Saturday, December 30, 2017

Transmongolian Rails Part IV Irkutsk and Across Siberia

Crossing the border from Mongolia to Russia had been a perfectly fine experience, but required a lot of patience. We were stuck in a town so small it was more or less the middle of nowhere, only one train car of people and most of them did not speak English. We made the best of it, and then went on our way. When we got to Irkutsk the next day it was miserably rainy. We had a tough time locating our hostel, and our planned excursion was seriously underwhelming because of the weather. It was it was time to turn the page on this part of the trip. On our second day, we didn't have anything planned so we did what we like to do most in a new place; we wandered around on foot. The day before, I had seen a statue near the center of town and I really wanted a closer look...

This statue represents the town symbol. It is apparently the Irkutsk babr, with the head of the Siberian tiger, and the paws and the tail of a beaver. It holds a sable in its mouth. I loved this thing.

Behind it is a nice little tourist square. There weren't a lot of people milling around at the time which was kind of nice. 

We did have some tasty donuts from the shop below. People were pretty friendly and they were easy to communicate with if they didn't speak English. 

The town of Irkutsk was very pleasant. I can imagine it's lovely when the weather is a bit better, and apparently, they normally have much sunnier conditions. It was still a quaint place to stroll around and snap photos. There is some nice architecture and while the riverfront is not gorgeous, it was nicer here than I was expecting. As we had been rolling through some cities leading to Irkutsk, like Ulan-Ude, I was pleasantly surprised.

Their colorful streetcar system can be seen above, and below, an example of one of the cool Soviet signs you might see around town - though I have absolutely no clue what it says.

We kept walking around town, and the weather was deteriorating but there were still some things to see. For one thing, there is no shortage of cool looking churches in this area of the world.

The town is pretty tourist friendly in many areas, but as you can see from the photo below, not everything is postcard-worthy.

It was time to head back to the station. We arrived early and had no problem figuring out where we needed to be; it was not a large building and there were only a few tracks outside. Before too long, the train pulled in and we loaded into it. We had spent an extra day in Irkutsk so we could get a better class of train, and I was so thrilled we made that decision. The trip entered a new phase of relaxation at this point. Things had fallen into place and we got where we needed to be. All I had to do was sit back, and in a few days, we would be in Moscow.

Our room. It was really comfortable. We immediately began to settle in.
The world rolled by.

We had one free meal on this leg of the trip, I figured why not indulge immediately. You can see the spread below. Potatoes and sauce, salad, bread, and drinks. It was good. A bit salty though. In the end, I did not have another meal from the dining car.

While there were some open landscapes like what is shown above, there were also a lot of birch tree forests like what is seen below. The windows could have been cleaner too. My husband ended up wiping ours down at one of the stops.

Some of the little towns in Russia have lovely little houses, and they have a similar style.

We still had a ways to go, but it was nice to kick back. I caught up on reading, watched the scenery, and saw a few movies on my laptop. I had a great time.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Transmongolian Rails Part III Mongolia and Onto Russia

Terelj National Park is a gorgeous place. I was really surprised by how easy it was to access everything. The road is one lane (in each direction) and there are no streetlights, but it is nicely paved. There are settlements dotted around and lots of places to pull off the road and snap photos.

It was a nice day driving around. After exploring the park for a few hours, we drove on to the Genghis Khan Statue Complex.

You can see the equestrian statue of Genghis Khan from quite a distance. It is obviously very impressive. There weren't too many people there that day, and the visit was well worth it.

You can go inside the monument and see the worlds biggest Mongolian boot. You can also get a closer look at Genghis himself upstairs. Downstairs there is a nice timeline of various Khans throughout Mongolian history. 

The view was incredible.

Back to Ulaanbaatar. There was just a ton of traffic and it was boring and not fun at all. We kept the vehicle overnight, being totally unsure of how much time our trip to the park would take, and at one point expecting to overnight in a ger (yurt), which did not work out because of miscommunications. We ended up heading back to our hotel instead, which was fine.

Ulaanbaatar is a modern, but slightly ugly city. Above, a Buddhist temple and below, some kids hang out with their bikes.

There were some missed opportunities during my time in Mongolia, and all in all the stay wasn't remarkable one way or another. One massive failure is that I have a gap in my photos due to a destroyed memory card. That means that there's not much to illustrate our evening trip to the train station or our departure from Ulaanbaatar, and plenty that happened afterward. 

After a night on the train, we got to the end of the Mongolian line and then, spent hours upon hours traversing the border between Mongolia and Russia.

We stayed a small village there, first getting passports inspected, then waiting for hours for a train engine to come pick up our car, which held only a handful of passengers. After a bit of time on the train, we got to Irkutsk the next morning and walked to our hostel, a place I didn't care for. We had an excursion scheduled for the next day, the pictures pick up in the middle of touring a small village on the outskirts of Irkutsk. The day was grey and the visibility was terrible. We had a nice tour guide though, and while we did not go our on Lake Baikal, we did see a bit of it.

With our guide, we headed to a lake view point and it was a decent hike in the snow, but once we got up there it ws only fog. I fell on the way back. Sometimes vacations are amazing and sometimes, things don't quite go your way. Tihs felt like one of those days.

After our hike we went to a little market for tourists. There was a lot of fish being sold there; from what I'm told there has since been a limit placed on how many of those fish can be caught, which does not surprise me based on what I saw. 

Behind the market was a small church. Before long, it was time to call it a day. We headed back to our hotel for a rest, and I went to look for food.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

TransMongolian Rails Part II - Ulaanbaatar and Terelj National Park, Mognolia

When visiting an exotic destination, for me the place is a blank slate in the imagination. At this point, I've had the privilege to visit a number of places that few others I know have also visited; I've been privileged enough to go to a place that has no personal description, no recommendation. I've also been able to go to some more exotic locales that attract a lot of tourists and have built up a reputation. Some places are routinely described as life-changing or once-in-a-lifetime. These kinds of expectations can be detrimental to a trip; I've felt they build too much up; a place can feel like a letdown if it doesn't live up to what I was expecting, even when I've had a good time. Mongolia turned out to be a place that defied any preconceived notions I had. The Gobi desert is an incredible sight, to be sure, and I have zero regrets about our visit, which was fun; but I don't know if I'll be scheduling another trip to Mongolia soon.

Crossing the desert, we passed some yurts and it was obvious that we had arrived. This was Mongolia, and it was barren. It is still completely spellbinding to watch this scenery go by from the comforts of the train but ultimately I don't think I want to be spending time out there. There were many times when I was reminded of Montana.

We had no problem getting settled into what was a pretty spacious and comfortable room. I'd paid a little more so we didn't have to share it with anyone, and I had a really pleasant time. The bathrooms were not great, but about what I was expecting - clean but very old. It was a well-used, cramped room containing a small metal toilet bowl and a sink, with clean towels and sheets provided back in the sleeper room. The bathroom we'd get on the Russian train, which was far more modern, would prove to be far nicer than anything I was expecting, or have used on a train.

The train is a fun place to be, even when you're back home in America the scenery can be captivating; here in the Gobi is was mesmerizing. Just relaxing on a comfy bed and watching the world go by was a wonderful way to spend the day. There are also snacks to be eaten, books to be read, conversations to be had, photographs to be taken, notes to be written, etc.

I have quite a few photos of very similar scenery. And of course, horses.

We had passed a town and more signs of civilization, like the cemetery above. It was clear we were getting closer to Ulaanbaatar.  Then it sprang out of the desert.

The train slowed, creeping by lots of industrial looking areas and finally coming into the city itself, with apartment buildings, city streets, and advertisements, like everywhere else.

We walked from the train station around the area to look for some food. I usually know better; that I should consult the internet before just wandering around. We weren't finding anything so we went to a mall to check out the food court. There wasn't much in there though - it was nothing like food courts in many Asian malls, and we were hungry. So, Burger King, it was. The view from the table was good though, as seen below.

We ended up doing a decent amount of walking around the city, but did not arrange any sightseeing or tourist activities. I'd spent a lot of time ensuring we' be able to visit the park, and trying to get us a vehicle and make sure the road would be good to drive. I spent quite a lot of time on that, which is unfortunate. Let me say right now, the road in and out of Ulaanbaatar on the way to Terelj National Park is a normal road. It is nicely paved and my husband had no issue driving. If only we had known how easy it was going to be, I would have spent more time finding good stuff to do here in this city. Luckily I did know enough to learn that while there are some temples and monasteries here, there are not many tourist attractions.

Ulaanbaatar has lots of modern buildings and plenty of stuff you'd expect in any busy city.. unfortunately, that also includes pollution, dirt, and trash.

We walked across town to pick up the rental car, and hit the road.

The road was really well paved on the way to Terelj. I can see that driving this road in a normal car, without 4 wheel drive or any special clearance, is fine. It's a black tar single lane highway. Easy. And once you get out of town, not much traffic. Anyway, the roadside stop was interesting. They were selling some trinkets. My friends bought a couple which was nice because we did not pay or tip anything for these photos.

The birds were tethered and gorgeous, though I wasn't sure what to make of the whole thing. 

The turnoff for the park came quickly, and we stopped as we were driving to snap some photos of the scenery. We were making excellent time; there were no impediments.

It's a lovely place, though scattered with random pockets of development. I've seen complaints about this online and I hope there is some control so it doesn't get out of hand; for now it seems like the place is still doing alright - though we were here during a low season.

There really weren't many turnoffs - I think it's hard to get lost driving around here. We took one of the only turns, upon seeing Turtle Roc in the distance - no GPS required.

We pulled off the road and hiked around Turtle Rock for a bit. There is not much out here. We saw some animals and a few gers. I knew the Aryaval meditation center was nearby and we could hike there, so after we were done here we drove another mile or two and parked again, then began the hike to the monastery.

The meditation center was an intriguing place. A mass of children was there on a school trip but we still got the place more or less to ourselves. We were allowed to go in and take some photos. It was a richly decorated room and smelled of incense.

The view from inside is amazing.

There are some interesting paintings. A guy who I assume was the caretaker was taking great pleasure in pointing these painted scenes of hell out to us. It was pretty funny; he was very friendly and having a great time hanging out with a bunch of westerners.

We hiked back down the hill and hit the road. Terelj was a lovely place but the landscape was also very similar everywhere we went. We decided it was time to move on to our next destination....

= center