Trans-Mongolian Travel part 1 (Beijing to Lake Baikal)

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June 24th 2011
Published: June 30th 2011
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It felt very odd arriving at the train station in Beijing very early in the morning knowing that, in a relatively short amount of time we would have left South East Asia and soon be back in Europe. However, before we arrived there we would first have to go through Mongolia and the Asian part of Russia.

Our train ride from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, was scheduled to take a respectable thirty hours. Upon boarding the train we were greeted by probably the best train compartment we will ever have. Our compartment for two came complete with bunk beds, a desk, a sitting chair and an en suite bathroom for four – though nobody ever emerged in the other compartment meaning it was really for two.

Alas, whilst the compartment was amazing the standard of dining left a little to be desired. This was not though a problem with the dining car, which was suitably overpriced, but by our own food accompaniment, the much praised pot noodle (very popular for train journeys as you get free boiling water in every carriage). Armed with a few of these we were able to stave off the expensive prices of the dining car and enjoy a meal consisting, and tasting, of very little.

As for the border crossing into Mongolia, this proceeded in much the same way as a border crossing on the Trans Siberian should take place, with little pace and at a very inconvenient time. As a start of things to come at the Russian border, more on that later, we arrived at the border crossing around 9pm. We departed the train to stock up on food for the trip and spend our remaining Chinese Yuan change and were suitable annoyed not to be let back on the train again.

The problem, as any train enthusiast could tell you, is one of train tracks. Mongolia and Russia, being odd, use a different width of track to the rest of the world. This caused a 3 hour wait in the train station as the wheels on the train were all changed so that the train fitted the tracks. Had we still been on the train we would have experienced the carriage being lifted for this purpose, alas we were not and instead we were sitting on some very hard seats talking to everybody else who failed to make it back on in time.

Piling back on to the train we proceeded with much haste for about twenty minutes before arriving at the Mongolian border crossing. Here we proceeded to wait as the train moved around a lot and numerous different customs and border officials came on to do any number of things. Eventually, at about 1:00am we were left in peace to get what remained of a nights sleep.

Arriving in Ulan Bator we were met at the train station by our guide. It felt a little strange having traveled around largely unaided for five months to be meeting up with a tour guide for the next three days. We headed out of the train station and made our way to the restaurant where we would be having a traditional Mongolian hotpot for lunch. This was a suitably meaty affair meaning that Steph had to try another of the Mongolian delicacies Khuu Shuur - a kind of pasty but with much lighter pastry. After dinner we set off for the ger camp where we would be staying for the evening in a yurt, set in the middle of a national park.

We were meant to have a trip around the national park however we had managed to arrive on one of the few days when it actually rains in Mongolia. We therefore decided to take cover in the camp for the rest of the day and hope that the weather had improved by the next morning.

We therefore had more time then we expected to spend in our lovely old fashioned yurt. Conforming to all old fashioned yurt credentials it was round, as evil spirits lurk in right angled corners, with a log fire stove for heat and, most importantly of all, rock hard beds. Having traveled around Asia I thought I had now grown used to hard beds, alas, a very thin mattress on a plank of wood was a new, if uncomfortable, experience.

The next morning we got up early and after a hearty breakfast we headed out to explore the national park. This area of Mongolia is famous, as these things go, for a number of rock structures that resemble creatures or faces. Many of there were quite easy to spot, some a little more obtuse. We also headed round to a Buddhist monastery in the national park. Parts of it resembled a building site but, after the onset of communism in Mongolia, most of the temples were either destroyed or put to another use. This meant that, after the fall of communism in Mongolia and the resurgence of religion, many of the temples were now being re-built.

Our morning ended with a trip to a nomadic villager nearby. As is the custom of abusing Mongolian hospitality we turned up unannounced with a bottle of vodka in hand as a peace offering. Once settled into his house we got to try a lot of local home made delicacies including:

Suutei Tsai :- A salty milky tea that was surprisingly nice
Orom and cookies :- A thick sweet tasting Mongolian cream with some doughy cookies
Yoghurt :- A home made yoghurt made from local milk. (Probably has a Mongolian name but i can't remember.)
Shimiin Arkhi :- Spirit made from mare's milk that is smooth and doesn't burn the throat.
Curds:- A sort of hard cheese tasting like substance.

Back at the ger camp we had another lovely meal before packing and heading back to Ulan Bator. Our afternoon was unfortunately largely spent in a traffic jam, one of Ulan Bator's major problems, as we traveled through flooded and potholed streets that had left many cars stranded in the road. As a result we headed straight to the theater where we would be watching a cultural experience of Mongolian performances. This included numerous performances of tribal dancing and Mongolian instruments, playing music both new and old. However the highlight of the show was the Mongolian throat singing. These highly trained musicians somehow manage to sing, a low semi throat yodel and whistle at the same time. Unfortunately they also had a contortionist which freaked the hell out of me.

The next day we had a tour around the main Buddhist monastery in the centre of Mongolia including a truly massive Buddhist statue. After feeding the pigeons, for good luck, we headed to the Mongolian Natural History Museum. It was a fairly average museum, with a main attraction of the dinosaur exhibit, which was good, and then a lot of rocks and stuffed animals, which was not so good. Still there were some signs in English to read as you walked around which made an improvement over many museums I have been to in the past 5 months. Afterwards it was time to go to the main square, and centre of Ulan Bator, for a look around before heading off to a statue on the hill overlooking the city to commemorate the good relations between Russia and Mongolia.

The evening ended with probably my favourite meal of the trip to date – that might be pushing it slightly but never mind. In what was potentially a chain of restaurants somewhere in the world we had a BBQ meal. This fantastic idea saw you pick up whatever you want from the buffet, pick a sauce for it to be cooked in, and watch as they cooked it on a big hot plate style BBQ. Why this has not caught on in the UK is beyond me. Suitably fueled we set off to the train station and boarded the train to Russia for our twelve hour trip to Irkutsk.

The only problem with this was that it was not actually a twelve hour trip to Irkutsk but a thirty six hour trip to Irkutsk. A lovely thirty six hour trip which started out on a very ordinary train and, when we arrived at the Mongolian border at 5:30 am we found that we were the only carriage on the track, with no engine and no buffet car. Fortunately our room mate for the trip had over prepared and was happy to share her food with us until we found somewhere to buy our own. Alas, before we could hit any form of shop we first had to spend five hours at the Mongolian border. How it took so long to get thirty people through a border crossing I will never know. Why they demanded I wake up for it at 7:00am to sit around and do nothing for hours also still puzzles me.

Still by about 10:30 we were finally through the crossing, with a few new passengers but no new cars and heading for the Russian border. Arriving around midday we were ready for a speedy border crossing. It was therefore a bit of a mixed blessing to be told that we would be sitting there for four hours. Annoying, as we were now going to spend nine hours of our trip just crossing the border. Good because, with four hours to kill, we could head off in search of food.

Finding a nearby cafe, some handy Americans with a bit of Russian up their sleeves' kindly translated enough of the menu for us to order some food. A couple of minutes later and we were tucking into some soup – Borscht for Steph – and some Russian pancakes. We were also able to stock up on some supplies for the rest of our trip.

By the time we got moving we had been joined by three more carriages carrying with them an inordinate amount of Russian soldiers who, during the evening, decided to head around the train and talk to the tourists (which mainly consisted of hand signals due to a lack of English/Russian). They all claimed to be about 20, although if any were past 17 I'd be amazed. That said, by the end of the evening we had piled into the Americans' room, with the odd soldier, having a good chat over some Russian vodka.

The next morning we were awoken at a silly hour and told that we would be arriving into Irkutsk, our designated stop in Siberia where we would be leaving the train and heading off to Lake Baikal for a few days, before getting back on the train to Moscow.

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