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.

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.

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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