Eisenach - Moscow - Ulan Batar
We started on January, 12th from the train station in Eisenach, Germany - first heading for Berlin to catch the late afternoon train to Moscow. Fun already starts here since neither the train personnel or anyone else seems to understand us anymore. We already stepped into a different world. Well, until the border to White Russia it doesn't really matter.
The cabin feels somehow strange too, three beds on top of each other and barely space for the legs in front of the beds. However, with hands and feets we talk to Kolja, our cabin mate and get quite some interesting facts about nowadays Russia.
After midnight we ran into some trouble with the White russian customs, who don't stamp our valuta declaration. This can cause a lot of annoyance when leaving Russia again, so be warned if you are going to go on such a trip!
Moscow, Km 2000
We reached Moscow on the following day in the evening and find our lift Eugene from the train station to our guest nanny. No hassle. Perfect!
The next day it was fairly warm in Moscow, just about 5° below 0. So we explore the city centre by feet, the Red Square, Basilius Cathedral and the GUM shopping centre. Kremlin and Armour chamber are fairly expensive to vistit but very impressive too. Seldom seen so much pageantry on a single spot! Afterwards I cannot stand diamonds nor gold anymore. ;-)
Very nice indeed too, strolling along the river Moskwa behind the Kremlin, heading for the Red Square. Just to mention, the city centre of Moscow is, in terms of standards and prices not much of a difference to other european metropols. But communication can indeed become a problem, only a few expensive places offer english service. Nevertheless Moscows city centre seems to be a fairly secure place, lots of police men frequently check out the tourist spots for strange characters and may check your passport as well. However, by now I would prefer to visit Moscow in Spring. =)
On January, 15th Eugene brings us to Jaroslaw station. Our train to Ulan batar will depart from there. We have some spare time so we do some shopping and wait outside, perhaps looking a little bit stressed in between the crowd in this freezy dark night, looking for the right platform to start from, asking people here and there. As so it came, one of our bags went its own way in a split second. Containing our Digital camera, the dictionaries and "Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy". As one can imagine, we were pretty annoyed about that, but there was no help to get at all. No one wanted to understand us and our train was about to depart now too. Well then, into the train we went, fighting our way through the Mongolians who where moving huge packages through the small gangways. Welcome to Asia! After a while we find our cabin. In there two Mongolian women, of course only speaking Mongolian and a little bit of Russian. They offer us big bottles of whiskey. We introduce each other with hands and feets. We even tried binaries but that didn't help much eihter. =) Weird though, there are always other people coming and going in this cabin, bringing some stock in or taking other things out. A big trading train so we guess.
Next morning we manage to upgrade to a first class cabin for something like 45$. Cheers to corrupt train personnel! So, one more time packing and moving our belongings through the waggons, circling around the always packed traders. However, after that we have a very pleasant ride in this train and a cabin for only ourselfes.
Past birch trees and small villages with wooden cottages the train goes, and it really looks like in those old russian fairytales. Snow everywhere. The vastness of the Taiga. But as well, obvious massive cuttings on those "endless birch woods". Very often you can see there are only a couple of trees in a row beside the railroad, and nothing behind them.
Jekaterinenburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk - the train stops in the bigger cities and our mongolian friends use these opportunities to get out and sell fur coats, hats and other clothes to the already waiting Russians on the platform. What looked funny for us was indeed a rather hard business. In Ulan Ude for instance another crowd was waiting at the platform when our train arrived. They fought with our Mongolians to prevent any sales. We usually used those stops to stock up beers, cigarrettes and food. For lunch we mostly had Soljanka and in the evenings I played some Chess with the Mongolians or just talked with that russian cook with the wounded hands that were black of the dirt and pused by some weird illness. Nasdarowje! Once in a while we meet English speaking people in the train, students on their way back home, a member of a famous Russian Rock band or a russian gynaecologist who is living in Mongolia since a couple of years already.
As we woke on the fourth mourning of our Transsib trip, slightly CO poisoned and half frozen because the heating system in our waggon seemed to be broken, we get Lake Baikal to see in the rising morning sun. Majestic, frozen. Fishermen sitting next to little wholes in the ice trying to catch some fish. Mother nature,the mongolian meaning of Baikal. We are at KM 7600 on our trip. In the evenning we reach the border. With the help of a friendly English speaking Russian and a rather harmless Customs deputy we have no hassle without our Valuta declaration. Phew! Normally Customs is pretty tough here, checking every hole in roof or bottom of the train from smuggling stuff.
Ulan Bator, Km 8300
We reach Ulan Batar, the capital of Mongolia by 8 AM the following morning. My mustach freezes instantly when getting off the train. Once again we are brought from a chauffeur to our guest family, where Mrs. Gaja welcomes us with a nice breakfeast and first bunch of facts about the city. Perfect, thanks!
After this refreshment we go out to discover Ulan Batar. The city itself has the beauty of mainly socialistic architecture with a few modern buildings here and there. As well, a number of temples or palaces from the Khan times are to be visited. A little bit off the beaten track you can find those typical mongolian tents, Gers - they are using since Dschinghis Khans time. The Mongolians typically wear western clothes, but here and there you can find those traditionally dressed Atamans.
We wore our Low Budget Thermo wear to withstand the -25°C at least a little bit, but after a short time our feets were frozen anyhow. Therefore, sightseeing was really exciting, since most of the temples and palaces are just wooden buildings without heating =) On the way back we discovered how bad smog can be in an area where heating is mainly based on coal. What a thick black fog! Pelmeni, a sort of meat dumplings then in the evening at Mrs. Gaja place - delicious! The following day we have the same game again, sightseeing in freezing temperatures. But warming up in a German restaurant then with beers =) A tribute to the Mongolian winter...
The day before we depart to China we have a day-trip to Terelin, the so called Mongolian Switzerland. In summertime a tourist area but now there is no one here except us, some locals plus a few animals. So we learned a lot about Mongolian traditions as well as Mongolia nowadays, the changes in politics and society, recent oil discoveries and the Mormon influence.. To the progress!
After a vistit in the National Museem Of Nature which is famous for its Dinosaur skeletons we have one more meal with our host. She even organized some Airag, the traditional fermented horse milk. Then a visit to her husbands own museum, his dinosaur eggs and the stone plants he once picked up when hiking through the Gobi. So quick it all went and it was already time to say Goodbye to our hosts hospitality. Just to mention, in Ulan Batar you will have way less problems to find a cheap internet cafe or English speaking people then in Russia. In the morning we moved on to Beijing, going by train for hours through the Gobi desert. We don't see a single plant but once in a while there are some sort of small deer, camels and horses plus some Ger villages. With us in the cabin are a dutch couple, Tracey and Erik. They going pretty much a similar way, heading for China first and then for Southeast Asia, coming from Moscow themselves as well. It's gas to talk with them and the hours go really quickly. I almost forgot to mention some more funny characters, a part of the Mongolian circus, who are building human pyramides. Pretty tough looking guys. =)
If you got curious about Mongolia and want to discover this very remote pieve of Earth yourself, please visit my friends page WWW.ALLMONGOLIA.COM. There, you'll find much more information!
In China we have a stop somewhere in a little valley at the Chinese Wall. Perfect sunshine outside. Amazing view, the Great Wall climbs up to mountains and rocks with the same angle!