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....

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

TransMongolian Rails Part I - Beijing to the Mongolian Border and Beyond

This rail journey was truly a trip of a lifetime, and we'd been wanting to do it for a long time. It required a lot of planning and was, frankly, easy to put off. But the more we learned, the more it became clear that not only could we plan it, we could afford it. We were going to have to do a lot of legwork and research though. As always, the man in seat61 was an invaluable resource. We made some big decisions early on - we knew we wanted to do the Mongolian route to and then on through Siberia rather than crossing the entire continent starting from Vladivostok. While I'd love to do that trip too, I really wanted to visit Mongolia, and the idea of moving across the Gobi desert on a train was irresistible.

The Gobi Desert, by rail.

We also decided to make the long plane ride first (though of course, it ended up being the shorter trip because it was a direct flight and our journey home required a layover). We went from East to West, and decided on a shoulder season - it gets busier in May. I was into the idea of going when the days would be longer, but we wouldn't have to deal with as many people. The other plus is that if something went wrong, booking an alternate trip wouldn't be difficult. I booked the flights first, we knew we would have to jump through a lot of hoops to get our Russian visa so there was no reason to put it off when I saw a deal. After the tickets were bought, we had to put everything else in place.

Our friend in Beijing

It was going to be 5139 miles from Beijing to St Petersburg, by land. Everything from Beijing to Moscow was booked in advance, and we put off booking the last leg to St. Petersburg until we were there, to allow for flexibility. We used a service to get our tickets from Beijing to Irkutsk.

The Beijing Railway Station

There's no way to get them (that I know of) otherwise unless you physically go to the train station which of course wasn't an option for us; we didn't want to put it off until we arrived of course. It was easy; our tickets got delivered to our hostel, an awesome little place pretty close to the train station in Beijing.

Beijing Railway Hostel - a nice place with a lot of lovely plants.

Tea and sweets in a Beijing mall
The vehicles of Beijing are varied

Scenes from outside the Forbidden City

We had some time to kill and wandered around Beijing so we wandered over to the Forbidden City for a bit before heading on to the train station. It was a really nice day, a sharp contrast to the last time I was there, a smoggy winter day. It was a shame we didn't have more time to linger in Beijing, where there is so much to see and do and eat. But we had a long trip ahead of us and it was only just beginning. We headed for a supermarket before making our way to the train station, which is a bit of a mob scene. You show your ticket at a gate out front, while everyone pushes and shoves to get inside, and then you go through security. By the time it was all over we had a pretty short wait before boarding and I was glad we'd gotten there when we did. Next time I might not cut it so close.

All was well and we easily found our train, which was staffed by friendly conductors who had a limited bit of English skills and could communicate with us. The excitement was building, it was hard to believe that after talking about this journey for so long, the time was here. A lot of people were making their journey of a lifetime... 

We'd splurged and gotten a nice room. We wandered around and checked the place out. The train was nice. We spoke with a few other passengers, mostly Westerners from Europe.

It was easy to enjoy the scenery from the many windows on the train, whether sitting back in the cabin or walking the aisles.

After awhile it was time to make our way to the dining car for our meal. The car was nice, the place was clean, and the waiters didn't speak a lick of English. Being vegetarian, I was served the same as everyone else - chicken with green peppers and a side of rice. It was ok. I was prepared and we had our groceries and meal bars I'd brought along, and of course I ate the rice.

The scenery stayed lush and picturesque for a long time. We passed through small towns and a few cities, and the evening stretched on. 

Things were quiet on the train and it was a smooth ride. It was easy to kick back and relax.

As we moved on through China, making one or two stops along the way, the scenery began to change, and the landscape got progressively more arid.

It started to feel like we were getting deeper into the continent.  The sky stretched out.

Still, though, signs of civilization remained...

One last stop for us before the sun set on our first day on the train. It was a good feeling.

Finally, we got to the border. We would spend several hours here and passports were checked, and the gauge of the wheels on the train was changed.

We were finally on our way once again....

The sun rose over the Gobi Desert, and I was entranced. We felt a long way from home, and from everything.

Eventually, we hit our first town in Mongolia, a small place indeed.

It seemed a bit lonely out here, but was a very interesting place to pass through.

I took a short walk to photograph the statue below and was quickly beckoned back to the train.
Eventually, we got on our way and spent the rest of the day watching Mongolia go by.

= center