Two (and a half) days in Beijing

We arrived in Beijing early lunchtime, our last trains-Siberian railway journey over, we’d finally reached the last destination on our trip. I was feeling a bit sad that it was all coming to and end but super excited to start exploring Beijing!

We met our honcho, Eric, on the platform, he’s a nice sweet guy and was happily guiding us outside to meet our car. When we walked out of the station it was incredible, there were people everywhere! I’ve since found out there are 23 million people in Beijing (6 million more than the whole of Holland, Florine pointed out) – this definately becomes apparent as you leave the train station. The sun was shining, there was bright blue sky and a lot of noise from people talking, loudspeakers outside the station and shops and music playing; it was really a busy and vibrant atmosphere.

After a little bit of faffing around with the car Eric got us on route to our hotel, it’s so nice to have a hotel and not a hostel. Me and my Tom have our own room, so has Florine no Aussie Tom nearly had his own room too, until Eric told us about the ghosts. Apparently, Eric’s residence in Beijing is haunted (this isn’t his usual home as he lives outside of Beijing, it is where he stays when he has groups of guests), he tells us in the car that he is very scared of the ghost and is frightened to go back to his place in Beijing. As we check in at the hotel he is quick to ask Aussie Tom, if he minds sharing his room with him! Naturally, Tom was a little taken aback but he did agree to it. We made sure to warn Eric about Toms extremely loud snoring but he said he’d rather have that than ghosts. We quickly learnt that Eric is quite a character.

After showering and unpacking our stuff we went to get some lunch at a traditional Chinese restaurant next door to the hotel, it was really nice but the plates of food were huge! Eric hadn’t mentioned that all Chinese people order food to share, not individual portions, we made a note of this for future reference.

Unfortunately we were too late to go to the Forbidden City so Eric suggested an acrobatics show instead. Intrigued, we agreed and went on the subway to the theatre. Beijing’s subway system is so sofisticated! It feels like a very hi-tech city when you’re riding the subway, although it can be super busy at times. 

The acrobat show was amazing! Some of the tricks they do are unreal. At one point there was a man balancing on a plank on a cyclinder, with a frame holding another man on his shoulders, two girls hanging off the side and the man on the top flipping ceramic bowls off another plank onto his head; mental. There were other tricks like riding motorbikes inside a metal sphere on stage. This doesn’t sound that impressive but when they kept bringing more motorcyclists out and ended up having five inside the sphere riding around one another it was pretty spectacular to watch. The four of us were a little in awe of this weird and wonderful show. The music was far too loud, too choppy (I don’t think they had a sound technician so tracks would literally stop and start like someone was on the ‘pause’ button) and the theatre was tired and draughty but what an experience! The show was brilliant and we loved it.

We got an early night then, as we’d arranged to have a driver pick us up early to get plenty of sight seeing packed into the following day. Aussie Tom’s flight is early in the morning the day after, so we had to make sure we got the most out of the sightseeing on the last full day we all and together.

This morning we were all up bright and early to go to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Eric had said that it takes around two hours to get to the Great Wall – we were heading for the part called ‘Mutianyu Great Wall’. Before setting off we went for a traditional Chinese breakfast, this didn’t really go to plan. We didn’t know what anything was and Eric’s English is somewhat limited so it was a bit of guess work pointing at what other people had on their plates. My Tom and I ended up with a kind of omelette pancake each – which was very tasty – but I’d made the mistake of asking for porridge. The porridge was dark brown and tasted like it was made of kidney beans. Not disgusting but not exactly delicious either. Needless to say my Tom was rather disappointed as he does enjoy a hearty breakfast, usually consisting of sweet pastries…

First on our sightseeing trip was the Forbidden City and it was amazing. The grandeur of the buildings in the traditional oriental style was simply stunning. As we were there early in the morning it wasn’t too busy and the smog hadn’t settled yet, meaning I could get some great photos! As we walked through the city Eric gave us details of its history and architectural style, it was such a beautiful, peaceful place. One of the most beautiful parts was waking through the garden after the palaces. Some of the trees in the garden are labelled either with a red or green tag. Green meant they were over 100 years old and a red tag meant they were over 300 years old – trees that were over 300 years old! It was such a beautiful, traditional Chinese garden.

After leaving the Forbidden City our driver took us to the see part of the Great Wall – one of the seven wonders of the world. We were all so excited about this! The weather was still good, quite warm and sunny but unfortunately there was a lot of pollution around today and the smog had settled a bit, meaning the view of the mountains was very hazy. We took the cable car up the hill – you do quite a lot of walking along the wall itself so getting the cable car was a good idea – we went on the open one, so it’s more like a ski lift that takes you up above the tree tops. This was so much fun! Even just going up on the cable car gave us great views of the walls and surrounding mountains.

We walked along the wall and took in the breathtaking views. It’s such an amazing feeling walking along the ancient wall, such an iconic piece of Chinese history. We were all taking lots of photos and trying to get photos that weren’t full of tourists! The weather was beautiful and it was really relaxing strolling along the mountain tops, some parts of it are very steep but it is a very enjoyable walk.

On the way down, instead of walking, we opted for the taboggan run! This was brilliant. I love that there is a taboggan run down the mountains where the Great Wall is. We all jumped in and set off down the steep hillside. As you shoot down the track there are big speakers telling you “NO STOPPING FOR PHOTO” in English and then Chinese, this made me chuckle. Obviously I took a selfie, I just did it on the move!

After the Great Wall we all enjoyed a well earned snooze in the back of the car as our driver took us back into Beijing city. Eric said we should go for Peking Duck for dinner as it is the iconic dish for Beijing. He took us to a great restaurant – I always think it’s a good sign when the restaurant is full of locals – where the five of us enjoyed sharing a whole Peking duck. They did slice it up and bring it to the table but they literally use everything. There was the skin, which is basically pure fat, the meat nicely sliced – delicious in pancakes with cucumber, spring onion and the plum jam – then a soup with pretty much everything else in. Everything else other than the head. That came baked on the plate with the sliced meat which isn’t something I wanted to see when tucking into my pancakes!

Nevertheless, the food was delicious. The traditional rice wine however, was not. We all tried some, the lads were very manly about it and continued to drink half of the bottle, Florine and I took a small sip each and it took everything I had not to gag at the table. Now I love wine but this stuff is like 46% proof and blew your head off. I’ll stick to my Pinot in future.

One thing that I did find a bit disturbing was when the table next to us ordered the fish. The waitress brought the fish out in a bag whilst it was still alive, presumably so the customer could confirm they were happy with it, okay fine, I can see why they would do that. But then the customer proceeded to kill the fish himself by bashing it on the table! I could hear this happening and didn’t want to turn around to watch because I thought it was a bit brutal to do this at the table. Assuming it was some kind of Chinese tradition, we ignored it and carried on eating. When we mentioned it to Eric he said he’d never seen it before either, so it obviously wasn’t a tradition and was just a really strange request…

This evening we went for a few drinks in a bar on the cool little street. We’d been there the night before and it’s full of quirky little bars, kind of like the style of the ‘hipster’ bars you get at home. There was plenty of craft ale to choose from and we all enjoyed a little drink on our last night together.

We then asked Eric if we could walk back to the hotel rather than get the subway, he said there is a lot of pollution around and the subeway would be better – there was a lot of pollution, it’s like a thick fog across the city – but we pointed out that the pollution gets down into the subway anyway (you can see the haze underground!) so said we’d prefer to walk. I’m so glad we did! It took us about an hour but we walked a fantastic route through what Eric called the “commercial” street in Beijing. What he meant was that it was commercial in the sense that it is made for Chinese tourists and we found this amazing! There were lots of quirky little shops, bustling bars, bright lights and loud music. It was a fantastic atmosphere to walk through, we popped into little shops here and there, my Tom bought some churros and we thoroughly enjoyed our night time walk. 

We continued on through part of Beijing old town, this is where the ancient houses still stand and some families still live in them. The streets are narrow and lit with small lampposts, it was really peaceful strolling through these streets at night. The noisy bars had disappeared and there was just the quiet hum of families going about heir business in the evening. There weren’t really many people around and it was a lovely end to the walk.

One thing that Florine and I kept laughing about was the silent scooters. We’d be strolling along and then you turn round and a scooter has taken you by surprise, sneaking up silently behind you! Quite a few people have electric scooters and they are so stealthy you don’t hear them coming unless the beep their horn at you.

We have one more day tomorrow, my Tom, Florine and I before we fly back home. Aussie tom heads to Japan early in the morning, Florine has a couple of days in Beijing before flying to New Zealand and Tom and I head home to England. It has been such an amazing trip, I’m so glad we finished in Beijing on a high, it is such a fascinating city. I’m sad that the trip is coming to an end but have the best memories that both me and Tom will treasure for a lifetime.


Border Crossing: Mongolia to China

Our last day in Ulaanbaatar was very chilled, we did some sightseeing, some souvenir shopping and had a great dinner in a nearby bar. We were up and ready bang on for 6.30am – which is a small miracle for us that we were all on time. Our driver picked us up and Bujuu was meeting us at the train station.

This train was totally different again! It had delightful copper fringing on the bed sheets and a really fancy tablecloth. There were even TVs! But we never figured out how to use them…

My Tom, Aussie Tom, Florine, me and Bujuu (left to right)

As we travelled through Mongolia, the landscape gradually altered. There were less and less gers, less and less people and the snow slowly disappeared. The scenery consisted of dusty plain lands, it was easy to imagine it being forty degrees outside he way the sun shoe so brightly across the desert-like landscape. But no, it was still minus something and forty degrees inside the train.

Florine made me laugh this morning. As we’d got the train so early, the sun hadn’t come up yet. Whilst the rest of us were snoozing, Florine decided to film the sun rise out of her window. She did this for twenty minutes, thinking she was filming a time-lapse video and it would be really cool to see it sped up afterwards. What she’d actually done was film it in slow motion. So a twenty minute film of the sun rise, turned into an hour and forty-seven minute film of the sun rising, extra slowly. I was absolutely crying with laughter when we realised what she’d done.

Now we’d heard some horror stories about the border crossing into China; that we would be waiting up to ten hours whilst immigration checked our documents and the wheels on the trains were changed. China have different train tracks to Mongolia so they change the wheels on the train, we were excited to see this!

We reached the Mongolian border, handed our passports over and the usual rigmorale of the carriages being detached, reattached and moved up and down the tracks began. We were only at the Mongolian border for about two hours, even though the train was busy, it was relatively quick and painless. The best thing about the border crossing is that because the carriages are detached and move, they have no power, which means the heating doesn’t work. So we all enjoyed cooling down over the next couple of hours. All of us have complained [to one another] about the heat on the trains, it’s like some kind of torture.

We had roughly less than one hour to reach the Chinese border. We’d prepared ourselves for having no toilet access for ten hours by not drinking anything. The stifling heat in the carriages made this nearly impossible, we succumbed to the ice cold water cooler and filled our mugs. We’d brought empty plastic bottles with us specifically for any emergency wees – luckily they weren’t needed.

We reached the Chinese border at about 9.30pm. The usual process of the immigration officials collecting the passports took place, they then had a quick look around our cabin but didn’t ask us to open any bags or anything. Maybe the smell of the cabin and the sheer amount of stuff we all have with us made them think it wasn’t worth searching us fully.

Then the changing of the wheels started! The carriages were noisily bumped along the rails into a huge warehouse where giant jacks lift them about five feet off the floor. The wheels are removed and replaced with a new set. This is done carriage by carriage so although we couldn’t see what was happening to our own, we could watch other carriages have their wheels changed. It was really interesting, for the first ten or fifteeen minutes. We then retreated back to our cabin where I fell asleep for the night. 

I’ve woken up this morning in China! The scenery again is very different, there isn’t a scrap of snow in sight. We’re okay with this though, I think all four of us are all snowed-out for the time being. I’m quite looking forward to wearing normal footwear and not big clumpy snow boots. We should reach Beijing at around half past eleven this morning. Sophie and Judy (the Aussie girls doing the Vodkatrain trip the other way around to us) said that there is a nail salon close to the hotel – I’d mentioned getting my nails done – and that it has dwarf cats you can fuss whilst getting your nails done! I cannot wait to find this salon!

Terelj National Park & Ger Camp: Day Two

Last night I slept like a baby. Granted, I did sleep in my thermals with three blankets but I was so cosy and content, it was a lovely sleep. Our ‘ger maid’ came in to stoke our fire for the night at 11pm so we were extra toasty to go to sleep. She then returned at 5am this morning to do the same, so that we could wake up toasty too. It’s surprising how warm it is inside the ger, I think we all expected to really feel the cold in the national park but as there is no wind and the sunshine is out most of the day, it really isn’t too bad. We’re all still (obviously) wearing five layers of clothing when we go outside.

Breakfast this morning was an absolute treat. We trooped into the dining ger this morning and waiting for us on the table were a selection of Mongolian bread/pastry type things, cornflakes, bread, butter, jam, tea, coffee and hot milk. Amazing. Then they brought out a hot breakfast as a second course! Fried egg, bacon and sausage (not the same kind of bacon and sausage you get at home) it was so tasty. A good breakfast to set us up for the day!

This morning we went horse riding. The Mongolian horses are known for being super sturdy, stout and very hardworking. They are also incredibly cute! They’re smaller than normal horses and have really fluffy coats. None of us were asked whether we’d ridden a horse before or where we knew anything about it, we were all put on a horse and off we went. The horses knew where they were going, they ambled alongside one another through the snow, we were riding through a valley in the mountains and the scenery was beautiful. The clouds were clearing and the blue sky started to come through. 

My Tom was on a horse that looked a little worse for wear. It was like my old dog Poppy’s equivalent in horse form.(Poppy was our darling little pug that we sadly lost in April, she was quite old, a bit wobbly on her legs and such a character). As we waited for the other horses, Tom’s looked like it might fall over, it’s back legs kept swaying. About half way along the route, Tom’s horse decided to steer off to the left, off it plodded down a little track away from everyone else. I found this very amusing, his little horse was just oblivious to what was going on around it. Then the leader had to gallop after them and turn them back onto the right path.

My horse steadily trotted behind Florine’s and every so often would muster up the courage to attempt an overtake. Every time he tried this, Florine horse would pick up speed and turn his head to the side to try a nip my horse as if to say “oi, back off!” – this made us chuckle. I don’t think her horse liked mine.

After about an hour my face had started to really feel the cold and Florine couldn’t feel her fingers. We reached the base of a mountain where Bujuu asked us if we would like to hike up and see a Buddhist meditation temple about a third of the way up. This seemed like a great idea to warm up and get some feeling back in our toes! The view from up the mountain was stunning, the sky was clearing to blue and we could see the mountain range for miles. It was so beautiful. I have never seen anything like that in my life and I hope it imprints onto my mind forever. I got some great photos up there too, to add to the landscape collection. We were able to go inside the mediation temple and the interior was amazing, the intricate carvings and paintings were all done in bright colours, with paintings and silk fabrics hung from the walls. I don’t think the temple is used that much in the winter as it was extremely cold up there but Bujuu said they have a lot of visitors in the summer. The seasons in Mongolia are literally the two extremes, very very cold winters and really hot summers.

By the time we’d walked back down I was toasty warm again, Florine was warm too apart from her toes. She needs to get some of my Tom’s amazing thermal socks to line her boots! On the way back to the ger camp we stopped at the Turtle Stone. This is one of the most famous and well known aspects of Terelj National Park. It’s is pretty cool, from he one side it looks like a giant turtle sitting among the mountains. Turtles are symbolic in Mongolian culture as they believe turtles bring long life and peace, Bujuu told us they are used in a lot of decorative items.

My Tom, me, Florine, Aussie Tom and Bujuu at the Turtle Stone

Lunch was another traditional Mongolian meal and it was yummy! They eat larger meals at lunchtime and smaller meals in the evening. There we a couple of new faces in the dining ger when we arrived, randomly one of them was New Zealand born, Irish Rugby player Issac Boss! How random, to go half way around the world, in the middle of the Mongolian National Park and meet a famous rugby player. He was just stopping for lunch as he was on a day tour of the national park as part of a longer trip around Asia.

In the afternoon we watched a film the called ‘The Story of the Weeping Camel‘ which is about Nomadic life in Mongolia, specifically about a young colt (camel) who’s mother wouldn’t bond with it and the rituals the people performed to make her love her colt again. It was a documentary style film and was really interesting, the nomad way of life is fascinating.

We had some free time this afternoon so my Tom, Florine and I walked up the nearest (and smallest) mountain to watch the sun set. The scenery in the national park is so beautiful, every mountain looks different and I got some great photos of the sun setting from the top of the hill. It was tough going walking up there, the snow was nearly up to my knees! We walked back down it got quite steep in some areas and we had to hold onto trees for support. Either that or slide down on our bottoms.

We’re chilling in the ger now, Bujuu tells us it’s steamed dumplings for dinner, I could get used to all this hearty Mongolian food. There’s the option of archery using a traditional Mongolian bow in the morning, before leaving the camp to head back to Ulaanbaatar. We have one more night at the hostel there, before getting the train to Beijing. That train journey apparently involves an 8-10 hour wait at the border whilst they change the wheels on the trains, no toilet breaks for us for a day then!

Terelj National Park & Ger Camp: Day One

We didn’t end up going to karaoke last night, it was nice to chill with some prossecco in the hostel and get to know the two new Aussie girls, Sophie and Judy. This morning we left Ulaanbaatar to come to Terelj National Park for two nights. On route we visited the famous statue of Chinngis Khan [Ghengis Khan], we could see it come into view as we drove down the road and wow what a monument! It stands at forty metres tall and boldly glistened in the morning sun. With the crystal blue sky and snow capped mountains as a backdrop, it certainly was a breathtaking view.

Upon entering the monument, Bujuu showed us around the two museums housed in the basement, giving us an insight into the history of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian dynasty in the thirteen hundreds. They also had a Mongolian ger fit for a king set up in the basement, so, naturally, we all sat in it and had our photos taken. We then went up inside the statue, there is a lift in which brings you out at the base of the horse’s neck, where you walk up some steps, stand on the horse’s head and take in the view. It was spectacular! We had the perfect weather for it this morning – just FYI it is still crystal clear blue skies and sunshine whilst I’m writing this at the ger camp. We all took a few photos and looked in awe at the huge silver statue, shimmering next to the mountains.
After this we went back into the main building beneath the statue to browse the souvenir shops – I bought a traditional Mongolian ‘bone knuckle’ game – Bujuu has since explained it is a fortune telling ‘game’ – in a sweet little felt Mongolian ger. We then discovered the traditional Mongolian outfits available to hire for photographs! Aussie Tom and Florine went first; Tom dressing as a warrior and Florine as a regal queen, head to toe in red and gold with an exceptionally tall crown in her head. Then me and my Tom had a go; Tom also dressed as a warrior but with a sword and shield, I dressed as a regal queen but all in blue. We took some photographs (unfortunately mine are all on my camera not my phone so I can’t upload them on the blog), here’s one of Florine and Tom looking sensational in their traditional dress.

Aussie Tom was trying to pull a ‘regal’ face but didn’t quite master it…

We then made our way to the ger camp. Driving through the snow, it’s difficult to imagine how the national park would look in the summer. There are little clusters of houses and gers here and there in the valleys, snow covers everything; the mountains the fields, the roads, the buildings and there is barely a soul in sight. Probably because it’s winter and about -28 in the day…

Our beautiful Ger camp in Terelj National Park

We arrived at he her camp and oh my, they are just the cutest things! It’s all kitted out with proper beds and a coal/wood burning stove which absolutely throws out heat. It’s that hot in there now that the boys are sat inside in their pants, Florine is nearly in her pants and I’m sat on the steps outside writing this. Anyway, we dropped our bags off, “ooohed” and “aaahed” at the ger, then went and sat down to a delicious traditional Mongolian lunch; meat and vegeatable soup with bread, noodles with vegetables and a cabbage side salad.

Inside our ger

Me and Florine then made a trip up to the toilet. As it is winter, the main toilet block (we are on a settled gear camp that doesn’t move) isn’t open as all the pipes are frozen solid. So we have the delight of the long drop toilet. Now, my Tom and I have been to Glastonbury and experienced the delights of a long drop toilet, in fact, we’ve even experienced long drop toilets that have been used by literally thousands of people. This one in the middle of rural Mongolia wasn’t really any different in smell but it was an Asian style toilet, i.e. no ‘bowl’ to sit on, just a rectangular hole to crouch over. I think Florine was a little horrified. I gagged at the smell and the poo splats on the floor, “it’s all part of the experience!” we tell ourselves. I covered my nose with my scarf and went in. It was fine really, we got through it by joking about what would happen if one of us fell in haha. We’re going to meet a traditional nomadic family this afternoon, we’ve even bought them treats from the supermarket on the way here as a gift. There’s a bottle of Ghenghis Khan vodka chilling by the front door of the ger ready for this evening to cool us down later.
It’s now half past five and we’ve just returned from visiting a Mongolian Nomadic family, well, in truth it was an elderly lady named Naya’ who now lives on her own as sadly her husband had died and all of her children live and work in the city. She seemed very content in her home, it was so cosy and homely, her ger had a lot of personal touches.

The first thing I noticed – apart from the beautiful fluffy dog that came to greet us – was the dairy smell that hits you when you enter the ger. Bujuu explained to us that during the summer, nomads live primarily on dairy products; curd (of varying forms), cheese and milk. All of this comes from either cows, goats or sheep. Strangely there was no mention of yaks. In the winter, their diet still uses all of these dairy products but they incorporate a lot more meat; mutton, lamb and beef, alongside vegetables which they consume all year round. 

As we were seated on the beautiful ornate wooden couches, delicately painted and carved with floral and tribal patterns, our host Naya, brought out some traditional refreshments for us to try. It it customary for the host to provide refreshments to guests in her ger, we were offered a selection of curds, some cheese, some ‘cookies’ and traditional tea. I’m pleased to say we all tried everything! Albeit some of us – including me – had a teeny tiny portion of the curds. One of them looked a little like bird food pellets and tasted very sour, I was surprised how tough it was to chew, not chewy, just tough. The other looked like a kind of granola, but definately didn’t taste like it. It was kind of creamy, a strong cheesy taste but not sour like the first one. The actual cheese was good, I ate a slightly larger piece of that (I felt braver eating something I recognised), I think it was made from goats milk but was firmer than the goats cheese we have at home, more the consistency of Leerdamme, but thicker. The ‘cookie’ was kind of like a savoury donut, a little deep fried ball of dough that wasn’t unpleasant. The tea was traditional tea leaves that were extremely milky with a pinch of salt, I liked it, I drank my Toms for him too but on the sly as we didn’t want to appear rude to our host. I’m pleased all of us tried the food, what’s the point in visiting unique places like Mongolia, being given the opportunity to meet a traditional Nomadic family and then declining to take part in aspects of their way of life?

We asked her some questions about the nomad lifestyle (with Bujuu interpreting), it was really lovely to be able to ask her about her family, life and livestock. It was also great for us as a group to have the other two Australian girls, Sophie and Judy, with us too. New faces and new conversations are always a good thing. Our host showed us some Mongolian traditional dress which she had handmade for herself, she even modelled it for us and had a photograph with my Tom, he absolutely towered over her and she found this amusing. 

Then the part I had been hoping for; she offered us the homemade vodka, made from fermented yoghurt. Sounds disgusting, tastes delicious! It is clear, which surprised me, you think of a vodka made from dairy and I automatically thought it would be cloudy at least, or creamy in consistency, it isn’t. It’s as clear as normal vodka but has a cheesy smell, which is kind of off-putting. She poured us each a large ‘shot’ I help my breath and knocked it back in one and was pleasantly surprised! When it hits your tongue the taste is just like water, you get a small amount of heat as you swallow but nothing like the normal heat from vodka, and then an ever-so-faint aftertaste of cheese. It was delightful. I could easily sit and drink it all night. Apparently that isn’t advised though, one of Florine friends told her to be wary of the homemade vodka because a) it gets you very drunk and b) it makes you constipated. 
After taking some more photographs outside, we piled back into the van and made our way back to the ger camp. We stoked up the fire, well, I tried, then my Tom tried, then the lady from the camp walked in and chuckled at us for trying. She sorted it out, stocked us up with wood and coal then left. Then Aussie Tom messed with the fire some more – and continues to do so – before we finally have a toasty warm ger. Bujuu has just come in to teach us the knuckle bone games before dinner. I think tonight will involve vodka, knuckle bone games and some good old fashioned talking round the fire. Bliss. 

Day one in Ulaanbaatar

Our honcho Bujuu greeted us at the hostel this morning and briefed us on what we’ll be doing for the next few days in Mongolia. Bujuu works as a guide for Sundowers (who also own Vodkatrain) and runs Discovery Tours. These are different to the Vodkatrain ones as they are tours designed for travellers aged 45 and over (Vodkatrain is for up to age 35). Bujuu is so knowledgeable about Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and the country’s history, he really is fascinating to talk to.

The plan for Mongolia is one night (tonight) here, two nights at the Ger camp in Terelj National Park, where we will meet a Nomadic family, play traditional Mongolian bone knuckle games, keep our own fire going in our ger and go horse riding on the famous Mongolian horses! I hear they are sturdy, short, furry and a bit chubby. I asked Bujuu if they were cuddly but he thought it was weird to cuddle a horse. On our way to the national park we also going to visit the famous statue of Chinggis Khan, its stands forty metres high! I can’t wait for the photographs. We then have one more night in Ulaanbaatar before getting the train to Beijing.

This morning we went to visit the local museum of Georgy Zukhov, a famous Russian general from he Soviet Union. It was interesting to hear about his life and his role in coordinating the Russian and Mongolian armies during the war. It was only a small museum we didn’t stay long and went off to get some lunch. Bujuu took us to an all you can eat Mongolian grill, I must admit, I was sceptical at first but it was really good! You choose all the fresh food you want and a sauce, take it up to the counter and they cook it there in front of you on a huge, hot, flat pan (similar to the one people use to make crepes but about 1.5 metres across). The chef used two big machete type instruments to move the food around and cook it through, in between he would juggle with the cooking utensils and bowls, not too theatrically, just enough for it to look cool.

Full of noodles and stir fried veg, Bujuu led us to see a Buddhist temple where a twenty six metre statue of the Goddess of Compassion is housed, surrounded by smaller hand made buddhas and prayer wheels. This really reminded me of my time in Thailand and Bali – I find Buddhism fascinating, the temples are so beautiful and the statue, covered head to toe in gold, was breathtaking. We weren’t allowed to take photographs inside but the outside buildings were beautiful too.

By this time it was getting to about four o’clock and pretty cold. During the day the temperature has been around -25. It is a strange sensation to have any moisture in your nostrils freeze as soon as you go outside! We were also laughing as my Tom and Aussie Tom’s beards were freezing as we were walking around. 

Today I went out wearing five layers on the top; a t-shirt, thermal top, roll neck jumper, fleece and feather and down jacket, with hat, scarf and gloves, as well as thermal leggings and fleece lined leggings. I’m saving my extra bottom layer for when we go to the Ger camp in Terelj National Park. Another bit of exciting news! Tonight we will be having dinner with the two travellers doing our trip the opposite way around, so far we know they’re two girls from Australia – Aussie Tom will love that ha. We might even go for karaoke tonight as there seems to be quite a few bars which have it on offer. No singing for me though, not unless I have had copious amounts of wine.

Border Crossing: Russia to Mongolia

We got a little over excited about our window. We slept nearly all night with it open, me and Florine woke up in the middle of the night absolutely freezing and I managed to wake Tom up to close it. We then woke up in the morning to a layer of ice on the inside of the window. That must be why they don’t like you opening them…

The scenery has changed loads since leaving Irkutsk. I woke up earlier than everyone else and managed to catch the last glimpse of Lake Baikal in the morning sunshine, before the scenery changed to open plain lands edged with mountains; this is real Siberia!

We had our first taste of the border crossing when leaving Russia (obviously). We reached a station and all ran off to use the toilet – I advise scheduling your toilet breaks but this obviously easier said than done, especially when your carriage attendant locks the toilet all the time! – before getting back on the train expecting hoards of border officials to board and start checking passports. This was not the case, not immediately anyway. The train went back and forward about twelve times, attaching, detaching and re-attaching various carriages, until when it finally stopped (at the same station) and we were allowed off again, we realised we were the only carriage left. Just a single carriage on our own without even a train to pull us along. Looks like we weren’t going anywhere for a while…

Four (stationary) hours later border officials came on, took our passports, searched our compartment, our bags (if half-heartedly) and sent a sniffer dog round the carriage. It’s all very official, although you can’t help but think they’re too bothered as you’re leaving the country anyway, rather than entering. 

I should mention that our carriage was very exclusive – it was empty! There was our group of four in one cabin and two Dutch guys in the one next to ours – Florine was so excited to speak Dutch again, it was so sweet the way her face lit up! – and that was it, all of the other cabins were empty. There were some advantages to this, we got friendly with the Dutch guys and could share a beer and chat in the corridor without worrying about waking people up. However, our carriage attendant, a Russian man this time, was so moody and because we were the only six people on the carriage he knew exactly what we were doing, all the time. We went to the shop to stock up on snacks and bought some beers, as soon as we headed back for the train he was like “no beers!” – what a charming man.

We then reached the Mongolian border crossing, again we were stationary for another three hours or so. They checked our passports, took them away, brought them back but didn’t search us at all, which I was really surprised about. Florine even managed to get a sneaky photo of the border official checking me against my [ten year old] passport. FYI, this is not a good idea. In our paperwork from Vodkatrain it says you can get into trouble if caught photographing border officials or military personnel…

After a few hours and eventually being given the all clear to continue, we were on our way to Ulaanbaatar. We had a delicious lunch of bread, cheese and cucumber – the little things really count when you’re on the train – and all settled with a nice cup of tea before bed. We had every intention of more drinking but after all the waiting around, the moment had passed. We’re saving our Russian prosecco for the Ger camp instead.

When settling down for a kip before arriving in Ulaanbaatar, we decided against opening the window due to the (literally) freezing conditions the night before. Oh what a mistake this was! Our delightful carriage attendant decided to whack to heating up to 30 degrees – this is no exaggeration, there is a temperature gauge in the corridor. We arrived at 6am this morning in Ulaanbaatar, greeted by our lovely honcho. The temperature was -30, this was an inside to outside temperature change of 60 degrees! Just let that sink in for a minute.

We’ve arrived at our hostel and it’s lovely, really modern and clean. Although I get the feeling everything is made for little people. Watching my Tom climb in and out of the miniature people carrier was rather amusing. He’s also curled up on the bunk beds too, bless. I can fit in the bed okay, just about. We’re getting a couple of hours kip before our honcho returns at 10am, he’s told us another Vodkatrain group (of two people) are currently doing the trip the other way round – Beijing to St Petersburg – and that we’ll be spending the next few days in Mongolia with them. I’m so looking forward to this! It’ll be great to ask them all our questions about Beijing and to tell them all about Russia. Let’s hope they like Dill, if they don’t, they might as well fly home now; Russian quisine is full of it.

Leaving Lake Baikal and Irkutsk 

It took ages to get to sleep last night. I was praying it wasn’t the jet lag (or time-difference lag) but neither me or Tom could get to sleep. I also found out in the morning the other two couldn’t fall asleep either. Maybe it was because we all tried to go to bed at about half eight? Anyway, eventually I fell asleep and was grogily aware of my Tom getting up and about, going out for smokes – he’s not putting his rune to use until we get home apparently – until he too feel asleep just after midnight. This morning it was snowing really heavily when we went down for breakfast, this made me very happy. I just love the snow! Every year I hope for a white Christmas but this obviously never happens in England. The last time it snowed properly was about three years ago.

Tom and I had decided we were going to spend our last morning at Lake Baikal doing the dog sledding – yay! I was sad that we didn’t do it yesterday and felt we should really be making the most of the activities and stuff, I mean, how often do you come to Siberia?! We went off with Ksenia to the dog sledding place and they set the sleighs up for us. The dogs are so cute! They aren’t huskys as most people think, these dogs are bred with wolves so they are more slender and not quite as fluffy. Their fur was so soft to the touch though, they had lovely temperaments and enjoyed getting some fuss. 

They only allow one person to sit on the sleigh at a time and they have a member of their team steering the sleigh by standing on the back. I went first, of course. Ladies first and all that. I sat down and whoosh the dogs were off! There were eight of them pulling me along, they weren’t super fast but the snow was blowing into my face, so I had to pull my scarf up to my eyes. I kept signalling to he man to make them go faster which made him laugh – not sure why – but we were going uphill so maybe I was a bit heavy? Anyway, the dogs then took a sharp right around a bend and went tearing down a slope super fast! I was loving it, it was so much fun! They chilled the pace a bit as we reached the end of the route, one tried to have a poop as he was running but he was at the front so I didn’t get any back spray, thank god. It was Tom’s go after me and he loved it too, although he said they didn’t go that fast but I said it was probably because he’s a lot heavier than me. Poor doggys. 

I do genuinely think the dogs are well looked after, I know a lot of people are sceptical about this. They each have their own little house outside and although they’re chained up on about a three metre chain, I guess they’d run away or fight if they were all set loose. They feed them on Royal Canin too! A really expensive dog food. 

After a quick stop at the pastry shop on the way back for Tom to stock up for our train journey, we headed back to the hotel to pay our debts and get our minibus to Irkutsk city. We ended up paying a small fortune to the hotel! Each of us (all four of us) had to pay 3150 rubles; 600 each night for dinner (1200 – the dinners were nice but I really don’t think they were worth 600 rubles), 300 each morning for breakfast (900), 300 for laundry (which was totally worth it), 650 for the banya (which was okay, it was a good experience but a little pricey) and 100 for the internet (which we could barely get in our rooms). This definitely makes Lake Baikal the most expensive place we’ve stayed. I’m a little disappointed with some things (the rooms running out of hot water, the evening meals weren’t amazing, we could have eaten for a lot cheaper elsewhere) and feel as though we have paid over the odds. Again, maybe it is because we’re out of season that the hotels put their prices up? I’m not sure. The hotel and the staff were lovely though, I cannot fault that.

Moving on! Our taxi dropped us in Irkutsk city where Ksenia took us to a great little shashlick cafe for lunch, the food was fresh, tasty and cheap. We then did a little souvenir shopping, (after trekking across Irkutsk at 50mph, Ksenia walks so fast, I was actually sweating in -6). I bought a Russian doll, she is beautiful but I am still dreaming about the one from Moscow. WHY DIDN’T I JUST BUY IT THERE?! I also bought my grandma a Russian doll magnet and myself a little Russian doll key ring. Now I’m all Russian dolled out.

Ksenia then took us on a little walking (or power walking) tour of Irkutsk which was lovely, the sun was setting across the river and she had so much knowledge about the history of the city, it was really interesting to hear about it. She then took us to ‘The London Pub’ for dinner which made me LOL. To be fair, they’d got the decor pretty accurate for a British pub but it was far too clean and posh. There wasn’t any beer-soaked-carpet smell. I had pizza, I have been craving pizza for a week! It was delicious and I have left overs with me for our train journey. We then went to the supermarket to buy food for the train, we love doing this. Ksenia then waved us off on our two night train journey to Ulaanbaatar.

Our train carriage is so posh. It’s bigger and so much more hi-tech than the last one. We have cupboards above our beds and a window that opens. It actually opens! No more forty degree stifling heat at night! We can open a window and breathe the fresh air! All of us were so happy about this. So happy. We have enjoyed a bottle of prosecco and some salted pretzels and now await the border crossing into Mongolia tomorrow. I’m hoping we don’t go around the edge of Lake Baikal tonight as we won’t get to see the stunning scenery but I have a sneaky suspicion this will be the case. We’ll see. My Tom is happy because the beds are longer on this train, the cabin in general is bigger. We’re travelling in style.