A Travellerspoint blog

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

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25.10.11 – After several hours on the train, and several more hours at the border crossing, we eventually arrived in Ulaanbaatar. Our hostel had sent a driver to pick us up, which at 6:30am was thoroughly appreciated! We made our way to the hostel (Zaya Hostel), and were given our room straight away, another plus!

After a few hours sleep to try and catch up on the sleep debt, we head out and explored the town, taking in the main square, Genghis Khan monument and Peace Avenue. The Asian influence on Mongolia is very evident, and things are already very different from Russia. The people are friendlier, the shops and restaurants have a lot more English, and customer service has re-appeared. After a dinner of steak and we were done for the day, ready to enjoy our bed and start again tomorrow.

26.10.11 – This morning we visited the Gandantegcheniling Monastery, a set of Buddhist temples canvassing gold, tapestries, spinning cylinders for good luck, and chanting monks. It was our first real taste of Asia since we started the trip and we can only begin to imagine that this is what China is going to be like.

Afterwards, we caught up with our Belgian friends from Irkutsk. We had swapped details and were keen to book a tour together to bring the costs down. When we caught up, they had also met 2 girls from England and Ireland, so with the buying power of 6 we approached the tour companies and settled on Golden Gobi offering a trip to the South Gobi, to see the Flaming Cliffs and sand dunes. All happy, we did some last minute grocery shopping for the trip before parting ways for the evening, but not before running into the 3 Swiss girls again, and the Swiss couple from Olkhon Island. Sometimes this trip feels like a small world!

Lyn and Lisa, the British mother and daughter we met on the train had told us about a Mongolian Singing and Dancing ensemble that performs nightly at 6pm. They gave it rave reviews, so we decided to head down and find it. We had also told some of the others, so a small group of us went and watched the amazing show, consisting of Mongolian throat singing, contortionists, and a singing/instrumental/dance ensemble. Afterwards we headed to Luna Blanca, a well rated vegetarian restaurant which the girls were keen to try for some good food and great service. A quick drink after dinner and we said farewell to the girls, hopefully our paths will cross again in Australia or Switzerland!

Posted by Long way home 02:16 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Trans Siberian - Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar

Our Russian journeys are over, let the Mongolian fun begin!

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22.10.11 - The weather has continued to amaze us, and we woke to another blue sky sunny day as we left Olkhon. As we waited for our bus back to Irkutsk, the first snowflakes started to fall and we all watched as they came down in flurries. Fortunately it didn’t last, as we needed to get off the island, so getting snowed in wasn’t part of the plan!

We made it back to Irkutsk and said goodbye to our Swiss friends before heading to Admiral Hostel, where we received a warm welcome from Alexander and were made to feel right at home. There was another mix of travellers there, British, Belgian, Polish and Swiss all with their own stories to tell and travels to share. I know we are travelling slightly off season, as the majority of people either travel June – September, or in the dead of winter for the ‘true Siberian’ experience, but I’m still surprised by the lack of tourists along the journey. We are literally meeting a handful of people every few days, a couple here, 2 friends there, but as you wander around the cities we stop in, tourists are few and far between. Probably helps to explain why we are constantly stared at by the Russians, who can’t seem to fathom why we want to visit their country in the first place!

23.10.11 - We spent our last day in Irkutsk at the Central Market, Chinese Market, visiting the Soviet tanks and rockets, and re-visiting the stunning churches on the riverbank. Along with a dodgy lunch (microwaved hamburgers…..yuk!) and a fabulous coffee and cake (which made up slightly for the lunch!).

Our train to Ulaanbaatar was leaving at 4:30 in the morning, so we headed off to bed and waited for the alarm to go off in only a few hours.
At the station, we met Lisa and Lyn, a British mother and daughter travelling together to Beijing and the carriage attendant has moved them into our carriage so now we have a few more people to swap stories with.

24.10.11 - This morning, we woke to find ourselves travelling about 20 metres from the beautiful Lake Baikal again. As we continue to fly past this gorgeous natural wonder, it puts it into perspective just how large Baikal is. I really appreciate the days we spent at Olkhon, as it gave us a chance to rest and relax, and enjoy the natural beauty of the island, a nice break from wandering the city streets and visiting churches, galleries and monuments.

Despite what they say about Russians, we met some fantastic people here who tried their best to help us and make sure we had a good trip. From Alex, the Irkutsk local who bought us lunch on our way to Olkhon, simply because he wanted to; to the bird man, who despite his stinky birds, gave me 100 rubles when he saw me counting my change trying to work out our money (I think he thought we were broke….I tried to explain, but he just wanted me to take it!!).

We will shortly be crossing into Mongolia, and just like that, our Russian journey is over. 3 weeks and we barely touched the surface. From The Hermitage to St Basils, the Beatles monument to Lake Baikal, Russia has lots to offer travellers, and provided you can take the angry looking faces, the sometimes unhelpful assistants, lack of English and the long distances with a smile on your face and an open mind, you will have a wonderful time here.

Posted by Long way home 01:10 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Olkhon Island

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18.10.11 - A chilly morning start as we were collected for our transfer to Olkhon Island. Despite being collected at 7:45am, we then drove 5 minutes and sat at the central market until 9:20 as they waited for more people to fill the bus. Apparently this is just how it works....who are we to complain!

A 5-6 hour drive later and we arrived at the beautiful Olkhon Island, the 3rd largest lake bound Island in the world, which is surrounded by Lake Baikal, the worlds oldest and deepest lake (average depth 745 metres). We were booked into Nikita's Homestead, one of the first and only tourist places on the island. With a population of only 1500, and arriving out of season, things are quiet here, but we are still going to have a good time.

We travelled with the Swiss girls we had met the day before, and they are also spending the next 4 days here, so we have some good company. That evening, we walked the local village streets and watched the sunset, before heading for our first dinner in the canteen. As the village is so small, all meals are included at Nikita's, so we're signed up for fish, fish and more fish for the next few days.

19.10.11 - The next day, we relax in the morning and take a hike in the afternoon. Despite the basic hand drawn map, we find our way there and back, and enjoy getting out and about on the Island. One of the Swiss girls is an Ecologist, so we get some interesting information throughout the afternoon. The air is so fresh here, I don't think you can get much cleaner anywhere in the world. The cliffs on the shoreline plunge over 50 metres at some points, making for some great photos.

We can tell we are getting relaxed by the fact that we have no idea what time zone we are in any more, or what the actual time is! The Trans Mongolian crosses 5 time zones as it travels from Moscow to Beijing, ensuring you never really know what time it is, or what time zone you are in!

(Have already started declining the fish in the canteen....it's full of bones, should bring my Dad here and teach them how to fillet a fish!)

20.10.11 - The next day, the sun is still shining despite the forecast of rain. We are booked on a trip to travel to the north of the island, so appreciating the good weather we jump into these old Russian Soviet buses and head off on our trip. Stopping at several little villages and shorelines, we eventually make our way to the north, where we hike to the the top and make a wish by throwing a coin. Lunch is served (more fish!) and then the winds begin to pick-up, making for a chilly afternoon. A few more stops and late afternoon we make it back to Nikita's. Highly recommend doing this trip if you ever make it here, it gives great perspective on the island.

Back at the local store, we find we have all but bought them out of red wine over the last few days - and the Swiss girls and Chris buy the last bottle (a drop from Moldova, not bad apparently). Perhaps we should switch to the 100 ruble (£2) Vodka, but something tells me that it will taste like paint stripper! We have a night in the canteen swapping stories, drinking wine and eating chocolate - a good night in!

21.10.11 - At last, a day of doing absolutely nothing. Literally. We missed breakfast, and barely made lunch as we slept in. Did a bit of hand washing, and have spent the rest of the afternoon booking hostels on the Internet and catching up on a few emails. Just what we needed today really. Tomorrow we're back to Irkutsk and on Monday we make our way to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia for the next leg of our journey. It always seems to go so fast when you're travelling, seems like we only just got to Russia, but in a few days, we'll be leaving it!


Posted by Long way home 23:37 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Trans Siberian - Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk

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15.10.11 – I awoke this morning to the sound of wings flapping, and found the Russian man watering his birds on the bench table in the cabin…..great. Given we’re going to be in this cabin for around 50 hours, it would’ve been nice not to be in a zoo. Suddenly saying nothing doesn’t seem like such a good idea after all! The trees continue to fly past, and other than the odd station stop and small town, there isn’t much to report. Time seems to go quickly on the train, it’s already 11am so we’re 10 hours down - 40 to go!

16.10.11 – Stupid bloody birds! What seemed harmless has turned into a bit of a pain in proverbial! Not only do they make noises far too often, they stink! Kicked up a bit of a fuss this morning at the Russian guy, as we all made an exit to the restaurant cart, and he seems to have got the message as when we returned, it’s all been tidied up a bit, and the smell is gone…..for now! Can’t believe of all the carriages we had to get put in, we end up with the bloody bird man!

The Dutch lady is very nice though, and keeps us well fed and watered with her endless supply of food, brilliant as we were getting sick of Pot Noodles. We have a few stops today, a chance to get off the train and stretch our legs. There is all manner of things being sold on the platforms, from dried fish, to cooked chickens, meatballs, pancakes, fruit, breads and general western junk food. Can’t say anyone would go hungry doing this trip!

The scenery has changed a bit the last few hours, and we are getting more mountains, less flat plain landscapes. It’s interesting to see the world fly by, hour after hour, with nothing else to do but look out the window, read a book, watch a film, or just sleep.

17.10.11 - Finally, after over 50 hours on the train we arrived in Irkutsk. Weary, and 4:30 in the morning, we attempted to take a taxi only to be booted out as we hadn't booked. Apparently you have to phone them, they aren't just available to take from the station. All well and good if you have a russian phone perhaps! We eventually just walked to our hostel, only to find they had over booked and didn't actually have any room for us. Unfortunately they didn't think to tell us this until they'd already let us in and we'd been there for over 3 hours! What did they think we were doing there??

So we were then left wandering Irkutsk trying to find another hostel. Sorry, we're full - let me try this one, nope, full, hold on I'll call this one....full.....hmm, there might be a woman with a bed here, let me try - success! (At least they were helpful!!) An afternoon nap turned into a 4 hour sleep, and late afternoon we woke and wandered Irkutsk. Dinner was great thanks to a fab Lonely Planet recommendation, and a walk along the river followed by coffee and cakes. We're now ready to head to Olkhon Island tomorrow, and will check out Irkutsk properly when we get back from Lake Baikal.

Posted by Long way home 06:10 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Trans Siberian - Moscow to Yekaterinburg

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13.10.11 - Woke late, the scenery is just flashing past constant streams of trees, land, roads and the odd river/lake. The day flies by and, after enjoying a pot noodle lunch, we soon find it’s time to get off the train in Yekaterinburg. 6pm quickly becomes 8pm with the time difference, and we’re shortly on our way to our hotel in a taxi. Despite our initial reservations that the location is rubbish due to the long drive from town, it was possible that our taxi driver simply took the long way around…as in daylight the next morning, it wasn’t too bad after all (Parus Hotel, Yekaterinburg).

We had breakfast, took the trolley bus into town, and began exploring the little town by following the Red Line. Leading us to all the attractions, monuments, and just plain interesting parts of the town, we followed the line for several hours, coming across all types of random things – a giant computer keyboard 20m long that you stand on, a tribute section to the Beatles, complete with ‘Wall of Love’ and giant multi-coloured murals. Plenty more golden churches and historic buildings to keep us occupied.

Eventually, we ended up in an Irish Pub, in an attempt to try and kill some time before our late night train. Unfortunately, something we only really worked out once we got here, the 23:30 train we had booked for that evening didn’t actually leave until 01:30 with the time difference, as all trains are ticketed in Moscow time, no matter what time zone they actually leave from. So, after drinks, dinner, cards, more drinks, more cards etc we eventually decided it was time to head to the train station and wait out the last few hours there.

Cue 01:30, we board the train, to find our cabin inhabited with Dutch lady doing a worldwide tour, but more interestingly an older Russian man who’s trying to smuggle birds from the Ukraine back to Irkutsk. He’s been to the bird markets in Odessa and bought up big! So bad luck for us as there’s no luggage space – as the lockers are all filled with birds. Plenty of ‘Shhh’ gestures, and smiles, as if we say anything he will get kicked off the train. They seem quiet enough, so we don’t say anything – what the heck, makes for a good story right? Eventually we find somewhere for our bags, and after a quick toast with the cabin mates, drift off to the rattle of train trains long into the night.

Posted by Long way home 06:06 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

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