Category Archives: Mongolia

Last Trans-Siberian stop…Beijing!

It seems our blog title cuts the trip a bit short. Less than a month into our journey we are on the final Trans-Siberian leg from Ulan Bator to Beijing. Don’t worry, we will still have much more to blog about as we move into the Beyond section of our trip. Before that though, let’s find out what is going on aboard the train.

First morning

It seems we have gotten the band back together. For the Trans-Mongolian section of our journey there are fewer trains running than on other sections. This means that more tourists are crammed into a single train. In fact we haven’t really seen any locals on this train, it all seems to be tourists from all over the world.

The train has brought together many people we have seen before. To name some:

  • Mike from Walthamstow
  • Serena from Switzerland
  • Pauline the story teller
  • The 2 English and 1 Dutch couple from our last train
  • A Dutch couple (lady wears a blue jacket so very recognisable) that we have seen everywhere we went in Mongolia. They were at every sight at the same time as us (National Park included) so we think they are stalking us.
  • Loud Australian group that stayed in the same ger camp as us.
  • 2 young English couples (20ish) who we first saw in Lake Baikal but have since seen on the train and in UB tourist attractions.

We have had different levels of interaction with these people ranging from just a hello to drinks in the restaurant car. It is nice to see the familiar faces and hear many English conversations. We have caught up on what people have done on their trips and look forward to a sociable journey.

We are back on a Chinese train again. It is a big improvement on the last one though (see Russia vs China). Although not totally clean the layer of dust is gone, toilets are a lot less smelly (and thankfully further away) and the carpet is dry. There are a few odd stains here and there but we will let those pass. Our attendant also seems smartly dressed and will hopefully remain so, we don’t need any more bare chested China men.

As we left UB the train climbed into some snow covered mountains. This was very different to the scenery we have seen before and was spectacular in the early morning sun. As the train snaked along the track we took the chance to take photos of the rest of the train. Not an easy task through dirty windows.

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After the mountains we descended to the edge of the Gobi desert. The part we pass isn’t a sandy desert but instead has vast plains of grassland. We are currently trying to spot camels but seem to have only seen horses and cows so far.

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Our first stop of the day (11:30am after setting off at 7:15am) was in a very quiet town. Unfortunately the station had no shop and unlike others we weren’t brave enough to leave the station to find something to buy. This means we have no bread to go with our other provisions, luckily we still have lots of pasta sachets brought from London so we won’t be going hungry.

The first 5 hours of the trip have flown by with some blogging, chatting to our fellow travellers and reading up on what to see in Beijing. We will be back later with more updates on goings on here on the train.

Chinese Border

The day has passed and it is now nearing 10pm and we are about to cross the Chinese border. We are in the first station where we have to go through passport control and customs. This is a process we are now used to having done it on the entrance and exit to Russia and Mongolia already (Mongolia was only about an hour ago).

As we passed through the Mongolian border we stopped for a while. This allowed the Mongolian engine to leave us and for a Chinese engine to collect us. As we crossed the border a lone Mongolian soldier saluted as we passed through the darkness.

Coming into the Chinese station they played the Viennese Waltz and the station staff stood to attention. This was a fitting welcome for such refined travellers as ourselves.

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Leaving Mongolia (left) and entering China (right)

Something that is a bit different to the normal routine is that we are now in a shed. We have been shunted (rather violently) into here. What happens now is that we are about to be lifted up and have our wheels changed to fit onto Chinese gauge tracks which are narrower than those in the former Soviet union. Enough for now…I am off to enjoy the fun of getting new wheels.

Soon after…

That was great! We just got pushed into a shed with half the carriages on one side and half on the other. A bit more shunting and we were lined up with huge jacks that lifted the carriages up of the bogies (wheels). The old wheels were rolled out from under us and new ones rolled in again. We watched through the windows on the sides and ends of the carriages as we levitated and workmen scurried around. We got a good view of our own wheels changing as well as the carriage next to us. This was quite fun as we saw people we knew in carriages along side so could wave across to them.

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Now I have calmed down from the excitement, what else has been happening today? We had a nap. Read some books. Got off at a station in the sunshine for 40 minutes where we bought the bread we missed this morning. We went to the restaurant car and had a beer with a Belgian chap and Finnish girl while we watched the sunset. All in all a very relaxing day of train life. Just time for a beer before bed and then we will get some rest ready for our last day of train.

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Oh…and before I forget. We saw camels too!

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Final thoughts

It is now the morning and we are rolling through China. We just passed by a section of the great wall (no photos as they are all pretty terrible).

As we are finishing our Trans-Siberian adventure to start our China/Thailand adventure here are a few tips should you ever travel on the Trans-Siberian yourself:

1. Bring cups, plates and cutlery. We did this and they were very useful allowing us to eat food from platforms in our cabin. A sponge/tea towel to clean them would also be a useful addition, we didn’t have this.

2. Toilet roll and flip flops are essential. The toilets are not so nice. You don’t want to go in there without footwear.

3. Bring books. There is time for reading even though there is a lot to see out the window, through the train and on the platforms. We have probably read about 4 books each while on the train in addition to blogging, sorting photos and watching episodes. There is a lot of time to pass but with the right distractions it goes by very quickly.

4. Be prepared for slightly disturbed sleep. We have slept pretty well on the train however you do get woken up through the night as the train stops at various places. Nights when shunting is required (generally around borders) are the worst as the jolts really wake you. Naps during the day offset this though and we have always left the train feeling well rested and raring to go.

5. If you can, go for first class. This gives you 2 people in a cabin instead of 4. In a train, the extra space this gives you is really appreciated. If travelling alone this can be less sociable but it really depends on whether you can handle being in close proximity with 3 other people for the long journey.

6. Get the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas. This is a very useful book that tells you about the trains, stops on route and has a breakdown of what you see along the way. We would have been lost without it.

No more posts for this ride. Next you will hear from us will be from Beijing. Exciting times Smile

Partying like a Mongolian in Ulan Bator

Apparently UB is famous for its nightlife, and so on our first night back in the city we decided to check it out. Luckily, our hotel had a bar/club attached that got ok reviews so we didn’t have too far to stumble! The bar was called Strings (TripAdvisor reviews of Strings).

When we arrived at about 10.30 the place was dead, which we thought was reasonable given it was a Monday night. However there was a live covers band playing who were really good, so we decided to hang around and have a drink. By 12am the place was packed with Mongolians, there were people dancing, and the number of bottles of vodka being sold was increasing at a rapid rate. Proving that clubbing in all countries is the same, there was even the obligatory drunken fight between two Mongolians. However, the difference here was that the winner of the fight was allowed to stay in the club, and was given shots!

[Rich: if you ever find yourself looking for a wedding band in Mongolia you definitely want the band from Strings. The Filipino covers band did renditions of anything requested ranging from The Beatles to YMCA. It was great fun dancing the night away to them.]

Day 3

The following morning was a bit of a struggle [Rich – struggle made more so when I woke Vicki at 8am and took her to breakfast thinking it was 9am as my mobile hadn’t updated from Irkutsk time. We only realised how early it was and why we were so tired when eating our eggs and bacon.], but we still managed to go and see the monastery near our hotel, the Gandan Khiid (the home of the spiritual head of Mongolia, the Khamba Lama) and came across multiple wedding parties. It was really interesting to see all of the traditional dress worn by the families, and this contrasted sharply with the very western big white dress and tux worn by the bride and groom.

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In comparison to the UK, there is also a markedly different attitude to pigeons – the bird food sellers at the monastery were doing a roaring trade.

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We then took our life in our hands and walked through the city to the central square. UB is another city where the pedestrian comes second to the car, and the only way to cross the road seems to be to close your eyes and walk and hope the cars stop. We took the approach of waiting till a local wanted to cross, and then walking when he did!

Central UB is a real contrast, with lots of building work, and new skyscrapers sitting side by side with shacks and ger camps. It definitely has the feel of a city growing very quickly, and the finishing touches (like pavements and man hole covers) haven’t quite caught up with development of the buildings.

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The central square is very new, completed in 2005, and is a huge area dominated by a big government building. When we arrived, more wedding parties were having their photos taken.

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In the afternoon, our guide took us on a tour of the national museum, which was interesting and somewhere we probably wouldn’t done ourselves given that were prefer wandering around places to museums when we only have a short time available.

We then went up to a view point just outside the city, and this really brought home how much development there is going on,  and the extent of the ger villages and shack towns outside the central area – the sprawl was incredible.

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As an interlude between sight-seeing and dinner we went to the traditional tourist show – national costumes, folk dances etc. This one featured throat singers (a very weird noise) and a contortionist (really freaky) and so was a bit different.

Day 4

First stop today was the International Intellectual Museum. This is basically a museum of puzzles and games, from traditional Mongolian wooden games to chess and everything in between. We were the only visitors (I would think many people would be put of by the fact that the outside looks like a building site) and so got a private guided tour and got to play with some of the puzzles – they offer cash prizes if you can solve the hardest ones. Unfortunately we didn’t win a fortune, and spent an hour feeling thoroughly stupid when we could solve any of the puzzles. [Note – Rich disagrees with this as he did solve quite a few of the puzzles even if I couldn’t. Rich is now sat on the train feeling smug that he has managed to solve one of the puzzles we bought, despite being given the wrong instructions.]

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International Intellectual Museum

The museum was on the opposite side of the town to the hotel and so we decided to wind our way back through the city, ticking off as many things as we could. Right next to the museum was the wrestling arena. Sadly we didn’t actually see any wrestling, but we did get to meet “Choi the Mongolian warrior”. We were standing outside the wrestling arena looking at the map when he bounded over to us and introduced himself. He had lived in London and Manchester for a while, and his son was born in England.

Choi the Mongolian Warrior

A quick trip to a market gave us a snack – we weren’t sure what the green things were but they were very nice!

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In the afternoon we made a trip to see another dead dude – this time a mummified lama encased in gold in the Choijin Lama Temple. It was here that we bumped into Mike from Walthamstow again, and decided to head to the biggest skyscraper in UB for a beer in their 23rd floor bar. A trip to the state department store which has a huge range of souvenirs concluded our day of sightseeing.

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As is traditional now, we then went out for a run. UB doesn’t have any parks, and the pavements are either non-existent or crowded with people, and so it was a challenge to find anywhere at all to run. In the end we settled for a jaunt through the unlit ger village next to our hotel (not a good plan – it was dark, the “road” is a pothole-y dirt track and it had been raining so the puddles could have been anything from a few millimetres to several inches deep) and then did a hill session along a “garden” that ran along the middle of a road (the path contained open man holes, frequent road crossings and broken glass – ideal). The locals thought we were bonkers and after a few minutes, we agreed with them! However, 2.7m done, and we can say that we have fun in Mongolia.

It was then time for another early night, as we had a 6.15am start for the final leg of our Trans-Siberian adventure, the train to the land without Facebook.

Mongolia, it’s Ger-rreat!

Day 1

After another day on the train, we arrived in the coldest capital in the world, Ulan-Bator, and at 7am with a light snow falling, it really was feeling a little chilly.

After finding our guide, a petite Mongolian girl called Chimge, we settled ourselves into the minibus that was to ferry us around for the next few days. There was only one problem with this. Somehow the driver had turned set off the alarm and immobiliser, and so despite having the key was unable to make the van move, or turn off the very noisy alarm! 30 minutes after our arrival, the guide admitted defeat, and we got a taxi to a nearby hotel for a quick pit stop at a hotel to freshen up. A shower and breakfast later we were ready to start our trip out to Terjeli national park to spend a night in a ger camp. For this leg we had a new companion, Serena from Geneva. (Mike from Walthamstow stayed behind to discover the delights of the city).

A ger is a traditional Mongolian nomadic house – it is a circular tent with a chimney leading up from a central stove. Apparently, once you know what you are doing, you can put one up in about 30 minutes, but the ones we saw seemed a little more permanent! In the countryside they are used as houses (our guide said in her family her parents and 8 siblings all shared one ger) but in the city they seemed to be used in place of sheds and portakabins on building sites.

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The trip out to the park took about an hour – there is only one road in the national park, and we had to keep diverting on to mud tracks where they were still building it. Our driver was very good – he managed to make a fairly old battered minibus cover ground that I would have expected a 4×4 to struggle with.

Our camp, whilst being made up of traditional gers was definitely aimed at tourists, as were many others in the area. Ours even had a toilet block with showers, and electricity in each ger . Somehow we managed to get the “luxury” ger – we had under-floor heating as opposed to the traditional wood stove. This made it very cosy, and meant that we were reluctant to leave.

After some free time, when Rich showed off his mountain goat capabilities by trekking up some hills, and I used my feline-homing skills to find a cat to play with, we went out for walk to Turtle Rock, and a Buddhist Meditation Centre. The setting for the centre was absolutely stunning, surrounded by mountains. I’m not sure it was conducive to meditation – I would have been too distracted by the view.

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Back at the  camp we got to try one of the Mongolian National sports – Archery. Again, Rich showed his prowess by actually being able to lose an arrow in the general direction of the target. He actually got closer than our Mongolian driver, who I think was a bit put out!

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Being a tourist camp, there was also the opportunity to try on traditional outfits – we took the when in Rome approach…

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After an early dinner, we retired to our cosy ger – it did feel slightly like cheating to turn on the heated floor, but when the temperature outside fell well below zero, I was quite happy to cheat!

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Day 2

We woke to the news that the temperature had been so low overnight that all the water in the camp, including the toilets, had frozen. It made us feel slightly better about the heated floor.

To try to get less touristy feel for Nomadic life, we went to visit a man in his seventies who lived in a ger all his life. He was keen to show us photos of his family (his daughter lives in Toulouse now) and to feed us traditional Mongolian snacks – sour curd bits and cream, all served with a milky tea. Personally I would have quite happily snacked all day but for Rich with his dislike of dairy was not quite so impressed.

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We then tried the second Mongolian National sport – horse riding (we only missed out on wrestling). The only problem was that the horses were not keen on being ridden. Serena’s horse decided to go galloping off across the park with her on it, and mine, the son of that horse, decided to chase its mother, taking me on a little adventure. Luckily both of us stayed on the horse, but 3 days later I have some impressive bruises from gripping the horse so tightly!

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Following that excitement, we were quite relieved to get back to the city!

Russia vs China

Which is better, Russia or China? We aren’t comparing countries here as we haven’t made it to China yet and that would be a bit of an unfair way to compare. We aren’t talking of any kind of sporting event either. We definitely aren’t trying to start a war between the two. What we are talking about are trains. Who makes the best train, Russia or China?

First Impressions

The Trans Siberian leg from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator finds us on a Chinese train. Up until now we have only been on Russian trains. The international trains from Moscow to Beijing are a mixture of Russian and Chinese trains so which we get is a matter of chance. I am sure you can work out which will come based on the timetable but we gave up trying to understand the Trans-Siberian timetables long ago.

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Let’s start with a bit of a description of the cabin. We are multi-story here with a top and bottom bunk instead of side to side. The reason for this is that on one side of the compartment we have a shared wash cubicle with next door. This allows you to wash in the sink or shower using an attachment to the tap. As such the cabin is wider but some space is lost to the washroom. A single seat occupies the other side of the washroom next to the window so the person from the top bunk (Rich in our case) doesn’t have to stay up there all the time (even though Vicki may have liked this).

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The carriage fittings are much older on this train than on the Russian trains. We have the wood panelling Vicki was expecting on previous trains and the upholstering has an interesting oriental pattern instead of the functional plain blue on the Russian trains.

Our carriage has a very smelly toilet. Unfortunately we are next to this so have to keep closing the toilet door if other people leave it open. The carpet in the corridor is sodden. Apparently this was due to a leak shortly after Moscow. Some people on the train have lived with the wet floor and smelly toilet for 4 days. Overall the Chinese train seems dirtier. The male carriage attendants don’t seem as rigorous on cleaning as the female ones on Russian trains – whether this is a question of nationality or sex, I’m not sure. Our carpets on the other trains were hovered daily. The ones here really needs a going over but it hasn’t been done (and looks like it hasn’t been done for some time).

If we put aside the smelly toilet and wet floor I think I would prefer a Chinese carriage to a Russian one. It has more character and the wash room is a definite plus. Sadly we can’t ignore the two negative points. What I think we need are some Russian provodnistas to get this Chinese carriage ship shape.

Later in the Journey…

Our Chinese attendants are getting worse. They are clearly very busy and don’t have time to clean. They are now cooking very smelly Chinese food and watching a screechy cartoon film at full volume to treat all of us to it. The icing on the cake is that one of the attendants is walking around with no shirt on. He is quite a large man and it really isn’t a pleasant sight.

After the journey finished…

We have escaped the dirty train in tact. Bedsides the mess the journey was very enjoyable. There was a large number of tourists on board. In our cabin there were two English and one Dutch couple of similar age to us who we enjoyed talking to and the 24 hour trip passed quickly. We enjoyed meals based on provisions purchased in Irkutsk and watched some more Game of Thrones to pass the time.

The most interesting event on the train was the border crossing from Russia to Mongolia. This took some time with lengthy stops either side of the border. We had surrender our passports for checking and fill in customs forms as well as answering questions and showing our baggage. Overall this took some time and we were glad this was done in the evening rather than during sleeping hours as there were many people coming and going all the time. Some of these were less official than others with people coming on to exchange money from Russian to Mongolian. We swapped our 150 RUB for 6000 MNT which was a bad rate but turned out to be the exact amount needed to get me 2 beers the following night so well worth it.

As we passed over the border it began to snow. It was very atmospheric seeing the snow fall on a lonely border post surrounded by barbed wire. This is the kind of scene I always imagined you would see while crossing Siberia.

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One of the first sights we saw at the station in Mongolia was a sign for London 2012. A little reminder of home even now we are very far away.

Made it to Mongolia

We are in Mongolia and about to set of for a Ger Camp. We are on a two day tour accompanied by Serena from Switzerland. Had time to freshen up and add one blog post about Lake Baikal. Look out for more posts on Irkutsk and our Trans Siberian leg into Mongolia when we return to Ulan Bator tomorrow night.