10 Tips for the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian Railway

The Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian railways are considered to be two of the world’s longest train journeys. An epic adventure taking a minimum of one week (without getting off the train), either one is a travel experience high on many people’s bucket list. The Trans Mongolian was also the integral part of our 20,000 km overland adventure from London to Beijing and back into India last year. Since we returned home many friends and followers on social media channels have asked us for  hints we could recommend for the journey. So in no particualr order we have some inside tips on life aboard the trains.

1. Carry a Multi Functional Plastic Cup

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These were without a doubt the single greatest purchases of our entire pre trip planning. Slightly bigger than a coffee mug they could be used for just about anything. From Cups of tea to boiling pot noodles or turning into a makeshift tumbler for your vodka we would have been in serious trouble without them. The secure snap on lids ensured you didn’t spill your hot snack or most importantly your vodka on the walk from the carriage urn to your cabin.  They are also light weight which is essential on any long distance backpacking adventure.  We vowed to throw them away when we’d finished with them, but we got so attached they came all the way home and Natalie now uses them for soup at work!

2. Book a Four Berth Second Class Ticket

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

We found the second class cabins really were the best option. You had the best of both worlds. There was a little more security for your belongings than the third class ‘dorm style’ carriages, and you also had plenty of room to yourself. Most importantly we had the chance to interact with a wide variety of different characters throughout the journey. Our cabin was like a revolving door and with each stop we eagerly awaited to see who we would meet next. We shared tea and chocolate, an even watched a slide show presentation about one man’s home village on Lake Baikal (all in Russian of course). We met a few travellers who had booked their own private cabin but felt they really missed out on what the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian is all about. Our tip, if there is two of you try and book and top and bottom bed, it just meant we had a bit more space to spread out, and you didn’t get in the way of those sharing your cabin.

3. Look after your Provodnista

These ladies are the lifeblood of the Russian trains. Each carriage has one or two ladies responsible for everything, from checking people’s tickets, waking them or reminding them their stop is approaching, changing over bed sheets and cleaning (which they do every day to an amazingly high standard). They are also responsible for keeping the coal heating for the carriage running and hot water in the urn for your hot drinks or noodles. They don’t get paid that much and they normally sell snacks from their cabin, anything from crisps, tea, noodles to occasionally chocolate. They work incredibly hard so help them out and buy something from them. You don’t have to do it all the time but a few purchases will see that scowl turn into a welcoming and friendly smile.

4. Eat in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friends Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friend Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Some of our favourite evenings and train experiences came in the Dining Cart. People from all corners of the train converge for a meal or more importantly for a few drinks. We ate, drank and got to know news crews, young soldiers returning home, other travellers, train staff and friendly locals and it really is the heart of the train. Funnily enough most people we met were called Sergei! Language barriers disappear like the miles under the train, suspicious stares are replaced with swapping of Facebook accounts and after a few vodkas you will find a great improvement in your Russian!

5. Keep two sets of time

The trains run on Moscow time to try and save confusion, and every carriage has a timetable somewhere in the corridor where you can see how long each segment will take. However, the entire journey crosses around eight different time zones and can create a feeling of permanent jet lag. Our suggestion is to run two clocks, one on Moscow time (because the Dining cart etc run on it) and set a second time to your arrival destination. This will help a little, but still expect to feel a little dazed and confused.

6. Get off in Ulan Ude and catch the morning train to Ulaanbataar

The largest statue of Lenin's head in the world!

The largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world!

Many people pass straight through Ulan-Ude and for years it was off limits as it was a military manufacturing town. However it makes for a great afternoon or couple of days exploration. The town is also home to the world’s largest statue of Lenin’s head, how could you not miss that! Regarded as one of if not the most picturesque part of the entire train ride is the couple of hours from Ulan-Ude towards Mongolia. The train tracks skirt along the southern borders of the famous Lake Baikal and many people miss witnessing this by training directly from Irkutsk to Mongolia (the train takes this route in the evening if you don’t jump off). For a little extra time you are rewarded with a stunning break to the barren emptiness that is the Siberian countryside.

7. Buy food of the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Just about everytime the train stops there will be elderly ladies selling some sort of food on the platforms. In some of the more isolated communities connected by the train service making ends meet can be difficult. Not only does it give you the chance to stretch your legs, and breath in some fresh air, it also gives you the opportunity to mix and mingle as well as restock your provisions. Not everything may be to your liking (we did struggle a little with the smoked fish and the caviar bread) but you are helping out the locals and you see just how important the train is to the livelihood of many Russians.

8. Have a bottle of vodka with you

Nothing gets the conversation going on the Russian trains like vodka. Offering a drink to your cabin buddies may lead to a long evening of conversation, a rowdy evening of drinking (with disapproving glares from your Provodnitsa) but most importantly it helps pass the time. Just be prepared though, it is bad manners not to finish a bottle of vodka once it is open, you have been warned!

9. Carry Wet Wipes

While the carriages have toilets and running water on board there are no shower facilities. A quick scrub down with a couple of wet wipes can make all the difference to you feeling clean and refreshed as the hours turn into days on the train. They can also be an ice breaker in your cabin by offering one to your ‘room mates’.

10. Don’t fly into / out of Russia.

Regardless of which direction you are taking the train (Moscow-Beijing/Vladivostock or vice versa) you have just completed one of the worlds last great train journeys so why give up and fly from Moscow or St Petersburg? Keep the adventure going and train into or through Europe. Overnight trains out of Moscow (via Belarus so make sure you have your visa) head to Poland and beyond. From St Petersburg trains head into Latvia and Lithuania. We actually caught the train from London across Europe into Russia. Surely that makes for a much better overland adventure story than saying you flew?!

Enjoy the adventure

Enjoy the adventure

Experiencing either of these train journeys is something you will never forget, and armed with these hints and tips, all you need to do now is find a nice long book to fill your time, we suggest perhaps ‘War and Peace’…

– Dean

If you have not seen our ‘starring’ role in the CBC short documentary on the Trans Siberian you can follow the link below.

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Chapter Four: The World’s Highest Train Journey: Chengdu to Lhasa

Bleary eyed we stumbled off our overnight train from Yichang and arrived in the economically booming town of Chengdu. It was to be our base for the next five days as we waited for our Tibetan Travel Permits to be granted.

Chengdu is famous for a number of things, its spicy Sichuan cuisine for one, (which was the subject of our last blog entry), its legendary tea houses and most of all one of the symbols of China, Pandas! This was going to be a fun week.

Our first day was spent exploring the largest Buddhist monastery in the city, the Manjusri monastery. It was an enormous complex, very colourful and was great for photos. We had an interesting conversation with an elderly local gentleman who reeled off numerous statistics about Australia after I told him where I was from. This was followed by being invited in to what looked like an enormous assembly hall. The young girl who invited us then told us the man speaking was from a new wave Buddhist movement. It was like a Chinese version of the TV evangelical preachers you see on American comedy movies, needless to say we didn’t stick around long.

Several of the monasteries are surrounded by reconstructed hutong, or old Chinese alleyways. They were filled with souvenir stalls, street side restaurants, vendors selling various chilli concoctions and tea houses. We loved the Chengdu tea houses, you could walk in, buy a cup of leaf tea for around one British Pound, and then were given a thermos full of hot water. If you managed to finish the thermos, you just went to the counter and grabbed another one, free of charge. What great value!

 

Jasmine tea in Chengdu

Jasmine tea in Chengdu

The following day was time to visit the Pandas. Somehow we managed to make two connecting local buses to reach the Chengdu Panda Research facility, which was a mission in itself. It involved trying to find a bus line that didn’t exist and thanks to several very helpful bus drivers we reached our destination.

I’m not sure if we were shocked or surprised, but I guess we were almost expecting a big nature reserve similar to some of the reserves you see in Africa, with Pandas living as close to a normal life as possible. In reality what we entered was a Panda zoo. Huge enclosures holding anywhere from one to around five Pandas, all with bamboo feeding stations in the primo location for visitors to take photos.

After our initial surprise/shock/disappointment, we loved the Base. The Pandas were like big, goofy teddy bears, stumbling around and play fighting, but our favourite was one guy stuck up a tree. We must have watched him for around 20 minutes as he tried every which way to scale his way down the tree which he had obviously managed to climb. All his efforts were fraught with disaster and followed by mad scrambles back to the safety of the fork in the branches. We left him to it but returned about two hours later and he was still stuck in the tree! We were lucky enough to see him try several more ill-fated attempts before eventually falling to the ground flat on his back. The Research Base does do some amazing work protecting and breeding future generations of Pandas, and is even preparing to release some of them back into the wild. This day was a real highlight for both of us, but we both agreed we love to come back one day and try and trek out to see them in the wild.

 

Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Research Base

Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Research Base

Because of the amount of time we were spending in Chengdu we had decided to break out time up between days exploring the city and a couple of day trips, (the Pandas being one). Today it was time to explore several of the city’s parks. As we mentioned in our Beijing blog we loved the parks there and were hoping Chengdu’s parks would live up to our expectation. We visited another monastery, the newly built hutong surrounding it and experienced our first tea ceremony. Really it was a show to make you buy the shops tea, but we did enjoy a couple of free cups. The best part of the whole experience was the shop assistants puppy dog eyes and look of “if you don’t buy my tea I will get the sack” look. The huge People’s Park was another great place to spend a few hours, and it was here I had one of the more unique experiences of our adventure, I had my ears cleaned by an ear master.

The ear masters walk between tea houses in the parks wearing head torches and carrying numerous instruments that look like they belong in a horror movie. They proceed to pluck, scrub and clean your ears as well as dislodging any nastiness using what sounds like tuning forks. The whole process was a little unnerving and I can’t say it was my favorite experience, but the after the little massage at the end my ears did feel amazing. While Chengdu’s parks had totally different feeling to them, our love affair of how the Chinese people used their public spaces remained strong.
Our final day trip took us out to the town of Leshan, home to the world’s largest statue of Buddha. What was supposed to be a two hour local bus ride turned into the best part of a five hour marathon as the motorways were closed for one stretch due to fog, and then traffic halted due to an ensuing accident. However it was totally worth it when we reached Leshan.

The Giant Buddha is 71 meters tall carved out of the rock face overlooking the confluence of two rivers. The project was conceived by a local monk who believed the statue would calm the ferocious merging of the rivers some 700 years ago. Now days many historians believe the confluence was calmed by the amount of debris cast into the river during the construction rather than any magical powers of the Giant Buddha. All in all this truly was an impressive construction back in the day and a perfect way to finish off our time in Chengdu. It would also set the scene in many ways for what was to come.

 

At the Leshan Giant Buddha

At the Leshan Giant Buddha

The following evening, New Years Eve, we boarded our 44 hour train journey from Chengdu to Lhasa. The train journey itself is one of China’s proudest engineering feats, and believe us they have many, but also was incredibly controversial, something we would learn went hand in hand when visiting Tibet. The 3360km journey heads into some very remote landscape, isolated towns, and 80% of day two was spent in excess of 4000m! While not pressurized, each train cabin, and every room in the cabins had vents pumping in oxygen to help you aclimatise.

The scenery was nothing short of stunning, from rocky gorges to flat desert and then the barren expanse of the Tibetan plateau as we ascended above the tree line. The highlight was definitely topping 5000m as we crossed the highest point of the journey and began to see numerous snowcapped mountains surrounding us.

 

Approaching 5000m on the World's highest train journey

Approaching 5000m on the World’s highest train journey

We also saw some truly remarkable and bizarre things as well. The one that puzzled us the most was during one stretch of perhaps 20 km at regular intervals there would be a Chinese soldier, standing in the middle of nowhere, with nothing around him, saluting the train. There was no rhyme or reason for it, truly bizarre! On another section we saw three men lying prostrating on the road near the train. We would later find out they were pilgrims on their way to Lhasa, praying and prostrating themselves all the way from their home tome to the capital. Some of these journeys can take up to six months, crossing several quite dangerous mountain passes, (like our 5000m one) and being subject to both extremes of both cold and heat, truly remarkable.

So our new year had been ushered in on the train, (celebrated with a bottle of Great Wall Red wine no less), as was the first day and a half of 2014, rather appropriate really considering how far we have travelled by train so far. We finally pulled into to the final destination, one that polarises opinion, stirs various emotions and promised a very special experience, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet….

– Dean

Final destination Beijing?

Well not quite! Bleary eyed we awoke for our final morning on the Trans Mongolian Railway and were greeted with quite possibly the most scenic day of the journey. The final two hours into Beijing were spent traversing stunning mountains and gorges and we even had our first sighting of the Great Wall. However nothing quite prepared us for our arrival into Beijing Railway Station.

It was manic! Having spent the best part of a week in the Mongolian steppe the mad crush of humanity that is Beijing Railway Station was a bit of a shock to the system. Somehow we managed to find an ATM and negotiate our first Beijing Metro ride all with our train cabin roommates in tow as their hostel was near ours and they didn’t know how to get there.

Our hostel was in a fantastic location. Situated on a lovely little ‘Hutong’ or alley way, close to some of the amazing shopping areas and only a stone’s throw away from Tian’anmen Square – it was the perfect spot for exploring around town.

Over the next few days we hit up all the major tourist attractions, first stop was Tian’anmen Square, the world’s largest public square. The first thing we noticed in Beijing was that there were Police and Military everywhere. The square is surrounded by roads but to access the square you have to take an underpass and go through security. The Soldiers doing the checks were only really interested in you if you were local, doing ID checks and scanning everyone’s bags. Amazingly after the Flag lowering ceremony at 16:45 pm the whole square is closed. It was bizarre, as soon as the ceremony finished Police vans came screaming and soldiers started forcibly moving people towards the exits!

The following day we started early with a line up to see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao, (our second wax figure after Lenin in Moscow). It was incredible to not only see how many people were lining up, but also buying flowers to lay as they walked in and it looked like we were the only non-locals doing so. It would be far to say Mao was in far better condition than Lenin. Mao was then followed by a visit to the Forbidden City, the symbol of Beijing. Temple after temple, palace after palace it really felt like a city within a city. The Temple of Heaven (both unique and beautiful), the Summer Palace Gardens and several of the famous market halls all were part of our itinerary over the next few days.

We also headed out to the 2008 Olympic Stadium, the stunning Bird’s Nest. The Olympic complex was great break from temples and palaces. However, there was something quite sad about the stadium. It looked far older than only five years, and as Natalie put it, it was almost as if you picked the stadium up there would be a ‘Made in China’ sticker on the bottom. Made to look good for the games, but not made to last. Regardless of its slightly run down appearance the engineering of the stadium is still breath taking.

Beijing took us by surprise, we were expecting a bit of a run-down city, busy, smoggy and a bit dirty. What we found was quite the opposite. We had fantastic weather, blue skies and little smog. The most surprising thing thought was how clean the city was. You were hard pressed to find a cigarette butt on the ground, amazing considering how much everyone smokes!

The other thing that took us a little by surprise was just how much of a novelty we were. At least once every day we were stopped and asked to have a photo taken with someone. Either at a tourist attraction, in a park or even with a mouth full of food at dinner, it felt like we were more interesting than some of China’s most famous sites.

We discovered, and fell in love with the people’s fondness of their parks. For us, this was the highlight of Beijing. The public parks bustled with life. Groups of people doing tai chi, playing badminton or table tennis, others performing a type of tai chi with racquets and balls, you name it people were doing it in parks. We stumbled upon rows of people playing cards, or knitting to entire choirs being led by highly energetic, microphone equipped singers. For Natalie, the highlight was all the people ballroom dancing in the parks. Bands would play, or radios were turned up and the parks were turned into massive al fresco dance halls. I was more impressed with all the locals armed with cameras. Gaggles of photographers all sporting the top of the range Canon or Nikon camera, tripod slung over the shoulder, were all stalking out the best photo spots around town. The parks were the life blood of Beijing, and probably the thing we missed most about the city.

Of course any visit to Beijing is not complete without a visit to the Great Wall. As Mao once said, “A man is not a man until he has climbed the Great Wall”. So we decided to take a day trip out to a section of the wall called Mutianyu. It was not the most touristy section of the wall but was easily accessible and had come highly recommended, (thanks Jan and Alan). Our visit also highlighted one of the great things about travelling to China in the winter, there was no one there. We got out there relatively early and for the best part of our first two hours it felt like we had the wall to ourselves. We saw perhaps another 10-15 people and that was it. It certainly lived up to the hype, we loved it, winding like a dragon over the hills and into the valleys we just wished we had more time to visit many of the other sections of the Great Wall.

So after nearly a week in Beijing it was time to head off and further explore China. Beijing has set the bar high, and we reached a new level of excitement for our journey. The Trans – Siberian was a fantastic experience, one we would dearly love to do again, but more of China awaits. Stay tuned to see what sites, tastes and experiences it has for us along the way.

– Dean

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Happy Christmas from China!

Happy Christmas wherever you are!

Christmas for us has tended to be far from traditional , but always fun!  This year we are in China and will be celebrating with Sweet and Sour and chop sticks – this is a definite upgrade from the noodles we were eating on the train!

We have given ourselves a small budget to buy a tacky Secret Santa pressie for each other (not so secret as there are just the two of us!) so we will post whenever we can to show what Santa has given us!

Wishing you a happy and healthy Christmas as well as prosperous New Year!

Mr & Mrs Smart xx

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Christmas in Torquay 2012

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