Day 16 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Irkutsk –> Ulanbaatar

Good morning from Irkutsk :)

Good morning from Irkutsk :)

It is an early, early morning. I try to ignore the alarm, hoping, wishing it would go off and let me get back to the world made up of dreams. Not much luck there. The last stretch of the Trans-Siberian is calling us. I guess it is time to say do svedanye (so long) Russia! You have been a real charm. Next stop – Mongolia. First there is still 22 hours and 37 minutes to be spent in the train.

Train timetable - so many destinations to choose from

Train timetable – so many destinations to choose from

Second from the top is our train coming all the way from Moscow and going all the way to Beijing. If you do it non-stop, it will take you around 7 days.

Russian comfort replaced by made in China

Russian comfort replaced by made in China. The official emblem looks so cool though.

Bye-bye Russian comfort, hello Chinese class. From here on China is officially taking over the Trans-Siberian stretch. Judging by the look and feel of the train interior, let’s just say it is good it’s only one day. The exterior – that’s another thing. I am totally loving the sleek green colour and the Chinese communist emblem.

Aboard the train another peculiar fact makes itself known – the serious looking, sometimes smiling female provodnitsa (train attendants) you see all along the Trans-Siberian stretch from Moscow to Irkutsk have all disappeared. No trace of them except the ones working in the restaurant. Instead you meet male Chinese attendants, who as you come to observe are more in favour of keep calm – take a break attitude, than actually doing their train chores.

Modernish amenities of Russian trains with more advanced A/C system are out the window.

Modernish amenities of Russian trains with more advanced A/C system are gone out the window.

Modernish amenities of Russian trains with more advanced A/C system are gone out the window. It is replaced by a more simplistic design of a revolving fan that makes so much noise, you really need to be desparate to turn it on. On a hot July day we were desparate. Fortunately after some time you get used to the constant background buzzing noise and stop noticing it.

Our neighbour is Mongolian speaking no Russian or English. Only Mongolian and Magyar, since she is living in Hungary. Not much chance of communication going on there. I call Google to help for general introduction. Otherwise it is just exchanging smiles and sharing my precious stash of sunflower seeds. Chewing sunflower seeds is also apparently popular among Mongolians.

An insider tip - make sure you wipe the window close to your train compartment before the train sets off for the long journey east and south.

An insider tip – make sure you wipe the window close to your train compartment before the train sets off for the long journey east and south.

While I chat away with a Canadian girl who has spent the last 6 days on the train all the way from Moscow, I notice Andreas hard at work shining the window. Then I remember – he was preparing for this stretch since home equipped with a wiping cloth. An insider tip – make sure you wipe the window close to your train compartment before the train sets off for the long journey east and south. Trust me you will not regret it. What is waiting for you is simply the BEST stretch of the whole 5.000 km Trans-Siberian ride. When the train rides south approaching the shore of Lake Baikal, hits its southermost point and makes a curvy turn and hits northward toward Ulan-Ude. On this stretch panoramic vistas of Lake Baikal become your companion.

IMG_1011Shining the window situation mostly applies to when the temperature hits the freezing degrees so you don’t want to risk catching pneumonia and opening the window. In the warm summer months we discovered that the Chinese attendant can unlock the small overhead windows.

IMG_3843When the most awaited moment finally arrives, everyone leaves the comfort of their compartments and gets glued to the windows. The narrow train corridor becomes a melting pot of nations, languages and cultures. Chinese, Mongolians, Europeans, Americans, everyone is gazing out.

IMG_3850As the train approaches Ulan-Ude, the lake views slowly disappear and are replaced by endless forests again. It is time to hit the restaurant before we reach the Mongolian border where we are told that they are going to detach the carriage housing the Russian restaurant so we better feast on our usual Russian delicacies of borsch and fried potatoes before they are left behind on the other side of the border.

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To reach the restaurant cabin you literally have to go from one end of the train to the other, opening and closing doors. One of the doors you open, welcomes you to the first class world, mainly populated by Americans. I am wondering if there is any system or a pure draw of luck that decides which of the attendants gets to make the first class carriage his base. That guy is definitely enjoying the experience. Lounging in his cabin with a cigarette in his mouth, despite the fact that it is a non-smoking train.

First class luxury - fancy, fancy

First class luxury – fancy, fancy

Sleeping cabin that also comes with a shower

Sleeping cabin that also comes with a shower

The restaurant is more multicultural compared to the other trains we took across the Trans-Siberian.

Borsch - our usual

Borsch – our usual

We go with our usual favourites – the borsch and blini. As he carefully studies the menu, a happy smile appears on Andreas’ face. Apparently he found his childhood favourite dessert – peach compote with whipped cream. Of course he needs to have it. My feeble attempt at we just had a blini with jam, do we also need to order this, gets totally ignored. Childhood memories – what can you do? 😀

Dessert from Andreas' childhood

Dessert from Andreas’ childhood

Hours roll by. Soon the bright summer day is replaced by an evening dusk and voila we reach the Russia-Mongolia border. What happens next is 4 hours on the border. 2 hours on the Russian side and 2 hours on the Mongolian. First Russian border control comes in dressed in full uniforms and armed with dogs, collects passports and disappears for 2 hours. Promising start. Passports are returned with beautiful stamps in, only to be snatched away again 30 minutes later by the Mongolian border control ladies who are less cheerful than their Russian counterparts. By the time we get our passports back it is already past midnight. The train is now cleared to continue its journey onto the Mongolia grasslands.

I get minimum amount of sleep lulled by the train noise. Waking up every so often, I give up when the beautiful light of the dawn hits our cabin. Opening the compartment door a totally different view greets you. Gone are the lush taiga forests of Russia. The vast grasslands of Mongolia welcome you to a whole new country.

Good morning Mongolia!

Good morning Mongolia!

It is a whole new day and a start of our week in Mongolia. Russia you have been such a charm, opening the doors to your beautiful country for us and showing us pretty corners along the 5.000 km stretch from Moscow to Ulan-Ude. It has also put my Russian language skills to test, I haven’t spoken so much Russian since high school. Pretty proud of myself. So long Russia, we will be back to explore more of your beauty for sure. Until then cайн уу (sain uu) Mongolia!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 15 on Trans-Siberian Railway: A day in Irkutsk

It is time to say good-bye. To the tiny village in the middle of nowhere going by the name Bugul’deyka, to the tranquil waters of Lake Baikal and to our kind host Volodya. And such moments can often get emotional. Especially when you get to experience special places and meet special people along the way. This one good-bye is shaping definitely out to be a pretty emotional one. Before we get to the tears welling in the eyes, waving farewell and shining the last smiles, there is still the last breakfast to be enjoyed in the company of Romanovs.

Yep you heard it right! Romanovs – the last tsarist dynasty of Russia. In this era where your every move, wish and preference can be tracked and predicted, a series about the Romanovs popped up on our Netflix radar as we were making our way through the vast Russian empire. How convenient. And so in the company of Romanovs we enjoyed a quiet morning in our Buryat home until the clock stroke 09:30 and it was time to head to Irkutsk.

The car is packed, and a sentimental walk around the house and the courtyard to bid farewell is accomplished. What is left is an emotional good-bye with Volodya. He managed to turn it into a beautiful, tear-filled ceremony as he put on his full Buryat suit and came bearing gifts.

Volodya clad in his full Buryat outfit came out to see us off

Volodya clad in his full Buryat outfit came out to see us off

Remember I told you some time ago, that you might get a chance to meet Volodya. Well here you go. A kind, kind soul that made our trip so special with his stories, kindness and humble personality.

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Irkutsk is calling. A dusty, yet beautiful 4 hour drive in a right-hand car takes us to our destination. Being driven in a right-hand drive vehicle in a country where the traffic is officially left-handed can easily turn to an exhilarating experience. As you move from west to east in Russia you start noticing a few wrong sided adventurers, but wait until you reach Mongolia. There right-hand seems to be more the norm than the exception.

View from our hotel room over Irkutsk

View from our hotel room over Irkutsk

Four hours later we arrive to the very heart of Irkutsk to find the central streets and squares closed off for traffic. Apparently there is this thing called Silk Way Rally and it is slated to launch the day of our departure from nowhere else but Irkutsk and take on Russia, Mongolia and China. So the whole city is filled with show-off offroad vehicles. At this point Andreas is totally ecstatic and half-contemplating a change of plans to stay a day longer in Irkutsk.

This being our last day in Russia and preceding a yet another 24 hour train ride across the border to Mongolia, we decided to treat ourselves real nice and check into the fanciest hotel that Irkutsk has to offer with a real bed and a real shower. Apparently majority of Silk Way Rally participants had the same idea and so the hotel lobby and restaurant is filled up with groups from all corners of the world.

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IMG_0914The sun is shining, it is a gorgeous day, the city is smiling and that all you need for smiling back. Irkutsk turns out to be such a charming city. Pity we only have a few hours to explore. We end up walking for hours and hours exploring small, cosy streets and big Soviet avenues.

Welcome to Irkutsk!

Welcome to Irkutsk!

No matter where you go, you will find Chinese tourists even in the most remote locations.

No matter where you go, you will find Chinese tourists even in the most remote locations. And one thing they never fail doing is taking selfies and posing for photos

Guess policemen also need a break

Guess policemen also need a break

IMG_3723What made me fall in love with Irkutsk are its wooden houses. We found a whole bunch of them scattered around in the city hunched over from the years of service and neglect, yet standing still proudly to tell stories of former days of glory. Even in their state of total despair, neglect and lack of loving care, they don’t fail to catch your eye.

Me wandering from one wooden house to another, admiring its architecture, colours and shapes.

Me wandering from one wooden house to another, admiring its architecture, colours and shapes.

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Wooden house trail leads us to the Soviet neighbourhoods

What a beauty!

What a beauty!

Circus building - an important remnant of Soviet times. For some reason having a dedicated building for circus was quite a thing in the Soviet republics.

Circus building – an important remnant of Soviet times. For some reason having a dedicated building for circus was quite a thing in the Soviet republics.

Another pretty sight of former glory

Another pretty sight of former glory

Definitely Soviet architecture - quite cool!

Definitely Soviet architecture – quite cool!

Entrance to an apartment complex - typical Soviet look and feel again

Entrance to an apartment complex – typical Soviet look and feel again

Marx Street - one of the main streets in Irkutsk

Marx Street – one of the main streets in Irkutsk

Oh hello there - of course we had to find a red star somewhere

Oh hello there – of course we had to find a red star somewhere

Lenin square. Lenin and The Internationale on the wall next to him.

Lenin square. Lenin and The Internationale on the wall next to him.

After exploring the streets of Irkutsk for hours, finding pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet traces imprinted all over, we end up at Kvartal 130. Based on the recommendation of the hotel receptionist it was an area totally worth checking out, claiming to have replicas of Siberian style wooden houses. Oh we found the houses alright – nothing charming about them. What we also found was a totally touristic, soulless pedestrian street filled with loud restaurants, encircled by shopping stalls and malls and caged animals kept for petting.

Don't ask why - this creature was the main design icon in the biggest shopping mall

Don’t ask why – this creature was the main design icon in the biggest shopping mall

This icon outside the mall was much more relatable.

I love Irkutsk - yes, I have to agree!

I love Irkutsk – yes, I have to agree!

Leaving Kvartal 130 behind we head back through the city, greeting Lenin on the way to find our home for the night.

Lenin keeping a watchful eye over the city

Lenin keeping a watchful eye over the city

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It is the last few hours in Russia, I cannot believe tomorrow we will bid farewell to this beautiful land and cross the border to Mongolia. I seriously do NOT want to leave the comfy bed!!! The thought of getting up at 06:00 tomorrow morning to catch a 23 hour train ride to Ulanbataar sounds absolutely brutal. This is what goes on in my mind as I lay my head on the softest pillow ever.

Good night Irkutsk!

Good night Irkutsk!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 2 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Moscow

Dobroe utro from Moscow. It is another beautiful day in the Russian capital. Time to rise and shine. It sounds a bit like a newsperson on Good Morning (INSERT COUNTRY) show :) It is really a beautiful day, the sun is shining, you have all of Moscow spread in front of your eyes, and a delicious breakfast with all the Russian culinary delights is waiting for you.

This is what one calls breakfast with view

This is what one calls breakfast with a view

On today’s menu is semi Soviet, semi mingling with the locals walks. Nikolskaya, Vorobyovi Gori, Moscow State University, Gorki park, rose garden, selfie crazed people, rain showers, riverside promenade, and finally the culinary jewel of the day dinner in one of the world’s best restaurants.

Let’s start the day with Nikolskaya promenade. This street has become my favourite in Moscow. The atmosphere here is just so uplifting.

Nikolskaya Street is all about taking it easy and enjoying life

Nikolskaya Street is all about taking it easy and enjoying life

After a small promenade on Nikolskaya we take the metro to Vorobyovi Gori (Sparrow Hills) for a riverside promenade and panorama views over the city. Now metro in Moscow is a whole other level of aesthetic experience. It is not just a simple mode of transportation. There are several stations where you feel like you have stepped into a jaw-droppingly beautiful exhibition. I think that deserves a separate post on its own, so I will not dwell onto metro much here. If you are in Moscow and have a few hours to spare – do it!

Moscow River

Moscow River

The panorama platform on top of the Sparrow Hills is not just any platform with beautiful views over a city.

Sparrow Hills panorama platform

Sparrow Hills panorama platform

Here you meet casual passers-by, tourist groups, matroyshka (Russian traditional dolls) vendors, motorbike loving leathermen and even a cheerful and totally out of place and at the same time why not half-naked guy casually holding a WWII gun.

This guy! Question one - wonder if the gun is loaded??? Question two - why on earth would he be standing there?

This guy! Question 1 – wonder if the gun is loaded??? Question 2 – why on earth would he be standing there? Question 3 – will the rig on this motorcycle get you faster through Moscow in the rush hour? I sense some opportunities there.

Us trying to pose as the space around us gets smaller and smaller and the crowd bigger and bigger

Trying to pose as the space around us gets smaller and smaller and the crowd bigger and bigger

Turn your head 180 degrees and in front of you opens up the imposing building of the Moscow State University. You might have seen this iconic structure elsewhere in Moscow. Nope you are not having a déjà vu. There are seven of them spread around the city bearing the prominent name – Stalin’s Seven Sisters.

Moscow State University housed in one of Stalin's Seven Sisters

Moscow State University housed in one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters

I remember my very first time visiting Moscow back in 2004. This was one of the places where I was brought to by my kind hosts. Back then the structure felt so imposing and important and the student in me felt like it could be a cool place to study. 15 years later stepping onto this exact place felt a bit nostalgic.

Soviet bus

Soviet bus

Seeing this cute bus drive by across the street from the university didn’t help the nostalgic matters much. On the contrary it only accelerated the emotions and took me right back to my school years. Every morning come snow, rain or sun I would do the 30 minute commute on one of these buses void of any modern A/C amenities to my school in Armenia and back. Though sometimes in the summer months the heat levels would go excruciatingly high, there are mostly fond memories associated with it.

This little girl and her carefree ride into the tunnel of light captures the moment and the spirit so beautifully

This little girl and her carefree ride into the tunnel of light captures the moment and the spirit so beautifully

From the university we ended up in Gorki Park, place beaming with life and people enjoying life and taking it easy. The northern section of the park is home to many Soviet statue. That section we visited in the wintertime some months ago and the Soviet heritage in me was quite excited from the nostalgic feel of things. This time the focus was on the southern grounds.

Stumbled upon a beautiful rose garden in the middle of the park

Stumbled upon a beautiful rose garden in the middle of the park

The rose garden was an enchanting sight and apparently a magnet for selfie crazed and wanna-be models.

You can either opt for a professional setup or if you don't want to splurge of personal photo takers then...

You can either opt for a professional setup or if you don’t want to splurge on personal photo takers then…

... you can take the matters into your own hands

… you can quite literally take the matters into your own hands :D

The photoshoots came to an abrupt end as a sudden rain shower decided to befall upon the crowd. It was fun to see families and “models” alike running to seek cover under the tall trees. For families the priorities were ensuring the kids don’t get wet and saving the picnic food. For “models” and their personal photographers the demands were tougher as they had to rescue the hair, the dresses, and at the very last the photo equipment.

Rain showers in the summertime are quite magical

Rain showers in the summertime are quite magical

The heavy rain stopped as suddenly as it started and the sun came shining through the clouds. People appeared quickly out of their covers to continue their strolls, picnics, songs, chats, and dances…

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Impromptu dancing by the dancing fountains

Impromptu dancing by the dancing fountains

After hours of walking and some 20.000 steps, the last stop of the day was of culinary nature. An exciting dinner experience was waiting in one of the world’s best restaurants – Twins Garden. Each of the dishes was quite a special treat. My absolute favourite was the baby sturgeon. This is where I should quickly add – pause NOT. I literally squeaked in terror as the waiter put the dish in front of me with the sturgeon staring right into my face. The fish was quickly beheaded to ease my conscious.

Twins Garden

Twins Garden

Sunset

Magical sunset paired up well with the dining experience.

A few hours and several culinary delights later we ended up where we started the day – in our hood at Nikolskaya Street.

Isn't this just magical

What a magical sight!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 1 on Trans-Siberian Railway: CPH ->DME

There is something comforting about train travels. Soothing rumble of rails moving forward and forward, letting your gaze wonder out the window and onto the world slowly passing by, no rush, no worries. Just you and your day-dreams flying at the pace of the train…

Privet from mother Russia! We have just boarded the train headed from Moskva to Kazan. 800 kms away, 11 hours and 10 minutes after we will arrive in the Republic of Tatarstan. A few months ago the loosely-discussed-not-sealed-on-paper travel dream of Trans-Siberian railway adventure spontaneously became THE adventure of the year.

A few months in – the route was mapped on Google. It took a few attempts and adjustments trying to comprehend the vastness of Russia. The landmass comprising Russia is big, really big, the biggest. However it is only when you try to map out your journey from Point A, in our case, Moscow to Point B Kazan and Point C Ekaterinburg and Point D Irkutsk, the size of it really hits you leaving you in awe.

Buying the tickets is seamlessly easy these days. A quick Google search and you discover the very handy app of RZD, the Russian Railway service. Just a few clicks and a couple of tens of thousands RUB after, voila tickets are purchased. The only slight hiccup on the route is trying to cross the border from Russia to Mongolia. That stretch you apparently cannot buy online as a commoner. So we had to call in the help of a local travel agency to procure the last leg of our journey stretching from Irkutsk to Ulaanbataar.

Before hopping onto the train, Singapore Airlines comes into the picture transporting us from STO-DME. Now that experience deserve a small mention. It was my first time ever flying with this airlines and can I just say that for a brief moment there, I was close to swapping the Trans-Siberian tickets for a 10 hours of flight to Singapore.

Flying with Singapore Airlines is quite an experience

Flying with Singapore Airlines is quite an experience

A few hours later and a quick stopover in Stockholm we hit the tarmac in DME, Moscow. Despite its imposing Soviet appearance, the airport itself was quite efficient, just a short walk through the baggage claim to out into the wonderful afternoon heat of Moscow.

The rest of the day revolved around Red Square – Nikolskaya Street, Red Square, Armenian restaurant, back to Red Square in the sunset, Nikolskaya Street and back to our home in Moscow just off Nikolskaya.

Nikolskaya Street puts a smile on your face every time you walk through. The entire street is decorated in shimmering butterflies leading you right to the heart of Red Square.

Nikolskaya Street puts a smile on your face every time you walk through. The entire street is decorated in shimmering butterflies leading you right to the heart of Red Square.

Nikolskaya Street puts a smile on your face every time you walk through. The entire street is decorated in shimmering butterflies leading you right to the heart of Red Square. There is so much life on that stretch perfect for people watching, some impromptu musical performances and just letting yourself immerse in the buzz of Moscow.

Kremlin area is adorned with beautiful carpets of flowers everywhere

Kremlin area is adorned with beautiful carpets of flowers everywhere

Moscow is so different in the summertime. The last few times I visited the city was in the bitter cold of December. The juxtaposition with summertime is so stark. The city comes so alive in the summer, women strolling gracefully in their best outfits and posing at every corner for their best Instagram looks and likes. It feels like the city is turned into the big open-air stage of Bolshoy Theatre, and everyone is dressed to impress on their way to the Swan Lake performance.

The colours of Kremlin

The colours of Kremlin

Parks and people everywhere

Parks and people everywhere

Stalingrad - the alley of hero cities during WWII

Stalingrad – the alley of hero cities during WWII

First important stop of the day - Armenian deliciousness for early dinner

First important stop of the day – Armenian deliciousness for early dinner

There was one fixed thing on the agenda of the day and that was to head off to one of the several Armenian restaurants in the city and indulge on the deliciousness of my home country. You should have seen the sparkle in my eyes from the sight of lavash (our traditional bread), panir (cheese) and mixed greens. The precious moment of making a brduch – lavash roll, the taste so simple yet so so delicious. The feeling of simple joy from conversing in my native language… Simple joys in life.

After a few hours of feeling like back in my homeland, the feet led us back to Red Square, glowing in the sunset, filled with faces from all corners of the world, strolling casually and documenting their walks with every step they take.

Making a wish before entering the Req Square

Making a wish before entering the Req Square

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Churches around Red Square are so impressive

Churches around Red Square are so impressive

The famous tower of Kremlin glowing in the sunset colours

The famous tower of Kremlin glowing in the sunset colours

St. Basil's Cathedral basking in the sunset glow

St. Basil’s Cathedral basking in the sunset glow

Another pretty cathedral

Another pretty cathedral

Gazing across Moscow River

Gazing across Moscow River

Relaxing in the evening breeze while listening to a beautiful street concert

Relaxing in the evening breeze while listening to a beautiful street concert

Good night Moscow! Sweet dreams

Good night Moscow! Sweet dreams

The train is continuing to roll slowly yet steadily across the vast Russian landscape. It is past midnight here, and I am ready to call it a day. Good night and sweet dreams!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan