A Travellerspoint blog

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (29th September - 3rd October)

We were met at the station by the owner of the hostel we'd booked into. We'd thought it was just a nice helpful gesture but he then took us to some random hotel and not his hostel at all. He then explained how his hostel was being renovated so we could stay at his friend's hotel for the same price instead. He made out like this was a really good deal and we were getting some kind of upgrade, but just from looking around the foyer of the place (the word 'foyer' being used quite loosely) it seemed like that really wasn't the case. It would have been nice if he'd warned us in advance, so we could have had the option of staying somewhere else instead, but never mind.

We couldn't check in to our room for a while so the hostel guy took us out for a coffee. I say 'coffee', but I'm using the word quite loosely again. We went to one of the few open cafes on the main street (Peace Avenue) and he ordered us all a coffee. We were each brought a cup of hot liquid and a sachet. We assumed the sachet was coffee whitener, so I opened mine and stirred in a small amount. The hostel guy put all of his in. I had a sip of my 'coffee' and then realised why the hostel guy had used his entire sachet; the hot liquid was just water and the sachet contained a mix of coffee, whitener and sugar. Mmmm. That would be pretty gross to have at home, but to be served it in a cafe? It was pretty disappointing. The hostel guy paid, which was nice, though I can't imagine it would have cost much.

You've probably guessed that I can't remember the hostel guy's name. It's a bit annoying to keep referring to him as 'the hostel guy' - plus it sounds like it belongs in an early episode of Friends - so I'm going to call him Bob from now on.

Despite his unavailable accommodation and disappointing choice of coffee establishment, Bob seemed like a decent guy. He offered to arrange a tour for us, like he would do from his hostel usually. Ulaanbaatar (which I'll call UB) isn't that exciting a place to visit in itself, so tourists just tend to use it as a starting point for going to more interesting parts of Mongolia. So yeah, we knew we wanted to get out of the city on some kind of tour. Bob suggested a 2-day tour up to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, taking in the Genghis Khan statue on the way, then spending the night with a Mongolian family, sleeping in a ger. The next day we'd get an hour's horse riding included and then we'd get a bus back to the city. All meals would be included as well.

It was about £100 each, which seemed like a lot, especially considering how cheap things are in Mongolia generally, but I guess it wasn't too bad - you're paying for a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience so I don't actually begrudge it now. At the time he was suggesting it though, I was tired and agitated, so I did feel like he was ripping us off. Maybe he was. I don't know. We didn't really have the time to shop around, as were only in Mongolia for 4 days, so we took him up on his offer.

After enough time had passed, we headed back to the hotel to check in. It wasn't a touristy hotel, it was aimed at Mongolians, so no-one spoke English. That wasn't really an issue though; our problem with it was that it just wasn't very nice. The bathroom was pretty grimey and the shower area had a washing machine in it; the smoke detector in our room had a low battery so it kept beeping; the doors didn't open and shut very easily; there were random plates of ash everywhere (presumably ad hoc ash trays); plus the beds were really hard and uncomfortable. However, as we were so tired from the early train arrival, we crashed out for a few hours of sleep. On waking up we decided that we'd rather be staying in a hostel dorm. We'd agreed to do the tour to the National Park over the following 2 days but decided to then stay somewhere else on our return to UB.

For dinner we went to a vegetarian restaurant called Luna Blanca. That was really good - we ended up going back on our last night in UB. We then went to Cafe Amsterdam for a drink, though mostly to use the wi-fi. UB had a really impressive amount of free wi-fi but it sadly didn't include the hotel we were staying at. In the cafe we ran into David and Fiona who we'd met on the train. We were looking for a hostel to book into for our last 2 nights and they recommended the Golden Gobi where they were staying. It was just around the corner from the cafe so, as we were having some computer problems, Jamie nipped around there and booked us in.

We had an early night as we needed to get up early. In the morning we dropped our backpacks off at Golden Gobi so we didn't have to take them on the tour with us. We then went to pick up our onwards train tickets from the agency who Real Russia deal with. Weirdly we bumped into Fiona again here. We then got back to the hotel in time to meet up with Bob at 10am. He re-confirmed what we would get on the tour, plus reassured us that everyone knew that Jamie was vegetarian. We paid him our money and then got into a car with our driver for the day, who was also Bob's youngest son. He only spoke a little English, plus I don't think we found out his name. Rather than 'Bob's son,' I'll call him 'Frank'.

Frank drove us out of the city and our first stop was at a supermarket. Although our meals were included, Bob had suggested buying things like beer and chocolate. We already had some biscuits with us but we also bought some mini croissant things, some water, a bottle of wine and a bottle of vodka. The bottle of vodka was partly in case we were expected to gift our host family with something and partly because it was so cheap that it seemed wrong not to buy it.

After driving a little further we pulled over to the side of the road to see some eagles. It seemed a little random but it turned out to be a tourist attraction. You pay a small amount to get to pose with one on your arm. Jamie went first and I followed. But after I'd posed with one on my arm, the woman in charge manoeuvred me to another eagle and put it on my shoulder. It all happened pretty quickly, it was slightly surreal. Jamie then also got to pose with one on his shoulder before we set back off.

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Our first proper stop of the day was at the Genghis Khan statue. It's this huge, metal, shiny thing that seemed to just appear out of nowhere. Apparently it's going to be part of a larger tourist complex that's planned. We went inside, looked around and walked up to the viewing platform between the statue's legs. There are also a couple of small museum exhibits in the building, so we looked round those as well.

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Frank then drove us to some tucked-away shack for lunch. We were served some traditional Mongolian food, which was basically deep-fried mince. Despite being reassured that Jamie would get veggie stuff, he was given the same thing. He had to just empty the mince out and eat the greasy dough instead. They were alright really, though I bit into something really hard at one point, which I was told was probably bone. I have to confess that I can't categorically say what the meat was. It was conceivably beef, albeit not some prime cut, but it could just as well have been horse, to be honest. It was quite like eating a British ready meal in that sense.

To drink we were offered the choice of tea or coffee. After the terrible coffee of the previous day, Jamie opted for tea as a safer option. I risked the coffee. The tea ended up being some strange milk tea, so I was glad I went for coffee, even though the coffee came with sugar in and I really dislike sugary coffee. So yeah, not the best lunch, but OK.

After that Frank drove us to the National Park. It was a beautiful area and well worth seeing. I really enjoyed just being driven around it; The Beatles playing on the car stereo. A lot of the roads were more like dirt tracks, so pretty bumpy, but it was good fun. We stopped a couple of times to get out and take photos etc. - once at a cave and once at the Turtle Rock:

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That was cool, though in retrospect I wish that we'd spent longer there, both driving around and also getting out and taking photos. I feel like my limited photos don't really capture the full beauty of the place. Plus it wasn't like we were in a rush - the only other thing we had to do that day was to go and stay with the family. It all seemed to be over quite quickly and we were then taken to a meeting point by a hotel and a river. It was as close as Frank's car could get to where the family lived. The patriarch and his young daughter came and met us and we waved goodbye to Frank.

We followed the man across a few bridges and fields until we reached the area where he lived. We were then shown into the ger where we'd be sleeping. We'd actually booked to stay in the her at Bob's hostel, which I'd been looking forward to, so I was pleased we weren't missing out on that experience. A ger's basically a big, more solid tent. They tend to have wood stoves burning in the middle and we were impressed by how toasty the ger was. We were also surprised when we saw it had a TV in it!

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After being shown into the ger, the family just left us to ourselves for ages. We weren't really sure what we were meant to be doing, if anything. The mother of the family popped in briefly and gave us a bowl of homemade yoghurt each, plus a flask of hot water. No explanation as to what the hot water was for. Initially we thought it might be tea but it was definitely just hot water. I then theorised that it might be for washing the dishes. There was a sink in the ger but it didn't have taps as didn't have plumbing, it just drained out into a bucket. The water was boiling hot though, plus the flask kept it that way, so it wasn't easy to use for plate washing. We later discovered some instant coffee in the fridge, so thought maybe it was for that - we never actually knew for sure.

We were quite surprised that the family didn't seem keen to engage with us. There was a language barrier, of course, but there weren't even attempts at introductions or anything. We also weren't shown how anything worked or even where we should go to the toilet. I guess I was expecting more of an inquisitive and welcoming atmosphere where we'd all eat dinner together or sit around a fire and have a drink together. Maybe I've watched too many travel shows where things like that happen. Anyway, I did initially wonder if they'd just hosted so many people before that they were kinda jaded. But after a while it seemed more likely that we were the first people they'd hosted and they just weren't sure what to do with us.

The woman reappeared a while later to get something out of the fridge. We'd been there a few hours by this point and I really needed to know where the toilet was as the bucket under the sink was looking increasingly inviting. I tried the word 'toilet' incase it was similar in Mongolian, but that didn't trigger any flickers of recognition. I then grabbed our toilet roll and showed her that. That seemed pretty sure-fire but instead she just went and brought us more toilet roll. Jamie and I then both tried to gesticulate the word 'where' and eventually she grasped what we were wanting to know. I put my shoes and coat on and followed her out to the toilet. Well, "toilet" really, as it was a small shack built over a big pit. There were a few wooden slats for you to stand on and then you could utilise the gap between them. She left me to it and I then made my way back to the ger. It was starting to get dark and it was a bit of a walk away, though not very far and in a straight line from the gap in the fence round the family's buildings.

The lady brought us dinner soon afterwards. Dumplings. Mine were meat and Jamie's were veggie, thankfully. The meat tasted the same as the stuffing in the fried things we'd had for lunch. They were nice though. We drank our wine and played some cards, plus kept the fire going as best we could (which wasn't easy at times), then started to get ready for bed.

Now that I knew where the toilet was, I figured I should go use it again before bed. I thankfully have a small torch on a keyring, which was an incredibly useful birthday gift from my friend Cary a few years ago. I took that with me and headed out towards the toilet. It was completely pitch black outside. I stopped and looked up at the sky - the stars were just incredible. I don't think I've ever seen so many, it was breathtaking. Anyway, after my moment of awe, I walked out of the gap in the fence and started making my way to the toilet. My torch helped a little, of course, though the beam doesn't reach very far, so I had to just hope I was walking in the right direction. I knew I must be vaguely going in the right direction; I walked in a straight line from the fence and I started to see some kind of shack ahead of me, so assumed that was it. However I got there to discover it was some other shack instead. There were a couple of other shacks near it, but they weren't the right ones either. As I'd only walked there the once before and it had already been getting dark, I didn't have a good enough mental picture of what the area looked like, so didn't know where I might be in relation to the toilet. However, as it was completely pitch black, the need to wee behind a modesty-covering door seemed a little unnecessary. That should have occurred to me sooner, but still, I squatted down wherever I was and expunged my surplus liquid (had a wee). I now just needed to walk back in the same straight line I'd used to get there and I'd be back in the family's grounds. Easy, right? Well, no. Not in the dark with a limited torch and a ropey sense of direction!

I walked in what I thought was the same straight line but it took me to a fence that didn't look quite right. I followed the fence to a gap in it, but again it seemed wrong - the buildings inside didn't look like the right ones. I made my way to the ger there anyway, but no, the door was all wrong. I had no notion of where I was in relation to where I wanted to be. It was terrifying. All I could do was wander around and hope to come across something familiar. But at the same time I was scared that I might wander too far in the wrong direction and make things even worse. Plus there were cows, yaks and horses out there somewhere, so I didn't want to stumble into those. I started shouting out for Jamie, but probably not loudly enough as I was choked up from the fear. Plus I didn't want to disturb anyone else! I guess I was still hopeful I'd just find my way back. I started walking small amounts in different directions, to see which way looked most promising. I found a ditch to one side, which helped me get my bearings a little, then I miraculously found the toilet! I never thought I'd be so pleased to see it. I could then use it to navigate a straight line in the right direction and I happily found my way back. As I'd not actually been gone long (though it felt like ages at the time), Jamie had no notion that I could have gotten lost, so I tearily filled him in and cuddled into him for a while. All credit to people who live in the wilderness, but when normal bodily functions can lead to that much peril, it's not the life for me!

I slept OK, but not great. The beds weren't comfortable and once the fire went out it got pretty cold. I'm pleased we got to experience sleeping in a ger, but I was also pleased we didn't end up doing it for our entire time in Mongolia. In the morning, Jamie tried to light the fire, but it proved to be very difficult. There were only quite large chunks of wood and they didn't want to catch on fire. We tried using some old pages from a notebook of mine as kindling, but that didn't help. Eventually we gave up, hid under the duvets and waited for someone to appear so we could ask them to light the fire. A teenage boy appeared, grabbed a charger from out of a drawer and then walked back out. It was like we weren't even there.

We waited ages before the woman finally appeared and we could ask her to light the fire. She disappeared and then came back with a whole load of sticks and twigs. They were much easier to start a fire with than the big blocks of wood! The ger heated up pretty quickly then and we were able to get out of bed. The woman brought us some bread stick things as a breakfast, plus some more hot water. This time we used it to make coffee.

For our second day, Bob had promised us an hour of horse riding, any meals we were there for, plus the return bus journey. There were only 2 buses a day that ran directly back to UB - at 8am and 7pm - but there were also minibuses every 2 hours that went to a different village where you could then catch a bus to UB. We'd not agreed on any specific bus in advance, though 7pm did sound a bit too late really.

We got dressed and then went outside. There were horses around so we figured they knew about the horse riding and were getting prepared for us. We were quite relieved as we'd been feeling a little neglected. However, the dad and son suddenly rode off and took all the horses with them. We stood around outside but the whole family seemed to be ignoring us. The woman walked past a couple of times and the teenage girl went into the ger to take out some things she needed. When Bob had been pitching us the tour he'd made out like we'd be hanging out with the family and getting invited to milk the cows and stuff, but it was clear that nothing like that was going to happen.

We found Bob's phone number, which we had written down, and asked the woman to phone him for us. Jamie told him how the family didn't seem to know what was expected of them and how we'd not gotten to ride the horses yet and were just standing around. Bob then talked to the teenage girl for ages. When she hung up she told us that we'd go horse riding for an hour when her dad returned with the horses, then we'd have lunch, then we'd get the 2pm bus back. And how did she communicate all this? In English! Where was she when we were trying to find out where the toilet was? It was already 11:30, so it seemed like quite a tight timeframe, but at least we all knew what was going on now.

Everything was much better and ran smoothly after that. Maybe Bob just hadn't prepped them properly, even though he claimed that he had. The dad arrived back around 12 and then took us out horse riding. Now, I've not been on a horse since I was about 7, so I was quite nervous. I had no particular desire to ride a horse, to be honest, but as it was included in the tour price and it's seen as one of those things you're just meant to do in Mongolia, I went along with it. Thankfully the horses there are all quite small, otherwise I'm not sure I'd have done it.

When I first got up on the horse, it felt incredibly weird. I felt quite unstable and really didn't enjoy the sensation. I made this pretty obvious too, so thankfully the guy kept hold of my horse and attached it to his, so I didn't have to control it myself, I just needed to sit there and hold on. He left Jamie to control his own though, when Jamie hadn't ridden a horse since he was about 11. My horse was pretty serene, thankfully, though Jamie's seemed more agitated and disinclined to do what it was meant to. After a while the guy took control of Jamie's horse too, though not until after we'd had to wade the horses across a stream! Thankfully we didn't go faster than a walk, so it was all quite sedate and I started to enjoy it (albeit quite cautiously). A dog followed us for most of the route as well. He seemed to be running his own kind of assault course, so provided some bonus entertainment. The scenery was great as well, of course.

We followed a circular route and it lasted the full hour. I mostly didn't feel that sore when I was up on the horse, but felt it when I got off. We both walked around like cartoon cowboys for a bit.

Everything else went pretty quickly then - we were brought lunch (rice and more of that meat for me. Rice and spicy carrot for Jamie), we ate lunch, then the teenage girl took us to the bus. The minibus arrived slightly late, but we all got on, including the girl. It drove us back through the National Park, which was nice - it was good to get some more time to admire the scenery. When we arrived in the village the girl pointed us towards the bus for UB and gave us the money for the fare.

It was quite a relief to be headed back towards the city. We both agreed that it was the kind of trip that was more enjoyable in retrospect! Although it was far from perfect, it was authentic at least - not just some polished tour with a family putting on a bit of an act for the tourists.

We got back and checked in to the Golden Gobi, which was a decent place. We had a chilled-out evening and caught up on some sleep.

On our last full day in Mongolia we went to the monastery. It's the main tourist attraction in UB. It's a bit run down really, but still good to see. The giant gold statue in the main temple's pretty impressive.

The other main thing we did that day was to stock up on supplies for the train. There was an awesome supermarket near our hostel that seemed to have everything. Jamie's face was a picture when he saw the whole wall of noodle pots.

The next morning the hostel put on a minibus to the train station, free of charge, which was nice of them. We were back on the Trans-Mongolian! Just for a day and a bit this time though, so practically nothing! Our carriage was much more full this time and the average age was a lot higher. We were in a cabin with a young English couple who were really nice. The poor girl got sick during the journey though and kept throwing up. It was right at the border crossings as well, when the bathroom's locked, so the worst possible timing.

The border crossings were fine, though the whole process takes ages, the toilet's locked and you're not allowed off the train. Thankfully we'd been warned in advance so had limited our liquid consumption.

The border crossing mostly takes ages because the train wheels have to be changed for a different gauge of track. And yes they do this while you're on board. The carriages are individually lifted up on a crank and then the wheels are swapped over. It sounds more exciting than it is though - the lifting up's done so slowly you can't actually feel it.

The Chinese tracks actually seemed a bit smoother so we got a decent night's sleep before our arrival in Beijing. The scenery gets more spectacular once you're in China too, so the walkway in the carriage was just filled with people taking photos all morning.

Posted by chantalpatton 08:03 Archived in Mongolia Comments (2)

Trans-Mongolian Railway (24th - 29th September)

We took the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. The journey takes 4 and a half days. We opted for 2nd class tickets where you stay in 4-bed berths. There are 3rd class tickets, which are obviously cheaper, though not hugely so and you have to stay in an open plan dorm-like area, which didn't sound pleasant for such a long journey. There are also 1st class tickets, of course, where you have just 2-bed berths and you get to have a shower, but they were a lot more expensive.

In advance of our trip we'd been reading up on other people's experiences and tips. These were useful in terms of knowing what to buy and how things work, but there were also some horror stories. We were mostly worried as to what our roommates would be like and whether we'd be able to communicate with them or not. Spending over 4 days in close proximity would be quite awkward if we didn't get on. Thankfully our fears were quickly allayed when they turned out to be 2 fellow Brits - Tom and Dan. Our whole carriage was full of international travellers who were able to speak English, infact, so that was pretty cool. I think because we all booked through Real Russia we got grouped together. It made for a really nice and sociable atmosphere.

The train itself was basic but decent. It's not some kind of luxury train like the Orient Express, though you might have gathered that already when I mentioned that only 1st class get showers. Yes, over 4 days on a train and no shower. You do start to feel a bit gross but it wasn't as bad as I was expecting. On day 3 I washed my hair in the sink using a small water bottle. I felt a lot fresher for that. It's also useful to take on wet wipes, antibacterial gel and toilet paper.

Food-wise there's a restaurant car on the train, so you can go there for meals if you like. It was a Russian car for most of our journey though became Mongolian in Mongolia (then becomes Chinese in China). We didn't actually eat there as the menu didn't look great and was expensive for what it was (plus we heard the portions were small and the waitresses were really rude). There's a hot water tank on each carriage so you can make instant noodles, soups, tea and coffee etc. Plus on most platforms, when the train stops, you can get off and buy food there. Sometimes that's just snacks and instant noodles but sometimes there's some hot food too.

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Prior to the trip we tried to buy enough food to ensure we didn't starve at least, but then we topped up on the way as well. In addition to noodle pots we also bought some mash pots, which were really good, plus some instant porridge oats for breakfast. They were a really good idea - lots of people didn't seem to do a proper breakfast. We also took some biscuits, chocolate, cake etc. Handily I also had a plastic cup from Sziget Festival and Jamie had some cutlery from Wok To Walk. We bought a few more plastic cups and Anna gave us some plastic cutlery she had and we were pretty well set up for the journey.

The attendants on the train were Chinese and we had 2 on our carriage. One was quite serious and kept to himself but the other guy was awesome. He was called Juan (though probably not spelled like that) and he seemed to be our main attendant. He didn't speak English but would communicate well via gestures and facial expressions (plus sometimes through Alan, a guy in our carriage from Hong Kong). He'd come and watch what we were up to - sometimes even taking part in the drinking games! One of the drinking games (Fire Cup) involved burning holes in toilet paper, which he was totally fine with. He also let us borrow his hat to pose for photos, plus seemed to have a never-ending supply of beer that he sold to us throughout the trip. So yeah, he was awesome.

Our carriage wasn't particularly full and was mostly made up of people in their early to mid twenties (hence all the drinking games!). We played quite a lot of cards as well.

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Aside from the chatting, drinking, eating and card playing, I did a fair amount of reading (I got through the whole Iain Banks book), a bit of listening to music plus tried to catch up on my blog writing a bit (albeit in old-fashioned pen and paper form to save on electronics). There were a few low-voltage plug sockets in the corridors but none in our rooms. This didn't end up bothering me at all though as I didn't use my electronics enough to need to charge them anyway. The time went surprisingly quickly and I didn't really get bored. Weirdly I got more bored on the long train in Canada and that was only for two and a half days.

All in all it was quite relaxing and really good fun. It was almost disappointing to arrive in Ulaanbaatar (but only almost). Prior to that we had the border crossing - you stop at the Russian side and then the Mongolian side. It takes a few hours all in all and you can't use the toilet when in the stations (they lock it). Border officials are so serious - plus the Mongolian ones made us close all the curtains for some unfathomable reason. The Mongolian town at the border though was brilliant - we nicknamed it Disco Town. It seemed to be full of neon lights and coloured windows. It was a nice contrast to the dull and repetitive Russian scenery. There were a few scenic parts of the journey, don't get me wrong - the areas by the lakes were particularly good - but there was also a lot of barren wasteland and rows of trees.

The train was due in to Ulaanbaatar at 6:30 so we aimed to get up not long before that. However the serious conductor woke us up at 5:30 to give us our tickets back and collect our bedding from us. That wasn't fun, though it wasn't the rude awakening we'd had on our way to Istanbul either, thankfully. We arrived on time and said our goodbyes to our carriage-mates. Quite a few were getting off in Ulaanbaatar but a few were travelling right through to Beijing.

I'd definitely recommend it as an experience, though it's your carriage-mates who really define how good it is, so I guess it's a bit of a lottery. Thankfully our personal lottery results were pretty damn good.

Posted by chantalpatton 21:37 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Moscow, Russia (19th - 24th September)

We took the overnight train from St Petersburg to Moscow. We were sharing a cabin with a Russian couple but we all just slept for the entire journey. On arrival in Moscow we were met by my friend Anna and her boyfriend Kirill. I lived with Anna in my last year of university and hadn't seen her in about 10 years, so it was great to catch up and get to spend a few days with her.

Kirill took our backpacks back to their flat and Anna took us to Red Square on the metro. She showed us around a little but then had to get back to work, so we spent the afternoon having a wander round Red Square and that general area. It was pretty cool to see it all, though a shame it was quite overcast. It wasn't raining though, at least, but it did for practically all of the rest of our time in Moscow. We'd not really packed for cold or wet weather either, as we're almost entirely visiting hot countries during this leg of the trip. Saint Petersburg was quite nice and cool after the heat of Iran, but Moscow was pretty cold.

Saint Basil's Cathedral:
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Anna met back up with us once she'd finished work and took us back to her flat. Her and Kirill were great hosts - making us breakfast and dinner every day and giving us shots of various spirits, including vodka of course.

Aside from the obvious Red Square / Kremlin area, what else did we do during our time in Moscow? Well, the bad weather limited us quite a bit, which was a shame. Moscow seemed like a really nice city but I don't think we got to see it at its best. Still, some of the things we did manage to do were...

- On one day we searched out a book shop with some English-language books. I'd bought a second hand copy of 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' by Haruki Murakami when we were in Madrid. It's a pretty long book so I thought it would be good to have for the Trans-Mongolian Railway. However, I managed to finish it before we'd even made it to Moscow, so I needed something new to read. The book shop we found in Moscow had a pretty impressive English-language selection so we spent quite a while browsing. I know it's not hugely practical to lug around a load of books while backpacking, so I could have downloaded e-books on my tablet instead, but I couldn't bring myself to do it; I like having proper books. Plus they're not reliant on an electricity supply, so that's a bonus too. Anyway, I ended up buying 'Stonemouth' by Iain Banks. It was only released last year but its existence had passed me by somehow. It was only about £1 more than the UK RRP, plus it was a decent length, so I was happy with that. Jamie bought another book too, just to ensure we had enough between us (as we'll read each others books as well of course). He got 'The Brothers Karamazov' by Dostoevsky, which I've been wanting to read for a while anyway, so that was cool. It's really long as well, so hopefully that might last us until the end of our trip.

Once we were done in the book shop we used the Tripadvisor app to search for any nearby attractions. It told us that we were close to the Gogol Museum, which had pretty good reviews. We weren't really familiar with Gogol but thought we'd check it out. It's his former residence which has been turned into a museum about his life and work. That mightn't sound hugely exciting or memorable, but it was definitely the most bizarre museum experience I've ever had. We paid for our tickets, which were the equivalent of about £2, then we were given A4 laminated booklets that explained each room (in English). We went to move in to what looked like the first room but a woman stopped us and gestured that we had to read the first page of the booklet first. We did as told, slightly amused by the strictness of it, then moved into the first room. We read the corresponding page for that room, had a look around, then went to move on to the next room. Again we were stopped. This time we had to stand in a specific place and look in a specific direction - all conveyed by gestures as we couldn't speak each others' laguages. The woman pressed a button, the lights dimmed and we were treated to some kind of audio-visual display. It basically involved some mood lighting and the sound of horses running. This seemed to go on for quite a while and we were struggling not to laugh. We were then allowed to move on to the next room. Here we had a similar experience, except we got to sit down for the audio-visual delight. This trend continued for all the remaining rooms. It was surreal. I don't remember anything about Gogol but I was highly entertained by the whole experience.

- On a day when it wasn't actually raining (at least not for the whole day) we went to Gorky Park. It was a really nice area, though again it would have been nicer in the sunshine:

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- Anna took us out and about on the Saturday. Even though it was raining and we got quite wet, it was a fun day. She took us to the university to start with as there's a good look-out point. It was quite hazy in the rain though that didn't stop a few wedding couples from having their photos taken there.

After that we popped into a church for a bit and then made our way to an Ukranian restaurant to dry out and have some lunch. The food was really good and it was Anna's treat as well, so that was really nice,

Finally we then went to the Honey Market. Yes, it was literally a market full of honey and honey products. And it was a pretty big market! I'm not really keen on honey, though I tried a few samples. The samples of the mead were better (although some weren't so good). I had no notion that there were so many different types of honey - it was quite enlightening.

On the day that we left we took the metro to the train station. We found the train station quite confusing as the platforms are outside and not connected to the main station building, but we figured it out eventually and started our Trans-Mongolian adventure.

Posted by chantalpatton 05:50 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

St. Petersburg, Russia (12th - 18th September)

As we'd travelled through the night, I felt a bit zombified on arrival in Russia. We left the airport and looked for the bus we needed to catch to the nearest metro station. We found the bus stop but were slightly confused by how it all worked. From being in Iran we'd gotten used to people helping us out whenever we looked confused (or even if we just stopped walking for a second!), but there was none of that in Russia - people keep to themselves and often seem to look down a bit on tourists. It was quite a stark contrast and a jolting introduction to the country.

Eventually we just decided to jump on a bus and see what happened. No-one seemed to be paying as they got on, so we didn't either. It seemed a bit odd but we then saw people pay as they got off so we followed suit. Thankfully the metro system was much easier to navigate and we found our way to our hostel.

We stayed at a couple of hostels in St Petersburg. It was quite a bit cheaper to stay in a dorm, so we did that for the first 3 nights, but then we treated ourselves to a private room in a different hostel for the last 3 nights. The first hostel we stayed at was Admiral Teiskiy. It was quite a small hostel, but decent. We were in a 4 person dorm, which we had to ourselves on the first night, but was full for the remaining 2 nights. One of the other people staying in the dorm was an English guy who we chatted to quite a bit. I've forgotten where the other guy was from now, but aside from them and us, all the other people staying there seemed to be Russian.

There was nothing special about the hostel, but nothing bad about it either. Well, aside from the fact you weren't allowed alcohol; something they didn't inform us of until I'd just opened a can of beer and had one sip of it. That was somewhat annoying.

The other hostel we stayed at was Friends Hostel. It's named after the TV show and is made up to look a little like the apartments in the show. There are picture frames around the spy holes in the doors, plus a couple of fussball tables. It's a nice idea, but the hostel's too big really to have that kind of cosy, sociable feel. Plus it seemed to just be full of Russians again, including a few rotund men who liked to walk around shirtless. Ew. Again, nothing really bad about the place, but nothing special either.

Both hostels were pretty central so we mostly walked to various places. Jamie had a cold for quite a bit of our time there, so a couple of days were fairly lazy, plus we seemed to have a bit of bad luck with things. On our second day we'd decided to go on a free walking tour which we booked online the previous evening. We planned to get up early, go for breakfast at 9 (neither hostel provided breakfast) and have plenty of time to get to the meeting point for 10:45. However, as it was a weekend, no places nearby were open for breakfast until 10:00! We went to a place just after it opened, which was ok, though Jamie ordered scrambled eggs and got an omelette and I ordered poached eggs and got fried eggs. Still, close enough I guess. The main problem was that it took a while and we didn't get to the meeting point until about 10:53. Not especially late - none of the other walking tours we've gone to have started on time - but this one seemingly had as there was no-one to be found. Annoying.

There was also the day we decided to go to the contemporary art museum. It's not very central so we went to take the bus. It was bus number 7 we needed, so we got on, paid and sat down. We went about 3 stops when we were all instructed to get off, the bus was terminating. We were confused but figured it was some issue with that particular bus, so we waited for the next one. It arrived, everyone got off and we were told we couldn't get on. Same with the next one. We had no idea as to why they were terminating there or how else we were meant to get to the museum, so it ended up being a waste of time and money.

I'm probably not painting the best picture of St Petersburg here. We did have enjoyable times there too! The first full day was actually my birthday. We had a nice walk around, stopped for some coffee and cheesecake, walked around some more, saw a few wiener dogs (my favourite) then went to a nice vegetarian restaurant. I had a burrito, partly because I've had Mexican food on my last couple of birthdays, so it's started to become a tradition. We then went to a quiet pub opposite for a pint. Not a bad way to mark my advancing age.

Some of the other places we went to in St Petersburg:

- Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Not dissimilar to the swirly church at Red Square in Moscow, though we got to see this one first. Paper Frog liked it too:

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- The Peter and Paul Fortress. This was a nice area to walk around. The nearby park and miniature version of the city were cool as well.

- The Hermitage. We went here on our last day. It's a pretty impressive museum - all sorts of art and artifacts. The buildings themselves are one of the biggest draws though, they're stunning.

Posted by chantalpatton 05:59 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Esfahan, Iran (8th - 11th September)

On arrival at the bus station we decided to plan ahead and book our tickets from Esfahan to Tehran airport for in a few days' time. We knew we needed to use the same bus company we'd just arrived by, so we found the right office nice and easily, but knowing who to speak to and how to communicate what we wanted was a bit more daunting. Thankfully we didn't need to be daunted for long - a girl spotted our confused foreigner looks and offered to help us. Not only did she book the tickets for us, she even offered to pay for them! We were blown away by the generosity. We didn't take her up on it, of course, but the fact that she offered, when she'd only just met us, was incredibly humbling.

After thanking her as much as we could, which didn't seem like enough, we got a taxi to our hotel. The taxi driver charged us a pretty high amount for a fairly short journey. High by Iranian standards anyway. We knew they raised their prices a bit for tourists anyway, but still, this was the only time in Iran that we felt ripped off by a taxi driver. Only a minor annoyance though.

We stayed at Iran Hotel. Not an imaginative name but a decent place. It was kinda similar to the hotel in Shiraz, in terms of the quality and general feel of the place, but without the mess and fumes. The breakfast was basically the same as well, but very slightly nicer - a choice of jams, nicer bread and a bonus glass of orange squash. We had a similar toilet problem to when we were in Tehran though - it got blocked and kept filling up. Someone came fairly quickly to sort it out though and then it was fine after that.

If, for some strange reason, I had to live in one of the places we visited in Iran, I'd choose Esfahan. It seemed cleaner than the other cities, plus a bit more... upmarket, for want of a better (and less snobby) word.

The main area to visit in Esfahan is Imam Square. We went there a few times, both during the day and at night. Weirdly, the first time we were making our way there from our hotel, we bumped into the French couple we met in Shiraz! They weren't staying in the same hotel as us this time though.

Imam Square is a popular tourist spot but also a popular place for the locals to hang out, especially in the evenings. Iranians seem to like sitting outside and having picnics in the evenings. We'd noticed it in other cities too but it seemed particularly prevelant in Esfahan. Imam Square seemed to be a favoured spot for this for some people as they like getting to chat to the tourists. I lost track of how many people approached us and chatted to us while walking around the square. Teenage girls seemed especially keen; wanting to get photos with us and exchange e-mail addresses and stuff (though none have actually e-mailed me thus far). There was also a young guy who wanted to add us on Facebook. Facebook's one of the websites that's blocked in Iran but plenty of Iranians seemingly have software to get around that problem.

As well as the main square and a few mosques that are worth taking in, there are a couple of bridges that are must-see tourist destinations. They get crowded with people in the evenings too. Here's one of them during the day (note that the river was completely absent, which was a shame):

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Iran Hotel doesn't have its own restaurant, sadly, so after the convenience of Silk Road we were back to needing to hunt out purveyors of food. Unfortunately, the area we were staying in seemed to consist almost entirely of clothes shops and small fast-food outlets with entirely Persian menus. On our first night, after walking around for quite a while, we settled for a pizza and burgers place, largely because they had English menus. On our first full day, however, we ventured further afield for food. We'd done some online research and noted down a few possible places. However, these turned out to be either too expensive or impossible to find. We ended up going to a restaurant near Imam Square, which hadn't had great reviews but looked ok, had English menus and was open. That was good enough by this point! It was a traditional-style restaurant, in the sense that you sit down on the low wooden platform things with rugs on top. I'm sure they must have some kind of name, but I don't know what it is. Anyway, they look really cool and it makes everyone seem quite relaxed, though they're really not that comfortable. Your bum goes numb fairly quickly. Still, it's a cool experience. The food there was ok, though not great - we could understand the mediocre reviews.

Here's Jamie in the restaurant:
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On the following day, however, we went to another restaurant near Imam Square. It's just through one of the bazaars that surround the square and there are quite a few signs to it. It's just called something like Traditional Banquet Hall. We'd spotted it on the previous night but it hadn't been open yet, so we decided to go there the following day. It was a similar set-up to the other place, being another traditional-style restaurant, but the food was so much nicer. We both went for an aubergine dish, which was really really nice - possibly my favourite meal I had in Iran. It was a fairly basic thing really, not dissimilar to babaganoosh, but with some salad bits and lots of bread, it was the perfect meal for our last full day in Iran.

We still had most of the next day in Esfahan but just chilled out at the hotel after checking out; using the wi-fi in the lobby. We nipped out for some food quickly and then got a taxi to the bus station.

On arrival at the bus station, the taxi driver didn't just drop us off, he actually parked up and helped us find out where we needed to catch our bus from, which was really sweet. He charged a lot less than the guy had who'd driven us into Esfahan when we'd arrived, so that guy had definitely ripped us off, but hey, he was a definite minority in an incredibly generous country.

We were on another VIP bus - this one travelling into the night and dropping us off at Tehran airport in the early hours of the morning. We then didn't have too long to wait until we could check in for our flight to St Petersburg. I remember spending quite a bit of time queuing in Tehran airport, but aside from that it was all fine.

It was quite nice to get on the plane and to take my head scarf and ugly shirt off, though it felt a bit weird as well; I'd gotten used to needing to wear them. I also took full advantage of the free booze inflight! After nearly 2 weeks of being tee-total, it was quite a treat to have a G&T and a glass of red wine. Thanks Emirates!

I referred to our flight to St Petersburg but we actually flew to Dubai first and changed flights there. Our Iranian adventure had ended but our Russian adventure was about to begin.*

*Apologies for that mega-cheesy ending!

Posted by chantalpatton 05:36 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

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