Transsiberian, Transmongolian ... the train(s)

To finish my reporting on the recent Transsiberian / Transmongolian trip, here are some pictures from the train trip as such.

I have no pictures from the first night between Saint Petersburg and Moscow, but officially the Transsiberian train leaves from Moscow.

I travelled with our blogger friend Alain, who you will recognize on a few photos.

We travelled thus with different trains, as we spent a few days, not only in Moscow, but also in Ekaterinburg, Irkutsk and the Baikal Lake, at and around Ulan Bator, around Sainhand…

The trains were generally quite full, but the number of tourists was quite limited; it was the end of the tourist season. Each wagon is followed by two people, one sleeping and one working, who take care of the coal heating, to keep water hot in the samovar, to pass a vacuum cleaner, to clean up the toilets… Everything is clean and well kept.

The train never goes very fast and stops quite often at stations for maybe 15, sometimes 30 minutes, which means that you can buy stuff to eat and drink on the quay or in the station buildings… and get some fresh air. Of course there was also always a restaurant wagon.

There are also stops at the borders; the longest was five hours when leaving Russia.

Totally we made six nights onboard the train(s). The longest part was the Siberian one between Ekaterinburg and Irkutsk - three nights in a row, passing Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk...

The landscape doesn’t change too much between Moscow and the Mongolian border; trees, lakes, rivers… and rather flat except some hills when you pass over the Ural and reach Asia and Siberia.

The Mongolian landscape is of course different. Between Ulan Bator and Sainshand (Gobi Desert), we travelled by a local train.

What also is striking is when you leave Mongolia, desert like, hardly any roads… and arrive in China and the Inner Mongolia; suddenly there are huge buildings, large streets, lights… and the Mongolian lifestyle has disappeared. On the way through China, you can observe a number of rapidly growing big cities, for a while you can observe the Great Wall and the last hours before arriving in Beijing, the views are quite spectacular with dams, rivers, lakes, high mountains … and a lot of tunnels and bridges.


Transsiberian, Transmongolian ... Beijing

After six nights – and days – by train, with stops at a number of places (see previous posts) and after about four weeks of travelling, Beijing was the final destination. I had already visited Beijing and this time it was for a short visit before the flight back to Paris, so the few pictures I show will give a very limited view of the city.

My impression, nine years after my previous visit, was that the city is much cleaner, that the traffic is more fluid - with a large amount of recent cars, that even more modern buildings have replaced the traditional “hutongs”, that public toilets are much cleaner … and that it’s difficult to see the sun even a “sunny day”. However I saw many more electric vehicles in Beijing than I have seen in any European city, and efforts are clearly made to get cleaner air, but the problem is huge.

During the short stay, there was just time to visit the very central part – the “Forbidden City”, the Jingshan Park, the Beihai Lake (park), the Tien'anmen Square, the Changpu River Park, some hutongs, the Wangfuijing (shopping) Street with the same trademarks as elsewhere in the world… and to have some nice meals including an excellent Peking Roast Duck.

(The last picture shows the portrait of a French ex-prime minister, surprisingly covering a wall.)

I will make a last post about this Transsiberian – Transmongolian trip, with views of trains, through wagon windows, railway stations…


Transsiberian, Transmongolian ... Mongolia - part 2

After a short return to Ulan Bator after our first tour of the Mongolian countryside (see previous post), we took a local train, a full day, to Sainshand, one of the little towns in the Gobi Desert in the southern part of Mongolia (see map on previous post). During the Silk Road times, there were some important cities here, but not today.

The rains are stopped by Himalaya, but some very limited rainfall in the eastern part (the one we visited), allows some livestock, to large extent camels, but also horses, muttons, goats. The annual mean temperature is -2.5°C (27.5°F) and the January mean is -26.5°C (-15.7°F), but there are extremes of 50°C (122°F) in the summer and -40°C (-40°F) in the winter. There is a great difference between day and night temperatures. There are gazelles, polecats, leopards, bears, wolves… around (we didn’t see any).

There is some ground water and a verly limited number of springs around. Anybody who passes by a spring is supposed to fill the reservoir ... and so we did.

Again driving on tracks – only – we reached the partly restored Buddhist monastery Khamriin Khiid, which used to be an important Buddhist centre with the first Mongolian theatre, a public school, a museum, a library… It was completely destroyed in 1938 during the communist “purge”, but is today again reviving and visited by a lot of locals who spend the night in the yurt camp (as we did also). The camp is surrounded by rocks with caves where monks practiced yogic exercises and meditation. A limited amount of documents and relics were saved in time and hidden before the destruction and they have today been – partly – found and recovered. This monastery is today linked to what Buddhists refer to as Shamb(h)ala - a place which could actually exist or have existed or would be a place which can be reached after long meditation. Today people come here to get “energy”, to be healed from different pains… sitting on the ground, touching the surrounding rocks…

The monks pray during the morning hours. In the afternoon one of the young ones, in a Calvin Klein tee-shirt, joined us. Our driver, who previously had taught traditional medicine (and also is a poet) helped the monk to get rid of a headache.

In the surroundings you can find several examples of petrified wood, fossilised dinosaur bones… and we also met two Swiss camping cars, with families on a three year around the world tour.

Again we overnighted with a family in a yurt. They owned a lot of especially goats and camels … and a ride on a camel was of course compulsory.

On the way back to Sainshand, we also visited the “Black Mountain”, also named Khan Bayanzurkh. A lot of locals come here and, believing that the spirit of the founder of the Kamriin Khid monastery is related to this mountain, they pray and say their wishes - however only men are allowed to climb to the top. I was a bit surprised to find two Mongolian ladies with a bag from a Swedish supermarket.


Transsiberian, Transmongolian ... Mongolia - part 1

We left Ulan Bator (see previous post, including a map) for a trip towards the west. We followed first one of the few paved roads in Mongolia, but spent also considerable time on tracks. A jeep like car, with a driver and guide are needed.

We visited Karakorum (Kharakhorum), which Genghis Khan used as a major military camp and decided to make to the capital of the Mongolian Empire, then erected by his son. Considering the importance of the Empire, this was then for a relatively short period a major site of world politics, although with very simple buildings, partly yurts, surrounded by a rather symbolic wall and limited by turtle sculptures, still there. A Pope delegate visited the place during the 13th century and described it as a very cosmopolitan and religiously tolerant place, a bit later confirmed by Marco Polo. However, already after a few decades, the capital was relocated to what today is Beijing under the Mongolian Yun dynasty.

Adjacent to the city was during the 16th century founded a Buddhist monastery, Erdene Zuu, surrounded by a wall with some 100 “stupas”. As from the 19th century you could find some 62 temples inside and some 1000 monks were active here. During the 1930’s the communists destroyed almost all Mongolian monasteries, including this one and at least ten thousand Buddhist monks were killed. At Erdene Zuu, three temples and the wall were left as a “museum”. Today, new temples are added and the monastery is again religiously very active.

Far from the main road, we visited another – small - old monastery, Övgön Khiid, also destroyed, but again “alive”.

The greatest experience was of course overnigthing in a yurt, which we thanks to our experienced driver managed to find after about an hour’s drive on tracks. It was a great pleasure to spend two days and nights with the very kind little family who lived there. They had just settled on this spot and would soon move to another one, for the winter. Despite some nice temperatures during the day and some heating (mainly by dried horseshit) from the oven for the evening meal, there was ice on the water bottles in the morning… and this was in September. The family had some tens of horses, cows and hundreds of muttons and goats. Milking takes a good part of the day for the wife.

Mongolians are very generous with time, friendly, smiling, joking… A small bus had a motor break and it was quite natural for our driver to stop and give a helping hand. In the meantime, we were offered some fermented mare milk (“airag”), some dried mutton meat, goat cheese… This is also what you are offered at any yurt, as soon as you arrive or stop to say hello.


Transsiberian, Transmongolian ... Ulan Bator

After Irkutsk (see previous post) and the Baikal Lake (see previous post), one choice is to continue with the Transsiberian Railway to Vladivostok … or to deviate southwards towards Mongolia and Beijing. The train then changes name to the Transmongolian. After a five hours stop for customs on the Russian side of the border, another hour and half on the Mongolian side and a night’s travel, we reached the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator (Uulanbaatar, Oulan Baator… there seems to be many ways to spell it). The map below indicates the direction of the train and the places and areas in Mongolia (yellow ovals) visited during this trip.
A few words about Mongolia:

Mongolia has a total population of some 3 million in a country which is about three times bigger than France. At least one third of the population lives in the capital.

Mongolia is thus a large country, of course very small compared to the 13th century Mongolian Empire, the largest land empire in history, which then stretched from Poland to Korea, from Siberia to Vietnam and to the Persian Gulf. We all know about Genghis Khan. After his death, the Empire was divided into four, one of his grandsons made Beijing his capital and the Yuan dynasty ruled over China for about a century, until the Ming dynasty took over. After centuries of struggle, the present Mongolia came under Chinese control until the beginning of the 20th century. Struggles between China and Russia led finally in 1924, with what was called support from the Soviet Union, to the creation of the Mongolian People’s Republic (some 55.000 Soviet troops were present in Mongolia during the 1980’s), until the perestroika and glasnost made that in 1992 the “people’s republic” was dropped from the country’s name … and the Russians left.

If Mongolia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, Ulan Bator is definitely not one of the most beautiful capitals and is also known as the coldest capital in the world. … But the people are nice and smiling - as all over the country. So, before some posts about other parts of Mongolia, a few words about and some pictures from its present capital, knowing that the Mongolian nomad way of living has meant that also the capital moved around during centuries. My pictures show that buildings are growing all over for a rapidly increasing urban population. If many of the Soviet influenced buildings remain they are now often painted; the Mongolians like colours. The central Sükhbaatar Square is dominated by the Parliament Building – with Genghis Khan sitting on a throne in the middle. Most Mongolians are Buddhists. If monasteries were more or less demolished during the Soviet era, the religious feelings seem today very present and strong. The Gandan Monastery in Ulan Bator is the largest in the country. To listen to a concert of throat singing and traditional music was a real pleasure.


Transsiberian, Transmongolian ... Lake Baikal

From Irkutsk (see previous post) we took a small local bus the about 70 km (45 miles) to Listvyanka on the southern shore of Lake Baikal. The weather was a bit colder and greyer than what we would have wished and the high mountains reaching some 2600 m (8500 ft) in the background were not easy to distinguish… but we had also some nice moments of sun. We used the grey moments to visit some of the many valleys and torrents that lead to the lake.

Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest (down to about 1600 m = 5400 ft) lake and also among the clearest ones. If you want to make the tour (hardly any roads) it would mean some 2100 km (1300 miles). It contains about 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water. Lake Baikal is a rift valley. Below the lake there are some 7 km (4.3 miles) of sediments, meaning that the rift floor is some 8-11 km (5-7 miles) below the surface, making it the world’s deepest rift, widening some 2 cm (0.8 in) each year. One day, Euroasia will be split in two..

The Lake is covered by ice some five months per year.

The biodiversity is enormous with some 1000 species of plants and some 1500 varieties of animals, whereof 80% endemic, unique. This would include freshwater seals and the salmonid Omul fish, which we with pleasure tasted a number of times.

… and of course, surrounded by autumn colours, it’s just beautiful!


Transsiberian, Transmongolian ... Irkutsk

Three days and nights after leaving Ekaterinburg (see previous post), we reached Irkutsk. One major reason for a stop at Irkutsk is the nearness of the Baikal Lake (next post). The city lies at the Angara River, the major outflow from the Baikal Lake, some 70 km (45 miles) away.

Irkutsk is one of the biggest cities in Siberia, and one of the cold days we stayed there, the city celebrated its 350 years of existence. The first road to Moscow, the Siberian road, dates from 1760 and the Transsiberian Railroad reached Irkutsk in 1898. The city became important for trade with China, Mongolia…

In the early 19th century many nobles, officers, artists… who had taken part in the so called Decembrist revolt against the then Tsar Nicolas I were exiled to Irkutsk. There are many wooden houses from this period, unfortunately only a few in good shape. We understood that the possible restorations are heavily supervised and often too expensive for the people who occupy them.


Transsiberian, Transmongolian ... Ekaterinburg

Still on the way eastwards… Less known than Saint Petersburg and Moscow, maybe a few words about Ekaterinburg (also written Yekaterinburg…). You reach the city just after having crossed the Ural Mountains, which also means that you have reached Asia.

The city was created during the 18th century. It’s perhaps today best known as the place where the Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered in 1918. The house where they lived was demolished in 1977 on the order of Moscow via Boris Yeltsin, who then was a local Ekaterinburg leader. Yeltsin later, in 1998, represented the people when the Tsar and his family got a state funeral; they are now buried at the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg (see previous post). On the place where their house stood you can since 2003 find the “Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russain Land”, commemorating the Romanov family and their sainthood.

The city was named Sverdlovsk between 1924 and 1992 (and the region still has that name). You can find the statue of Yakov Sverdlov, just across the Opera House, not far from the Romanov memorial. He was a leading revolutionary personality and was obviously the one who gave the order to execute the Royal family. He could have been the Lenin successor, but died already in 1919.

Svedlovsk, later Ekaterinburg, was also a leading military industrial centre during the Soviet Communist era, and was then a “closed city”, not open to foreign tourists. It was over the suburbs of Ekaterinburg that the U-2 spy plane (Francis Gary Powers) was shot down.


Transsiberian, Transmongolian ... Moscow

On our way to the east... a few pictures from Moscow.


Trip with Transsiberian, Transmongolian... Saint Petersburg

Well, I'm back! I will publish a few clips. Here is a first one from Saint Petersburg.