Hello from Mongolia
09.07.2012 - 17.07.2012 22 °C
We made it this far east and survived Russia lol! No, without jokes, Russia was beautiful in its own way. It's a very different country then the western countries that we are both used to, the signs of communism are definitely visible. It was very interesting, the poverty is very visible, people are not very friendly but we do think that they are happy in their own way.
On July 9th Jolijn flew from Amsterdam via Tallinn (Estonia) to Moscow, at least that was the plan. After spending the whole 8th of July sick in my bed, I went after checkout to the bed and breakfast that we booked together ,to drop off my big backpack. I headed with the Moscow metro, which was very beautiful! to the trainsation of the Aeroexpress. The aero express is a super modern high speed train that runs from the golden circle metro line on the North end of the city, to the airport of Sheremetyevo 'd' Mockba airport, a fairly new International airport in Moscow. I get there about an hour later then I left the B&B and when I get there I learn that Jolijns plane left Amsterdam so late that she missed her connecting flight from Tallinn to Moscow. So Estonian air arranged another flight from Tallinn to Warsaw (Poland) and from there to Moscow. So instead of 4pm, she landed at 8, but luckily there was wifi in the terminal so I didn't have to be bored. The flight got in nicely on time, and after 45minutes the first people started coming through the gates, but not Jolijn. At 9.30 nobody was really coming out anymore, and the 50 people that were there around 8 o clock waiting with me had all left.. I started wondering if she was on the flight..but she told me she had to go boarding in Warsaw..then I thought maybe her luggage isn't there and unfortunately that was the situation.. I tried to get her attention from the 'personnel only' entrance, and she saw me and we were able to have a quick chat. She had to fill out all kinds of documents, "welcome to russia", because her backpack was not on the belt..it was left in Warsaw but would come with the last flight that night and would be delivered tomorrow to our B&B. But we should phone the airport first tomorrow, to see if it had arrived. So shortly after 10pm, we finally were able to give each other a hug! We got some cash, took the aero express and metro back to the B&B and went to sleep because we were both very tired.
The next morning we booked a free guided tour with an English speaking guide through Tripadvisor, an absolute must do! Since we only had one day left, (we discovered yesterday that our train to Irkutsk leaves at 00.35 on July 11th, so technically that's tonight) it was nice to be able to see at least Moscows highlights that day. Our guide Masha was awesome, her English very good, and the stories very interesting. And we couldn't believe we were actually standing on the Red Square infront of the famous St Basil's cathedral! The sun is shining, what more could you wish for? Oh right, the backpack..
Beautiful statues, a park, churches with spells, cathedrals, Lenin's library, the Red Square with St Basil's cathedral and the Mausoleum, the outside walls of the Kremlin, Alexandrovsky's beautiful flower gardens, Stalin's "seven sisters", metrostations and we ended at Christ the Saviors cathedral. Very beautiful and the story behind it was pretty awesome too! After we finish the tour we ask Masha if she can phone the number of the airport for us and get an update about the bag (since we assumed the people probably don't speak English very well ) and she does. The news is not what we hoped for, Warsaw said they send the bag, Moscow says they didn't get it.. That's all the information they can give us.. Masha advises us to go back to the airport ourselves to see if it's there and if not to arrange further shipment of the bag to Irkutsk. So we decide that we will spend the rest of the afternoon in Moscow city center, will go to the B&B after to have a shower and pack up our stuff, then head to the airport and straight from the airport to Yaroslavsky train station, where the Trans siberian train will leave. We enjoy the rest of the afternoon in Moscow, walk to the Arbat area, a traffic free street with lots of shops and restaurants is what they told us. And is it ever western! In the whole city there is not much western things to be found, except for the big commercial advertising of Pepsi, Samsung, Nokia etc on the buildings, but in Arbat street there is a Wendy's! (Russian signage on the the building, but seriously, a Wendy's in Moscow was something I had to take a picture to prove it). A little further down the street, which is full of souvenirs shops and restaurants, we also find a Mc Donald's, a Hard Rock Cafe and all of a sudden it doesn't feel so Russian anymore. We decide to skip our known American 'friends' and have lunch in a Russian place where there is no tourists. We enjoy salad, pasta, a drink and some sushi and all that for not even €20! So not bad for Moscow at all. After Arbat street we stroll around looking for the metro, which seems unable to find for some reason, but luckily after we ask someone "metro", they guide us in the right direction, and not much later we head towards the Red Square again. We want to stroll around a little longer just because we can!
When we get there, the Red Square is gated off, you can't access it anymore and a lot of young people in uniform are sitting in front of the state history museum. We decide to wait and see what's going to happen, since there is a lot of guys in uniforms already guarding the Red Square. Well 5 minutes later, a loud voice sounds out of speakers all around the square and the 'guards' take a different position. Another 5 minutes later all the people in uniform we saw waiting in front of the state history museum, come marching onto the square in perfectly lined up rows, all marching at the same pace. It's kinda of weird and were are wondering what it is we are witnessing here.. The group of people in uniforms doesn't seem to end and it almost takes 10 full minutes before everybody is on the square. We estimate that there is at least 1000 people on the square now, of which 6 army people carrying flags. The Red Square colored blue in an instant, by young (obviously trained for this ceremony) people, and we are thinking of how powerful Russia wants to project themselves to the rest of the world. It seems like we are surrounded by Russians only, no one speaks English and we still have no idea what we are looking at. But it sure looks like some 'power-show off-ceremony' that probably has a purpose, but we have no idea what the purpose is. We feel small, standing there, and imagine how it must have been in the times of war back in the 1940's..
When we get to the hostel we have a nice shower, because the weather here is very hot! A nice 28 degrees with a lot of sunshine, makes you feel sticky quite fast, so a shower at the end of the day feels great. And little did we know what was yet to come..
We decide to ask the guy of our breakfast if he can call with the airport again, just to see if there are any updates and he tells us they just called him, that the backpack will be delivered within the next hour. 50 minutes later it really is there and we are ecstatic! Whoooot!
We don't have to go to the airport now, which gives us some more time, so we decide to go out for supper. There is a French and an Italian restaurant around the corner, so of course the choice is easy, Italian.. We ask if they have an English menu (because most restaurants have their menus translated) but they don't. The girl does grab a menu quickly and shows us pictures. Yay, now it's not so hard to pick a pizza. We decide to celebrate with a drink, but the drink menu is not with pictures, nor in English, so we both just pick one. Jolijn ends up getting a huuuuuge mojito (in a very large Hoegaarden glass) and I get something like a tropical drink. Both very tasty! The pizza comes in a big or small, and since the small in St Petersburg was about 19cm diameter, we decide to go for big. Well big means big in Moscow, holy crap! Haha! The pizza is roughly 45cm diameter! We just laughed out loud, because we did not expect this much pizza and drinks for the little money we had to pay. We both ate more than half and the rest we asked to take with us, which was not a problem, so we could eat the pizza in the train the day after. At 10.00 we leave, after a little grocery shopping for in the train, to the metro that takes us to Yaroslavsky station. It's still 28 degrees when we get to the train station at 11pm, so no need for long pants and a sweater, we're still in shorts and a tank!
The train arrives around 11.50pm and 10m minutes later we are on board of 'our Trans Siberia Express'. The room is small but looks efficient. 4 beds of which two lower and two upper. We have the two upper beds. Our only roommate is a Russian lady who does not speak a word of English. Oh well, nothing new. We want to put our bags under the beds, but they don't fit, there is barely any room (and our bag packs are quite big). So we ask her where our bags go (while pointing at them and showing her that they are blocking the whole floor), but she doesn't respond. So we decide to ask the lady of the train, after a little hassle with the language barrier, we understand that our bags have to go in some kind of compartment above our bed ( there is a space in the wall that kinda lays on top for the hallway ceiling). It's way up high so it takes a little effort for us to get the 13 and 18 kgs bags up there, but it works.
It's bloody hot in the train, around 32 degrees, so we're glad that the window is open. But after we start riding at 00.30 the lady in our room wants to go to sleep and wants to close the window.. Seriously.. So we try to say that it's too hot for the window to be closed, but she says njet! And she gets the neighbor and he closes the window, all the way! She doesn't speak to us, and goes to sleep, and there we are in our own little sauna.. Great..
The bathroom consists of a toilet with a sink, a bar of soap full of hairs and a little bit of toilet paper. Size wise its decent, but it smells like the old French toilets, so not very nice..there is also no shower or anything that seems to make it possible to have something like a shower, and it's sooo hot..
The first night we sleep okay, but are very relieved to have some fresh air coming in, when we open the window again in the morning. The lady wasn't there ( we had a stop at a train station for 30min and you can get off if you want) so we decide to use this opportunity to open the window. The train is very old and the windows do not open and close easily, it takes a lot of effort and strength. Later that day another lady with a little 3-year old girl gets into our room as well, and since they are also Russian, they become good friends with the other lady. And after a day of insane heat, lots of puzzling, napping, drinking lots of water, eating leftover pizza and looking at the scenery outside, the second night becomes a little more pleasant because the girl from the train is the one that has to close our window tonight (both Russian ladies insist on a closed window), is not so strong so she can not get it closed all the way, so at least there is a little breeze, which we looooove! We've already travelled 1814 km and were 2hrs ahead of Moscow time. At least the days are a little shorter every day because we keep changing timezones, heading this far east.
Day three is not much different then number 1 and 2. We sleep in, grab some breakfast at the first station we stop at. This usually means very dry bread, so you need a liter of water to get the bread down lol, and some juice. The rest of the day we enjoy the scenery, the very different living standards of Siberian Russians (they are very poor), some food, puzzles, other games and each other. The lady with the kid got off, but a new person already came back on, another Russian. We pass the roughly half way sign today, so we're halfway Moscow-Beijing now! Were getting used to the heat now, but still laying on your bed with your legs in a 70 degree agle, you can just feel the sweat run down your leg from the back of your knee.. Its gross, but even when you do nothing you sweat insanely! We did manage to keep the window open for just a little during the nights, so the nights became quite pleasant! Its quite the experience so far. We're now 3497 km on our way and the time now is Moscow +4hrs.
The scenery is quite boring. There is lots of tall trees on the side of the tracks, so often you can not see very much. Sometimes there is some stretches of farm land for as far as you can see, but it's all flat and green. Very very green. The little towns that we pass are shocking. The houses are not more then what we would call shacks, and our sheds in our backyard look nicer then most homes here. They're crooked, we wonder how these people stay warm in these terrible cold Siberian winters with unisolated shacks like this..the answer is probably vodka..They do all have a big garden where they grow theyre own veggies and potatoes, sometimes ther is a dog and/or a cow. The garden is about three times the size of their homes, they probably grow everything they need for the year, cuz here it seems like there is no civilization anywhere close to be found. Not even a trace of a store, restaurant, gas station or anything like that..
Day four is our last day on the train. At least for now. We will be staying in Irkutsk for two nights, before getting on the train again to leave for Ulaanbaatar. We get to Irkutsk at 9.30pm local time. The hostel was very close, but it was a little hard to find. As we're standing on an intersection, looking on our map, two old ladies (70's) wave at us and point the other way. We cross the street and meet them and they say 'trans sib'? That's the name of our hostel en we reply with 'da', which means yes. She waves that we should follow her, that it's just around the corner, and it is. Wow! A very nice gesture! Our Russian vocabulary has expanded to 7 words by now, preevjet, da, njet, spaasibaa, dva, kak dela and pa roeski. Of course this is not how you spell it, but it means, "hi", "yes", "no", "thank you", "two", "how are you" and "no Russian". Lol. All you need. A few minutes later we check into our hostel and our reception girl is a local from UlanUde. Shelooks more Asian then Russian, speaks Mongolian, Russian, a little English and fluently German. Really! We wonder why, and it appears that she just graduated studying German languages. We are too happy to be able to get a shower after 4 days, because when we were walking out of the trainstation, after 5 minutes with the backpacks on us, we were badly sweating again, and as it was leaking down our arm, it was brown.. Really really disgusting! Lol. So I guess we were allowed to say, we needed a shower.. And did we ever enjoy it!
The 15th was my birthday. 27.. We went into the city to find a cafe/bakery but ended up a pizza place because most places we're non existing according to our travel books. Also delicious after a few days of noodles, Pringles and water and Pepsi..we explore Irkutsk which, quite surprisingly, had everything you could think off. Lots of stores like Adidas, Billabong, Columbia, Puma etc. it seems like any other big city. And then thinking of the fact that an hour out of town they have absolutely nothing seems a little strange. We go to the market where we buy fruits and veggies for in the train tomorrow. 4 cucumbers for 8.5 rumbles ( €0.20). Bananas and apples are more expensive but oh we'll at least we have some decent food! We also find some kind of bakery and buy cake for tonight. Jolijn actually bought candles for on my cake, so we decide we have to have some real cake today. It started to rain and as we walked back to the hostel and it started pouring! Totally drenched we got back to the hostel, so we had a shower again. Gosh is it nice to shower when you want to!! We enjoy a nice pasta dinner, have cake with candles and Baileys, and then off to bed early, since our train leaves at 4.51 the next morning. (funny fact; when we went to bed at 9pm it was 6am in Canada at that time. Our day was already over when yours still had to start!)
In comparison to Norway and St Petersburg, it is still dark at 4am when we wake up. After a short walk without much traffic (which is weird cuz there is traffic EVERYWHERE all the time), we made it to the trainstation. This time we have Dutch roomies, what a relief! Its a mom (Dee) and her son (Arvid) from Deventer (30minutes from our hometowns). Good conversation, no bitching lol. Even the ladies that work in this train speak the English words we need to know. Food, drink, stop, sorry, passport, stay inside and the amount of minutes we stop. The train is also a little cleaner than the last one (and there is carpets on the floor in the hallway and our rooms, soap dispensers and toilets seats), although it looks the same. We learn from the Dutch guy that this is the so called "tourist train". Apparently we were in a regular Russian train, but we noticed.. Lol.
Besides the difference we noticed is the main difference that the tourist train stops at bigger stations only and our train stopped basically everywhere (and of course there is all nationalities on board except Russians). These Dutch people took a train from Moscow on the same night as us, only 3 hours earlier, but they arrived in Irkutsk almost a day earlier! Oh well, we're kind of glad we did get to experience the Russian part, because that is how it goes in Russia.
After we have a little sleep we wake up seeing the Baikal lake, but unfortunately the weather is still bad. So very gray, a little rain every now and then, so I don't think we saw Baikal lake in its most beautiful way, we were lucky if we were able to see the shore and some water. The landscape changes for the better though. Slowly we get into the hills, not big ones, but at least it's not flat anymore! It's very green and its starting to look like what we think Mongolia looks like. The little towns are still the same, very very poor with hardly any facilities. The other thing that we notice is cattle. Herds of cow, goats and sometimes sheep are a common sight now, where as in he four days through Siberia, we barely saw any animals what so ever. Wild horses you see more then people. Apparently Mongolia has more horses then people (over 14 million horses compared to 2.7million people). In Mongolia you're considered wealthy if you have a lot of horses since they are used for riding and carrying but also for milk and meat.
At 5 in the afternoon we reach the Russian side of the border. The first half hour we were not allowed to go out of the train, since all our passports were taken by Russian border control. After we were allowed to go out, and our train compartments were searched by people and dogs. After nearly 4 hours, we were cleared and the train drove about 15minutes before we reached the Mongolian border. Same story here. Passports were taken in, and we actually were discouraged to leave the train, because there was simply nothing at the trainstation. Well that wasn't totally true, because there were some cows laying on the grass next to the benches on the station, but besides that, there was nothing. After an hour and 45 minutes, we also got a green light here and since it was bedtime, we went to sleep.
One night of sleep later we reach Ulaanbaatar at 7.30 in the morning. We made it!!