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Tuesday 26 September 2017

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Transsiberian Railway: Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar

All my imaginings of Siberia, from being a small child right through to adulthood, were of a bleak, frozen wasteland. It also seemed to be the impression most of my peers and contemporaries had too – a fact which became all too obvious as they foisted their opinions  on me and passed their remarks at my choice of trip. ‘Oh well,’ many would shrug, “they did Chernobyl last year, so what do you expect?”
I think for me, the biggest shock on the stretch between Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk is just how populated it is. I really didn’t expect all the little settlements along the route, which was intersected by roads and tracks, lined with quaintly pained wooden houses and people – just working in the fields or simply standing watching the trains go by. In this vast space the most mundane sight can seem remarkably odd, simply by its incongruity; a row of Ladas, populated by the odd Mitsubishi or Renault, waiting at a level crossing in the middle of nowhere for the Trans-Siberian train to go past, a small child playing with his faithful dog, or riding a shiny bicycle, as he kicks up the dust in his remote back yard. A real delight are the station stops, where locals line the track peddling their wares, from bottles of mineral water to bread, ice-creams to pot noodles. There’s plenty of chance to disembark at these junctures, even if just to stretch your legs and get a breath of fresh air.
As we neared Irkutsk, the weather took a turn for the worse. Gone were the clear blue skies and thirty degree heat of Yekaterinburg, giving way to a thick belt of rain cloud and temperatures plummeting by a good twenty degrees. This low pressure lasted for a good sixteen hour stretch of the journey and spanned hundreds of kilometres, so by the time we got to Irkutsk station, we realised our only actual stop in Siberia, some twenty-four hours by Lake Baikal in Listvyanka, was going to be a wet one. This was a bit of a disappointment, particularly as Alex, our transfer guide, was quick to point out he had been sunbathing only a couple of days earlier. Everyone at home had thought us mad when we embarked upon this adventure, advising us take plenty of warm clothing for the fifty-below Siberian temperatures, but we were the smart ones, explaining we’d done our research and that Siberian summers could be as warm as the winters were cold. And now this: Listvyanka at a grey six degrees, and Lake Baikal enshrouded in misty rain clouds. Clearly, we could not text of phone anyone at home until things improved.
Absolutely dog tired, as soon as we hit the homestay we collapsed into bed. The 48 hour train journey and early start had worn us out physically and emotionally, and then the hour and a half it took to transfer us by minibus in pouring rain to the lake resort had just about finished us off. A warm welcome at our wooden shack of a homestay did lift our spirits a little, as did the delicious breakfast of home cooked blinis served with cheese and jam, even if it did disturb our slumber temporarily. After breakfast, it was back to bed for a couple more hours to recharge our bodies and minds enough to make the best of the day.
Once we’d showered and thrown ourselves out onto the soggy shores of the lake, things didn’t seem nearly so bad. As my partner Jamie pointed out, this was no wet weekend in Whitby (something we had also experienced); this was Siberia and this was Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world. Known as the pearl of Siberia, it is, at its deepest, 1,637 metres deep and contains more  it didn’t matter a jot what the clemency of the weather was, we were here, standing on its shores, and it was wonderful.

 

The mysterious shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia

Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, leaving Siberia: high in the Mongolian mountains

All my imaginings of Siberia, from being a small child right through to adulthood, were of a bleak, frozen wasteland. It also seemed to be the impression most of my peers and contemporaries had too – a fact which became all too obvious as they foisted their opinions  on me and passed their remarks at my choice of trip. ‘Oh well,’ many would shrug, “they did Chernobyl last year, so what do you expect?”

I think for me, the biggest shock on the stretch between Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk is just how populated it is. I really didn’t expect all the little settlements along the route, which was intersected by roads and tracks, lined with quaintly pained wooden houses and people – just working in the fields or simply standing watching the trains go by. In this vast space the most mundane sight can seem remarkably odd, simply by its incongruity; a row of Ladas, populated by the odd Mitsubishi or Renault, waiting at a level crossing in the middle of nowhere for the Trans-Siberian train to go past, a small child playing with his faithful dog, or riding a shiny bicycle, as he kicks up the dust in his remote back yard. A real delight are the station stops, where locals line the track peddling their wares, from bottles of mineral water to bread, ice-creams to pot noodles. There’s plenty of chance to disembark at these junctures, even if just to stretch your legs and get a breath of fresh air.

As we neared Irkutsk, the weather took a turn for the worse. Gone were the clear blue skies and thirty degree heat of Yekaterinburg, giving way to a thick belt of rain cloud and temperatures plummeting by a good twenty degrees. This low pressure lasted for a good sixteen hour stretch of the journey and spanned hundreds of kilometres, so by the time we got to Irkutsk station, we realised our only actual stop in Siberia, some twenty-four hours by Lake Baikal in Listvyanka, was going to be a wet one. This was a bit of a disappointment, particularly as Alex, our transfer guide, was quick to point out he had been sunbathing only a couple of days earlier. Everyone at home had thought us mad when we embarked upon this adventure, advising us take plenty of warm clothing for the fifty-below Siberian temperatures, but we were the smart ones, explaining we’d done our research and that Siberian summers could be as warm as the winters were cold. And now this: Listvyanka at a grey six degrees, and Lake Baikal enshrouded in misty rain clouds. Clearly, we could not text of phone anyone at home until things improved.

Absolutely dog tired, as soon as we hit the homestay we collapsed into bed. The 48 hour train journey and early start had worn us out physically and emotionally, and then the hour and a half it took to transfer us by minibus in pouring rain to the lake resort had just about finished us off. A warm welcome at our wooden shack of a homestay did lift our spirits a little, as did the delicious breakfast of home cooked blinis served with cheese and jam, even if it did disturb our slumber temporarily. After breakfast, it was back to bed for a couple more hours to recharge our bodies and minds enough to make the best of the day.

Once we’d showered and thrown ourselves out onto the soggy shores of the lake, things didn’t seem nearly so bad. As my partner Jamie pointed out, this was no wet weekend in Whitby (something we had also experienced); this was Siberia and this was Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world. Known as the pearl of Siberia, it is, at its deepest, 1,637 metres deep and contains more water than America’s five Great Lakes combined. It didn’t matter a jot what the clemency of the weather was, we were here, standing on its shores, and it was wonderful.

 

Train 3: The TransMongolian Railway

When I was a kid at school, I remember other kids joking about Outer Mongolia, none of us, of course, having a clue even where this far flung country lay. The reality was something I could never have prepared for; arriving at downtown Ulaanbaatar, or UB as the trendy locals call it, proved to be the gateway to a world I could previously only have dreamt of. A thriving city, UB is home to some 800,000 citizens, almost 30% of the country’s entire population. Its suburbs are unlike those of most western cities, nomadic families from the countryside occupying not hi-rise urban tenements, but pockets of ger camps when Mongolia’s harsh climate decimates their livestock, rendering their centuries old wandering lifestyle unsustainable. At least these days they have somewhere to resettle.

Our guide for the duration of our stay was to be Khulan, a 24 year old resident of the capital with over five years’ experience in looking after tourists from all over the world. Proficient in Russian and English as well as her native Mongolian tongue, she was a girl who could make herself understood in pretty much any situation. Hard working and humblingly dedicated, Khulan was passionate in her endeavours to not only make sure we had a good time, but to equip us with some grass roots knowledge of her country and her people; she was, in fact, the perfect guide.

Our 80 kilometre trek up to the Terelj National Park, courtesy of driver Michael, was as informative as it was stunning. As we passed two huge blue constructions on the main road out of the city, Khulan explained this was the black market. “It’s not how you would see the black market normally,” she reassured us, “but you can buy anything here, from a car to a ger. It’s very popular and interesting to look around.”

We also witnessed a funeral procession a few miles down the road, which to Mongolians is a sign of luck. “The person who has died leaves all the good things about his life to those of us still here,” explained Khulan. Weddings, on the other hand, are a different story: “The newly married couple are taking all the good things for themselves, so it’s not so good for everyone else!”

As the road meandered its way out of the hustle and bustle of the city, giving way to green fields and gently rising hills, the true drama of the landscape only became apparent as we entered the Terelj Park. Huge, rocky mountains and rolling green plains conspired to create a spectacular vista that no picture or prose could ever hope to recreate in the mind of one who has not witnessed it for himself. Taking the best of the western highlands of Scotland and the Middle Earth of New Zealand, this breathtaking countryside stretches over an incomprehensible land mass, reaching far into the distance, way beyond where the human eye could ever hope to see.

Once we’d settled into the camp, we were shown to our ger, which would be our home for the next couple of nights. My trusty black and red Antler suitcase looked ridiculously incongruous in this magnificently unspoilt world; it felt as if my belongings should be wrapped in a swathe of natural linen and tied securely to my horse.

Ger living proved entirely agreeable, not least because we were fed and watered regularly in the camp’s superb restaurant. We spent our hazy, lazy days in the pleasant 25 degree sunshine riding horses, practicing archery and, embarrassingly, trying to put up our own ger, which leaned precariously to the left, threatening to last not even one night.

A highlight was a hike to the picturesque Buddhist Meditation Temple of Aryapala, nestling high on the hillside above the appropriately named Turtle Rock; from here, the view of the park is sensational.

When the time came to leave Terelj it was heartbreaking. This trip has been a series of goodbyes from the start, but always there has been the promise of the next new adventure. But here we were saying farewell not only to a place which felt inherently right, but also to great friendships which were not tethered by the bounds of language. Here were a people whose only desire was to please: they wanted to make us happy, welcome and safe. For that brief time, there was real love for one’s fellow human here, and leaving it behind was a massive wrench which left a lump in my throat.

Khulan and her 25 year old male colleague Gana continued to look after us as we spent another twenty-four hours in UB itself, visiting Sukhbaatar Square with its proud statue of Chinggis Khaan, the Mongolian Natural History Museum and the Gandan Monastery, before taking in a concert showing off the talents of the Mongolian State Dancers and Singers, collectively known as Moonstone. We then rested our heads in the Bayangol Hotel, one of UB’s finest and most western; it didn’t disappoint.

The next morning, as our 8.05 train rolled out of Ulaanbaatar station towards the Gobi, I felt a mixture of real sadness at leaving behind this beautiful country and its wonderful people, and a huge, giddy excitement at the prospect of discovering Beijing. This was tempered only by a little understandable apprehension about the border crossing.

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3 Responses to “Transsiberian Railway: Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar”

  1. Thomas S says:

    Really interesting article, thanks for sharing your experiences. I always thought Sibera was frozen over too!

  2. terry & Karen Biddle says:

    We shared this experience with Nigel & Jamie, and couldn’t have put it better. A definate experience to do before you die!

  3. Jim says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I am doing a similar trip in September and I am greatly looking forward to it.

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