A Travellerspoint blog

October 2013

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)

Yazd, Iran (5th - 8th September)

In Yazd we stayed at the Silk Road Hotel. We'd read some reviews online where people had booked to stay there, turned up, but then been moved to one of the other hotels owned by the same people instead (some of which don't have great reviews). This slightly put us off booking there, but it was difficult to find anywhere else in Yazd that sounded as good and reasonable, so we took the risk. Happily it paid off and we did get to stay at Silk Road. Although it's called a hotel it's generally described as being more like a hostel. I guess it is more like a hostel than a hotel, but it's not really like a hostel either. I'd say it was most similar to the riads we stayed at in Morocco. It was a beautiful traditional-style place, with bedrooms located around a central open-aired courtyard. Our room was nice and the ensuite was one like we'd had in Fez; where the shower's just in the middle of the room, not in its own cubicle. That was the same everywhere we stayed in Iran, with the exception of Tehran. They supply you with plastic slipper things though, so you can keep your feet dry when going to the toilet after the shower's been used.

The hotel courtyard:
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Ooh, another innovation we discovered in Iran (though have since seen in Russia too), which we thought was genius, was having buttons on tables in restaurants, which you press to call a waiter/waitress over. So simple, but it means you don't have to wait around or try and catch someone's eye when you want to order or get the bill.

Anyway, back to Yazd... Yazd was ridiculously hot. All of Iran was hot, of course, but Yazd was the hottest place we went. This meant we spent quite a while lounging around in the shade in the hotel courtyard. And eating ice-cream.

The main attractions of Yazd are probably the Jame Mosque (AKA Friday Mosque) and the old town area. The old town area's really nice to walk around - lots of narrow winding pathways with mud walls. We did, however, read that it's not a good place for women to walk around on their own in the dark, as they're liable to get groped by men on motorbikes, so we stuck to a daytime walk together!

The old town:
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One of the best places we went to in Yazd was the museum right next to the Jame Mosque. It's just the one small room filled with various artifacts, which wouldn't be worth a special mention on its own, but the guy who works there is brilliant. He guides you around all the artifacts, explaining what they are. The most impressive thing in there is this long thin piece of paper that has the entire Qu'ran written on it in tiny writing. It's written in a decorative pattern as well; it's incredibly intricate.

After you've finished looking at all the artifacts, the curator guy will give you a free Persian lesson, which was fun. You go through it quite quickly, so we didn't actually retain any of the information, but it was still really enjoyable. The guy also likes to learn about where you're from and will ask questions about your country and culture. If you're in Yazd, you have to go. It's not free but it's pretty cheap.

One of the best things about staying at the Silk Road was that they had a really good food menu which you could order off at any time. It had quite a few veggie options too, so we just ate there every night. The breakfast was good too - a buffet that wasn't as extensive as the Tehran hotel but was still a decent selection (and far better than the minimal breakfast in Shiraz).

There's a travel agency that operates through Silk Road, offering tours and such like. We considered taking a half-day tour of Yazd with them, but it was about $20! That was about what we paid for the Persepolis and Necropolis tour, which was decent value for that, but not for a trip around Yazd. We just looked around ourselves instead. However the agency were useful for booking our onwards bus to Esfahan. They were better than the agency in Shiraz, who provided us with minimal info - this time we got tickets printed out for us and were told which company we were travelling with and everything.

On the day we left we got a taxi to the bus station. It was slightly unclear as to where we were meant to catch the bus from, but some people pointed us in the right direction. We had a VIP bus for this journey. These are slightly more expensive (as the name would suggest), but still cheap by European standards. The seats are bigger (only 3 on each row - 2 on one side, 1 on the other) and you get given snacks on board, which is nice. We were sat right at the front, so had a good view out the windscreen. We also had a good view of the driver, which was entertaining. Although he was sat below a sign that indicated no smoking and no mobile phone use, he managed to do both simultaneously, whilst also driving the bus. It was impressive and troubling at the same time. He also managed to make himself cups of tea while he was driving - it was fascinating.

Posted by chantalpatton 05:17 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

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