A seven day railway journey – three different trains – with stops in Siberia & Mongolia
A long train journey through several countries has always been on my bucket list so upon retirement myself and my travel companion decided it was time to knock it off the list. We planned to begin our adventure in Moscow, following a holiday in Europe, and take the Trans-Mongolian Train (the most popular of the three routes crossing Siberia) from Moscow to Beijing. Planning was key to this journey and after months of research and discussion we opted to book through a travel agent and the one that seemed to suit us best and was very flexible was an Australian company called “FlowerTravel”. The reason we chose ‘Flower Travel’ was it allowed us to pick and choose our own itinerary – where to stop off and for how long. However as we flew from Spain to Russia we began to wonder – Will there be anyone there to meet us at the airport at 3am? Will we be taken to and from our trains and hotels as promised in our itinerary ? Will our tour guides be knowledgable and helpful? Will the tours be worth while?
Only a few travel agents in NZ & Australia are well equipped to prepare an itinerary for travel on the Trans Siberian/Mongolian/Manchurian Railway. The agencies that do, work closely with travel agents in each country the train goes through – for example in Russia it is ‘The Russian Experience’ agency that look after you on behalf of FlowerTravel. This is mainly because of the red tape around visa requirements plus you also need guides who live locally and have very good local knowledge. You can, of course, make all the bookings yourself but you need time and patience and a book called Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas (this was our bible!). However, we did get all the visas ourselves and that is not without stress as often the dates for each country are very close together. One can only get a visa 90 days ahead for each country and that specific visa for that country only lasts 30 days. That means if you are going to Europe or traveling for few months before you take the train (as we did) you need to be very vigilant about dates in each country. And of course you need the Mongolian visa to follow the Russian visa then followed by the Chinese visa (that is of course if you are traveling west to east!). They also all need to be on the same passport! A travel agent will obtain the visas for you but they charge an extra NZ$75 per visa. The visas themselves are not cheap either – between $80 – $150 each
There are several questions you must answer before you make a final decision: A) Shall I travel East to West or West to East? B) Where will I start and finish – St Petersburg, Moscow, Vladivostok or Beijing or fly to somewhere in-between?? C) Which train will I take – Trans-Siberian ends or begins in Vladivostok, Trans-Mongolian (goes through Mongolia) begins or ends in Beijing as does the Trans Manchurian but this travels through Manchuria. We opted for the Trans-Mongolian starting in Moscow as we really wanted to visit Mongolia and needed to fly home from Beijing. D) What time of year will I travel? – Summer is very hot, winter is very cold but you will see plenty of beautiful snowy landscapes. We travelled late September through to early October 2014 and the deciduous trees were stunning from Moscow to Irkutsk. Late autumn and winter have limited accommodation in some places. E) Where will I stop off and how long for? The two most common stops are Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar but there are many choices – these are the stops we chose but there are many many others to choose from. It really depends on your time available.
When we arrived in Moscow at 3am, we were met at the airport by a driver who took us to our hotel. Our hotel was three star, it was comfortable, clean and a few hundred meters from the metro. We had made some strategic decisions before we went ahead with our bookings: 1) We would go with three star hotels as they all seemed to have pretty good reviews on trip advisor and 2) we would book out the four bunks in each compartment on each train for both space and privacy! We were so glad we did this, it added some $$ to the overall costs but was really worth it for us. We became friendly with a group of seven young people from the “Vodka Train” travel agency which is a ‘no frills’ agency, they had different people in their cabin each night with some changes in the middle of the night! However, they were young and did not seem to be bothered by the disturbances.
Thursday 25th September
A guide from ‘Real Russia’ called Leana, came and picked us up from our motel for our three hour walk around the city. She was 60+ and spoke English very well. She took us down to the metro and showed us how to buy metro tickets, how to use the underground and how to identify different metro stations. She suggested we buy 11 tickets between us to cover our planned trips over next two days. The metro is a very inexpensive way to travel and is very well used all day. Some stations had extremely steep escalators that took several minutes to reach the bottom/top. The metro stations themselves are really worth spending several hours wandering around – the same ticket will cover you to visit as many as you wish as long as you do not exit outside. Each metro station has a different theme – one is all marble with marble columns all along the station, another has many frescoes, another stain-glass windows and one station called Ploschard Revolyutsii Metro, has over 60 bronze statues which are definitely worth visiting. As people get off the train they pass close to the bronze statue and stroke a part of it such as achild’s hand, a woman’s knee or the nose of a dog. It is very obvious where people stroke the statue as the area they stroke has a bright luster that the rest of the statue does not have. Russians believe that stroking these statues will bring them good luck. We were very surprised that many young people gave up their seats on the metro train for us – more readily than in NZ I am afraid.
Photos from the various metros – you can see where people rub the bronze sculptures!
Leana’s tour took us to Red Square where we learned that the word Bolshoi is not something romantic but just means ‘big’. ‘Red’ Square was so named in the 14th century and has nothing to do with communism! We visited Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, St Basil Basilica, State History museum and the large department store that faces onto Red Square called GUM, that has every worthwhile designer label shop in it. Leana pointed to a fresco of Jesus just over the main entrance of the GUM store and commented on the irony of the large consumer department store and a fresco of christianity directly opposite Lenin’s tomb!!
Leana also recommended a cheap place to eat in GUM for lunch – No 57, they do a set lunch which is good value. She also took us to shops to buy wine and goods for the train trip and she led the way past the statue of Chekov near the old Moscow theatre. On route we passed a very big three story apartment block that was moved 40 meters in the middle of the night, to make room for a road expansion,while the residents slept and they knew nothing about the move!!
Friday 26th September
Today we headed back by the metro to Red Square and on to the Kremlin. We spent several hours inside the Kremlin walls visiting all the churches, cathedrals and gardens. It was expected that within the Kremlin one stays on the designated footpaths, if you did not a guard would call you to task! The beauty of the golden domes of the cathedrals and the amazing paintings and historical artefacts inside them was stunning. The pink and white Grand Kremlin Palace was built between 1837-49 and is an imposing building. The Kremlin wall encloses four cathedrals, five palaces and the Kremlin towers. The whole complex is the official residence of the President which is why it can be closed at any given time by the government without warning. You need to spend several hours here to do the complex justice. The Assumption Cathedral(1475-79) was where many Russian Tsars were crowned. The Archangel Michael’s cathedral (1505-08) has 46 different tombstones belonging to Russian Leaders, Tsars & families. The idea of a necropolis or burial area within a church started in 1340 when Ivan 1 Danilovich Kalita built a small stone church on this site and was buried there. Verkhospassky cathedral next to the Terem Palace is made up of several family chapels and has 11exquisitely elegant domes.The beautiful nine domed Cathedral of the Annunciation, built in 14th Century was the family chapel of the Moscow Grand Princes. Also worth looking at is the enormous Tzar’s bel – the biggest bell crafted in the world.
After we had spent many hours inside the Kremlin we wandered from Red square past the Bolshoi building and back up to where there is a statue of the Russian writer Chekov close to the oldest theatre in Moscow – a lovely part of Moscow to walk around.
Saturday 27th September (my friend Marcia’s birthday)
We awake with anticipation – today was the start of the Trans-Mongolian train trip. A man arrived to collect us from the hotel at the given hour and took us to the train station. He parked, took our bags and wheeled them to where the train was waiting. He did not speak a word to us but got us safely there and waited with us until the carriage attendant (provodnitsas) allowed us to get on the train. She was a stern looking woman called Svetlana but she seemed to do all that was needed in our carriage. Each carriage had approximately10 cabins, a toilet each end (remember to bring your own toilet rolls) and a samovar which was fired by coal delivered into a hole under the samovar several times during the journey. The samovar keeps the water boiling 24/7 for tea, noodles, soup, porridge or hot chocolate. We had been shopping the day before in Moscow and stocked up on water, tea, cheese, crackers, fruit, porridge, noodles, soup, vegemite, crackers, salami etc. as we were warned about the food in the dining car. We also had a plastic bowl, an insulated mug, knife fork & spoon and bottle for water. You can top up with drinks, water, dried fish and bread from the local Russian /Siberian villagers selling their wares on the platforms when the train stops. It is worth remembering that you must also have local currency to make a purchase from the local women.
There is not much space for luggage so pack lightly. We had more room than most because we had reserved four bunks for the two. At first we found it difficult to work out how long the train would stop at a specific station. There was a list in each carriage but this was hard to read as each station seemed to have several different ways of spelling the name. After a while we realised that when the carriage attendant donned her coat and hat and looked official – that meant we were here for a longer stay probably between 30-40 minutes. If you get off the train always take your money, passport and visa with you and always have photocopies of same in a different place! One couple we met got a nasty scare when they went away from the station to a shop over the road. When they came back to the train station, they missed the turn to our train and got into a panic believing that the train had gone and they had left all documents on the train. They were relieved to find they had turned left instead of right when they crossed the bridge and found their train!! They never went anywhere without their money and documents for the rest of the trip! There are several plugs in each carriage to charge your iPads or phones but you do have to leave them in the corridor so you need to keep a close eye on them.
Each train is quite different when you break your journey as we did at Irkutsk & Ulaanbaatar (UB). Our second train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar was nicer and less crowded than the one from Moscow to Irkutsk and had flush toilets. Our cabin was two berth and the carriage attendants were mostly Buryats and were very friendly. On the third and last train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing we had a small two bunk cabin with a shared ensuite which was very comfortable and the dining car on this train run by Chinese was the best of the three. The type of train you get is the luck of the draw depending on the day and time you leave Moscow. You can of course choose to go in luxury but this will cost you three times more than we paid. The cost of our trip was $5000+ which included – seven nights on the train, upgrades to 3 star hotels which included breakfast, train compartments for two plus accommodation for three nights in Moscow, Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar, being met from and delivered back to hotels and trains and a three hour tour in each city we stayed at. The tours are private tours and are really worthwhile as you learn your way around each city and gain some inside information.
Once we were unpacked and settled into our cabin we headed to the dining car sure we could buy some ‘bubbly’ and caviar to celebrate my friend’s birthday – (at least that is what the book said). This, however, was a vain hope, what with the language barrier and lack of space behind the bar the only thing that was cold was beer! They showed us a ‘warm’ bottle of Prosecco which we felt should be OK as most are dry but alas it was sweet and warm… and they had no caviar!!! A Russian train without caviar!
We were disappointed but they did have Russian vodka so my friend Marcia ended up having that with some strange food from the menu – not at all tasty. The menu had some very strange translations such as – ‘Julienne with the language’ which was a dish beef tongue, champignons, onion, cheese and sour cream!! We did not really mind about the poor food as we had been pre warned so our expectations were actually not very high going into the dining car. Back in our cabin we had some wine, cheese and crackers (purchased in Moscow) and settle down to our first nights sleep on the train and it was dark outside.
Beautiful yellow, orange and red deciduous trees lined both sides of the train after leaving Moscow, and this continued to be a constant picture from the train between stations until we arrived in Siberia. We tried to stay in touch with which station we were going through but often the names on the station and on the list in the carriage were not the same as our Trans-Siberian bible by Bryn Thomas. We spend the days, reading, looking out the windows, taking photos, talking and playing cards with our mates from the ‘Vodka Train” and eating. There were some loud and drunk Russians on the train so were very happy to be able to lock our door and put in our ear plugs. We both slept very well with the chugging, rolling and motion of the train woken occasionally when the train stopped at different stations to allow passengers to get on or off.
Sunday 28th September
Breakfast was porridge made with hot water from the samovar and chopped fruit, milk was a luxury we decided to do without. The beauty of the deciduous trees continued and we began to suss out the stops and times so we could get off the train and have some exercise! All trains run on Moscow time so we had to calculate local time – we went through five time zones on the whole seven days on the train, so were were always unsure of the exact time at any given location. We had a long stop in Prem (1436 kms from Moscow) this day, so I got out and walked to the front of the train to get a photo of the train we were travelling in and to take some photos of the station. Each station has it own unique building and many of them are painted bright colours. The trains in Russian run smoothly and efficiently and ON TIME! As I was strolling back to our carriage a woman of 60+ accosted me and tried to pressure me into buying her smoked fish – unfortunately for her I had no money on me so she went away miffed!
Noodles were on the menu for us each lunch time and then we seemed to snack our way through the day. One of the dining car attendants came around with food trollies and we decided we would try one of Russian pancake-like things called Pirozhki – they had absolutely no taste! Just as we were about to get ready for bed one of the ‘vodka train’ people came and told us that the next stop was a long stop so we ventured out and bought some bread from the local women on the platform. The locals know exactly which train stops and for how long and bring all their wares to sell. Wandering by the different stalls (some on wheels, some are shopping baskets and bags and some are just dried fish skewered) and examining the goods in the baskets to see what they are selling is part of the fun of these stops.
Today we rode past the Ural mountains and passed through Oblasts and Steppes. Oblast means region and there are 46 Oblasts in Russia. Steppes are large flat areas of land that are usually dry and cold. The Oblasts are mostly made up of Taiga forests, which are forests of evergreen trees in the colder subarctic regions of the world. Russia, has the largest Taiga forests in the world and it stretches 5,800 kilometres from the Pacific ocean to the Ural Mountains. We could see the Taiga forests behind the deciduous trees along the way. The Ural mountains are very rich in deposits such as ore, copper, gold, cobalt etc. We stopped for a while at Yekaterinburg (1816 kms from Moscow) to change engines to take us on a winding track out of the Ural Mountains and into Asia!
Monday 29th September
We woke to a sunrise in Siberia and the ground was covered with frost but we could still see the deciduous trees along the train track. As the day went on the trees got sparser and land became barren. We bought some bottled water in a station called Nazyvayevskaya (2565 Kms from Moscow) which is very much an agricultural area. Our next stop – a big industrial city called Omsk (2712 kms from Moscow) with a population of 1.2 million, it is the second largest city in Siberia. After Omsk we travelled many kilometres along the Baraba Steppe where we saw shallow lakes (with birdlife) and sedge grass (similar to rushes). There were groups of cattle grazing but it was hard to fathom how edible the sedge grass is for cows.
The shapes, state and materials of the houses changed between Moscow and Siberia. Within the first few hundred kms from Moscow there were houses known as Dacha houses, a word which originated in the 17th Century and which meant a plot of land given to loyal subjects by the Tzars. They were popular as summer houses for the wealthy Russians from the beginning of the 18th century and were used by nobility for balls, gatherings and parties. Both Pushkin & Chekhov wrote about Dachas in their works and most wealthy Russians believed they were a necessary possession! The further away from Moscow we went, the poorer the houses became. Arriving in Siberia the houses were very ordinary but still very colourful – bright yellow, blue, red and green! However, most homes in Siberia utilise all their gardens to grow vegetables, even some steep plots of ground have tiered garden plots so they can use them to grow vegetables. Outside most houses there were huge stacks of wood for the long cold winter ahead.
We had a long stop at Barabinsk (3040 kms from Moscow) where local women sold smoked fish on the platform and men sold ‘Dr Zhivago’ hats! The sun was setting as we got back into the train making the railways station look very picturesque. We then crossed the great Orb river at nightfall. We finished the day playing cards with the ‘vodka Train’ crown, had warm wine and vodka in our cabin and then had a less than appetising meal in the restaurant car.
Tuesday 30th September
When we woke we were somewhat confused by the time zones – we had been through four already which meant we were Moscow time +4!! We went through some quaint villages where houses were tidy, painted brightly and had well developed vegetable gardens.
The further into Siberia we travelled the poorer the houses and the more run down, though most had TV ariels and some had satellite dishes. The landscape began to change from deciduous trees and Taiga forests to barren lands with ghost like trees – birch & larch that had dropped all leaves and appeared as a long ghostly white statement on the landscape. We stopped at Krasnoyarsk (4098 kms from Moscow) on the Yenisey River at 10:45 am but the time on the station clock was 8:45am. Just 50 kms before Krasnoyarsk was the half way point between Moscow & Beijing and is marked with a white obelisk but we did not see it!
A few kilometres later we travelled across a huge bridge, which divides East & West Siberia, over the Yenisey river which rises in Mongolia and flows into the Arctic sea! The bridge we went across was built in 1999 and is 1km in length. It is built on several massive granite piers to withstand the force of the huge icebergs that barrel down the river. We packed our gear for an early morning start on arrival in Irkutsk – the train attendants may not wake you if you sleep in so you need to have a backup alarm.
Wednesday 1st October
We arrived in Irkutsk at 0840 and we were met by Lena (we wondered if all the Russian guides were called Lena?) from ‘the Russian Experience’. She took us to a waiting taxi and driver who drove 70 kms to our hotel in Listvyanka called ‘Hotel y O3epa’. I could not find this hotel listed on internet so must be owned by the agency. We had breakfast at the hotel cafe – fried eggs with lots of salt, pancakes with sour cream, cheese, jam, bread, orange juice and tea. After breakfast we walked up to the Lake Baikal museum which was small, all information was in Russian but because we had our guide we learned a lot of information about Baikal Lake, it is the largest freshwater lake in the world and the oldest ( over 20 million years old) and longest (600+ kms ). The submarine that went down 1.3kms into the lake discovered some weird white blind fish! There is a very small tank in the museum with a few Nerpa or Lake Baikal seals – which are unique to lake Baikal. They feed all summer and become very fat so they can survive the freezing winter. The seals can weigh up to 4Kg when born and have beautiful white fur but shed that after two months. Nerpa is an earless seal and the only true freshwater seal in the world. The adult seal can dive down 400 meters and can hold its breath for 70 minutes!
Along the shores of Lake Baikal there were shelters where people ate and drank. We met a lovely young Buryat girl who approached us to try out her English hoping we were American but had no idea where New Zealand was and what language was spoken there. Her mother took lots of photos of her talking with us and when we asked her if she was Buryat, she laughed pulling her eyes into almond shapes with her fingers. As we walked down the waterfront we saw another group of Buryats singing, eating, drinking vodka and playing the accordion. They invited us to join them so we talked with them for a while, exchanging views on Canon cameras and also took some photos. The lake is sacred to the Buryat people and so they must pick up pebbles and throw them into the lake – we did see several throwing stones into the lake and meditating. The Buryat are a Mongolian people with a population of over 550,000, many live in the Buryat republic located north of the Russian-Mongolian border near Lake Baikal, some of their land lies alongside the East Coastline of Lake Baikal. They are the largest indigenous group in Siberia, were nomadic but now work in forestry in the taiga forests or farm goats, cattle, camels,and sheep. They practice both Shamanism and Buddhism and are very friendly gentle people.
The local delicacy from Lake Baikal is Omul, a variety of white salmon and is endemic to Lake Baikal. We did order some ‘Omul’ and another local fish ‘Sig’ in a local restaurant called Tipocunina Bek for dinner. However, we did not really understand the menu but saw Omul and share so we ordered a dish of Omul to share between the two of us, and wondered why the waitress looked at us strangely when we ordered that and some other dishes….. we understood her strange look when this enormous plate of Omul came to our table – it was meant to be shared but with MANY friends, we could not finish it and offered it to a group at the next table who were only too willing to take it!
Thursday 2nd October
A trip to Port Baikal by ferry and a guided walk with lunch was part of the package for today. We were picked up by Sasha, a local man who was in his 60’s. He had been a teacher but was now retired and enjoyed taking people on day tramps all around Lake Baikal. He drove us to the ferry and we took the old ferry across to Port Baikal which was the main stop for the Trans-Siberian railway before WW1. Since then the route of the train has been changed several times and now goes over the hills from Irkutsk to Mongolia . While building the Track for the trans-Siberian in early late 1800’s to /1900’s there was a train ferry service joining Port Baikal to other side of the lake. Trains were carried on a special ice breaker-ferry “Baikal” which had three parallel train tracks on its deck and could carry up to 9 carriages on each track. Another, smaller icebreaker-ferry, the “Angara”, was also built which carried passengers and goods, but not trains. In the cold winter of 1903/04 when the icebreakers were not strong enough to break the ice, a railway line was laid on the ice, and railway wagons were pulled by draft animals!!
In 1940 the decision was made not to continue construction of the link but instead to take the track from Irkutsk over the mountains to Mongolia. In 1950 a hydro electric power station on Angara river was built and when it was flooded the level of the lake rose dramatically flooding the railway line. It is now just maintained as a tourist attraction, a scenic train trip called the Circum Baikal railway – 86 kms long and 39 tunnels. Coming into what was once a thriving port was now like a ghost port with a ships’ graveyard. Today there is one shop, some old rundown houses and a lovely little railway that still chugs tourists along side the lake and walkers can walk along the tracks and through tunnels. We walked five kilometers out, where we walked through one of the many tunnels and then back to where we had left Sasha to cook lunch, we had BBQ sausage, tomato and gherkin with dark rye bread. Sasha was very open about how he felt about his homeland today and in the past. He considered that the perestroika movement did a lot of harm to locals, he was teacher but his salary started going down and down and for one whole year he got nothing. He was very sad that other ‘old’ Russian States no longer like Russia. He used to holiday in Kazakstan but no cannot go there now because there is so much anti Russian feeling.
Friday 3rd October
Back in Lystvyanka we went walking past the museum and up to a lookout with great views of the lake and of the deciduous trees. We walked all through the local markets and bought some Siberian stone called Charoite, a beautiful purple stone found only on the shores of the river Chara north-east of Irkutsk. We then walked along to get a better view of the large rock in the middle of the Angara river as it flows from Lake Baikal. There are several local tales about how it got there! One such tale is that Baikal (lake) go so angry because his daughter Angara (river) ran away with her love Yenisey (river) without his permission, he grabbed a huge rock from the local mountain and threw it after her and she was never able to come home. Locals call it the “Shaman-rock” and historically local people believed in the miraculous power of Shaman rock. It was regarded as a place for praying, a place where rituals were held or oaths were taken. Sometime criminals were brought there and left on the rock for the night in the cold or ice conditions. If they were alive the next morning, not dying from either fear or cold – they were free!
Saturday 4th October
Our taxi and driver collected us from Listvyanka at 11am and took us to the Angara Hotel in Irkutsk for the night. It was very central hotel, comfortable and clean, close to shops and restaurants. We set out on a walking tour, first stop the Irkutsk Roman Catholic Church of Virgin Mary Assumption built as a wooden church in 1884 by the Polish people from the labour camps in Siberia. It was burned down and rebuilt in stone. It is a lovely building and is now used as a concert hall. Across the road is the church of the saviour which is a working church with the eternal flame outside it , a memorial to “soldiers fallen in the battlefields of the Great Patriotic war” and a huge statue of a man and woman called the Peter and Fevronya Monument – considered patrons of family happiness and matrimonial love. The Siberians came and touched this statue just as the Russians did the bronze statues on the metro in Moscow. There is a lovely walkway all along the Angara river but our next stop was the Orthodox Epiphany Cathedral 1789, is also a working church and a real architectural gem of Irkutsk and is colourful and ornate. It is a most unusual church with full length colourful paintings of saints all over the church’s facade and brightly painted like Russian popular prints. It has lovely window frames, corbel arches and fancy cornices. The first wooden Epiphany Cathedral was built by citizens of Irkutsk stockaded town in 1693 and was destroyed by fire in 1716, this was replaced by the stone church. In1990’s the Epiphany Cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Having read about the the wooden architecture of Irkutsk called “lace house” built in the late 19th century I really wanted to spend some time wandering around photographing them. The facades of these houses were decorated with carvings and thread work with special emphasis on enhancing the windows with rich carvings and scrolls. The windows are described as being similar to the windows of a palace in a Russian fairy-tale. The ornaments are not just decorative, but are also symbolic. The symbols depic different hopes, and dreams of the people of that time. For example – people believed that evil spirits could enter the dwelling through doors and windows frames. Because of this belief the decorations used in those parts of the house were for protection. The sun was a popular symbol because it symbolises life, happiness, and the beginning of all good things. I wandered the streets on my own for several hours on the way to the Decembrists museum and I felt completely safe. There were beautiful old lace houses in every street, some restored and some needing some loving care. I passed old wooden houses with their colourful and decorative shutters and ornate window heads. Finally I arrived at the Decembrists museum which was also wooden with decorated windows. The Decembrists were members of a secret revolutionary society which led to the uprising of December 1825 against Tzar Nicholas 1 which they lost and as a result they were exiled to Siberia from Russia. They were all very well educated men, many were high ranking generals. In order to strike the Decembrists totally out of their lives, the Church and State passed a law whereby the Decembrist’s wives were considered widows and allowed to remarry within their husbands’ lifetime without an official divorce. However, most of the wives turned and went with their husbands. When they departed for Siberia, they left behind their privileges as nobles and were reduced to the status of exiled prisoners’ wives, with restricted rights of travel, correspondence and property ownership. They were not allowed to take their children with them, and were not always allowed to return to the European part of Russia even after their husbands’ death. Irkutsk benefited greatly in the long run from these exiles as they brought music, art, cultural activities, opera,education and now Irkutsk is considered one of the best eduction centres in Siberia.
Sunday 5th October
The same driver transported us from our hotel to Irkutsk railway station for the next stage of our journey. This was our second train and very different from the first. All cabins were two berth and only one other of the ten cabins was occupied, by a young NZ couple returning home from time spent in Europe. Our carriage assistant was a Buryat women who seemed a little unwell as she did a lot of coughing and sleeping . We had a hot water flask on our cabin table and there were flushing toilets! We hugged Lake Baikal for a couple of hundred kms, the landscape was changing – less trees, more barren lands, more cattle farming although we could see no grass for cows to eat just brown stubble. The land seemed barren and sparse and the houses seemed to be more run down. There were visible amounts of rubbish especially as we went through Buryat territory. Most of the carriage attendants on this train were Buryats, they did enjoy their work and laughed and talked through the night!
At about 11 pm the train stopped at the Russian/Siberian border. We were visited by about 12 people in all, in groups of two/three, each group asked different questions, some searched our bags, some examined our passports and some our visas. They all seemed to be in different uniform – customs & passport control I imagine but we did not have a clue which was which. One lot asked us to step outside while our cabin was searched and another demanded that we lift up our bunks so they could examine the luggage underneath. A sniffer dog was led into the cabin, had a sniff and went out again. Finally after about an hour, the train moved on but only for a short distance as about half an hour later we stopped for Mongolian border. This time our passports were taken away by one group and another group collected our completed customs forms (one could not be sure that we had completed them properly as it was very hard to to read the questions correctly). Another sturdy looking person shouted in our door “anything to declare” – we answered ‘no’ and she went on her way shouting into the next cabins. Passports were back in our hands 20 mins later and we were in Mongolia. We immediately settle down to sleep as we were arriving in Ulaanbaatar at 6:30am Mongolia time in the morning.
Monday 6th October
We arrived into Ulaanbaatar on time as usual, Russian trains are always on time despite the hundreds and hundreds that run on each line across Russia. These trains are not just for tourists as locals use them all the time so if you are hopping on and off you should be able to purchase a ticket a few days before. However, they usually run to capacity – especially from Moscow to Siberia. Once again we were met by a Mongolian man who introduced himself as NK. He seemed a pleasant young chap, he and the driver were from Shuren travel, the agency that Flower travel use in Mongolia. As I was not feeling 100% we opted for breakfast in a hotel in Ulaanbaatar and then out to our ger via the statue of Genghis Khan. Our ger was in Elesti ger lodge about 95kms outside Ulaanbaatar so after breakfast we headed out there.
We were the first tourists of the day to arrive at this monumental statue of Genghis Khan. It was in the middle of nowhere with a huge gated entrance and a long curved drive up to the statue. You cannot drive right up to the information centre but encouraged to climb the many steps while you strain your neck to view the gigantic stainless steel statue.
There is access to the information centre for wheelchairs. This roomy information centre has a shop, lots of information on the walls and the largest Mongolian boot in the world! We went to find the lift which was in the horse’s tail and took a small rickety lift up to the belly of the horse and walked through the belly to the head were we had 360 degree views that were truly stunning. What an amazing massive structure with a price-tag of four million US dollars!
We then drove another 20+ kms to to our ger camp. It was very remote and we drove across sand, dirt roads and streams to get there. The driver was a great character, he entertained us the whole way with Mongolian songs and he had a really lovely voice. When we arrived at the camp NK took us to our ger which looked very cosy but the wood stove was not alight and it was pretty cold out in the desert. An old man, who turned out to be the camp’s handyman, was called from another ger to get the fire going. We discovered he was the jack of all trades around the camp as he milked the cows, stoked the fires, cleaned up the dung from outside the ger and mustered the horses- he also wore genuine Mongolian boots! The ger became warm very quickly once the fire was going and our ‘Jack’ came back into our ger at 1130pm and 5am to stoke the fire! You cannot help but wake when he come into the ger as the bright red flames lick the chimney as soon as he throws the wood and ‘whatever’ on the fire. There was of course no running water and the loo was several hundred meters away, there was a pretend ‘sink’ with a little tin box (with a tap on it) screwed to the wall that you could fill it up, turn on the tap to allow it to run into the sink down through a hole and down into a bucked underneath! We could not quite make out what it was for…washing teeth maybe? The only thing I missed was a window to look out, it was too cold to leave the door open until the sun was out for few hours and the day had heated up. The view outside was incredible – vast sweeping plains or steppes, lots of horses, cattle and goats but nothing else in sight!
The dining room was in another ger just like ours but furnished differently and attached to yet another ger that was the kitchen. There was also a small bar that sold beer vodka and wine! We strolled around the plains in the afternoon and then went to the dining room for dinner 7pm. We were the only guests there for the first night and many of the gers had already been packed up for winter (we were on the cusp – early October). The camp did, in fact, have running water for most of the season but they shut it down at the end of September because the tanks would freeze and burst.
Some people get confused with the use of the words ‘ger’ and ‘yurt’ – ger is the Mongolian name for ‘home’ and yurt comes from Turkish word for dwelling place and is Russian. Doors of the ger are traditionally painted orange and decorated with symbolic symbols as are the roof wheels. The wooden lattice structure is covered and then insulated with layers of felt from wool of sheep, goats or Yak, then covered by canvas or cotton. The entrance must always face south towards the sun. The north of ger is a special place for sacred objects or special guests. The west side is the male side, where the men sit and where their saddles, tools and hunting kit is stored. The east is the female side where women sit and cooking utensils are kept. One should leave the ger by backing out the front door. The ger can be collapsed in matter of hours to move to new location. The earliest record of a ger recorded was by Greek historian in 484-424 BC
After a wonderful breakfast of sticky rice with raisins, milky tea, dumplings of sorts in the ger dining room, we heard voices outside and NK who also stayed in the camp said he thought it may be the tourists come back from their home-stay. We went outside and saw horses riding into the camp and heard english speaking voices and went over to investigate. Three American girls had ridden back from a ger home-stay and we were keen to hear about their experience. They were glad they did it but they had to share the ger with the family – two parents and two children so there were 7 people sleeping in the ger altogether. The family were welcoming and friendly but the loo was just any hole in the ground you choose to use and as the vast plains stretch for miles and there are no trees – privacy is not available. The woman of the ger offered the girls a large full length coat to use when she needed the loo!
We also watched a horseman round up his horses and ride in typical Mongolian style over the steppe. He then got off his horse, lit his cigarette and put his mobile phone to his ear!!
We decided to go back to Ulaanbaatar in the afternoon for two nights instead of one so we could do some washing and have a warm shower etc… On the way back the driver spotted a herd of yaks in the distance and drove off over fields to get there. I had never seen a yak up close – they are really like large hairy cows! We were serenaded again by the driver all the way back to Ulaanbaatar. Back in Ulaanbaatar, and on the way to the hotel, we visited the main Buddhist Temple in Ulaanbaatar. Buddhism is very strong in Mongolia as is Shamanism. As we drove through the countryside we saw lots of Buddhists sticks on the hillsides. Buddhism began to enter into Mongolia from Tibet in the second half of the 16th century. Mongolian Buddhism is different from Tibetan Buddhism as it identifies with the Mongolian traditional lifestyle. Before 1930, 40% of male population was lamas (monks). During the communist purges 1930-1940 Russian and Mongolian soldiers destroyed about 700 monasteries and temples and Mongolians were not allowed to practice their religion. After the Democratic movement in 1990’s religious freedom was given back to the Mongolian people.
Our driver then took us to our hotel called Bayangol Hotel which again was central, very clean and very comfortable with a pub and restaurant on the ground floor. There were several other restaurants on the ground floor of the hotel and we got excited to see one named ‘The Wine Bar’ and decided we would eat there and have a nice wine! Well we did eat there and the food was pretty mediocre but there was NO wine.
Wednesday 8th October
Weddings and national costumes in Ulaanbaatar square in front of Parliament House
After a really good breakfast we walked to the main square to see Parliament House and to look for the Mongolian Arts Centre. As we wandered through the square we saw many wedding groups being photographed in front of parliament building (we saw the same in Irkutsk in front of all the lovely old churches). All the bridal parties had very European-style dresses but most of the older men and women in the party were dressed in their traditional Mongolian costumes. In the centre of the square one could hire electric or battery powered children’s cars so all the kids in the bridal party were driving in and out through the group and chasing each other, the little boys dressed in suits and bow ties and the little girls in frilly dresses.
We then went looking for the Mongolian National Art Gallery which was suppose to be just off the square. We asked several people but not many spoke English and of course we did not know one word of Mongolian. We walked around and around until eventually we found the gallery in the Mongolian Culture Centre with the help of one very friendly woman. Most people we asked tried to be helpful but one or two were very rude and really did not want to help us. However, it was all worthwhile as some of the art was stunning. The art which the gallery has been collecting since 1921 depicts the social, historical and cultural evolution of Mongolia and some of the paintings truly show life as it was for the nomadic tribes. I cannot say I really liked Ulaanbaatar as a city, I felt it did not have a soul, did not really know what it wanted to be and was becoming too big too fast.
Thursday 9th October
The taxi arrived at the hotel to take us to our train at 7am and the hotel prepared a packed lunch for us. It was our third train and its number was 24. Our taxi driver did not take us right to the train but he was very clear in his directions so we found our carriage easily but could not get on board as we were too early. When we eventually got on we discovered we were in the first carriage which was very tiny with two bunks over each other on one side and an armchair with a door to our shared ensuite on the other side. All the compartments on this carriage were the same and most people in them were Europeans on their way to China from Mongolia. As we left Ulaanbaatar there were many ger in the urban area alongside the track – The gers were inside a small fenced section, all with doors facing south, bikes or cars parked outside and many had animals in the same enclose area as the ger.
Once we got past the sprawling city of UB the countryside was similar to the last day on the train before UB. As the train wound it way through Mongolia to China the land became spare and barren but supposedly mineral rich. We passed though part of the Southern Gobi desert which seemed to be more barren land than sand. It was half way through the day when we began to see Bactrian camels which are large even-toed camels native to the steppes of Central Asia and have two humps.
As we settled down to sleep we knew we would be awake again at midnight for the changing of the Bogies. We enter China 842 kms before Beijing at Erlian and this is where we again went through passport control and customs as well as having the bogies changed. We discussed whether we should stay on the train or get off to watch the changing of the bogies. But the weather outside made our decision easier, it was cold outside so we felt we would be better off in the train and as we did have access to a window onto the next carriage we could watch the whole operation from the warmth of the train.
The whole process can take between four – six hours. The officials came on board and took our passports and customs forms and then the train was shunted into a very large shed with several track lines and two sets of parallel track under the trains. The Chinese railway system operates on standard gauge, same as Europe and USA which is inches narrower than the Russian & Mongolian gauges and this is the reason for the ‘changing of the bogies’. Each carriage was lifted up by four giant Hydraulic lifts – two, one either side of the front and back of each carriage. The lifts move in under the train and lift the carriage off it bogies, they are then rolled out and the Chinese bogies are rolled in and the carriage is lowered down onto the new bogies.
Before we retired to bed we heard other passengers talk about arriving in Beijing in the morning. We believed we were getting in mid afternoon so we had to pack up and set alarms as the last day was said to have lovely views from the train.
Friday 10th October
We awoke to thick mist which unfortunately stayed with us right through to Beijing. The train passes by the great wall on a few occasions but alas because of the thick smog/fog, disappointingly, we saw nothing of the great wall and arrived in Beijing at 11:45am, on time once again. The smog/fog lasted for two days, while we went to the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square. We still managed to enjoy them but the photography was not great! We did have a wonderful guide which made all the difference, the guide was booked through our hotel. On the third day – when we had booked a 5 hour trek on the Great Wall the sun came out, the sky was blue and it turned out to be one of the great highlights of our trip.
Our hotel in Beijing was the best hotel we had stayed – it was one we had booked ourselves – called The Hotel Red Wall Garden and the food in China was superb.
What an amazing experience the whole trip was! I loved it and I still love train travel even after 7 days on a train – cannot wait to plan my next train trip!