10 December 2014

Week 115 - Moscow, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw (Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland)

We woke in our tiny Moscow room and wrapped up as best we could ready to face the subzero temperatures outside. We really weren’t prepared for the weather and had to wear two pairs of trousers, two T-shirts and two jumpers each. Once outside we walked back towards the city centre with the intention of visiting the Kremlin. As we hadn’t had a chance for breakfast, we spied a cheap deal in an American diner and popped in. 

By the time we reached Red Square, it was nearly lunchtime. The Aleksandrovsky gardens were closed for a military parade where carnations were laid at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier (where the body of a soldier who fought in the battle of 1941, that stopped the German advance on Moscow, is buried), so we circled around by the road to the Kremlin ticket office. Luckily we’d made it in time to buy tickets for the 12:30 slot at the Armoury and had to rush over to join the queue at one of the corner towers to pass through security. The Armoury chamber is a small museum housing an incredible collection of Tsar bling, from golden goblets to diamond encrusted thrones, ornate helmets and beautifully engraved weapons, with a small and slightly disappointing collection of FabergĂ© eggs. Our tickets allowed us an hour, wandering from room to room before it was time to exit and head over to the main Kremlin entrance.

The Kremlin is the heart of Moscow and the seat of the Russian government. It’s a walled citadel that houses senate buildings as well as a number of cathedrals, built over several centuries and in a mixture of styles. It’s all a bit strange when you enter as there aren’t many signs and no obvious route. We got shouted at by a guard for crossing the road not at a designated crossing point and decided to play it safe and head straight to the central square to see the golden domes of the 15th century cathedrals. We stopped to explore the Cathedral of the Assumption, the traditional place for the coronation of Russian Tsars, the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, a burial chapel for the Tsars, and the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Tsars private chapel. All were gloriously decorated with every inch of wall space painted and gilded.
Rhys and the Tsar Cannon, Kremlin, Moscow.
Ivan the Great Bell Tower, Kremlin, Moscow.
We had time to stop by the Palace of the Patriarch (the head of the Russian church) and to see the 200 tonne Tsar Bell, the heaviest in the world, and the huge Tsar Cannon, the largest calibre cannon in the world, before heading back out to Red Square. Most buildings in the Kremlin aren’t open to the public and even those that were were eerily quiet.

The sun started to drop as we wandered over to Red Square, passed Lenin’s Mausoleum (although he didn’t seem to be home), to see St Basils Cathedral in the light and to wander around it’s mazelike corridors. As it was cold, we decided to detour through the GUM shopping arcade, a glass roofed pavilion containing row after row of high end shops before walking back towards the hostel. Popping out again later to brave the cold for dinner in a nearby pub.
St Basil's Cathedral at dusk, Moscow.
Walking around Moscow it’s clear that there’s a lot more money there than elsewhere in Russia, every other car is either a Mercedes, a BMW or a Maserati and the streets are lined with elegant boutiques and restaurants - average wages are 6 to 20 times higher than cities in Siberia. 

We had to check out of our room the next day but our bus wasn’t due to leave until late that night. We put our bags in storage and wandered over to see the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, on the riverfront. The route took us along side the Kremlin to a junction where we were stopped by police and sent back to walk the other way around the block where it was impossible to cross the road and we had to find a whole new route walking through a metro station - crossing roads in Moscow is a right palava, you either have to wait for 10 minutes for the traffic lights to change or walk miles to try and find a crossing point. The building is a 1997 replica of an earlier cathedral that had stood on the same spot, but that was bulldozed by Stalin to make way for a Soviet Palace, a project that never came to fruition. 
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow.
By this point, we were close to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and decided to pop in to the 19th - 20th Century European and American Gallery. I was keen to see the collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist works it held and although a lot of the rooms were closed, it was well worth the visit, and gave us a chance to thaw out in the warmth.
Rhys admiring a Monet in the Pushkin Galleries, Moscow.
Our last stop of the day was ‘The Arbat’, a pedestrianised street that my guide book described as ‘one of Moscows best loved streets’ and that we thought would work to pass an hour or two. We were disappointed to find all it offered were rows of shops selling tourist tat at extortionate prices, stalls selling oil paintings and horrific caricatures and a few chain restaurants. We were getting hungry so stopped for lunch at a smart little grill before catching the metro back to our hostel, passing a supermarket where we bought cheap Russian vodka to take with us in to Latvia. 

We still had a little over an hour to waste before leaving to find the bus station and ended up in the basement kitchen, counting down the minutes. Finally, it was time to leave and we grabbed our bags and headed out in to the cold. We enjoyed Moscow, it had a real buzz and some architectural gems, random buildings on street corners and wide avenues punctuated by the Stalin ‘Seven Sisters’, giant Soviet style skyscrappers.

The metro got us to the bus stop with plenty of time. As it wasn’t a bus station, just a layby, we walked over to the bus companies office to check we were in the right place, then had an hour of sitting on a cold wall in the dark until the bus pulled up. 

It was a decent journey after we’d worked out how to make Rhys’s seat recline and the bus was of a good standard despite us having the only seats where the screens in the seat backs didn’t work. The further we got from Moscow and the closer to Latvia, the more windy the roads became. We were expecting a motorway but we found ourselves on rough country roads. We were both feeling a little queasy and ended up taking Rhys’s super strength sea sickness tablets and had both managed to sleep before we reached the border at 4am. 

The border guards weren’t too impressed with Rhys’s passport for some reason but after a quick phone call and some discussion they signaled us through. Finally we were back in the Eurozone where our magical EU passports give us a right of passage. For the first time in two years and over 30 countries, we no longer had to feel apprehensive when crossing borders. 

Back on the bus, we still had a fair old drive until we reached Riga. We arrived just after 9am and consulted our map for the short walk to the hostel. Tim was due to fly in to meet us after lunch and we took the opportunity to nap and freshen up in our room.

Rhys was still in bed when Tim arrived and bundled on the bed to wake him. It had been 8 1/2 months since we’d seen him last and we had lots of catching up to do. We cracked open a bottle of the Russian vodka and spent a few hours chatting in the comfort of our room before changing to head out in to Riga Old Town.

Our hostel wasn’t far from the city wall and it didn’t take long to find an Aussie Pub i’d read about that had great reviews. It was nearly dark when we went out and it wasn’t until we checked our watches that we realised it was still only 4pm. After a game of foosball and pints of cranberry beer and super sweet cider, we continued to find a new pub. The old town was packed with souvenir shops, boutiques, bars and restaurants and every hundred metres, the windy cobbled streets opened in to another square headed by a church with a towering spire, filled with Christmas markets and Christmas trees.
St Peter's Church, Riga.
We had cups of mulled wine, peered into strange brews in huge cauldrons, chatted to a few locals (Latvian people are so friendly and they seem to like British accents) and found ourselves in a British pub where we ducked in to get out of the cold. By that point we were starting to get hungry and spent forever walking around trying to find a restaurant that was on the cheaper side but offered Latvian food. Struggling, we ended up at a pizza restaurant. Calling it a night, I jumped in a taxi back to the hostel. The boys followed me back shortly after.

The next day we were late to rise and only made it down to breakfast just before it was tidied away. The kitchen was hectic but the breakfast spread was one of the best we’ve seen in a long time (although a hostel buffet was below Tim whose preference was for a MacDonalds). We decided we should explore Riga a bit before going to a bar and headed in to the Old Town, map in hand to explore the twisting alleyways and the photogenic buildings, stopping to buy hot cider at the Christmas markets. It was much colder than the previous day and a light rain followed by freezing temperatures had turned the cobblestones in to treacherous passages. Tim had swanky boots on without an ounce of grip and spent most of the day literally skating down the roads yet I was the only one who actually managed to fall over, right in the middle of a square for the whole of Riga to see.
Rozena Street, Riga, where you can apparently touch both sides, but only if you have ridiculously long arms.
Rhys and Tim with warm cider in Riga Old Town.
After leaving the Old Town, we wandered north to the Art Nouveau district. The city has the largest and most impressive showing of art nouveau architecture in Europe with more than 750 buildings adorned with gargoyles, nymphs and goddesses. We didn’t spend long in the area as the wind had picked up and it was starting to get too cold to explore. Tim popped in to a pipe shop and came out with a new cigar and after walking the length of Alberta Street, we circled back to Elizabetes and the KHL Sports Bar, in the basement of the Radisson hotel. After asking the hotel manager a couple of times where the door was we realised it had two names and was closed for 15 minutes. We braved the sleet outside and found a cute little coffee shop where Tim was manly enough to drink the espresso that arrived instead of my cappuccino. By then, the bar was open and we settled in to a nook with leather couches and a huge flat screen TV for pints of cherry flavoured beer.
Art Nouveau building on Alberta Street, Riga.
We watched some football and a bit of rugby over lunch before realising they didn’t have the channel with the Spurs game on and deciding instead to relocate to the hotels roof top bar, the Skyline. By then it was dark and the lights of the city, including hundreds of Christmas lights, were twinkling below. Tim went to the bar and reappeared with a bottle of Taittinger as a special treat. For a minute, we forgot how scummy we are at the moment and instead just enjoyed the light show in the classy bar with our glassed of champers.
Champers courtesy of Tim in the Skyline Bar, Riga.
We decided to make a stop back at the hostel to freshen up before walking back into the Old Town for an evening of bar hopping. To not make the same mistake as the previous night, we started by searching for a restaurant and ended up at a lovely traditional Latvian place. We’d arranged to meet a friend of a friend in town and were a little disheartened when they text to say they were in TGI’s, since we’d seen hundreds of beautiful little wine bars and pubs during our day time exploration. We weren’t in TGIs long before they called last orders and along with our two new Latvian friends we walked around the corner to a Cinema Bar, again, not one of the cute bars we’d seen in the day. We didn’t stay for long before we twigged our new friends had only wanted to meet us because being British, they assumed we had money and wanted us to treat them all night. Ditching them, we ended up in a British pub again, for a final drink before again, last orders were called and we realised the city was closing for the night. After a cold walk back to the hostel, we climbed in to bed at about 3:30am.

Tim had a 11am flight and was up and dressed and out of the hostel in no time, leaving a trail of promises to visit us in Austria in a couple of months. We’d had an epic couple of days but were tired and shaky from lack of sleep and excessive alcohol. Nevertheless, after breakfast, we checked out and wandered out to find a flea market that was highlighted on our tourist map. When we got there we were surprised to find rows of tatty market stalls selling mostly second hand TV remotes and old tools. We left quickly and walked to the Central Market, a much better find. The market is located in four adjacent warehouses that resemble aircraft hangars and is full to bursting with all kinds of food stuff, fresh fruit and veg, cured meats, smoked fish, cheeses, dried nuts and pulses and piles and piles of pickled, grated cabbage. 

By then it was time to walk back to the hostel to pick up our bags and head to the bus station. The bus left on time and this time our seat screens even worked. The journey to Vilnius was due to take 4 1/2 hours and when we left Riga the sky was turning blue, having been white and full of snow for the duration of our stay. We arrived 30 minutes early and hadn’t even realised when we’d crossed the border. We had a vague map to get us to our hostel and after a few wrong turns, found the main road leading through the Old Town. We’d booked a dorm bed to save a bit of cash and found we were sharing with an odd Russian boy. 

We were both pretty shattered and it was already dark when we arrived. We dropped off our bags and headed straight out to find somewhere easy for a quick dinner before bed.

We were woken the next day by our strange Russian room mate and spent the morning drinking coffee in the common room. Just before lunch, we donned our coats, grabbed a map and went out to see what the city had to offer. Rhys came to Lithuania for his stag do and although they stayed in a different city, they spent a day in Vilnius, shooting guns and working up a thirst on a communal beer bike. Despite that (or probably because of that), Rhys didn’t recognise a thing in the city so it didn’t feel like he was just revisiting somewhere he’s already been.

We walked to the Cathedral Square, near our hostel before climbing up the Gediminas’ tower on a hilltop at the south of the old town to see the view. It was a shame it was so foggy as there are literally hundreds of cathedrals scattered throughout the city and we could barely make half of them out. Walking back down towards our hostel, we made a photo stop at the red brick St Anne and Bernadine Church Ensemble, before finding ourselves in Uzupio. Uzupio is a bohemian area that, tongue in cheek, declared itself an independent state and posted it’s constitution on a wall in 9 different languages, listing things like ‘everyone has the right to look after a cat’ and ‘everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday’. Compared to the main road running through the Old Town, the buildings in Uzupio were more rustic and run down and we found a lovely little pub on the river for lunch.
The Bell Tower in cathedral square, Vilnius.
St Anne and Bernadine Churches, Vilnius.
Walking back into the centre, we wandered along Literatu Street with some beautiful wall art, before passing the Town Hall with it’s rubbishy Christmas Market and the southern border of the Old Town at the Gate of Dawn. By then we were ready for some apple pie. We struggled to find a coffee shop with apple pie and settled on a shop with rows and rows of calorific cakes in an area known as the Ghetto with quaint cobblestone alleyways.
Walking through the ghetto, Vilnius.
We made one final stop at the Presidential Palace before deciding it was time to head back to the hostel to defrost. It was still in the minuses and we were starting to get fed up of being constantly cold. 

After a couple of hours in the hostel it was time to wake Rhys from his nap to head out for dinner, to a Lithuanian restaurant i’d found on trip advisor. The meal was great value and atmospheric, sitting in a brick vaulted basement, but the Zeppelins (potato dumplings) were extremely heavy and we didn’t stand a chance of finishing them.

The next morning we were woken by our strange room mate clunking around on the wooden floor in his clogs. Neither of us had slept particularly well and we’d hoped for a lie in before our hellish journey to Berlin via Warsaw. We spent the morning drinking coffee in the common area before stopping by the supermarket to pick up lunch and some dinner to eat on the bus. Leaving Rhys in the hostel, I rushed out to squeeze in a visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims in the 2 hours we had before we had to leave for the bus station. The museum is based in the old KGB/Gestapo building and I figured it would be educational to learn a little about the atrocities that happened there, sadly, the museum was closed, I spent a few minutes reading the names of Lithuanian’s who had been executed there on the memorial wall before heading back down the sweeping main shopping avenue Gedimino. With a bit of time left, I turned back in to the Ghetto to wander the twisting cobbled streets. The more time I spent in Vilnius, the more I liked it, the back streets being far more appealing and filled with small wine bars and cake shops, than the repaved high street that cuts through the Old Town.
Back streets of Vilnius.
It was an uphill walk back across town with our bags to reach the bus station where we boarded our 11 hour bus to Poland. We had to change in a small town close to the border but other than that the journey was painless and we arrived on time in Warsaw at just after 11pm. We took a cab straight to our hostel and checked in for the 6 hours until we had to leave again. It was a shame we couldn’t stay longer since the hostel, Oki Doki. looked right up our street.

3 December 2014

Week 114 - Olkhon Island, Yekaterinburg, Vladimir, Moscow (Russia)

Nikitas had managed to arrange for the minibus to collect us at 7am instead of 9:30am, to give us more time to make sure we crossed to the mainland and made our train. That meant that everyone else who was leaving that day (which was everyone but one person, as no one wanted to get stuck on the island if bad weather was rolling in), had to get up early too. We were given a packed lunch and bundled into the van, hoping that the ferry would run. The wind had been fierce in the night and we’d heard it ripping at the roof panels in our cabin, but it seemed to have died down. We still weren’t sure whether it would be enough, the previous day we hadn’t thought the weather was bad at all, nothing compared to some of the crossings we’ve done in other countries and this was a solid car ferry, not a creaky little Indonesian wooden boat.

We drove passed areas of the lake where the ice had advanced a few metres compared to what we’d seen the previous day and suddenly it seemed perfectly reasonable that the whole lake would be completely frozen over in a month. When we got to the ferry there was a queue to board, our driver drove straight to the front and with in no time we were on board and setting out. We clambered out of the van to stand on deck for the crossing. It was absolutely magical. The mist was swirling on the surface of the water and the sun was just starting to rise turning the sky pastel shades of pinks, greys, purples and blues. It was possibly the coldest weather we’ve faced too. Without the sun up to warm us, everything hurt from the cold, fingers, toes, cheeks, even eye balls, it was easily -35C. The Siberian winter was quickly advancing.
Worth getting up early for, sunrise over Lake Baikal from the ferry with swirling mists.
Sunrise over Lake Baikal from the ferry from Olkhon Island.
Back in the van, we huddled together for warmth. Then the radiator kicked in, tucked under the seat in front of me. Before long I was baking. There’s something weird in the way Russian’s feel the need to overheat their indoor spaces when the cold outside is so brutal. You end up going from -30C to +30C every time you step through a door, it’s just so uncomfortably hot.

We made it in to Irkutsk with 3 hours to spare before our train was due to leave. With Melanie, a french girl who’d been staying at Nikitas and had a later train, we jumped on a tram to the train station and dropped our backpacks in the cloakroom. We didn’t really have time to see anything of the city and instead perched in a cafeteria for a quick lunch. Saying goodbye to Melanie, we then had plenty of time to stock up on instant noodles for our 48 hour journey before weaving through the groups of soldiers leaving for their camps and finding empty seats at the station. 

We boarded our train only to find we’d be sharing our cabin with a Russian girl and what we presumed was her father. The cabin was ridiculously hot (the thermometer outside read 28C) and the guy had extremely smelly feet. It wasn’t as bad as our last cabin on the trip to Irkutsk but wasn’t far off. We read for a couple of hours, ate our noodles and tried to get some sleep. Although I slept ok, Rhys ended up taking sleeping tablets in the middle of the night that knocked him out until 11am the next day.
Freezing on a platform, somewhere on the TransMongolian.
The two people in our cabin left us at Krasnoyarsk and a new man climbed aboard. He didn’t smell or snore and spent much of the day out of the carriage so we had a bit of space, the perfect room mate. The heat was oppressive though, there were Australians in the cabin next to ours and they were struggling too, everyone was walking about in shorts and with their shirts off. I tried to ask for the radiators to be switched off but got shouted at and the two lady attendants were quite intimidating and didn’t want to deal with any of us since we didn’t speak a word of Russian. We finally twigged we could insulate the radiator in our room by wrapping our blankets around it, bringing the temperature down a degree or two, but with the thermometre showing 29C, it was still way too steamy for comfort.
Just after we changed room mates, we passed the halfway point from Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia. Although the route took us through a region that had had more snow than in the east, it was a less harsh environment with forests and rivers and the odd village and engine repair depot. At some spots on the route, the snow must have been over a foot deep and it looked quite festive with the branches of the neverending pine trees sagging under the weight.

Rhys jumped off the train at one of the stops to run into a canteen to pick up some lunch, potato filled doughnuts and chicken schnitzels and we stood outside watching the attendants using axes to sheer off the ice that had attached itself to the undercarriage of the train. 

During our second night, the train passed in to the Baraba Steppe, 600km of track passing through bogs and swampland. At this point we were in spitting distance of the Kazakhstan border. The train continued through Omsk, Siberia’s second largest city and on to Tyumen, Siberia’s oldest town, founded in 1586 and now important for the nearby discoveries of oil and gas. In Tyumen, we had one last chance to stretch our legs and cool off in the snow, away from the stifling heat of our carriage.
Cooling off at a station on the TransMongolian.
300km before we reached Yekaterinburg, our destination, we left Siberia and entered the Urals. The train skirted through Talitsa, famous for selling watered down industrial strength alcohol as vodka, then finally we arrived in Yekaterinburg, the largest city in the Urals, 49 hours after leaving Irkutsk.

Yekaterinburg, originally founded to exploit the Ural regions mineral deposits, hit the headlines in the 20th century as the site of the murder of the Romanov family, the location of the U2 affair, and for giving the country Boris Yeltsin. The Romanov family was moved to Yekaterinburg and imprisoned there in a house in April 1918. On 16 July, the Bolshevik government decided the continued existence of the Tsar was too great a threat to them and ordered their execution. Nicholas, Alexandra and their 5 children were marched to the houses’s cellar and murdered, their bodies dumped in a mine shaft on the outskirts of town. The U2 affair followed in 1960, when an American spy plane was shot down and denied by the US despite all the evidence to the contrary.

We jumped off the train, glad to be in the fresh air, and headed towards our hostel. After taking a wrong turn, we found the right block of flats where I had to ask a kind man with his kid to help us find the right building. The hostel was small but modern and would do for an overnight stop.

By the time we were settled in, it was about 3pm and we didn’t have many hours of sunlight left. We were hungry from living on pot noodles and biscuits for the last two days and wandered in to the centre of the city to find an international restaurant i’d read about. We ended up ordering a feast and spending a couple of hours relaxing with a bottle of wine (or two). By the time we left to walk back to the hostel it was dark outside. Rhys has always wanted to walk across a frozen river so we wandered towards the water. Having checked there were foot prints on the ice (if the locals weren’t walking on it, we weren’t), we slid down to the river and trudged through the thick snow covering, zigzagging across the river to the bridge. We scrambled back to the road and wandered back to our room. Although it was early, there wasn’t a whole lot to do and we turned in for the night.
Rhys braving the frozen river, Yekaterinburg.
We stayed in our room until the noon check out to shorten the amount of time we’d have to spend in the cold waiting for our 6pm train. Leaving our bags in the hostel, we walked in to town to see the main sights. After crossing the frozen river again, we found a TGI Fridays, around the corner from the City Administration building, grateful to be able to order lunch hassle free from an English menu. We then walked the length of the pedestrianised street, lined with some bizarre and comical bronze statues, and through a small park with birds and squirrels with extra fluffy ears.
Ice fishing on the river in the centre of Yekaterinburg.
Passed the dam of the city pond, we stopped for photos at a few small church buildings, a statue monument to the city founders and Sevastianov’s House, a green gothic style mansion. By that point, we’d reached the Church on the Blood, consecrated in 2003 and built on the site of the merchants house in which the Romanov’s were murdered, the family having been elevated to the status of saints.
Church on the Blood, the site of the Romanov murder, Yekaterinburg.
As the sun was starting to drop and it was getting colder, we hurried back to the hostel to collect our bags and head over to the train station. Yekaterinburg was a nice, cosmopolitan city but didn’t have a whole lot to offer tourists, we were glad we’d only decided to spend one night before moving on.

For our last overnight train, we’d booked 3rd class tickets, having traveled 2nd class in each of the other Trans-Mongolian legs. We were a bit nervous to see what beds we’d been allocated and were happy when we boarded to find we had two bottom bunks facing each other. In 2nd class carriages, there are rows of cabins, each holding four beds, two up and two down. In 3rd class carriages, there are no cabins but banks of beds, set in groups of 6, 2 up and 2 down like in 2nd class, then another 2 parallel to the aisle by the window. The three bottom bunks in our area were taken as were most of the bottom bunks throughout the carriage but there was plenty of room and no snoring and no bad smells. It was bliss, we even had a window we could open when it started to heat up. We wandered why we hadn’t been traveling 3rd class the whole time, it was our best train experience in Russia.

Shortly after leaving Yekaterinburg, the train rolled passed the Asia-Europe border although as it was already dark, we couldn’t see the marker. Instead we spent the evening reading, watching TV and eating instant smash.

It was a 26 hour journey and by lunch time the next day we were both getting bored. We’ve spent so much time on trains lately and there’s not a whole lot to do or see. Much of the landscape looks the same, especially since there’s a blanket of snow over everything and it’s dark for nearly 17 hours a day.

Finally, we arrived in Vladimir. We had a rough map to get us to our hostel but couldn’t find the main road and ended up walking up in to town, along the main street and then back down to the hostel. As with all hostels we’ve stayed at, it was more like being in a guestroom at a house with a family sitting in the common room watching you and making you feel slightly awkward. We showered and walked back to the main street for dinner. Completely unintentionally, we found ourselves in a British Pub and ate delicious plates of stroganoff before it was time for bed.

Although we’d only changed time zones by 5 hours in the last week, we were finding ourselves in bed early and awake by 7:30am, waiting around for the sun to rise so we could venture out and explore.

Vladimir is one of Russia’s oldest cities and until the 14th century, was the religious centre of the entire country. The main street is lined with churches and it took us a couple of hours to wander between them while the snow continued to dust the whole city. Leaving the hostel, we circled the Golden Gate, one of the only surviving remanents of the 1158 city ramparts, and continued to a view point, overlooking the Old Town. We zigzagged through town, aiming for any golden domes we could see, stopping at the Assumption Cathedral (built in 1160 and at that time, the tallest building in the whole of Russia) and the Cathedral of St Demetrius (a square cathedral, completed in 1197, covered with intricate carvings and with a small exhibition inside). 
Walking through the snow, Vladimir.
Rhys swinging from the lamp posts, Assumption Cathedral, Vladimir.
More snow covered parks, Vladimir.
We ducked in to the shopping plaza to escape the cold for a pricey canteen buffet lunch (smoked fish, urgh), then, after walking around the walls of the Nativity Monastery, we headed back to the hostel. Later than afternoon, leaving Rhys in the room with the vodka, I walked back in to town. The snow had covered the streets in a blanket of white and I didn’t have long until sun down. I stopped by an odd little antique shop and a few smaller, more run down churches before walking back to the other side of town, to the History Museum. As all the info boards were in Russian I had no idea what I was looking at but the attendants enthusiastically pointed me to certain displays and directed me around. 
Anyone who knows us will know that a Vodka aisle is our idea of HEAVEN.
In search for a Russian flag badge for Rhys, I ended up in another museum that I didn’t even know existed. Upstairs in a chapel, there was a small display of the most beautiful lacquerware, little boxes painted with miniature scenes from fairytales in exquisite detail. I got so sucked in that I lost track of time and after walking through the crystal/cut glass section of the museum I realised it was getting dark outside and I had to rush to get back before Rhys started worrying.
Vladimir Old Town view point at dusk.
That night we went back to the main street where we’d spotted another bar that looked good for dinner. It wasn’t until we paid the bill that we realised it was a sister bar of the British bar we’d been to the night before. In addition to the beautiful churches in the town, it was worth a stop over for the delicious gastro pub meals.

We had a lazy start the next day as our train wasn’t due to leave until noon. We’d bought ourselves some Heinz baked beans in the Spar the previous day and were excited to have a late breakfast at the hostel. 

Leaving the hostel we had a long walk back to the train station, along slippery roads and through the centre of town. We had a fast train to Moscow and squeezed in to our seats for the short trip. 

Once in Moscow, we jumped on the tube and followed the instructions to our hostel. After asking a kind policeman for directions, we eventually found the right building and checked in to our miniature room. As we only had two nights in the city and we were keen to visit Red Square to see it lit up at night, we popped out to grab some fast food before chilling in our room. Moscow was much warmer than Siberia at about -5C but it still wasn’t warm enough to just lose ourselves walking the streets without freezing.

As soon as it was dark, we wrapped up wearing as many layers as we could without looking stupid (bearing in mind all our thermals were in the wash), and walked towards Red Square, about 20 minutes from our hostel. Immediately we both took a liking to the city with beautiful architecture on every corner. After walking along a shopping street, we emerged at a junction with the Bolshi Theatre and the Kremlin. We found our way around the corner and in to the Red Square, hemmed in on one side by the GUM shopping arcade, filled with expensive Bond Street stores, and on the other, by the Kremlin walls. 

We wandered through the unexciting Christmas market, feeling festive with all the fairy lights and baubles anging from the trees, before spying St Basils Cathedral, built in the 1550’s to celebrate the capture of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible. Although we’d both previously seen pictures and thought the cathedral was something of a Disneyland monstrosity, we were pleasantly surprised. Some how, it seemed to work with the towering gothic buildings surrounding it. 
The lairy bbut oddly attractive domes of St Basils Cathedral, Moscow.
Heading back towards our hostel, we stopped at a basement Irish bar (all the pubs here seem to be British or Irish themed), where we ordered a 800ml, giant sized Magners each. As we didn’t intend on having a big night, we re-layered up and went back out in the cold, before finding a nice pub near our hostel that drew us in by having a Tottenham scarf in the window. Rhys ordered a pint of Welsh Brains while I treated myself to a Strongbow before we called it a night and headed to bed.

25 November 2014

Week 113 - Ulaanbaatar, Ulan Ude, Olkhon Island (Mongolia, Russia)

After realising the Russian woman in our cabin wasn’t traveling with the man with verbal diarrhea, (it was the pillow over the head and pretending to be asleep that really gave it away), we managed to get a couple of hours of sleep before we arrived at the Mongolian border. The train pulled in and we sat at the station for nearly 4 hours.

Immigration was pretty straight forward and we had plenty of time to get out and stretch our legs on the platform. You could tell we were now on a train with Russian attendants, they were a little scary and intimidating and the man walked around in his pyjamas all the time grabbing us to tell us to get out the way and ordering us back to our beds. The border station was in the middle of nowhere and there wasn’t anywhere really to go. The most exciting thing to happen was the realisation that all the other train carriages had disappeared, as had our engine. We had been expecting to find black market money changers at the border and were disappointed to find there wasn’t anyone there to meet us, no money changers, no food carts, nothing.
Our lonesome carriage, abandoned at the Mongolian border.
Finally, we got a new engine and rolled over the border to Russia. The immigration procedures were pretty straight forward again but with more intense searches of the train. Along with an English and an Australian couple from the cabin next to ours, we headed straight to the loo as you can’t use those on the train when in stations, and we had another 3 hours before we’d be moving on. It turned into a big drama since you had to pay for the loo and no one had any roubles. There was absolutely noting or no one around again apart from the odd Russian van driving passed and a sweet shop across the road.

At last we were joined to another 3 carriages and we set off to Ulan Ude. It had been snowing and everywhere was white, the trees, the hills, the roads, the rooftops. We gazed out of the window, trying to keep distance from the smelly man in our cabin, as the train zigzagged over the Selenga River and skirting around Goose Lake.

We’d spent most of the daylight hours sitting at border stations and it wasn’t long until darkness fell and people started getting ready for bed. Luckily for us, we were getting off the train that night. We rolled in to Ulan Ude, grabbed our bags and escaped to the platform. With all the strong lights the snow sparkled like glitter and although it was bitterly cold it looked quite magical, until I slid down the stairs. Unhurt, we continued and before long were at our hostel.

Immediately we could tell something was odd about the place. Our room backed on to a dirty common room with plates piled up in the sink and on the table and TV blaring. Our room had windows on two walls and no curtains so half of Ulan Ude could watch you getting changed and the shower room was some bizarre communal set up with a toilet in the middle. It felt more like a halfway house with strange old Russian men hanging around and walking in to our room looking for lighters. We popped to the 24 hour shop downstairs to buy our first bottle of Russian vodka and locked our door.

The next day we decided to have a chilled day. We stayed in bed late, found a breakfast cake and an egg had been left on the table for us, then ventured out to the central square to see a giant statue of Lenin’s head. The statue is 7.7m high and weights 42 tonnes and is one of the only tourist sites of interest in the town. We were a bit unprepared for just how cold it was and after walking around in circles a few times trying to find a supermarket, we walked back to the hostel, buying sausages, cheeses and breads on the way, for dinner.
The giant Lenin head, Ulan Ude.
The next day we had to check out of our room at lunch but had 10 hours until our train was due to leave for Irkutsk. Not being able to bare the thought of sitting around the hostel we decided to don our thermals and head to the Ivolginsky Datsan, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that is the centre of Siberian Buddhism. Although our hostel had given us the wrong information, a nice bus driver picked us up and took us to the bus station (an empty car park) for free and pointed us to the right bus. After changing to another bus in the village of Ivolga we arrived at the entry gate. The complex was a lot smaller than we’d imagined. Built in 1946, it’s pretty new and only took us about 20 minutes to complete a lap, spinning prayer wheels and entering a few of the buildings that were open. It felt like quite a journey for nothing too spectacular but considering how little there is to do in Ulan Ude it was a good way to while away a few hours.
One of the buildings at the Ivolginsky Datsan, near Ulan Ude.
Back in town we decided to walk along the pedestrianised street to the Virgin Hodegetria Cathedral. I’d hoped we’d pass some of the beautiful wooden buildings we’d seen elsewhere and from bus windows while I had the camera to hand but the buildings were modern. The wooden buildings have door and window frames carved so intricately that they appear to have lace cloth drapped over them. We found the cathedral, saw it was much smaller than we expected, peered in the door, took a photo of the golden bulbs mounting the white spires and continued to try and find the Trinity Church. It was -21C and every bit of exposed skin was hurting from the cold. We couldn’t find an easy route to the church and gave up to go back to the warmth of the hostel.

It was as weird as ever at the hostel and we didn’t want to sit there in the dirty kitchen feeling unwelcome for the next couple of hours. We discovered a ‘lounge’ in the same building where you paid for the time you were there, had free coffee and biscuits, good music playing and fast wifi and settled in, returning to collect our bags and eat our left over sausage and cheese before going back to the lounge to wait for the train.

We didn’t fall in love with Ulan Ude and other than giving us a chance to catch up on sleep there wasn’t a whole lot to do. The city is the capital of the Buryat Republic, a federal subject of Russia and it was interesting to be in a Russian city, with stereotypical Russian people with their full length fur coats, fur hats and boots alongside the Buryat people, a subgroup of the Mongols. The Buryat’s share a lot of customs with Mongolia (including nomadic herding and using gers for shelter) and speak a Mongol dialect. 

The Russian Federation is made up of 85 federal subjects, 22 of which are republics that mostly represent areas of non-Russian ethnicity. The Republics have their own constitutions and their own official languages. The parliamentary assemblies of the republics have even enacted laws which are at odds with the federal constitution although Putin has tried to reduce their autonomy and impose the supremacy of the federal constitution (got to love Wikipedia).

Finally, it was time to head to the station where our train was waiting on the platform. After a bundle at the door to get our tickets checked, we were allowed on and settled in to our carriage, for once being lucky enough to share it with a non-snoring lady. We settled in for a few too many drinks as the train rolled out of the station. Other than the heat (Russian train attendants seem intent on cooking you in your sleep), we slept ok, just not for long enough and before we knew it we were being woken to hand our sheets back in.

When we reached Irkutsk, it was still dark. We had directions to take a tram to the minibus park by the central market and headed across the river and in to the city. We still had a couple of hours before the bus was due to leave and found a small coffee shop, to hide from the cold until the sun rose, where wet omelette was on the menu.

Finally it was light enough for us to find the bus park and check we could get seats. Passing a glove stall we realised we weren’t prepared for the cold and ended up buying super thick gloves (which with the state of our tatty clothes are probably the nicest things we own) and making a short lap of the food market to waste time. The bus had free seats and we were directed to settle in with our luggage on the back row. We’d hoped to nap on route but being over the back wheels on a bumpy road didn’t give us much opportunity. The journey went smoothly, taking 5 hours including a very scenic albeit short ferry ride over to Olkhon Island with the only scare being when the driver ordered us out of the bus at a loo stop and then disappeared, with all our bags and passports still on board. Thankfully he returned 20 minutes later. 
Me at the ferry pier, heading to Olkhon Island.
By the time we reached the town of Khuzhir, a cluster of wooden buildings on the lakeshore, we were tired and ready to be in a warm room with a comfy bed. We’d reserved a place at Nikita’s, the most famous homestead on the island and in no time had our wish. We were taken to a separate building set away from the main compound, where there were about 10 rooms around a courtyard with their own canteen - the main buildings owned by Nikita seemed to be closed for maintenance.

Rather than explore that evening and bearing in mind we only had an hour or so left of sunlight, we relaxed in our room before dinner was due to be served. The food was far better than we’d expected, we had fish broth, fresh bread, dumplings, lots of beetroot and a plate of chicken and rice. Impressed, we went to bed with full stomachs, glad to be at an all inclusive homestay where we’d get to try some good Russian food.

Olkhon Island is the largest island on Lake Baikal. It’s about 70km long and 15km wide and is sparsely inhabited, only getting electricity in 2005. It’s a mixture of grassy steppes, woodland, sandy beaches and towering cliffs with views across the water to the rolling mountains on the mainland. For 3 months of the year, the lake is frozen up to a depth of 3 metres and you can drive to the island. As winter was only just beginning, we could see the ice starting to form but couldn’t drive across. Instead, we crossed by ferry and contented ourselves with peering at the icicles hanging from the cliffs and the small iceburgs floating in the lake.

Lake Baikal, known romantically as ‘the blue eye of Siberia’ is one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes and holds 20% of the planets fresh water. If every other source of freshwater were to dry up, the water held in the lake could still provide for the entire population of the world for 40 years. At it’s deepest, it reaches 1,637m and its about 400 miles long and between 20 and 40 miles wide. The lake is a UNESCO site and is ringed by nature reserves, but it is still threatened by factories flushing their rubbish in to feeder rivers and oil and gas pipelines nearby (there is fear that a pipeline might rupture as it’s an earthquake zone).

After a great sleep we had breakfast in our canteen before dressing in our thermals and heading out. As the hours of daylight are short there was no point setting an alarm to be up early. We had decided to walk south in the morning, return for lunch, then walk north in the afternoon. By the time we started walking it was gone 10am but the sun was still very low in the sky. Over the first cliff, we reached the Khuzhir pier and were stunned to see the ice covering the wooden structure. Inches thick and with thousands of delicate icicles it was beautiful. 
The coast by Nikitas, Khuzhir, Olkhon Island.
Rhys on the frozen Khuzhir pier, Olkhon Island.
We continued along the coast, following the frozen beach to the promontory to peer into the next bay, glad that the temperature was much kinder than it had been in Ulan Ude. It seems so bizarre to see the beach covered in inches of ice and you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s fresh water and in a month, the whole lake will be one sheet of ice. It was incredibly peaceful and we only saw a few other people as we walked. 
Ice ont he beach south of Khuzhir, Olkhon Island.
At the end of our exploration south, we came across a frozen pond, about the size of half a football pitch. Rhys tested it out and as the ice was ridiculously thick, I followed. It’s the first time either of us has walked on a completely frozen pond like that. 
Rhys braving the frozen pond, Olkhon Island.
2 1/2 hours later and we were back in our cabin and it was time for lunch, another Russian feast. We didn’t waste much time before we pulled our boots on again to wander north along the coast. Close to Nikita’s, was Shaman Rock, a rocky outcrop with a curving beach and spectacular views. We continued along Long Beach, as always, picking up a dog on route to accompany us. The scenary was breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful and was only disturbed by the odd snowball or us stamping through ice overhangs on the shore.
Shaman's Rock, Khuzhir, Olkhon Island.
By the time we arrived back in the village we’d been gone for another 2 1/2 hours. Before going back to our cabin we walked along the track that acts as the main road and found one of the only shops that had stayed open passed the high season. We bought a couple of litre cans of Tuborg (made for giants, Tim, you’d love them) and bought a treat for our dog.

Back at Nikita’s we tried to book a trip to the northern most point of the island for the following day, supposedly the best trip offering spectacular views, but it being off season and there not being many people around, when we were told the price for two people we balked and decided against it. Our dog found it’s way into the compound and followed us back to the cabin where it sat outside pining for us while the sunset turned the sky a bright fushia.

After dinner we stole outside with pieces of bread for the dog and then just as we were starting to get ready for bed there was a knock at our door. A couple at another homestead in the village had called Nikitas, keen to go on the trip north the following day. Excited, we agreed and paid for our seats.

We slept late the next day and rolled out of bed in time for a quick breakfast before the van arrived to collect us. We were delighted to see it was another UAZ-452 Russian van (although abit more road weary than our Mongolian one). We jumped in and claimed the best seats. The other couple were running late but finally we were on our way, bumping and rattling along the islands dirt tracks. There are no tarmac roads on the island and the further north you go, the worse the trails get. The van had no problems though and was sprinting up steep, ice covered inclines and swerving around trees onto the flattest paths, our driver was brilliant.

We stopped 5 or 6 times over the course of the day, first traveling up the east coast, before stopping at Cape Khoboy, the northern peninsula of the island and returning along the west coast passing through acres of forest and kilometre after kilometre of windswept steppes along the way. We drove past Long Beach, where we’d walked the previous day and stopped at Crocodile Rock (that did really look like a giant crocodile) and other rock formations before reaching Khoboy, the most sacred part of the island. The whole island is considered one of the five global poles of shamanic energy by the Buryat people and there are coins, lighters and even spark plugs scattered around the rocky peninsulas. 
Coastal view on the north coast road, Olkhon Island.
Out in the snow, me and the north coast route, Olkhon Island.
Rhys at Cape Khoboy, Olkhon Island.
After a picnic lunch in the van with delicious fish and our happy driver gesturing and pointing at things (it wasn’t soup, it was tea), we had a couple more stops before we began the drive back, along the islands spine and through the pine forest to Nikitas. As the sunset had turned the sky such a bright pink the night before, we asked to be let out at the top of the hill overlooking the village incase it was repeated. Sadly it wasn’t and by the time we made it back to our room we were cold through. 
Frozen beach and the last stop of our northern Olkhon tour.
The next day we were up and waiting for the minibus to take us back to Irkutsk. It arrived 30 minutes late and we were squashed in to rubbish seats. It took about 40 minutes to drive to the port where a ferry was just pulling in. Thinking we’d be across and back on the mainland in no time, we were surprised when our van didn’t move. 4 hours later and we were still sitting there. The ferry man had heard there was a storm coming in and didn’t want to sail. We were getting increasingly uncomfortable, cold and bored, and were disheartened when the 3 vans waiting made the joint decision to turn back to Khuzhir. Luckily, as the ferry wasn’t running, no new tourists could arrive and our room was empty and waiting for us. 

We’d missed lunch so we dropped our bags in our room and went straight to the shop, accompanied by our favourite island dog who was rewarded for her loyalty with biscuits. By the time we got back to our room, the sun had gone down. We had a few hours to waste with cups of tea and Russian vodka before dinner, then we headed to bed, hoping to make it back to Irkutsk the following day to catch our 4pm train.

19 November 2014

Week 112 - Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, Semi Gobi, Terelj (China, Mongolia)

Our train left Beijing just before midday to begin the Trans Mongolian leg of our journey. Excited, we dropped our bags in our cabin and headed to the front of the train to take some photos. The train was pretty empty and until we reached the China border we had the cabin to ourselves. We whiled away the hours reading, watching the world go by and enjoying the included, basic lunch and dinner in the dining cabin. From the craggy mountains around Beijing, the landscape flattened as we headed towards Inner Mongolia. We reached the neon lights of the border at Erlyan just before 10pm.
Waiting for the train to leave, Beijing.
After the guard collected our passports, the train started moving again and we found ourselves in the sheds. The Chinese railway system operates on standard gauge which is 3.5 inches narrower than the five foot gauge in Mongolia and the former Soviet Union. Once in the shed, all the carriages were separated and while we peered through the tiny window at the end of ours, giant hydraulic lifts raised the carriages and the bogies (undercarriage) were rolled out and replaced. After we’d been lowered back to the track, the train returned to the platform and our passports were returned. All up, the process took about 3 hours.
Watching the bogies being changed, Erlyan.
The train left Erlyan and 30 minutes later we rolled into Dzamyn-Ude, the Mongolian border. Customs officials collected our passports again and after they were returned, we settled down to get some sleep. Just our luck that the guy who had joined us at Erlyan was a snorer and a fitful nights sleep ensued. At one point I had to wake him up to ask him to roll over and Rhys had to keep slamming the door to make enough noise to stir him. 

The train continued through the night and when we woke we found ourselves in the Gobi Desert. Although the train tracks don’t pass the huge rolling sand dunes that you’d expect to see in a desert (sand dunes only cover 5% of the Gobi), the views were spectacular with vast, endless grassy steppes and sky of the clearest blue, seemingly brighter and crisper than normal. The Gobi stretches 1000km north to south and 2400km west to east and lies in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. The Gobi is a cold desert and it’s not unusual to see frost and snow on the dunes. We passed scattered ger, tents inhabited by Mongolian nomadic herders and herds of cashmere goats, sheep, really fluffy horses, cows and a few camels.
Train ride through the Gobi, approaching Ulaanbaatar.
Rhys discovered a window near the back of the train that we could open to take some photos (the train windows were filthy) and we took it in turns to wander back there through the twenty or so doors that separate each carriage, passed the coal burners that heat the rooms and the water.

We arrived in to Ulaanbaatar in the late afternoon and were collected from the station by our hostel, Sunpath. We checked in to our warm, cozy room and took warm showers before heading out to find a cash point and a mini market. It was much colder than it had been in Beijing and after a quick visit to the Sukhe Bator Square in the heart of the city, dominated by the Parliament House, we hurried back to the hostel. The city is the coldest capital city in the world with average annual temperatures of -1.4C (plunging to -30C in winter) but has 260 days of sun each year meaning it is crisp and blue rather than grey and miserable.
Parliament House, Sukhe Bator Square, Ulaanbaatar.
We’d booked into the hostel mainly because it’s tours get rave reviews and with limited time in Mongolia and knowledge that the roads and public transport are sketchy at best, we decided a tour would maximise what we could see. You don’t want to be standing by the roadside in the middle of nowhere, in temperatures below freezing, hoping a bus will come that for some unknown reason decides not to run that day.

At 8:30am we were up, packed and ready to head out. We met our tour guide and driver and were excited to see we’d be traveling in a old Russian van, a UAZ-452. With 6 seats in the back we had plenty of room and the windows allowed us 180 degree views as we drove along the bumpy roads. The heater was roaring the whole time and we were toasty inside and made ourselves at home. The vans are favoured by Sunpath as they are extremely reliable and the drivers are constantly cleaning and checking them over. 
Me and our van.
Mongolia has traditionally had a strong relationship with Russia and Soviet troops were deployed to help Mongolia following the 1919 Chinese invasion. Soviet influence soon became dominant. Wealth was redistributed, the nobility exterminated, religion suppressed, and Mongolian culture denied expression (Mongolian script was even replaced with Cyrillic as in Russia). The Stalinist repressions in Mongolia climaxed between 1937 and 1939 with the execution of 3% of the population and hundreds of temples and monasteries were destroyed with metal statues shipped to the USSR for scrap. Although the Russian presence had helped Outer Mongolia obtain independence from China, the history and culture was being erased. In 1992 a democratic constitution was adopted and Mongolia’s relationship with Russia weakened. 

Our guide told us that in the last 20 years, Mongolia has moved from a country of nomadic communism to democratic city dwellers with increased foreign investment, particularly in mines leading to less ground available to herders. Ulaanbaatar has changed dramatically. The population has increased and the city is now home to 40% of the Mongolian population (the total population of Mongolia is 2.8mil, just shy of the 3.1mil in Wales but the country is 75 times larger than Wales). In response to the population increase there has been a construction boom and apartment blocks are rising everywhere you look. With 4 power plants in the city and coal the main energy source, Ulaanbaatar has become the 2nd most polluted city on the planet (the first is in Iran) and you can’t help but notice the layer of smog that hangs on the horizon as you drive away and out in to the country. 

Mongolia currently has very few tarmac roads and the government has recently revealed action plans to increase coverage to link more remote areas of the country. At present, there are only two main tarmac roads and we spent about 3 hours driving west along one of them. We stopped for lunch at a road side cafe and our guide ordered for us. It was delicious, a carb and meat heavy dish of beef, gravy, potatoes, pasta, bread, rice and cabbage, washed down with salty, extremely milky green tea. The food on our 3 day trip was to be one of the highlights. Having a Mongolian guide with us meant she could suggest local specialties for us to eat taking the stress out of ordering food when you’re unable to read the menu. As vegetables are hard to grow, the food revolves around meat and it’s all free range and incredibly meaty tasting, no part of the animal is wasted. For a country of less than 3 million people, there are more than 45 million animals.

We had another 2 and a half hours to drive to camp, the last hour being off road and including a frozen stream crossing, but the time flew as we watched the majesty of the steppes rolling past from the van windows. As there are no trees it’s incredibly hard to gauge perspective and until you see a herd on a hillside as specks in the distance you don’t realise how big and empty the place really is. It’s easy to understand why Outer Mongolia has become a byword for ‘the middle of nowhere’, it’s a wilderness like you can’t even imagine. Despite there not seeming to be much about, there were hundreds of buzzards and falcons and Siberian hamsters running around. We even saw a couple of groups of vultures feeding on road kill. It’s only when you start noticing all the bones and skulls scattered around that you start to understand how harsh the environment is.
View from the Ger camp, Semi Gobi.
By the time we reached camp the sun was getting low in the sky. We were staying in the guest ger of a nomadic family, a husband, wife and their 9 month old baby who was in a stroller tied up in the family ger so her parents could get on with their chores without worrying about her burning herself on the central stove. After tea with the family and an incredibly hard piece of dried curd to suck on, we were shown our ger. It was a 6 sided, round tent with conical roof. There was the main wooden structure, coated in felt, then a waterproof layer and then a layer of white cotton with patterned material hung up around the inside for decoration. In the centre there was a wood burning stove and 6 beds were arranged around the edge. The furniture in the gers reminds me of the gypsy style we have at home with bright coloured paintings.

We didn’t have long to relax before we had to put on our thermals and mount our horses. It wasn’t quite the ‘ride’ we’d expected, more like a donkey outing on Brighton beach. We were walked around the scrub surrounding the ger and as the horses live wild, they’re a bit skittish and we couldn’t take photos of the surroundings incase it scared them. Back at the gers we swapped our horses for camels and were grateful to dismount, the wooden saddles were incredibly uncomfortable. The camels on the other hand were crazy comfy, wedged between the two fluffy humps, it was like sitting on a heated car seat. 
Me on my camel, Semi Gobi.
By the time we returned to camp the sun wasn’t far from setting. We had a flask of tea brought to our ger and stoked the fire with more dried dung to warm it up. As the sun dropped, so did the temperature and it was bitterly cold, below -10C, not the best tent weather. We had mutton fried dumplings brought to our room for dinner and with nothing left to do after popping out to admire the stars for as long as we could bare the cold, turned in for an early night, huddled under three layers of sleeping bags and fully dressed.

We had expected to be woken by the sun but hadn’t factored in how late it rises in the Gobi, (we experienced near on 12 hours of darkness) and instead we were woken by the local lady making up our fire. Once we emerged, we had rice pudding with more mutton dumplings for breakfast before walking out to the back of the camp to see the camels, who had frozen nostrils after a night in subzero temperatures. Our guide brought us some clothes belonging to the nomads for us to try, then we took some photos while the sun rose of the herd of sheep and goats, who had been rounded up to the front of the camp to keep them sheltered and safe from the wolves and then climbed back in to the van to head back to Ulaanbaatar, discovering the bottle of water we’d left in the van had completely frozen solid. 
Frozen camel, Semi Gobi.
The herd outside the gers in the early morning, Semi Gobi.
Me and Rhys wearing the nomads clothes outside our ger, Semi Gobi.
As we’d driven the same road the previous day and it was just endless steppes, it was starting to get a little repetitive although still spectacularly beautiful and we spotted more foxes and gazelles. We stopped on route for lunch again, this time at a different stretch of roadside cafes, where we had hearty mutton dumplings. Unlike delicate Tibetan momo’s, these dumplings were heavy, juicy and very very flavoursome.

Once we reached Ulaanbaatar, we drove to the south of the city where we stopped by the river side at the Zaisan Memorial, built by the Soviets with panoramic views of the city to celebrate Russian-Mongolian co-operation in WWII. Our guide pointed out where the buildings used to finish and rolling hills started, now the memorial is surrounded by building sites.

Leaving Ulaanbaatar behind, we drove an hour and a half west to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, following the frozen river with kids skating, that runs through the city. An alpine valley crisscrossed by icy streams and lined with stunning, huge, rounded boulders. By the time we reached the park, the sun had dropped behind the mountains. We still had a few hours of sunlight and on our way to the ger camp, stopped at the much photographed Turtle Rock, which for once, actually did look like a turtle. Our guide pointed out a small crevice that we could shimmy through to emerge at the other side of the rock for views of the valley.
Turtle rock, Terelj National Park.
Next we found our camp amongst the many camps in the valley and joined the family in their ger for tea and more dried curd. They had a three year old kid dressed up in local clothes and when he wasn’t dragging their cat around by it’s tail, he was trying to get us to play with him. When kids are tiny here they wrap them up against the cold, so they’re nothing but a bundle of fabric and they can’t bend their arms or legs, then, when they get older, especially the boys, wear traditional clothes and they look adorable. When you’re out of Ulaanbaatar, nearly everyone still wears traditional clothes but in the city western styles prevail and this has resulted in back and kidney problems as the clothes aren’t warm enough.

We had some spare time before dinner and our guide suggested we take a walk up the hill next to the camp. Although the sun was low in the sky the view was still impressive and quite mystical and the walk allowed us time to collect wood for the fire in our room. Dinner of homemade noodle soup was served in the families ger then we retired to our own ger to read in the warmth of our beds. The temperature was no where near as cold as it had been the previous night and we slept comfortably.

The next morning breakfast wasn’t until 9am so we had some time to venture out to explore. The sun was just hitting the top of the valley when we wandered up to the top of another hill nearby with a huge round boulder teetering on it’s edge on the peak. We watched the sun come up with two dogs we’d picked up on route before heading down to warm up with breakfast rice pudding and tea. It’s refreshing to be in a country where they respect dogs, believing they get reincarnated as people in their next life.
Rhys by one of the boulders on the hill top near our ger, Terelj National Park.
Rhys admiring the view, Terelj National Park.
We still had the full day before we had to head back to the city so our guide took us on the short walk to the Aryapala Buddhist meditation retreat. It was only a small building with a few prayer wheels but after our guide left us we had a few hours before lunch and decided to walk up the mountain behind the monastery. We were aiming for a crevice that looked like the easiest route but as there were no paths (Mongolian’s aren’t really into walking and you have to make your own way through the undergrowth), we ended up getting separated and it took us a while to regroup. Rhys made it to the top of the mountain while I waited below having come across a sheer rock face on the path i’d chosen. Lesson learned, next time, follow Rhys up the mountain.
Aryapala Meditation Retreat, Terelj National Park.
View of the valley from the mountain behind the Meditation retreat, Terelj National Park.
We hadn’t left ourselves enough time to get back to camp for lunch and had to apologise for being late, only for dinner to be served an hour and a half later than expected. The late lunch did give us a chance to watch the lady cooking, sheering off chunks of meat from a huge frozen slab with a super sharp cleaver. This camp was a lot more touristy than our first ger, with the family making money primarily from tourism compared to the animal husbandry of the nomadic family and being closer to the city the availability of ingredients for food and the standard of furniture in the gers (this was a permanent camp unlike the seasonal one in the desert) obviously benefited. 

After lunch, we packed the van and headed back towards the city, stopping at a huge shiny, silver, 40m tall stature of Genghis Khan on horseback (called Chinggis Khan by Mongolian people) topping a small but interesting museum building. The museum and statue were well worth the stop and were intended to be the centre piece of a huge complex but money ran out and now all but the centre feels like it’s been abandoned with cracked paving stones and overgrown grass.
Genghis Khan statue, near Ulaanbaatar.
Once back in the city, we checked back into our hostel and said our goodbyes to our guide and driver. We cooked dinner at the hostel and spent the evening chatting to the three other people staying there, over a bottle of local vodka.

Having had a busy couple of days we had a lay in the next day, venturing out at lunch time to find the food court in the State Department Store. Ordering food was a stressful event and the meal was pretty mediocre. The best outcome of our trip was the discovery of a supermarket where we could actually buy enough ingredients to cook a proper meal that night, and of a BHS (that’s right, British Home Stores have made it to Mongolia). We collected our train tickets for the following night from a travel agency in town and wandered back to the hostel to get out of the cold.

We had a night train the following day and luckily our hostel let us keep our room for a late checkout. We spent the morning watching TV and chilling in the lounge. After lunch, I walked to the National Museum of Mongolia which, despite a lack of info in English in some of the halls, was very well laid out with a particularly impressive collection of Mongolian costume.

We ate dinner at the hostel before a free transfer to the train station. We boarded our train at 20:25 and found we were sharing our cabin with a Russian woman and a Russian man who I originally thought were traveling together. I was wrong and the woman was as exasperated as we were with the man who had some serious hygiene problems and hadn’t washed in a year and who had the worst case of verbal diarrhea i’d ever come across. He did not shut up for the entire 26 hour journey and when he wasn’t chuntering away, he was snoring. He didn’t seem to care that we couldn’t understand a word he was saying and was content to talk at us.