Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to embark on the epic train journey across Russia, perhaps with a copy of War and Peace or something by Dostoyevsky to pass the time. Recently, that dream came true as part of our 12 month around the world adventure, when my wife and I were fortunate in being able to schedule the train along with stops in Mongolia, Lake Baikal, Moscow and St. Petersburg into a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The first leg of our trip to Mongolia began early on a Saturday morning when we boarded our train in Beijing and steadily rolled through the Chinese countryside, catching a last quick glimpse of the Great Wall before arriving at the border. Spending the last of our Chinese currency, we stocked up on cup of noodles, chocolates and cookies, while we patiently waited 6 hours for the wheelbase on our train to be changed (the tracks in Mongolia are narrower). Eventually, our transformed train reappeared and we were off, although it was after midnight by now and everyone fell promptly asleep.
Awakening the next morning, we were amazed at the transformation outside our window, as we had crossed from a country of 1.5 billion people to one of 2.8 million, from concrete jungles and skyscrapers to open space and endless grasslands, from hot muggy climates to a cooler temperate environment. Relentlessly snaking across the stark Gobi desert, we eventually arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the capital and home to half of the population of Mongolia.
Here we were driven 2.5 hours outside of town to Steppe Nomads Resort, located in Gun Gulaat, a Mongolian National Park. Driving along an absurdly pot holed road, we bravely turned into grasslands ribboned with rutted tracks, passing through herds of wild horses, yaks, cattle, sheep and goats, finally cresting a hill and dropping into a gorgeous valley, with a meandering river on one flank and a band of hills on the other, both casting a protective arm around the resort, restfully tucked in the shadow of a hummock.
Warmly greeted by the local Mongolian staff and the pungent and sweet sage brush flavoring the air, we checked into our Ger, a traditional round tent favored by the nomadic tribes. During the day we hiked around the local hills among the free range animals lazily munching on the spring vegetation while enjoying the vistas that seemed to go on forever. We also had the opportunity to ride horses and rent kayaks, while at night we sat on the deck surveying the magical countryside, watching the moon rise over the distant hills and the silent stars pop from the overhead sky.
After five blissful days of fresh air and relaxation, we returned to Ulaanbaatar for the three day train journey to Lake Baikal. Forewarned that this segment of the journey could take up to eleven hours, we spent ten hours being processed through Mongolian and Russian immigration. Frustratingly slow on the Mongolian border and painstakingly thorough at Russian customs, we were inspected multiple times, sniffed for drugs, scrutinized for contraband, and double checked for proper documentation.
Finally, we arrived at Irkutsk, the gateway to Lake Baikal, where we were met and taken to a home stay on the shores of the lake in the little village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe. Our two night home stay was comfortable, sharing the home with a couple from Ireland and a family from Scotland, with a traditional sauna out back and all meals provided by the host. Surrounded by mountains, this immense lake contains enough fresh water to supply the world’s population in drinking water for 40 years, with its crystal clear waters constantly replenished by melting snow and frequent storms.
Returning to Irkutsk, we spent the night and had time to investigate this small but interesting modern town, filled with restaurants, cafes and pretty decent shopping. Finally, we boarded train #9 for the 5000 mile 4 day journey to Moscow, a memorable ride on one of the most famous railways in the world. Across 10 time zones, through 87 cities and towns, we spent our time enjoying the scenery and companionship of others on board, reading books, playing cards, daydreaming out the window, sleeping, lounging about, and catching up on our blog.
Our 4 person wood lined compartment was very comfortable and roomy and since we opted to upgrade to 1st class for this segment of the journey, there were only two of us in the cabin. With a vigilant cabin attendant we always felt secure, while the train was equipped with a dining car (with strict hours of operation), hot showers and plenty of hot water for tea and coffee. With frequent stops ranging from 10–30 minutes throughout the day (stops are posted on the wall), you have many opportunities to replenish your food and liquid supplies as you travel along - just make sure to ask the cabin attendant how long the train will be stopped when you exit.
Siberia sped by our window with its vast landscape studded with birch trees and lakes, as we sat back and enjoyed the peacefulness of train travel. It seemed spring like with wildflowers blooming everywhere, as we rode along the scenic route, passing the many wooden chalets and admiring the breed of people who live here during the excruciatingly cold winters.
After four days on the train, we weren’t sure what to expect after arriving in Moscow for three nights. Home to six dollar big Macs, midnight sunsets, a hundred brands of vodka in your local convenience store, muscled pistol packing bodyguards in body armor guarding the many Ferraris, Mercedes and Land Rovers, pin striped businessmen on cell phones, all night dance clubs, Moscow, the world’s most expensive city, is an intoxicating assault on your senses.
Reeking in history and ground zero for the Cold War, picturesque Red Square is the essential epicenter of Moscow. Ironically, the square is now bordered by Gucci, Armani and other designer stores on one side and Lenin’s mausoleum on the other. At the far reaches of the square sits the majestic and Disneyland like St. Basil’s Cathedral (built 1561) with its fabled onion domes, whose architects and designers were blinded after construction was completed by Ivan the Terrible to insure its uniqueness. Bordering Red Square is the infamous Kremlin (from the 1150’s) with half a dozen Russian Orthodox churches you can visit and many other official government buildings off limits and heavily guarded by stern military.
A rattletrap of heavy gauge metal bolted together during Stalin’s regime in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the clunky yet durable Metro system, is a step back in time, with many of subway stops inspiring in their Art Deco motif. Careening down the tracks at haphazard speeds at ear shattering decibel levels with the entire carriage swaying and rocking on 75 year tracks is raucous and timeless and worth a couple of hours of exploration.
Leaving Moscow on a midnight sleeper train, we arrived early in the morning in the northerly city of St. Petersburg for 4 nights, where we were greeted with wintry blasts of cold wind from the Gulf of Finland, as everyone scurried about in winter coats despite being the middle of summer. Met at the train station by a representative of our tour group, she led us to our home stay in the suburbs, a private room in a local family apartment (breakfast included), a cost effective solution to the high cost of lodging in this prior capital.
After Moscow, St. Petersburg, founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, has the look and feel of a European city, with its colonial buildings bordering the main avenue of Nevsky Prospect influenced by a many Italian designers and architects. Murky canals ribbon through downtown with ornate bridges spanning the waterways, while statues of all shapes and designs accent the landscape.
Certainly the number one reason to visit St. Petersburg is the Hermitage Museum, a former palace now packed to the rafters with a cache of fine art to rival the Louvre (an alleged 3,000,000 objects to view). To avoid the long queues, we bought a two day pass online which allows you to bypass the line. It has such an extensive collection of art objects that we spent the entire first day on just the second floor.
Incomparable in scale, the Trans Mongolian Train begins in the sprawling metropolis of Beijing and ends in the mysterious city of Moscow. Tread in the footsteps of Genghis Khan, Nikita Khrushchev and Chairman Mao as you traverse the density of China, contemplate the starkness of the Gobi desert and marvel at the openness of Mongolia while passing the world’s largest freshwater lake and crossing the cultural border from Asia into Europe. It can be undertaken as a seven day non stop journey, but undeniably the stopovers along the way contribute greatly to the essence of the adventure.