China, Mongolia and Russia by train over three weeks is the ultimate in good old fashioned adventure travel. After doing our homework and crunching the numbers we settled on STA Travel and Vodkatrain for getting us safely from Beijing to St Petersburg. At just under $4000 each, this was the budget option providing transport, accommodation, visa support, transfers and awesome Honchos in each of the cities and towns we visited. This trip is not for those Trip Adviser types who expect all the comforts of home and 4 star accommodation everywhere they travel, but if you head into it with an open mind you'll be pleasantly surprised with what this part of the world has to offer.
We arrived in Beijing a few days before the tour started and made ourselves at home in a little place in the middle of the hutongs called The Chinese Box Courtyard Hostel - make sure you hang around for dumpling night, it goes off. One of the best things that has happened for travelers to Beijing was the summer Olympics back in 2008. The subway system is incredibly easy to navigate with English signs directing you all the way from the airport throughout the city. The train from the airport is slightly more expensive at 25 yuan compared to 2 yuan everywhere else but this is still possibly the cheapest subway we have encountered anywhere in the world. It's a big walk between stations though so it's worth planning your day around where you can travel easily to on public transport.
We let our hostel organise a minivan to take us to the Great Wall along with a range of Australian, American and German tourists. Mutianyu is the youngest section of the Great Wall of China at only around 600 years old and lies a short 60km drive from the city. It was pretty cold when we arrived in January but as we were keeping costs at a minimum we opted to walk up the hill to the actual wall rather than take the cable car - thus warming up quite effectively. Although this section of 23 towers has been extensively repaired to it's former glory, if you walk far enough you can step out onto the remains of the original wall which, surprisingly, still resembles a wall. Just in case you had illusions of running the length of this monstrous fence, keep in mind the majority of it is actually stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. Conveniently, cold beverages can be purchased at many of the individual towers along the way - nothing like a cold beer while waiting for the Mongolian hoards to arrive.
Aside from the wall we spent a day wandering around the Summer Palace and it's great frozen lake. We particularly enjoyed watching the locals swimming between the ice in the city's water supply next door and walking across large sections of the frozen water as a short cut. Although the Olympic stadiums seemed like a great place to visit, the number of souvenir stalls lining the streets detract to a degree from the nostalgia. On our fourth day we packed up camp and trekked across town with our overladen bags (5 months later I was a pack walking machine but not this day) only to discover we were at the wrong hotel to meet our group for Vodkatrain. What was worse was the real location was an hour back across the city and only a few blocks from our previous accommodation. Navigation fail.
Orientation was interesting as our initial misconception that we were part of a much larger group was dispelled by a grand total of three scruffy Australians. It was to be the five of us for the next 21 days of highs, lows and the coldest I've ever been in my life. Having two more days in Beijing before hopping the train north, we split up to tick of the few things on our lists that we hadn't done.
We visited the beautiful Temple of Heaven and Lamar Temple and made our way through a freshly painted Forbidden City. The latter was a strange place to visit having just read Wild Swans (a rather confronting read). The pictures of Chairman Mao everywhere and knowing what had happened at Tiananmen Square put a serious note on the day. I did get stopped coming out of the toilets and asked for photos with several young Chinese girls. Not sure if it was the blonde hair or if I have a famous doppelganger somewhere in China. Our honcho for these few days shared a lot about the city and her culture which made me really appreciate home. On our last morning we packed up our gear and were dropped at the train station along with the rest of Beijing. Chinese New Year meant that everyone was heading home to their families outside of the city and the station was packed. We eventually found our way onto our carriage and home for the next three days and settled in to get to know our companions a little better.
The trip north was a strange mix of watching ghost towns being built in the middle of nowhere and getting used to the idiosyncrasies of train life. The carriage attendant looks after the hot water, provides linen for the beds and carries the keys to the bathroom - and therefore should be kept on side at all costs. The rooms were compact but clean and we slept well on the fold out bunks until we were woken at the Mongolian border. Thus began a four hour wait for customs, the wheels on the train to be switched and the bathroom to reopen. We were able to watch from inside as our carriage was lifted up on hydraulic hoists and the wheels were swapped out for the different tracks in Mongolia.
We were met by Odka at the station in Ulaanbaatar and escorted to our hotel for the night. Hot water was hard to come by but the rooms were pretty good otherwise. That first evening consisted of Mogolian BBQ and a cultural show full of throat singing, traditional dancing and an incredible contortionist. Terlji National Park was our next destination and we definitely weren't disappointed with the Ger Camp we arrived at the next day. Given the outside temperature was hovering around -25, the coal fires in the middle of each of our tents were a welcome discovery as we explored our home for the next three days.
With perhaps more enthusiasm than sense, we opted to go horse riding in the spirit of the great Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khan to the Mongolians). What we were expecting were large stallions of the kind used for world domination, what arrived were fluffy Siberian Ponies with runny noses. Our guide obviously had higher hopes for our horse riding skills than we did as he took off and expected us to follow. Luckily the horses seemed to work out what was happening and we were carried away after him with zero control over the little beasties. I can safely say now that this was the coldest I have ever been in my life and the fact that we eventually returned with fingers and toes intact is nothing short of miracle. Lunar New Year dawned the next day and we were whisked off to see a local family who had prepared a proper feast for us. The words fermented were used a lot in the following hours and much vodka was consumed in an effort to numb ones taste buds.
The Russian border crossing was much like the Mongolian one with the addition of "the beautiful Russian customs officers", Kiah's words, not mine. Our honchos for this leg of the trip were Tolya and Dimitri who shuffled us straight off the train and onto a bus bound for Lake Baikal. Looking like something straight out of Antarctica with snow capped peaks in the background and giant slabs of crushed ice on the beach, the Lake was quite a picture. Our small chalet was up the hill in the snow covered lakeside town of Listvyanka. We were fed and watered before being taken for a walk down to the frozen edges of the biggest fresh water lake in the world. None of us were warm again until the Russian Banya that night where getting beaten with Birch branches was worth it to be sitting in a room full of hot steam.
We decided to give dog sledding a go while we were in town and after a 15 second safety briefing in Russian, we were positioned on the back of a sled and the dogs were sent off. Getting pulled through the forest on a track of sorts by six over-excited canines had the adrenaline pumping pretty quickly and it was bloody good fun. My boots had literally frozen by the time I returned to the house but I'd highly recommend giving this a go if you get the chance. After honing our sled skills we spent a freezing cold hour forging necklaces on an outdoor anvil - seemed like a good idea at the time. We had a day back in Irkutsk and a well stocked supermarket meant we were prepared for the five day stretch to Moscow gastronomically if not psychologically.
The first pleasant surprise after boarding the train again was finding our tickets included a meal each day of the journey (fish or chicken with bread). Any break from noodles is something to be celebrated. The lengthy days were made bearable by hours long games of 500, trashing Australian TV shows and a few books in between. The landscape outside our carriage did not alter the entire time as snow covered forests, towns and other trains made their way slowly past our window.
I will admit that I have wanted to visit this city for more than half my life and it still surpassed my expectations. The people were friendly, the restaurants delicious and buildings breathtaking. We met Vladimir, our final honcho, at The Red Hostel which was our only let down of the trip. Not that we spent much time there as we set out immediately for the Hermitage. Set in the Winter Palace, last inhabited by the Romanovs, this collection of sculptures and paintings rivals any other in the world. We spent two days wandering from Ancient Greece to the Masters of the 16th and 17th century to the impressionists and modern works. Eventually we did get museumed out and went to see a Russian icebreaker moored on the frozen banks of the Neva. Vladimir had to translate as the English speaking tour guide was preparing for the next visit - Princess Anne and her husband Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence.
We visited a few great bars including a laundry bar which is exactly what it sounds like and had dinner at the smallest Italian restaurant in the world - maybe. Vladimir patiently explained a great deal of Russian history to us at the Russian Museum, took us to lunch at Zoom and escorted us up and down Nevsky Prospekt a dozen or so times. You have to love the Romanovs - Peter the Great killed his son, Catherine the Great killed her husband, Paul was murdered by men working for his son who then had the men killed for murdering his father. Bunch of nutters really. There were some sad farewells as our little group disbanded but we managed to hang onto Kiah for another week as we flew to Berlin from St Petersburg.
Vodkatrain had the highs and lows you might expect from a budget travel option but the experience was one that remains a highlight of our travels thus far. I'm a firm believer that travelling is what you make of it and the people you meet along the way. In that respect I would highly recommend getting to see this part of the world and especially in winter (unless you already live in Canada or Scandinavia).