I just got back (read: still totally jetlagged) from my 19-day trip on the Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian Railway, and it went better than expected! I had really wanted a group tour situation, but I had trouble finding such an option so I went with a well-organized but independent program with The Russia Experience, the 17-day No-Frills “Classic Eurasian Experience” with an upgrade for Mongolia because DamnitIWantedToStayInAYurt!! For $3000, I got 7 nights on a train in 2nd class, 2 nights in a yurt, and 7 nights in budget hotels plus some meals, a guided walking tour of St Petersburg, pick-ups at airport and train stations, and some other thoughtful details. I flew United BusinessFirst class to St Petersburg and from Beijing on air miles, woohoo! Loving that hobby!
Getting the visa was the worst part – it was such a clusterf*** that most people trying to get one were contemplating cancelling their trips. But St Petersburg is a real jewel, followed by my first overnight on the train to Moscow, where I shared a compartment with a Belgian-Russian couple who clearly knew how to take the trains. Then I had a fantastic time in Moscow with my Russian travel roommate from last year’s South Africa trip. She insisted that I try foods from the assorted former Soviet states, and drove me around Red Square and prime examples of Stalin era architecture and monuments. It was so cool to see her again!
The train to Ekaterinburg took about 27 hours and was my least favorite part of the whole trip. It was overly warm, I got stuck with an upper berth, and the people with lower berths kept them made up as beds all day which means I couldn’t sit normally…so I planted myself in the cool, empty restaurant car with a notebook and Kindle for about eight hours, drank a ton of tea, did a lot of writing for work, and chatted with a pair of Russian soccer fans desperate to practice their English. Ekaterinburg itself is rife with Romanov history, which made for a great day trip, and my second day was a “depression day”, where I didn’t do much of anything. Eh, it happens, and I don’t think I missed out on much.
It took three solid days and four nights to get from Ekaterinburg to Ulaanbaatar, and those were fun! I had it in my head that the restaurant car was a fairly social atmosphere, but what I found was that Russians don’t use it at all. So it turned out to be a great way to meet my fellow travelers. A pair of German grad students dragged me off the train at one stop and made me eat “platform food” (which involved blinis filled with mystery meat), and I met two other folks – a Dutch woman and an Australian man – who, it later turned out, were with the same outfit I was, and we ended up all together at the yurt/ger lodge and onward train to Beijing. The Mongolia leg was fully escorted (Buddhist monastery, city center, Genghis Khan monument, etc) and the yurt was beautiful. Someone sneaked into my tent every morning and night to light a fire in the stove and warm things up, we really pulled in the other guests for a more social atmosphere, the main horseman was in the midst of his 3-day drunken birthday celebration, it was just wonderful :)
I’ve never been to China and feel it’s worth its own trip to visit, so I only had one full day here while I waited for my scheduled flight. I didn’t expect to like Beijing, but I was pleasantly surprised. I stayed in a little budget hotel in the traditional alleys (hutongs) of the center, took an excursion to a jade factory and the Great Wall, and the next day met up with my new Dutch friend for a taxi to the airport. Oh, did I mention that the new Dutch friend lives in the same neighborhood as I’ll be staying in Amsterdam this fall? Funny how that happened…