs, and presumably other nefarious items, out of the country.

That should finish at 00:10 (23:10 on the time-table). Next we’ll trundle over the border into Russia where we’ll have Russian immigration (and probably customs again) and where I hope they’ll hitch up the Russian restaurant car (there isn’t one at all at present). As we’ll have crossed the border, the time that this takes place is posted as 19:20. But that is Moscow time and the local time is five hours ahead; so locally it’ll be 00:20. However, for those of us who woke and breakfasted this morning in Ulaanbaatar, it’ll really be 01:20. All this shenanigans should take just over three hours. Afterwards we’ll have a wait for about half an hour before we’ll finally depart on our way at 21:10 Moscow time, or 02:10 local time, or half past three in the morning for our body clocks.

We arrive in Irkutsk tomorrow afternoon at 10:06 Moscow time, which is 15:06 local time, but I’ll still be feeling like it’s 16:06, so I’ll take the opportunity to put my watch back an hour and save myself any further confusion.

Simple huh? We’re in for a bit of a disturbed night and most people are getting some rest in preparation. I guess I should too.