The Trans Siberian Express

For anyone googling ‘Trans-Siberian’ the 2 big questions are normally:

Q) How long? How much?

The long answer is – it totally depends! Use Lonely Planet and absolute guru of train travel; http://www.seat61.com for anything and everything to do with planning.

The short answer (for me) – 3 weeks & approx 600 euros for tickets. 4 stop offs; Ulaanbaatar/Irkutsk/Yekaterinburg/St Petersburg. Here’s how it was…

Train #23 Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (29 hours)

Compared with train travel elsewhere in the world (ahem, India) China trains are Orient Express standard; clean, spacious, no family of 7 piled onto your berth. They have dining carts Hercule Poirot would be pleased with. The food is cheap (3 – 5 USD) and beer $2 USD. In other words; all perfectly pleasant. And that’s kupe (2nd class.)

I caveat this by the fact that you’re still rudely awakened by the off Mongolian farmer offering to share pre-packaged salami with you at 5am, but that’s part of the joy of shared 4 berth compartments after all.

Since this first leg is all exciting and new, all us tourists are happy staring wistfully at the view for hours on end, photographing every tunnel, tree and cow for the first 1000 KM. Unlike some inner China routes (See Chengdu post) the landscape isn’t as grey & industrial as you might think. It’s quite green with striking looking wind turbines running off into the horizon at sunset. Everyone settles in, talks to their english speaking neighbours, shows a new-found delight in Beijing instant noodles from the free hot thermos in each cabin. Good times.

Lessons from train #23; No matter the time of year, the heating is up to tropical. Pack lighter than you think. Strategise your toilet breaks. The train toilets are locked 30 mins either side of every station and (as I leant the hard way) for up to 6 hours on the China / Mongolia border. Opt to alight whilst they change bogies (wheels) at Erlain/Zamyn Uud.

Train #263 Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk (34 hours)

Rumour has it; the higher the number, the older the train. Not true! The 263 was brand new since May 2014, and the best train of our trip. We lucked out with nice cabin mates too; Louise; a UK teacher from Hong Kong and Bovvy; an english/russian speaking Lithuanian. Entering Russia is so much easier with a translator! We kicked back with a long game of Scrabble washed down with Skittle vodka.

Lessons from train #263: Catch the fast train! The #263 spends most of its time stationary, including a staggering 11 hours halted at the Russian Mongolian border. It’s not unpleasant, as you’re allowed off to explore the border towns, Sukhbaatar and Naushki. However the twice weekly 2pm fast train west catches the most scenic stretch of track ; Ulan Ude to Irkutsk, during the daylight hours.

Train #79 Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg (52 hours)

Lessons learnt from train #79? Don’t miss train #79!!!

It all started with a hydrofoil in Listvyanka. Or hydro ‘fail’ as we’ll call it. Shane and I have travelled to 90 countries between us yet we make the monumental mistake of not checking it’s destination before we board. Instead of turning right to Irkutsk, it veered left to what we’ll call the ‘Shutter Island’ of lake Baikal. Bolshie Koty is a roadless coastal hamlet with 1 return ferry every evening and a 20 km hike back to the nearest civilisation. Despite flashing the USD and pleading with local (drunk) fishermen to charter a boat, or row ourselves back in time for the train, we were stranded. We softened the blow by drinking our remaining vodka in the sunshine and leaving our Visa MasterCard to take the hit buying replacement tickets when we made a mad dash back to Irkutsk 3 hours later than scheduled.

Lessons from (replacement) train #43: Thank you to Natasha, our Russian law student saviour who helped us out enormously by translating our desperate plee to buy last minute tickets at the station (entirely possible,) and for showing us that you can pay 100 rb to wait in the VIP lounge. Not only are they beautifully decorated like turn of the century grand ballrooms, with comfy sofas that feel like heaven at 3am. We got our train karma back with a 4 berth kupe to ourselves for 52 hours. Score.

Train #71 Yekaterinburg to Saint Petersburg (34 hours)

It’s quite cool that each train is unique. We were thrilled that this old cabins featured small shelves on the upper bunks; aka our minibar. After 5.5 days on board it’s all in the detail. This last leg goes to prove just how comfortable you become being rocked to sleep, even in carriage 1 next to the engine. It helps that we had lovely old Russian lady kupe mates who hardly made a peep, content with their Sudoku puzzles. A very peaceful and lovely arrival into the beautifully European Saint Petersburg.

Lessons from train#71: The dining cart is always a guaranteed hilarious outing. Plus it actually feels like you’ve had a night out. We ended up drinking beers and being taught the very confusing card game of ‘Durak’ by a group of 21 year old Russian soldiers, who adopted us with so friendliness and inquisitiveness they practically delivered us to our hotel when we arrived.

So after 1000 KM, 130 hours & lots of Baltika beer, here are my final top 10 Trans-Siberian tips:

1) The dining cart rocks! Don’t miss it. So many blogs claim it’s expensive, but it’s worth a $20 USD meal and bottle of red to feel the romance of the rails. Apparently the first 19 century rail carriages came with a piano bar & marble bath carriage. Treat yourself!

2) Learn to recognise a few letters of the cyrillic alphabet, if only to recognise the station names. There really is zero English outside of Moscow & Saint Petersburg.

3) It sounds like an adventure in theory, but 6 – 8 days non-stop from Beijing or Vladivostok is a mighty long time. Even if it’s just for half a day, plan some stop offs!

4) On some Russian trains the difference between 2nd and 3rd class seems non-existent, despite double the price. One benefit can by that Kupe tickets are swappable for free if you’re delayed, but it’s kind of pot luck.

5) Netflix

6) Dried fruit, dried noodles, chocolate. Our 52h train didn’t have a dining cart! Always have supplies.

7) Factor in at least 1 stop within 7 days of entering Russia to officially resister your visa. It’s a pain but a mighty fine if not.

8) It’s a well-known joke that no one on the train ever knows what time it is. Trains and station all follow Moscow time, so local time can often be +4 hours. It’s pretty weird, especially in summer when its broad daylight at midnight. Either set misc time zones on your phone, or like us; just forget time completely! You sleep and eat pretty constantly anyway :)

9) I hate to say it, but prepare some thick skin. Russian provodnitsas (train attendants) can be the rudest women on the planet. They’ve perfected the art of the shrug and scowl. Our experience was that anyone actually employed in customer service in Russia has the attitude of an angry hitman. Don’t take it personally.

10) The Trans Siberian is rewarding.  Asia to Europe overland feels like an awesome achievement. China, Mongolia & Russia are crazy, challenging & amazing in equal measure. However it’s also gruelling, hard-core and not for the faint hearted. Most backpackers we met were seasoned wanderlusters. It’s an absolute must for all of us that appreciate it’s not about the destination at all, but as De Botton would say; the art of travel. From Russia with love x

Gorkhi – Terelj National Park, Mongolia

Terelj is what pops up on google image when you think Mongolia; wild horses, grassy plains, nomads, gur tents. It’s where Mongolia lives up to its ‘endless blue sky’ reputation.

We’ve come here to sleep in a traditional gur; a cosy igloo made of yak fur. The interior is like being inside a russian doll, with flower painted beams holding up central dome and fire chimney. It burns an almost tropical heat, as you’d hope for those Siberian winters.

Our host family, namely 3 year old and 7 year old sisters, know two english words; ‘food’ & ‘horse.’ An American tries to amaze the girls a GoPro. She counters by showing us how to take panorama shots on her mum’s I-phone. These tourist camps are only 90min out Ulaanbaatar. To find true nomads you have to venture a few days further into the Gobi desert.

The horses are sturdy 14 hands mountain natives tacked out in rope girths & makeshift bridles like resilient little grafters. I tried to feed one an apple, it snorted in my face. Sadly at night their legs are bound so they don’t roam too far. They’ve learnt to canter on a half-pence and refuse to be patted, as if to retain their wild streak.

IMG_5044To get a little further ‘into the wild’ we took a 5 hour trip down the Tuul river by canoo with http://www.mongoliancanoing.com. Our german guide Ernest starts stories with; ‘when I was living in a squat in Berlin…’ and ‘when I hitchhiked a ferry to Ireland…’ He’s an ideal river companion. Having lived in UB for 10 years with his wife and kids he’s full of interesting stories, especially about his longest trips 40 days downstream all the way from UB to Lake Baikal! We stop for a picnic lunch on a spot straight out of Little House on the Prairie – wild ponies, nomad women airing their laundry and mountains scenery. It’s definitely a worthwhile day tour. Plus after the icy river, coming home to a cosy gur fire never felt so good.

Terelj tour; booked through Bobby at UB Guesthouse. $90 USD for 2 nights, including food, transfers & 2 hours horse riding.
Canooing; $95 USD a day for 4 – 6 hours on the river, including food and transfer.

 

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

IMG_4948Ulaan – batter(ed) indeed. The outskirts of UB as viewed from the Trans Mongolian railway lure you into thinking this is a picturesque cattle town with cute little alpine village lodges and their green and red topped roofs. Unfortunately once you pull into the station, Mongolia’s capital UB looks like it’s had a bit of a ‘baatering.’ It’s definitely shabby chic.

Landlocked between it’s two juggernaut neighbours, it feels more Russian than Chinese, perhaps because of all the cyrillic alphabet language, soviet squalor buildings, and men so butch you daren’t haggle for a taxi for fear of being wrestled to a pulp. Yet, after a few days here, (48 hours is plenty) you come out of that safe South East Asian bubble & remember that a city with a little edge is not to be overly feared. What look like dive bars & hooker bars from the outside are actually 4* restaurants when you brave the entrance.  A prime example is the purple painted ‘Vegan Karaoke’ bar on Undsen Khuuli Street, how can you not venture into anywhere with this sign. The other strange contradiction, in a city where guesthouses warn tourists to not to walk around after dark, is that everyone hitchhikes instead of a taxi system, even women & kids. Through the art of chance, mime & google translate, we managed a return trip to the Gobi Cashmere outlet this way for $5000T ($3 USD) and lived to tell the tale.

A highlight of UB has to be Naran Tuul – The Black Market (Khar Zakh). It’s so huge it makes Bangkok’s Chatuchak look miniature. Past the outer edges of Raybands, hats, and camel’s wool jumpers are aisles of beautiful equine tack & leather boots, as you’d expect for a country obsessed with horses. The wooden saddles, vintage bridles and colourful rugs were out in full flow for July’s National Naadam Festival, which (bad timing from us) held their opening ceremony on the very day that we left.

Where we stayed; Seoul Hotel ($29 USD) & Voyage Hotel (80 USD)
Where we ate; Broadway Bar & Grill, Cafe Amsterdam, Michele’s French Bakery

 

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

Blasts From The Past…

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