Trans Mongolian Train Journey

Trip Start Nov 23, 2005
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29
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Trip End Jul 12, 2006


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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Sat 24th June
Got up at 6am, checked out of the hotel and got a taxi to the station. The usual mass of people were there pushing and shoving, but we were getting used to it and pushing back.
On the train we noticed a big change of passengers, mostly westerners! The two people we were sharing our cabin with were both British. Elizabeth, an Irish holiday maker and Jude, an English teacher who'd just been volunteering in western China for two years. Hurray, someone else to talk to!
On leaving Beijing, we got to see the magnificent wall a few times more and then the landscape started to change from mountains to farmland and villages. For the next few hours, we chatted with our cabin mates, had some lunch, then fell asleep for a bit.
The train was of a reasonable standard (by now we've travelled on so many, we have standards!) clean & tidy and more importantly, had western toilets at each end of the carriage. It appeared to be a Russian train, not Chinese. At the Chinese border (Erlyan Station) we stopped for 2.5hrs to change the wheels (bogeys) which for Mongolia and Russia are 3.5 inches wider. We were able to stay on board to watch this process and found it fascinating. The carriages are lifted into the air on hydrolic lifts (like in a car garage) and the wheels are then undone and pushed out from underneath and replaced with the wider set. Quite cool really. Before and after there was plenty of banging, bumping and crashing around as they separated and then re-attached the carriages. Quite scary!
Returning to the platform to pick up the other passengers, we head off to the Mongolian border. Here and in China, we had the hassle of passport control. The Chinese seem to take forever to check and stamp our passports, but then again so did the Mongolians! At 2am we were on our way again. By then all we wanted to do was sleep as it had been a very long 20hr day.

Sun 25th June
A quite comfy night as trains go and we're up at around 10am. With still a few hours to go we sat and chatted with Jude and Elizabeth whilst we had some breakfast and watched the scenery fly by. Last night we started crossing the Gobi Desert and we were still pretty much in it. The closer we got to Ulaanbaator, the more mountainous and windy the track got. By the time we got into Ulaanbaator we were nearly two hours late (not unheard of apparently)! We were soon met by our very good English speaking guide Baggy (that's her name honestly!). We were taken on a tour of the city and the Gandantegchenling Monastery, which has a very large statue. After a few stops including a currency exchange, ATM, and a supermarket to stock up on water and nibbles, we headed off down a very bumpy main road to Elstei Ger Camp. The gers mainly sleep four, but as they weren't too busy we got one to ourselves and found them to be very spacious and homely. They are also very nicely furnished with traditional looking pieces and have mains electricity and a stove. We then had a nice meal consisting of potato and apple in mayonaise, followed by a meat parcel, a bit like a pastie, and tea. Traditonal Mongolian fare.
It didn't get dark until around 10pm and at 11pm we settled into our ger, had a read for a bit then fell asleep listening to the crackling of the fire.

Mon 26th June
9am and time to get up from our very cosy beds and get some breakfast. Breakfast consisted of various pancakes/breads that tasted like donuts and some even had chocolate in them. This was followed by meat topped with potato - Baggy called it 'Shepherds Pie'. After breakfast some people went horse riding, but we chose to go for a walk up a hill to checkout the view. What a spectacular view it was; rolling green hills, wildflowers, cattle (the odd cattle skeleton here and there) and a lovely range of mountains.
For lunch we had cucumber and tomato salad, glass noodle soup with meatballs, mutton and vegetables, fish & chips (Mongolian style) and for desert ice cream with cornflakes (which Cat had seconds of)! We then had a few hours to ourselves to rest, learn some Mongolian bone games or just sunbathe.
At around 4.30pm we walked to a nearby Nomad family to see how they live and get a feel of their lifestyle. We all took gifts of cookies and sweets to exchange for their hospitality. We first had some tea, which was milky and a little salty, some yogurt, pancakes and milk curd. Baggy helped us with translating some questions we wanted to ask and vice a versa. Their ger was of similar design to the one we were staying in but obviously more personalised. When we left the nomads, we were offered a lift back on a cart pulled by a yak. It was a fun experience.
Back at our camp, we met some new arrivals and then went to dinner. Tonight we had potato salad and meat dumplings and a lemon cake for desert. The rest of the evening was spent playing games, chatting and having fun.

Tues 27th June
Got up at 9am from an ok night (Dean got very painful cramp in his leg at about 5am) and went for breakfast. This morning it was more of the same things but instead of shepherds pie we had rice and frankfurters. After breakfast we packed and said our goodbyes to our hosts and were driven back to Ulaanbaator to our hotel. It was rather sad to leave but the 4 star hotel made up for it. We had our own lounge with comfy sofa/chairs and plenty of English TV channels, a wash/laundry room, nice size bathroom with a bath & shower, hall way and a big bedroom with comfy beds and a balcony over looking the mountain range. We spent most of the day wandering the city getting our bearings and seeing the sites. After a rest at the hotel, we met up with few guys we'd met at the ger camp and went out for dinner. We ate in a restaurant called 'Winners' which was pretty un-Mongolian, but we found it hard to find one, so we made do and the food was good. We returned to the hotel tired and ready for bed.

Wed 28th June
Had a lie-in before getting up for breakfast and checking out of the hotel. After storing our luggage, we headed off into town to find an internet cafe, have a late lunch at a Mongolian BBQ and then return to the hotel to be picked up and taken to the station for our next train journey to Irkutsk, Siberia. The Mongolian BBQ was an American franchise the same as what we had at home called 'The Mongolian' and for a set price you can have all you can eat. It also had the best milkshakes we've ever had. Once on the train (well and truly stuffed)we settled in chatting to Elizabeth and Jude who we shared with before. As Cat had been suffering headaches, Elizabeth gave her an Indian head massage which relaxed her ready for a nice sleep.

Thurs 29th June
Got woken up around 5am when we pulled into Suche Bator station on the Mongolian border by lots of bumping, crashing and banging around. There we sat until 10:15am when the engine of the train rejoined us, bumping, crashing and banging around. It turns out that the noise in the early hours was the engine and the other half dozen or so carriages detaching, and we, two lonely carriages, were left behind at the station. It seems that our two carriages are the only ones carrying on to Irkutsk. We then had the palaver of having our exit stamps being done on our Mongolian visas in our passports, from then on we couldn't get back off the train until our destination. It's a good job we got off earlier to go for a pee which we had to pay 100Tugrik (about 22p) because you can't use the train toilet in stations as it goes straight onto the track. In between the borders (no-mans land) the army did an external search of the train carriages, and we were discouraged from looking out of open windows to watch. It's a power thing! We then carried on to the Russian border where we were boarded by Russian officials and the army. They then proceeded to hand out customs forms and entry paperwork (in Russian and in duplicate) that we had to fill in. Luckily we had a Russian next door that helped with the translation. The passport officials then came round and took our passports. Then the army asked us to leave our cabin whilst they did a search of it, including the service panels that were locked. Then the customs officials came to take a copy of our customs declaration, and when asked if we had any weapons or drugs, everyone said no and I said nyet, to which I got a smirk that grew into a smile! So after lots of form stamping she said thank you and goodbye and I replied with the equivalent in Russian (from the book) and she quickly came back with a funny reply in Russian that I obviously couldn't understand. They do have a sense of humor! After about an hour, the passport official came back with our now stamped passports. We were then finally allowed to leave the train to go to the toilet (which were disgusting) but after an hour of not being able to, you made do. After some more banging and crashing around, we had some more carriages attached and at 3:15pm we finally leave the station to carry on our journey. Another 5hrs of sitting around in a hot sweaty carriage sat at a station over with, who knows what time we'll get to our destination or on what time zone, I'm getting quite confused now. We passed a few hours by watching a DVD the Hulk (pretty bad film) then had some instant noodles for dinner before getting some sleep.

Fri 30th June
We got woken around 6:30-7:00 to have breakfast and get ready for our arrival into Irkutsk at 8:09. On the station we were met by our guide who took us to the Irkutsk hotel to register our passports. The hotel sends them somewhere to be registered and we'll get them back the day we leave. At the hotel we use the ATM whilst others used the currency exchange. We were then driven 2hrs on mainly dirt roads to Bolshoe Goloustnoe for home stay at Tamaras. Once there we are served an early 11:00 lunch of soup and a meatloaf with vegetables. After lunch we were taken on a guided walk around the village where visited the local church, walked along the shore of the huge lake Baikel and up the hill for a birds eye view of the village and lake. During the walk we heard the rumbling of thunder close by and whilst on the hill, Jude's hair started to stand on end from the static in the air. Quite bizarre! Later in the afternoon we went to another house on the other side of the village to have a sauna which also doubled as a shower. The water was heated over the sauna which we then used to bathe with. Whilst walking back to the home, we saw some 'homing sheep'. They started as a big flock, then set by set they split up (unaided) into their owners back yard with the owner holding the gate open foe them. Clever sheep! For dinner we had Frankfurters with rice and salad, for desert chocolate biscuits and chocolate sweets. For some reason the electricity wasn't working, there seemed to be a power cut throughout the whole village. So we played a rather long game of sheep knuckles that Dot and Ian had bought in Mongolia, until the light faded. At 10pm it was still light outside but sort of twilight, so we ended up with an early night.

Sat 1st July
Got up at 9:30 for breakfast of Buck Wheat with bread and tomatoes at 10:00, then at 11:00 we walked along the lake shore towards Ushkani cape. On the way we headed into a forest to see a dry lake then carried on to the retreat where we had lunch. We'd walked 11ks and got there at around 2pm. For lunch we had fish soup followed by lightly battered fish with rice, and for desert we had crepes with a lovely apple jam. After lunch we had some free time to look around and check out Dot, Ian and Judes retreat accommodation as they were staying there for the night and we were going back to Tamaras. At 5pm (half an hour late) a boat man arrived to take us back to the village, so we said our goodbyes to D, I and J and hope we meet in Moscow. Our guide stayed there with them and as we won't see her again, thanked her for showing us around, climbed aboard the small outboard boat and enjoyed the 30 min ride along the lake. We were late for our 5:00 sauna, but the water was still hot and we had a nice wash. At 7pm our host Tamara served us dinner which was meat dumplings with cheese on tomatoes and stir fried veg, followed by the usual chocolate biscuits and sweets. It seems a little quiet with just the two of us staying, but it's nice never the less. We then enjoyed a nice quiet evening reading, relaxing, watching Stealth on DVD, and getting packed ready for our return to town tomorrow for our train to Yekaterinburg.

Sun 2 July
Breakfast was at 9:30 this morning as we were already up and Tamara was expecting more guests at 11:00 for their early lunch. We had eggs and pancakes with raspberry jam and the usual side bits. Alex our driver drove us back to Irkutsk at around 11:30, and there we met another guide Catya who gave us our passports back and our train tickets. She then gave us a quick city tour of the churches, buildings and Tsar Alexander the thirds statue (he had the Trans Sib railway built). We then had an hour to ourselves to wander and stock up on groceries for the train. Cat had a small argument with a car on the way back who decided that he wasn't going to wait for her to finish crossing the road. He had to stop eventually when she walked straight into the passenger side door nearly hitting the woman sitting inside. Luckily no-one was badly hurt just a few bruises and shock that it had happened at all on both parties. We both managed to survive China and Mongolia's traffic which was 100 times worse, only to have this happen in a quiet side street. It just goes to show how bad drivers are in Asia. With no real harm done we headed back to meet Alex who then drove us to the station around a complicated one way system, so that we could catch our train. On board we found this train a bit better than the last as it had a cool air system that eventually started to work once the train started going. We trundled along for a few hours, reading, having our noodle dinner and watching a DVD (the fantastic 4) and around 11pm, we stood and watched the sun go down as we wound along the track. The sun sets very late here.


Mon 3rd July
Woke up around 10am from a fairly comfy night. We had a long day ahead of us sitting on the train chatting to Jacques, (from France but of Chinese descent) reading and watching half a movie (serenity) because the battery went flat and we had nowhere on this train to charge it. There were plenty of sockets along the carriage but none of them worked. We were told that we could charge it in the dinning car, but they just pointed us to the first class carriage. So I plugged it into one of their sockets, which worked until a big Russian carriage attendant came over and pulled it out. Apparently we had to pay, so we decided to wait until we got to the hotel tomorrow. We had a few long station breaks where we could get off and stretch our legs which was nice. With going so far from east to west, we had from 2 to 3 hour time change which seemed to make the day last forever. The sun finally set around 00:30-01:00, but when we changed our clocks back 2hrs it made it 10:30-11:00pm where as the train ran on Moscow time which made it 7:30-8:00pm. It's very strange wanting to get some sleep when it's still light outside.

Tues 4th July
Another wobbly start to the day as the train bounced its way along. It is said in the Monkey business brochure that the Baikal train (the one we're on) is the best along the Trans Sib. It is one of the nicer trains we've been on but it does also seem to be the bumpiest. Jacques was heading down to see Ross and Veronica (to show them some photos on his laptop) who we'd met briefly at the Ger camp and Tamaras and asked if we'd like to join him. We thought the change would be nice and tagged along. They were in a two bed carriage and also had the whole carriage and an attendant all to themselves, who brought them tea, coffee and light snacks every now and then. See how much money gets you! We had a pleasant few hours looking at photos, drinking tea and eating snacks whilst chatting about our travels that the time flew by. After a 20min station stop, we headed back to our cabin for some lunch and settled in for the last few hours to Yekaterinburg. On arrival at the station we were met by a guide who drove us the lengthy drive to our hotel, across the road! It literally was across the busy main road, you can see it from the station. We checked into our room, which we soon changed because of the traffic noise and bad smell from the bathroom. The rooms are a bit rough around the edges, could do with redecoration and are rather basic. There were also some small flying bugs around but as far as we could tell, they weren't biters. We then went down to the foyer to meet our city tour guide (Nasya) who took us on a 4 hour walking tour of the city. First she showed us the cathedral in the name of all saints that originally the house the Romanovs were imprisoned in stood. We then carried on around the city stopping at sites like, the old mail house, Pushkins statue, the black tulip war memorial, the Ural mineralogical museum (where we saw some fascinating rocks) and the main square which has Lenin's statue opposite a big administration building. This is where the tour ended and we had to make our own way back via the city pond/lake/dam to our hotel. We then had dinner at the hotel, watched the end of Serenity on DVD then turned in for the night.

Weds 5th July
Up at 8:00 for breakfast and then met our next tour guide Mari Anne and Surge the driver at 9:30 for our tour to the 7 monasteries (churches) which lie on the spot that the Romanovs were murdered. The churches are only a few years old and the area is known for it's good weather because of all the good karma that they bring, to compensate for the terrible thing that happened there not o long ago (1918). We were lucky enough to see a communion service and hear the bells ring, if not rather untunely, (to us it sounded like a lot of clanging around) but there was a tune there apparently. From there we drove to a cafe for lunch where we had pancakes with beef and rice inside. Quite tasty. We then stopped at the Gulag memorial, one of many secret graves of mass killings (aprox 18000-25000 people just at this sight) that took place during Stalin's oppressions. Just down the road we stopped at the Europe-Asia border where we did the obligatory one foot on each side (tourist I hear you shout) and then headed back to the hotel.
After a little rest we headed back into the city to see a few things that we missed yesterday. In the main square we had a look at the sluice gate from the dam and got some better photos of Lenin's statue (as it was raining yesterday) where we sat and watched the world go by with an ice cream. We headed back on the other side of the lake to see a fountain that we saw from the opposite side on our way in and crossed the bridge towards our hotel stopping at a supermarket for supplies for tomorrows train to Moscow. We then had dinner, packed and settled in for the evening with a DVD (Broke back Mountain).

Thurs 6th July
Got up at 7am for breakfast then checked out of our room and met our transfer driver in the foyer. We managed to lose one of the Europe-Asia border certificates sometime yesterday and the staff were franticly trying to understand what we were looking for and trying to help. We managed to speak with someone from the tour office who said if they find it, they would send it on, or send us a new one. It is only a souvenir but we were impressed on how hard they tried to help. Our driver then drove us the huge distance across the road to the station and then showed us some lovely ceiling paintings in the waiting rooms before helping us with our bags right to the train carriage. Very helpful chap. On board we had the usual standard of cabin but for the first time on this trip we were charged for the linen, (about 1:35 each). After a few hours of reading and watching the world go by, we had lunch and then watched a DVD (Poseidon) there's a pattern forming here but there's not much else to do, We did make plans to meet Claire and Jacques for dinner in the dinner in dinning car at 8pm which was very nice and made a change from noodles. The Monkey Business brochure mentions that this train has the best dining car, it was ok. We thought we might get the cabin to ourselves, but at Kazahb station we were joined by Guzel from Moscow and a quiet young man who didn't speak any English. We sat and chatted to Guzel who spoke very good English and introduced us to Yak-Yak (pronounced chak-chak) which is a Russian favorite sweet.
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