Thursday, August 22, 2013

Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian train trip with Naadam festival 2013

Sain baine uu,
That’s Hello, how are you in Mongolian, so the guide book tells me!

This is me perched on the top bunk of the rather well appointed, clean and comfortable air conditioned overnight Russian train No 5 travelling from Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator), capital of Mongolia to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal in Siberia. From the train window I can see lovely green  undulated countryside dotted with horses, goats and cows and gers.

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. 

Our adventure began with 4 days in Shanghai where we sweltered in 35 to 39 degree heat and sapping humidity. Our historic hotel was a 5 minute walk from the Bund so very handy. The best find in Shanghai was the Chinese local breakfast Jiagbing – like a large pancake spread with double egg and bean paste, coriander, chives, parsley with chilli optional, this was rolled around two crisp wafers.  Absolutely delicious and cost less than $1.

Cooking Jiagbing
It was a relief to catch the 300 kph bullet train to Beijing where we joined the group and the temperature was far more comfortable. 

Bullet train
Having been to Beijing on previous occasions John and I opted out on revisiting the usual tourist excursions except for the great wall. 
John & Jeanette on the Great Wall of China
We did have fun bargaining in the Pearl Market with our friends Rod and Silvia from Canada.  We came away with a selection of bargain priced electronic gear which surprisingly is still working well plus some shoes and other bits and pieces.
John, (note bag of goodies) with Silvia & Rod outside Pearl Market
This is the second overnight train trip of the tour.  The first was on a Chinese train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. 
 The start of our adventure - Beijing station
Our train compartment sleeps 4 and during the day we can squeeze 3 or 4 visitors from other compartments in at a pinch to chat and socialise.  Bed linen is provided. The secret to this train travel is total organisation! 

 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!
John making tea at the Semovar
 It was a perplexing surprise in the middle of the night to arrive and be welcomed to Mongolia at Erlian station with bright neon lights and The Vienna Waltz blaring from giant speakers along the platform. Some passengers chose to get off the train at the station and explore the town before the train was shunted to the shed for most interesting and eventually tedious part of the border crossing; the Bogie-changing. This process is necessary because the Chinese railway system operates on standard gauge which is 3 ½ inches narrower than the 5ft gauge in Mongolia and Russia.
Bogie changing

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
  Strangely, I can’t clearly recall my expectation of landlocked Mongolia. I had read  about Mongolia's blue blue sky and very bright sunshine and that it absolutely correct. The countryside is green mostly undulating plains dotted with horses, goats and cows and gers. The cloud formations spectacular. 

Fabulous blue sky and a bonus rainbow!

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.

John with Gerlee, our excellent local guide in Ulaanbaatar

Mongolians young and old, love their horses


The reason we chose to travel on this particular tour was that the itinerary included the annual Mongolian Naadam festival in Ulaanbaatar. We were certainly not disappointed with seats in the stadium for the lively and oh so colourful opening ceremony where there was an impressive parade of athletes and magnificent horses, music and dancing by children and adults in a variety of traditional costumes before the games got underway.   

Excited children in traditional costume


Part of the Naadam opening ceremony parade

Papparazzi  in pursuit of  that elusive photograph! 
Traditionally the Naadam comprises of three main games – wrestling, archery and horseback racing.  Nowadays a few more activities have been added such as the fascinating game of anklebone shooting.
Wrestling is a national sport and begins with up to 1000 wrestlers wearing traditional boots and tight fitting shorts competing in a single elimination contest. There is no time limit and no weight divisions, so it was rather amusing to see skinny men trying to wrestle hulks about three times their size. The winner is decided when any body part of the opponent touches the ground.

The pomp and ceremony before they wrestle
The horseracing was in a rural area 28kms outside of Ulaanbaatar city. It is a cross country race of between 15 – 30 kms depending on the age of the horse. The jockeys are all children, boys or girls, some aged only 5. We watched the 2 year old horse race. Traditionally the winning jockey is anointed with and given airag (mare’s milk) to drink and the locals try to touch the sweat on the horse for luck.  The last horse is wildly applauded along with some enthusiastic ululating to encourage it’s rider to win next time.

Horse race
$9 US secured a ticket to the special Naadam Cultural concert. Everyone agreed it was worth far more to see the best cultural concert imaginable.  Unfortunately photography was forbidden in this performance; otherwise I would have shared with you the magnificent national costumes with representatives of all 21 different provinces as they gave first class and varied performances.  To top it off, the National orchestra consisting of up to 30 odd different and unusual instruments included the tone-perfect famous horse headed fiddle with two strings made from the hair of a stallion. The orchestra had everyone enthralled especially with their superb rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz. We were enchanted by the fascinating ancient vocal art of throat singing (Hoomii) - simultaneous singing in two main voices by one singer. The upper voice gives the melody and the lower voice the bass. Not so enchanting was the seemingly impossible poses of the solo contortionist which were rather squirmish to watch.

Theatre Ulaanbaatar.
Ready for the concert.
Before we leave Mongolia I must mention some of the many other things we saw and did such as a mare being milked, visiting a Ovoo – a pile of stones in the middle of nowhere on which one throws on a stone and circles the pile 3 times while making a wish, we saw many eagles, some of us went horse riding and camel riding over the dunes and we were warmly welcomed as guests in a ger of a nomad family and invited to ask questions about their way of life. 

Walking around the Ovoo while making a wish
John riding a camel

Me nursing a gorgeous one day old goat
 A mare being milked

A group of gers

A yak
A  herd of a variety of goats at the drinking trough
We spent 4 nights in scenic countryside sleeping in a ger with comfortable beds and rock-hard pillows.  In all but the last cutting-edge ger we shared amenities; bit of a trial to track to the loo in the middle of the night….best not to drink too much before going to bed!  Gers are the traditional circular felt home of nomads. Have to mention the roads or lack of made roads.  Many of the kms to these gers were over nothing more than potholed dirt tracks.  Our driver was excellent and did his best to make the journey as smooth as possible…….that was a difficult task!

A woman's work in never done!
Inside our first ger
This is a good criss-crossed pot-holded er 'road'!

We arrived in Irkutsk city once known as the Paris of Siberia to be greeting by our local guide, Oxana. We drove through the streets where the typical quaint Siberian style of wooden houses with eaves and windows decorated with intricate fretwork have survived. 

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! 


64 kms from Irkutsk is Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake surrounded by the most beautiful countryside – very alpine in appearance and known as the 'Blue eye of Siberia'.  Lake Baikal is also the world's oldest lake (formed 50 million years ago), and is estimated to hold 20000 kms of water - roughly 20% of the world's freshwater supplies.  If the world ran out of drinking water, we were told that Lake Baikal could supply the entire population of the planet for the next 40 years.

Lake Baikal

 Our guesthouse accommodation was a comfortable and homely Chalet in Listvyanka Lake Baikal

Our view from the Chalet window

Singing around the camp fire at the Chalet

Dried fish stall - rather delicious actually.
Restaurants along the Lake Baikal shore
Fabulous hills Listvyanka settlement Lake Baikal

Silver Birch and pines
St Nicholas church
Thanks to Oxana we learnt a lot about this intriguing lake, marine life and animals unique to the Baikal area at the very comprehensive local museum with.  


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!

Wooden church in museum village

On the day of our departure from Lake Baikal, Tim our tour escort dared anyone to go for a dip with him in the lake. Four mad Australians (including John Savage) answered the challenge but did not outlast the Brit in the 5-7 degree water.  Along with some others, I walked into the water feet deep only and lasted only time enough to have a photo taken….bloody cold I can tell you!

The teeth chattering Aussies run for the shore....and the Pommie stayed in!
We spent the next 3 ½ nights on the Trans Siberian Train arriving in Moscow at 4am.  This rail journey was an experience to say the least and bloody hard yakka! Thank goodness we had been well prepared for whatever train we got. Our compartment was not air conditioned, we had no fan but we could open the windows. Some of our group had compartments in carriages which were air conditioned but worked only spasmodically and they could not open windows, so we were better off than them.  
Entertainment on the train!
We all spent a great deal of time in the dining car, not necessarily eating but for breathing space.

The dining car and the food was quite OK!

Train corridor
Wendy & John enjoy a joke

Jeanette, Nancy & Wendy having morning tea.

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.
This is Rod trying to push our 'help' note under the compartment door!
It was 4am! Like the entire 3.1/2 night journey, we had no idea of the time because we kept going through time changes.  Just ate and slept when we felt like it! We travelled 5185km at the average speed of 50 km/h.  The surprise was the beautiful countryside ….very lush forests, beautiful wild flowers and rolling green steepes.
Fabulous wildflowers

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.  

Brightly coloured rail station

This is the start of the Trans Siberian Railway in Moscow
Moscow is certainly impressive and just like the tour brochures.  In the heart of Moscow is the red bricked walled Kremlin, the seat of the Russian government with magnificent golden domed churches.  Security was tight to enter. The treasures and costumes in the Armoury were amazing.  Again no photography allowed unfortunately. 
The Kremlin walls

Inside the Kremlin

 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!

We caught the  overnight train to St Petersburg, the final destination of the Sundowners Overland part of our journey.
St Petersburg – oh,what can one say.  This lively city was conceived to rival any European city and it sure does that. It’s a relaxed walking city built on multiple waterways, with opulent palaces and many ornate beautifully preserved buildings and a bit of tarnished grandeur.  Some of the older generation still refer to St Petersburg at Leningrad but the majority of locals just call it ‘Peter’. Peter was Russia’s first paved city, a legacy of Catherine the Great. Good walking shoes are a must.  Vladimir Putin is praised for being behind the investment of millions of roubles to renovate the city for the tri-centenary celebrations in 2003 and this work continues today with many buildings undergoing restoration work. It is light until at 12.30am and the streets are still lively, everyone seems to have something to celebrate.

Note the colour of the sky - this snap was taken at 11.50pm!
The state ‘Hermitage’ Museum just about blew my mind. The interior is a collection of the grandest rooms imaginable.  The massive and splendid fine art collection of more than three million catalogued works is mind-boggling and spreads through five inter-connecting including the purpose build annex of the Winter Palace of the Tsars, Europe’s wealthiest royal family. It is said that only half the collection which began when 225 painting were presented to Catherine The Great by a Russian banker trying to gain imperial promotion, can be displayed at one time.

The Hermitage
The grand staircase

Look closely at the 'dog's face!
Who do you see?

Some samples of the priceless artworks -  

Rembrandt - 'Young  woman with earings' 

Rembrandt - 'Old Man in Red"
Monet - Lady in Garden
Cezanne - Mont Sainte Victoire
Henry Matisse - Portrait of L.N Delectonskays (not sure of spelling)
We took the hydrofoil for the thirty kilometres scenic ride west of St Petersburg to Peterhof Palace. Peter the Great built this, it is said, as his Versailles-by-the-sea. The surrounding garden has beautiful fountains (some gilded) amongst splendid walks through shady trees. 
First glance of Peterhof

Looking out to sea from Peterhof balcony

One of the many beautiful fountains

The grounds

The seaside at Peterhof
Our Sundowners Overland tour finished in this wonderful city.  Overall it was a great tour thanks to excellent organisation and informative, enthusiastic local guides. How lucky we were to have a mixed group of eighteen who got along well but our greatest luck of all was having our tour escort Tim Holland. Tim made the trip as seem-less as possible, always with a great sense of humour (for a Pom), his never waning enthusiasm, his ability to cater to all personalities and his amazing efforts to ensure we, his charges, experienced and saw as much as possible from Beijing to St Petersburg.

Tim with some of the 'girls' 
From here, John, two interlude friends, Nancy and Kathy and myself took the super Allegro train to Helsinki.  We will go on to visit Tallinn, Riga, Stockholm, Berlin, Bangkok and finally home to Sydney on 16 August.


Note from Helsinki - For the past 7 days I struggled with illness to be finally diagnosed with pneumonia.  With rest and super antibiotics I'll definitely survive!    John of course is in the best of health and is presently cycling around Helsinki (without a helmut!)   I am settled into our hotel room which was once a cell.  This hotel is former prison,  and now a very modern hotel with loads of character and of course a fascinating history.  Have a look -  Not a bad place to rest-up!

Hope this stirs your travel lust!

Jeanette  - 30 July 2013