The unlikeliest of honeymoon adventures: the world’s longest train journey – the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
Somehow I was left with the task of booking the trip. I learnt quickly the extent of my naivety. It wasn’t just a case of booking one train and hopping on and off where we desired. The Trans-Siberian Railway is a large network where multiple local trains are operated by the countries with which the track resides. We decided that coupled with the complexity of booking each leg ourselves and the challenging task of navigating three visas, we left it up to the experts – and booked through Melbourne based company, Flower Travel. We highly recommend!
CHINA – BEIJING
We flew into the sweltering humidity of Beijing. In our three days in China’s capital, we squeezed in most of the highlight tourist attractions, including Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Hall of the People (parliament), the Summer Palace, bike ride through the Hutongs and the Great Wall of China. I knew China’s best characteristic was its breeding skills, yet wasn’t prepared for just how many people flocked to these hugely popular sites! If crowds are not your thing – avoid China altogether. There was lots of pushing and shoving and felt like there was no order to entering and existing subways. Surprisingly, we did not meet any other Australians in China, nor many other international tourists. They were all local tourists.
I was pleasantly surprised by Beijing. For starters, there was plenty of greenery. The streets were free of rubbish and the subway operated effortlessly, similar to London’s tube system. It seemed Communism was operating effectively with everyone seemingly having a job, be it the empty bottle-collecting lady, the man who sprayed the tree’s leaves with water, or the military and traffic police present on every street corner, watching us suspiciously.
Our highlight however, was our Great Wall of China hike. From recommendations, we booked through Beijing Backpackers and opted for the strenuous 6km hike, guaranteeing less crowds. The trip started at Jingshaling, some 140km from Beijing, ending at Simata. We crossed 22 watch towers – at times crawling on hands and knees along the crumbling stone wall. It was incredibly humid and we were soon soaked from our own sweat. But the unspoiled views were priceless. The atmosphere was only disturbed by the local wall inhabitants constantly pestering for a sale, “beer! Water! T-shirt! Book! You buy now!” Oh, and the giardia we picked up on our first day in China. Yeah, there’s no toilets up there on the wall…
Food was another story altogether. While I absolutely love food, I felt quite restricted in China. Many of the touristy sites don’t have obvious restaurants nearby (although they do become clearer at night when lit up with their flashy fluorescent lights). For the adventurous, there are local delicacies such as starfish, seahorse, squirming scorpions, worms and beetles. Disappointingly, we only ate one meal in the three days we were in China- at the highly prized Quanjude Roast Duck in Wangfujing. The duck was tasty, but the rest of the food quite bland. If tomato sauce was at hand, I would have been reaching for it.
1st: Beijing to Ulaanbator – 29 hours.
2nd: Ulaanbator to Irkutsk – 34 hours.
3rd: Irkutsk to Ekaterinburg – 53 hours.
4th: Ekaterinburg to Moscow – 25 hours.
5th: Moscow to St Petersburg – 9 hours.
All in all, 7900km and 150 hours.
Our first leg included border-crossing formalities to enter Mongolia. On board the rooms were 2 or 4 berth. We opted for the 4-berth rooms. The cabins were surprisingly spacious, thanks to the high ceiling. The bottom bunks lifted up to reveal storage space, and the top bunks also lifted up to provide comfortable sitting space from the bottom bunk. There was additional storage in the roof. Each room had a window, a fixed small table and reading lights. Each carriage had two toilets, both as equally putrid as each other, and a hot water urn, perfect for noodle breakfasts, lunches and dinners. (Upon recommendation, we bought all our noodles back in Australia and carried them in our backpack – best tip ever as one couldn’t quite distinguish what the local noodle contents were). There were no showers onboard and certainly no toilet paper or soap (luckily we brought our own also, because the local stuff was like baking paper!). We passed the time reading, playing UNO, writing and making new friends onboard. Surprisingly, the time passed quickly. I did have one adventure on board – getting locked in the toilet and then having the lock snap off. Over the sound of the engine, no one could hear my screaming or knocking. I was in full panic mode, with my only source of ‘fresh’ air being the toilet hole opening down to the railway tracks below. After a lot of crafty improvising, I managed to turn the broken lock and free myself! I raced back to my room to see Andrew lying there, reading his book, completely unaware that I had even been missing!!
We spent three nights in Mongolia. Upon arrival, we visited the 50m tall stainless steel Genghis Khan monument, some 70kms outside of the capital, Ulaanbator. The 13th century national hero has a huge cult following in Mongolia, despite it being illegal to even mention his name as little as 22 years ago under Communist rule. We stayed at Esteri Ger camp, surrounding by huge skies stretching for endless miles, and yellow-green sloping mountains spotted with semi-wild horses. Our ger was traditional and welcoming- hand painted orange wooden day beds, vanity, stools and table with a log fire in the middle. From here we visited a nomadic family, rode the horses and climbed a grassy knoll (a huge achievement considering by this stage I had sprained my achilles). The horses were milked daily for human consumption. All in all it was incredibly peaceful and quiet. Ulaanbator by contrast was a hustling hive of activity and crazy drivers. But there were many more restaurants and variety of food and plenty of cashmere merchandise to purchase!
RUSSIA – IRKUTSK & LISTVYANKA
Our second leg between Ulaanbator and Irkutsk could have been completed much faster if it were not for endless stops and border crossing formalities (3 hours on the Mongolian side… travel 20 minutes down the track and a further 4 hour stop on the Russia side). We managed to score the nastiest, most unprofessional and corrupt train conductor for this leg. The instant we crossed the razor wire border, she transformed into what our carriage named ‘the dragon lady’. Back in Ulaanbator our train had numerous carriages, but by the time we crossed the border, we were a solo carriage being tugged along by the engine. Dragon lady took complete advantage of our tourist status, threatening us with the police if we didn’t succumb to her bribery and made up Russian laws (like apparently she could tax me for my half-drunk bottle of water that I had carried across the border.. it’s also allegedly illegal to drink beer in Russia, and according to Dragon lady, it is Russia law that we must buy chocolates and biscuits from her). We watched as she extorted money from other travelers and threatened to forbid us using the toilets if we didn’t obey her unreasonable requests. In addition she marched around in her pjs and conductors hat along with her fellow male conductor, who we all were convinced they were seeing each other. My favourite quote from Dragon Lady “in Russia, NO laughing, NO smiling!!”
From Irkutsk we were driven two hours to the shores of Lake Baikal, and a sleepy spread out town called Listvyanka. Lake Baikal is the world’s longest and deepest freshwater lake and contains 20% of the world’s freshwater. It was so peaceful – the still water disappearing into the hazy horizon, classic The Truman Show style.
Listvyanka is several kilometers long, with the lake on one side, and the mountains on the other. Down by the shores locals smoke, fry and boil their daily catch. We did a day hike through the birch and cedar mountains with a local guide, picking berries, mushrooms and ginger stalks.
Our third leg of the trip between Irkutsk and Ekaterinburg was our longest. Thankfully we roomed with two overly hospitable Russians who relentlessly showered us with gifts. After 53 hours on board, we pulled up to Ekaterinburg – often skipped by tourists on their route to Moscow. We absolutely loved Ekaterinburg. We had a fantastic local guide also. The city – once a closed city under Communism, is an Asian-European mix of culture. It is the largest city on the Ural Mountain range. The city harbors beautiful parks, architecture and rich history, including the site of the execution of the Royal Romanov Family in 1918. We ventured beyond the city to the oldest and most traditional village of the Urals, some two hours dive away and experienced first hand the traditional Siberian way of living and eating.
MOSCOW & ST PETERSBURG
Both these cities were stunning and it would be unfair to say which was better (as is often the argument amongst locals!) Both cities were very European compared to the cities we had visited in Siberia. Both cities were modern and dotted with trendy cafes and restaurants with more English-speaking locals.
We spent three nights and 4 full days in Moscow. The metro was easy to navigate, and justifiably celebrated in its interior. Red Square is one of those places that you just have to visit to describe. The buildings are all so diverse, colourful and distinguished. We weren’t met by the corrupt police we had been warned about, nor did we feel unsafe at any time. We visited Lenin, although dead for 89 years, was looking rather pale and stiff and the whole experience was eerie and oppressive.
St Petersburg has more canals than Venice, and the heart of the city surrounds these. We spent three nights here, which really wasn’t enough. We had some incredible meals (doused in dill – the Russian way!) and treated ourselves (by accident) to Russia’s most exquisite restaurant, ‘Russian Empire’ (the home of stroganoff).
I found the whole of Russia confusing. The Communism star and the sickle and hammer is proudly displayed on virtually every building, despite the death of 9-million civilians during Stalin’s reign. There’s a general attitude of indfference for the murder of the Romanov family (with the exception of the church) yet the country dedicates places like the Armory in the Kremlin to the family’s jewels. Statues honouring past Communist leaders donned the centre of parks and open spaces – sometimes right next to churches which were abolished under Communism. We barely felt we had even begun to scratch the surface of even the past 100 years of Russian history. There is so much more to learn and appreciate about this great country. I look forward to one day returning.
After Russia we flew to Sweden to visit Andrew’s friends and family, then onto London for our final days.