E-mail From My
It is time for me to wrap up yet another leg of my trip…this one being my Trans-Mongolian
railroad adventure (I still like to say 'Trans-Siberian' as that seems to be a bit more of a
When planning my trip, this was something that I was kind of on the fence about mainly
thinking 'How long can I stand to spend on a train???' But I decided that I would never
have an endless amount of time to travel again so this would be the time to do it. After all, I
did need to get to Asia and I wanted to see Russia so it all just seemed to fit.
As I am sure it is perfectly obvious, I made it into Russia. I am just sooo happy that my third
attempt at getting my Russian visa worked in New Delhi (though I was close to being
denied there as well).
I flew into Saint Petersburg on Aeroflot (aka 'The Soviet Airlines' turned 'The Russian
Airlines') which was a completely…well…Soviet experience. My people - we do not even
realize how spoiled we are by Airbus and Boeing planes. Nobody can understand this until
they fly on Aeroflot. Vibrating planes with no overhead baggage compartments, no movies
and no beverage service for the last six hours of the flight aside…I was soon in Moscow.
Reading up on Russia inflicted a bit of fear in me as it says everywhere that a visa does not
ensure you to pass the passport control officials. The guy working at the counter called me
up. He was young and I was sure a nice friendly smile and a couple of Russian words that I
had just learned while I was in line were going to work wonders. Nope. He was a complete a-
hole. But an efficient a-hole who took about 30 seconds to stamp my visa and shoo me past
his counter. I'll deal with the attitude problem for quick service like that!
The touts waiting right outside the customs exit thought I was going to be easy prey as they
told me I could only make my domestic flight to St. Petersburg by taking a taxi to the
domestic airport – then they pulled out their official-looking laminated price sheet. $50 US
for the ride. I might have been tired and mentally exhausted after pulling yet another all-
nighter but this was not going to work on me. In the end, I took a bus for the equivalent of
fifty cents and got to the other airport in fifteen minutes. This Russia place wasn't nearly as
difficult as people made it sound.
Oops. This is getting lengthy. I will try to keep it as short as possible…which is already
proving to be a challenge and I haven't even started talking about my train trip…
Summarizing is now in order:
Saint Petersburg: Truly beautiful. Truly European. Truly European prices. I only saw one
church that looked 'Russian'. Canals filled the center of the city – who knew? Certainly not
me! Was this really Russia? It was hard to tell…
Shi-shi overnight train ride to Moscow. We were given everything from toothbrushes and
toothpaste to breakfast packs to Russian dark chocolate. Sadly, I had a big hunch our train
rides were only going to decline in terms of luxury as we went on…
Moscow: Now we were in 'Russia' but with beyond-European prices. People aren't lying
when they say Moscow is expensive! I self-catered myself through this city (of course with
the exception of McDonald's soft-serve ice cream). I have to say that I loved this city. So
easy to get around with the extensive subway system (and might I say that each station felt
like some sort of museum).
Train ride (on the Ural route) to Yekaterinaburg: Provided us with our first experiences
with the platform babushkas selling all sorts of goods ranging from roasted chicken and
potato meals to chandeliers. Between scenery, reading, checking out each platform stop
and one night of sleep…the 26 hour ride went 'poof'. Was it already over?
Yekaterinaburg: This is the town where I probably learned the most about recent Russian
history (basically the stuff that went down in the 20 th century). Now I have a yearning to
learn more about everything from Tsar Nicholas II to the Afghan/Russian war.
Train ride (on the Trans-Siberian route) to Irkutsk: Now we had fifty hours to entertain
ourselves…and would you believe the time completely flew by? We had three nights on this
train. We had a music party one night when Stuart pulled out his mini-speakers and we
each took turns hooking our ipods into it and selecting five songs and explaining why we
selected them (Lauren – doesn't this sound familiar!? I guess they do this in Scotland,
Irkutsk: First we did a homestay in Listvyanka, a town on Lake Baikal (the world's deepest
lake). We hiked to a picnic on the lake, enjoyed beers in the sun on the lake (yes…warm
weather in Siberia), sat in banyas (aka saunas) before showering, and enjoyed home-
cooked meals. From there, we went to Irkutsk which was a beautiful city. Russians donning
stiletto-heeled boots, eating sushi for dinner, sitting in a restaurant with wifi for
lunch…needless to say, I had to remind myself I was in Siberia.
Train ride to Ulan Bator (on the Trans-Mongolian route): 34 hours and nine of these were
spent between the Russian and Mongolian borders. Definitely not a highlight of the trip.
We were totally in a different world when we got off the train at the Mongolian border. We
heard the same two words from each of the 1,258 people that bombarded us: "Change
Ulan Bator: We drove out to ger camps 1 ½ hours outside of the city. The stunning
Mongolian countryside. The weather was hot in the afternoon and cold at night. But we
kept warm as a fire is the focal point of the ger. We rode horses, hiked, talked to yaks (well,
maybe that was just me), walked a little, read and took naps. Oh. And ate mutton. A whole
lot of mutton. Mutton sausage. Mutton dumplings. Mutton stew. Mutton stir-fry. Mutton
soup. Mongolian-barbequed mutton. Ground mutton with rice in crepe-like things. When I
say a 'whole lot', I mean it! The greatest thing about this area was an animal that I saw. Not
the horse, or the sheep, or the goat, or the yak (though they were precious). But it was the
DOUBLE-HUMPED CAMEL! I screamed out of excitement when I first saw it. Who
wouldn't, right? I would learn that the Bactrian camel is indigenous to this country. As for
the actual city of Ulan Bator, the communist-style buildings are being replaced with new
buildings that are more pleasing to the eye. Not the most exciting of cities – but we only had
a day there so it wasn't too bad.
Train ride to Beijing: Passed through the Gobi Desert and the Great Wall!
I am now in Beijing and can not believe how clean it is. And it isn't as noisy as I imagined it
to be. Any San Franciscan will know what I am talking about when I say that the #30 and
#45 are, by far, much worse.
Anyway, I LOVED this segment of my trip and would recommend it to anyone!
As a final farewell, here is my Top Ten list of the Trans-Mongolian adventure…
10. Watching the Buddhist monks praying at the Gandan monastery in Ulan Bator.
9. The Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in Moscow (an impressionism museum).
8. Sitting in the banyas and then stepping outside in the cold, Siberian air.
7. The matryoshka dolls and communism kitsch at the market in Moscow.
6. The blinis with smoked salmon I had at 'CCCP' in Yekaterinaburg.
5. The babushkas on the train platforms. (My first experience was wanting an apple. I paid
the amount…though I thought it was a bit steep for one apple. It turned out there were
some communication problems. This led to a guy coming into our train car and dumping a
bucket of three kilograms of apples on my bed. I wanted one apple. I ended up buying 6 ½
pounds of them.)
4. Riding horses in the Mongolian countryside.
3. The sweeping views of Lake Baikal from our hike.
2. The actual train rides.
1. Seeing double-humped camels!
Now I am in China for the next month. Not nearly enough time to see much of the country
at all. The next couple weeks are completely in the air as I am unsure as to where I want to
go. All I know is that I am leaving out of Hong Kong at the end of the month.
If you are still reading this, I am amazed! Sorry for the email's length. And to think I only
touched on things.
I hope everybody is doing well!