Sunday, September 9, 2012

Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian in a Nutshell

Sara's Top 4:

David's Top 4:
Ger Camp
Watching the passing scenery from the train

Impressions:  We both loved our journey on the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian!  I had been a bit worried about the tight quarters, bathrooms, etc., but it was really comfortable (especially compared to the India trains)!  The time flew by on the train.  Between watching the scenery, reading, meeting new friends, eating, and sleeping, we were always surprised by how quickly the legs went by.  We met a few people who weren’t making very many stop.  They told us that the train got very tiring after more than two nights, which is easy to imagine!  The key for us was stopping every one to two days.  After just a few days off the train we were usually excited to get back aboard.


Mongolia There was a huge change from the Chinese people to the Mongolians.  Although similar in stature, the Mongolians' complexions were much darker and they had the rosiest cheeks!  They reminded us very much of the Nepalese people we met while hiking to Everest Base Camp.  The Mongolians we met were soft-spoken and friendly.  They seemed to be very happy.  For such a huge country we were really surprised to learn that Mongolia only has about 3 million people (that's less than half as many as Hong Kong).

Russia – There was another huge change from Mongolia to Russia.  For the first time on our trip we were stopped multiple times and asked for directions as if we were locals.  Finally we had found ‘our people’ -- very tall and very light complexions.  We had heard about the Russians' steely eyes (e.g., Vladimir Putin), and it turns out that was the truth.  Steely eyes and few smiles masked the generosity and kindness of many of the Russians we met, especially in Siberia.    


On the train – There was a dining car on all but one of the trains we took.  In China and Mongolia it was fairly inexpensive, so we visited quite often.  Once we got into Russia the prices went up, so we tended to find food elsewhere.  The train made stops fairly frequently, often for 15 minutes or more.  This gave us time to stretch our legs and grab some food.  There was usually fresh fruit and pierogi on the platforms.  Luckily our tickets for the longest leg of our journey -- from Lake Baikal to Ekaterinburg -- came with one hot meal each day, either lunch or dinner, which was delivered to our cabin. 

Mongolia – While we loved the people and the landscape in Mongolia, the food wasn’t our favorite.  Mutton is the staple meat, and we ate it at almost every meal while in the country.  There wasn’t much variety in the side dishes either.  We ate a combination of root vegetables with almost every meal.  Mongolian salt tea is also very distinct – a milk tea with a very salty taste.  It is an acquired taste.  

Russia The food was excellent in Russia!  Our favorites were borsch, Beef Stroganoff, dumplings, and pierogi.  We did try some excellent Russian vodka, but it turns out that beer, especially among the younger generation, is the drink of choice.  Sparkling mineral water is the non-alcoholic drink of choice.  Everywhere we went fizzy water was served rather than still water.  We even went into several grocery stores that didn't even have still water.  Fizzy water grew on us by the end of our journey, but we sure did miss still water.      


Mongolia – Religion was repressed during communism through much of the 20th century.  Since the fall of communism in 1991, religion has made a comeback in Mongolia.  A majority of the population is Tibetan Buddhist, and we visited a huge monastery in Ulaan Bataar that was bustling with people.

Russia – Religion is also making a comeback in Russia since the fall of communism.  Russian Orthodox churches were everywhere.  In the larger cities there were many churches.  The dress codes were strict, but with a head scarf and shoulders covered for women and no hat for men, we could walk into any church.  While touring St. Basil’s we saw a portion of a service that included quite a bit of chanting.  It appeared that all of the churchgoers stand for the entire service.  There wasn’t a pew or seat to be found in any of the churches we visited.


On the train – There was no wi-fi on the train.  We had electrical outlets in our cabin on the Chinese train from Beijing to Ulaan Bataar.  On the other trains there was an electrical outlet in the corridor that we were sometimes able to use.  On one leg there was a cabin of four Russian men, and as far as we can tell, the only thing they did on the train was watch DVDs for 48+ hours.  This meant that they were plugged into the electrical outlet the entire time.  David got some nerve and unplugged it for a few hours to recharge his computer, but let’s just say that we didn’t get to charge much on that leg of our journey!  We had heard that you needed to tip the provodnista in order to be allowed to use the outlets, but that definitely wasn’t our experience.

Mongolia – There were internet cafes in the large towns and almost everyone seemed to have a cell phone.  One thing that has constantly bewildered us on the trip is that everywhere we go from the desert to the Mongolian steppe locals have cell phones -- and they seem to get service everywhere they go.  We didn’t even get great service at our house in Atlanta!   

Russia – Internet and cell phones were everywhere, but they certainly weren’t relied upon as heavily as they had been in China.  On the subways in China, everyone was texting or playing games on their smartphones, but in Russia many people had their noses in a book (or an e-reader) instead.

Trip planning:  Planning a trip on the Trans-Mongolian/Trans-Siberian would be difficult on your own.  The train schedules are complex and often not available in English.  Tickets for the various trains are only issued a limited time before departure and, at least in Russia, must be purchased inside the country.  The visa documents also can be difficult to obtain.  For all of these reasons we opted to book using an agent who specializes in trips on the Trans-Siberian.  We used Monkey Business, and they were fantastic!  We did all of the planning by email.  It definitely took quite a few emails to decide the places we’d like to stop, to determine the dates we would travel, and ask all of our many questions.  Monkey Business planned everything flawlessly and gave us full control over all of the details of our trip.  In the end, we made five stops: Ulaan Bataar, Lake Baikal, Ekaterinburg, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.  We spent three nights in most of the places we stopped, which was a nice change of pace from the train.  In total we spent seven nights on the train with our longest leg across Siberia from Irkutsk to Ekaterinburg.

Getting around:  We took trains from Beijing to St. Petersburg.  Getting around was different in each of the places that we stopped.  In Ulaan Bataar a driver met us to take us out to the steppe.  There wasn’t much public transportation to speak of.  At Lake Baikal we could walk everywhere.  We took a dolmus (minibus) to get from the lake to Irkutsk.  In Ekaterinburg we could walk everywhere, but we needed a driver to get to the Romanov Monastery and the Europe-Asia border.  In Moscow we either walked or took the metro.  In St. Petersburg we relied on dolmuses, public busses, the metro, and walking (lots of walking!).  All of our drivers were arranged though Monkey Business.         

On the train The trains we traveled on all had a first and second class, some also had a third class.  We traveled second class the entire way, which meant that we were in a cabin with four bunks.  The trains all differed in age, which meant that some cabins were nicer than others.  We always had clean sheets for the beds and a hand towel.  During the day we sat on the lower bunk and kept a lot of bags on the top bunk.  Our large suitcases fit perfectly in a compartment underneath the lower bunk.  There were two bathrooms in each train carriage.  They were a bit larger than airplane bathrooms, but not by much.  The provodnistas did a great job of keeping them clean.  The biggest surprise was finding out that flushing the toilet meant fertilizing the train tracks! 
Mongolia and Russia Monkey Business arranged all of our accommodation in Mongolia and Russia.  We chose not to stay in the fanciest places and were very happy with the hotel, hostel, guest house, ger, and apartment where we stayed.


Mongolia – Brisk, windy, and a blue cloudless sky the entire time we were in Mongolia.  Our ger camp had log stoves in each tent, and we really enjoyed having a fire at night.   

Russia – Lake Baikal was chilly, especially with the wind off the lake.  The sun was very hot in Ekaterinburg, so we stayed warm only needing a jacket at night.  Moscow and St. Petersburg were similar in temperature – 60s during the day.  The days in Russia, especially St. Petersburg, never really ended!  Experiencing White Nights was such a treat, but we didn’t get a lot of sleep with the sun always out.

Clothing:  We wore lots of layers in Mongolia and Russia.  We wore long pants most days, but were often in t-shirts by the middle of the day.     

Money:  Both on and off the train getting change was really difficult.  Several times we tried to pay with a bill that was the equivalent of USD $10 and were turned away because the vendor had no change.  This was always a little frustrating, especially when the ATMs only gave very large bills!  Also, we made the mistake of leaving Mongolia with a wad of Mongolian tugrik.  Once we left the country, we found it impossible to exchange -- even in Irkutsk only a train ride from the border.  If anyone is planning a trip to Mongolia and would like to exchange for some tugrik before leaving, just let us know!

Mongolia – When we were in Beijing there was an ongoing meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  We immediately noticed that the organization's logo includes a map of member states with Mongolia conspicuously absent -- an island in central Asia.  Mongolia has a long history of conflict with its neighbors, but it seems to have good relations at the moment.  It also maintains very good relations with the United States, and we met a few Mongolians who have come over to visit.

Russia – We got to Russia shortly after Vladimir Putin began his second stint as President.  We didn't have too many political discussions with the Russians that we met, but we couldn't help but ask a few locals about their opinions of Putin.  For the most part they were positive, but more interestingly in a country without a vibrant democracy, most acted as if it were foreordained that he would President.  We were told that after a long history of monarchy and then communism, great power vested in one person is the norm for Russians.  We were told that they expect their rulers to be strong and authoritarian.

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