This is just one part of our 24 day Trans Mongolian trip from Beijing to St Petersburg booked through Sundowners Overland in Melbourne. We are 8 friends travelling in a group of 18 consisting of 16 from Australia and two from Canada. Our attentive 36 year old Pommy tour escort Tim, lives in St Petersburg and is fluent in Russian.
At the end of each carriage is a coal-fired Samovar which continually provides hot water for tea, coffee, soup, noodles or instant porridge. This is a real bonus if one doesn’t fancy going to the dining car or buying food from the various shops on station platforms. Along the corridor are power sockets to recharge phones, kindles etc. No shower, but we have an ever so valuable bucket, essential to top and tail. With a bit of resourcefulness, it’s just like home really!
The train was shunted into a purpose built shed where we watched from the windows as massive hydraulic lifts raised the carriages and the bogies were rolled out and replaced. That process and the collecting and checking of passports etc. took about 3 hours. Toilets on the train were locked during this time however we did get plenty of warning
Ulaanbaatar (said to be the world’s coldest city) was more urbane than I expected. I suppose it's like many overseas visitors to Sydney who expect to see kangaroos hopping around the streets. I was embarrassed by my ignorance seeing the many high-rise apartment buildings and homes with only a few ger (yurts or ghers -circular felt tents) settlements scattered here and there in the city. As with most cities in the world there is clearly the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Mongolia has a population of 2.9 million with 40 million horses! Our guide told us that here are as many horses in Mongolia as people and it is said that a Mongolian without a horse is like a bird without a wing. 50% of the very friendly population are under the age of 35. The museums in Mongolia were all extremely impressive and well worth a visit and as I said, the oh- so-blue sky and wonderful cloud formations are just amazing.
Irkutsk has many tree lined streets, parklands and fascinating architecture. The fast running river Angara which flows out of Lake Baikal and runs through the centre of the Irkutsk city is flanked by peaceful walkways with memorials and gardens.
The iron fence along the riverside has numerous padlocks of every size, colour and description attached – a tradition of newly married couples to lock their marriage to happiness and longevity. Many had rusted over the years, it would be fascinating to know how many marriages had lasted the distance! We saw at least seven wedding parties ambling around the area. The decorations on the waiting wedding cars were very interesting to say the least. Hard to believe we are in Siberia!
Our guesthouse accommodation was a comfortable and homely Chalet in Listvyanka Lake Baikal
Our visit to the museum of Wooden architecture with its collection of reconstructed traditional wooden houses was a fascinating insight into the early Siberian settler’s homes etc.
There is a rather attractive mauve coloured stone called Charoite which is found only in this area and very rare now. I made a little purchase!
The most exciting time on this train was when the handle of our compartment come off and we were locked in. We yelled and banged on the door and even slipped an SOS note through the door vent. Finally Wendy came to our rescue and called our provodnitsa (carriage attendant) to unlock the door.
Each house in the villages we went through had back gardens with massive well tendered vegetable gardens, many with greenhouses. 50% of Russia has never been stepped on by a human foot according to Tim. I was not aware of going through the Gobi desert which according to those who were awake at the time, said it was not like we imagine a desert to be. Make of that what you will! We stopped at many brightly painted rail stations along the way where we could purchase local produce and for a price go to a ‘real’ toilet. There was a never ending stockpile of rolling stock on rail sidings including engines, carriages, fuel tanks etc. Understandable I suppose as this is the busiest rail line in the world.
Cobbled Red square wasn’t too crowded and we had a guided tour of wonderful St Basils with its numerous icons and then lunched in the glassed roofed GUM shopping arcade – not unlike our Queen Vic building but probably four times bigger if not more.
We rode the efficient and sparkling clean metro to see the spectacular stations, a tourist attraction in themselves - see photos following. Magnetic cards are used on the metro. There is absolutely no waiting, trains come every minute or so and one trip, regardless of length, costs 30 roubles ($1 AUS), so is very well utilized. If only the public transport system in Australia could get their act together!
Hope this stirs your travel lust!
Jeanette - 30 July 2013