Aidan Lawrence

Aidan's 2014 travels

Category: Transmongolian (page 1 of 2)

Diary entries for my the time in Mongolia and Eastern Russia via the Transmongolian railway in summer of 2014

10th/11th June Moscow and home

Tue 10th/Wed 11th June

This evening is our last evening of the Beijing to Moscow trip and corresponds to the first evening of the next leg of the journey. Five of us (including me) are leaving with five others joining to continue the trip to St. Petersburg. This means we have 17 of us for an evening meal. We go to a Byelorussian restaurant where the food is very nice, but the service very slow…. By the time we leave the idea of going and walking around the outskirts of the Kremlin is rejected due to the pouring rain. So the last night finishes with a party (in my room!) to finish off the last of the vodka.

Both myself and the group will depart the hotel around 11.00 so a chance to go down to the Kremlin, around a 20 min walk away. The sun is out, but Red square is closed due to preparations for Russian independence day the following day. Gather at least some pics and get back to the hotel to say goodbye to everyone.

My journey to the airport will involve a metro ride, with a change and then the airport express. The Moscow metro publish a map with English names, but the stations themselves do not have these. Having arrived at my change point with trains standing on both platforms I take a leap of faith and jump onto one train – which is going in the wrong direction – oh well. After this glitch the journey back is faultless – I am flying to Birmingham with SAS via a short stopover in Copenhagen – everything leaves on time and I even get through Birmingham airport in good time and only have a 5 minute way for a train back to Leamington and then a taxi home – back home for 8pm and have enough energy remaining to celebrate with fish’n’chips – not a dumpling in sight…

 

 

 

 

9th/10th Kungur to Moscow

Mon 9th June/Tue 10th June

(Usual disclaimer – drafting this on an iPad while in Russia with some strange “autocorrections” and no easy way of linking individual pics yet… So please accept any dodgy grammar and rogue capital letters and I will curate properly when I can).

We catch the train around 17:30 for a 24 hour journey to Moscow. The last leg… Pretty uneventful journey – no late night poker, especially when the music playing compartment are greeted by a Russian lady saying ‘Where is your interpreter!’ 🙂

Scenery outside hasn’t changed much,still endless birch trees. We have to get pretty close to Moscow before we even see increasing signs of urbanisation. Russia really does have an awful lot of countryside.

We arrive on time in Moscow around 17:00 and via the metro and a bit of a hike with our gear, we reach our hotel for a nice hot shower…

9th June Kungur Ice caves

Mon 9th June

Our plans today were originally to visit a soviet-era gulag near the town of Perm, now operating as a museum. Sadly this is currently closed due to electric power issues. Our plan B is to go with one of our options – the Kungur Ice Caves http://www.kungurcave.com/ . Although called ice caves, there is in fact very little ice but lots of interesting water/rock formations. There is a passage way through the caves formed by the softer rocks being dissolved away over thousands of years. We have a local guide and spend a good couple of hours or so in the caves. Temperatures are close to 0C and there are different stories/legends relating to the different grottos. The Russians have done a good job of presenting it, though eventually one grotto starts to look much like another. On reflection I would recommend these caves as a nice half-day out for anyone passing nearby in future.

We are picking up the train at Perm for our final 24 hours of train travel into Moscow. Perm is a town a couple of hours or so from the ice cave so it’s just a settle down and catch the train around 19.00 local

 

Sun 8th June – Kungur

Sun 8th June

After 3 days on the train, the first priority is a shower. The quirks of group organisation means I get a single room for the first time in 3 weeks and it is a perfectly nice hotel. We have brunch around noon and meet a local guide for a city orientation tour.

Kungur is a town of around 600,000 people, founded in 1663. As with Ulan Ude it prospered by being a centre of trade, firstly for furs as Russia expanded east and later as a main importer of tea from China. Four major roads (including the Trans-Siberian superhighway) and two rivers meet here. Getting here we crossed south of the Ural Mountains (sadly we did not see them) so are now in European Russia. Walking around the town we see various attractive monuments and noticeably plenty of parklands. There are lots of old market buildings, some now functioning as museums. There are lots of children, running around or on bikes – Kungur has the feel of a youthful population. Our guide says the main industry is now tourism. As the only westerners in sight on a sunny Sunday afternoon we are a little doubtful, but apparently it is becoming a destination for Russians. We are 24 hours by train east of Moscow, with a few other large cities a little closer. The town has 5 working orthodox churches, we get to see a baptism in progress and are allowed to climb the bell tower for views over the town.

The town has two local speciality trades – a lemonade (very sweet it tasty) and pottery. The souvenir shop sells me two coffee cups and a half-pint tankard for less than £5 – hope they last the journey.

In the evening we have a real treat. A local family have win awards for their wood carving and gingerbread making. While the father, Igor makes the dough, the mother Galina shows us how to prepare it into the wooden templates, assisted by their daughter Anya, who collects our efforts and then bakes them. There are two layers to do with a black currant jam filling. Lots of fun and mostly successful – check out the pictures. We eat some and take about three each for later.

Trying to find somewhere in town for a proper meal on a Sunday night proves trickier. ‘Nyet!’ Seems to be the favourite word but we get something eventually. It seems there is only nice chef as each meal arrives individually and the person has usually finished it before the next one arrives.

Earlyish night to make the most of the comfortable, stationary bed after 3 nights on the train.

5th to 8th June Trans-Siberian Ulan Ude to Kungur

Thu 5th June to Sun 8th June

(Usual disclaimer – drafting this on an iPad while in Siberia with some strange “autocorrections” and no easy way of linking individual pics yet… So please accept any dodgy grammar and rogue capital letters and I will curate properly when I can).

 

Here we go on the longest leg of the trip. Technically we are now on the Trans-Siberian railway, the Trans-Mongolian part having been the leg from Beijing to UU through UB

Time Zones

The first thing to workout is time zones and we arguably have at least three to consider. Our departure point in Ulan Ude is GMT+9. We set off 40 mins late around 18:00 so can expect nightfall and arguably bedtime in about 4-5 hours. All trains in Russia are timetabled against Moscow time of GMT+3. We are advised to set our watches to this as all the train information will be quoted against this. Most importantly are the times when the train will make extended stops at larger stations, where we can get off to stretch legs and the toilets will be locked 15 mins either side. Our destination on this leg is Kungur in the Ural mountains. This is GMT+4 and we are due to arrive at 09:35 local time Sunday morning, Using the scheduled start time of 17:23 in UU are journey comes in at 62 and a bit hours and will cross 4 time zones over 3 nights and 2 days. Sleeping will be interesting…

The train

Our train is running the whole T-S route from Vladivostok to Moscow. Our carriage sadly appears to be one of the older ones, still 8 compartments of 4 beds, but just feels a bit smaller. There are no seats in the corridor and the only socket for the whole carriage appears to be in our compartment, right below my head, but it only works when the lighting circuits are turned on in the evenings. Having said all that, the toilets are clean, the hot water for drinks is hot, we have perfectly clean linen and the pillow and mattress is perfectly comfortable. We will be fine. The train does have a dining car – apparently quite expensive, to be checked out later. Prior to boarding we had stopped at a supermarket and loaded up with 3 days/nights of supplies, mostly consisting of snacks, drinks with a bit of fresh food at least for the first day or so. Technically no alcohol is allowed on the train, except in the dining car. However the etiquette seems to be, no problem provided it is in moderation and nominally behind closed doors. The fact that each compartment attendant has a side line in selling their own stash of beer at around 30% less than the dining car price, says what needs to be said. In hind sight we have all bought far too much – buying from the platform ladies and/or kiosks en-route is perfectly possible and barely any more expensive than the supermarket for basics.

Thu 5th June

Our first evening is relatively quiet as people settle into the journey. My compartment has three of us – Noel, Ksenia and myself, with the 4th berth allocated to an as yet unknown traveller. (Over the whole trip we end up with two separate Russian guys, both of whom more or less ignore us after the attendant has tried to explain why we are there) After some food and a few games of dice, connect4 and ludo, lights go out around 23:00 (local). We are awoken around 2.5 hours later to a stationary train and a lot of activity in the corridor. We are at Irkutsk and plenty of other passengers are getting off or on. To my relief our mystery companion does not try to move in and have to set up their top bunk at this time.

Fri/Sat/Sun 6th/7th/8th June

On the train. Seriously there is not much to report – the scenery doesn’t change much, at this time of year mostly grasslands, trees and settlements of every size from a single building to a 500k population city. The train stops roughly every hour or so. Stops tend to be a couple of minutes at smaller stations, 30 minutes at medium size ones and 45-60 minutes at larger ones. The medium size ones are where we encounter ‘Babooshkas’ selling their produce on the platforms. There are a lot of pastries with fillings such as sausage, cabbage or my personal favourite of cottage cheese. They also sell a lot of smoked fish, pine nuts ( a local speciality), other dough filled with mashed potato, pickles, fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, occasionally even fur hats and cheap fried caviar.

While there are other passengers in our carriage, there isn’t too much interaction – the language barrier is evident. There is one boy of around 10 (Mattve) who comes and chats, draws, plays games without his mother frowning but that is about it. Sadly no high stakes poker, backgammon etc. but then again maybe that is a good thing. Most Russians seem bemused as to why we would choose to be on this train for so long, when they are using simply as a means of transport. Our compartment attendant in particular does not seem to like us – we are the noisy 3 compartments… She does not understand why we are on the regular train when there is a tourist special (at crazy prices..) that we could be on.

Time simply passes with breakfast, lunch and dinner being consumed at arbitrary times. The dining car says it is open from 09:00 to 24:00 but no one can tell us if that is Moscow time or the ever changing local time. To be honest the dining car is fairly grim and expensive and fresh food from the babushkas or just station cafés, combined with our snacks, pot noodles etc. is a better option.

Although we end up on the train for 62ish hours, this is not a problem. Everyone has zoned into this method travel and most sleep perfectly well. An unbroken journey from Beijing to Moscow is something like 6 days. Before our trip this would have seemed like madness, but having done the best part of 3 days I can see how people do this. As part of my entertainment, I have saved a particular audiobook for this leg of the trip. It is Michael Palin narrating his ‘Around the World in 80 days’. The book includes the soundtrack from the TV series at various points, which is the perfect accompaniment to our train noise. Back in 1988 he made it back in one piece – hope we all do the same. Beijing or even Mongolia seems a lifetime away. Reaching Moscow in a few days will feel like a whole new experience.

Well Sunday morning finally rolls round and we get off the train at Kungur. Our attendant and a few of the passengers wave us off – the attendant probably to her relief – peace will once more descend on the service 99 from Vladivostok to Moscow

 

4th June Lake Baikal

Wed 4th June

It has rained overnight but at least the morning shows signs of improvement. Rain plus dirt tracks is not an ideal combination so we are unable to go to a planned visit to an exiled Ukrainian community. We are able to reach some thermal baths – four of us are up for it and after a short drive we arrive. Lake Baikal is actually at a plate boundary and while there isn’t much volcanic/earthquake activity there are enough cracks for  the thermal baths. The baths are warm without being exceptionally hot and initially we are the only four there. Later a few more groups arrive. It’s fun enough splashing around and having a bit of a sing-song, though what the locals thought is another matter.

Back at the guest house, the weather has improved and a few are off walking along the beach. In the afternoon we have a ‘Banya’ scheduled. This is essentially just a reasonably hot sauna with the addition of some (soft!) birch branches with which we get to flay each other. It is strictly one session for the girls then one for the guys and no pictures. We do get the chance to leap out of the Banya and make about a 45 second run down to the lake side, much to the amusement of some other groups who have arrived and are having a BBQ en route. I know the girls were cheeky and waiting on the beach for us with their cameras, whether those photos ever make it online remains to be seen!

A pleasant enough evening and with the weather having improved significantly there are some nice sunset pictures and some decent star-gazing later. We are north enough, with a big enough horizon to the north-west that the sky never completely blackens, even around 1am.

We are to head back to Ulan Ude in the morning and start our long train journey west. To be honest I am a little disappointed with our Lake Baikal experience – I think the tour company have chosen a bad location. I had expected to be able to go out on a boat or have some vendors offering some sort of activity but our guest house is essentially in the middle of nowhere – maybe when the roads are finished and more accommodation built then more infrastructure will come. As it is I felt a bit trapped there – if the rain had continued into the second day and evening it really would have been pretty miserable. Unlike other stops we had no local guide to enthuse to us about the region and while our hosts were friendly enough they are just guest house owners who we only communicate with through our main leader Ksenia. If I was coming back to the Lake I would go to one of the more developed parts, even if they are a bit ‘touristy’ – where we were was really good enough only to chill out for a couple of days.

3rd June Ulan Ude, Old Believers and transfer to Lake Baikal

Tue 3rd June

The morning starts with a short walking tour of Ulan Ude. This is a very attractive city with a trading heritage, being on one of the branches of the silk rd (?). The central square is dominated by the largest surviving(?) bronze bust of Lenin dating back to 1970. There is also an opera/ballet house with typical tickets around £6-8 which plays the same repertoire I would see in Europe. The Main Street has a statue of my old mate Mercury, the god of trade in it and at the end there is an arch commemorating the last Tsar – the city is certainly covering different parts of its heritage.
Mid morning – we have a trip to an ‘Old Believers’ village about an hour south of UU. In 1666 there was a split in the Orthodox Church, with a series of subtle changes introduced into the mechanism of worship. A small number of people objected to this and became known as ‘Old’ Believers. There was a bit of persecution and they were essentially ‘encouraged’ to resettle in this part of Siberia, at that time completely unoccupied. There doesn’t seem to be a big difference between old and new – three (old) rather than two fingers used when making the sign of the cross and bows going to floor level (old) rather than waist level. Our guide tells us nowadays there is no problem between the old and new branches of Orthodoxism, though people are discouraged from marrying outside of their tradition.
We arrive at the village of Tarbagaty and visit a small museum and church. The museum is a pet project of the local priest, who has built up and maintained the collection over a number of years. There is everything from 15,000 year old mammoth tusks, to everything used for basic farming, running the home etc. Our guide is the son the priest, who describes everything in great detail. Despite going on a little, it’s actually quite enjoyable due to his knowledge and enthusiasm.
He then shows us the church. Pre- communist era the village had five churches and one cathedral. All were destroyed with the villagers going to extremes to hide things like precious icons. The church we see was opened in 2003 and includes icons saved from pre- 20th century and some new 21st century ones. Notably none from the 20th century itself. It’s a nice place to worship and an encouraging sign for the future. Tarbagaty is effectively the centre of the Old believers and has had various conferences etc. in the last 10 years or so.
For lunch we are taken a few miles up the road to the village of Desyatnikova. Our hosts are a handful of entrepreneurial locals who have turned one of the houses into a little tourist destination. We are shown the house and then given a traditional lunch, of which my most memorial part is the local moonshine – very tasty. The ladies start singing and then dancing, naturally with our involvement and then host a marriage ceremony. All tremendous fun – they have their own website at www.starovery-pro.ru – do go check the pictures out once I get a chance to upload
In the afternoon we have a 2 hour transfer to our guest house on the shore of Lake Baikal for the next two evenings. We are staying in a village called Enhaluk on the south east shore. In reality this is a few guesthouses with a lot of construction slowly going on. The journey there is a mixture of Tarmac roads and dirt tracks. The weather has turned quite cool and windy – the walk on the beach needs coats. There is no infrastructure at all and unless the weather improves, this does not seem anything like as welcoming as our last excursion in Mongolia.

Mongolia – for better for worse

Mongolia general thoughts

(Usual disclaimer – drafting this on an iPad while in Mongolia with some strange “autocorrections” and no easy way of linking individual pics yet… So please accept any dodgy grammar and rogue capital letters and I will curate properly when I can).

(As of 1st June only partial – to be continued with more time to publish)

Mongolia, or at least Ulan Bataar (literally ‘red hero’, locally typically referred to as ‘UB’ NB – there are numerous different ‘official’ spellings) is much more open than anywhere in China. Going around the main museum, they are very proud of Chingiss (Yes, that’s how the Mongolian’s spell it) Khan and his and his families exploits in the 13th century. During the Soviet era, while not formally part of the USSR, they were strongly under Soviet influence as a satellite state. One consequence of this is that Russian was the official language for 75 odd years, so all laws, school text books etc. are in Russian. Mongolian uses the Cyrillic script with two additional characters, so the two languages have similarities but also significant differences (?). The museum made great play of the move to democracy in 1990, pictures of various leaders coming, a speech by George Bush praising them etc. A huge picture of father, mother and daughter holding Mongolian passports. They have effectively become a two party state – democrats and communists. Elections every 4 years since 1990, with power switching each time. Our guide reckons in practice people simply vote for ‘the other lot’ in hope of change.

Talking of our guide he is ‘Nemo’, a 40ish guy (around 18 at the fall of communism) who trained as a doctor but has found tour guiding to be more profitable. They have a state health service which sadly pays a pittance. During the communist era he would have stayed as a doctor but the transition to Democracy is still leaving anomalies like this. His English is excellent and he is a bit of a comedian. We later find out he plays poker on line ( don’t trust the Russians – they often go all in on a bluff), and is a seriously good snooker player. He does play for the honour of the game, refusing easy shots and is a good guy. At a visit to a Buddhist temple later he tells us he would like to become a monk maybe later in life – though he would have to give up the poker! He is married with 3 daughters.

(To be continued with more time to publish)

1st/2nd Jun train – Mongolia to Russia

Sunday 1st June to Monday 2nd June

We board the 20:25 train for an estimated 24 hour journey to Ulan Ude. About 12 hours of this will be spent at the. Mongolian/Russian border. To be fair about half of this is stationary time simply fitting in with train schedules. At least this time, unlike the Chinese/Mongolian border, there are no wheels to change. We are again in 3 compartments of 4, similar to previous. Slightly plusher and the top bunk is probably a few inches higher, testing the acrobatics. The attendants are pleasant and in the rest of the compartment there are a couple from Chile, another pair from Thailand and a few Russian families. One has a daughter of 8 or so who comes and chats. When the Aussies get out some fridge magnets of Australia, there is much hilarity when she screws up her face at the kangaroo declaring that she doesn’t like them ‘because they jump too much’ 🙂

The evening is pretty quiet and am in bed by 23:00. We had been told we would arrive at the border at 04:30, at which point the toilets will be locked until around midday – (no using the toilets in stations..) there will be a window of opportunity between 07:00 and 08:00 to use the station toilets (Keep a fee tugriks back!). Mongolian procedures will take a couple of hours, when the train will move forward and the Russian procedures will follow. All goes to plan, fairly friendly officials on both sides, not too much searching of bags etc. A nice break sitting having breakfast on the border at something like 8 Celsius – much more my temperature 🙂

Our first Russian meal is at a station cafe on the Russian side – we have a couple of hours before heading off. Nothing extraordinary. After putting our watches one hour forward we head off for the final 6 hours. The train is now one that stops at every tiny little village it seems. Time passes quickly enough, especially as one of our party, Fran, has her birthday today. A cake and candles has been obtained and a drinking game commences, ensuring the vodka and Bacardi brought on board will not last the journey…

Arrive in Ulan Ude on time around 21:45 – just about 24 hours. A balmy 18C. A few days to come here before the next train journey which will be a 3 day one…

1st Jun Ulan Bataar day 3

Sunday 1st June

(Usual disclaimer – drafting this on an iPad while in Mongolia with some strange “autocorrections” and no easy way of linking individual pics yet… So please accept any dodgy grammar and rogue capital letters and I will curate properly when I can).

 

A late morning for many and after last nights karaoke probably just as well. This morning we visit the Gandantegchenling Buddhist monastery in UB. This is a series of temples, most of which have been restored post communist era. Gandantegchenling is a main centre for learning and practicing Buddhism in Mongolia and for the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. More information from www.gandan.mn We are able to observe the monks at worship in the different temples. The worship appears to reciting various scripts/prayers, each representing some aspect of life. Every minute or so various drums, cymbals etc. are played as part of the ritual (no photo allowed of course). The area does seem to be thriving with a steady input of new monks (** APL ** flesh this out properly later).

The afternoon is left free and most take it easy with the next long train journey imminent. At least the temperature has dropped back to a more tolerable 23C or so. We drive to the station for a 2025 departure to Ulan Ude in Russia and a long border crossing

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