From Beijing to Moscow

I started writing this story while still on the train somewhere in Russia but just finished it now :s *shameshame*

I’m back in Belgium now after spending a nice time in Mongolia and Russia. Allow me to share my experiences with you.

Me and Stijn -a friend from Belgium- explored Beijing for 2 days and left the capital by train for Ulan Bator in Mongolia on October 27th. It was a 1554km long trip that took us 30 hours and we spend most of the time crossing the province of Inner Mongolia. I already knew that China is a country that is huge in size but by traveling slowly by train its enormous vastness is so much more visible. We were supposed to cross the Great Wall 2 times but it didn’t seem to be that big trying to catch a glimpse of it from the train 🙂 I remember Inner Mongolia as lots of nothing and farmlands, what a contrast with the East coast of China.
We crossed the border in Erlian without any problem but because Chinese and Russian (Mongolia basically has only one railroad built by the Russians) trains have different sizes of wheels (they only differ 6 or 7 cm in width) they had to change the gauges first. They lift the entire carriage while we were still onboard, pushed away the Chinese gauges and replaced with the smaller Russian type.

Mongolia’s capital -our first destination- is in the northern center of the country so we could immediately witness its vast emptiness the next morning. In Mongolia they don’t have roads, just paths and one can see a car driving from many kilometers away, it’s so flat and empty that is was a surprise every time we passed a small village in the middle of absolutely nothing!

We arrived in the guesthouse in Ulan Bator (or UB for locals) and that must have been the best reception I ever had in a hostel (though this one was more like a big apartment with several rooms equipped as a dorm, nevertheless a very cozy place). We arrived with other foreigners and formed a small group and started discussing with the host the different possibilities for a trip in Mongolia. Next morning we were leaving for a 8 day-7 nights trip through the Gobi desert together with Nicky, Eduardo, Amanda, our Mongolian tourguide Bimba and driver Michka. We set off in a southward direction and during our first lunch we were lucky to spot a Mongolian family hunting horses, killing two and taking everything that could be used for the coming winter. We spend our first night with a nomadic family, in a typical Mongolian ger which is a rather low and round tent insulated with felt (like sheep’s wool). It’s very cozy as long as the heat stays on but because there’re not too much trees nor  shops to buy coal we were limited to ourselves and a few blankets to keep warm at night. I was prepared for double digit temperatures below zero but I have to admit I felt rather unlucky with temperatures just flirting with zero degrees during our entire stay in Mongolia.
We spent our first two days mostly in a van hobbling Gobi desert plains, as far as the eye can see: nothing, small hills, occasional a herd of goats, horses or a few camels (50% of animals freezed to death during the extreme winter last year). No trees or other plants, only dry grasses. Sometimes it felt as if we were driving towards the horizon but it just didn’t seem to get any closer! I completely lost every notice of distance.
One of the things we visited next was a sacred place, the White cliffs, I was told snakes gather there to have a meeting from time to time…anyway, the view was magnificent. We were the only tourists which made the place even more special. Another place of interest we stopped at  was a former site with lots of dinosaur eggs and bones but since the last excavation by a German team, nothing of that was left there to see.
Another beautiful place we visited were sanddunes (only 3% of the Gobi desert consists of sanddunes). It was said to have beautiful sunsets so Stijn and me decided to go up the hills with a couple of beers as soon as we arrived there late afternoon. But boy, did we underestimate that ‘walk’. It was one hour before sunset and so, we missed most of it. 🙂 Drinking a beer on the second highest sanddune while watching the last rays of sunlight shining upon the bigger dunes was nevertheless a good reward 🙂
Next morning we went for an early camel ride, 1 hour between the two humps of that stinky animal (they smell like expired beer) and they are now officially on my list of stupid animals, they have this dumb look in their eyes…
After spending a night or 3 with very basic sanitary conditions we stopped in a village’s bathhouse to take a shower and maybe in contrary to what most of you think about Mongolians, they do take more than 2 showers during their lifetime 🙂
In day 5 we started driving north to visit the more central Mongolian steppes which are so much more varied compared to the Gobi, more forests and big and small -partly frozen- rivers, camels disappeared from the scene to make place for yaks. Although trees already lost their colorful leaves and grass turned yellow I found it one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes I’ve ever seen and definitely worth another visit in summer time. We drove through the Orghun national park to see a frozen 20m tall waterfall and continued to the old capital Kharkorhum (before the Mongolians moved it to Beijing in the 15th century) to visit the centuries old monastery (Stalin almost succeeded in completely wiping it off of the face of earth together with many 1000’s of monks).
Tired of spending so much time in a van (made in Russia but very decent quality) on a bumpy path we headed back to UB to do some shopping before we got on another 46h or 1113 km trainride to Irkutsk in Russia the same evening.

We shared the cabin with Amanda -who we met earlier – and a Mongolian pikey. The train was not about to leave for another 20 minutes so Amanda and Stijn decided to go out for a smoke leaving me alone in the cabin.. A few minutes later, our roommate came back -with what I thought was a friend- and while I was arranging my bag on the upper bunk they were touching and moving my stuff. They managed to distract me and ran off with my friends professional camera. Luckily I noticed immediately and yelled at Stijn -who just entered the carriage- we both searched our cabin and around the platform for our roommate but to no avail. Surprisingly, our pikey roommate came back a few minutes later and I immediately questioned him -words got lost in translation but grabbing him by the shoulders and waving my fist did seem to make him understand. The police got on the train and he tried to get off followed by Stijn. The thief stopped at a cabine, said something about ‘camera’ and the ladies there gave the bag with camera to him. My friend saw this, retrieved his bag and kicked that pikey off the train – making place for another fellow traveller to join our cabin, we celebrated with beer and vodka 🙂

The border crossing between Mongolia and Russia is very nice, the train is passing through mountains at very short distance but the paperwork took ages, we waited at the border for about 7 hours before continuing to Irkutsk. Unfortunately we passed lake Baikal at night (doing this trip in summer with longer days would be more interesting). We arrived in Irkutsk early morning and after buying train tickets to our next destination we set off to Olkhon Island,  an inhabited island on Lake Baikal. The lake contains about 20% of all the fresh water in the world and with an average depth of 744m, it is the deepest lake in the world. While passing the small sea strait by ferry one could see how clear the water really is! In winter the lake gets completely frozen and people use it as a highway to other cities at the other side of the lake.

We stayed at Nikita’s, a home stay in a small village at the Western side of the lake, at 5 minutes on foot from the shore and very beautiful views! Since we were only staying for 2 nights we had only one day to explore the island so next day we went on a daytrip by car to explore the island. We stopped at a few rock formations near the shore and an abandoned and dismantled Soviet labour camp/fish processing plant. At the most Northern tip of the island we had a view over the widest part of the lake and after lunch I decided to check the watertemperature with my feet. It was pretty cold, when getting back to my shoes I was not sure whether it was the freezing cold temperature or the sharp stones on the ‘beach’ that caused the pain.

Relaxing in a hot banja (local sauna) and a having beer on the cliffs with some dried sausage or smoked ham while trying to catch sunset (but failed once again) over the mountains on the mainland was how we ended this very short stay ot Olkhon Island. Next day we were picked up during breakfast to drive back to Irkutsk city. We said goodbye to Eduard, Amanda and Nicky and went on to explore the city. Irkutsk was founded in the 17th century as a trading post, but it benefited from being the administrative center of eastern Siberia and from the discovery of gold in the 19th century. Under the czars, all the exiles were sent to Irkutsk and since most of them were artists (in the broader sense of the word), they’ve built all kinds of brick mansions and black or brown wooden cabins that can still be seen all around the city. Too bad nobody seemed to care about the historical and cultural value of these houses, I had the impression they were severely neglected and they lost a lot of their grandeur.

Next day late evening we took the train to Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, after Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, and the capital of Siberia. The 1843 km train ride from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk was the most interesting one. First we shared the cabin with a minority Russian guy from Irkutsk and a lovely Russian girl who didn’t speak a single word of English but anyway moved heaven and earth to have a chat with us 🙂 One of the things she told us was that one year ago in 2009 the temperature was 30° below zero while this particular week it averaged zero degrees. She didn’t have to go the same distance as we had to do so she left the next morning and was replaced by a typical drunken Russian guy. This is what we signed up for! It didn’t take too long or our cabin was filled with Russians (I don’t remember how we ended up like that) and two of them could speak a little bit English (I love that accent). In no time we were sharing food and beer! When they wanted to go and buy a bottle of vodka in the restaurant car and not knowing where this would end we decided to share that bottle of Vodka still in Stijn’s bag. Our intoxicated Russian roommate just got more sh*tfaced while we tried to understand the lives of our Russian friends. Some of them claimed to be security personal for this train (including the drunken roommate) but even assuming they were all off duty, I didn’t understand why so much security was necessary on a train.

We arrived in Novosibirsk at 4 or 5 in the morning and the two English speaking Russians helped us to take a taxi to a hotel. The hotel dates from Soviet era as we could see from the colorful wallpapers and the bed sheets. Next morning we left to spend a day in the zoo, one of the biggest in Russia and one of the best zoo’s in the world when it comes to tigers and stuff. What a disappointment! Most of the tigers or lions or other cats were mentally f*cked up (walking up and down the same way along the cage) and a lot of cages were empty. There was supposed to be a liger too (mix between tiger and lion) but we didn’t find that one. We spend the rest of that and the next day walking around in Novosibirsk. There’s not too much interesting things to be seen in that city.

We took another train to Yekaterinburg, 1613 km to the West of Novosibirsk, and located east of the Ural mountains. The city was founded in 1723 and was named after Tsar Peter the Great’s wife Empress Catherine I and soon after the Russian Revolution, on 17 July 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and their children were murdered by the Bolsheviks at the Ipatiev House in this city. In 1977 this building was destroyed by order of Boris Yeltsin. Yekaterinburg has a lot more to offer compared to Novosibirsk (which was just over 100 years old) but surprisingly, only a few guesthouses are available. We booked one but due to some unfortunate combination of events, it took us 2 or 3 hours to get there only to find out this ‘guesthouse’ was just a 2 bedroom apartment hosted by some gay Russians (no offence). Anyway, it was very warm inside because the heating system is a vivid remains of pre-1989 history. Heat is supplied by a system called ‘district heating’ in which power plants distribute their excess heat to residential areas (it actually increases efficiency!) but the downside is that it cannot be locally controlled so in case it gets too hot, you just open the windows…

The geographical border of Asia and Europe lies just a few km West of Yekaterinburg which we decided to visit. We left for the busstation in the late afternoon, took a bus that we thought would bring us the right location and showed the driver a picture of the monument so he could drop us off (it’s not a regular stop). It was quite a ride over the Trans Siberian highway and when we were dropped off, it was getting dark already and we were the only visitors (but there was a guard watching the place). We took some pictures and started hitch-hiking along the Trans Siberian Highway for a bus back to the city. Unfortunately, the bus didn’t really pass by and we had no idea of the frequency of it. We decided to walk back to the first busstop hoping a bus would pick us up (the way back to the city was at least 45 km), it started raining and we were -of course- not prepared for a nightly walk along a highway in a Siberian winter (thank you global warming!). After about 30 minutes or so walking the highway took a 90 degree turn to connect to another highway and as we were walking in the outside corner, a busdriver saw us walking and we waved, he stopped and we were back on the way to Yekaterineburg! We had some overpriced beer in an Irish pub at night and met a Dutch guy married to a Russian woman. Not too much exciting things to do at night in Yekaterineburg.

The next day we started the last part of our traintrip, we took the Rossiya, the train that travels between Vladivostok and Moscow every 2 days. We had a 4 person cabine for the two of us and we even had a tv with non-stop video. Belgium was also playing football against Russia but unfortunately we didn’t have a tv to watch it. I think we arrived on Thursday evening around 6 in the Yarovslavsky trainstation in the center of Moscow situated on the Komsomolskaya Square. Moscow has 9 train terminals, 5 airports and with 300 km of subway lines it is the world’s second most heavily used rapid transit system after Tokyo’s twin subway. This city is huge! It took a while before we found the hostel but the center of Moscow looks very nice, so much different from the other ‘Soviet-style cities’ we’ve seen before. Wide lanes (which they wrote about Novosibirsk as well), old style buildings and very few skyscrapers in the old city. The Kremlin was a little bit disappointing – everybody knows the picture on the left – but that is actually Saint Basils Cathedral, the Kremlin is just a collection of even more cathedrals surrounded by a thick and high wall (and inside you can also find the Parliament or State Duma). But inside the Kremlin one can still find the very strict Soviet style control of people. Do not even try to cross the street (or even worse, a square) without using the zebra crossing. And do not secretly (or less invisible) take pictures of the guards, they will take your camera and ask to remove the pictures.

In other places around Moscow you can see the Seven Sisters of Stalin, huge buildings created by Stalin in an attempt to look more like the US. Most of them are still in use today (as a hotel or University or other). I liked Moscow, it certainly is a city worth visiting for a long weekend (that is if you do not mind the paperwork to get a visa).

We also thought Moscow is the place to be to go to a nice party but I’m afraid we didn’t do our homework. One time we tried to go to a club. I was wearing a cap and scarf and I tried to pass the bouncer but he stopped me saying that “it’s closed already” or “too many people inside”. Okay, that was a real example of “face control”, if the bouncer doesn’t like your face, you’re not allowed to enter unless you’re accompanied by some pretty girls. I thought face control didn’t apply to foreigners but I was wrong. 🙂

See some more pictures here.

By Ruben Vandekerkhof

Biographical info comes here!

1 comment

  1. ruben,
    nice story-telling,and also the pictures,you do have the potential
    to become a travelogue writer,perhaps you should try it, hehe~

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *