Video: Transsiberian 2009 produced by Lluis Jané (yes, the one with long hairs it’s me).
I’ve already discussed in a previous article how to plan your trip on the Transsiberian Express.
Itinerary: Trans-Mongolian (Moscow-Beijing) with stops in Irkutz and Ulan-Bator.
Goal: Reach Beijing in 23 days, that is before our return flight will take off!
The first thought I had when I arrived in Moscow was that money can destroy everything…
The utopian promise of an egalitarian regimen has indeed left room to the wildest capitalism, where the most atrocious misery coexists with extreme luxury.
I’m especially impressed by the light, similar to the one that you see on the top of police’s cars, featured by the vehicles of the rich people, who in this way can speed through the traffic without respect any law.
Another particular that I notice is that here in Russia are the women that take care of most of the every day tasks such as driving the public buses or handling the security at the exit of the subway stations. Talking with people I discover that the general opinion is that Russian guys are very good at having fun but not so reliable when it’s time to work.
The Red Square in Moscow
The first thing we do in Moscow is to ask to the receptionist of our hostel whether she can help us to buy a train ticket to Irkutz. She answers that it’s not a problem.
However five minutes later she informs us that the third class tickets are sold out and we’ll have to buy second class tickets, which are more expensive. I guess this is the downside of improvising your trip!
Frankly speaking I don’t have a great memory of Moscow so I won’t tell you more. I’m not that interested on big cities, I wanna go to Siberia!
Many people asked me how do you cope with boredom when you stay four days in a row inside a train. My daily occupations included the contemplation of the landscapes, play cards, study the time table that features the daily stops, read, drink vodka with the Russian travelers and, dulcis in fundo, the excursion to the restaurant carriage!
The “excursion” usually keeps us busy for about an hour. The restaurant carriage isn’t that far (only seven carriages away). However you can’t avoid to stop on the way to drink a glass of vodka with an old guy or talk with a eighteen years old soldier that shows you the video of a military parade and explains to you how great is the Russian Army. All that without speaking a work of English… the power of sign language!
On the middle of Siberia
The long stops are another of my favorite activities: a perfect occasion to get off the train, stretch your legs and look for other people that look like they don’t know where they are. During our journey we met plenty of foreigners with who we exchanged impressions, compare our respective itineraries and, most of all, complained on how much we miss a shower.
After crossing the Urals and going through Siberia we arrive in Irkutz. The truth is that time flied and I wasn’t even able to finish the first of the three books that I brought with me.
We say goodbye to our travel mates: the provonista, that is girl that takes care of the carriage, a fifty years old chemist that is going on a conference and a single mother that is going home with her son for holiday.
A wood house in Irkutz
Irkutz and the Bajkal Lake
Even if I had the idea that Irkutz was an horrible town, I must say that it was worth a visit, with its waterfront and neighborhoods of small houses built on wood that vaguely remembered me of the west.
But the real attraction of Irkutz is the Bajkal Lake. It’s so big that I would have the impression of being in front of the sea, if it wasn’t for the mountains and the small villages that surround it.
Even if for me, Mediterranean guy, the day was a bit cold for swimming, I couldn’t resist and plunged into the lake. Bloody cold! I came out almost running while, some meters away, a group of Russian people enjoy the water in such a warm day (for them).
Finally clean and refreshed from the stop in Irkutz, we prepare ourselves for continuing our trip towards east. Well… it would be more exact to say towards south as we are now going to Mongolia!
Irkutz – Ulan Bator
The huge watch on the wall says that it’s five pm. In fact it’s already night when we arrive to Irkutz’s train station as the watch marks Moscow’s time. As soon as we get on the train I fall asleep.
The train station of Irkutz and the train that will bring us to Ulan Bator
I wake up early and watch outside the window: the landscape is slowly changing; it becomes more and more arid. I observe my new travel mates and, for the first time since we began this adventure, I feel we are in Asia. We’ll reach soon Ulan-Ude, the last town before the border with Mongolia.
The worst part of this trip arrives when it’s time to cross the border: we are forced to wait four hours outside the train without any way to repair ourselves from the sun.
Notice: if you have enough time I advice you to get off the train in Ulan Ude, reach the border with a bus or a local train and cross it walking. In this way you’ll avoid to wait four hours on the middle of nowhere while the policemen check the international train.
We’ll cross the border only late at night. It’s time to sleep again. We’ll wake up on the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator.
Ulan Bator and its outskirts
Even if in Ulan Bator there are a few things to see, we aren’t interested on stay in a town. Thus we head directly to the Golden Gobi Hostel, which organizes cheap tours. Within two hours we are in a minivan with a driver and a guide. Where are we going? Into the Steppe, of course!
Into the Steppe
As soon as we leave the capital, the motorway becomes bumpier and bumpier. There are work in progress a bit everywhere but I believe they will never be able to fix it.
When it seems that there isn’t any civilization anymore, we see a small house on the horizon where we stop for having a yak burger, which seem to be everywhere here.
We keep going and a couple of hours later, our ass destroyed but the jumps of the minivan, we arrive to our first destination, Elsen Tasarkhai’s desert (Элсэн тасархай).
The camels at Elsen Tasarkhai
How to find a place to spend the night in the middle of the Steppe?
The solution is easy… we only need to ask somebody.
Ok… ask. But who we ask?
We can’t really see anybody.
However, after a bit, we do find a ger (one of the typical Mongolian tents) and ask to the owners if they are willing to host us for the night. They accept so it’s all good.
As soon as we finish to discuss the price for the ger a guy appears with a couple of camels: he’s offering us to have a short camel ride. We accept. It’s the first guy that tried to sell us something in Mongolia.
At night time the temperature decreases quick. The owner of the ger prepares the dinner while we stay close to the stove. Now I really regret that I didn’t bring a jacket with me. We have the possibility to taste the local specialties such as the yak cheese and the spirit that is done by fermenting the yak milk. I don’t really like it but what the hell, if Gengis Khan could drink it so can I!
Our first ger
Better to don’t go to the toilet
After a couple of drinks I go to the toilet. It’s a big mistake. I think I never so I toilet worse than this one. Well I did see something worse in India and China but it was more for the number of people that were using it. Here there is anybody!
I manage to come out the toilet without puking and decide that I won’t ever use another toilet in Mongolia. I can just go behind a hill.
Who wants a Mongolian name?
The morning after I wake up really early cause the fire went out and I’m freezing. After breakfast we get on the minivan again and the driver decides that it’s time to give us Mongolian nicknames: “whiskered,” “bald-headed,” “straw’s hair” and “goat’s chin.”
The day passes by fast among a picnic on a hill, snow even if it’s August and wonderful landscapes. At 7 pm we finally arrive at Orkhon Valley (Орхоны хөндийн), where we spend the night with a new family.
Preparying our picnic
Who wants to take a shower?
The day after I try to wash myself on the small river close to our ger but there is no way. The water comes directly from a glacier and it’s bloody cold. I then decide to wait till we go back to the hostel in order to take a shower.
The river at Orkhon Valley
Jiao zi or Бууза
We spend the day riding a horse and traveling with the minivan till we arrive to Erdene Zuu Monastery (Эрдэнэ Зуу хийд), one of the most ancient and famous Buddhist monasteries of Mongolia. This time we have to sleep on a fake ger for tourists.
Our guide, Mungu, decides to teach us how to cook Mongolian dumplings, which at the end are very similar to Chinese jiaozi (饺子), but which much more meat!
Mongolian dumplings, or at least what is still there after our dinner!
Back to Ulan Bator
After visiting the monastery we go back to Ulan Bator and say good bye to our driver and guide. I can’t wait to take a hot shower but, as soon as I try, I discover that the water is cold.
I go downstairs and protest with the owner of the hostel but he tells me that it’s three days that there isn’t hot water in Ulan Bator. Well, it seems that I will have to wait till Beijing!
Erdene Zuu Monastery
Erenhot – Beijing
First cultural lesson in China
When we arrive to Erenhot, instead of the “luxury” bus that should bring us to Beijing there are a couple of old minivans. One of the guys that were on the train with us starts to yell at the girl that is organizing our trip, stating that he paid for a bus and won’t get on a shitty minivan.
As usual, in Asia if you lose your coolness it becomes even more difficult to get what you want. The girl stops to listen to him and keep repeating as a mantra that he can wait for the bus if he wants, but nobody knows when such a bus will come (“never” is probably the correct answer).
Who says that arriving in Beijing is easy?
Who says that arriving in Beijing is easy?
Sure, the minivan is not that comfortable, especially because there are way too many people inside. However the trip proceeds without problems till when the police stops us for a control. At the beginning the policemen discuss politely with the driver.But when they discover what the minivan is transporting (ten white devils), the driver is forced to get out the van and show a ton documents to the police.
I dunno what the problem is, maybe the driver doesn’t have the license to transport white cows…
After about half an hour I decide to get off the van and smoke a cigarette. However, as soon as a policeman sees that one of the devils is trying to “escape”, he gets crazy, start to yell at me and force me to get on the car again.
It takes our driver two hours to “fix” the problem. It seems that now we can safely arrive to Beijing.
Well, almost. Because in the meanwhile a summer storm has appeared, transforming the road in a river. The driver looks scared, and it’s obvious that he can’t see more than a meter away. However he has no intention to stop!
After a couple of hours, during which we dodged the hundred of cars that stopped on the middle of the street to wait the end of the storm while we keep going, we reach Beijing with only four hours of delay.
It’s been four years since the last time that I came to Beijing. We arrive to our hostel in Qianmen Road – Leo Hostel, the same where I stayed the first time I visited China – and I can’t even recognize the street. I slowly realize that the Olympics have completely transformed the city.
¿Do u speak Chinglish?
I’ve always enjoyed to visit countries where the level of English is close to zero. It fascinates me how, pushed by the situation, we can truly exploit our imagination to communicate with the locals.
Here a clear example…
Who said that communicate with Chinese people is a problem?
..but it’s not always that easy.
After coming back from the Heaven Temple we are exhausted and have the great idea of getting a massage; but we don’t know where to go. We then proceed to stop the driver of a tuk tuk (see photo below) and mimic the massage. He seems to understand and bring us to… an electric bikes shop. Nope, I don’t think he got what we want.
My friend starts again to massage my shoulder while a crowd of bored Beijiners gather to see what the laowai are doing. This time the driver does understand and bring us to a massage parlor.
There are several girls waiting in front of the door and the first impression isn’t too good. However outside it’s really hot so we decide to go inside.
They bring us to separate rooms and the massage starts. The girl doesn’t seem too professional and it’s more interested on playing with the hair that comes out my shirt than make me a real massage.
Suddenly two girls start to laugh and run on the corridor. My masseuse discusses with them and then asks me to take off my shirt. The other girls come inside the room and start to point at my chest. It seems that our body hair is the daily attraction… and the worst thing is that we paid for it!
Opera in Beijing
That’s all folks!
We will spend a week in Beijing, mostly eating jiaozi and drinking beer.
A year later I’ll come back to Beijing, this time to stay here!
Thanks to my friends that helped me to gather the photos (and the video) that I shared during this series of three articles!
How much ($USD) were the train tickets?
I’m sorry but I don’t remember it so well, I think the 3 tickets Moscow-Irkutzk, Irkutzk-Ulan Bator Ulan-Bator – China border were around 600 USD, but I can’t tell you for sure.
I checked the price from Moscow to Irkutzk in the official Russian webpage http://pass.rzd.ru/timetable/public/en?STRUCTURE_ID=735 and it’s around 370 USD, (the prices of the international trains can not be checked in this webpage)
I hope is useful for you.