A Travellerspoint blog

The Last Train

UB to Beijing


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By the time we boarded the Ulaanbaatar-Beijing service we were old hands at this train malarkey. One novelty however was the nighttime border crossing; the Chinese rail tracks have a narrower gauge than in Russia and Mongolia. Instead of making us change trains they raise up all the carriages on enormous jacks and exchange the entire wheel set (or 'bogey') for a new one whilst the passengers are still on board. It was mesmerising viewing.
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We woke up to see China out the window- all identikit apartment blocks and sweeping mountains. After a final morning of time wasting on the train and phenomenal views from the dining car as we went through 60 tunnels, we arrived in a Beijing that was much cleaner and more Western than I had imagined.
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Immediately the price of food plummeted - garlic broccoli and sweet and sour pork were the highlights of our first meal. Our first taste of Chinese culture was a traditional acrobatics show whose surprising finale was a motorcycle globe of death; the riders kept on coming until there were seven of them looping round the sphere.
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On Saturday an early start was worth it for both the steam bun breakfast and a trip to the Great Wall - climbing the 750 steps to reach it was sweaty but gratifying, the views were astonishing and you really can't envisage the scale of the place until you're up there.
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Our last night as a group had to be marked somehow and what more fitting way than karaoke. The venue was beyond bling (currently trying to track down a pic of the golden unicorn in the lobby...) and three hours raced by in a blur of Queen, Bon Jovi and Daft Punk.

On Sunday we visited an incredibly smoggy Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City, which were crammed with Chinese tourists making their pilgrimages from all over the country. The ancient city sprawls over several huge courtyards, with palaces to the east and west and a room to celebrate every festival going.
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Then it was time to say good bye. 3 weeks ago we downed vodka shots in St Petersburg as strangers. Now we've spent untold hours in tiny train compartments, sauna'd au naturel and made fools of ourselves singing 80s classics. I had been sceptical about organised tours but I couldn't have asked for a better group to experience this incredible trip with.

But the end of one tour is the beginning of the next for me; time to explore China with a new group, who have an awful lot to live up to.

Posted by arianemeena 07:28 Archived in China Comments (1)

Genghis and Gers

Mongolia


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Arriving anywhere at 6am is disorientating and UlaanBaatar is no exception- the blaring video billboards were particularly unwelcome and we resembled refugees as we camped out in the hotel's swanky piano lounge waiting for our rooms.

In the afternoon we took a walk to the main square and perused the surprisingly informative National Museum. I was a little apprehensive about seeing a touristy cultural show but the musicians were first class (although the contortionist gave me nightmares) We caught a taxi up one of the surrounding hills to a popular viewpoint complete with Soviet monument to catch the last of the sunset and ate shashlik fresh off the grill. It transpires the first of the month is a dry day in UB (as the expats call it). This made watching the United match in the hotel bar, which doubled as the meeting place for the Liverpool Fan Club of Mongolia, even more excruciating.
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We started Monday with a visit to the principle Buddhist monastery, where they regard pigeons as sacred. Idiots. Interestingly, Mongolian Buddhist monks are allowed to marry and have children.
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Our next stop was a ger (traditional yurt) camp in a national park, which seemed the ideal place to try horse riding for the first time (you'd never believe I grew up in Surrey) Unfortunately the horses are too used to tourists to go any faster than a walk but it was fun nonetheless. The countryside is spectacular and the granite outcrops put me in mind of of Dartmoor. The food was fantastic- buttery goulash, mutton that fell off the bone and huge steamed dumplings.
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On our first morning a group of 50 Korean school children thought it was acceptable to start rampaging at 530am so a few of us moved to the slightly simpler, but more secluded, gers where a good nights sleep could be guaranteed.
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We headed back to UB via the largest horse statue in the world (upon which sits Chinngis Khan, as we've been taught to call him) and had a quiet afternoon before bidding farewell to Mongolia in style; at a live music bar complete with a band from the Philippines doing covers of ABBA and Pink.
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We left Ulaanbaatar as we arrived - sleep deprived at 6am. This time we were boarding our last train, the Chinese service to Beijing.

Posted by arianemeena 19:17 Archived in Mongolia Comments (2)

Sauna by the lake

Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and the train to Ulaanbaatar


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When you've been on a train for 4 days it is most unnerving to discover you list from side to side when faced with firm ground. We were taken straight from the station at Irkutsk to a village on the shores of Lake Baikal where we were staying in a beautifully maintained chalet with fabulous views.
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After the single best shower of my life and lunch that didn't involve noodles, we indulged in a traditional sauna, complete with cold showers and equally cold beer. The 13 of us may not have known each other at the beginning of the trip, but we were suddenly very well acquainted indeed... If there's a better way to get rid of 88 hours of train filth then I can't think of it. The chalet have made the very sensible decision to restrict guests drinking to a bonfire area at the back of the property, so that's where we headed, experimenting with the Russian style of vodka drinking- each shot followed quickly by something to eat, ranging from pickles to gummy bears.

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A couple of days of fresh air, boat rides, walks and a Raynauds inducing lake swim (estimated at a bracing 10 °C) rendered us pretty unprepared for another 36 hours of railway and certainly not for 7 hours of border control (5 for the Russians, 2 for the Mongolians, mainly just shunting carriages back and forth. Mind boggling). A mere 44 hours (barely a commute by this point) after we started we reached Ulaanbaatar.

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Posted by arianemeena 04:24 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

88 Hours

Moscow to Irkutsk


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And so to the train.
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Our little compartment was remarkably comfortable (helped by some tactical swapping ensuring neat and tidy girls were sharing). Of course, the first night had to be greeted with vodka and despite persuading our 'providnik' Sacha to join in, the boys' volume did incur the wrath of a couple of less lenient carriage attendants. The Russians seemed bemused, the other foreigners grateful to pass the time with English speakers.
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The time didn't drag as I thought it would and the feeling of relaxation was complete- there was no other option. Days merged: sleep, read, eat, repeat. To add confusion to the sense of timelessness, the trains run on Moscow time but by the end of our 5193km we were 5 hours East of that. Each carriage had a samovar providing hot water for instant noodles, mashed potato and tea served in the traditional glasses we borrowed.
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The scenery varied gradually- forest after forest, with the odd river or church providing some respite. Every few hours there was a longer stop where we were allowed off the train and ran to find a stable toilet and the babushkas selling their wares.
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I'm not sure I could have managed any longer and I was grateful to be in 2nd class rather than the open bunks of 3rd, but it was an unmissable experience that taught me the effect of vodka goes much MUCH further on a moving train.
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Posted by arianemeena 20:00 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Underground Cathedrals


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The surprisingly luxurious #19 Megapolis night train took us south from St. Petersburg to a wet and humid Moscow. The sun came out for an afternoon trip to the truly surreal VDNKh; once the Soviet governments' Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy, it is now overrun with cheap amusements and fast food kiosks.
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That evening we went to see Swan Lake (in a theatre next to the Bolshoi as they are on their summer break, although the company was their youth corps) and took an atmospheric walk along the embankment of the Mockba River where Moscow showed off her most glittering jewels, lit up like Christmas.
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The Kremlin's ticketing system is more than confusing but I managed to get timed entry to the Armoury, where the Kremlin's finest treasures are now displayed. One can see why you'd want to start a revolution, these guys loved their bling. The compound itself is full of cathedrals, each with its own identity. No trip to Moscow is complete without a tour of her finest metro stops- more like ballrooms than mass transit stations, they make our humble underground seems distinctly ordinary.
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Lenin takes Fridays off so we had no choice but to fit in a visit to his mausoleum on Saturday morning before the train. It was certainly worth the effort; the reverence shown to him even today is palpable (smartly dressed soldiers line the route, hats and hands in pockets are banned) but I couldn't help think the poor man has been turned in to a giant candle.

In keeping with the start of trip it was time for a dash to the station to pick up supplies and board the train for 88 hours. Remind why I thought this would be a good idea?

Posted by arianemeena 00:58 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

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