Trip on the Trans-Mongolian Railway 2005

The Big Ticket


It was just a chance comment.  ‘I’ve always wanted to travel on the trans-Siberian railway, but I have no one to do it with’.  ‘So have I, but I haven’t anyone either.  We could use it as my retirement project, if you think you could travel with me’.

After months of planning and lots of discussion we were booked to leave on 27 July 2005.  Things were a bit edgy by the Friday before hand.  Because of bombings and security in London, we were lucky to find a way to receive our passports and visas. We purchased “The Big Ticket from On the Go”, because we didn’t want to worry about accommodation with the advantage of being met at the station, taken to accommodation, and put back on a train.  The company sub-contract other Russian tour companies, and we were excellently looked after by girls who met us, and hosted us for the two days we were in their city.  We were taken to the best sites, with enough free time to do what we wanted to do.

Wednesday 27 July

I have packed and unpacked my case and rucksack endlessly, asking myself if I can do without this or that.  Then the thoughts, hang on, it might be cold – wet – hot.  The plane for Tallinn was on time and we were straight into bed because it was getting on for midnight.  What are we letting ourselves in for?

Thursday 28th July
With no information on a local tour, which we had asked for, we set off on our own.  We wandered around and heard beautiful singing in a crowded church.  Unfortunately, it was the end of the service. We had lunch in The Pepper Sack.  Sitting outside was not the best idea, because the building next door was being renovated (we were to find that there were renovations going on all over Russia, Mongolia and China, and assume this is the result of tourism, as much as anything else).  We had a lovely evening meal in the square in strong sunshine, waiting for our transfer to the coach station for the overnight trip. 

Friday 29th July
The overnight bus journey was tiring and noisy and the sun never quite set, there was always a slight glow.  At immigration there was no one to sign our import declaration to cover our cameras which lots of the travel books advise.  This ensures there are no dodgy deals at the other end with cameras being confiscated.  It turned out we should have worried more about a small bottle of vodka that our valuables!  The arrangements for getting us to the bus station were very efficient as were the arrangements to greet us in St Petersburg and transfer us to the hotel which was way out of town, and we worried about coping with the bus system.  However, the ‘mini bus’ system is brilliant.  These are yellow, numbered, with separate routes.  Ours went from outside the hotel into the town centre and the cost was the same whether you went the whole way, or just a short part of it.  All in all it was a very efficient and cheap way of getting around. 

We met our St Petersburg guide and also Simon and Nicolle, travelling their way home to Australia after working in England.  We were given a very efficient tour of the city stopping at various awe-inspiring buildings.  Most renovated buildings are very over done with decoration.  Lots of bright colour wash, pink, green and pale blue, gilding and ornate white carving.  By 3pm Nigel and I were shattered.  The 4 of us had a late lunch and then split up.  We went to look at Kazan Cathedral with the end of a wedding ceremony, and then walked around the largest (and started in the 1800s was known as the oldest department store in the world).  The traditional Russian style shops have four sides with an arcade around the outside, presumably to keep of the worst of the weather. In the middle would normally be the outdoor market.  Here the inside, on two floors, with elaborate staircases, is made up of multiple little shops, selling everything apart from food.  The traffic was awful so instead of heading straight for the minibus (number 28).  We told our guide that we were happy to do our own thing now that we have worked the transport system out.

Saturday 30 July

We took the mini bus for 15 rubles each to the centre of the town and strolled down to The Hermitage.  In a morning, it is only possible to scratch the surface of this vast palace, and the organised tours definitely take you to a wide range of rooms, whereas we got stuck in one particular area.  After a snack and a beer outside in the courtyard, we wandered along the waters edge looking at the Russian ships in to celebrate St Petersburg.  There were masses of people.  We made our way to Yusupof Palace, which is being renovated and looks more like a family home.  It is very grand, and very ornate.  However, it does give you a feel for how the family of a Russian Count would live.  There is the most wonderful little theatre, full of gilding and mirrors.  The Yusupof’s left Russia at the start of the revolution, thinking they would soon be back, but the state took the building over.  A French descendant of the family is helping the renovation of this palace and visits once a year.  The Palace is also where Rasputin was murdered, (well the first attempt on his life anyway).  We walked along to St Isaacs Cathedral, huge and now a museum so we didn’t go in.  We had a coffee in the courtyard of the Stroganoff Palace (yes that’s where the meal comes from).  We took a canal trip, which was a peaceful way to see the city.  After another walk around the whole of the ground floor of the department store a minibus delivered us back to the hotel.  We had a posh meal in the hotel rather than go out again and were in our beds by about 21.30.

Sunday 31st July
We had left the windows on the jar last night, and were both badly bitten by mozzies, so we smell like a chemists shop.  The windows in Russia must be the original form of double-glazing.  Both inside and outside windows are huge wooden frames with at least a 4-inch gap between them.  We took the fast cat along to Peterhoff Gardens (Summer Palace).  We didn’t go into the palace, but we did go into the coffee shop and have a very posh coffee served by waiters in white gloves above the terrace.  There is so much gilding and opulence; it is difficult to understand the contrast between the rich and poor in Russia.  We had a very efficient evening transfer to the railway station for the train to Moscow, which was on time.  The station was massive and intimidating – they all are. Our tour guide bought coffee and cake because we had a while to wait.  She was very efficient and saw us on to the train before leaving. 

Monday 1 August

6.30am  Moscow Station and we are not impressed that we were not met as expected.  When we left St Petersburg we had strict instructions to wait outside our carriage and our driver would know where we were.  Well we did, and he didn’t!  The platform cleared and no sign of anyone with an ‘On the Go’ sign.  Eventually we walked to the entrance and Simon and Nigel struggled with the phone system to contact the Moscow representative.  We made our own way out to the hotel and settled in.  The upshot of the telephone calls was that we would have a guided tour in the morning, and the representative would meet us at 1600.  This didn’t please us because it meant breaking the time we had in Moscow.  We decided to organise our own tour, with me as the leader!  This was quite easy as we were staying in the same hotel complex I had been in last year.  I knew exactly where the underground was; all we had to do was work out how to buy a ticket!  In the Centre we wandered around Red Square and the Kremlin, and just had time to go into St Basil’s cathedral before it closed.  We finished the day with a wonderful meal in a Bavarian Restaurant.  There are actually Kremlins all over Russia.  It is basically the old walled city for safety and security.


Tuesday 2nd August
Our guide arrived at 9am as arranged and was pleased we had been into the city, because Red Square was closed and she felt it would not be a good use of time.  We asked her to take us out to a famous cemetery.  It was quite a long way out, so she also showed us a monastery, which we couldn’t go in because it was their day off.  The cemeteries tend to be amongst woodland.  This one was large and peaceful, and some of the headstones were wonderful.  There was an incredible life size statue of a ballet dancer, headstones with lovely etched faces, some in outline.  There was a face of a man and behind him two of the planes he had designed.  Our guide took us back into the centre by trolley bus, and we got off at the top of pedestrianised Arbart Street with lovely little shops.  Nigel found a great buy - a tiny Russian doll.  Not much more than one inch tall, it was made up of 10 pieces. Back at the hotel our Moscow representative gave us our train tickets, and purchased everyone a drink.  I can’t say I was struck by him at all, bearing in mind the help and kindness we received from the other representatives before Moscow, and at all of our other stops along the way.  We walked around the outside of the Kremlin and took a back entrance into the GUM store where we had a coffee and ice cream.  We struggled to sort out our bags for the train tomorrow, because we needed to leave them in the hotel, so that we could have the morning in the Kremlin.  We sat outside the hotel for a bit, listening to Russian singing with electronic music and a good singer.  A soldier also did a typical Russian song as well.  He was a good singer.

Wednesday 3 August

I’m writing this on the train.  Our taxi driver arrived at the hotel, and practically dumped the four of us at the station, so we had to sort out the train ourselves.  Red Square was still closed, and the queue for Stallin’s mausoleum was huge.  We walked round the back of the Kremlin and queued for quite a while to get in.  The buildings are impressive.  Last year I had expected them to be like Whitehall, but once through the gate it is more like going into Sandhurst Military Academy.  There are lots of open spaces, and a mixture of old and new buildings.  We are both feeling quite tired, but then we have been walking all day since last Thursday morning.  It has been non-stop sight seeing.  There are more cars than I expected.  We have just passed a small village with a crossing, and there were quite a few cars queuing to cross.  The first stop was Vladimir.  The station was packed with vendors selling the most beautiful glass, food, and huge raspberries.  Whilst we were on the platform a huge long goods train passed through on the other side of our platform. 

Thursday 4 August

We are on the train all day today.  There is so much going on with people up and down the corridor, and plenty of different sights to see.  The food in the buffet car was good, but the staff not exactly over friendly.  We arrived in Yekaterinburg at 2015 and have comfortable accommodation in Galina’s flat.  She is divorced and doing her flat up.  The bathroom was like a bombsite!  All the homes have dreadful, ugly pipe work everywhere. They also have huge metal outside doors (it’s like entering a safe) and then the wooden door is behind that.  The flat doors generally are a couple of feet wider than ours.  She has a bowl of fresh redcurrants that she brings out and also pickled gherkins.  Galina is very much into pickling, and stopped up until 2am.  All the fruit and vegetables come from her mother’s dacha in the country.  Everyone goes to the dacha at weekends to plant and reap the harvest. 

Friday 5 August

Anna our tour girl here and a driver collected Nigel and I, and showed us around the city. We found she had been instructed to give us a refund over the need for a taxi in Moscow.  Our first stop was the church built on the site of the Romanov massacre.  Almost too late to hear the singing, it was very moving.  We then went out to the woods where the Romanov bodies had been thrown.  This is now the site of a monastery and the monks are busy building traditional wooden buildings, without using nails.  On the site where Europe and Asia meet we had a wonderful surprise.  Anna, had come with chocolate and champagne.  We toasted each other and were joined by a wedding party.  Once they realised we were toasting them with our champagne, they all came over to find out who we were and where we had come from.  They shared their chocolates with us.  It is a tradition that wedding photos are taken at famous, or tourist spots.  They make a huge ‘do’ of this.  With decorated cars, and lots of tooting of horns.  The city had an untidy, unkempt feel about it, definitely not the same as St Petersburg and Moscow.  Again Galina cooked an evening meal for us.  She very kindly met us in the town centre by Stallin’s statue.  All the towns have statues of Stallin – mostly very large! 

Saturday 6 August

Today Anna and the same driver, take us to visit a typical Russian village.  The weather was absolutely awful and the roads in town as we left were completely awash with water.  The 2-hour journey was along country roads, and as there are no signposts the driver and our guide had to keep asking peoples the way.  It is interesting that the flowers are the same as we have in Britain and most of the trees are Silver Birch or Pine.  We visited the museum in the village and a traditional group of ladies sang to us, and gave us lunch in the museum.  It was nice that we had both our guide and our driver to join us for the meal.  This consisted of a traditional Russian salad, borsch, meat in pasta and sour cream with pancakes (blini).  We were also given a traditional village drink like plum brandy and then tea with no milk.  The Russians don’t seem to be very hot on milk, large towels, or good plumbing.   After lunch we went to a traditional Russian house, built 300 years ago, built when the village began.  We saw farming implements, and told the lady that England had used the same things as well (admittedly 2 centuries ago).  All in all, it was a very interesting day. 

Sunday 7th August
The train was going to be over 2 hours late.  So Oxana, the Director of the local tour company who had looked after us, purchased chocolates and champagne.  We sat in the waiting room drinking this much to the amusement of the Russians around us.  One old chap was interested in our cameras.  We were showing each other what photos we had.  Nigel took his photo and showed him.  It was a nice moment.  Oxana had to go to work, so she left us in the capable hands of station staff and finding our carriage was not a problem.  We were still sharing with Simon and Nicolle.  Time seems to be rushing by now.  We have a very comfortable cabin - and there is a shower at the end of the corridor –as rare as hen’s teeth on the trains.  Getting up at 2am for the train was not fun, so we pulled down the blind and slept until late morning.  Breakfast was about 1100 in the buffet car, which was not as good as the last train.  The staff took away our tickets and we didn’t get them back.  So I went along to see why. – and came back without them.  That was my stress point, so I threw my head into the pillow and had a quiet cry.  This must be in a new train, it is smart, and there is air conditioning that actually works.  The carriage we are in has a room for staff with a TV, a shower room so there are fewer passengers than usual.  Also we are next to the restaurant car!  I just love the buffet cars.  It is hit and miss what one eats.  It is a case of pointing to something or delving into the kitchen cab first.  Vodka and beer are widely understood.  No problem!!

Monday 8th August
We are still on the train.  In a quiet moment I have sorted out my stash of money to rationalise where I’ve put it.  It makes Nigel laugh.  He keeps his all in one place; I work on the assumption that if someone takes one lot, I’ve still got some hidden in my sock, my rucksack, my glasses case etc.  The scenery is more varied now, with hills and open spaces.  Regardless of the time across Russia the trains run on Moscow time, so at 14.45 we pull into a large station with lots of people selling things. We think from the map it was Krasnoyarsk, in which case the driver has made up the time he lost getting in from Moscow to Yekaterinburg.  There has been housing alongside the track for almost all of the way for the last 7 – 8 hours.  I had expected to see much less this far from Yekaterinburg, The housing is mostly dark brown wooden single stories.  Sometimes there is a flash of blue where shutters have been painted.  Sometimes the buildings look quite modern and have an upper floor, which remind us of the Swiss Alps.

Tuesday 9th August
We were collected from Irkutsk Railway station at 0930 and taken to Lake Baikal.  It is huge, with mountainous edges.  Driving along a fast road, we could have been in England.  It does not seem we have been booked on the over night trek.  The weather is not good, so perhaps that’s not a bad thing.  The village is on the lakeside.  We have a reasonable room, but perhaps a little grubby.  We were given a tour of the Institute next to our accommodation.  This had everything to do with the Lake and is a study centre.  We are not spending a great deal and wonder if we have changed too many dollars into rubbles.  There was a souvenir market on the quay, but it was pouring with rain and we were uncomfortably wet so we didn’t linger.  We looked at the lovely church tucked into the valley and at 200 years old, we were surprised it wasn’t damaged during the revolution, although it had been closed.  Our host had arranged for us to have a sauna, and all four of us were collected and taken to this for 1 hour.  We are housed in a flat, which is part of a few blocks of flats built for scientists studying the lake during the communist era.  It is functional, and typically Russian looking very run down and seedy.  There is a funny little shop in the next block where we found some chocolate and beer. The landlord provided us with supper in the flat.  He is strange and wears nothing on his feet.  He cooks and then goes off, obviously living somewhere else.  We later learned that he is professional at organising out door activities, such as biking and hiking. 
Wednesday 10th August
The weather is not great, and before off yesterday our guide had said we could make up our mind this morning if we wanted to do the boat trip and walk.  After some discussion at 0815, in rather inclement conditions, we decided to take a chance and what a wonderful day it turned out to be.  The ferry didn’t go very far, but there is only one a day, and as well as foot passengers, it has to fit in the dustcart, and other small trucks wanting to go across.  After much juggling and sailing with the door half down, we tracked across to where the trans-Siberian railway used to come into Listvyanka.  We walked around the run down old village, but the station is being done up big style!  Then we walked for 2 hours along the old railway track.  In the distance we saw what we thought was a train, but all agreed it wasn’t the day for it to run.  The views were absolutely beautiful and one or two people were camping down below on the lakeside.  On the way back we were treated to a barbeque lunch with a wonderful Russian chef.  He had tables with umbrellas to keep the sun off.  We had a starter, fantastic kebabs with salad, beer, vodka and a pudding.  The meal included ‘fern’.  This is picked early in the season from the woods just as the fronds are unfurling, and pickled.  It was very nice.  Whilst sitting there, we I thought we were seeing things in the bay.  It looked like dolphins, and neither of us wanted to say anything, because we had been told that the fresh water seals don’t come where there is noise and people.  The guide and chef were as excited as us to find that it really was the seals, diving about just in front of us.  On top of that we had been right about the train.  A small work train came along and we all waved at the driver.  On the way back we were dropped off at the souvenir market, which meant a very long walk back along the road to our flat.  I was hot, tired and a little fractious – walking along the road with ghastly fumes isn’t fun.  Then we found a lovely little gift shop.  We had another Russian banya and all agreed the day had been absolutely wonderful.

Thursday 11th August
Off to Irkutz for another overnight stop.  We are handed from driver, to host, to tour guide.  It is all very efficiently done, but could be worrying.  It is good to be a group of four, which gives us a bit of a ‘security blanket’.  All four of us were in a ground floor flat belonging to an elderly lady whose husband had been a professor and taught in Paris.  It was by far the best flat we stayed in, with wonderful furniture and objects.  The lady was teaching Russian to the Sisters in the Roman Catholic Church.  We had arrived late morning, and should have been taken to a restaurant for lunch, but our host obviously hadn’t understood the instructions, so the four of us headed into town, and just as we were coming out of a little store, bumped into Sandra who was looking for us.  That was lucky!  She told us about the city, and we had lunch in a Bavarian restaurant with her.  Our hostess gave us a wonderful evening meal of chicken, salad and spaghetti. 

Friday 12th August
We had a day around Irkutsk.  It is not the most beautiful of cities, and is very muddy and has an unloved air about it.  We visited the museum, which had been the house of a Count sent into exile as a Decembrist.  What a shock the life style must have been for well-heeled men.  However, their wives followed them and they were allowed privileges from home, which helped.  We met Simon and Nicolle for lunch in a traditional Siberian restaurant, which seemed rather Chinese to us.  There is a lovely refurbished church just along from our home stay, so we took some pictures and are now waiting to go to the station for yet another train.  This time to Ulan Ude.  The city here is very noisy, with music blaring from the shops.  They don’t seem to trust people either.  We wanted some water, but would have had to put our rucksack into a locker, so we didn’t bother.  The traditional shops are all small and clustered together in large stores.  The food market is similar, (meat, vegetables, cheese and drink in separate areas of the same huge block).  It would be good to portray the sound as well as the sights when we take photos.

Saturday 13 August
The overnight train to Ulan Ude was a real boneshaker.  It was cold and drafty as well, and we stopped at every station with bright lights and loudspeaker announcements.  Consequently none of us slept at all well.  On top of that we were woken at 6am ready to get off the train.  Sonia met us and took Nigel and I to Irena’s flat.  Simon and Nicolle were nearer the centre.  My room has a piano, Nigel got the balcony.  After settling in Sonia collected us and we visited a Tibetan Monastery way out of town.
It is gradually being renovated and the main temple will be richly decorated.  There was a service going on, but we were able to sit on the side and observe what was happening.  We then went out to a museum of old buildings, similar to Singleton.  We saw the shaman area with a type of tepee.  We looked at a typical peasant’s house, the house of a Cossack, and one of a rich merchant.  We also saw the type of settlement ‘The Old Religion’ lived in (similar to the Amish in America).  Simon and Nicolle joined us in the evening for a typical Burriat meal with our hostess.  The meal was chicken, vegetables, salad, cakes and jam.  The vegetables were finely shredded white cabbage, carrots and potatoes sautéed in oil – very nice.  I liked the town.  It is much cleaner and all together nicer than Irkutsk, which none of us really took to. 

Sunday 14 August
We are off to Ulaan Baator at lunch time. Being a Sunday there was not much going on.  However, Irena had made a small lunch of salted cucumber – a traditional dish, lovely tomatoes, jam and cream from her grandmother’s cows.  We drank our health in vodka which was a nice gesture.  The train is OK – just.  The countryside is sparse, with great open plains with hills in the distance on both sides.  We are climbing slowly by going around huge bends.  We pass many rubbish strewn derelict factory buildings, and what could have been an atomic power station.  When we got to Goose Lake, it was a bit like the Lake District Scenery, and then the great plains of America.  We stopped at a station where local traders were bartering goods for clothes from local Russian and Mongolians on the train.  The scenery is depressing.  Sad little dusty villages.  As we get towards the border, the train corridors become a hive of industry.  Mongolians are rushing up and down with boxes of cigarettes, clothing, coffee etc, to find hiding places to avoid the border guards.  They open doors of empty carriages and peer inside.  It’s all quite amusing, but they are serious.  They lift the carpet from our corridor and under the trap door take away 6-8 huge rolls of electrical cable.  We wonder what they are doing and assume it must be some sort of tax evasion, but they make no effort to hide it.  We are all told to get off the train for the Russian border guards to check for illegal goods.  Customs and passport control here takes over 2 hours, and we still have to go through the Mongolian checks, which everyone hopes will be fairly swift so that we can get some sleep.  Neither the Russian nor Mongolians seem particularly interested in the tourist carriages, so we assume they are getting more used to tourists on the train these days.  We are given forms that aren’t in English so a guard shows Nicolle what to put down.  Then everyone in our carriage comes along and asks for her so that she can tell them what to put!

Monday 15 August
We are met efficiently again are split up from Nicolle and Simon, which feels a bit like taking away our comfort blanket.  Enekee met us and took us to a 24-hour bank to change some money and then to a coffee stop.  Great - Nicolle and Simon are there with 10 other people we have seen at various stages of the journey. We realise 14 of us booked through the same company but all doing different bits of a journey.  This is definitely not a package tour.  Breakfast is exciting.  We get a roll, honey and coffee.  Not much considering we won’t get lunch until 1pm when we arrive at the Ger Camp.  On the way we stop at a cairn with 3 shops (well it says Art Shop – and they are in traditional Gers).  You feel you have to buy something, so after bargaining I get a couple of small paintings.  Then we move on to the next Ger.  Suddenly for us, great excitement.  Nigel has noticed a SCOUT.  He gives a sign, and the lad rushes off to get some adults.  It turns out they are from South Korea.  We have nothing to give them, but get little badges and gifts.  The lad from the Ger asks if we have any badges, because he is also a Scout.  All I can find is a Royal Naval Badge.  I tell him it is very special, and he is delighted.    

THE GER CAMP        
For me a special stop on the trip.  The scenery is delightful.  We are half way up a small mountain.  The air is fresh, the sky is bright blue, and the hillside is carpeted with blue flowers.  I later discover that most of them grow in England, and spend ages on my knees photographing them with my newly discovered close up zoom on the camera.  All told there are about 16 Gers on the site, plus a large restaurant and separate shower, toilet, washroom facilities.  Our Ger has 3 beds, a wardrobe and in the middle of the room is a small iron stove with a basket of wood.  The maid lights this to warm the air.  We have room to spread of bags out so the place looks like a bomb has hit it.  It only takes a few minutes for the air to warm up.  The overall look is blue and orange.  I walk up the slope behind us and huge crickets buzz off angrily when disturbed.  They fly quite a distance.  The plant life is abundant, and apart from the flowers there are herbs such as camomile and mint which you smell as you walk.  There is also wild rhubarb and if you are lucky you catch site of a ground squirrel.  It is incredibly peaceful after the noise of the cities.

I was in bed by about 1000 and left Nigel down in the restaurant.  The maid came in to light the fire but I was almost asleep and quite warm, so told her not to bother.  She misunderstood which was lucky because Nigel had taken quite a nasty fall, and was lucky not to break a leg.  He was very cold and shaken up, so the fire warmed things up nicely and made it a bit more comfortable for him.  His knee was really badly twisted and caused pain through the rest of the holiday.

Tuesday 16th
It was incredibly cold last night and there was a stiff frost on the grass.  The maid came in to make up the stove at about 5am.  Breakfast was at 9am so we for almost the first time in the holiday we didn’t have to get up early.  Walking is not an option so we decide on a horse ride.  This was a bit daring for me, as I’ve never sat on one, and we had to go DOWN the mountainside on it.  There were 5 of us.  We were led by a man and 2 of his sons who walked our horses.  My boy was the oldest and cheeky.  I told him to go slow.  Every so often he would turn round and look at me, and I would tease him to go slowly and he would giggle when I said ‘Don’t you dare’.  Once I got used to it the going was good.  We went down the hillside and along the valley bottom.  At the bottom 2 very small boys joined us.  They were obviously learning the ropes and with their dad and the older boy took us back up the mountain.  We saw a ground squirrel darting around, and also a family cutting up a sheep by a mountain stream.  The hour cost 5 dollars, and was good, fun, company and scenery. 

Wednesday 17th
Last night the maid lit the fire just as I walked up the hill.  The bed warmed up very quickly and I slept until about 5.30am and must have been disturbed by the maids dragging wood boxes along.  I woke and thought I was on the train.  You can’t use the toilets whilst the train is approaching and leaving stations.  I lay in bed thinking, ‘Damn - the train has stopped, I’ll have to wait half an hour now’.  Then I realised that I was in camp.  I waited for the maid to light the fire, and then ducked down behind the Ger!

It’s a very peaceful morning.  I’ve sat on our step having a coffee before we go for breakfast.  Everything is tranquil.  One bird and way up in the sky a plane, but I couldn’t hear it.  This time of the morning is just like guide camp, only with Gers instead of tents.

The city is a shock, and we agree we would have liked longer at the camp. Dusty, noisy, polluting, what a difference.  We took a very, very slow walk to the square and bought a lovely set of stamps that tell the story of a Mongolian day. They will look nice in a frame.  Actually we have 2 sets each.  I had seen them when I went with our guide to the post office leaving Nigel in the car.  When I told Nigel he said I was stupid not to buy a set, so I asked her on the quiet to get me a set for him, (playing on the sympathy vote).

Thursday 18 August
Kindly Enekee collected us earlier than necessary this morning, and took us to the Tibetan monastery. We did see a Mongolian man in typical dress turning the prayer wheels, but I always feel uncomfortable taking photos at these times, so it is not a very good shot.  We are all split up now, with just the six other On the Go people getting on the train for China.  The scenery becomes less green and more arid as we travel south, because we are crossing part of the Gobi desert.  We stop at a pretty little station, as well as one or two really dusty little places.  At the Chinese checkpoint we couldn’t get out of the train as the guidebooks all say.  Instead, we were able to stay on and watch the mechanical system for lifting the train from one set of wheels onto the Chinese ones.  Both border crossings in all took from 8.30pm to 1am.  Then I was totally out for the count until 6.45.

Friday 19th August
China is not what I expected at all.  There are huge expanses of strange washed away land with lots of farming.  There are lots of sunflowers!  The pollution when we come to towns or factories is absolutely awful.  There was great excitement when we saw the Great Wall.    The shopkeepers are a bother and won’t leave you alone.  To save time, we spent money in the hotel by booking a day trip to The Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, and a Sunday trip to The Wall and Ming Tombs.

Saturday 20th August
We were up at 6am to get ready for the trip.  There is a brilliant water container in the room that gives instant cold and boiling, so we used the last dried milk and tea bags.  The Forbidden City is unbelievably huge and built to show the perspective of rooms getting smaller.  We visited a silk factory and I purchased a silk quilt.  The Summer Palace built around a massive lake, was tranquil despite the number of tourists (mostly Chinese).  Our group of 6 Europeans stood out like sore thumbs.  We took a boat across the lake to a Chinese restaurant for lunch.  Then we went to a pearl factory.  We went on to the Temple of Heaven with very peaceful gardens.  Along one gallery there were groups of singers with music, which I couldn’t read.  They were singing and being joined by the crowds around them.  One group sounded as if they were singing hymns but the guide said it was folk songs.  We finished the day at a teahouse, where the girl showed us a traditional ceremony and we tasted 5 different types of tea.

Sunday 21 August
Up early again.  Catherine, a Chinese girl and her work colleague Patrick were again in the group with a Japanese man and a lad from Kent.  We went to a Jade factory then the Great Wall.  The mountains were very hazy, but there were views all over the place where the wall climbs up and down.  After lunch we visited the Ming tombs and then a traditional Chinese herb hospital.  We took a taxi to the bookshop, which was huge.  I wanted to buy ‘From Emperor to Rose gardener’ written by the last Emperor of China, but couldn’t find it even on the computer.  A lucky glance found it. - The Chinese have changed the name: it is now ‘From Emperor to Citizen’.  We strolled down to Tiananmen Square, which at night is wonderful.  It is a shame some of the buildings look like Disneyland, but the kite flying is traditional, and we were lucky to see it before the square was cleared at 8pm.  We hired a pedicab back to the hotel for our last night.

The Oxford Street of Beijing is how I will remember the street where I purchased my book.  The floor we went to had all of the traditional English Classics that I read as a child.  It was absolutely amazing. 

Monday 22nd
I’ve just had an hilarious start to the day.  I was just coming too when Nigel called across the room ‘Gillian listen’.  It sounded just like tropical rain absolutely throwing it down.  However, investigation proved to be our air conditioning coming on. 

We have packed and unpacked for the last time.  It’s been such fun.  Nigel takes everything out and spreads it everywhere.  Puts it all away, and repeats the exercise.  I open my bag wide and move things from one place to another.  I’ve learned to take old clothes and jettison them on this sort of trip, but my bag doesn’t seem any lighter.  We left some in Irkutsk for the church to hand out to the needy.

Nigel has just got really angry with local bureaucracy.  In Mongolia he purchased a small bottle of Mongolian vodka and they have just confiscated it.  Apparently it hasn’t been checked!  Many other people are also in the same boat and there are crates of confiscated bottles.  They say ‘It is not allowed on board’.  We say, ‘But it’s sealed, we are taking it home, it’s from Mongolia’.  Rules being rules, everyone gives in and it’s likely this will end up on the streets in China.  Another example of rules was going to The Great Wall.  Our bus driver couldn’t take us right up to the entrance.  Apparently there were too many buses there already.  He wasn’t even allowed to take us up and drop us off.  So we had a good uphill walk before getting to the entrance.  They close Tiananmen Square every evening at 8pm because some time, some fool set fire to himself.

On the practical side, we didn’t spend anything like the amount we thought we would need.  After day 2 it seemed sensible to set up a ‘bank’ between us.  So we both stumped up enough to keep us going. It was a system that worked very well.  Being numerically challenged, and trying to convert sterling, dollars, roubles, togrogs and yuan was a nightmare for me, so in Mongolia, Nigel said he would look after my togrogs.  I still think the banker of the day purloined my 10,000 note to pay for his beer!  Mind you a 10,000 togrog note worked out at about £5.  We had fun over the money all the way what with me stashing mine all over the place, and the amount needed to buy things with always seemed so small.

We had a wonderful time, and met some really interesting and lovely people.  We found the Russians a bit wary, the Mongolians friendly, and the Chinese want to talk to you and are so helpful.  In all three countries when we had said thank you, they all replied ‘You are welcome’.  Apart from Nigel’s accident, neither of us had any ill effects at all, despite eating everything that came our way, including pickled pork fat in a restaurant in Ulaan Baatar.  I’m not terribly keen on huge crowds, but never felt threatened at all.  It was really a case of watching where you put your feet, because Health and Safety don’t seem to be high on the agenda.

My highlights were the champagne and chocolate at the Europe/Asia border, and the walk along Lake Baikal.  Ulaan Baatar has always been a name I knew and wanted to visit because Mongolia seemed so remote.  I expected it to be small, wild and windswept.  It was a huge modern concrete metropolis with thousands of cars, and everyone carried a mobile.

I wonder what Russia is like in the Winter?