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Slow train to China.

STANDING on Platform One of a Moscow train station, I looked at what was to be my home for the next four nights.

Train No 10: the Baikal Express.

Running from Moscow to Irkutsk, in the heart of Siberia, it would take me on the first leg of my Trans-Mongolian trek.

It was a journey that would see me travelling 5,000 miles across six time zones, through Siberian forests and over the Mongolian Steppe, then crossing the Gobi Desert into China.

The Trans-Mongolian Express is one of the classic rail journeys of the world, connecting Moscow with Beijing.

It would take just under a week to complete the journey non-stop - but I intended to spend two weeks travelling the route, hopping off at Irkutsk and Ulaan Baatar.

My holiday had begun two days earlier when I first arrived in Moscow. I had pre-booked a room - a necessity in order to obtain a Russian visa - at the Gamma Delta Hotel in the Izmaylovo district.

Izmaylovo is home to a large, bustling outdoor market selling all kinds of handicrafts and souvenirs, as well as Izmay-lovsky Park - a former Tsarist hunting reserve with its royal estate.

But the area is probably best seen as a convenient place to stay because it is easily connected to the city centre by the metro.

The Moscow metro is a tourist attraction in itself, with many of the imposing stations lined with marble and decorated with statues, bas-reliefs and even chandeliers. It is also easy to navigate, cheap and reliable.

Once in the centre of Moscow, I headed straight for Red Square around which all the most famous sights are located.

The Kremlin wall runs down one side, beneath which lies Lenin's tomb. St Basil's Cathedral, with its striking onion domes, stands at the far end from the State History Museum, while the GUM shopping arcade completes the other side.

The entrance to the Kremlin is through the peaceful Aleksan-drovsky Garden, a popular spot for people to hang out and relax.

A bridge crossing over the garden leads into the Kremlin and to the buildings from which Russia has been ruled by an assortment of Tsars, dictators and presidents to this very day.

Of the many different styles to be seen, by far the most impressive architecture belongs to the trio of cathedrals - the Assumption, Annunciation and Archangel - gathered around an open plaza.

They are justly famous for their gleaming white walls, golden domes and brightly decorated interiors.

A short walk through some of the surrounding streets took me in the direction of the Arbat district.

Old Arbat Street is a bit of a bohemian spot - a pedestrianised street full of buskers and street entertainers, with market stalls selling artworks and souvenirs.

Here, you'll also find a wide range of restaurants, some with menus in English, handy if you don't know your Cyrillic alphabet. After two busy days trying to see as much as possible, it was time for me to catch my train.

I was to be travelling in a comfortable four-berth compartment with clean linen provided - including sheets, blanket, pillow and towel - on a carriage of nine compartments ith a toilet at each end. Two carriage attendants, known as 'provodnitsas', were on hand to keep the carriage spotlessly clean the entire journey. Along with a samovar providing hot water for drinks, a regular trolley service selling snacks and a dining car, all the basic necessities were taken care of.

There was nothing left to do but sit back, relax and enjoy the spectacular panoramic scenery as it unfurled outside the window. Seemingly endless forests of silver birch, with the occasional village of painted wooden houses, would suddenly open up to vast areas of grassland, marsh or broad rivers that meandered across the landscape.

And, of course, there was ample time to get to know my travelling companions.

I was lucky that most of the Russians I was sharing a cabin with could speak English and were happy to chat, telling me about life in Russia and asking me about England.

A timeta ble was provided of all our stops, so it was possible at some of the longer ones to hop off the train to buy food from the platform vendors and kiosks, and admire some of the grander stations along the route.

At Irkutsk, however, it was time to say goodbye to my new Russian friends, with lots of handshaking, friendly advice and good wishes for the rest of my trip. I could happily have spent longer on the train, but it was now time to see Lake Baikal, known as the Pearl of Siberia and the largest freshwater lake in the world.

A short bus journey from Irkutsk took me to the lakeside fishing village of Listvyanka - a narrow strip of wooden houses that runs along the southwestern shore of the lake - where I was spending two days in a 'homestay'.

This can mean basic accommodation with outdoor toilet so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was staying in a brand new chalet-style guesthouse with en-suite bathroom and 24-hour hot water and power shower.

It was welcome after four nights on a train.

Walking up the steep wooded slopes behind the village took me to splendid viewpoints which looked out over the lake, as it disappeared over the horizon, to the distant snowcapped peaks of the mountains on the far shore.

But then there was the question of what else to do in a small village like Listvyanka.

There was also a small market selling handicrafts, which allowed me a final chance to stock up on Russian souvenirs as the next day I was returning to Irkutsk to catch the train to Ulaan Baatar.

Thankfully, this was a much shorter journey of 36 hours, skirting the southern shore of Lake Baikal before heading south across rolling hills and open grasslands - over which numerous eagles flew - and into Mongolia.

After a stop of several hours on the border for customs formalities, we arrived at Ulaan Baatar in the early hours of the morning.

Ulaan Baatar is a city that is very much geared up for western backpackers, with a friendly relaxed atmosphere and a wide variety of eating and drinking places. Irish pubs seemed particularly popular!

There are also numerous travel agents who can organise excursions and activities out in the countryside.

I was only staying for two days, which seemed just about the right amount of time to explore the city itself, with the centre being relatively compact and easy to walk around.

As a fairly modern city, in fact, there aren't many sights to see. Just off the main square are two state museums with the National History Museum having some interesting dinosaur exhibits.

There are also a couple of Buddhist monasteries that are worth seeing, including Gan-den Khiid - the largest and most important in Mongolia - with an 88ft tall golden Buddha.

I was soon on my way again, this time on the final and shortest leg to Beijing, setting off early morning and arriving there the following afternoon. This time we were behind a steam locomotive belonging to Mongolian Railways.

Heading south, the grasslands soon became more and more arid until they finally became the sands of the Gobi desert.

Reaching the border with China, we had another wait of several hours - and not just for customs.

Russian and Mongolian trains run on a different gauge to China so the bogies needed to be changed. This was done by shunting the carriages into a large shed and raising them up on hydraulic jacks, all while we were still on board.

After a final night on the train, I awoke next day to glimpses of the Great Wall, as we passed through narrow valleys with steep wooded hillsides, and the realisation that we were now only hours from Beijing and the end of the journey.

I am fortunate enough to have visited Beijing before, so this time I was travelling onwards straight away.

But with its many famous sights - The Forbidden City, Tianamen Square and Great Wall - there is more than enough to take up a few days of anyone's time

FACT FILE

Train tickets and accommodation were pre-booked as part of a Sundowners Independent Adventures package through Trailfinders.

A 14-day trip from Moscow to Beijing, travelling on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, starts from pounds 855 including hotels, meals and sightseeing. Flights are extra.

For more information call 020 8877 7666, click on www.sundownerstravel.com or www.trailfinders.com.

The new Sundowners brochure Trans-Siberian Railway & the Silk Road' for 2007/8 is now available.

In order to get a Russian visa, accommodation must be pre-booked and a letter of invitation from the hotel or a travel agent obtained.

SundayMercury@mrn.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

It is one of the world's classic train journeys, travelling from Russia to China on the Trans-Mongolian Railway. MARK CLEMENTS steps onboard for the adventure of a lifetime.; ALL ABOARD: the Trans-Mongolian Express winds its way through the Russian steppes; DOME: the Kremlin; FINAL FRONTIER: the railway's route; QUAINT STREETS: a shaded road in Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia - a surprising tourist trap
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:May 6, 2007
Words:1527
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