The Trans-Siberian Railway

Toot-Toot!

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.

Tiananmen SquareI 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…

Great Wall of China

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.

Our train journey was divided into five legs:On route to Mongolia

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!!

MONGOLIA

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!

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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!!”

ListvyankaFrom 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.

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EKATERINBURG

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.

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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.

St Basil's Cathedral, MoscowWe 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.

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Brunei & Borneo

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Brunei

After over 2 years of not feeding my perpetual wanderlust, I sat down at the computer and begged Andrew to come traveling with me over NYs. He agreed, without as much enthusiasm as I had anticipated. Little did I know that a week later he’d be proposing and knew an overseas trip probably wasn’t the smartest financial move before a wedding! Nevertheless, a 10 day trip to Brunei and Borneo was booked!

As we boarded the plane in Sydney, I realized just how underprepared we were. I usually spend weeks in the lead up researching and planning every step of the journey, writing down local sayings and sometimes detailed time schedules! But with the busyness of Term 4, Christmas, and a wedding to plan, I hadn’t even looked up what the local language was.

We arrived in Bandar Seri Begawan and instantly I felt welcome. The drive to the hotel reminded me of the tropics of the Pacific Islands. Thanks to Andrew’s family connections – and unbeknown to us – we were staying in one of the world’s best hotels, the Empire Hotel and Country Club. I’ve stayed at some very impressive places before, but this one topped the lot. We walked into to a golden lined Italian marble foyer with a huge Swarovski crystal chandelier overhead and spectacular ocean views broadcast from the 4 stories of glass windows. The hotel was built by the Sultan, and cost $1.1 billion to build. Our room was surrounded by a lagoon and aqua pool. The grounds includes one if the world’s top golf courses, a cinema and multiple restaurants. Do take note: it’s not enough to be ‘rich’ enough to stay at The Empire. Once must also dress decently to be welcomed into many of their restaurants!

Brunei was very hot and humid. The city was seemingly deserted as we marched around to all the major attraction. We were quite pleased to have the city to ourselves, only to realise that people avoid the heat of the day and instead finish their activities in the cool of the evening.

We were so endeared to Brunei. In speaking with residents we heard only positive reports about the Sultan and the way he rules his empire. In his older age the Sultan has become increasingly religious. Each Friday for two hours in the afternoon, all shops and businesses close so locals can attend mosques to worship. In addition he recently commissioned the building of a $4 billion dollar mosque (Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah) from his personal wealth. Once a year he opens up his palace gates for residents to come meet him.

In Brunei we visited most of the touristy attractions, including the Royal Regalia (A collection of the Sultan’s treasures), Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, a river ride to spot proboscis monkeys, wandered around the water villages and even drove all the way to Lumut Beach on the shores of the South China Sea. But our real highlight came through an unplanned visit on the Sunday to St Andrew’s Anglican Church. The fact that the Sultan allows an Anglican Church in his Muslim nation is credit to him. The service was in English, and we were treated as long lost friends. One couple – a British man and his Bruneian wife later picked us up from our hotel and took us for a 9-hill hike. We were dripping in sweat! But the jungle was stunning and we listened to the chatter of the macak monkeys and insect calls in the trees. It was also a great advantage to find out about life in Brunei from a local’s perspective.

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Borneo

On NYE we flew to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. My heart sank upon arrival. There is usually few places I visit that I completely dislike, but KK is one of them. The streets reeked of rotting caucuses, rats scurried along the gutters, locals pestered for sales of cheap rip off merchandise and our hotel, while clean, provided pathetic service. We stayed for 2 nights before flying to Sandakan, then spent our final night back in KK before returning to Australia.

In KK we hired a car to get around. This in itself was a mission! We initially booked through one company and wasted half a day for the hire car company to open- only to realise they weren’t going to bother showing up for the day. We ended up booking through the hotel instead- I’m pretty sure something dodgy was going on as the driver told us to lie to the police about whose car it was if we were pulled over. Needless to say we drove around on edge and through backstreets whenever we saw police road blocks! (Of which there were plenty!) We visited the Lok Kawi Zoo. We enjoyed the rainforest walk the most as well as watching the elephants play! I was disappointed the biggest drawcard- the orangutans- had been removed and relocated to Sepilok.

I had stupidly read some blogs and reviews while planning this trip. More than one told me that Sandakan was a dump and although was the gateway to much of Borneo’s wildlife, one must avoid the city at all costs. Blogs are dumb, I realised, after flying into Sandakan and instantly falling in love. We hired a car from the airport and set off for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. This experience was the whole draw card for going to Borneo and I was super excited. Naively I daydreamed that because my love of orangutans was far superior than everyone else’s, that maybe I’d get special treatment to get up close and personal with one. But at 2pm when the afternoon session began, I was herded along with everyone else to the info session and the out to see the feeding at 3pm. Two orangutans turned up for feeding and we watched as the dominant one fussily picked out his favorite fruits while his not-so-patient friend dangling from a rope screeching out for his mate to hurry up. It is believed that only 11,000 orangutans exist in the wild, but numbers are dwindling at a rapid rate (5000 last year) thanks to palm plantations and the destruction of their jungle habitat. Farmers shoot orangutans when they enter their plantations, often orphaning young orangutans. Like humans babies, young orangutans are dependent on their mothers for up to 6 years. Once orphaned they often illegally become caged pets for locals. If the rehab centre is notified, the young orangutan is brought to the centre where he or she is taught the necessary skills to be released back into the wild.

Some Aussies we met along the way advised us not to go to Turtle Island as it was very much set up for the tourist with baby turtles kept in big tubs to be ‘released’ after hatching back into the ocean conveniently at the same time a crowd of tourist gathered every evening. Upon recommendations from the Sandakan Tourist Info centre, we began the 124km road trip to Kinabatagan River in hope of a boat ride and elephant spotting. Along the way we stopped off at the Rainforest Discovery Centre at Sepilok. It was pouring rain, but we wanted to make the most of it, so commenced the Pitta Trail through thick jungle. The scenery was beautiful and we kept half expecting to see an orangutan sheltering from the rain above. No luck. But, the leeches were out in force. We soon realised we could no longer stop to appreciate the surrounds without having these blood suckers inch their way up our shoes and latch onto our ankles. After 3kms of hiking, torrential down pours and only 300m till civilization again, our leech-infested path suddenly disappeared below a brown muddy flooded creek. With no desire to turn back around, we kicked out shoes off and made a run for it. By this stage, I had had enough jungle for one day!!

P1060418The trip to Kinabatagan River took 2 hours along pot-hole ravaged roads through endless palm plantations. Seeing the jungle devastation with my own eyes gave me a great appreciation for the work of conservationists and a strong desire to avoid any products using palm oil, unless rainforest certified. We arrived at Sakau where the boats launch… Only to discover the boat rides were for ‘in house’ guests only. It was raining anyway, so we commenced the journey back to Sandakan. Along the way we stopped into the Gomantong caves, a ‘special attraction’ marked on the grossly inaccurate road map we had purchased for our drive. I stupidly (or rather lazily) sent Andrew in to investigate as the place looked so run down and deserted from the front. He returned, 90 ringgit poorer after purchasing 2 entry passes and 1 camera pass. The next half an hour was the low-light of our entire trip away! The cave was a sewerage for thousands of ugly grey protected birds that one couldn’t see without a torch, smelt so putrid it was enough to make a maggot gag, and the ground and hand rails were a slippery mess of bird crap. Just to make the experience more pleasant, the ground writhed in giant cockroaches. Even Andrew, Mr. Positivity had nothing nice to say about the place. Seriously, don’t waste your time or money. Even if someone pays you to go, don’t.

Day 9 started with a sobering tour around the Sandakan War Memorial. 2500 Allied troops were held at the POW camp here in WW2 and died either on site or during one of three Sandakan Death Marches which started at the camp and ended in Ranau (260kms). Only 6 men survived Sandakan. The Memorial covers only a section of the whole area of the original camp. If you ever go, wear mosquito repellent!! In the afternoon we flew back to KK.

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On our final day we decided to hire a car again and drive out to Mt Kinabalu. We woke at 6am and after traveling for 2 hours along a steep and windy road, we arrived at Kinabalu Park. This is no thanks to the Malaysian pride proton (read, pathetic, powerless proton) and insanely dangerous other drivers we were unfortunate enough to share the road with. Entry to the park was 15 ringgit each and a further 10 to climb to the mid way point of Layang Layang. In total Mt Kinabalu is 8.5km of steep terrain and to reach the summit requires the aid of a guide and a further climb pass. Most people do the trip in 2 days. With a flight back to Sydney that night, Layang Layang was a feat enough in itself for us.

The journey up the mountain was breathtakingly beautiful- a vast array of green mosses, ferns and jungle vines. Andrew promised we’d have time to take photos on the way down, so we hardly stopped on the 4kms up. It was supposed to take 4 hours to reach the mid point, but we managed it in only 2. The final 1km was quite challenging – persistently steep with large steps than my short legs had a work out trying to hobble up. Upon reaching Layang Layang, we were slightly disappointed that a thick cloud now covered any sightings of the summit. And the it started to rain. The path below that we had just laboured up was now transformed into a slippery, gushing clay-coloured waterfall. It took us an hour and 45 minutes to return back to base, completely saturated and shivering from the cold. My shoes were drenched and I threw out my socks afterwards. As we were heading back to the car, a young German named Olive asked for a ride back to KK. He had returned from the Summit sick, without his group. The three of us drove the 2 hour return journey, soaking and freezing inside faithless proton back to KK, sharing travel stories along the way.