We left behind the sleet and the snow and the bitter, bitter winds of St Petersburg, and hopped on an overnight train to Moscow. As a general rule whilst travelling, you try to avoid the rough parts of town and scary looking people whenever possible. If you happen to be approached by a scary person, try to be polite with your mouth while your shifty eyes look for the nearest exit. There were no exits on our overnight train, and I was stuck with a particularly large, overbearing young man who wanted to talk about the death of purity in football, and how the Jews were infiltrating the game. I suddenly became very tired and feigned sleep. This, unfortunately, seemed to be a common theme in Russia. Racism born from nationalism spreads fast among the dim-witted. A powerful political tool.
Coming off the train we tried to negotiate the metro system. London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong. I’ve been to some busy metro systems, but nothing like Moscow. Andy and I stepped into the sea of people during the morning rush hour and had no choice but to ride the wave to a random platform. We eventually ended up near the city centre.
Moscow is less obvious in its beauty than St Petersburg, but blanketed in a thick layer of snow, it was at least something new. The locals traversed the streets as though their shoes were made of spikes and grit while we slid towards our destination. Everyone seemed blissfully unaware of the 6ft icicles of death hanging from the eaves of each building as they continued on their way to work. We saw many chunks of ice smash into the pavement that trip. Accidents must happen. I don’t want to Google it.
St Basil’s Cathedral looks like a postcard dusted in snow during sunset, that’s the building in Red Square with the colourful dome-y things next to The Kremlin. It’s handy having tourist hotspots in one space. I personally preferred the church in St Petersburg, The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Similar style, planted by a canal for extra aesthetics, and a much, much cooler name.
Accidents must happen. I don’t want to Google it.
We met our group, which had its pros and cons. Using organised travel companies like this is more expensive than doing it yourself, and in some cases takes away from the experience, but in this case, I think it’s worth it for many reasons. Firstly, I don’t speak Russian, my small encounter with a taxi driver in St Petersburg made it clear that communication was difficult. Secondly, we got a lot of experiences thrown in the package without having to organise them separately. Thirdly, the train we were about to take lasted five days. It was nice to talk to other people in English during that time.
We met our honcho, who advised us to stock up on instant noodles and bottled water. Our stop was over five thousand kilometres to the east and would take five days to get there. Naturally, we ignored this advice and brought fresh fruit and beers. Andy and I were sharing a cabin with a mother and her young son. The five days went a little something like this.
Naturally, we ignored this advice and brought fresh fruit and beers.
This is such a fantastic way to travel! Look! When the train curves slowly you can see the front, it’s like Harry Potter but with loads of snow!
Well we’ve eaten all the fruit. Bit annoying to have that child screaming through the night but it’s all part of the experience, ey? That man on his own has ordered a huge jug of water, maybe the honcho was wrong and we can buy… oh wait, he’s drunk it all and looks like he’s going to be sick. That was vodka wasn’t it?
It was nice stopping in Omsk for an hour or so and putting our feet on solid ground, couldn’t venture very far though because it’s minus 40 out there. Did you get much sleep? Me neither. Bloody child. I haven’t gone this long without washing for a very long time, it’s not actually that pleasant. Do you have anything but noodles left to eat?
I’ve never really considered murdering a child before. What do you want to do today? Nothing? That’s handy.
Give me shower. Give me vegetable.
The train ride is nice, looking back. The snow-covered pine forests and distant hills morphed into endless plains, which were (very) occasionally interrupted by an industrial city in the middle of nowhere. Probably the most middle-of-nowhere places in the world. Yes, the train ride was nice, but arriving in Irkutsk and catching a bus to Lake Baikal was a welcome change. We met another honcho here, who informed us that the locals take a dip in the world’s deepest lake each morning, and we could join them if we wanted. With things now heating up to around minus 30 degrees, it was tempting, but for some reason we slept in the next morning. Nice comfortable beds without screaming children or squeaky brakes.
The next day, I genuinely felt like I was going to lose at least three of my fingers. The honcho had arranged a husky driven sled ride for each of us, for which my two pairs of thermal gloves were inadequate. Squeezing one hand into your mouth for warmth while struggling to stay balanced with the other, intermittently switching hands, somewhat detracts from the magic of the situation. Later, one of the group members asked if I’d like to go halves on renting a snowmobile. I declined and spent the evening in the warmth of the cabin, listening to the lake lap against the shore and watching the snowfall. Chas, the guy who rented the snowmobile, returned later with a mixture of pain and glee on his face. It was “fun but cold”. I’ll bet.
Outhouses – not fun in the middle of the night.
With everyone suitably rested, it was time to press on; today we would be going to Ulaanbaatar. The funny thing about catching the train from Russia to Mongolia is that the railway infrastructure is different. The biggest consequence of this is that wheels that fit onto Russian tracks don’t work in Mongolia. The solution? Lift up the train, carriage by carriage, and change the wheels. You can choose to stay on the train for the ride or get off and watch, it’s become something of a tourist attraction over the years.
The other thing I noticed about this particular train was the amount of smuggling that was going on. When we first embarked, Andy and I had no space in the overhead compartment or under our tiny beds to store out backpacks. Every crevice was stuffed with fruit. Andy began furiously unloading the boxes of plums into the corridor while the attendants tried to placate him and carting the contraband off somewhere else. He surreptitiously kept behind nine boxes of wine for the journey to share amongst the group. Optimistic man.
Ulaanbaatar is fairly standard as far as capital cities go. It has a nice square with statues and monuments, overlooked by government buildings and a number of restaurants and bars to keep you sated for days. Once you get up on the hills surrounding the city you get a better picture of the place. There are a couple of impressive buildings dotted around the valley, but overall, the city looks sparser than say, London or Madrid. Strange when you think that half of the country’s population live here, not so strange when you learn that the country’s population is around three million. Mongolia is massive. Where are all the people? Things felt a little more like an organised tour here. One day we were taken to a factory where they made cashmere and encouraged to spend time in the gift shop. We feigned interest for an hour or so. There was nothing else to do.
Our next stop was a ger camp outside the capital. I want to say it was a three-hour ride, but it could have been three days. I can’t remember. All I noticed was a rolling canvas of untouched powder covering the barren landscape. Gers are traditional Mongolian homes, similar to a yurt, circular and relatively easy to mobilise. There were around twenty of them lined up, camouflaged in the whiteness, with one large communal ger for feeding. A couple of outhouses on either side – not fun in the middle of the night.
The group of twelve or so adults reverted to children in the untouched snow. We had snowball fights between the pines and in the valleys, and tobogganed down the hills until the sun went down. The next day we were back in tour mode and taken to a local family’s ger for a meet and greet. It was awkward, having us all sat in a semicircle facing a husband, wife, and young child with our tour guide mediating. We were encouraged to ask questions, then various yak-based snacks were passed around for us to try. One such snack was a pebble sized, rock hard, sour smelling thing. If you saw it on the ground on your way to work your first instinct would be to kick it into the gutter to get it out of the way. Here I was about to put it into my mouth. My first impression upon touch – soured pebble – was confirmed and amplified as I rolled the thing around my tongue and tried to bite down. The local laughed, I gagged, and never again will I put the strange, hard, yak, cheese, milk, rock thing in my mouth.
On the way back we were taken to see a local landmark, Turtle Rock. The land-based equivalent of laying on your back while your brain shapes the clouds into familiar animals. We all took the bus back to the gers except Chas, the nutter who went out on the snowmobile a few days earlier. He accepted the offer to ride a donkey through the driving winds and whiteout snowfall. His analysis of the experience was similar to that of the snowmobile in Siberia.
With that, the group-tour section of our trip was coming to an end. The final leg of our journey would land us in Beijing. Having made it halfway across the world, I was quite proud, although we still had a fair distance ahead of us. By now we’d had enough of the cold, and the southbound journey ahead of us brought promise of lands without ice and frozen nostrils.