Total distance travelled:
39,893 km / 24,788 mi
Total distance travelled on land:
14,117 km / 8,772 mi
Total distance travelled by air:
25,776 km / 16,016 mi
Longest train ride by distance:
Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk – 2287 km / 1,421 mi
Longest train ride by time:
Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk – 32:23 for 2287 km
Slowest train ride:
Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatar, 28:25 for 657 km – 23.12 km/hr / 14.37 mi/hr
Maglev from Shanghai to airport – 431 km/hr / 268 mi/hr
Fastest long-distance train:
Tokyo to Osaka, 2:30 for 556km – 222.56 km/hr / 138.29 mi/hr
Osaka to San Francisco – 8673 km / 5,389 mi
As we’ve moved along over this journey, I’ve taken pictures of things for posting to the blog. Some of them didn’t make it, for one reason or another. But hating to waste good pictures, I thought I’d throw them into a blog posting for all to experience.
The engine of my plane as I fly down to San Francisco:
Our British Airways 747 to London:
The women who decided to talk us up at the hotel in London (mother and daughter, quite friendly):
Amy and Nick (and me, but I took the picture) sit in a sushi restaurant in St. Petersburg. Russia has surprisingly good sushi for a country that seems to have very few Japanese:
Siberia doesn’t have a lot of features. It generally looks like either of the following two pictures. Usually more the former than the latter:
And periodically, you do see other trains:
The forests often get thicker, too:
Another shot of the Museum of Wooden Buildings. Didn’t post this as I took too many pictures there (was unsure of lighting, etc.):
This is a far, far better shot of the Mongolian Embassy in Ulan Ude, Russia. I think I chose the other one because it did look better … at least at the time:
Me at the lake in Mongolia. Wouldn’t want to go swimming in that, though. Probably not the “cleanest” of places, with all the waterfowl and horses:
Amy catches up on journal- and postcard-writing:
We caught a sunset at Hustai National Park. This was before I nearly froze to death:
A line of rail car bogies sit to one side in the bogie-changing shed in Erlian, China:
Most of you are probably wondering what the toilets in the trains looked like. Here’s an example of the “western” toilets. Never did take one of the squat ones, sadly…
On the road, especially for this length of time, you periodically have to do laundry. Normally, not an issue. But this is what it looks like after washing out all the sand from Mongolia:
We hit a great little restaurant in Beijing for lunch one day, and were served a pot of tea. Make with chrysanthemums. Not exactly normal, but quite tasty:
Don’t ask me what kind of store this is. With a name like that, who really cares, anyway?
This is the view from our hotel in Shanghai. As you can see, it was quite hazy there. The humidity was murder:
It rained a lot in Xian on our first day there. Nice, but wet:
Who doesn’t want to go to a Yummy Restaurant?
We walked around part of Xian’s walls one night. They looked pretty nice:
Our last meal in Xian was at a strange hotpot restaurant, where we had to get someone to translate the freaking menu for us because we couldn’t read it at all. It was pretty tasty, though:
We made a mistake of going to the “Entertainers”, a trio who perform in the lounge of the same name at the Hyatt in Xian. They forever butchered many of my favourite songs…
I meant to post about this. I mean, really, who names their water: “WAHAHA?”
At least you can’t miss the sign to get you to Kowloon (Hong Kong):
Chinglish isn’t escapable, even at the Chinese/Hong Kong SAR border crossing:
One of these is the actual border between China and Hong Kong SAR. I have no idea where the heck it is, as it’s no longer marked:
Rogue vendors are so bad in some areas that private property owners try to keep them out with signs like these:
Our hotel in Kowloon was next to the Avenue of Stars, sort of like the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I found a few names I know:
Jackie Chan apparently heavily sponsors California Fitness. He’s probably an owner.
Inside our favourite dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong:
We had this at a sushi restaurant in Chiba. We thought it was some weird pickled eel. It was eggplant:
Today was errand day. Today, we decided to get our train tickets sorted out, and make plans for an excursion to the Great Wall. Inadvertantly, some things happened along the way…
First off, we hopped the subway down to Qianmen station (which is Tiananmen Square, but we weren’t headed there) to search through the hutong neighbourhoods. After a little dive in, we were diverted due to biological reasons (namely self-preservation having not to use the toilets in the back alleys). Out back on the main street, the decision was made to skip ahead to the Grand Hyatt Hotel for two reasons: exchange traveller’s cheques and see if they can handle tour bookings a little more easily.
(Just as a side note: if you’re travelling to parts distant, such as Russia, England, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and so forth, don’t bother with travellers cheques. Yes, they’re safe. Yes, they can be replaced. But they are not accepted everywhere. It’s (pardon ma francais) f$!@*ing annoying. Everywhere we’ve been, it’s been “sorry, we don’t accept those”. I’ve exchanged them successfully once. If you’re going, just bring a bank card and a VISA card. That’s all you need. Trust me on this. Even in Mongolia, you can use them — they have no ATMs, but banks will do the withdrawal for you.)
We scooted up the sidewalk on the east side of the road of Tiananmen Square, in the hopes of an expedient passage. We were almost immediately hit with the Art Exhibit people.
The Art Exhibit people, in case you’re wondering, is a bit of a scam. The idea is to entice tourists (generally English-speaking, as they don’t seem to speak other languages) to see an “art exhibit” that will close “in five minutes”, and encourage you to purchase something. It’s all quite nice, starting with “hello”, then going to “where are you from” to “is this your first or second time”, to the shpeal about the art exhibition. We’d been warned about this not only from Lonely Planet (thanks, guys!) but also by others who’ve been here before. In the span of about seven minutes we were hit four times. The last time, we resorted to speaking French to throw them off.
About 10 seconds after that, we ran into Noah and Justin, two brothers originally from Montreal who were touring China. We immediately hit it off with them, recounting our mutual experiences with trying to shake the sharks after the tourists. (Noah has a particularly novel way of getting rid of them. He looks them in the face, and tells them “I don’t speak English” as clearly as if he were telling you his phone number. Noah seems to follow the philosophy that visiting China is almost a game. We like these guys.)
The four of us pretty much hit it off (partly because Amy and I have been dying for some home-grown company, and both of them had great senses of humour), and hung out for most of the afternoon. We all headed down to the Grand Hyatt where I failed (yet again) to change all my damned travellers cheques for renminbi. (I’m so never taking these things again!) Then we tried to book a tour to the Great Wall.
We’ve been told that going to the Great Wall might not be fun. It all depends. For starters, you don’t go to Badaling if you’re actually looking for the Wall. Badaling is a restored section of the Great Wall, done in the grand ol’ Disney style. We’re thinking of Simitai, which is a little more authentic (at least according to Lonely Planet). But getting there is a bit more difficult. The conceirge at the Grand Hyatt (exceedingly nice, and outstanding English) suggested a taxi, which should cost about 800 renminbi (a little over $120, divided amongst four people) — considerably cheaper than any of the tour prices.
Justin and Noah then went to purchase tickets for their trip back to Shanghai (they’re flying in and out of there through Air Canada, and have yet to take the train here), and Amy finally found replacement books (she’s been suffering through Dostoyevsky for weeks). A trip through the rather nice mall nearby followed.
One thing about Beijing that all of us noticed. They’ve got the whole communist thing sorted out (mostly, aside from the odd overzealous crackdown, anyway). The mall was better than almost any that I’ve seen in North America. There were even BMW, Audi, and Volkswagon dealerships! And a store that sold a whack of Star Wars and Astroboy shirts.
Our ultimate destination, though, was Silk Street. This is the ultimate in (potential) bargains. It’s a massive four-floor store where you can find all sorts of brand-name clothing (whether or not it’s real depends on how good you are at mind-reading), and all of it for sale at a price you can attempt to get, if you’re good. This is where the good haggler comes into effect. So far, this isn’t me. You don’t get to browse here. You need to know what you’re looking for. You need to know what it is you want, and you need to be ready to wheel and deal. I figured this out after casually looking at a North Face jacket and deciding that it wasn’t anything I was interested in. I could have picked it up for about $10. Amy went after a Gap shirt (definitely fake) and a pair of zip-off pants. We’re thinking of going back to see if we can get some other bargoons.
Noah and Justin tried to get $25 Armani suits. They didn’t succeed … this time.
Walking through the place is hard. Not because it’s crowded, but because some of the vendors are fairly aggressive. (Noah swears that a couple of other places, such as Hong Kong, are worse.) You hear greetings shouted out often starting with “Mister” and “Lady”. One tried to tell my that my beloved Critical Mass sling pack is dirty. (A mark of pride, thank you very much!) Trying to leave the place through the somewhat-unmentionables area, we were treated to “Hellol, underwear!” and “Hello, socks!”. Very surreal.
Dinner was an interesting experience, with Amy and I (we’ll hook up with Justin and Noah for the Great Wall on Monday) walking into a restaurant near our hotel. I love the Chinese way of naming foods. It’s like trying to decipher the title of a Led Zeppelin tune to figure what it’s about. Such items included:
- The asparagus fries the shelled shrimp (shrimp with asparagus)
- The exquisite article livings purely (beer)
- The thou is more the dragon mountain
- Wrap the male fish (fish with vegetables, near as we can figure
- The parsley mixs the hair belly (I don’t think I wanna know)
- An article steams the big cabbage
And my personal favourite, although we didn’t order it:
The food, however, was pretty darn good, even if the start of one section read:
That was for the seafood section. Go fig.
Attention Lonely Planet! You might want to update your information for the next run of your Trans Siberian Railway book, ‘cuz a few things have changed.
According to Lonely Planet, the crossing from Mongolia to China takes about seven hours, during which time you can get off, change money, eat at the restaurant, and so on. However, they seem to be only covering the case that you’re crossing the border during the day. If you take train #24 from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing, things are a little different…
So you’ve survived the journey across the Gobi desert. It’s desolate. It’s not exactly the most interesting thing to see. Even three days of birch trees was better. You arrive at Zamin Uud, the border city in Mongolia. You’re about two hours late due to various delays along the line getting there. (Unlike Russia, Mongolia has only a single track through most of its area, and exceedingly few sidings with which to stagger train movements.) Due to late arrival, the exit process runs a bit quicker than the book suggests.
Although there is still the mandatory banging around of cars as the train is arranged for shuttling to Erlian, the Chinese border city. By the time you finally cross the invisible line, it’s dark. You can’t even see it. Arriving in Erlian, things happen pretty quickly, again. You’re still a bit behind schedule, but the shortened process in Mongolia has made up for a large portion of that time. The immigration officers come in, do their thing (one form in triplicate, two others are one-offs), and you’re tickety-boo.
One problem remains (here’s where the train stuff comes in): the train you’re on can’t run in China. Russia, for some odd reason, has a wider track gauge than pretty much everyone else (not counting narrow-gauge railways, that is) — including China. However, someone planned for this, and the process to adapt the train is fairly simple, if esoteric.
Instead of letting everyone off the train (which is what is supposed to happen — note to Lonely Planet), the entire train is backed up to a large building about a half kilometre from the station house. The building is itself about 400 metres long and at least 10 metres high (there’s a large overhead crane in there, though it wasn’t in use). The cars are divided and set next to tough-looking yellow devices firmly implanted in the thick concrete floor, four per car, one at each corner (about a metre in, actually).
The car bodies are then jacked up off of the bogies that connect them to the track. (If you’re not sure what a bogie is, look at a rail car — the bogie is the part with the wheels and the bracket that holds them in place.) The wide bogies are then pushed out in favour of narrower ones. The car bodies are then lowered back down, and you’re good to go. The process took about an hour and a half, all told, for the 10 or so cars that had to go through the process.
According to Lonely Planet, you’re supposed to be allowed to get off and watch. We had to setting to view through dirty windows. Only when the train was reformed and brought back to the station were people finally let off — 100 yard dashers don’t run that fast.
Without question the coolest thing, albeit weirdest thing, I’ve seen done to trains yet.
We’re back in Ulaan Baatar after a few days out in the Mongolian wilderness. It’s a brief return — we hit the #24 train to Beijing at 8:00 tomorrow morning. (It’s about 21:30 right now, as I’m writing this.)
Without question, Mongolia has been the highlight of this adventure. Unless something really spectacular comes up that somehow manages to sway us (which I doubt will happen), then Mongolia will be the thing on the trip. Also without question, we would heartily recommend coming to Mongolia (and soon, before the rest of the world discovers how cool this country is) and signing up with Nomadic Journeys. They take far too good care of you.
Our campsite was about 300 km west of Ulaan Baatar — a trip that takes six hours. Most of the roads in Mongolia were built back in the 1950s by the Russians and Chinese … and haven’t really received any major attention since then. Needless to say, if you’re not driving something well-built, you don’t be driving it too long — the roads will turn them to pulp. We drove in a small Russian-built jeep without seatbelts. Our driver, Lasaa (assuming I’m spelling his name correctly) is an expert driver, and avoided the majority of the disasters of the road. That meant driving all over the road, including the shoulders.
It’s an interesting commentary when the dirt roads that sometimes parallel the highway are better than the highway.
When we arrived at our camp (which appeared rather suddenly), we found three gers, tents used by the Mongolian nomadic people. They’re wood-framed, built in a circle with a sloped conical roof. The entire frame is covered with felt and canvas. They’re ridiculously comfy, even in the heat we experienced. Amy and I were the only tourists there — we’re the first of the season at that location. There were two nomadic families across the valley.
The first day there was a laid-back one: hiking up the adjacent mountain (Amy to half-way; I couldn’t resist the surge to the top). Meals were in the middle ger. The second day took us on a hike north through the valley, passing a family of domesticated camels, and through a mountain pass to a small buddhist temple on the other side (Lasa met us there to drive us back). The temple has but a single nun (not even a monk, so far as we could tell) and a museum curator, who showed us around. There’s ruins there from a previous building destroyed when the Soviets ran amok through Mongolia in an attempt to stamp out all religion.
To give you an idea of how unspoiled this place is, when we wandered around the ruins, we found fragments of buddha statues and artwork still in the dirt. That’s how few tourists have been here. (Even though there is a “card shop”.)
After lunch, we visited a small lake featuring kites, ducks (that sounded like frogs), and horses. Beautiful scenery, too. Then it was a visit over to one of the nomadic families to see how they live. Truth be known, they live pretty well. The gers are so comfortable, most nomadic families choose to live in them instead of permanent shelters. It’s also necessary as many families have to move (up to four times a year) to keep their herds of animals fed and watered. We petted baby sheep and goats. One tried to milk me by banging it head repeatedly into my groin. I mean, honestly, do I look like a goat?? After dinner, Amy and I dragged Ganaa (our guide/translator) up the side of a sand dune to watch a sunset. We were treated to a rather strange spectacle when we returned as the nomadic family tried to get their herd into a small corral for milking time.
Our third day marked a trip to Kharakorum and Erdene Zuu, the former being the ancient capital of Mongolia, and the latter being the monastery that still operates there. Three hours on bumpy roads. Beatiful buildings, though. Amazing part of it was that we were among the first tourists there that day — most of those in attendance were there for the ceremony marking the first 15 days of summer, which was the monks chanting the entire day. The fact we could walk around the museum temples unimpeded by a single tourist was … very zen.
The weather on the morning of our fourth day was unbelievable. The wind that had started the night before had given rise to rain, blowing sand (you couldn’t see the dunes — a mere kilometre away — for the clouds erupting from them), and eventually snow as we rolled to Hustai National Park, 95 km from Ulaan Baatar.
Hustai is a preserve that hosts the only wild population of tahki — the Mongolian wild horse. It was reintroduced here in the early 1990s, and has grown to over 200 horses in 14 small herds. (That, and an insane number of marmots.) It was freezing as we got our glances at a distance, but they were neat to see. We stayed in Ger #7 at the Hustai Tourist “Resort”. (About 20 gers, a couple of permanent buildings, and a “restaurant” serving food so lacking in flavour, I’d describe it as a gastronomic vacuum.)
I woke up about 3:00 this morning in a big shivering ball. Our fire had gone out and the temperatures had plunged. Needless to say, I’m a little tired as a result. Even once I was more bundled up (and I was beginning to think that long underwear wasn’t a good idea to bring!), my brain ran crazy with ways of trying to rekindle our dead fire. Note to self: always bring matches in the future when going to places that need fires.
We returned to UB today and made a beeline for the Gobi Factory Store. Gobi is the major manufacturer of cashmere goods, at least in Mongolia. I knew of them before coming, but hadn’t really thought that this was the place. It really was a factory store, too — the store was attached to the Gobi factory. Prices were decent, although the place was mobbed by some very unruly and rude French tourists.
The real prize, however, was not the completed fabrics. It was cashmere yarn, which Gobi does not sell in their stores. And Amy could not leave Mongolia without it. To get it, Ganaa went through the most amazing display of digging that I’ve ever seen. It took 90 minutes, including walking deep into the Gobi factory to find the yarn storage room to select the spools, but we walked away with 2.3 kilos of it. Amy’s happy, to say the least. But I’ll leave that portion of the story to her. It’s a doozy.
After that, we visited the Bogd Khaan’s Summer Palace in the south part of the city. It’s nice, but poorly maintained. Some of the treasures inside are wonderful, but it wasn’t worth the 5500T it cost for me to take pictures (even though that’s only about US$5). After Erdene Zuu, it was hard to look at the Summer Palace and think it was wonderful.
And so we leave Mongolia for China. Our plans have changed a bit, there. We’re hitting only Beijing, Xi’an, and Guangzhou (only because it’s right next to Hong Kong, and after the train from Xi’an, we won’t be up to crossing the border right away). Then it’s into the Hong Kong area, first with Macau, then HK proper. Why the cutting back? Too much running in and out of places has made us weary, and after hearing a few too many horror stories, we’re not sure that we’re even going to like China that much. But we shall see…
So, bright eyed and bushy tailed, we set out for the Mongolian countryside on May 21st.
Our vehicle of choice was this Russian-made Jeep-like 4wd…
Thankfully, it had a padded ceiling. Little did I know when I took this picture, we would need it!
In Mongolia, most of the roads are unpaved. Even the paved roads are desperate for renovations. Possibly in a newer car (with better shocks), this wouldn’t be a big deal. As it was, on the older stretches of roads, I braced myself for every bump.
After 6 hours of driving, we ended up near Hogno Khan mountain, at this lovely little secluded Ger camp.
We only had 3 Gers – one for Geoff and I, one for meals, and one for the employees of the camp. Cool. Talk about getting away from everything!
A ger is a round tent-like structure that can be assembled in as little as 30 minutes. First, they put down the floor. Next, a lattice-work is assembled to create the side walls. Then, they put in the centre support poles and the roof poles. Finally, it’s wrapped in a durable cotton and insulated with water-resistant felt.
The inside poles can be very ornately decorated.
It’s also typical to leave the top open, both as a vent for the wood stove as well as to let in air during the summer. Some newer gers apparantly have glass or plastic skylight “windows”.
While Some People got to go to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, some of us got to see whole herds of cashmere goats and woolly sheep in their natural environment, without fences.
Did you know these little guys are noisy? And very cute.
I even saw some Camels. Thankfully, I was beyond spitting distance.
We arrived in Ulaan Baatar at 7:30am or so, exhausted from being woken at 5:30 by the provodnista. Consequently, Gaana (our guide from Nomadic Journeys) dropped us off at our very centrally located hotel, the Bishrelt Plaza Hotel, for a bit of a nap.
Later in the afternoon when we felt more human, we met up for a quick tour of the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar.
Like most of the soviet influenced cities we have visited, Ulaan Baatar has a main, large, flat, square.
At one end is the mausoleum of Sukhbaatar. Unlike other soviet influenced cities we have visited (ahem… Moscow)… his body is not on display to the general public.
We also had a chance to visit the center of Mongolian Buddhism, Gandan monastery and temple.
Gaana explained that Mongolian buddhism is more influenced by the Tibetan traditions than the south-east asian Buddhist traditions. So, as you can see in that photo, the architecture is reminiscent of the Potala palace in Tibet. Not that I’ve been there yet, but I have seen pictures!
I don’t have a photo, but one of the highlights of the afternoon was having the head Lama from the monastery walk RIGHT BY US on the sidewalk. Thankfully, I do have some video. This man is the leader of Mongolian Buddhism. Cool.
I’m glad we had a chance to visit the temples in Ulan Ude. Since Buryatia is very similar culturally to Mongolia, I expected more similarities between the temples in both places. Not so! Perhaps it’s the age of both complexes, but the Gandan buildings were more brightly painted inside and out. Additionally, while the Ulan Ude temple had quilts on the ceiling, Gandan was painted in a more traditional style.
We arrived early this morning. We were up by 5:00, but only arrived an hour later or so. After a sort-of-nap (couldn’t sleep), we were picked up by our guide (again; she’d also taken us to the hotel from the station) and shown around the city.
First up was Sukhbaatar Square — a large open area in front of the Mongolian Parliment. It’s sort of like Red Square, but is named after a man who is credited with being the hero of Mongolia, who led the armies who finally pushed China out of “outer Mongolia” and declared an independant Mongolia. He died mysteriously (insert obligatory conspiracy theory here) and is buried at the north end of the square in a mausoleum. Unlike Lenin and Mao, however, you can’t get in to see him.
Then it was over to the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the largest in Mongolia and also the main one. It’s relatively old, though a lot of it (like most of the monasteries in Mongolia) were ransacked by the Soviets under the guise of socialism. There’s an 80-metre statue in the largest building in the complex to replace the one the Soviets stole and melted down into bullets.
Then it was off for a cultural presentation of song, dance, and music, including Mongolian throat singing. (I swear I sound like that some mornings!)
Tomorrow, we’re off for the back country for some “camping” (ger camps, though we’re not sure what to expect). Needless to say, we won’t be posting for a few days — I doubt there’s internet way out there.
We knew this was going to be rough. We knew this was going to be long. It wasn’t as bad as we thought it might be, but it was still long.
We took Train 364 (formerly 264) from Ulan Ude to Ulaan Baatar. (The train itself runs Irkutsk to UB.) As we would find out, the whole train doesn’t go to Mongolia — only the cars that contain passengers going to Mongolia. We found this out when we got to the Naushki station, on the Russian/Mongilian border.
The Russians started shunting our car around. I think this was mostly to kill time. Why else would they continually back up, go forward, back up, go forward, and so forth for about an hour? Incidentally, Russian cars (as Amy and I decided) are not built for the harsh conditions of operation in Russia. They’re built to withstand the abuse from the engineers. I thought they were going to shake the whole car apart!
We finally ended up, alone, completely separate from the rest of the train:
As we would also decide later, this was because our car was the only one going to Mongolia. The other cars were part of the train that terminated at Naushki, and would return to Irkutsk with new passengers.
And so began our wait. And wait we did. It would be a few hours before we saw anyone official-like board our train. At first, it was just someone to check our passports and make sure they were in order. That was a quick check. It was easily two more hours past that before the real officials came out. (When they did, soliders closed down the platform — you couldn’t go out there until you were supposed to be out there.) While we waited, we amused ourselves by watching a pile driver:
Yes, we were that bored.
With the final forms filled out (the exit customs form) and our passports, stamped, we resumed our waiting.
Six hours after we got there, we finally left, a single car towed by a lonely diesel locomotive out to Sukhbaatar, 21 kilometres inside the Mongolian border.
To wait some more.
After a couple of hours, the Mongolians started to let us in. This involved three forms (entry/exit form, health form, and customs form). After the health form was signed, we got scammed into US$10 health insurance. I’ve heard this is bogus, but we were too tired to care at that point. In between the official stamping of passports, we received a barrage of people who wanted to exchange our rubles for togrogs — which we’d already done in Naushki. They kept at is, the same people asking many times, despite us saying (more and more loudly every time) that we have none!
Finally, passports stamped (using their hands as the table for stamping, despite one being in the cabin), we finally left Sukhbaatar for Ulaan Baatar.
Total crossing time: 10 hours. Ish.
Luckily, mostly done during the day. The other way, I gather it’s mostly at night. Ugh!