Trans-Siberian Railway: Ulan Bataar to the Russian Border

By: leelefever on September 23, 2006 - 4:31am

I boarded the train in Ulan Battar with what I figured were blisters on my behind from hours of riding Mongolian horses on the steppe.  The horses and saddle were a bit too small for a western butt like mine. Sachi, the lucky, found that a couple of layers of skin had been worn away.  This is not a good way to start a two day train ride.

From the moment we stepped on the train, we were focused on the upcoming border ordeal with Russia, famous for its 11 hour wait.  The waiting around was not so bad except that the bathrooms on the train are locked for a majority of the time.  Of course, this is because the toilet dumps directly onto the tracks below, potentially making the already sketchy border area a sewer as well.  Our goal was bladder management, but just in case, we are holding a couple of plastic bottles in reserve.

We knew we were supposed to arrive at the border at 4AM so we both got up at 3:30AM to do what we could in the last minutes of the unlocked toilet.  The train arrived, the toilets were locked and we were left alone for 4 hours until 8AM, when the wait began for the border guards to arrive and take our passports for processing. 

For the entire train journey to this point, we operated only in the moment - by necessity.  There was no train itinerary and the attendants only communicated in very basic terms.  So we sat and waited and looked for our fellow passengers to appear on the platform - a sure sign that we can leave the train for a brief moment.  Other than that we just asked "Can we get off?" and then try to figure out if the answer was a “yes” or "no”. Our fellow Western travelers were in a similar predicament.

The border crossing into Russia was done with little fanfare.  However, someone presented himself soon after the border that was a bit startling for us.  For the first time in 8 months, a government representative had blonde hair and blue eyes.  Over a few minutes it was clear that the border with Mongolia seems to represent the most genetically distinct border we've crossed.  Within about two kilometers the people became, very, very Russian.  From what we'd seen thus far, the Russians are quite beautiful people with bright eyes, distinct features and slim physiques. 

Just before stopping at customs an Asian women entered our berth and hung a jacket on a hook and walked away as if we would be happy to carry the jacket with us through customs. Sachi promptly hung it outside where she collected it quickly.  Shaaah, as if.

 Counting the 4am arrival at the Mongolian border and 2 hours of free time on the Russian side, the ordeal did take about 11 hours and no plastic bottles were needed.  However, I will never forget an event just before departure that almost made me mess my pants.  A group of 5 of us left the train station to visit a shop about 500 yards from the station and we left with over an hour before our 3PM departure time.  Our quest was successful and we came back to the station with vodka bottles in hand - but something important was missing.  Our train was not sight.  We rushed up to the platform and looked around as if it might be camouflaged somehow - but no train was on track number 2.  Soon after we also realized that all five of us lacked any necessary means to catch another train.  We had all left for the store without a passport, train ticket, extra money or credit cards.  For a fleeting moment, our world and prospects for recovery seemed quite bleak and I wondered how I would be reunited with Sachi, clearly on her way into Siberia without me.  Then, to our surprise we saw a train approaching from the opposite direction and soon after a woman we recognized.  Was this our train?  Looking in the window, I met eyes with Sachi on the train, smiling and shaking her head.  She, along with the other passengers in our car were also surprised and briefly concerned when the train suddenly departed.  As it turns out, it only left the station briefly to change tracks and there was much relief.  Never again will I leave a train without extra money, a passport and ticket.

Trans-Siberian: Beijing to Ulan Bataar

By: leelefever on September 22, 2006 - 6:30am

Leaving Beijing was a momentous occasion – we were beginning one of the world’s great overland journeys – the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Our first impression of our train compartment was one of amusement.  Two couches facing one another, a small table, a window and lots of metal clips, hinges, handles, ladders and switches that did not appear at the time to have any utility. What made us laugh was the decoration – I would call it Russian Grandmother style.  Darkish floral print that was perhaps dark with age and usage with gold satin frill.  The curtains matched the beds and the diagonal tablecloth really tied the room together nicely. Ugly but certainly sufficient for the 1.5 day journey.

It wasn’t long before we realized that we were on the way out of China. The attendant brought hot water and tea and when we said "shay shay" (thank you in Chinese) and she said forcefully  "No shay shay! Mongolian! Bajarlalaa!"  OK, we get it bajarlalaa is “thank you” in Mongolian.  Later we learned that “shay shay” means to urinate in Mongolian – probably not something you want to say when someone brings you tea in any country.

After the first 12 hours, we went to the dining car and returned to walk through a train filled with a dusty fog.  It had a sweet smell, not like fire, but a bit like freshly cut wood.  You could feel the air on your eyes and it your nose and it settled near the floor.  The air was crunchy.  At dusk we looked out of the window across the hall through a dust covered window.  Through the dust spattered glass, we could see sand - the very beginnings of the Gobi Desert which had crept into the train while we ate.  Mongolia was not far then.

Border crossings are a bitch.  Since the toilet flushes directly onto the tracks, the toilets on the train are locked during the border crossing into Mongolia - a 6 hour ordeal.  We were encouraged to stay on the train for the first three hours and then get off once we cross into Mongolia, around midnight.  We abstained from liquids for a few hours in anticipation of the wait.  Meanwhile, Gobi dust continues to collect in our noses and eyes.

In some strange turn of railroad evolution it came to be that railroads were connected that didn't match in width. Such is the case with the Trans-Siberian train which must be refitted with new wheels or "bogeys" before heading into Mongolia.  We had a choice - stand outside in the cold for 2-3 hours or stay on board while the train car gets hydraulically jacked-up as new wheels are put on.  We stayed on board and got the unexpected treat of seeing the whole process on the train next door.  As I write, our train car is being lowered onto the new bogeys that will carry us into Mongolia.

12:30am: After crossing the Mongolian border, the train pulled up to Zamyn Uud, where we expected to get out and use the bathroom.  Instead, the border guards boarded the train, took our passports and left.  Soon after, amidst yelling and running down the halls, the train left the station without our passports.  After leaving it then stopped and then rolled very slowly toward the station once more before going back two more times.  Like everything else, no explanation is given. Later we received our passports and all was well.

8:12 Sunday, September 10 Mongolia

We awoke with the anticipation of a school kid on a snow day - what would we find when we opened the curtain for the first time?  It turned out to be a scene of absolute nothingness - more nothing than we had ever seen anywhere.  We looked out over an ocean of pure sand - the middle of the Gobi Desert.  I've never been more excited and more interested to see nothing in my life.  This sand could swallow you whole.

Soon after waking we rattled into a small stop at the edge of the desert called Choyr, where eager Mongolian kids greeted us selling stones of quartz and amethyst.  I expected to be mobbed when I stepped of the train, but they were polite and not tenacious on a level that I expected.  I suppose Asia changed my expectations.  One little boy on a bike told me his name and said that he is fine before scurrying off. Maybe he had reached the end of his conversational English.   I wondered to myself about these kids - how long has their family been in Choyr? Were they previously nomads?  What do they know about America? What do they want to be when they grow up?

 The run into Ulan Baatar was grassy rolling steppe - no vegetation over a foot high and gers that dotted the horizon along with their sheep, horses and cows.  Disturbing the landscape on the train side were barbed-wire fences and electrical poles which are well used by White Tailed Eagles - certainly the most entertaining wildlife in view. The scrubby steppe is surely home to bite sized rodents that teased the eagles from their perches.  It was not at all odd to see an eagle swoop down and attack just outside the window. It's nice to know this desolate place is feeding something so effectively.

Signs of Ulan Baatar slowly start to appeared from the window in the form of Gers that seem to be moving closer and closer together.  A ger is a traditional Mongolian nomadic home – basically a round tent made of white felt or canvas. Most have no electricity or running water.  Outside of the city you noticed gers as a white dot on the horizon, surrounded by livestock.  It seemed that in the outskirts of Ulan Baatar, the nomads are inching their way towards stationary city life by planting their gers in more permanent positions around the city.  In fact we would see them in downtown too.

The most immediate and striking aspect of Ulan Baatar was the women, many of whom were quite beautiful and dressed in the most up-to-date western fashions. I didn’t expect this in Ulan Baatar.  The city itself is not beautiful and I described it at the time as appearing to be part refugee camp, part abandoned construction site and part modern city.  It had all the conveniences that anyone would need – Internet cafes, supermarkets, movie theaters, restaurants, etc.  The city has a reputation for lawlessness and aggressive pickpockets, but we saw no evidence of them.

Within an hour or so we boarded a mini-van and departed the city for Elstei Ger Camp, about 50 kms outside the city.  Within about 30 minutes we reached the steppe – the land of absolutely endless rolling hills of grass.  This is where we would spend the next two days.

Here are a couple of my favorite photos from our stay here...



This video is about our stay at the camp…

Video: Two Nights on the Mongolian Steppe

By: leelefever on September 21, 2006 - 5:41am

Being out there in the middle of miles of rolling grass covered hills in Mongolia, there is little to do but ride horses- small but tough Mongolian horses.

Lots more coming soon- the connections have been few and far between... I just uploaded a load of pictures of Mongolia to Flickr as well.

The Trans-Siberian Has Begun

By: leelefever on September 15, 2006 - 8:41pm

The train trip has exceeded our expectations in a big way. The train itself is OK, but Mongolia and Siberia have been highlights of the whole trip, except for my saddle sores. Unfortunately though, it's a bit harder to upload all the pictures, videos, etc. Once we get into the big cities like Moscow we'll be sharing a lot more. Here is quick video to get started...

In couple of hours we board a train from Irkutsk to Ekaterinberg, Russia which will take about 48 hours.

Leaving China for Mongolia

By: leelefever on September 8, 2006 - 6:48am

We are  about to begin the first legs of the Trans-Siberian Railway, first stop: Ulan Baatarr, Mongolia, where we will spend two nights at a Ger Camp (I'm not really sure either).  We are both so very excited - this trip marks the end of Asia and the beginning of perhaps the most anticipated journey of the year. Woo hoo!  Here's the plan:

  • September 9th: Depart Beijing, China
  • September 10th:  Ulanbaatar, Mongolia (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 14th:  Irkutsk, Russia (Lake Baikal-Siberia) (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 18th: Ekaterinburg, Russia (Urals) (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 21st:  Moscow, Russia (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 24th:  St. Petersburg (3 nights)
  • September 27th:  Helsinki, Finland

Of course, this also marks the end of China, which has been amazing in so many ways - mostly unexpected. There is something I'd like to share about China before I go (with more coming later).  

Tomorrow (September 9th) is the 30th anniversary of Chairman Mao's death and today on CNN International (one of two English stations) there was a segment on Mao.  Two different sections of the segment were blacked out and we can only guess that the government was involved.  There was a specific woman that spoke in the segment and whenever she came on the screen, it went black.  This appeared to be blatant media censorship right before our very eyes.

I doubt I will ever be able to reconcile the contrasts that appear in China.  It seems to be going at light speed into the future and stumbling backward at the same time. Amazing.

Enough with the Heat Already!

By: sachilefever on September 1, 2006 - 2:19am

Everyday in Shanghai it seems to be 95 degrees with 95% humidity making it a chore to walk more than a few blocks during the day. Our East Asia hotel (US$45) is on a pedestrian thoroughfare, Nanjing Dong Lu, filled with Giordano and Sofitel side-by-side with small dumpling shops and McDonalds ice cream windows. Each evening at 5:00 we hear a saxophonist on a colonial balcony across the street begin playing overwhelmingly loud but somewhat soothing renditions of Tennessee Waltz and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. For us it signals the cooler hours have finally begun. 

Most of this trip has been over 88 degrees and we are both ready for the heat to be OVER. Lee has sworn off his sweat-soaked cotton T-shirts, and I’ve found it’s a much more pleasant experience if I don’t wear tank tops here (more stares), so we are both down to two shirts which are washed every second day. I can’t believe China wants to have the Olympics during mid-August just because of a lucky number (It starts on 08/08/08). I wish luck to the poor athletes and spectators who will have to endure it…but I digress.

The countdown is now on for cooler weather!  After 6 days in Beijing, we jump on the train to Ulanbaatar, Mongolia where we are expecting to start days of 53F and nights of 33F! From there we go into Siberia and further into the cooler weather of fall for the rest of the trip.  Sweet relief!

We were so excited we decided to each get a pair of jeans, which we haven’t had all year. But it’s more difficult than you might think when every store’s largest size is still not enough. Coming out of the fitting room asking for the third time “Even bigger?” and seeing the clerk shake her head is a pride-swallowing scene for any Westerner. They would just take one look at Lee and say “No…too big.” Today we finally found a pair at Basic Jeans for about $28, and it will be just right for Siberia’s cooler temperatures.

Until then, we look forward to the saxophonist each evening and finally being able to be outside without sweating profusely, even if it’s still too hot to wear our new jeans.

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Beijing to Helsinki Over 20 Days

By: leelefever on August 5, 2006 - 3:46am

It’s been a big and long awaited day for us.  Since the trip was just a twinkle in our eye, we have been looking forward to the Trans-Siberian Railway, which will take us from Beijing, China to Moscow, Russia and then to Helsinki, Finland over 20 days.  It is the longest train journey on earth.

We’ve found that it is one thing to want to do it and another to actually get everything lined up to make it happen.  The problem is trying to plan the travel and get Chinese and Russian visas while on the road.  For a 30 day Russian tourist visa, Americans have to outline an exact itinerary and have letters of invitation from hotels along the way.  Further, because we chose not to plan ahead too far, we have to get the Chinese visa and Russian visa while we are in (expensive) Hong Kong.  This is not to mention trying to plan the Trans-Siberian journey in the midst of the visa applications.

Luckily we found help and today we’re rejoicing in our luck at settling the whole issue in one fell swoop.  We saw an ad for an agency called Monkey Business that specialized in Trans-Siberian journeys that has an office in Hong Kong.  Today we walked into the office and within about 1.5 hours, we had an itinerary including lodging and all trains from Beijing all the way to Helsinki and applications for both Chinese and Russian visas. All we have to do is drop by the office on Thursday afternoon and we’ll be set until late September – certainly the longest range plans we’ve had thus far.  We feel like we’ve avoided a HUGE pain in the butt and have a lot of trust in our new friend Kelvin at Monkey Business. This is him:

Here’s our itinerary:

  • August 11th:  Hong Kong to Guangzhou, China
  • September 9th: Depart Beijing, China
  • September 10th:  Ulanbaatar, Mongolia (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 14th:  Irkutsk, Russia (Lake Baikal-Siberia) (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 18th: Ekaterinburg, Russia (Urals) (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 21st:  Moscow, Russia (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 24th:  St. Petersburg (3 nights)
  • September 27th:  Helsinki, Finland

It feels a little unreal to have plans like this and we’re both really, really excited.  We spend our time in a “Ger camp” (a Ger is a tent like structure, similar to a yurt) in Mongolia and do “homestays” in the homes of Russian families in Siberia.  We’ll spend 8 nights on the train with lots of instant noodles and coffee and perhaps a little vodka. In the end, we’ll hopefully gain some good friends in other travelers and local Mongolians and Russians.  After spending longer in Asia than we expected, it’s nice to finally see the “around” part of this around the world trip come to fruition.

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