Monthly Archives: August 2018

Onto the Steppe, Mongolia Day One

Let’s try something new:

 

Dear Bolormaa and Ishwanchig,

 

Firstly let me say thank you very much for waking up at 5.30am on a Saturday to meet me off the train from Irkutsk. I have to say it is always quite a relief to see someone carrying a sign with my name on it because I know I am in good hands for at least this part of the trip. From the very outset you both seemed determined that I should see everything there is to see and we headed straight to the War Memorial, set high on a hill, reached by how many stairs? You did tell me! Not taking any hesitancy from me you sped off up the hill and I attempted to keep up, I thought I did quite well considering I am about three times your age. The War Memorial was one of those curious circular designs featuring reliefs of the subject. I have seen these in many ex Soviet countries. Back down the stairs and driving out of the City I had my first glimpse of the steppe, my first reaction was green, how could it be so green? This was to be a recurring reaction all over the parts of Mongolia we visited. So green and verdant and so vast. Our destination was the enormous statue of Genghis Khan, or Chinggis as he is known in Mongolia, completed quite recently by an International team of engineers and designers. I am struck for the first time that Chinggis and his family created the largest land Empire the world has ever known, from way out here on the steppe of Mongolia. I see that it is the tallest equestrian statue in the world and my goodness it is tall. There was a museum and you explained the development of the ger, the Mongolian version of a yurt, you also threw a fur around me and took photographs as I pretended to be a world conqueror. Up and up then to the viewing deck, battling the tourist hoards from Korea where we had a fabulous view of the surrounding countryside and the river Tuul. You took more photos and seemed pleased with the result. Time to move on and we made our way back to the city, I remarked on the amount of traffic, you reminded me it was Saturday, I have completely lost track of the days. A visit to an upscale Mall featuring a supermarket bearing the Whole Foods logo, I wonder if they know. We bought a SIM for my phone and you spent at least an hour negotiating with the phone company as we drove along before it started to work. A break for lunch at a neighborhood supermarket where you informed me we were heading to a National Park for the night and away we went.

The roads of Mongolia are not, shall we say smooth, but there don’t seem to huge potholes it is just not smooth, a result I suppose of the harsh winter conditions. It is not as if they are going to repave the roads every year after the snows have melted and anyway our driver, Ishwan, avoided the worst bumps. Taking photos from the back seat was challenging though and I have had to delete many photos of the sky or road surface taken as we swerved, rocked or bounced. There goes my opportunity for National Geographic Photograph of the Year! We stopped at a temporary lake with horses drinking and you kindly stopped the car for more photos but some other tourists were operating a drone and scared the horses away. I do have to complement you Balormaa for your very professional use of the very low bushes, practice makes perfect I suppose.

Kilometers later we swerved off the road and joined a rough track out onto the Steppe. Oncoming vehicles required us to leave the ruts and take our chances on the grasslands, not a problem for our hero and driver Ishwan. More kilometers of the track and we came to a ger camp. I did explain gers didn’t I? A ger, or in other parts of the world a yurt, is a portable round tent. Balormaa, you did try to explain the difference between a ger and a yurt but the distinction eludes me apart from the fact that yurts have bent roof supports and gers have straight ones. After my short sleep the night before which was interrupted by the border crossing, on The Trans Siberian Express from Russia, which took 5 hours (they locked the loos!) I was exhausted but you helpfully suggested a short nap after which we would go and look at wild horses. Well, looking at wild horses is not high up on my list of exciting things to do but you seemed excited so I went along, go with the flow, as they say. A nap, some tea and back in the 4by4 for more rockin’ and rollin’ on the rough track to Hustai National Park where we attended a short introductory film and looked at an exhibit on how the Park was developed. My enthusiasm began to match yours Balormaa as we were given a short lecture on the Przewalski Horses, the only true wild horses in the world, but even so I had my doubts that we would see any, maybe one in the far distance. Oh no you said, every evening they come down to the river to drink and we may see many. There were other keen horse spotters out on the Steppe, some enthusiasts hiking up the hills for a chance of a horse observation. On we went along the rutted track until we saw a lone horse high up on the skyline. My heart stopped, this was absolutely the stuff of an Attenborough BBC documentary and I was wearing my blue shirt (!).

We parked and walked about cautiously, trying to be unobtrusive, as more horses appeared high in the hills and began making their way down to were we waited. Excitement built as more and more appeared from all points of the compass making their way down to the river, quite narrow, where we were. We were surrounded by these beautiful animals that looked at us somewhat disdainfully and just carried on with being wild horses. It was definitely a lump in the throat moment and I found it very moving. Ishwan took over my camera and I persevered with my phone but between us we captured the scene quite convincingly I think.

Balormaa and Ishwantrig that was just the best possible day, you showed me a side of Mongolia I would not have seen without you, your pride in your country was apparent and as a result I went to sleep keenly anticipating seeing more. I was not disappointed and that is a story for another day.

I hope more visitors to Mongolia will share your knowledge and enthusiasm and that your careers will continue to develop successfully.

Thank you again.

Much love and kind regards.

Tim

Useful information: Mongolia tour organized by Anard at Zaya travel.

zayahostel.com

 

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Mighty Genghis Khan.

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Ghinggis and me!

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Horses spooked by drone.

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Sunrise on the Steppe.

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Sunrise with distant gers.

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Horses on distant skyline.

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On the way to the river.

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A drink.

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A battle for mastery of the herd.

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Disdain!

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Happy!

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My ger.

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Interior of ger.

 

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The Trans Siberian Express.

I’ve never been in a forest before! Woodlands, copses and groves, yes, but never have I seen such trees as these in Central Siberia. They stretch as far as the eye can see on either side of the railway track as we pound eastwards, ever eastwards after four and a half thousand kilometers from Moscow on our way to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. This, the Trans Siberian Express, is possibly a misnomer, I’m not even sure there is such a thing. It could refer to one of those luxury trains that ply the route but those are so far above my pay grade, I didn’t even bother to look at the price. They say that if you have to check the price you can’t afford it don’t they? I am taking local trains I suppose, the first from Saint Petersburg to Moscow (8 hours), then another to Ekaterinburg (16 hours) and now all the way to Irkutsk on a third (60 hours). There is no big sign proclaiming its Trans Siberianness on the side of the coaches, there is in fact quite a small sign proclaiming Moscow to Chita. But I am going across Siberia so up to a point it is Trans Siberian.

There are fourteen coaches and in each there are eight compartments with sleeping accommodation for four. There are two lower bunks with a table between and two upper ones. The backs of the lower bunks fold down at night to provide a bed and then up during the day for seating. The lower bunks also fold up to provide storage. Bedding is provided; clean sheets, pillowcase and a heavy duvet type thing and I actually sleep well. The dining car provides a basic menu, many people bring their own food especially families. Of course you have no say in the choice of cabin mates unless you pay extra for a double cabin and pay for both bunks, if you are on your own. On my way from Moscow to Ekaterinburg I was joined by a young man who harangued the other passengers throughout the carriage for the whole ride except when he passed out, after two boxes of cheap wine. I had no idea what the harangue was about obviously as I only have about half a dozen words in Russian. Then, when I went out to the Romanov Memorial Monastery there he was, still haranguing! Turns out he was Russian Orthodox zealot/nutcase and wanted my guide to drive him two hundred miles to another monastery. That didn’t happen! For most of this particular ride I have had a Mom and two small children which might have been more enjoyable with a common language but alas no.

What is there to do you might ask during all these days and hours, doesn’t it get boring? I loaded up my Kindle with new titles, setup new traveling playlists imagining long tedious hours with nothing to do and climbing the walls with frustration at the slow rate of progress. Nothing could be further from the truth as it happened. I was captivated with the ever-changing show that took place out of the window. Dawn came at around 5.00am and already my face was pressed against the window, admittedly listening to Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rimsky Korsakov or some other local composer, but seeing the light change over the Taiga as the sun came up. It was quite enrapturing and enchanting. Never the same for any length of time there was always something to see. Silver birch after silver birch for hundreds of miles, sometimes great expanses of just harvested grain, perhaps fields of potatoes, a small village, a herd of sheep complete with shepherd or juxtaposed, a massive industrial complex belching smoke and fumes high into the sky from immense cooling towers. We stopped periodically, mostly just for two or three minutes for passengers to embark or drop off, but every four or five hours there would be a lengthy stop for thirty or so minutes. Everyone would clamber down the steps to the platform, the crowd resembling evacuees from some dystopian apocalypse. But there was nothing to see! There might be hawkers of some sort selling anything from berries to fridge magnets. There would be the station itself, emblazoned with its name in large Cyrillic lettering that might be worth a photo. A booth or two selling prepackaged food, drink, trinkets and maybe newspapers but nothing too exciting. I actually found just being in places I had heard of over the years, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk or even Bogdanovich, quite enthralling, inspiring or even thrilling. Then it was time to scramble back on, coaxed by our carriage’s provodnista or attendant. Each carriage had one to keep order (!), keep it clean, vacuum (hoover), polish the windows or keep the loos (toilets) at least acceptable. Not well versed in the different languages of their charges they resorted to that very English solution of speaking very slowly and loudly, in Russian which I, unfortunately, found absolutely hilarious. Not disrespectfully I should add, nobody messes with the provodnistas, they might leave you behind. Yes there was TP despite all the advice I had read about bringing your own and additionally, despite aforementioned advice, there were power points to keep everything charged up. Yesssssss.

Finally there was Irkutsk, mid morning of the third day, and it felt rather poignant to be leaving. I liked the train; I liked the perpetual motion, the views as we sped along, the angry, noisy vestibules between the carriages, the chatter in a language I didn’t understand, the smells, and the activity and to some extent the camaraderie.

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A country railway station. Varykino?

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A larger station.

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Booths on the platform.

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There were birch trees.

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Industry.

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Our Provodnista.

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The train climbing, climbing.

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A view of the cabin.

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The dining car.

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In a big country.

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Very big country.

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The platform at a longer stop.

 

Western Russia.

Ah Russia, Rossiya, Mother Russia has always been a dreamed of destination and the Trans Siberian Express a fantasy from long, long ago, provoked by all those Russian authors I read. For over two years I have toyed with the various web sites proclaiming how simple it is to organize your own trip, apply for the multiple visas required, book tickets, hotels, excursions and a myriad of other details. Unfortunately I have a somewhat limited attention span and this method just took too much time, far too much time. I applied to a travel agent who implied that for not much money they would organize everything. I filled in their form and the returned price was, for me, astronomical. Forget that then, fifteen thousand dollars to ride a train! You jest. But my luck changed and I came across an agency in East Anglia, UK, who seemed very sympathetic to my requirements and after multiple emails we established a very basic schedule that Odette, my new best friend, claimed would satisfy my adventurous spirit. (She had been reading my blog.)

Here I am then, one week and one thousand five hundred miles into the journey, in Yekaterinburg hard up against the Ural Mountains and it is absolutely stunning, Russia that is. I started out in Saint Petersburg for three nights, Moscow on an overnight train for another three nights and then another overnight train to here. It was all so new to me and there was so much that I wanted to see that I have barely touched the ground. In Saint Petersburg is Nevsky Prospekt; a famous street oozing with history and my hotel was half a block back from the thoroughfare, no street noise. I could have spent hours on Nevsky in one of the many tea shops people watching, in fact I probably did and any preconceptions I may have had vanished soon after my arrival. There were all sorts, punks, nerds, fashionistas, head bangers, 24 hour party people, skateboarders, hipsters, hippies, Moms arm in arm with daughters (lots of them), there was a Harley Davidson convention down the street so bikers from all over Europe were displaying their talents, loudly. I expected Ladas belching fumes but no, Audis, BMWs, Volkswagens, and all manner of modern cars. You see, it was just like any other major European city, London, Paris or Rome. My misconceptions, banished.

Top of the list in Petersburg is the Winter Place that contains the Hermitage museum. I headed straight for that and while I wasn’t disappointed there was a massive concert in the big square adjacent preventing me from taking a decent photo. No big deal, I took a few bad ones! There was Kazan Cathedral, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (a memorial to Emperor Alexander 2, assassinated on that spot), St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Admiralty building, the Peterhof Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress, the Aurora warship, the Faberge museum and so much more that I didn’t see. I did take a cruise on the canal, I caught the buses and trolley cars, they have conductors who issue your ticket, I took the hydrofoil to the Peterhof and of course a taxi driver classically ripped me off. No more taxis, I’ll use Uber.

The night train to Moscow with three millennials in my sleeper cabin, pleasant but no English, a glass of wine and I slept all night waking up to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto, well you have to don’t you. My hotel was three metro stops from the center and at first I just tried too hard to figure out how to use that fabulous system, but I soon worked it out and was soon changing routes with the best of them. My stop was Avtozavodskaya and soon the names of the stops were quite familiar, Kropotkinskaya and Tretyakovskaya etc. I found it very romantic but the nine million people who use it every day probably don’t agree with me. It is incredibly efficient, the trains come every two minutes, and it is very fast and very clean. Again I didn’t see everything in three days but spent much time at the Kremlin Fortress, the largest fortress in Europe, Lenin’s mausoleum, Saint Basil’s, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Karl Marx statue, the Bolshoi Theater, Red Square, GUM and the Pushkin Art Museum.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from this whirlwind tour it has to be don’t do what I did, three days is just not enough to do justice to either of those two cities and my only justification is that I have another two weeks and three thousand miles to go.

More from the train, The Trans Siberia Express.

 

Some useful information:

Hotel in St Petersburg Vesta Hotel

Hotel in Moscow             Maxima Panorama

Agent                                 Trans Siberia (co.uk)

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An upside down wine glass on the roof of an apartment building.. The owner stopped drinking, business boomed! Good story.

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Presidential Palace. The Kremlin Fortress. Mr Putin’s house.

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There are still examples of Brutalist architecture in Moscow. Nice river views tho.

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Cathedral of the Annunciation, Kremlin Fortress, Moscow.

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Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow.

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The Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg.

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Is that Venice? No, Saint Petersburg.

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Church of the Savior, St Petersburg.

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An expensive egg. By Faberge.

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Another egg!

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Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg, from a bus, sorry!