Trans Mongolian Adventure: Trying to understand the misunderstandings


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July 20th 2014
Published: August 13th 2014
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After a few smaller trips it was time to dust off the backpack and tick off some of the big hitters, and they don't come much bigger than Russia, Mongolia and China, so to get across them I decided to take an iconic route and arranged a Trans-Mongolian train journey with G adventures. The trip is a little awkward to blog because technically we visited St Petersburg first before taking an overnight train to explore Moscow and then began the Trans-Mongolian Adventure proper from there. But I'm going to start with that section first as it contained the 7858km journey from Moscow to Beijing which was the true essence of the trip, and just to put that number in perspective the UK is a measly 1000km in length. I've said many times that the only way to experience a country is to actually travel through it and that those who fly overland miss out on the essence of a place, and so it was with the train as it took in the way of life, culture, towns, villages, settlements and landscapes of 3 countries as we passed through Russia/Siberia, Mongolia and finally China. The scenes outside the window were partly monotonous-one section was pretty much 2 days of trees, but when taken overall it was fascinating to see the 'Taiga' Siberian coniferous forests of pine give way to the Urals border of Asia/Europe, and then shift to the rolling landscapes of Mongolia full of steppes and grassland with animals roaming, then change again to the Gobi desert before finally the soaring mountains of China came into view and it ended with Beijing and the Great Wall.

The bulk of the trip was through Russia, and it's difficult to really comprehend just how big the largest country in the world is, the 4 day 5000km slog from Moscow to Irkutsk alone took 4 whole days straight and that only got us half way across the damn country. Russia is also one of the most sparsely populated, overall it has just 21.8 people per square mile(compared with 679 for the UK or 366 for China) so you travel through vast expanses of nothing across a country that spans 2 continents and 11 time zones, punctuated only by a small town or settlement huddled around a factory or river. The train was split into compartments of 4 with 2 bunk beds on each side which you had to set up yourselves, this was divided by a small table and that was pretty much all the room contained aside from a window and a lockable door, the air conditioning was a saving grace although this switched off whenever the train stopped. Sleep was hard to come by for me personally as the train rolled and lurched throughout or broke sharply, thus proceeding to slam you forward into a wall or hand rail, but perhaps really I just missed my cup of warm milk and Mum singing "Soft kitty, warm kitty" as I drifted off. You woke when you felt like/when the train made you headbutt the wall and then made your way to the toilet, there were 2 per carriage and so I'd estimate served about 40 people which meant that the smell was rather 'invigorating' after a short while. It was western style at least and also had a sink but there was no shower so it was strictly wet wipes only, I considered the nappy option as I smelt like a baby anyway but decided against it. There was a food carriage but it was highly overpriced so everybody used the heated stove of boiling water and made packets of noodles, soup or porridge, although trying to work out the Chinese flavours from the misleading pictures was a challenge in itself. The train would stop long enough for us to get off about once every 6 hours or so on average, unless it was a border crossing which were the bane of our lives as the rigid protocol of crazy communist countries and the change of tracks meant long delays of up to 7 1/2hours at one point. The stops were an opportunity to stretch the legs or even play frisbee, but often we just took in the scenes at the small stations, all were a cacophony of noise, people, trains hissing,tourists picture snapping, snack stalls and babushka ladies with weather hardened faces selling freshly caught fished, local vegetables or hand made pies. But before long the miserly carriage attendants would shout at us to get back on and it would begin again, your days and nights then passed by in a blur of chatting nonsense, eating snacks, staring out of windows, avoiding corridor blocking drunk Russians or loud Chinese, playing card games, laughing, telling stories, winding people up and drinking beer or vodka, combine all that with the lack of hygiene and it was basically like being a student again only without the STD's. The best of times was getting to know the rest of the group and the funny times we had but of course they are all 'you had to be there moments' so I won't bore you, the best compliment I can give is that before the trip I downloaded 12 films and 6 books on my iPad thinking I'd be bored silly but I didn't end up reading a single page or watch a single movie as the group kept ourselves entertained, the trip flew by much quicker than I expected.

Russia:

There was still enough time in between the laughs to sit back and attempt to decipher the conundrum that is Russia. Everyone has an image of what Russia is like and the eternal battle throughout a visit is deciphering between what you think you know and what you actually know, and who's propaganda you should take as the truth. My mind whirred throughout; Surely Lenin, Stalin and Putin are evil dictators working under misguided ideals and abusing their position to force beliefs on people that have no choice, brutally silencing dissenters while their communist reforms have caused the deaths of over 20million of their own people. Or are they perhaps heroes, using their power to modernise and improve Russia, wanting only to make things equal and more prosperous for its citizens and improve their lives. The statues of Lenin were commonplace suggesting no hard feelings and although in western media Putin plays the arch dictator there were none of the North Korean style banners or omnipotent grip I expected as I didn't see his image once(not even him topless astride a horse sadly) and he continues to be reelected with his popularity remaining above 70%. But this apparent flag of democracy flies amid the swirl of electoral fraud and corruption, as well as a total control of the media, while the jailings of Pussy Riot and Greenpeace activists highlight Russia’s relentless crackdown on activism and dissent. Putin also plays the pantomime villain hating the West and all it stands for, but his major cities could be mistaken for any in the U.S. as grey Soviet tower blocks are replaced with bright and breezy 3 lane avenues of McDonalds, Starbucks and American clothing stores, the ideals of socialism and collective worth gone in the haze of capitalism that would have Lenin spinning in his grave if he had one. I also thought there would be an Orwellian Big brother presence and secret police watching my every move but they are either very good at their job or they don't exist(and if it does its playground stuff compared to the police presence in Beijing). I also thought internet censorship would be rife(much like in China) but all my websites worked fine and Russians have access to BBC news etc if they don't trust Putin's media so I thought it a myth, but as we were travelling through the country it was announced that any Russian site with over 3000 visitors would be monitored and closed down, so perhaps freedom of speech is not such a liberty after all. Russia is also allegedly extremely nationalistic, xenophobic and bristles with homophobic attitudes, and to be fair I didn't see one single black person in my time here, yet the statistics show 160 different nationalities live there including 20million Muslims and 1.5million Buddhists. Meanwhile the first anti-gay law was passed last year which effectively bars any positive discussion of gay rights or any action labeled as gay around children while couples are not allowed to adopt. Economically I couldn't work out if Russia was stuffed full of oil rich tycoons and gas reserves or mired in poverty due to communist reforms, Moscow itself has more billionaires than any other city in the world yet Russia has 20million people living on less than $5 a day so there's evidently a divide. And of course there are the recent actions in Ukraine, old actions in Chechnya, the possible involvement in the Malaysian plane shooting and spy's being poisoned. If I removed everything I knew or all my prejudices about Russia and just experienced it at face value I would have to say that it was all western media and things don't appear bad at all, but I can't allow myself to travel blinkered to what lurks behind and ignore all the warning signs. So is it a homophobic, racist, rebel arming, oppressive, big brother, corrupt, dictator led, Animal Farm, communist, anti western country...or just misunderstood. I haven't found the answers but suspect the the truth is somewhere between the middle and the depressing side. Perhaps Churchill put it best: "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma".

St Petersburg

So how about the actual trip, we started in the one time capital city known as Leningrad that has proved pivotal throughout Russian history, and infamous in world history. It was here that Lenin staged his Bolshevik coup and took control of Russia, then masterminded changing the largest country in the world into communism. A tough place that also survived a German siege during WWII that lasted 872days and left 1/3 of the population dead. It is a city stuffed full of history, palaces, cathedrals, fortresses and museums, gothic architecture and skylines of dazzling golden topped domes and gilded spires. It is large in wandering terms yet the main features are located in one central area and manageable in a day. It is European by feel yet suddenly around a corner you stumble across a building that is unmistakably and almost cliched Russian, my favourite being the fabulously titled Church on Spilled Blood. It is a mix of garish yet beautiful as you try to take in the multiple domes and swirling shapes of blues, green and gold topped with tall spires. I haven't figured out if it's a work of genius or something that my kids would produce(at which I'd try to act supportive without sounding condescending whilst awarding a sticker for effort). Most Russian buildings like this were only worth visiting for the outside but this was the exception as inside is 7000 square metres of mosaics adorning the walls and ceilings that depict various biblical scenes as well as the assignation of Alexander II on this spot that caused the building to be built. Nearby was also the impressive colonnaded Kazan cathedral that was pleasing to the eye but it was St Isaac's Cathedral that dominated the skyline with its large golden domes glinting on the bright summer sun. It actually contains a museum which most people ignore, instead they choose to wheeze and gasp the narrow 262 steps (I effortlessly skipped to the top obviously...)to gain panoramic views of this beautiful city. From there you can glimpse the dome filled skyline, imagine the characters of Crime & Punishment wandering, see the palaces and their gardens, the column of Alexander standing 47metres tall, the wide river bisecting the city into islands and the long bridges that cross them, the Peter&Paul fortress with its tall golden spire on the Petrograd side, warships and submarines floating on the water flexing their propaganda muscles while Russians on holiday buy navy outfits and umpteen brides take photos against the watery backdrop. The scene is no different at night, the White Nights at this time of year ensure it does not get dark until after 11 and leads to steamy, busy streets as people eat ice cream and wait to see the bridges raise at 1am in a party like atmosphere. There is plenty more to see if you're willing and have more time than we did, including the State Hermitage Museum which houses such treasures as Da Vinci and Picasso but it was a full day visit in itself and besides I know as much about art museums as I do about visiting the gym.

Moscow

After an overnight train we arrived in the capital city known as 'gold domed Moscow', this was apparently meant to be more Russian than St Petersburg but to my untrained eye it seemed very similar, a hybrid mix of old gothic architecture and new commerce. Once again it seemed European in nature mixed with historical cathedrals and monuments, sadly there would be even more had most not been destroyed thanks to another bright idea by Lenin when he began his revolution. The tourist highlight to tick off is the Kremlin and Red Square, although I felt slightly underwhelmed by these. The Kremlin used to be a fort and the square its ceremonial plaza, but they now contain government buildings as well as relics of the Russian tsars and dictators. It was interesting to wander for a while and take in the range of cathedrals with their whitewashed walls, golden domes and bright frescoes but again were better to gaze at from the outside and fairly dull inside. There was also an Ivan the Great bell tower(which was closed) an armoury, gardens, Monty Python style changing of the guard and a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The red square itself was anticlimactic in the end as it was much smaller than I had expected and not even red, plus it was cordoned off for the day. Red is apparently known as beautiful in Russia but its false advertising if you ask me and was nowhere near the size I expected, especially when compared to Tiannamen square I have now visited. Lenin himself lay embalmed and unaffected by the fuss in the mausoleum but I didn't have the patience to stand for over an hour in the huge queue and you couldn't take a picture of his waxy appearance, I'd have probably only got arrested for lecturing him anyway "Nice idea Vladmir, kind of went a bit balls up though didn't it, and killing all those people was a bit of a bugger eh?" They hadn't even sorted his receding hairline out either. The winner itself was St Basil's Cathedral, although if this was a talent show I'd have strung someone up for plagiarism as it was the near identical twin of the Spilled Blood with even more colourful domes and swirly patterns. I also enjoyed the marble laden metro stations and their communist statues, as well as the bus tour of the traffic heavy streets, taking in the intricate buildings with their golden domes nestling amongst banks and hotels, and the laid back verandas of European style cafe culture. Overall St Petersburg and Moscow were interesting and engaging cities to visit and I highly recommend them, just don't expect to see a Russian smile, you've more chance of getting one out of Lenin today.

Lake Baikal

Russia is the largest country in the world by sheer area covering some huge number I can't google right now because trains are selfish and don't have wifi, but trust me when I say that a journey across it is somewhat of a feat of endurance. The longest section we covered was from Moscow to Irkutsk, and after 84 hours bounding 5000km (the equivalent of the length of the UK 5 times), feeling jet lagged, desperate for a shower and craving something other than noodles in a cup we walked swaying and listing onto a transfer to the village of Listvyanka. I could tell you the stats; that the lake is the world largest and deepest at 1637m, the oldest at 25million years, contains 1/5 of the worlds unfrozen fresh water and is home to some 1700 species, but all you really need to know is that the water is clear and pure and surrounded by tree lined cliffs, while Listvyanka sits placidly beside the lake almost picture book perfect, a mix of run down traditional wooden houses and modern brickwork. We walked around the village, ate the locally caught fish, took a short hike to a viewpoint and those who believe in things like horoscopes took a dip into the cold waters to lengthen their lives by 25 years. The highlight though was our home stay with a Russian family and it's brilliantly congenial host Nikolai who introduced us to the bizarre and surreal world of a Russian sauna know as a 'Banya'. This involved sitting in a sauna in 100oC heat and sweating profusely until being told to leave-this was Russia there were no choices-before jumping in a freezing cold plunge pool to open and close the pores, this was then repeated twice more. So far, so normal. The fact we had to do this wearing a woollen hat (mine was in the style of Napoleon)and gloves, while being beaten with branches of birch by the speedo wearing, gold toothed, manically animated Nikolai took it to a whole new level. Sometimes he would lie us down and beat us around the body with the branches, other times we paired up with others to take turns hitting but mainly we were asked to whip ourselves raw, I felt like the car in that Fawlty Towers thrashing episode. After that ordeal was over I was lying in the foetal position hugging my knees but apparently it was 'scrubby scrubby time' which still invokes moments of panic even now, it involved being asked to bend over and place my hands on a wall while he raked my back with a wire brush, before turning me over and rubbing my front until my nipples resembled traffic cones and then as a final insult he throws a bucket of freezing water over you. I think a new guy in a prison rape would feel less abused, although admittedly my skin felt delightfully soft. The next day we shuffled uneasily for the door trying to avoid Nikolai's gaze and completed a city tour of Irkutsk, the main city in Eastern Siberia. There wasn't a huge amount to do but we visited some interesting statues, cathedrals, markets and a Soviet museum that was a little light on information, but for me being there with the blazing sun of summer gives the place a totally different vibe, this city and it's surroundings are allegedly (propaganda I reckon) covered in deep snow for 6 months of the year and temperatures reach -35 in the winter so I would like to experience it then, only maybe I'd ask Nicolai to be a little more gentle next time.

Mongolia

This particular 'Trans' route traverses roughly half the distance across the vast monotonous expanse that is Siberia but instead of plodding on fully across to the east coast we veered down in order to travel through Mongolia. This was a country I had always wanted to visit but the laborious 7 and a half hour border crossing was an immediate test of patience, although we noticed straight away that the Mongolians seemed smilier and more convivial than the dour Russians we had left behind. We spent 2 days in the capital Ulaan Baatar, which seems in a rush to overuse the letter 'A' as well as get somewhere, the streets were clogged with traffic at every hour and building sites or cranes littered the view as though it is going through its own industrial revolution. The result was a mix of new and old, high rise skyscrapers such as the Blue Sky tower (great views, cheap beer but gave us food poisoning) competing with monasteries and temples. These older structures were worth a visit but nothing special I felt, the Gandan Khiid monastery housed the Mongolian spiritual head and 600 monks chanting as well as a 26.5 metre gilded Buddha, and the Winter palace of the Bogd khaan showed where the last king of Mongolia lived and his temples etc. My favourite place in the city was Sukhbaatar square-a large and spotlessly clean open space which sat in the middle of the city and contained the government house as well as a large statue of Chinggis Khaan (we know him better as Genghis Khaan) being flanked by his sons. Just outside the city also stands a magnificent 40metre tall silver statue of Genghis on horseback, so large that you can take an elevator to the top and stand on the horses head. Chinggis Khan's image is everywhere, from the money to statues and mountain side carvings which pleased me as as it is due to him that I have long since wanted to visit Mongolia. I'm not quite sure when or why my fascination started with Genghis, this is a guy who allegedly killed 40million people in ruthless fashion, taking over wherever he desired through brute force and massacres, stealing wives at will and siring an eye watering 200,000 descendants, so I should really vilify him as I do a Stalin or Hitler. But I think its a sense of him being in the mould of an Alexander or Caesar and being one man leading an army into battle continually and winning, only he did it after rising up from literally nothing and ended up overseeing the largest empire in human history-so large that it covered 22%!o(MISSING)f the earths surface. It's thanks to him that the Silk route opened and trade happened, stability reigned (once he controlled everything) plus he encouraged education and religious tolerance, but I guess deep down I just like the fact he was a bit of a fearsome bad ass (Jesus, if I was a girl in high school I'd be swooning for the leather jacket rebel guy all day long). Anyway after this we went out into the true wild Mongolia to a ger camp, all wide open green steppes and rolling mountains, horses running wild and traditional living. We slept in a ger tent warmed by a fire, hiked the hills to a monastery, rode horses or tried archery, drank beer, ate too much, conducted a fake robbery(long story), chatted nonsense and played frisbee with local kids, for many people this was the highlight of the trip.



Soon enough it was time to board yet another train for yet another long border crossing as we entered the third country of this voyage. However like so much of the trip this particular section had me grasping to understand, as the green steppes made way we passed through the Gobi desert (it's only 2% sand! you can't call that a desert) before entering Beijing with sights such as the 'Great' Wall(it was just 'OK') and the Forbidden City(it's not,you can go right in) so the trip really packed a great deal in, but my next trip also started with these visits so I'm going to include it in my China blog if that's ok with you lot. Overall I really enjoyed the Trans-Mongolian experience and would highly recommend doing it, my only regret being that I always envisaged it in winter covered with snow whilst it was blazing summer for us but this did not detract from the trip. It is possible to do the trip on your own and we met those that did, but I think for the length of the journey and the lack of English spoken in all 3 countries then booking it through a tour is ideal, especially if you get lucky and end up with a fun group like we had. We had the usual mix of characters and countries within the group and this was technically a YOLO trip so the age range was 20s-30s and led by our guide Alex 'Ivan Drago' which was ideal as humour is definitely needed to get you through some sections and the list of in-jokes about 5 year olds and Rocky quotes are too numerous to mention. Luckily we had this in spades and no more so than my 'Oh Wow' clique, a group that hung around and laughed together until the face ached and who I'll always be in touch with and I miss already. I'd highly recommend doing the Trans-Mongolian itself, the contrast of the 3 countries and their people was fascinating to watch unfold in front of your eyes and the trip confirmed and also changed my perceptions of all 3 places and I look forward to travelling through China further and finding out more. It was one of those trips that reminded me of why I travel, not only to see historical sights but also to find out about a country for myself and not just take in everything that I've been led to believe, besides I've read somewhere, you've got to beware, you can't believe everything you read.


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13th August 2014

Trans Mongolian
Hey Mike, Interested to read your blog as we have just come back from spending 3 weeks across Russia and Mongolia via the Trans-Mongolian/Trans Siberian but, did it the other way around - Beijing to St. Petersburg. What a fantastic trip!! Like you - we also had a great group but, did it with Intrepid Travel and also like you, agree that, unless you have a command of the Russian language - it's too hard to do it on your own. Definitely with a tour is the way to go. Border crossings ... a bit of a test of patience but, still fun to see how they change the bogeys between China and Mongolia. Also agree, that next time ..... have to do it in the winter months! :) Cheers, Jan
15th August 2014

Excellent, thanks for the walk down memory lane. I gave up trying to understand the misunderstandings. No'strovia!
19th August 2014

Bucket list
Sincerely loved your observations and the questions you had to ask your self about the reality of life in Russia vs media vs secretly is it there? Enjoyed hearing about your spa adventure,ha. " It was one of those trips that reminded me of why I travel, not only to see historical sights but also to find out about a country for myself and not just take in everything that I've been led to believe, besides I've read somewhere, you've got to beware, you can't believe everything you read". Great stuff Mike....keep on travelin'
19th August 2014
Inside the ger

Ger
Nice photo

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