Well, this is the first chance we’ve had to add to the blog. Temporarily off the train in a hotel so taking advantage of our hotel in Irkutsk in Siberia. Here goes:
Visa problems finally sorted out on the Monday/Tuesday, so on Tuesday afternoon we finally left for our trip. We had a very short few hours in Beijing before joining the Zarengold (Tsar’s Gold) group. There are about 170 Germans and a small group of 12 English speakers. An interesting collection we are! Two Finns, 2 Chinese Canadians, 2 Americans (New Yorkers), 2 English, 1 Dane, 1 older American gentleman, and we 2 Australians!
We began our trip from Beijing in the evening of our arrival in China travelling to the Mongolian border overnight and once through border formalities in Erlian, we visited a huge dinosaur ‘cemetery’. The area surrounding it is marked with enormous full-sized replicas of many different dinosaurs placed quite widely on the plains both sides of the road. There must have been well over a hundred placed randomly and with pre-historic trees dotted around the effect was excellent. While we were bussed around, our luggage was transferred to the Zarengold train. In the evening, at the railway station we were treated to a performance by two young men gorgeously dressed playing Mongolian fiddles and throat singing. It was an incredible sound they produced and the music ethereal – so much a part of the countryside. The Gobi Desert is not like the Sahara – more like a vast dry plain with very sparse vegetation. The capital, Ulaan Baatar, was interesting - it has much development and building although some of the massive buildings are left unfinished due to the global financial crisis.
It was the final day of the school year and graduating students were bussed around the city to the high lookout places for celebrations. All were dressed up in suits and good clothes with a small bunch of bells pinned to their lapel signifying the ‘last bell’ of their school days. Much laughter and smiles and photo-taking. I was amused to see even here the habit of cheeky schoolboys posing with two fingers held up behind their friend’s head.
After a visit to a Temple, and a late afternoon show of musicians, singers and contortionists (arriving 10 minutes late because of a traffic jam!), four of us travelled to the countryside to spend the night in a Mongolian ger (or yurt). An astonishing beautiful place with rock formations and such peace and quiet! Dinner was served about 9pm and it was still reasonably light – a long twilight! Our ger was warm from a very efficient little stove – so much so that at 11pm, we were gasping and opening the door to let out some of the heat. The fabric of the ger was two layers of felt, one of plastic, then another layer of felt all covered with canvas and bound around the diameter with thick straps. The top of the ger was anchored down with ropes attached to large rocks. The ger was simply but comfortably furnished with three single beds (softer than the train’s), a small chest, a little table complete with a candle for light. Slept very well and woke early with light coming through the round opening in the centre of the roof. The scenery was absolutely stunning with wide open places with high rock formations surrounded the ger camp. The silence was absolute and the blue sky and fresh breeze restored the senses.
The rest of the tour group arrived around lunchtime and we all ate together in a large round dining room. Mutton cooked in a large pot in its own juices was served – tasted slightly fatty but with a different taste – supposedly from the natural herbs that the sheep had eaten.
In the afternoon we were treated to a mini Naadam festival with archery, horse & camel riding. Also a race with young children as jockeys on the small, tough Mongolian ponies. They raced furiously about 3 kilometres back to where we were and we were surprised at just how young the kids were. One, I’m sure, would only have been 4 years old.
During the bus trip back to Ulaan Bataar we stopped to visit a traditional home of a nomadic family. A young couple with a daughter about 3 and a baby. The ger was spotlessly and very neatly kept. We were served a snack of milky tea, dried kurd and a form of Mongolian soft biscuit. It was the family’s summer ger so didn’t have power for a washing machine, etc. which they have at their winter place where electricity is available. They did have a solar panel which powered a small TV and lighting but otherwise a small central wood stove provided heat for cooking. Furniture was traditional and painted with brightly coloured flower designs. Only 2 beds so children slept on bedding on the floor. As we left, the father arrived home – not on a pony but on a motorbike - to farewell us. At the rear of the ger was parked an old model Mercedes car! Nevertheless it would be a hard life, I think. Some nomads pack up the ger and move with the seasons, but this family only moved in summer and winter.
Said a regretful goodbye to our Mongolian guide and boarded the train again after a restaurant dinner and folk music/dance show. Very early next morning we reached the Mongolian/Russian border where the Russian formalities took several hours. Eventually we were allowed to proceed and in the afternoon pulled into the station at Ulaan Ude in Siberia. We had a short city tour with a local guide and a walk around the historic ‘tea-market’ area. Architecture has begun to take on the typical Russian style – unpainted wooden houses with brightly painted window shutters. Older Soviet industrial buildings were mostly dilapidated and abandoned – hundreds of them!
Arrived about 6pm and our first walk around was at Port Baikal – a moderate size village right on the lake. A cruise on the lake for an hour in lovely sunny weather but with a bitterly cold wind. The train then moved on around the lake to a position at 110km for the barbecue/picnic dinner outside. A beautiful spot with a small beach to the lake. However any thoughts of a swim vanished with the sight of icebergs floating around. A nice hot day but the ice still hadn’t melted even by the last day of Spring. A few hardy souls braved the freezing water including Anna (the Finnish lady) from our English speaking group. She didn’t stay in long though! Walking back around to the other side of the train we were able to stroll though the small village and were invited in to see her home by an older Russian lady. She looked about 70 but her daughter said she was 84. Neither mother nor daughter could speak English but with lots of smiles and sign language, we communicated. Another English couple and we two were invited to share a glass of vodka followed by a piece of tomato or cucumber. We managed it! Then a few photos and a promise to send copies to them. It was just a lovely experience. The house basic but warmly heated, certainly no mod-cons., only a small TV in the corner.
We made it back to the barbecue to find we were the last and only a small serving each remained (the meat was delicious!), but our meeting with the Russian women was well worth the smaller plate of food!
A piano-accordionist played and sang Russian music and later played some German songs for the German contingent to their delight. Some partied, some walked around the area, some sat and looked at the changing patterns on the lake and river and enjoyed the overwhelming peace and beauty. It was a most enjoyable experience and we loved it.
Walked back through the carriages to ours (carriage 5), and was surprised at the different quality of accommodation in some of them. There are 3 dining cars; two of which are quite dark and sombre in décor, but again we struck lucky and ours is a light and bright cream colour and quite lovely. We really seemed to have got an excellent cabin as well – better than most. Even the pricier Bolshoi class we sneaked a look at, didn’t really seem as nice as ours however they do have their own bathroom and toilet. We have to walk 20 steps to the end of the corridor for our shower/toilet. Not a problem at all.