Travelling the Trans-Mongolian

I do not know where to start. How to describe a trip through three countries, across two continents in just 18 days? There are plenty of words that come to mind: views, lemmings, trees, more trees, desert, camel, more trees, heat, cold, encounters, Google Translate, vodka and some more trees. Above all, taking the Trans Mongolian Express from Moscow to Beijing is a journey. According to the Oxford Dictionary a journey is ‘an act of travelling from one place to another’, well, that is difficult to argue with. It can also mean ‘a long and often difficult process of personal change and development’. Perhaps not very personal, but boy, that train ride can be a long and difficult process, so yes, I will settle for journey. And what a journey it was.

Russia: taiga, trendy, time zones

I find it interesting that before travelling somewhere, you do not really know what to expect, but once you arrive, all these non-existing expectations are somehow fulfilled. Moscow is a wonderful city (and not only because it was great weather when we were there) that takes you back to Russia’s glory days in the early 19th century. Grand boulevards, mesmerising subway station halls, chandeliers and dark wood. Even the supermarket looks like Natasha Rostov from Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ (could you bring any other book on a journey like this?) could walk in any moment. At the same time, Moscow is a modern city like any other and it hit me that the world really becomes smaller because many places look much more alike than ten years ago. Ok, McDonalds is spelled slightly different, but that does not change the fact that the same brands are present in all large cities (or even the smaller ones as I spotted both Villeroy and Boch and Harley Davidson stores in Irkutsk).

Getting off in Irkutsk and heading to Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal, we knew we had left Europe and had entered all that is Siberia. The temperature had dropped 20 degrees since the day before so we were stuck with pouring rain and seven degrees Celsius. Leaving the (apparently gorgeous) Baikal Trail for what it was, we enjoyed some of the best things Lake Baikal has to offer: nerpa seals and the banya. Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world and also the deepest, with a maximum depth of 1.642 metres. It is also extremely clear (you can see up to 40 metres below) because it has microorganisms that love cleaning and keep the water free of all sorts of freshwater-lake-rubbish. During winter the ice layer is up to three metres thick and people drive on it (a train once tried to take a shortcut across the lake but failed miserably and sank on the first attempt). Nerpa seals are fat, round, without a neck and, befitting a seal, very cute. I think that the only reason they are not extinct, is because they do not have any natural enemies, for I do not see the evolutionary advantage of not having a neck. A banya holds between a sauna and a steam bath. Nothing out of the ordinary, except maybe for the tradition of hitting yourself or others with bunches of dried branches from birch, oak or eucalyptus to remove toxins from the skin and improve the circulation. We were not cold anymore, I can tell you that…

Travelling through Siberia, I came to appreciate the immense size of Russia. It takes two nights on a train to get from Amsterdam to Moscow, yet it takes six nights to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok (to get to Mongolia it takes you four nights). Nevertheless, it did not feel remote in the least. There were plenty of small villages, each with at least one Soviet-style grey concrete apartment block and a couple of wooden houses. After two days of endless trees there were still lots of trees, but they were placed a bit further away from the tracks, opening up the view of rolling hills and gorgeous sunsets. Every so often, little stations painted mint green reminded us that we were on a train journey.

Life on the train seems timeless, with afternoon naps but also waking up at two in the morning to a bright sunrise. The knowledge that everyone is stuck on the train for another day or so takes the urgency out of every action, which adds to the charm of this journey. Time zones are a particularly interesting part of the trip. While fairly simple in Mongolia and China, Russia likes them time zones. We travelled through six time zones, all in Siberia. Trains, train stations and train tickets in Russia only know Moscow time, which makes it easy on the hand, but also requires some calculating. Not surprising, the list of world clocks on my phone became a good friend. But a world clock is a pretty useless thing when even the internet (read: Google) does not provide the right time for Novosibirsk. It turned out they had changed time zones in July 2016 and had forgotten to tell the rest of the world.

Life on the train

Our first leg on the train, two nights from Moscow to Novosibirsk we bunked up with a mother and a daughter. They seemed friendly, but like most of the people we met they did not speak a word of English. In addition, for pretty much the entire trip, birch trees and pines were all we could see for miles. So far for this exciting, adventurous train ride I had in mind, it was mainly sleeping and reading. Only when travelling from Novosibirsk to Irkutsk did we have the authentic Siberian train experience I had heard so much about (proofs once more that it is way better not to have any expectations at all). We had a wonderful Google Translate conversation with a young girl and were covered in fridge magnets, sea shells and postcards by a Russian family whose 10-year-old daughter spoke the best English of all the non-native speakers we met on our trip. Lots of selfies, dried fish (which gave us quite a fright when we were boarding and putting away our bags at six in the morning and my friend grabbed it) and homemade wine later I felt I fully experienced Russian hospitality. The rest of the train rides we were either by ourselves or surrounded by tourists, which was not necessarily a bad thing. On the stretch between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing we shared our tiny house on wheels with a super friendly German doctor’s couple and we had great conversations while waiting for a bogie change.

Mongolia: panoramic, party, pyromania

We only spent four nights in this country, of which one on the train, but it feels as if we were there for ages. It is also the country I am keenest on returning to. To be fair, I did not know much about Mongolia, except that Genghis Khaan was born there, people lived on barren plains in their gers (yurt in Russian, a portable round tent covered with skins or felt), using eagles for hunting. No one ever told me that Mongolia was part of the Soviet Union, or that young people in Ulaanbaatar are extremely hip, that people speak better English than in Russia or China, or that you have to walk around the owo clockwise while throwing three pebbles for blessed travels. Except for a few ancient temples that survived the Soviet purge, the entire city of Ulaanbataar looks like it was constructed in the last twenty years, but at least everyone (also many people in the countryside) can go to the Porsche dealer to get a shiny new car. This is a stark difference with East African countries for example, where somethings are still only available if you are the president that has been in office for 30 years and can import anything he likes (think sports tape or the aforementioned Porsche).

The agency with which we booked part of our trip offered a two-night stay in a ger camp run by a Dutch-Mongolian family and promoted is as ‘a very authentic experience’. I was curious how authentic a Dutch-Mongolian family could get but anyway. We soon discovered that we would be staying with Bert, who has been living in Mongolia for the past twenty years and has more adventurous stories to tell in his solid Amsterdam accent than the time driving through three rivers to get to the camp allowed. The camp was situated in the middle of Terelj National Park, which hosts both rolling hills looking out over lush valleys and hills covered in trees already changing to their autumn colours in the most spectacular way. After all the cities and trains, it was wonderful to breathe in the fresh air and spend our days hiking and horse riding from one panoramic view to the other.

Besides drop-dead gorgeous, Terelj was also drop-dead cold. And there was no banya around to keep us warm this time. The entire country of Mongolia sits at an altitude of at least 500 metres above sea level, so for a Dutch person that is pretty much like you are staying in the mountains. Fortunately, our huge ger had a small little stove so we became experts at keeping the fire going and set our alarms in the middle of the night to throw a last log onto it. Add a reindeer skin to sleep under and no one was complaining about being cold anymore. The next morning the sun was friendly enough to come out again to warm our bodies a bit more. The clouds we had seen the day before were actually the exception. Mongolia is called the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky as on average it has 250 days of sunshine. I could get used to that…

In Siberia we were surprised by the lack of cattle (or people for that matter) outside our train window. This was more than compensated in Mongolia. Out of the three million Mongolians, one third lives in the capital city, whereas the other two million still practice semi-nomadic lifestyles setting up their ger either at their summer or winter address to spend the next six months with their family and livestock at that location. Everywhere you can find flocks of yaks, cows, sheep, horses and even camels. I obviously was not prepared for the advances in modern day farming. Do you seriously think people still run after their cattle to get them to move? Of course not! Why would you do that if you have a car? Or a motorbike?

China: crowded, clean, cuisine

On a Friday afternoon our train rolled into Beijing Railway Station, which marked the end of our incredible train journey. We had covered 7.621 kilometres in four acts, spending roughly 104 hours on two Russian and two Mongolian trains. No wonder that by the time we boarded our last train in Ulaanbaatar, it felt a bit like coming home. The train had carried us from one world to another, because for sure we were not in Europe anymore. I have visited many different countries and crossing long distances for a holiday was not new to me, but this was the first time I had travelled to such a different place without using an airplane. It is a nice feeling, somehow using public transport makes me feel like I belong more than planes and taxis ever will.

China, the land of more than 1,3 billion people, of which an estimated 20 million live in Beijing (together with Katie Melua’s nine million bicycles). I cannot deny, the vast number of Chinese people I saw in the three days I was there left a serious impression. Because there are so many of them, it looks like there are only Chinese people and just a handful of Western tourists and other ethnic groups. But they have their shit together. Sure it is busy in the subway, or in the Forbidden City, but the omnipresent police and smart crowd control (and the fact that Chinese people seem to move around like a group of lemmings) keeps Beijing orderly and calm. There are fairly empty squares, lovely parks, clean hutongs (narrow alleyways that are a remnant of the old city) and a hipster neighbourhood Amsterdam would be proud to call its own.

Like everything else in China, Beijing is enormous. Time and time again we were surprised at how long it took us to get from A to B. We walked 45 kilometres in the three days we were there, in addition to the hours we spent on the subway. On entering the city, we could see the construction that was going on in the suburbs. In the Netherlands we are proud if we put up one 20+ story building each year, in China they are building 20 at the same time, right next to each other. Looking at the concrete skeletons I began to get a feeling for the numerous stories about ghost cities in China, where housing for millions of people has been set up, but where there is not a living soul to be found.

One of the touristy highlights was Tiananmen Square, one of the largest squares in the world and infamous for the 1989 student protests when hundreds of civilians were murdered by the army. As we found out, one does not simply walk onto Tiananmen Square. At night it is closed off to visitors (though beautifully illuminated) and we had pretty much made a full circle when we finally found the security check point through which we could enter on a Sunday morning. On the square there are a number of old city gates (one of which holds a huge portrait of Mao), the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and Mao’s Mausoleum. In Moscow we had already stocked up on dead, embalmed, displayed Communist leaders when we visited Lenin in his mausoleum. When in Beijing we could not but pay our friend Mao a visit as well. Both experiences were very similar, with lots of people being rushed passed the deceased in silence. Interestingly, both Lenin and Mao had no desire whatsoever to receive visitors in the afterlife and had requested to be buried and cremated respectively. Maybe one day…

Common themes

Throughout the journey, a number of common themes kept on resurfacing. They are pretty random, but I felt like sharing them anyway.

 

Food – Amazing, especially in China (Peking duck, noodles, dumplings, a-ma-zing). A meatball according to Bert’s Dutch grandma’s recipe on the Mongolian steppe. Omul (fish) from Lake Baikal. Food on the train is an adventure. Many people stuff their backpacks with crackers and noodles, but there is a certain charm in having dinner in the dining car while looking out of the window at the landscape passing by. The Russian trains had eight-page menus, but never served anything else than fried potatoes with a few slices of cucumber and tomato.

 

Language – No one speaks more than a few words of English. Therefore, learning Russian is a serious option if you really want to have in-depth conversations. However, that also means missing out on the wonders of Google Translate like passing a phone back and forth while smiling at each other awkwardly or feeling like a dyslectic when pointing your phone camera at the menu that does not have pictures or an English translation (resulting in some really disturbing translations every now and then). You would also deprive all the Russians that start talking to you, continue talking after you have indicated you do not understand them and finally burst out laughing when they realise you have come to Russia without understanding a word of Russian, of their daily dose of laughter.

 

James Bond – Taking the Trans Mongolian Railway somehow feels like passing through a lot of James Bond sets. It works for pretty much all of Russia, the train itself, but also in Beijing. You can just see James running across Tiananmen Square, trying to catch the bad guy while working his way through a vast sea of Chinese people.

 

Efteling – The Efteling is a Dutch theme park and surprisingly often I got an Efteling-vibe on this trip. The colourful St. Basil in Moscow reminded me of the house of the with from Hansel and Gretel, which is made out of candy. In Beijing, a park with a lake (with boats) and temple on top of the hill was very much like the area of the Efteling were there is a lake (with boats) and a hill with a Chinese-style pagoda on top of it.

All in all, quite the journey. It has been an amazing 2,5 weeks and I feel like I have been away for months. There are so many tiny things that make this trip truly special and I can only recommend it. Our planning was pretty tight and I am sure there was much more to see along the way, but at least now I have some new holiday destinations to dream about.