Trans-Mongolian adventure, part 3: Mongolia

The train from Irkutsk in Siberia to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, was a completely different experience to the Trans-Siberian train we rode from Moscow to Irkutsk. The first was a Russian train and the second Chinese, and it ended up being the oldest of the four long distance trains we travelled on across Russia and Mongolia.

But the biggest difference was that this time we weren’t mixed in with the locals. Each carriage was segregated according to whether the occupants were Russian, Chinese, Mongolian or “tourist”. Apparently this was done in order to reduce theft (hmmm) but that wasn’t particularly successful as an iPhone was stolen from an American couple by someone that had ducked into the carriage. (Miraculously, they got it back! There isn’t really anywhere to hide on a train and the staff took the reported theft very seriously. By the time the train had reached the next station the phone had been recovered, although the thief’s fate was never very clear…) Personally I never felt unsafe on the previous train where we’d been mixed in with locals, but after all, we did have Svetlana acting as our unofficial grandmotherly protector then.

Another glimpse of the train

Either way, it ended up being a nice contrast as we met lots of lovely people (such as Carolyn, Sam, Stuart and Casey) who we could actually communicate and swap travel stories with. We only spent a total of one full day with these guys but by the end of it it felt like we’d known each other for a lot longer.

The day ended with lengthy passport and customs checks first at the Russian and then the Mongolian border. There was about one hour in between the two checkpoints and it wasn’t 100% clear from the customs forms whether we were allowed to take any alcohol or fruit across the border. We all decided it would be best to consume any potentially questionable food and drink before we got there, just to be on the safe side. In order to accomplish this, 15 of us crammed into one single compartment and held a one hour micro party: small space, short time, many drinks, lots of food.

Cabin party

The party ended abruptly when we arrived at the Mongolian checkpoint. The uniformed woman who collected our passports and forms was serious and businesslike but we thought we caught the hint of a smile on her face before she ordered us back to our assigned compartments.

We reached Ulaanbaatar at 6:30am and were able to steal a couple of extra hours sleep at a hotel we were checked into just to shower and breakfast. We met our delightful guide and enigmatic driver in the hotel lobby at 10am to begin our sightseeing in Mongolia in earnest.

Yellow and green ger doors

We had four full days in Mongolia (7-11 October). The first two, spent out in the grand and sweeping Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, were particularly magical. We spent the night in a ger (you mustn’t call a Mongolian house a yurt!) and our days meeting enormous vultures, shaggy yaks, friendly dogs and possibly a not-so-friendly wolf; hiking mountains; visiting a Buddhist meditation centre; and eating a lot of food (soups, mutton, beef stews, dumplings and endless cups of the best ceylon tea I’ve ever tasted). We also visited a nomadic family who served us salty milk tea, thick clotted cow’s cream, dried pellets of yak’s milk yoghurt, and a bowl of fermented horse’s milk (an alcoholic beverage that tastes a bit like sour beer). The weather was perfect and the landscape like nothing we’d ever seen before. Those two days really stand out as a significant highlight of all our travels.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Back in Ulaanbaatar it took us a while to adjust to the insanely congested traffic. Our skilled driver successfully (and/or miraculously) negotiated the chaos without so much as a bump from any nearby vehicles, aided by a not insignificant amount of horn usage. Ulaanbaatar has experienced a population explosion in the last 10 years and the city  is expanding at a rapid rate but the infrastructure can’t quite keep up. The city is full of skyscrapers but the streets are dusty, the air polluted and the predominant colour is a browny grey: a stark contrast with the natural beauty of the relatively nearby  Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.

Sightseeing in Ulaanbaatar included visiting a Buddhist temple and school complex, the National Museum of Mongolia, the Soviet-esque Zaisan Memorial (which also offers an excellent panoramic view of the city), a wonderful performance of Mongolian song and dance, and the impressive Sükhbaatar Square. I would have loved to have visited the Natural History Museum too but unfortunately it was closed while we were there. I’ve heard Ulaanbaatar’s Modern Art Museum is also very good.

Ulaanbaatar

As with Irkutsk I felt that Real Russia’s prearranged itinerary really helped us to get the most out of our time in Mongolia. If we’d been doing things by ourselves it would have been harder to get out to the national park (I don’t think there’s any public transport outside of the city) and I think if Ulaanbaatar was your only stopover in Mongolia the experience might not be quite as enjoyable. The city on its own might become a bit tiresome and exhausting, whereas breaking it up with some time outside felt quite inspiring and invigorating. After all, the true spirit of Mongolia is all about being out in the open and close to nature. While I highly recommend Real Russia for assistance with visas, booking trains or arranging a complete tour, if you wanted to do the Russian section independently, or are perhaps only visiting Mongolia, the local company that was contracted to look after us in Mongolia was Great Genghis. Our guide and driver were both excellent: very skilled and knowledgable. And really nice people!

Enough plugs. Our Real Russia tour would end with our final train leg: Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. From our arrival in Beijing (12 October) we were back on our own as independent travellers. But more about that and our time in China another time!

[more photos]

Trans-Mongolian adventure, part 2: the train & Siberia

On the evening of our last day in Moscow (29 Sep) our guide Alexey accompanied us to Yaroslavsky Station (Яросла́вский вокза́л) where we stocked up on supplies to last us for our imminent 80 hour train ride. We were the first to arrive in our couchette but by the time we’d packed our bags away and gotten settled our room-mate for the next three and a bit days had also arrived.

Her name was Svetlana. She didn’t speak a word of English but it’s amazing how much you can communicate without a common language. It certainly increased our very limited Russian vocabulary! She described herself as a babushka and later revealed she was 71 years old, although we insisted she was surely twenty years younger. She told us about her three children and seven grandchildren and insisted we have five children of our own. She became increasingly more motherly as the days wore on, insisting we wear warmer clothing and feeding us food from her supplies, including homemade cheese. We never quite worked out exactly where she was going – not quite as far as Vladivostok but further than us (Irkutsk). I wish I could watch a replay of the night we first met with English subtitles: I’m pretty sure what she said when she established we didn’t speak Russian was something along the lines of, “Just what am I going to do stuck on a train for days on end with you two who don’t speak a word of Russian!”

на здоровье (cheers)!

We visited the restaurant car on our first night. There weren’t many people there and when the staff saw us they almost seemed amused to have new customers. The food was alright (I had a hearty stew covered in melted cheese, Alex had borscht) but we got more into the Trans-Siberian spirit of things for the following two nights. The train makes a number of often quite lengthy (up to half an hour) stops along the way, where you can hop off and either buy cup noodles, snacks and drinks from little booths on the platform, or fish, piroshki and dumplings from local women offering them. They’re not pushy, the food is cheap, and they’re honest about giving you the right change (when you get confused and can’t comprehend how cheap it really is).

Pitstop at Omsk

One morning an elderly but spritely man poked his head into our compartment and said something in Russian. I gave my standard apologetic smile and when he realised I spoke English his face lit up and he said, “Ah!” He paused to corral the words he wanted to use next then proudly declared, “We will have a good English lesson today, yes!” When we laughed and smiled he repeated it again before disappearing down the corridor. A couple of hours later he came back for his English lesson, which was really just a request for coaching on the pronunciation of “pen” versus “pan”. He said the “pa” in pan is difficult because there’s no equivalent sound in Russian.

Finally we arrived at Irkutsk, deep in the heart of Siberia. It was early in the morning and we hugged Svetlana before saying “до свидания!” (goodbye). One of our guides for the area, Katya, collected us from the station and drove us to our accommodation where we gratefully showered for the first time in 4 days before being served a welcome hot breakfast.

Lake Baikal

During our stay in and around Irkutsk (3-5 Oct) we visited Lake Baikal (the largest fresh water lake in the world – roughly the size of Belgium), an open air museum of wooden architecture (buildings salvaged from the building of a Soviet dam), a баня (Russian sauna), a Buryat (native Siberian) settlement where we met a local shaman, as well as sights around Irkutsk itself (churches, statues and monuments). The itinerary was organised by Real Russia as part of their Classic Trans-Mongolian tour and I think it helped us to get a lot more out of the area than we probably would have done if we’d been doing things by ourselves. Both our guides, Katya and Ivan, were young, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable.

Siberia wasn’t anything like I’d expected. Irkutsk is quite large and has a youthful vibe thanks to being a university town. Lake Baikal is beautiful with crystal clear water and clean fresh air. It wasn’t barren, desolate or freezing – in fact it was actually quite sunny and warm while we were there. Of course, everything we saw was within an hour’s drive of a main train station: given how large Siberia is I’m sure there are many stretches of land that fit the image I had in my head, but there probably isn’t much point in visiting them for that exact reason.

Buryat shaman

Up next: the third and final instalment (of the Trans-Mongolian portion of our 5 month journey at least): Mongolia.

[more photos]

Trans-Mongolian adventure, part 1: St Petersburg & Moscow

We arrived in St Petersburg by overnight ferry from Helsinki. I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive about arriving in Russia. We’d travelled through enough ex-USSR countries to have built up a not particularly flattering picture of its 20th century history, and more than one person had warned us to be very mindful of our personal safety. Even the guy at the money exchange office in Helsinki recommended carrying enough money for one or two bribes on us at all times. But in the end: it was fine! Maybe we were lucky, or maybe it’s just because we were careful, but nothing was stolen from us and we never had to bribe anyone. It was particularly fascinating to learn about Russia’s recent history from the other side of the fence – especially since we found that what we learned differed depending on who and where we asked.

Street signs

St Petersburg (24-26 September)

We did a lot of walking on our first day in St Petersburg. Up Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, through Alexander Garden, up and down the Neva River and over bridges to Peter and Paul Fortress, up to the St Petersburg Mosque and back down to the Cruiser Aurora. We were particularly struck by the grandeur of the city: so many palaces or palace-like buildings, particularly along the Neva. Some St Petersburg recommendations:

  • The Hermitage/Winter Palace. The big one. And yes, it is huge. Like the Louvre, you’d have to dedicate half a lifetime to seeing and appreciating all its works so you’re better off picking a couple of areas that interest you and spending your time in those rooms. You don’t need to book entry tickets in advance (and doing so actually costs more) but if you don’t it’s worth getting there when it opens so you don’t have to queue for very long.

The Hermitage

  • Kunstkamera. The oldest museum in Russia is (in)famous for one particular room filled with an extensive collection of deformed human and animal foetuses: not for the faint hearted! But it’s not all about the freakshow: the rest of the museum contains excellent ethnographic exhibits, most of which include English descriptions (although they can be curiously… un-PC at times, particularly the ones in the African section).
  • Museum of the Political History of Russia. Covers many periods of Russian political history, including before and after the Soviet era, but I found the Soviet sections to be the most interesting. It fills two mansions, one of them featuring Lenin’s study and a balcony he delivered later speeches from.
  • Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. For your brightly-coloured onion dome fix.
  • Eat at a stolovaya (столовая). (There are several on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa.) These canteen-like cafes are a great way to sample a variety of different Russian foods. Grab a tray and load it up with the dishes you want to buy then pay at the end of the queue. It’s also very cheap – this meal cost us about £5 in total.
  • Clean Plates Society. A cheap but quality restaurant serving modern Russian food. The blue cheese burger is divine but you can also get a good beef stroganoff fix here.
  • Cafe Iberia (кафе иверия). If you get tired of Russian cuisine try this Georgian restaurant on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa.

Rooftops of St Petersburg

Also: Sptn!k tours could be worth checking out. Unfortunately we didn’t find out about Sptn!k until we’d left St Petersburg but their guided tours sound quite unique.

Moscow (27-29 September)

We got our first dose of Russian trains travelling overnight from St Petersburg to Moscow. This was the fanciest (and most expensive) train we took in Russia. Everything was new, there was a powerpoint for every bed, and we were given complimentary slippers, toothbrush, toothpaste, water, apples and tea. We shared our four bed couchette with two Russian business men who mainly kept to themselves.

Arrival in Moscow

Arriving in Moscow was the official beginning of the Trans-Mongolian tour we booked through Real Russia. We don’t normally book tours, but we felt that this time it would be worth the extra money to get the most out of this particular experience. We also paid for Real Russia to arrange our Russian, Mongolian and Chinese visas and they were incredibly helpful with my endless questions about every minor detail. The tour arrangements meant that from Moscow until our arrival in Beijing we had a private guide and/or driver in each city we visited (as well as free time to spend as we liked) and transfers to and from every train station. All trains, accommodation and entry fees were included, and even some meals. We had three days in Moscow, one of which was a full day private tour. Cool stuff to see:

  • The Metro. Probably the most impressive metro stations we’ve ever seen: it’s no wonder they’re referred to as “palaces for the people”. The decoration is still heavily Soviet, which was fascinating for us given that all the ex-USSR countries we’ve been to generally removed every trace of the Soviet era (or confined them to museums). Learning some cyrillic will definitely help make sense of the map but the trick with getting around is you can’t easily see the station names (even in cyrillic) from the trains themselves, so you may need to count stops.
  • St Basil’s Cathedral. Spectacular from the outside, it’s also worth paying to go inside as the interior is quite unusual for a cathedral. Instead of a grand sweeping hall it’s made up of a series of small niches and rooms which are quite labyrinthine.

Domes of St. Basil's Cathedral

  • The Kremlin. Be prepared: the Kremlin ticketing system is confusing. You can’t buy a ticket “to see the Kremlin”. You buy a ticket to see something that happens to be located within the Kremlin walls. There are a variety of different things to see and you have to buy a separate ticket for each one. We paid to go inside the four cathedrals, but you can also visit the Armoury, climb a bell tower, or visit the Diamond Foundry. Even more confusingly, things like the Armoury operate on a timed ticket (you have you visit at a specific time). Most of the tickets can be bought from the booths outside (located in Alexander Garden when we were there), except for the Diamond Fund, for which tickets are purchased inside. There are also two different entrances. (The Diamond Fund ticket booth is inside the entrance for the Armoury.)
  • Monument to the Conquerors of Space and Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Two spectacular monuments near VDNKH (ВДНХ) metro station. The first honours Russian cosmonauts and the second was built for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris – the same fair the Eiffel Tower was constructed for.

Monument to the Conquerors of Space Worker and Kolkhoz Woman

  • The All-Russia Exhibition Centre. Also near VDNKH (ВДНХ) metro station, this sprawling expo complex contains large pavilions dedicated to each of the countries of the former USSR. It’s still open today and the pavilions have either been converted into shops or stand abandoned. It’s free to enter and wander around.
  • Izmailovo Kremlin. A complex of brightly coloured buildings, primarily used for weddings but worth visiting just to marvel at. While you’re there you can also visit the Vodka Museum and nearby market which is full of stands selling matryoshka dolls, fur hats, snacks and Soviet memorabilia.
  • Apple Technology Museum. It’s a bit out of the way but if you consider yourself a serious Apple fan you shouldn’t miss this incredible collection of Apple and Macintosh computers, hardware accessories, software and memorabilia – the most impressive we’ve ever seen.

Up next: the longest train journey we’ve ever taken and stopping off in Siberia!

[more photos]