Trans Mongolian Railway: Irkutsk to Ulan Batar

Friday 17 July

Sylvia wasn’t feeling too good so stayed in bed. I took a stroll out to the east side of town. The streets are dirty, not with rubbish, but even sealed roads have in places thick patches of mud on then. Even in the centre of town there is a fine layer of dirt on the streets.

On the way I came across a bear shaped object with wire mesh over dirt that was being stuffed with grassy stuff. There were several of these around town in various shapes.

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Arriving at the water front a wedding is being photographed with the bride standing on a pile of stones trying to look seductive, the guy on flat ground in front trying to look tough.

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Eventually I arrive at the icebreaker Angara Museum. This is actually the ship which has been parked up here since the 60’s, It holds the record as the world’s most refloated ship as it has been swamped a few times. A grumpy lady took a hundred locals off me, filling out several forms and handing 2 to me. She sent me off down some steep stairs and a ladder into the engine room. Four big steam cylinders had powered the single propeller. Two huge boilers supplied, no doubt, a good head of steam. I had struck a group with a guide and interpreter so found out a little history.

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There were two of these ships built in the UK in kitset form and assembled locally. The first, the Baikal, built around 1896, carried 2000 passengers and 6 rail wagons, followed a couple of years later by the Angara, which only carried passengers. At this time the rail finished at the west side of Lake Baikal and started again on the east side. The boats were the link. They steamed back and forward until 1904. The rail link around the lake had to be completed as the boats were unreliable due to ice and bad weather. The Russians were fighting a war against Japan and needed continuity of supplies. When the revolution came in 1917 the icebreakers were armed up with machine guns and canons by the Reds (Bolsheviks) when the White Russians captured Irkutsk. Apparently the war went on around here until 1920. The Baikal was hit while in Port Baikal and caught fire – eventually the top part was scrapped, the rest sunk in the lake; nobody seems to know where. The lake is over 1400m deep so I guess it will stay hidden. The Angara was used as a prison for a little bit after the war until they took the prisoners up on deck one by one shot them and tossed them overboard. She then went back into general service on the lake until 1962. It’s probably the dirtiest and worst kept museum I have seen. I did get a smile out of the woman on the way out though.

A stroll back into town to the information centre was next. There I found a really helpful bunch with good English. They marked the map for me on the location of a military Museum and a shop where one could buy Matryoshka Dolls. I headed off to the Museum which was just an old empty building; the doll shop didn’t exist either. Were they just taking the piss??!!

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I strolled around a bit more of the town and headed back to the hotel. The receptionist was the only one of three who spoke English in spite of the guide book telling us they all did. I asked her why most of the people I had seen, especially the men, looked really grumpy. “That’s because they are – no one is happy here!” On inquiring why, “It’s 40c below here in winter and people are poor.”

Saturday 18 July

I was feeling much better after a good rest up yesterday and we headed off to see Lake Baikal. Roger had made enquiries yesterday and had sorted out directions to a bus that would take us to a boat that would take us to Lake Baikal. The boat was due to leave at either 12 or 12:30 depending on who he asked… It seems to me that the people in Irkutsk either don’t want to help or really don’t have a clue. We couldn’t find the bus anywhere and once we realised it would be too late to take the boat we started looking for other options. Eventually we found a minibus heading to the lake. Apparently they leave whenever they are full and you pay per seat so we piled in and headed off an hour and twenty minutes down the road.

Lake Baikal is the largest body of fresh water in the world. Its surface area is not huge but it is the deepest lake at 1637m and holds 23,000 cubic km of water, which is over 20% of the world’s fresh water. (By contrast Lake Taupo holds 59 cubic km.) We reached the “resort town” of Listvyanka, a small, fairly uninspiring town on the edge of the lake with a four-storey, multi-coloured “wedding cake hotel” across from where the mini buses stop. The water in the lake is very clear and apparently cold. There is a species of seals that lives in the lake, the only one to live solely in fresh water.

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After a quick bite to eat we wandered long the shore of the lake to the museum, apparently the only one in the world dedicated to a lake. The exhibits were unfortunately only in Russian. Of most interest to us were the aquarium showing the many different species of fish in the lake, the two very rotund seals that seemed very bored in their small tank, and the photo exhibit on the top floor with photos of different areas of the lake from the 1950’s and present day highlighting the changes.

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Having met several people on the train who were spending more time in Irkutsk and/or at Lake Baikal, many of whom didn’t stop at Yekaterinburg at all, we felt pretty good about our decision. Irkutsk is the only place we have been to that we both would not have minded missing altogether. We caught another minivan back to town and after a quick bite to eat headed off to the railway station to catch our train to Ulan Batar.

Sunday 19 July

When I wake to the loud hailer at the station we are on the east side of Lake Baikal.

From Irkutsk to the border town of Naushki in a straight line is less than 300km but the train trip is over 800km. This is definitely the slow train to China, averaging around 50 km/per hour to the border. Once we eventually leave the trans-Siberian line and head south it is on an old style single track which still has the clickety-clack sound as the wheels go over the joins. The land becomes a little barren as we head south with huge flat areas surrounded by brown hills. There are the odd paddocks with large irrigation units. Small mobs of cattle are often accompanied by a herder. Grass is being cut in places by machine but hand stacked in the paddocks.

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We pass an abandoned military air field and a few derelict factories before traveling alongside Goose Lake where hundreds of small boats carry one or two fisherman dangling their lines hopefully in the clear water. All the towns we pass through have the same ramshackle houses we have seen previously. These have bigger gardens and often small corrals to hold stock. We even see the odd mob of sheep.

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At 1345 local time we roll into Naushki. After total confusion as to whether we were allowed to leave the train we did anyway – it turns out we actually had to as they took the train off somewhere else for a bit. For some reason, being a border town with immigration border control etc., I had expected shops, restaurants and a tidy little town. With a “don’t know the reason why stop here” a look around and a nice meal would be good. Wrong, wrong, wrong! The railway station and the building alongside were in good nick. Passing through the station past the uninterested police we stepped into another world. This place is far worse than any town we have seen from the train. A walk down a dusty road revealed an almost nice building containing a cafe. The food was ok too. They didn’t have change for my thousand local note but produced an Eftpos machine, which was not really in keeping with the surroundings. The rest of the place was a total shambles.

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Back in the station waiting room we had a chat to two young Aussi blokes who had been to Ukraine and visited the now defunct nuclear plant at Chernobyl. They are heading to North Korea after Beijing. Eventually we were asked to get back on the train to hurry up and wait for the border control people. Its 30 degrees C outside and hotter in the stationary train. An hour or so later they turned up. A dog sniffed its way up the corridor then a guy looked at our passports, another guy turned up with a PDA, entered and checked passports. Next an agile chick turned up and searched our cabin as we stood outside.

Eventually, bang on time at 1750 we rolled out of the station. There are tall barbed wire fences on each side of the track, a guard house down the track a bit then we are in no man’s land. A bit further down the track we stop while a bunch of Mongolian soldiers lift the barrier then run round to form up on a white line in front of their post after the train goes through.

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Next stop is Sukhbaatar about 20km on where we have another long wait on the train while the Mongolian customs collect our passports and go through the same process.

Mongolia is suddenly a different world. The ramshackle villages of Siberia have suddenly become tidy paddocks with fences. Even the odd derelict factory has a semblance of tidiness about it. Gers (yurt is the German word) stand in fields or alongside houses as we head south alongside a bright red sunset.

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Monday 20 July

At 0430 the locked door to our compartment is thrown open, the lights switched on and our grumpy provodnitsa says time to get up. We are due to arrive in Ulan Batar at 0550 and had set our alarm for 0520 thinking thirty minutes would be plenty of time. The best laid plans…

Arriving in Ulan Batar bang on time we are met at the station by our guide. It is too early to head off to the National Park and the only restaurant open is a Mongolian one that doesn’t smell at all appetising at this hour so we head off to look at the Zaisan memorial and Buddha park. This memorial is a tall, thin, soviet style monument that was built to commemorate unknown soldiers and heroes from various wars. The climb to the top was rewarded by great views over the city. It is a really interesting city with a mix of old Soviet era apartment blocks, new modern glass buildings, smaller houses and even the odd ger. At the base of the hill is a 16m tall standing Buddha.

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This killed enough time for the Rosewood Café to open – a delightful place where we were able to get a very good breakfast.

Next we headed off to Hustai National Park about 100km southwest. This reserve has been set up to protect the reintroduced takhi or Przewalski’s horse, a sub-species of wild horse that became extinct in the wild here and was reintroduced from zoos. There are now more than 340 in the area and over 500 in Mongolia. They are a pale tan colour with zebra stripes on the back of their legs and larger heads and shorter legs than the common domestic horse.

We picked up a local guide at the Park entrance and headed off, spotting marmots, an eagle and a vulture as well as a couple of groups of takhi. We stopped at one point to climb a hill to get closer to the takhi and were distracted by the different grasshoppers and insects we saw as well. Driving further into the park we came across some very old stone statues that had been carved during the Turkish rule in the 6th century. There were also 500 odd deer stones that lined a pathway – that they called the pathway to heaven.

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Our next activity was to arrange to stay with a local family for the night in their ger. We passed several groups of stock (horses, cattle, sheep, goats) and eventually came to a small group of gers. A few people had rounded up some goats and sheep in a pen to mark them. Our guides approached and it seemed an agreement was reached. We headed off to the ger with one of the young men now in tow and were welcomed by the woman of the house. This family of seven live in two gers. They move them at least twice a year – once to the ground nearer the river, where we were, in summer and once nearer the mountains where it is warmer for the winter. They have about 300 sheep, 300 goats, 40 cattle and 60 horses. There were a couple of calves and a dog lying outside one of the gers and a small group of young goats playing nearby – apparently they have to keep them close to protect them from birds of prey. We were invited into the ger and given some Mongolian milk tea, some sort of bread biscuit that tasted like mutton fat, some sheep’s milk cheese and some fermented milk “vodka”, all of which were definitely acquired tastes! It was agreed that we would go back and have lunch at the tourist camp where we had picked up the local guide and then return for dinner and the night.

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Before we left we were invited to the other ger to see the fermented milk process. The milk is boiled and then the condensed steam is collected. A frog was jumping across the floor and a 5-day old baby goat was snuggled under a small table in the ger. Two young children ran about playing with balls. Outside we watched a guy on horseback unsuccessfully try to chase three other horses to corral them. Eventually the guy from our ger left and got on a horse himself. He successfully lassoed one of the horses from about 20 metres away.

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We headed off back to the tourist camp where we dropped off our local guide. By this stage we were more than a little concerned about our guide. He had limited English, had not been well briefed and had not given us a good briefing on our three days, we had no briefing on how to behave with the family in their ger and we had gotten very lost on the way back to the tourist camp and been driven around on rough roads for over two hours. We were now told that lunch at this camp was too expensive and we had to go to another one further up the road. When we arrived there the restaurant (and it seemed the whole camp) was closed. By this stage we were tired and hungry and the idea of a long drive back to the ger, a probably unappetising meal and no idea of how to behave properly we decided to call it off and head back to UB for the night. We also decided to fire this guide and start again as we had lost confidence in the company.

Negotiations completed we headed back to UB and checked into our hotel for the next three nights. A lovely Japanese dinner rounded off the evening.

Tuesday 21 July

After a great sleep in a comfortable bed and a good breakfast at the Kempinski hotel we taxied into town. The first task was to find Great Chinggis Expeditions where we were to pick up our tickets for Thursday’s train to Beijing. The instructions were sort of clear. Eventually we found the run down building with a locked steel door. We punched in a number, pushed open the very creaky door, went up some poorly lit stairs, found room No 37, knocked loudly on the door a few times and finally a woman opened it revealing a nice set of offices. It felt a bit like something out of Dungeons and Dragons. Tickets in hand we headed back to the Square.

Chinggis Khaan Square, as it is now known, is also a memorial to Sukhbaatar, who was the guy that finally got independence from China and basically gave the country to Russia in 1921. The new 2006 memorial to Chinggis is huge, housing a State Museum and behind that government buildings. Interestingly there are a lot more military people around here than in Russia – they have the hard faces and do not make eye contact or acknowledge a thank you or hello. The State Museum had lots of really old stuff dating back to 300BC. This included gold horse harness decorations, swords, coins etc.

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Across the road is the National Museum of Mongolia. This place had the oldest stuff I think I have ever seen. Cave drawings dated back to 4000BC and there were all sorts of artefacts counting down the time of man’s development in Mongolia. This included a skeleton lying in a box from 600BC. A costume room showcased the remains of costumes from 1200AD, each with a new replica beside them to show what they would have looked like. The time line flowed through the evolution of Mongolia including the Turk’s rule of the 6th Century and a big section on Chinggis and his sons, who during the 12th and into the 13th century ruled most of Asia. Another big section is on the independence from China in 1921 and covers a bit about life under Soviet rule. The last section covers the break away from socialism, which ended after a huge number of protesters went on a hunger strike in the square.

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A stroll along a few streets revealed lots of people out with brooms and brushes trying to keep the place clean. Crossing the road at a pedestrian crossing takes a bit of getting used to; if you just stand and wait they don’t stop; walk and they don’t look like they are going to stop but do just in time. They drive on the right side here but only about 20% of the cars are left hand drive. It all seems to work.

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We paid a visit to the Victim’s Museum, which was once the home of Prime minister P Genden and one of the oldest buildings in town. He pissed off the Russians at some point and was taken to Moscow by the KGB and shot. Apparently his replacement towed the line but several other high ranking politicians were at different times invited to Moscow for ‘retraining’ with a deadly end. An old enthusiastic guy took us inside and pointed at various posters indicating the victims from various provinces during the USSR reign. Some 23-40,000 people perished. It appears a lot were executed on trumped up charges. One room contains skulls dug up from a mass grave, most with bullet holes to the head. `The walls of many rooms have photos of people- most were executed but some imprisoned. The odd one has an explanation in English. Many were executed during the Japanese invasion of 1935 when a minister came down from Moscow with a list of names suspected of spying for the Japs. Buddhist leaders were also seen as a threat and eliminated.

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Our next stop was the bar on the 23rd floor of the Blue sky tower. Here we enjoyed probably the best lamb burger we have ever had, followed by a stroll back to the hotel with a bit of shopping along the way.

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Wednesday 22 July

We were met in reception at 9am by our new guide, Munk, arranged through the hotel. He is a self-confident young man who spent 10 years studying and living in London (aeronautical engineering) and returned to UB a couple of years ago. After a brief stint with Mongolian airlines he decided to set up his own travel agency. His English is good and he answered a lot of the questions we have gathered along the way.

We headed off towards Terelj National Park, about 80km northeast of UB. Despite being somewhat overrun by tourist camps and hotels (the Mongolians definitely have a very different idea of a National Park to the rest of the world) it is still a beautiful area with fantastic rock formations and lots of grassy plains, dotted about with gers and the associated wildlife. A new one for me here was the yaks; several of these long, woolly cows grazed in the area. It must be incredibly hot for them with their thick coats but they seem pretty laid back.

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Right near the end of the valley we get out of the car and mount our horses for a two hour ride, across the river, through the woods, passed a few yaks and gers and up a hill. I was a little nervous at first having not ridden in a long time but Roger was very comfortable, even when his horse gave a few kicks. Apart from the flies it was very pleasant riding and we stopped at the top of the hill for fifteen minutes or so to give the horses a rest and take some photos before returning.

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Just around the corner we stopped for a Mongolian style lunch – lots of fatty mutton, first in a broth-style soup and then in some fried dumplings!

We headed next for the famous, and aptly named, turtle rock. We had great views from the top and enjoyed the squeezy climb at the ‘neck’ between the ‘head’ and the ‘shell’. Across the way we could see a couple of Bactrian (two-humped) camels, unique to Mongolia, taking people for rides and also a couple of guys wrestling, one of Mongolia’s main sports.

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We then stopped briefly at a cave where about 150 Buddhist monks had sheltered during the Soviet-era persecutions.

Driving further east we came upon the huge Chinggis Khaan statue. Built in 2007, one of many Chinggis Khaan monuments erected to reflect the new nationalist pride of this nation, this 40m tall, shiny stainless steel statue of Chinggis on horseback is quite a landmark. We climbed the stairs and walked out onto the mane of the horse with good views over the surrounding plains and a close up view of Chinggis Khaan. In the basement is a museum featuring some more old artefacts and a bit more information on the rule of the Mongolian empire in the 13th and 14th centuries.

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We then headed back to our hotel where we had a lovely meal and started to prepare for our early departure in the morning.

On reflection Mongolia is a stunning country with much to offer but tourism here is challenged. They seem to be pricing themselves out of the backpacker market but the quality of service is not at the level you would expect so value-for-money is not great. I hope that they sort this out over the next few years as I think there is great potential in the country.

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