The itinerary was as given below:
June 26: Beijing
June 29: Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (Train)
June 30: Ulaanbaatar
July 4: Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk (Train)
July 6: Irkutsk
July 9: Irkutsk to Moscow (Train)
July 12: Moscow
July 15: Moscow to Chennai (Flight)
After considering various pros and cons like:
- Weather conditions … Good time to travel there?
- An area I have not yet been to?
- Extremely dangerous? (E.g. Syria, Somalia, Iraq)
- How many days I can spare?
- Do I have enough time to arrange the VISAs and plan properly?
I decided on the famous Trans-Mongolian train trip for this vacation. The trip involves China, Mongolia and Russia. Upon checking, I came to know that I needed VISA for China and Russia, even though I have been to Russia before (In 2010) and had obtained a Single-Entry VISA that time. Mongolia did not require a VISA for US passport holders.
How many days for the entire vacation?
Considering that I wanted to spend a few days in Beijing before starting the train trip, have stop-overs in Ulaanbaatar/Mongolia and Irkutsk/Lake-Baikal, and also a few days in Moscow, I arrived at an overall schedule of 3 weeks.
The most important item!
Since the entire trip is based on the Trans-Mongolian train trip, the first thing I did was to book the train tickets. I used Real Russia travel agent (http://realrussia.co.uk/), based on reviews I had read on the Internet. I did the booking in November for a trip in July the next year. Since July-August is the peak season for this part of the World, it is safer to book well in advance. The experience with Real Russia was quite nice, even though they are a bit pricey.
The overall Beijing to Moscow trip was broken into 3 separate trips.
- Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (1 day) – Stopover at Ulaanbaatar to experience Mongolia
- Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk (1.5 days) – Stopover at Irkutsk to experience Lake Baikal
- Irkutsk to Moscow (3 days)
Once you book the tickets through a travel agent, you are placed on a waiting list. The actual ticketing happens much later, in March-April timeframe.
For the Beijing to Ulaanbaatar leg, I had booked through a Chinese online train ticket agent.
Along with the train tickets, I also booked the flight from Moscow back to India.
For Russian VISA, I used the local Russian Consulate in Chennai. Once all the necessary papers, including the invitation letter (from Real Russia, based on the train ticket) and the VISA application form, it was a simple enough process. The only confusion was when I noticed that my VISA was granted from the day I set foot in Irkutsk railway station, but I actually cross into Russia (Border crossing at Naushki, the first railway station in Russia once you enter Russia from Mongolia) the previous day! I noticed this discrepancy in the VISA dates well in time and the Russian Consulate was kind enough to alter the VISA without any additional charges. The only disappointment was that though I had applied for a Multi-Entry VISA, I got yet another Single-Entry VISA only.
For China VISA, I went through a local travel agency. The experience was very good, though I had to visit their office multiple times for various documents and payment. The good news was that I got a 10-year Multiple-Entry VISA! Yay! I was extremely happy as a few days in Beijing (during this trip) will not come anywhere close to what a majestic country like China deserves. Exploring China requires at least 3 weeks, which will hopefully be a trip in future. I am sure the glowing letter on my China plans (Yes, I know enough about China based on my prior research) over the next several years must have impressed the VISA officers 😉
The items that I researched on, include:
- Countries (History, Language, Currency, Tourist Information Etc.)
- Day-to-day Itinerary, including major sites to see
- Hotel Bookings
- Pack List (Items to take with me. Since this was a backpacking trip, I had to be very efficient in my packing :-))
The Immigration queue at Beijing International Airport (PEK) was not only a long one, but it also took ages for me to get through. After almost 1.5 hours of standing in the queue, I managed to sneak out and go in search of ATM, taxi Etc.
Hmmm … No Google or Facebook in China!? (Unfortunately, this was not something that showed up during my planning phase, though I was aware of the general “restrictions”). My plans with Google Translate and Facebook postings went down the drain 🙂
It was a long ride to the downtown area (Near to Forbidden City) from the airport and the cab ride took almost 1 hour.
When I arrived at my hotel, the Beijing to Ulaanbaatar train ticket (Trans-Mongolian train #3) was waiting for me at the front desk.
KFC, McDonalds … Capitalist influence can be seen all around 🙂
I must have easily set my daily walking records in Beijing … Walking with the DSLR, Tripod, Souvenirs Etc. will definitely test one’s physical endurance.
The day I visited Forbidden City was definitely hot and sunny. After walking from the Hotel to the Forbidden City, walking all around the Forbidden City, walking around Beihai Park, walking all around Tiananmen Square, and finally walking back to the Hotel. Phew!
I love the bakeries which are all over the place … Cakes, biscuits, sandwiches Etc. Very good for snacks.
I had a real tough time ordering food at restaurants. Had to depend on hand-signs 🙂
Though I ultimately decided not to attend the Beijing Opera at Qianmen Jianguo Hotel, I loved the colorful Beijing Opera souvenirs, based on dancers in colorful costumes.
On the 2nd day, I fell sick (See the Great Wall experience below). The cold/cough lasted till I reached Ulaanbaatar. Noodle soups hit the spot during this period.
National Museum is quite nice, though it is nowhere close to Louvre (Paris). Also, for some reason, several sections were cordoned off.
Mao Zedong Monument: I had forgotten the fact that the monument is open only during mornings and arrived at the monument one afternoon. The entire Tiananmen Square area was very empty and cordoned off. While I was standing there, studying the situation, a plain-clothes guy came over and was looking at me suspiciously. Maybe my DSLR, tripod, backpack Etc. made him think I was having bad intentions 🙂 He did succeed in making me mad and I had to shoo him away.
The Great Wall visit: My original plan was to hire a car (with driver) for the day and at least visit 2-3 points of the Great Wall, like Badaling, Mutianyu, Jinshaling Etc. But with language issues, it proved to be difficult to execute. Then I ended up taking a traditional day tour to the Great Wall. Had a good time with fellow tourists from USA, Greece, Australia, UK, Denmark Etc. While trying to return to the Cable Car station, to get back to the tour bus, faced one of the worst rains/storms while stuck among the crowd on the Great Wall. Got totally drenched in the 1.5hr of severe downpour. Managed to use a plastic cover to keep my camera as safe as I could. But I did end up losing a lot of my DSLR photos from the Great Wall as my SD card got corrupted for some reason. Did not worry me too much as I am sure I will be back in China in the near future … Will get a 2nd chance 😉
With my backpack, DSLR, tripod, souvenir bag Etc., I struggled my way through the Beijing Metro and reached the main railway station. I then stocked up on Noodles, Biscuits, Coffee Etc. from the station for the Trans-Mongolian trip. I had arrived well before the train’s departure time and killed the time by listening to music on my phone and crowd-watching.
Beijing-Ulaanbaatar (Trans-Mongolian Rail Trip)
It is a pleasure to mingle with one’s co-travellers. I was lucky to get a whole cabin to myself. I was glad that my coughing did not disturb anyone else 🙂
My neighbours were an American family, a Japanese-American backpacker, and a South Korean Government Employee. Outside of the chit-chat in the corridor, we also had some meals together. The South Korean guy, based in Busan (We discussed my trip to Busan in 2012), was on an official trip and he took the opportunity to take the Trans-Mongolian.
One gets free meal coupons from the Cabin Attendant. I used mine for the dinner on 1st day. When I sat down for dinner (around 6PM, local time), we were passing through some spectacular scenery.
At around 8.30PM-9PM, the train pulled into Erlian, the Mongolian border town in China. The passport check happens here. Officials enter each compartment and review your passport, do a quick glance at luggage, and takes off with your passport for stamping purposes (Don’t worry, they will bring the passport back:-)). While the train is at a station, the toilets are locked (I assume because the waste is discharged on to the tracks). There is a gauge difference between trains in Russia/Mongolia and trains in China. The gauge is 4 ft 11+ inches in Russia and Mongolia and 4 ft 8 1⁄2 inches in China. Each carriage has to be lifted to have the bogies changed. It was interesting to see this operation. The entire stop takes around 4hr or so and it is good to use the toilet well before the train pulls into Erlian.
Right after that we have Dzamin Uud, which is the 1st station in Mongolia. Here also the similar passport control checks occur. Since I am an early-to-bed early-to-rise kind of guy, it was not exactly easy to pass this phase of the trip 😉
Once the Gobi desert started, the terrain was very interesting. Plains, wild horses and camels, yurts, lonely highways Etc. I tried to take as many pictures as I could through open windows. Also walked to the very end of the train, to capture photos through the train’s last compartment’s rear window.
At around 6AM, went to the dining car (which was quite deserted at that time) and had a breakfast of eggs, toast and coffee. Of course, the prices were on the expensive side and the food was not exactly gourmet 🙂
In between experiencing the Gobi desert, I took breaks for noodle meals, coffee and the occasional naps. I also started reading the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian guidebook I had brought with me. The book had illustrations and notes with which you could orient yourself as you passed through various points.
As we got closer to Ulaanbaatar, one could see the concentration of yurts increasing and soon enough, we pulled into Ulaanbaatar at around 1PM local time.
The city is quite big and spread out. The few high rises in Ulaanbaatar are in the downtown area, near to Chinggis Square.
The public transport (buses) were quite okay with a fixed price of 500 Tugriks for most trips.
All through my 5 days in Ulaanbaatar, it was bright and sunny. Did several long walks through the city.
Chinggis Square (formerly known as Sukhbaatar Square) is huge and quite impressive. The statues of Ghengis Khan, Ogedei Khan and Kublai Khan are right in front of the Government Palace. In the centre of the square we have a statue of the Mongolian revolutionary leader Sukhbaatar riding a horse. You can see lot of locals in their traditional dress getting photographed. You are also bombarded by people selling their wares like paintings Etc.
National Museum of Mongolia, right next to Chinggis Square (North-West), is a good place to visit to get a feel for the local history and the details about Sukhbaatar. They have clean restrooms as well.
Had a little bit of trouble with ATMs. Most of the ATMs did not work for me. Finally, Khan Bank ATM did work. I guess, when in Mongolia, one got to use “Khan” 🙂
Another interesting experience was when I tried to buy beer on July 1st. I went into the store and selected a couple of local brands. When I went to the counter, the clerk shook her head and said “No”. I was puzzled and asked “Why?”. She just kept repeating “No”. After a long and strenuous day of sightseeing, I was really looking forward to some chilled local beer. Soon, I started getting frustrated and after a little more back-and-forth, managed to buy the beer. When I reached the Hotel, the lady at the front desk told me about 1st of every month being a “Dry Day” in Mongolia! That was why the store clerk said “No” …
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, around 70Km from Ulaanbaatar is well worth a visit. The scenery is amazing and the Yaks looked majestic. I rented a cab for the whole day and also visited Chinggis Khan Statue Complex, where we have the huge Genghis Khan statue. We can use a mix of elevators and stairs to climb up right next to Genghis Khan’s face. A great place for photos. There were several souvenir shops in the complex, but I felt they were very pricey.
For souvenirs and general shopping, State Department Store (on Peace Avenue, which is the main street in Ulaanbaatar) is the best. There is a decent food court here as well. All my Mongolian souvenirs were bought at this place. The Mongolian souvenirs, coupled with my Beijing souvenirs, meant that I had to buy a new bag. I got a very good Belgium-made carry-bag for a very good price and used it to carry all the souvenirs. As you can imagine, I was no longer a typical backpacker. I was a typical backpacker and some more … J (Backpack, DSLR, Tripod and Souvenir bag).
I am not a fan of Mutton, but Mutton is one of the most common meats here and I had my fair share of mutton while in Mongolia.
Zaisan Monument, which is towards the south side of the city, is worth a visit (and a climb) for the great views. The monument honours the Soviets that were killed during World War II. Since we have over 700 steps to climb and it was hot and sunny as I said earlier, I found it a good time to eat an ice cream.
Choijin Lama Museum: I think they should splurge a little more on maintaining it a bit better. Compared to this museum, Bogd Khan Winter Palace is maintained much better. But the best of the lot is Gandantegchinlen Monastery (Not even sure how to pronounce it).
Gandantegchinlen Monastery … This building houses a real tall Buddha statue.
As with any city, one has to be careful. My co-Trans-Mongolian travelers did have some stories about how they were swindled. I was lucky that nothing happened in my case …
One of the days, I had walked over to a local agent from whom I collected my train ticket from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk.
The day before the train to Irkutsk, I had gone to the State Department Store to load up on biscuits, coffee, noodles, cheese Etc. I also bought a cup for the coffee.
Ulaanbaatar-Irkutsk (Trans-Mongolian Rail Trip)
I am not a last-minuter. What I mean is, I like to arrive well before time 🙂 Be it airports, train stations, bus stations, appointments Etc. I walked over from my Hotel to the train station several hours before the train start time. It was not easy walking with my luggage ;-). I spent the time eating some snacks (Ice cream, Cake Etc.) and also the Mongolian Khuushuur (looks like Indian Samosa). The waiting rooms are nice and clean. The only problem is that no one knows English, except for the student volunteers who walk around to help tourists. With their help, I located the right platform and also reconfirmed my train ticket details.
There is a beautiful locomotive on the platform of Ulaanbaatar train station.
I took the train #263 going from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk. Closer to the train departure time, I could see the various tourists arriving. There were two Spanish sisters (More about them later), an American couple, a British couple, a larger group of people from USA (a couple of them elders and one of them a Mongolian-American who was acting as their guide) Etc. The Mongolian-American dude was a repository of information and I just wished I had known him before my time in Mongolia 😉
I shared a cabin with the Spanish sisters, Maria and Patricia. Maria, the older one, worked in a Hospital (Anesthetist) and Patricia was a teacher. Both of them were avid travelers and Maria has even gone to North Korea! I had one of the upper berths and the ladies used the lower berths. Pretty much the whole time we had together was spent on chatting about our travel experiences, Spain, India, USA Etc.
On this train there was no restaurant car. So we had to survive on instant noodles, coffee, biscuits, cheese Etc. On such trains, we get hot water round the clock, which we use for the instant noodles and coffee.
There was a long stop at Naushki, the 1st Russian train station on Trans-Mongolian. The passport control checks happened here. We had our lunch here. They have clean restrooms available for use at a nominal charge.
Our cabin attendant looked like Daniel Craig, the current James Bond, minus the physique 🙂 Regularly, he used to come over and give us instructions, which we did not understand.
The Spanish sisters disembarked at Ulan-Ude along with the larger group from USA. Temporarily (since we reached Irkutsk the next day early morning at around 7AM local time), I got a local Ulan-Ude couple as cabin mates. They were quite reserved and we did not interact much.
Please note that just because a lot of tourists use Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian routes, these are not tourist-only trains. The trains on these routes are heavily used by the locals.
As we got closer to Irkutsk, I got some peek at the majestic Lake Baikal.
I took 15-20 minutes to get my bearing once I got out of the Irkutsk railway station. I decided to take the tram to the bus station. Since no one spoke English and the markings were all in Russian, my previous research on the tram route and Google map snapshots helped. I used Google translate to buy a bus ticket to Listvyanka. When I got into the mini-bus, voila, I run into the British couple (from the train) again. It took a 1hr ride to get to Listvyanka. Since my hotel was right at the edge of Listvyanka, I got down well before the town center.
My hotel was on a hill and I had some extreme workout lugging my bags up to the hotel. As soon as I settled into my room, I had a leisurely breakfast. It was nice to get some non-instant coffee after 2 days of instant coffee in the train. Because I felt like having some spice, I had some Solyanka.
The center of the town was around 5 miles from the hotel. For 10-20 Roubles you get rides on the vehicles coming/going from/to Irkutsk. Once, I even walked this distance with my camera, to capture some pictures of Lake Baikal.
From one of the bakeries, I had a fluffy yummy pastry. It was so yum, I went back again and had one more …
Before reaching Lake Baikal, I had made grand plans for the fish Omul, which is only found in Lake Baikal. The grand plan was to have Omul soups, grilled Omul, other Omul dishes Etc. When I walked into the market and got my 1st whiff of grilled Omul, I almost threw up … I do not want to offend any Russians or Omul-lovers, but Omul was definitely not for me. I did try one grilled Omul though … It took 2 days for me to lose that fish smell from my fingers 🙂
I took a a boat tour of Lake Baikal. The water is very clear and even in June, it was very chilly. The guide was a young girl, who was studying English at Irkutsk and she hoped to relocate to USA in future. She got to try her English with me.
While walking around the Listvyanka town, I ran into the Spanish sisters again! Patricia had fallen sick and they were staying an extra day in Listvyanka to let her recover.
I also took a “Baikal Railroad Tour”, which has to be one of the weirdest tours I have taken so far. I was the lone English-speaking person. All the others were Russians from various parts of the country. The guide also knew no English. I went through the entire tour without understanding a single word of what they were talking about :-). But the scenery was spectacular and I kept myself busy with my camera. The tour is a boat tour, which starts from the Listvyanka town, goes to the Shaman rock and then docks in a small bay. Thereafter it is a walking tour along the railway tracks, including a walk through a relatively long tunnel.
Behind the Baikal Limnological Museum, there is an excellent viewpoint, which gives an excellent view of the whole Lake Baikal area. To get there, you need to do some climbing though.
The evening before the major train trip from Irkutsk to Moscow (3 full days!), I scoped out the Irkutsk railway station, double-checked the train timing, purchased some ready-to-eat burgers, noodles, coffee Etc. That evening there was heavy rain and it was still raining when I left my hotel to walk over to the railway station. My bags did get wet even though I had an umbrella with me. The Trans-Siberian train #1 (Rossiya), which is on the way from Vladivostok, stops only for 10 minutes or so. One has to be alert and should be keeping an eye on the platform-train display to get to know the platform the train will arrive at. Good luck asking someone for this information! 🙂
Irkutsk-Moscow (Trans-Mongolian/Siberian Rail Trip)
For the 1st leg of this trip, Irkutsk to Novosibirsk, I had a grand-mother, her daughter and her grand-son as my cabin-mates. Though we could not understand each other, we communicated using smiles and sign language. I even joined them for some board games.
Each time you get in a train along this route, you are given a pillow, clean sheets and pillow-covers, and also one complimentary meal (which is nothing to write home about :-)).
I bought some Trans-Siberian souvenirs from the cabin attendant.
The cabin attendants get ready before each stop and while the train is stopped at a station, they will be standing prim-and-proper to guide passengers in/out of the compartments.
For the 1st two days of the train journey, it was just me and Russians! Please note that Trans-Siberian Rossiya train is NOT a tourist train. It is a train used heavily by locals.
Once the Russian family (mentioned above) got down at Novosibirsk, Rob and Susan (a New Zealand couple) joined my cabin. We played a lot of Gin and also drank a lot of beer (bought from the restaurant car). Rob and Susan work out of Jeju, South Korea and are passionate travelers. They get 19 weeks of vacations per year! They had been taking the Trans-Siberian from Vladivostok and have been taking many stops in between.
My Trans-Siberian/Mongolian/Manchurian guidebook was very handy and helped me appreciate the landmarks we were passing and also catch up on the local history.
One morning, I had my breakfast in the restaurant car (which was empty. Locals are smart enough to stay away from this overpriced eatery).The portions were so little that I got a good feel for how the erstwhile “Siberian Prisoners” might have felt 🙂
It was fascinating to see the Siberian plains, forests, rivers, lakes, small settlements, and cities pass us by.
Once Rob and Susan got down at Yekaterinburg, around 9AM local time, a Russian gentleman joined my cabin and immediately changed to nightdress and went to sleep. He slept right through till Perm.
Then, we went through Nizhny Novgorod … At Nizhny Novgorod, a Russian gentleman joined my cabin and he had packed some food from home. He shared a snack, a kind of pie, with me. Thus started the last night on the train. I managed a good night’s sleep. The AC in the train is quite strong and since I had a top berth, the blanket was handy. The train was due to arrive at Yaroslavky Station @Moscow at around 6.30AM local time. I woke up early and without disturbing my cabin-mates, I got ready and finished all the packing. Also managed my last cup of coffee … By now, I was tired of the instant coffee.
As soon as the train rolled into Yaroslavsky station, the 1st thing I did was to walk into a local eatery and have 2 hot juicy burgers and a cup of non-instant coffee 🙂
Thus I came to the end of an adventure from Beijing to Moscow! A mix of Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian … One item crossed from the bucket-list!