A small train ride from Mongolia to St Petersburg

Yes, the heading is a joke because it isn’t a small train ride but if you haven’t worked it out yet, l was on the trans-mongolian train. It is the same as the trans-siberian and the only difference it the direction the train changes at Irkutsk.

Train Leg 1:

I had a late train out on Mongolia at 8:50pm on the 4th November to head to Irkutsk in Russia. I had a 2nd class cabin booked for this leg, which l found out later you can only take 2nd class (middle option) as there is no 3rd class option (the lowest) out of Mongolia. I shared my cabin with 2 ladies from Norway who had just been working in China for the last 3 months and were excited to be going home to their own beds which l had to laugh about and then sadly think about the comfort of my own bed after being away for so long. The train ride was straight forward but was going to take 1 and a half days to get to Irkutsk mainly with a lot of the hours being spent at the border crossing. Our border crossing took combined about 10 hours.

We arrived at the Mongolian border side at about 4am and had to wait until 9am for customs, so when l got off the train was quite unusual to see our carriage sitting alone with no engine or other carriages hooked up. The reason was simply they only needed one carriage to take across the border and a Russian engine must come pick up the carriage. We were cleared by customs at about 10:30am and we were off again for the next 30 minutes where we stopped again and this time for the Russian border control to inspect everything and they are stricter than the Mongolians, this time having dogs and photography equipment on the train to see who is who. We then left and headed for Irkutsk.

Irkutsk: A small town situated on the east side of Russia in Siberia. It is located next to the biggest lake in Russia called Lake Bikal which everyone mainly visits the city for the lake… except me. I booked only 1 night in the town and didn’t have much time to get out and see the lake so l decided to spend my time in town and experience Russia for the first time. The city alone is beautiful and it offers some nice churches and a tourist route they call the green line. The green line is a painted line on the footpath that takes you around to all the main sights of the town. I spent some time in an art museum of a famous Russian artist however l can’t remember his name. I struggled to find any places that serve traditional Russian food in town and there is no night life however l wouldn’t have been able to talk to anyone due to the fact in Siberia, not many people speak English.

Tips:

  • I was told the time to visit Lake Bikal (if you don’t go in summer) is in March when it is completely frozen over and you can ice-skate and conduct other activities on it.
  • I bought a sim card in Irkutsk for the whole country for 300rub ($6aud) which was unlimited data

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one of the mainchurches in Irkutsk

Train Leg 2: My first 3rd class experience. The carriage is open beds and each carriage holds 52 people but you only get 2 power sockets per carriage, but 2 toilets and a hot water urn for your beloved minute noodles that will become your diet for any leg of the trains. Here l was offered vodka by a local for the first time and this was more than once while he tried to explain to the young Russian lady next to him that l am Australian. That was about as exciting as this leg became except for when l went to sleep l had every bed around me full, however when l woke, l had 1 lady left. It seems everyone just disappeared overnight, don’t worry, they didn’t, they just departed at a stop earlier in the morning. This trip again was approximately another 36 hour ride.

Novosibirsk: My next stop along the route was here in bigger than Irkutsk yet still a smaller city than most Novosibirsk. Everything that you would most likely want to see in the city is situated along the main road or if not, then most likely a maximum 10-minute walk off it. The town has a famous arts centre with a square in front of it named after Lenin, a central park of its own where the fountains would most likely be turned on in the summer however most days that l was there, the temperature was an average -15 degrees Celsius. The city also has a main church like all the other cities of Russia, apologies as l cannot remember the name but l couldn’t visit it anyway due to it being completely locked up while l was there. One place l do recommend for a drink and a good night is Truba jazz bar. Cheap beers and good music to relax to out of the cold, they also serve food which l was told by the other hostel people l went with that it was tasty. I met some of the most genuine people throughout Siberia, for example when l ordered a taxi from the hostel to the train station, it turned up 5 minutes late and the reception guy paid for my taxi, given the cost wasn’t much but the thought and offer was a pleasure.

Tips:

  • Be careful in Novosibirsk, because l accounted one place at dinner where the place had no English translation and the man charged me extra because he knew l couldn’t put the right price to things on the board. How did l work it out? Russian keyboard on my phone + matching letters + google translate = answers

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Lenin Square in Novosibirsk

Train leg 3: This time the train ride was shorter at only approximately 15 hours, it was a nice change. I had booked 3rd class again which was empty until about 1am when we stopped at Perm and what seemed like a million-people piled onto the train but the worst thing about it was the noise from people getting on but when you book 3rd class, you really can’t be picky. There wasn’t much else about this train ride except the start. I arrived at Novosibirsk with what l thought was enough time to get onto the train, but without making it to obvious, the train terminal you arrive at it different to the one you get the long-distance trains from. The other terminal is only about 200m away but they don’t make it an obvious thing.

Yekaterinburg: One of the largest cities in Russia outside of the obvious Moscow and St Petersburg and situated close to the border of Asia and Europe. This city was one of my favourite stops and l personally would have liked to stay an extra day. I arrived around midday and decided to get some washing done which wasn’t dry by the time l went out and when you’re in -15 Siberia, it isn’t that much fun having damp pants. My first night l went to a Kontinental hockey game (KHL) as it was a recommend one thing l must do while in Russia.

The journey there was easy and while google maps was helping the conductor lady on the tram was persistent and wasn’t going to let me walk to the arena by myself, so for the next 20-minute journey, she walked up and down the train trying to find someone to walk with me so l didn’t get lost. She found one lady who could speak a little bit of English and she was lovely too as she was going to wait with me at the ticket line to help with translation but l didn’t want to hold her up from her husband and told her l could manage. I don’t know the rules however their l am, sitting in the cheapest seats for 250rub ($5.50aud) googling the rules, l gradually picked up on what was happening. Getting home, l decided to get an Uber as the temperatures were dropping fast and my phone only had 40% battery which l thought would be enough but it was that cold that my phone was using more battery to keep warm and l was losing about 5% every 5 or so minutes.

Day 2 I went for a walk around town and started with the Boris Yeltsin museum in the Boris Yeltsin centre (Yekaterinburg is the home town of Boris), which l highly recommend to anyone to go see as it’s in both English and Russian and it was a great insight to the country’s history. I proceeded into town, visited downtown, Dr Scotch pub (which is a Scottish pub but was recommended on lonely planet for some unknown reason as it is just a pub), the Beatles monument (they never visited the city but it has 3 whole walls dedicated to them), the largest tower in Yekaterinburg that you can go to the top for 360 degree views and the famous cathedral called Church on the Blood where it known that a Tsar royal family was executed.

As l said, l had run out of time, but there are a few more things you can see in the area like a monument about 12kms out of the city marking the border of Asia and Europe.

Tips:

  • The tower cost 300rub to go up and while it does get you entry into a museum in the tower as well, it’s all in Russian so there wasn’t much point
  • There is a red walking line in the city that you can follow and to get more information, stop by the information centre where the lady piled me up with more maps and books l could possibly carry.

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Church on the blood – Yekaterinburg

Train Leg 4: The best train leg of my journey without any challenge. I hopped onto the train at 6:30am and this time l had booked 2nd class for the 24-hour journey to Vladimir. I accidentally woke the one of man up in my 4-person cabin but he wasn’t worried and went to the bathroom, so while he was gone, l unpacked and put my cup on the table, he came back, saw my cup and proceeded to reach behind his pillow, pull out vodka and pour it into my cup. He didn’t speak much English so for the next 8 hours we had a very broken conversation, but l found out he was a hunter and he had me try some salty pork he had killed and cured himself, oh and about another 10 shots of vodka. I thought he had run out about 5 shots in between us but he had a new bottle sitting in his bag. Another man joined our cabin later in the day who could speak English and he translated between us where they asked me questions about if l liked Russia and the unusual one for me if l preferred Trump or Clinton.

We bought some beer at our next major stop and snacks to share and by the time l went to sleep, l was in a very happy place (thank you vodka!). I departed the train early the next morning and was a little sad not to continue along to Moscow.

Vladimir: A very small town situated about 4 hours outside Moscow. You can complete seeing this town in half a day and l only stopped here to see another town and break up the train ride. They town does consist of a main gate that is the centre attraction of the city and a nice church but you must go in the morning otherwise it will be closed.

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Vladimir

Train Leg 5: 4 hours outside of Moscow and was still offered sheets and my own bed space but didn’t need them as l was going to stay awake and take in the final leg of my train ride.

Moscow: I was excited to be here, while the train ride was a great adventure, l could place my bags down for more than 2 days in a row and have a rest. The first night l visited Red Square where the Kremlin is located along with St Basils Cathedral (even though l thought it was in St Petersburg). A walk around the Kremlin walls is possible and you will find the tomb of the unknown soldier which is guarded all year round no matter what temperatures hit Moscow.

Over the next few days’ l visited the Kremlin and the cathedrals inside the grounds plus the armoury which l highly recommend as it is Russia’s biggest collection of gold, silver and items gifted to them over the centuries. It cost 700rub ($14.5aud) but it also comes with a free audio guide so you know what is going on inside but doesn’t include entry to the cathedrals but you walk into them and sometimes the ladies employed to check tickets don’t care so l got to visit a couple of them. I also went to another KHL hockey game, this time to watch CSKA Moscow with 2 kiwis and as they had no idea what was happening, l was more the expert now so l could tell them what was going on and tried to find a bar to have a drink which l found some trendy places that charged 300rub for a simple corona however l did manage to find a bar that served 500ml local craft beers for 190rub ($4aud). Mostly everything in Moscow is located around Red Square and 4 days’ l found where probably too long but everything is my own opinion.

Tips:

  • The metro is Moscow is brilliant and it costs 50rub ($1aud) per ticket to get you anywhere in the city)
  • Moscow is a little like Sydney where it is confusing roads in every direction and navigating can be difficult so if you don’t have a sim card, l recommend leaving Red Square the way you came in otherwise you could think you are walking in the right direction but 30-minutes later be further away than what you started.

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Tsar cannon inside the Kremiln grounds

St Petersburg: My last stop in Russia and the one city l was most excited for. I flew this time from Moscow as l managed to get a ticket for 30euros ($42.50aud). I stayed here for 5 nights which seemed about the correct amount of time. The first night, l went and watched a Zenit St Petersburg Russian Premier league game and bought the ticket for 400rub of a man out front selling his friends membership card for the game and l just handed it back to him once l was in the stadium. Day 2, I visited the Hermitage museum which is ranked in the top 5 largest museums of the world and the price to enter is 600rub but once again a local man approached me and sole me a ticket for 400rub because locals get local price. The Hermitage is nice but l felt that l had seen a lot of it in the Louvre and probably didn’t get a much enjoyment out of it as everyone else.

Over the next few days’ l went on the free walking tour offered in the city which l highly recommend, went to a soviet donut café as their recipe is different to what l was expecting and they are delicious, visited a soviet arcade game museum where most of the machines still work and you can play them.

Tips:

  • The metro is Moscow is brilliant and it costs 35rub ($0.72aud) per token to get you anywhere in the city)
  • It didn’t happen to me, but about 1am in the morning, the bridges over all the islands in StP open so make sure you are on the correct side of them.

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St Issacs in St Petersburg

I stayed in hostels all the way through-out Russia and have reviewed all of them through the website below.

Irkustk – Ushanka Hostel

Novosibirsk – FunKey Hostel

Yekaterinburg – Hostel R.E.D.

Vladimir – Dostoyevsky Hostel

Moscow – Fasol Hostel

St Petersburg – Soul Kitchen

For more photos, please head to instagram and follow theworldaccordingtoaginger

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Mongolia – A hidden world from tourism, a place of karaoke and with a taste of North Korea

One of the countries l have wanted to visit over the last 5 years has been Mongolia the problem is coming from Australia, China knows you need to pass through and take their airlines so it becomes expensive and the only other way is through Russia which this time around l did as l was coming from Europe, l managed to get a cheap flight with Aeroflot (Russia’s airline) for $530 AUD. I had lots of warnings and read lots of bad reviews about Aeroflot but my ‘need’ to get to Mongolia outweighed my thoughts of terrible service because as you may have previously read, l have had enough bad bus journeys that l would have considered this the same, however l cannot praise Aeroflot enough. I had 2 amazing flights with them and the service was brilliant while we did experience a little turbulence, this can’t be noted as a bad measure towards the airline.

I arrived in Ulan Bator (UB) early morning and l had minimal winter clothing. I decided to take a taxi from the airport and l am glad l did, as soon as l walked outside the nice warm temperatures of -5 degrees celsius hit me. The 30-minute taxi ride cost me 30,000mnt (about $11usd) to get to Sunpath hostel’s door in heating and even though l arrived early and that day, the hostel let me go straight to my bed and offered me breakfast which instantly won over my heart with how tired l was. The other guests at the hostel were great and we all decided to head over to the black market (not actually a black market, but just a large market where you can buy nearly anything and everything), where l could buy some winter boots and other items to keep me warm. The following couple of days, we explored the city which included visiting the main square and large statue of Genghis Khan, the winter palace and the national museum. In my opinion and speaking to a few other people, there isn’t a lot to do in UB itself unless you want to sing karaoke, well there is a pub every 10 meters that offer the service, however a lot of people who come here actually spend most of their time on tours of the countryside.

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I had organised for my time in the country to head north to a town called Murun and volunteer my time helping with a lady called Saraa with her guesthouse and women’s group. I sent her emails before l arrived and heard nothing and on the Sunday when l arrived, l still had no idea if l was going to help her or not. I had planned for 2 weeks in country and after l didn’t hear anything, l started asking other people if they had work, l got one response from another lady called Delai at a hotel for me to go and help her and then 5 minutes later, l had a response from Saraa, so l decided to split my time between the 2 places and help both out, then within the hour l was out the hostel door and onto the bus station for another overnight long distance Asian bus ride. I will never get used to these bus rides but each one is unique.

I arrived in Murun and headed straight over to Saraa’s house where l was informed that her guesthouse was closed for the season, so l would be staying in a small room with her sons and she would only need mostly help with her women’s group. I’m not terrible but l am not the greatest when it comes to understanding women and trying to organise and help with a women’s group was going to be a challenge. I was also informed that there was no shower and l could walk down the road to the public showers to pay to use them. The afternoon, l headed over to the hotel and met Delai, who offered me to stay at the hotel, where l accepted straight away because it is the little wins in life where l could shower and have a western toilet. Over the next few days, l helped where l could but l decided it wasn’t right due to the fact helping Saraa wasn’t exactly what we originally spoke about, plus she was also trying to sell me a tour which was more for less days than what l could get back in UB and then when l was staying in the hotel, l wasn’t getting the same local feel so l left back to UB to join a tour of the country side and see Mongolia, which is what l came for.

Back in UB, l met Dante at the hostel and we decided to go on a 3-day tour of central Mongolia which included the semi-gobi region to conduct camel riding, a visit to the ancient capital of Mongolia called Karakorum, horse riding while both nights we stayed with nomadic families. We had a few more people staying at my hostel that night and l heard from a friend that there was a North Korean restaurant that is a must do which l can say was an experience however you can’t take photos….unless you’re sneaky.

The next morning, we convinced Guillermo and his father who had only arrived 3 hours earlier to join us. The tour started from the hostel and our transportation, a beautifully kept soviet van the hostel offers which had plenty of room for the 4 people. We arrived after a long 5 hours out to our first ger camp with a nomadic family where we rode camels through the semi-gobi region and that night we were taught how to make horse meat dumplings which are delicious and drank a lot of vodka. I don’t drink vodka however l tried to match the locals which was always going to be a difficult task especially when they told us a tradition is if you sing, play guitar or tell a story you must drink a shot of about 2 standard shots of vodka. The family had a beautiful daughter called Iichka, she is very cheeky but a lovely little girl who loves taking selfies.

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Our second day we headed over to Karakorum to visit the site and thankfully we did hire the tour guide because there are only a few plaques around to explain to us what was what. That night we went to our second ger camp with another nomadic family who was set up at the base of some large mountains to protect them from the wind. This time we went horse riding and we were given the freedom to let our horses get up to a gallop and run free in the open plains of the Mongolian countryside which words can’t even describe the freedom and peacefulness a person can experience in that moment. We ended our night with a traditional Mongolian bbq where they heat rocks in a fire and then place them in a large pot over fire with the meat, so basically the method for cooking is stewing the meat rather than grill.

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Our third day was mostly made up of driving back to UB with a few small stops on the way to see a sharman worship place and our van running out of fuel and then 5 minutes after going again, it broke down but these were all rectified within 30-minutes.

I have spent the last few days not doing a lot however it has been nice to relax before l get on the trans-mongolian tonight and head to Moscow with a few stops in between.

 

Tips:

  • Taxi drivers cannot be negotiated but a form of transport that is acceptable in the city is a form of hitchhiking, where you can wait on the side of the road with your thumb out and a local will most likely pick you up. This is the cheaper form of getting around and you must agree a price before you get in the car.
  • The black market is a lot of fake gear but it all is fine for the temperatures on Mongolia. The shop vendors don’t negotiate too much but do try.
  • The North Korean restaurant is in the EXE building. It is worth visiting, except the prices are a little higher but they also put on a show of singing and dancing for you.