Chapter Two: Irkutsk – Beijing (Including Magnificent Mongolia where it snows glitter from the sky)

* Please excuse any funky formatting and lack of pictures. It appears that WordPress is also on the ‘hit list’ of banned sites in China. However the app (with very limited functionality) appears to be working on my phone, but only with basic text. We are still managing to put pictures up via Instagram which should be linked to our Facebook / Twitter page – we will not be stopped!! Enjoy the next installment and sorry if it looks funky we can’t check it! N&D

After our amazing journey from Moscow (which Dean wrote about in his previous blog), we jumped off the train in Irkutsk and immediately reached for another layer! We had a few nights here to see the sights as well as get out to Lake Baikal. The city was apparently experiencing some unseasonably ‘warm’ weather which meant the ice and snow melted by day, and froze at night! Not falling over was the name of the game – one that I seemed to do better at than Dean! The main square was gearing up for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics next year, and had winter sports themed ice sculptures everywhere which I was very taken by!! The architecture in the city was great and we stumbled across these tourist walking route boards and read everyone with great enthusiasm!

We headed out to Lake Baikal and it was beautiful. We were there in a bit of an in-between season – summer activities had finished and winter ones were yet to start, so we just spent time walking around in the beautiful snow taking in the stunning views. It really was a tranquil, attractive place.

From there we jumped on the train again and tracked the edge of the Lake to Ulan Ude. Most people on the Trans-Siberian train do this leg of the journey at night, but Dean had read how pretty it was, and so had sought out a local train so we could do it during daylight hours. The water from the Lake was almost lapping at the train lines, so it was a beautiful few hours.

I think one of the highlights of the train journey came for Dean in Ulan Ude. Here there is a giant 7m high ‘bust’ (head) of Lenin. We were prepared to be either over or underwhelmed, but thankfully he was very impressive and we were so glad we had stopped. Russians think it is testament to the greatness of the man that the pigeons don’t poo on him…. the cynics say it is all down to the bird spikes sunk into the top of his head out of view that keep them at bay 😉 Throughout Russia and Mongolia we saw many many ‘Christmas’ trees – however for the local people these are put up to celebrate New Year and not our festive season. I appreciated them though for Christmas as well! As well as trees and lights, in Ulan Ude we were again treated to some ice carvings – quite the thing here. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was here that we felt the coldest but it was well worth it.

What came next was magnificent Mongolia – not only a trip highlight but also a huge country highlight for both of us which is really saying something! Such a special special place it is hard to put into words our time here. Due to visa restrictions and there only being one train a week between Ulaanbaator (UB) and Beijing, we were limited to one week here, and what a week it was. At over six times the size of the UK but with a population of approximately three million (and over half of them live in UB) it certainly lived up to its reputation for being remote in parts.

We had a couple of days in UB where we explored from one side of the city to the other – literally when it turned out there were two bus number 7’s!!! We met a lovely couple of local guys who pointed us in the right direction. The following morning we headed out to the Gandan Khild Monastery and had our first experience of the monks chanting – so relaxing. Keen to see as much as possible we then arranged to have a driver and guide from the Hostel for a few days to take us out to the countryside. We piled into our old Russian Combi van and spluttered our way out to the Hustai National Park, where we went out to spot some of the Przewalski wild horses. Originally native to Mongolia, they became extinct several years ago, but 15 creatures were reintroduced from ones held previously in zoos around the world, and it has been very successful as there are now over 300 in the wild. We trekked up hill to see them and they were stunning. It was here that I turned round to face the sun, and with the backdrop of a clear blue sky, the sun was catching the snow particles that were being blown into the air and it really did look like it was raining glitter – beautiful.

We drove on and veering off the road onto a barely marked track on the edge of the Semi Gobi sand dunes the adventure really began. We kept driving and driving in land, before eventually a couple of Gers came into view. These belonged to Bor and Yandag – a nomadic couple, who lived off the land and moved twice a year from their winter site to their summer and vice versa. This would be our base for a couple of days and we both agreed it was the most authentic family homestay we had experienced – it was just awesome. We were welcomed into the Ger and given hot milky tea (the thing to drink in Mongolia). Soon after we went out horse trekking to see the sunset and it was the most at ease I have felt on a horse for a long time. Mongolian horses have smaller legs – so maybe it was just that I didn’t have as far to fall that gave me some sort of comfort!!! Dean on the other hand was not so keen, as he puts it “horses are dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle,” a quote he stole from a movie! That night Dean took some amazing night photos and we had flash backs to our nights ‘bush Camping’ on our Oasis Overland – only this time it was a bit nippy at night!! We wiled away the hours in the evening playing ‘Ankles’ with Yandag who seemed to have a genuine desire to not let her guests win any game! She had such a beautiful smile despite living such a simple yet hard life. Ankles was a game I quickly grew to love… however it has to be seen to be understood and my new found ‘set’ will soon be winging their way home to join the rest of the traveller tat!! ‘Ankles’ are various games of chance played with sheep ankle bones. Each side of the bone represents a different animal and the general idea is to throw certain matching combinations.

The following day we headed out to Kharkhorin City to visit a Monastery. After a day’s touring, we arrived back at camp and this time headed off on the back of Camels Lawrence of errrr Arabia style! They were huge woolly two-humped beasts and they quickly became Dean’s favourites! Unfortunately by this stage my stomach had taken a turn for the worst, so I was treated to several late night treks to the ‘facilities’. These ‘facilities’ were located 30 meters away from the Ger, and we were reminded of the golden rule of loos abroad – don’t look down!! Seeing Orion’s Belt shining so brightly in the night sky will always remind me of this special place. Staying with this family far far exceeded our expectations. There were no big tour groups there… just us. And them. Communicating in the only way we could. Words can’t describe it – we were very privileged to have been there.

We headed on back towards and past UB and went out to more of a tourist guesthouse Ger stay in Terelj National Park. The landscape changed completely and we were greeted with the rugged sights of the harsh mountain landscapes. There were a couple of puppies and I utterly fell in love with one of them – he kept shivering in the cold and so I was helping out by picking him up (although we later learnt that Pedro was indeed a Pedra!!). He would have come with us if he could…. We headed out to visit another monastery here (no we are not bored of them yet!) and then the jewel in the Crown came for Dean – a visit to the massive Chingiss Khaan Statue. Completed three years ago at a cost of 4.1millions Dollars, this 41m high stainless steel statue is immense and matches the feeling towards the great man. Most excitingly for Dean, for a small price you could go up his tail(!) and pop out on the top of his head! From there you could see the never-ending Mongolian skyline that we had become so accustomed to and loved so much. 360 degree of pure sky – we were on top of the World.

And so it was time to head back to UB after not only one of the best weeks of our trip so far, but one of my all-time best travel weeks. For us, the World is too big to keep going back to the same place and there are few places that we visit that we vow to come back to, but Mongolia is one of them. There is so much to see and do and the people are so beautiful that it is hard not to be touched by the place. We didn’t freeze, instead we found it to be quite mild… maybe we have just become accustomed to – double figures. What’s -10 degrees between friends?

I remember very vividly Anastasia, the receptionist at our St Petersburg hotel looking out of the window at the grey weather and saying very passionately and forcefully (over and over and over), “why would you want to take the train now, I mean why – look at it its grey it murky its dirty? Why would you do it now, why?” Dean could see me cringing thinking “it’s time to be quiet now…” but we have our answer. For me and for us (yes we are getting on super well despite the jokes from some people before we went that we might not!!!) this could not have been a more perfect time to come. Yes the odd thing has been closed, and yes the hours of daylight are shorter and it been cold, however we have been treated to some of the most breathtaking scenery, much of which has been covered in beautiful white winter wonderland snow. Who could ask for more? A perfect scene has greeted us and we have loved every second. Winter in Siberia and Mongolia is amazing. As one of Dean’s good friends said, if you come prepared you will love it and we did.

So our last journey on the Trans Mongolian route took 30 hours and took us between UB and Beijing. It was sad in many ways to be completing this journey and both of us are still slightly in disbelief about how far we have come! Rather than two Chinese or Mongolian cabin buddies, we were faced with one very nice Chilean guy and an Italian who showed little interest in anything other than sleeping and looking at my chest – oblivious to the fact that Dean was here and I was scowling at him in disgust!! Fortunately the views out of the window as we crossed the Gobi Desert more than made up for our lack of ‘local’ companions and with mixed emotions we pulled into Beijing raring to go with the next stage of our adventure.

– Natalie

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