A Taste of South Korea

One of the many pork barbecues we sampled

Simply delicious. There is no better way to describe the small piece of Korea that we were lucky enough to see, or taste, as the case mainly was. We already knew we loved Korean food from what we had sampled before at restaurants back home, but trying the authentic versions was something else. And, although we did do a lot of eating, it wasn’t just the food that left our mouths watering for more, with the capital Seoul turning out to be one of the cooler cities we have been to and somewhere we would love to spend more time in. We went to Korea, as Seoul is one of the few places that you can fly directly to from Mongolia. This meant we only treated it as a stopover, but looking back we would have loved to have spent longer to check out more of the country. We were only there for four nights and although we did pack a lot in, we were left with a feeling of wanting more.

We arrived at Incheon Airport at about 4am after only a 3 hour flight, so were definitely a bit on the shattered side, with no sleep happening. But at the airport we were met with the efficiency, cleanliness and organisation that is synonymous with Korea. Although it is one massive airport, finding the bus we needed and generally getting out of the place was just so easy. Arriving at our hostel we were met with some of the excellent customer service that we experienced through our entire stay. We weren’t meant to be able to check in to midday, but when we rocked up at 7am there was a note on the door saying the room was ready and to ring a phone number as the staff member was sleeping near the counter. Within minutes we had a full, although rather sleepy, description of the area and its attractions and were in our room and getting a few hours sleep ourselves.

A tasty Spicy Pork Stirfry

From the time we woke up just after midday our Korea eating experience started. Being there for such a short time we wanted to get as much in as we could, so we were definitely a bit on the gluttonous side of things. For this first meal we went to one of the cheap eateries that the hostel had recommended and promptly ordered far too much. For about $8 we got two plates of sushi, a spicy pork stir fry and a wanton soup, plus the other five free side dishes that are common with any Korean meal. The food was excellent and we were left patting our bellies and heading home for another lie down.

Hite – one of a few delicious Korean beers

Well rested, we headed out to drink some Hite, as that is our favourite Korean beer at restaurants back home. We quickly found that Cass is a cheaper and equally tasty equivalent. Jared felt a little “soft” declaring that these are some of his favourite beers in the world, as they are extremely smooth and easy to drink and true beer aficionados would probably say they lack flavour, but they just go down so well. After a few beers we decided we had to frequent one of the many establishments offering fried chicken and beer as their main drawcard. This turned out to be a great idea as we had maybe the best deep fried chicken we have ever had. We chose the boneless pieces, although most locals seemed to go for bones in, and were given a big plate of juicy morsels with an awesome crispy coating.

Crunchy and tasty – deep fried spaghetti

As an aside this place had maybe one of the best bar snacks we have tried also, deep fried spaghetti noodles. They were coated in salt so the crunchy goodness was very moreish.  With a good layering of fried food in us we went out and met some locals and ex-pats in what was a rather lively bar scene for a Thursday evening.

After a few too many samples of the local beers on our night out, a lot of Friday was spent relaxing. We had a food tour booked for that evening so wanted to ensure we were in the best condition for it, as it consisted of a bit of walking to go along with all the eating.

Wrapping a grilled pork morsel in sesame leaf

The tour was great fun. Our host Chuck showed us around four different eating establishments, which meant four different styles of Korean eating. For us the highlight was the first stop where we were able to try a traditional Korean style barbeque. Here we grilled fresh pork side(?) meat over hot charcoals until it got a nice crispy BBQ coating. We then learnt how to correctly wrap each piece in either a sesame or lettuce leaf, along with your own selection of soya bean paste, garlic, shallots, salt, and soy sauce. The end product was a mouthful of absolute deliciousness. The second place had a few traditional Korean dishes. With found the rice cakes a bit on the gluggy side, but the Kimchi pancake we had here was the best example we have had of one of our Korean favourites. The third stop was a restaurant that specialised in a chicken dish from the south of the country. Everyone at the restaurant was just getting big shared bowls of this, which was like an Asian chicken stew. The flavour was tasty enough, although as we were starting to get a little on the full side we didn’t eat too much of this one. On our way to the fourth place we happened upon a shop making string honey sweets. We had seen the guys making these before on TV, so knew they had a very theatrical way of making the fine strings of honey coated in flour. They put on a good show as they sing and count in English and the final product is a tasty and interesting sweet. Click here to check out a quick video we made of their show. The final stop of the tour was a huge food market. We had a bit of a look around, with people everywhere eating any and everything.

Kimchi – anything and everything in the Korean style

One area had people eating raw mince, liver and tripe, which we were glad was not the place we were stopping. Another area had 100s of types of Kimchi with all types of vegetable and seafood pickled in the spicy traditional style. Jared tried a Kimchi crab which you ate shell and all, and although a little on the crunchy side, was quite tasty. The place we stopped to eat at specialised in Mung Bean pancakes which are quite a yummy and wholesome fried treat. We also had pigs ear, blood sausage and lung to snack on here and although Jared did give the sausage a try none were as appealing as the pancakes by a long way. All in all the food tour was a great way to experience Korean cuisine and although it was a little on the pricey side for what you get, the fun of being in a group and having an English speaking guide to ask questions to made it an enjoyable and informative evening.

Mung Bean pancake expert

Looking out towards North Korea with the world’s biggest flag centre of shot

On the Saturday we did one of the few things that didn’t involve filling our bellies, with a tour to the DMZ. This is the DeMilitarized Zone where the Korean peninsula splits between the communist North and the capitalist and flourishing South. The half day tour we did was a bit rushed, but we did get a good feeling for how the South really do want unification (maybe on their terms), while the North is more about protecting what they have (from most reports poverty and propaganda). Some interesting things included the Freedom Bridge which has a lot of messages left by Southern residents for families and friends in the North; the Dorasan Rail Station, which has a closed entry gate for all trains north and is where South Korea hopes it will eventually be able to have trains go through that link it with China, Russia and ultimately Europe;

Standing with the guard blocking the passage to North Korea at the rail station

a lookout point where we were able to see the heavily deforested North Korea, which was due to their fear that if there were trees there this would give people somewhere to sneak through to escape and has now ruined the land; having to stand behind a line to take photos at the lookout, because if we got too close the glare off the camera may be a target, even though there were fixed binoculars to look through that had glass lens and were much closer; and a big North Korean flag that has been part of a tit for tat process with the South as they vie for the world’s biggest flag, although the North Korean’s is based in a fake town that has the shells of houses made to look like a prosperous town, where in all reality there are no people there and there is no way the North would let any of its citizens live that close to the border. Quite an interesting tour, but it didn’t get us much closer to one of the most troubling questions we sometimes ponder: “How would you get the North Koreans, both its leaders and its people, to a position to be able to become part of the global community and not live in the dark, both literally and figuratively, like they currently do?”.

Burger – Itaewon style

With the political side of our stay over it was now time to get back to eating our way through the rest of Seoul for our remaining days. The night of the tour we went out to a busy local barbeque place and had more great grilled pork. There was no English here but we still managed to get some good pieces of pork shoulder (?) that we cooked ourselves, along with a couple of Cass’s to wash it down. The following day we went on a hop on hop off bus tour to take in a few of the sites. Here we stopped in the ex-pat/tourist mecca of Itaewon, where the streets are dominated by foreigners and the shops sell all labels from Nike to Gucci. We decided seen as we were in a foreign area we would try something a bit different so went for the Korean style burger (and also some tasty spicy fried chicken).  The burger had a great sauce on it and the patty was OK, but we have definitely had better burgers on our travels, so decided we should stick to the local specialties. Being our final night we decided we had to give one of the BBQ spots near our hostel a go, so headed out for some more grilled pork which again was absolutely divine.

Some delicious fried chicken for desert to wash down our grilled pork main

The cook-it-yourself pork was definitely our favourite, but this was closely followed by the fried chicken, so we headed back to the same place we had been to on the first night for another plate of the deep-fried goodness and weren’t disappointed second time around. After a couple of Hites to wash it down we waddled back to our hotel thinking we could definitely live in this city, but how do the locals manage to stay so skinny? We would be huge with all this great food on offer at reasonable prices.

Relaxing at a temple in the centre of town

Although we did spend a lot of our time eating, Seoul does have a lot of other cool stuff to check out too. We did manage to walk along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, which goes right through the centre of the city and is quite surreal walking through the picturesque waterways with waterfalls and stepping stones to cross, but with massive skyscrapers towering on either side.  There is also a lot of Palaces that are very tranquil places to check out and we managed to get to one of these as well, which was great to walk around the ancient grounds and check out the old buildings that housed royalty in bygone eras. But overall for us this trip was all about the food and it did not disappoint. It is a big call, as there are so many cuisines that we love, beers we have drunken and cities that we have been to, but after being there for only five days we may just have to put Korea up there as having our favourite food, beer and city of the entire world. Well, that was our feeling upon leaving anyway; maybe we will have to head back sometime soon to confirm it.

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Mongolia – Journeys to the Wild Wild East (Part 2)

This is the second part of our blog of our times in Mongolia. For Part 1 click here.


Day 6

Searching for dinosaur bones at The Flaming Cliffs

Another relaxing morning as didn’t have to leave the Khongor dunes too early as was not going to be a lot of driving. Fried bread with nutella for breakfast. Mellow drive, stopped at some stalls in the middle of nowhere desert selling rocks and quartz. Had lunch in a small town in a local ger that did dumplings. They were super tasty plus Llama got us a nice cold bottle of coke to go with them. It was the first coke of the journey. Continued on for about 45 minutes driving to the Flaming Cliffs. These big orangey-red cliffs just jutted out of the desert on all angles. Pretty cool landscape to see. Plus this is where in the 1920s they found lots of dinosaur bones, including a couple of full skeletons and the first time in the world that dinosaur eggs were found. Despite his best efforts, Jared only managed to find stones that looked like bones. Although he didn’t try the test that Llama suggested, which was to lick the bone. If it stuck to your tongue it’s bone, if not it’s rock.

We managed to have a shower that night for the first time on the trip. It was only luke warm but still very nice. We stayed in the host family’s ger that night, felt a bit bad kicking them out, especially considering there was a super strong wind that blew all evening and through the night. The family had to stay in the kitchen ger and in cars.


Day 7

Inside one of the local family’s ger

Despite the ferocious winds for the entire night we had pretty good sleeps. It was Llama style sushi for breakfast. Rice, cabbage, carrot rolled in seaweed; quite tasty and a bit different. Then we had a short drive to a small village. There was very much nothing going on here and we had to wonder what the people living here must do, both for fun and for work. We had horse meat for lunch, served in a deep fried style pie. It was actually quite tasty, although Tess did have a few issues eating horse. She got through most of it and our bellies didn’t seem to have any negative repercussions.

The grounds around Ongi Monastery – once busy with hundreds of Buddhist monks and their temples

Upon leaving the village it seemed that we are now heading out of the Gobi. Things started to get a bit greener and after a couple of hours, forty minutes or so in the wrong direction, we reached the Ongi River, site of the Ongi monastery. This was the prettiest location we have stayed so far, next to the meandering river with hills all around. It’s definitely a lot colder out of the Gobi and all our winter clothes are starting to come out. We walked for 10 minutes to the Ongi monastery and on the way learnt its sad story from Llama. At one time the complex, which spanned 3 sites and had 30 or so temples, housed up to 1000 monks. It was built in the 17th century, but was unfortunately destroyed in the 1920s when communism took over in the country. As well as all the buildings and temples being destroyed 200 or so monks were executed, which really makes it a bit of a sad place. They have rebuilt one temple so far and plan to do more. We were able to check out the temple, which was very much like the Tibetan Buddhism style. There was also a Museum ger which had some interesting artifacts that had been found in the area. It would have been an awesome complex in its day and it’s horrible to think that it was man that destroyed it all. And so recently too.

Back at the ger we stayed inside to keep out of the cold wind as best we could and got extra blankets for the night. Llamas beef stew and rice also did good to help us warm up.

Day 8

Eating up the KMs with Agi at the wheel and the snow in the background

An early start for us today, out of the ger camp by 9am. Although, most of the tourists we have come across usually leave by that time or earlier, it is good to have a guide and driver with similar time schedules to us. It was a bit of a long drive today. We got to the town for lunch about 12.30 (beef and capsicum stir fry with rice) and then drove for a few more hours to another town where we stopped for a bit so Agi could procure brake pads for the Land Cruiser. He must have been a rally driver in previous life as he has been powering through the rough terrain all day, overtaking any vehicle we come across with ease. Pretty cool to have such a fast driver, but also a little on the bumpy and scary side at times.

Keeping warm in the ger with Agi and a few vodkas

As we eat up the kilometres out of the Gobi the landscape has changed a lot. The big thing has been more grass, which means more animals, more people, more gers, more roads and more towns. The only thing there has been less of is the heat. It is getting pretty cold and on the way to tonight’s camp we have even seen some snow on the hilltops. We were stoked when we arrived at camp and the first thing the host family did was get a fire going in our ger. We were then happy to get off to see the nearby Orkhon Waterfall, only 10 minutes walk, as we knew we were coming back to some snuggly warmth. The waterfall itself was quite a nice one. Not too high or wide but big enough to be worth a look. Like all things Mongolian there was not much health and safety happening and it was a little disconcerting watching the families go so close to the edge to take photos.

It was great to head back to our ger with the fire cranking. Then to help us warm up more Agi turned up with a bottle of Mongolian vodka. We had a fun evening with him, even though he does not speak much English. We were able to find out he was a childrens doctor (paediatrician, we presume), had a wife and two kids, and had lived in Korea for 5 years, amongst other things. It was a fun night.


Day 9

After drinking far too much vodkas the previous night with Agi it was a bit of a slow and ill feeling start to the day. Llama’s fried luncheon and eggs struggled to go down, but at least we had the fire going to get us moving on this cold morning. The fire had gone out during the night and Tess had gotten pretty cold, but they came and re-lit it first thing, so was nice and hot before we even got out of bed.

Soaking in the hot spring pool

The drive for the day wasn’t a long one but was more of what we imagined the majority of Mongolia must look like. Big river valleys with even bigger rolling hills on either side. Picture postcard stuff everywhere you look. Especially when you add in the local farmer’s gers and livestock, as well as lots of majestic eagles flying everywhere. Our stop for the night was the hot springs. The spring itself is about 70 degrees and pipes water to the various tourist ger camps in the area so that they all have their own hot pools. Even though the weather had warmed up a bit (maybe 15 degrees) and the sun was out, it was still nice to soak for a while in what was water about the same temperature as a good bath. It was especially nice considering it was the first proper hot water we had on tour, with the other showers we’ve had being tepid at best. After the soak we had a good shower as well, although Jared had to sneak into the ladies, as the men’s was not hot. Pretty silly considering the ample supply of hot water around the place.

After the soak we took a walk to the spring itself. We ran into a guide taking a big tour who was part Kiwi (although her group were Danish) so was interesting to have a chat to her. We went for a quick walk in the nearby forest and returned to Llama freaking out that we might be lost in the forest. Pretty funny considering we were only gone about an hour, but at least it shows she cares. It was a pretty quiet evening with a nice big fire and Llama staying in the ger with us, as the camp was fully booked out.


Day 10

We awoke to a frozen morning, with a solid frost everywhere even on the outside of the ger. Luckily they got the fire started early and inside the ger it was toasty warm. We drove through more of the classic rolling green hills and river valleys, until we came to a larger town. It was super busy with lots of families turning up with slaughtered animals for the butchers and vegetables for the markets, as well as all manner of dairy products, from fresh milk through to dried curd. Llama did some shopping and we had a bit of a look around. From here we drove for about 100kms on a quite nice sealed road. This is the first time we have been on sealed road for more than a few hundred metres since the morning of the first day. The landscape continued on in its awesome nature, as we cruised along the river flat, with big hills on either side, some with a fresh dusting of snow. We stopped at a deep gorged rocky river before going a little further to a small town for lunch of traditional Mongolian noodles and mutton.

Chilling out at the White Lake

From there it was only 30 minutes until we reached the White Lake which is where we are staying for a couple of nights. Apart from the fact our ger is on a bit of a lean, it is an awesome location with the lake sprawling out in front of us. As the day had heated up nicely we spent the afternoon in the sun relaxing, before Llama made another noodle dish for dinner. Once the sun dropped so did the temperature but the fire in our ger was the hottest yet and we were super cozy for the evening.


Day 11

These Horses at the White Lake don’t look so scary

We awoke to another fine day. We were meant to be going for horse-riding for four hours to a volcano, however, as we watched them get the horses ready we were put off. The horses kept bolting off and looked very skittish, so we decided horse-riding wasn’t for us, as we were already a little on the apprehensive side of things. Four out of five of a Dutch group staying at the guest camp did go on the horses and as they set off it looked pretty mellow, so maybe we would have been alright. But we were happy to go for a scenic walk around the lake which was nice and relaxing. As the wind dropped it turned out to be quite a warm day we had a great four hour walk and ate sandwiches packed by Llama on a little peninsula on the lake. It was a great spot and good to be off by ourselves for a laidback day.

Traditional Horhog – old school pressure-cooking

When we got back to the camp we chilled out for a bit before Llama came and got us to say it was time to cook the Horhog, a traditional Mongolian meal. It had been described to us as something that sounded similar to a hangi, but it turned out to be more like a pressure cooker. They heated up some rocks in the fire and filled a pot with hot water, along with all the mutton (bones in) and vegetables. They then chucked the hot rocks in and put on the sealed lid. The whole thing was cooked in about 40 minutes, which was well quick considering how much food there was. It was a nice feed too, as the mutton was a lot more tender cooked in this way than what it usually is. It was a pretty early meal which meant an early night’s sleep, with another roaring fire to stave off the cold.


Day 12

We think Llama might be running out of options for meals now, as, although she is trying to make us something different every day, today’s breakfast of bread and nutella was definitely on the plain side. Although she did bring some sweet pancakes the local family had made, but overall it was a little sweet for us for a breakfast. We wouldn’t mind double ups if it was like the nice omelettes or French toast we had on the early days.

Agi was back in great driving form today, after he slept most of yesterday, as had had a big night of drinking on our first night at White Lake. We weren’t sure who he was drinking with but he was still worse for wear the following morning and was trying to sell Jared what looked like a dead animal skin. We found out from Llama that this was a Marmot, which is another traditional Mongolian thing, where they cook the meat by putting hot stones inside the gutted animal. Luckily he fell asleep and this didn’t proceed any further later in the day. And now he is back in typically great form and we ate up the KMs, back on the sealed road heading in the direction of Ulaan Bataar. We decided that we were so close that we will head all the way back tomorrow and do one less day of the tour than expected, as there is not much planned for the next day anyway.

Kharkhorum Monastery

Today we stopped at the ancient capital Karakorum. This is the city that the son of Genghis Khan built to give the Mongolian people their first city and capital in the 13th century. The ancient city does not remain, but there is still one of the holiest monasteries in the country which is nearly as old as the city. We had a good look around the monastery and like what we had seen at Ongi, the Mongolian style of Buddhism definitely takes it roots from the Tibetan style, with very similar artworks and forms of devotion. Although this monastery was closed down during communism it didn’t meet the same level of destruction as Ongi, so there are still a number of buildings in close to their original form.

Traditional Mongolian music on the Horse Fiddle

It was another ger for our last night, although this was more like a hotel ger, with a number of them on a plot of land in the town. There was also a full bathroom complex and a small restaurant area. We found out the daughter of the owners works for Khongor Tours, so it is no wonder they had a lot more of the creature comforts here than in some of the more remote places we have stayed. We had a great evening’s entertainment as a 60-year-old local put on a solo concert for us all. He spoke a bit of English too, so was able to give little introductions to what he was doing as he played various folk songs on traditional instruments like the horse fiddle, the harp and the flute. He also did a couple of songs using traditional Mongolian throat singing, which was both different and enjoyable.


Day 13

A very quiet day today, just heading back to UB. Not much on the tourist perspective, apart from another lunch of traditional noodles and mutton. We definitely will be happy to get back to UB and eat some different types of food, as we really are over the chewy mutton that is just oh so common. The drive back was pretty quick, until we hit the outskirts of UB. The capital roads were awful, both rough and packed with cars. It was a slow final few KMs, and we were sad to be finished in the Mongolian wilderness, but it was kinda cool being back in a city too and moving onto the next part of our travels.

More new and old in Ulaan Bataar – Monastery in foreground, high rise in the back

 So that is it for our time in Mongolia. In particular this tour we did with Khongor Guesthouse was one of the best tours we have been on and is a highlight of the 6 months of travelling we have done so far. As mentioned earlier, Mongolia as a country is going through a massive period of change at the moment. Like so many developing countries there is a massive conflict between embracing the change or sticking to the old ways. This is even more evident once you get out of Ulaan Bataar, as the nomad farmers do things so similar to the way they have done it for 100s of years. The mining dollars will be what makes the difference as this starts to trickle down to everyone. It is hard to know if this is happening yet, as those like our guide Llama says she would like to see things remain the same. But the thing is that she wanted to get a cell phone like Tess’s android, to replace her Nokia she already has, and she likes modern fashion also. It is this contradiction that Mongolians are going to have to learn to overcome, as modernisation is inevitable, given the wealth of minerals under their lands and the force of countries like China to desire those minerals. The hope we have is that the wilderness will not be the loser in this process, nor the Mongolian people, as both are beautiful the way they are and it would be awful to see this change too much due to the influences of outsiders. Mongolia is an amazing country so hopefully it will stay that way for future generations.

For a short video about our time in Mongolia click here

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Mongolia – Journeys to the Wild Wild East (Part 1)

The Flaming Cliffs – just one of the multitude of amazing landscapes on offer in Mongolia

Mongolia is easily the least developed and most wild country we have ever been to. And we absolutely loved it. It is not wild in a party sense or even a criminal sense; it is wild for its massive amounts of wilderness. The country is huge and a great majority of it is sparsely populated with nomad farmers, so once you get out of the town you feel like you could be back in the time of Genghis Khan and the birth of this nation. Although the Land Cruiser that we were in for our tour, the satellite TV dishes and solar panels most people owned and the modern style dress are all probably a bit different than how it would have been in those days, but not much else seems to have changed. In the cities things are starting to change at a great rate of knots, but in the countryside it is like stepping back in time.

The view of Ulaan Bataar from Unlce Graemes

We were lucky, as we had Tess’s uncle Graeme living in the capital city, Ulaan Bataar, which meant we had somewhere to stay and someone to give us some background information on the country in general. As he holds a senior position in one of the mining companies and has been in Mongolia for a few years he has a nice apartment, a driver and a wealth of knowledge about the place, all of which we were lucky to have access too. We stayed at Graeme’s for a few days on arrival, mainly to get a bit of a recharge after our Trans-Siberian train journey. It was good to be able to have a few home cooked meals and generally just relax while we did some research into what type of tour we wanted to do, as we had heard this was the best way to see Mongolia. We also stayed at Graeme’s upon our return and we were lucky to have Aunty Dorrie there too, so she could catch up on family stuff with Tess, as well as sharing the wealth of knowledge she also has about Mongolia.

The new and old of UB – Uncle Graeme’s apartment building on left, new office complex and an old Russian WW2 tank

UB itself is a pretty crazy city, with more construction and development going on here than maybe anywhere else in the world we have seen. The mining dollar is driving the urbanisation of the country and apartment buildings are shooting up everywhere. Graeme pointed out to us what was the tallest building when he had first come to Mongolia about 5 years ago; there are now maybe 6 or 7 taller than it. The infrastructure, in particular the roads, are struggling to keep up and this is one of the many things the Mongolian government needs to work on to bring their country nearer to the developed world. At times the trip to Graeme’s office, that should take about 10 minutes, can take an hour or more due to the traffic jams. And it is not just the quality of the roads either, the quality of drivers need working on too, with Mongolians taking the cowboy farmer mentality with them to the city, making this maybe one of the more scary cities to drive around, as everyone jostles for position and few give way.

More new and old – Monastery in foreground, high rise in the back

We spent time in the city both before and after the tour that we did. We spent a couple of nights in a hotel in the centre, to get a feel for it, but it didn’t change our opinion too much. It is interesting enough to walk around and check out, with the likes of the State Department Store and Naran Tuul Market (previously the Black Market) both interesting to check out for shopping, although both  supposedly had much better bargains back in the communism days. There are also some communist era statues and buildings and then some of the complete opposite, brand new office blocks and shopping malls. This is one of the biggest things that we took away from Ulaan Bataar and Mongolia as a whole, the difference between old and new. It appears to be a major thing, with some people living in brand new apartments, while others still live in the traditional ger style tent, all within the same city (some right next to each other). With so much money coming in and development cranking, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out over the next 10 years or so.

Breakfast in the Gobi – generally a good feed with Llama’s cooking

For us Mongolia was more about the wilderness and the tour that we were lucky to do to the Gobi Desert and some of central-west Mongolia. As mentioned, a tour had been recommended to us as the best way to see the place and we quickly discovered there were multitudes of options for this. Most guest houses and travel shops have something on offer and there are plenty more choices online. We went around a few places to see what was on offer and were offered everything from just a van and driver, to a luxury style tour where accommodation and food are provided on a five-star level. We decided you probably get what you pay for and went for a mid-range option. For US$95 per day per person we got a vehicle, a driver, a guide and all our meals and accommodation. This was the price for a 2 person tour and if you had more in your group the price comes down, as a lot of that covers the petrol and driver side of things. We came across a few different people doing the “just a van and driver” option and had mixed reports. It sounded like it came down to whether the driver spoke much English or not, with those with a driver they could communicate with enjoying themselves, while those who could not communicate feeling a bit on the isolated side of things.

Agi, our driver, and the Land Cruiser we toured in

Our driver, Agi, couldn’t speak any English, but that didn’t matter too much for us, as we had our guide Llama, who was an English teacher for the majority of the year, so could speak pretty good. She was our cook also and made us breakfast and dinner every day. For lunches we usually stopped at little guesthouses or restaurants. We were lucky that Llama was a pretty good cook and couldn’t complain about most of her meals, although we were getting a bit sick of chewy mutton and noodles by the end of it. But she did try and provide us something different every meal which we appreciated, although, as she started to run low on ideas we wouldn’t have minded repeats opposed to her trying to come up with things she hadn’t made before. The restaurant meals weren’t as good, with a lot of them consisting of the chewy mutton that Mongolians love and we struggled to finish on most occasions. It was alright, but a few herbs and spices wouldn’t have gone a miss, and not waiting to the sheep was as old and tough as possible before butchering might have been good too. Although when we asked Llama if they ever eat lamb, she did say “No! We never eat babies”.

Overall it was a great trip and we were amazed by the awesome landscape every day. For our blog we kept a journal every day as we knew there would be too much to try and remember. We have reproduced this on a day-by-day basis, as we wrote it on the road. The following is all we did in our 13 day Mongolian tour to the Gobi and other cool Mongolian spots

Day 1

Drinking Airag with our guide Llama…mmmm, fermented horse milk

After a brief farewell to Uncle Graeme we were off on our 14 (turned into 13) day tour of Mongolia’s South and West, namely the Gobi Desert and White Lake areas. Quite quickly the roads turned into dirt tracks and we were bumping and grinding our way past sparse pastoral landscapes. An occasional ger dotted the landscape and we saw several herds of horses. Horses are revered here and at our first stop we got to try “airag”, fermented horse milk, in a small family ger in the middle of nowhere. We then walked over to a large herd of 30+ horses to 17 year old farm girl milk them. Quite a site that we were not used to as they used the foals to suck on the teat to get it out, then quickly pushed it away and hand milked it into a bucket. The horse milk has a kinda yogurt taste too it, though is a lot thinner and has a bit more of a tang. It is hard to explain, as it’s quite different to anything we had had before. Supposedly the stuff we had was just right to drink, as had been fermenting a couple of days so was not too old or too fresh. Supposedly often when people try it for the first time they need to go to the toilet, but we were both fine. Llama said she was going to tell Jared not to drink too much, but as he seemed to be enjoying it so much he drank the whole bowl. It is meant to be alcoholic, but you would need a lot to get a buzz as this batch seemed quite weak. It is mainly used in wedding ceremonies where they drink it out of bowls much bigger than the big soup bowls we used. Pretty Crazy stuff.

So many dirt roads to choose from as we cruise through the desert wilderness

Our driver at various points of the trip stopped and asked for directions, which was slightly unnerving considering the remoteness of the area, but we still managed to find our destination, called “Small Rock”.  It had ruins of an old monastery and purported to have good energy, so Mongolians visit here to mediate and place rocks on the piles, which is a traditional Buddhist practice. Llama says we stop so often as they just want to confirm they are going the right way as it is such a massive place. This does make sense, but we had the feeling we got a little lost, considering we didn’t actually manage to stop for lunch on the first day.

We are writing this on this first night from our small tourist family style ger. There is only the one ger for tourists, so we are hoping no other travellers turn up so that we get it to ourselves. There is just a basic longdrop outside, but it does have a western style toilet bowl. Our bellies are nice and full with a simple meal of noodles and we are about to head off for a sunset walk.

First night ger camp – loving the isolation

We saw a small snake when we headed off for the walk. More of a surprise than something to be scared of, but it did make us wonder if there are many more around. Llama says not many snakes in Mongolia are poisonous. Our query is: how do they survive in the -40 temperatures that hit in winter. After the walk we had some good talks to Llama and started to build up the impression that things are done quite different here than what we are used to. First some shamans turned up to ask directions to a holy place, so one of the hosts went with them to show them. They came back and dropped him off, as they had to find two more holy places before they could start their ceremony and communicate with the dead. Definitely an interesting type of a religion (?). Llama also told us of some strange Mongolian superstitions. “You can’t call a horse by its actual colour” black horses are known as green.  “If you have a single male baby then it must be called a girl and raised as a girl” All things that must be so that the gods/bad spirits don’t know what you are talking about (?)

Day 2

We had the ger to ourselves so got an excellent night’s sleep. With part of the roof left open it was pretty cool to be able to see the stars. It was also pretty cool literally, almost cold, although we did have plenty of blankets so wasn’t too much of a worry. Llama cooked a nice breakfast for us, omelette, tomatoes and bread with nutella.

Pretty rough roads = flat tyre

The first stop was at a capital town of one of the districts. All the provinces are set up like this from the communist days, with an administrative capital town for every district. This particular town came as a surprise to us, as we drove through the usual vast planes, came over a hill, and suddenly a town appeared from nowhere. We ended up stopping here for a while as we discovered we had a puncture when filing up our diesel, so Agi our driver had to get that mended. While he was doing that we went for a walk through the sleepy town (supposedly extra quiet on a Sunday). It was interesting to see a few random statues of local politicians and wrestlers who had made it big. Tess found some sunglasses that costed less than $2, so that was a good score. We then had lunch at a local restaurant that consisted of mutton, rice and eggs. Wasn’t too bad, but the mutton was a bit on the chewy side. When we continued driving we started to head towards a big storm. Typical that it rains when we are in the desert. We ended up following another SUV (although not 4×4) that got stuck in the sand ahead of us. After a couple of attempts, with the tow rope snapping, we managed to push it out, luckily just before a huge downpour hit.

The White Stupa – so many awesome colours

We continued on with the same feeling of the previous day that maybe we did not know where we were going. This turned out to be even more accurate than yesterday as we drove past some big red cliffs and ended up driving up on top of them, and onto a big plane that did not have a track to follow. We were trying to find the White Stupa, but turns out this was the Red Stupa we had stumbled upon. After finding some local farmers and after doing a big circle past the red cliffs again we were back on track. Another hour or so of driving and we made it to the White Stupa. It was a pretty cool set of cliffs with multiple coloured layers and crazy sand dunes below; red, purple orange and white. Almost a 2D effect similar to a painting. We stayed at a nearby tourist ger camp for the night. Llama made a good chunky soup for dinner, quite nice as was getting a bit chilly. We had a few vodkas and relaxed to some tunes in the middle of nowhere desert landscape.

Day 3

Another good night’s sleep. Breakfast, like dinner, was eaten on a table outside of our ger. Great view for a meal, this time so good French toast. We then drove to a large local town, Dalanzalgad. We were meant to have a hot shower here, but it was not available. We haven’t had a shower yet and are not sure when we will get one.

On the rough dirt/gravel roads/tracks Agi’s driving is a mixture of four-wheel driving and rallying. We are getting used to the bumpiness, but still get shaken around a bit. We only stopped and confirmed directions a couple of times, before making it to the museum we were stopping at. There were some interesting stuffed animals here and most impressive were the dinosaur bones and eggs.

Sadly we didn’t get to see this stream frozen

We then drove up a big valley, and then walked even further following a stream. It was quite an impressive valley with big rocky mountains on either side. Usually there is ice here most of the year with the river frozen over, but we had missed earlier in the month.

We then drove for a few more KMs out of the valley and stayed at a campsite with little cabins (and, strangely, lots of exercise equipment). It was a different landscape again to the other nights, with big ranges and all directions. We had a nice dinner of spaghetti, watched a sunset and then watched a movie on our tablet. Good relaxing evening.

Day 4

The gers we stayed at with the Khongor Dunes in he background

It was a pretty quiet day, driving to the Khongor Sand Dunes. Like every day there were more awesome views with big ranges on either side, as the land around us got more sandy and arid the further we went. We stopped for a pre-cooked lunch with the sand dunes behind us a backdrop. We arrived at the family ger where we are staying for 2 nights and just had a relaxing afternoon doing not much. Just looking over the awesome dunes behind us. It was a pretty hot afternoon too, 30 degrees plus and a warm breeze. Another nice sunset and an early night in preparation for the camel trek tomorrow.

Day 5

Camel trekking in the Khongor Dunes

The magnificent Khongor sand dunes were our backdrop for this entire day, as we were staying put at the family ger for a second night. This meant a bit of a sleep in, a late breakfast (cheese toasties) and a lazy/relaxing morning. We then went for a camel trek into the dunes. It was pretty cool, as was just us two and a guide, who was the farmer lady/mother from the gers where we were staying. We just went along in a caravan procession so did not have to worry too much about steering. Although Tess was on the middle camel, so had to hold the rope for Jared’s, which meant she had to stop it every time it tried to take off. On the dirt and grass the camel ride was a little on the bumpy side, but once we got onto the sand things got a bit smoother. We stopped for lunch on the sand dunes, with the camels sitting around us to act as a barrier against the wind. They did a pretty good job, but still couldn’t help a little bit of sand getting into or tuna and egg salad. We did a little climb to one of the nearby dune peaks, which was pretty tiring considering we didn’t get up too high. But the views were still spectacular, with the sandy landscape around us something completely different. The trek back to the camp was pretty relaxing as we had gotten used to sitting on the camels. But we could have gone out for another trek later that afternoon and decided that the three hors we had done was plenty. This was justified by our stretched/sore muscles later in the day.

The rest of the afternoon was a relaxing one. Mike the Canadian was staying at the same ger camp and he was good value to talk to, as was getting to the end of his 24 day Mongolian trek. There was another awesome sunset and equally good dinner from Llama (pancake with a tuna filling) and then that was it for a relaxing day with one of the coolest backdrops on earth.

Sunset over the Khongor Dunes

The weather in the Gobi desert is intense. It is super-hot during the day, but there can be ferocious winds, usually in the evenings it seems. These create some massive dust storms and can be so strong you struggle to stand up. We have also had showers of rain and some sudden cold snaps. And we are here between summer and autumn, which is meant to be one of the more pleasant times of the year here in the desert. We can only imagine what it would be like in the severe heat of summer or the even more severe freezing -30 degree temperatures in winter.

For a short video about our time in Mongolia click here

For Part 2 of our Mongolian Blog click HERE

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Trans-Siberian Madness Part 2 – Omsk to Mongolia

For Part One of our Trans Siberian Journey click HERE

13/08/12 – 10.30 (Day 6, 19 hours into second leg)

Life in the cabin without air-con was pretty warm 

Well we have already been on the second train for a night. There is not the access to power supply as there was on our first train, so we only brought the laptop out for the first time now. One thing we forgot to mention when we were leaving Omsk was how damned hot Siberia can be, with the temperature at the station showing 36c when we left there. This was compounded by the fact our second train does not have air-conditioning. At the time of booking we probably thought something like “hey, we will be in Siberia, how hot can it be?”. How wrong we were. Luckily from the time we hopped on at 15.25, until about 23.30 we had our cabin to ourselves, so were able to make the most of the limited cool air coming through the tiny open window. Luckily the temp dropped into the evening and by the time our cabin-mates hopped on it was relatively pleasant. The 50 or so year old Russian couple that hopped on are extremely nice. Tess was already asleep, but Jared was still reading, so they offered some chocolate and whiskey that it would have been rude not to accept. There were still some massive communication problems, so apart from names, the fact their children can speak English well and that they are going to a destination further than ours, there wasn’t much talked about. But the chocolate and whiskey was well enjoyed. Despite the lack of air-con it was still a good night’s sleep and we have only recently hopped up for breakfast. Nearly half way through this leg and again the time seems to be flying by.

13/08/12 – 21.30 (Day 6, 28 hours into second leg)

Siberian Villages – must be pretty chilly in the winter

Another day on a train is nearly done. We have gone forward another time zone and have one more to go through before arriving in Irkutsk, which will make a jump of 5 hours now since Moscow. The scenery on this part of the Trans-Siberian has been much more to look at than the first part out of Moscow. In particular the first day from the Russian capital had no sign of life and was pretty much all forests of spindly pine and another white barked tree. We even started playing a game called “Bird”, where we got a point for every bird we saw or 3 for a flock. By the time we arrived in Omsk the score was 6-3. Which says more for the lack of nature than the amount of time spent staring out the window. Getting nearer to Omsk there was a few more wooden home villages and the odd city, but since leaving Omsk there has been plenty more to see in this part of Siberia. The small wooden homes that seem to be the norm here must be hell in winter, but I guess it means there isn’t a lot to heat. They are so different though to the massive brick and concrete constructions that are so prevalent through Eastern Europe. These places are something more similar to New Zealand, all with a bit of land around them filled with gardens of vegetables and sunflowers. It is so hard to imagine the area being in sub-zero temperatures for such a long part of the year. As well as the villages the landscape has become more varied as well. There are open fields (most of which not planted in crops), forests of varying trees, rivers, ravines and mountains (well hills anyway), that all make for an interesting view. With the laptop running low on battery it is unlikely we will make another entry on this journey, but again it has gone by so quick it is quite crazy. I guess it all comes down to expectations. If you expect something to take a long time, it doesn’t seem to bother you. Our train journey that felt the longest has been one that was meant to take 8 hours and took over 12. Now that seemed to go on forever. These 40 hour trips are nothing…if they only take the expected 40 hours.

Irkutsk and Lake Baikal (Listvyanka) – 14/08/12 to 20/08/12 (Days 7 to 13, Beginning of third leg)

Wooden Houses in Irkutsk – falling to pieces, but would have been special in their day

We arrived in Irkutsk early morning as expected and the weather had changed so much since leaving Omsk a couple of days ago. Now we have more understanding how Siberia can be so cold in the winter. Compared to the 36 degrees when we left Omsk it was 12 degrees when we arrived in Irkutsk, grey skies and showers. Not pleasant at all. Sadly this weather stayed with us for our entire time here and at Lake Baikal, although at least at last we felt vindicated for carrying around warm clothes for the past 4 months because now there was plenty of need for them. We spent one night in Irkutsk on arrival and another before we left again. The middle 4 nights were spent in Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal. Irkutsk was an interesting enough town and we enjoyed walking the streets and seeing Siberian city life in action. They had a huge market there which if we had of spent more time would have been great for self catering. The other interesting thing was all the old wooden houses. They were all sadly in a bad state of repair, but must have been grand in their day. We really didn’t do too much here though, with the weather being a major deterrent.

Lake Baikal – a beautiful spot, but pretty cold and a little on the quiet side when we were there

At Lake Baikalthe weather was equally bad, so we didn’t do much there either, although there didn’t seem to be much to do. Tess was also still recovering from her upset tummy, so the four nights of relaxation were probably a good thing for us. We did make it out on a lake trip one day and it would be a fun lake if the weather was nicer. Either warmer or colder. In the middle of winter it freezes over and can be skated or driven on. It would be amazing sight to see, as is one of the biggest fresh water lakes in the world and is also the deepest lake. We were expecting more tourist activity, but apart from stalls selling jewellery made from the local gem stones and others selling smoked fish, which is by far the local food specialty, there wasn’t much else.

Smoked Fish stalls at Lake Baikal all selling the local speciality of Omul

Food-wise our general feeling of Russian cuisine being some of the worst in the world continued here with some very average restaurant meals. We were spoilt, however, as Olga’s Guesthouse where we stayed had a great cook. Namely, Olga. We had breakfast every day there and decided it wasn’t worth risking the restaurants and ended up having a couple of dinners there too. Her meals were always big and delicious and she would be a little offended when someone didn’t leave their plate clean. This meant Jared got extra servings at most meals, firstly from Tess, but then when some Australian ladies arrived also, as they did not want to risk the tut-tutting of Olga at an unfinished meal. This was probably the highlight of Lake Baikal for us, although it is quite a beautiful place and maybe in better circumstances (weather and health) we would have found more to entertain us and get us out to enjoy the natural beauty like we had expected when committing to four nights here. It was still great for more recharging of the batteries before our last Trans-Siberian leg into Mongolia.

21/08/12 – 17.30 (Day 14, 20 hours into third leg)

Our lone carriage waiting at the Russian Border

Our Russian train journey and general travel through Russia is nearly over. We are sitting at the border with Mongolia waiting for all the paperwork to be completed and the train to continue. They allow 5 hours for this border crossing and it appears that they plan to take every minute of it. Then we have another 3 hours when we arrive in Mongolia to get those formalities out of the way. All on the time plan though, so it is expected, but that still hasn’t allowed for a great deal of confusion with all the tourists in similar positions to ourselves, wondering what happened when we arrived here 4 hours ago and were told that passport control would be in 4 ½ hours, or maybe that was 4.30pm, none of us could work it out.

But that has been the beauty of our most recent Russian train on the Trans-Mongolian. The rest of our carriage is all travellers like us, so we have had heaps of people to talk to who are all in the same boat as us. Hopping on the train was crazy, with everyone speaking English. One guy even commented “at last they have put all the backpackers together this time”. But we think it is more that it is only the travellers who take the train into Mongolia, most Russians don’t holiday here. It has made for a completely different train experience, with lots of people to talk to. Even the Chinese mother and daughter that are in our cabin speak good English. So far we have chatted to Irish, Australian, Dutch, Portugese, French and Chinese and I am sure there are plenty of other nationalities on this train. All sharing their experiences of their crazy times travelling through Russia.

Heading out of Russian the scenery kept getting better and better

Scenery-wise this leg of our trip has been awesome also. We left Irkutsk in darkness, but ever since it got light the landscape has been brilliant. There has been so much water, with rivers and lakes everywhere. Plus there is plenty of green farmland with mountains as their backdrop. We have seen a lot of farmers in the fields and everywhere seems to be alive, despite the isolation that is abundant in what is one of the quieter areas of the world. There are parts that really remind us of New Zealand, with all the green and variation in landscape so similar.

It will be interesting to see if much changes once this border crossing is finally over and we hit Mongolia. We have heard only good things about the Mongolian countryside and it seems that these good things have already started a few 100kms from the border.

Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia – 22/08/12 – 7.00 (Day 15, third leg complete)

Well we made it. The dread of the long trips, no showers and lack of sleep proving to be much less painful than expected. The last leg in particular was a breeze, as we knew what to expect and, as mentioned, the addition of plenty of fellow English speaking tourists made this the easiest part of the journey. The border crossing on the Mongolian side was almost as confused and time-consuming as the Russian, but again it had been planned in the timetable so we were kind of expecting it. Although there was even less to do in the small Mongolian border town than the Russian one, so our entire carriage just sat and waited for the couple of hours to pass until it was time to hop back on and have our passports stamped. By the time we left it was dark and it was a bit of a pity not to be able to see the North Mongolian landscape as we entered into the country. Once the sun had risen this morning we were getting pretty close to our final destination, the capital Ulaan Bataar, but we could see even then that the landscape here was something else. With plenty of water and grasslands around and the traditional Mongolian Gers dotting the landscape, we really felt like we had entered into a different world from Russia. And there was a sense of relief at this. It is hard to be too critical as our experience of the massive country is only a short one and was mixed with weather and health issues, but we left with a feeling that we were in no hurry to return. This is strange for us, as we have pretty much loved every other country we have been in. Again, maybe it was just us, but the coldness of the people, the poor quality of food and the general high prices of everything really did put us off. Now we are in Mongolia and are really excited to check out this new country that we know so little about. Things have already started so well for us here, with Tess’s uncle Graeme having his driver pick us up at the train station and whisk us back to his comfortable and modern apartment. We can’t wait to have a shower, wash the Russian dirt off us and start a new leg of our trip. In saying that, the Trans-Siberian was a very interesting experience and we are definitely glad we did it , we just probably wouldn’t do it again.

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Trans-Siberian Madness Part 1 – Moscow to Omsk

08/08/12 – 13.15 (Day 1, 0 hours into first leg)

Here comes the train – Moscow Station

OK. So for this Trans-Siberian blog we are going to try and write it as we go to get a true feeling for this epic journey. Although we have already done a couple of overnight Russian trains to get this far, one from Riga (Latvia) to Saint Petersburg and one from St P to Moscow, this is really the start of the journey for us today. Right here, right now. We are sitting on the train waiting for it to leave in a couple of minutes. Our route is Moscow to Omsk and is expected to take 42 hours. Yep, 42 hours. All in the same carriage with nothing more than a few 20-30 minute stops at a couple of the larger stations along the way. Well that is what we have heard anyway. By the time we arrive in Mongoloia in two weeks time we will have done three train journeys, each in the 40 hour region, and stopped at a couple of cities along the way to recharge our batteries. On this leg alone we will go through 3 time zones. Also just to clarify, we are actually doing the Trans-Mongolian, as it goes through Mongolia, but as it follows the majority of the Trans-Siberian line and that is the one everyone knows we are calling this the Trans-Siberian Blog.

Basic Food Supplies – apart from instant noodles there wont be much cooked food on this jounrey

Tess is already into our food supplies and we haven’t even left the station yet. It will be interesting to see how long it lasts. We bought a few things from the supermarket yesterday. Mainly dried food, chips, crackers, etc. Plus some bananas and apples. And also some 2 minute noodles, though not sure if we will get boiled water. There is a restaurant cart, but that is meant to be expensive, so the tip is to buy from the vendors at the stations. Given our lack of Russian that might be fun, but we will see how it goes. Either way I don’t think we will go hungry.

And we are off. The train is slowly chugging out of Kazanskiy Station, Moscow. We were meant to leave at 13.20 and it is now 13.32. This is going to be one crazy journey. Will be interesting to see how fast this thing goes and how many stops we make.

08/08/12 – 22.00 (Day 1, 9 hours into first leg)

Borscht and Beers – our only restaurant cart meal

Only nine hours in. No worries so far. We have done plenty of journeys this length or more in our travels, so with the distance expectation so much greater it has been an absolute walk in the park to this stage. We just got back from the restaurant cart, which pretty much went as expected. There was no English menu and the attendant lady spoke no English either. With a basic translation from a guy sitting near us we ordered the Russian soup staple, Borscht. We managed to work out which ones the beers were so we got a couple of those too. We were thinking we would eat more than soup, but it was hearty enough and we didn’t risk the “point at the menu and hope” option, that we had decided would be our last resort if we couldn’t read the menu. We definitely aint going to be going hungry, but we might eat a lot of beetroot soup, which we don’t mind at all.

So for the journey has actually seemed super quick. Jared has spent the majority of time on the laptop, catching up on photos and blogs that we want to get together from our previous couple of weeks. Plus he has managed a few TV episodes. Tess has her double book combo going. She has lots loaded onto the phone to read and if that runs out she has one thick Steven King number to get her through. We don’t have a power outlet in our cabin, but there is one just outside the door. We were able to set up our adaptor, with the multi-plug and then both the phone and laptop charger earlier, so we both have fully charged devices to get us to sleep. Hopefully we will be able to use these to keep powered up for the duration.

In terms of the cabin, we are in a 4 berth second class sleeper, which is what we have booked for the entire journey. We have air-con, which is a necessity we have found, after we went to restaurant cart and saw that the thermometer there was still sitting around the 30 degree mark (we hope the rest of our trains have AC, but aren’t so sure as it doesn’t say it on the tickets). Our two cabin-mates are a couple of old Russian guys who have pretty much slept the entire journey so far. Our guess is that they will be hopping off somewhere during the night and are trying to get a good sleep in till then. We had heard the Trans-Siberian was known for its party train atmosphere and vodka drinking but we haven’t seen none of that yet. Maybe in third class? Time for a bit of reading and laptop TV before bed.

09/08/12 – 11.30 (Day 2, 22 hours into first leg)

First night’s sleep wasn’t too bad for a train. Jared on the top level and Tess on the bottom. Air-con was a little on the chilly side, but definitely better that way than being too hot. Tess could hear someone in the next cabin snoring, but apart from that there was little interruption. The train is a bit bumpy so you do get woken up a bit but no more than you would expect in such a situation. Time has jumped forward a couple of hours, so when Jared thought he had slept in to 10.30, it was only 8.30 Moscow time, but guess we got to adjust to the right time anyway. Maybe that’s what the old fellas in our cabin are doing who went to bed so early and didn’t get off during the night.

09/08/12 – 16.30 (Day 2, 27 hours into first leg)

Random food options on the platform

Just had our second substantial stop at a station, maybe about 15 minutes. There are people selling things on the platform, but not the array of food we had expected. When we stopped yesterday people were selling more random stuff, goblet sets, stuffed animals, vases, chandeliers, jewellery, but today there was at least some more food. All pretty basic though: packet noodles, ice creams, drinks, etc. One lady was selling cooked chicken and potatoes, but as it was about 35 degrees outside and it didn’t seem to be refrigerated we decided to give it a miss. Hopefully we will have another stop nearer to dinner time as we could eat something locally produced (that isn’t out of a packet). Beers were a lot cheaper on the platform than the train, so Jared picked up a couple of these (about $2 each compared to $4 on the train).

Stuffed animals and cuddly toys on the platform – just what you need for a Trans-Siberian train journey

Omsk – 10/08/12 to 12/08/12 (Day 3, 4 & 5, Beginning of Leg 2)

Well the last part of the train journey was over so quick there was hardly time to add to the blog. Although we arrived in Omsk at 9.25 local time it was only 6.25am Moscow time, which was more where our body clocks still were, so we pretty much had just gone to sleep and woken up and we were there. One of our elderly male cabin companions exited during the evening, so it made it even quieter for our last night’s sleep. We pretty much finished off all our noodles (there was free boiling water, luckily) and other items so have decided we estimated the food requirements quite nicely.

Sunset in Omsk – a surprisingly nice Siberian city

We had arranged for the hotel to have someone pick us up at the train station, so it was all too easy when there was a lady standing outside the train carriage with a sign with our name on it. We were whisked through the station and at our hotel in no time. We were even lucky to be able to check in before 10am, which is a rare occurrence. We definitely felt a little wiped out, but didn’t need to go straight to sleep, so headed out to get some breakfast/lunch. We were pleasantly surprised by the number of eating options and the modern Siberian city of Omsk, which is a little more Asian feeling compared to the Western Russian cities. After a relaxing afternoon spent in the hotel room, we headed to the local river/beachfront marquee style restaurants, just outside the front of our hotel. Although these had some nice smelling BBQs going we struggled to be able to order much here and had a dinner that consisted of one pork shish kebab, a packet of crisps and some beers. The cool thing was the setting, right on the river with plenty of activity on it and a great sunset. The next day Tess was a bit ill, so maybe it was a good thing we hadn’t eaten more at the restaurant. Though we are not sure what caused it, as could have been something on the train, the water, either meal we ate in Omsk, the terrible breakfast at our hotel or something else. Whatever it was it meant we ended up having a very low key day, only making it out in the evening to stock up on supplies for our next train journey and some dinner. After a couple of quiet days we were well recharged for our next train journey, so after  breakfast and a hair-raising 90km/hr taxi ride through the city streets, here we are waiting for our next 40 hour train, deeper into Siberia to Irkutsk.

For Part 2 of our Trans-Siberian Journey click HERE

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St Petersburg and Moscow – The start of our Russian adventures

As everyone knows Russia is one massive country, which means there is a lot to see and therefore a lot to write about.  The Russian section of our travel was something we had planned and looked forward to before we had even left Australia, as we had to organise our visa and train travel for specific dates. This meant we had plenty of time to think about it, and get worried about all the evils of big bad Russia. In the end some of the things we worried most about, dodgy people, crime and getting lost, didn’t prove to be an issue. But some of the other things we hadn’t considered did make the country one of our least favourite on our journey so far. In particular the quality and price of food and accommodation left a lot to be desired, plus we found it hard to meet people, as they all seemed rather closed. Although this last point maybe due more to a communication problem, as English is not big here compared to any other country we have travelled. These issues weren’t quite as bad in Moscow and St Petersburg, which is what we will concentrate on for the first part of the Russia blog, but they did start to rear their ugly head.

As we arrived in St Petersburg on an overnight train from Latvia, we were pretty tired when we pulled up about 7am. We had got some sleep, but it was quite broken due to the jolting of the train mixed in with the border crossing. The border wasn’t too bad and was only an hour or so wait on either side, but at about 2am it is not the most fun. When we arrived we quickly witnessed the unhelpful and unorganised nature of Russia, which seemed to stick with us for the entire journey, when trying to buy tokens for the Metro (after eventually finding the entry for it). At first the automated token machine broke down, so we had to wait in a queue that was massive. Upon reaching the front we discovered they could not give change for the big Rouble notes we had just got from the ATM, so had to go back and buy something from a shop to have change. Then as we waited in the queue another line opened up, there was no order whatsoever as people pushed and shoved to get into the new queue. All probably normal things in everyday Russian life, but for us without a lot of sleep and not understanding the language it was all a little unsettling.

Pelmeni – Russian Dumplings, done right they are delicious

After those initial worries we managed to find our hotel without too many problems, with all the Metro stops here having Latin text along with the Cyrillic (which we later found wasn’t the case in Moscow). After a bit of a walk around the local area we eventually found a pizza place that had pictures in their menu so that we could order food. We went for a salad and pasta, deciding when we finished that maybe we should have stuck with pizza as that was what they must do best. After having a few more meals in Russia we decided maybe it wouldn’t have made a lot of difference, as the food standards here were pretty average and yet rather pricey. In saying that we did have some of our best Russian meals in St Petersburg. In particular there was a mono-cuisine place near our hotel called Pelmeni, which is named after the Russian style dumpling they specialise in. They did a range of dumplings from various countries, all well-made and tasty. We also went to Zoom Café and a central Asian place that specialised in Shishalik that were both quite nice, but still far from standout on our travels as a whole.

Palace Square, St Petersburg. With Alexanders Column

St Petersburg in general is one quite spectacular city and for all the places we went in Russia was probably worth the trouble we went to to secure a visa and travel there the most. It is very European in its architecture and easily competes with any of the other great old cities we have been to, like Vienna, Budapest or Krakow. There are spectacular churches and palaces, but even just the normal streets around the central Nevsky Prospect area are all amazing. Built on canals there are lots of wide areas for viewing the long streets of architecture and with the Neva River you get a good view of the cityscape from either side. Of note were the Church on the Saviour of Spilled Blood (similar to St Basils in Moscow), Kazan Cathedral, modelled on St Peters Basilica in Rome (Vatican City) and St Isaacs’s cathedral which gives a great panorama view of the city from its tower. Add to this Palace Square, with the Winter Palace, Alexander’s Column and the General Staff Buildings and you have some real special buildings to view all in quite a small area. There are so much more too.

Matisse’s “Music” at the Hermitage

The added benefit of the Winter Palace is that is part of the home of one of the greatest museum collections in the world, the Hermitage. Being part of the palace that both Peter and Catherine the Great (whose collections started the hermitage) spent their winters there are rooms in the palace that warrant a visit on their own. Add on top of this an absolutely amazing array of some of the world’s best art and you can see why they say people can spend months here and still not see everything. Highlights for us were the State Rooms (the epitome of opulence), ancient Greek statues (including one by Michael Angelo), ancient art from around the world, but above all the enormous array of famous paintings by artists who are household names. Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael and Da Vinci were only some of the huge collection that was just brilliant to see.

St Basils Cathedral – understandably one of Russia’s most recognised landmarks

Moving from the beauty of St Petersburg we then headed to the behemoth of a city that is Moscow. Again it was an overnight train so we were a bit wiped on arrival. Our hostel here took us an hour or so to find, as it was un-signposted and was actually in an apartment block. They must have just converted and apartment into the hostel and our guess is they don’t want the government to know that is the case. Maybe the most budget hostel we have ever stayed in as was very dirty and small, but for Russia the price was good and the location was awesome. We were only a few minutes’ walk from Red Square which is the central point of the city and where a lot of the tourist attractions are located. On our second day we headed out for a free walking tour and got to get a good little bit of basic history and also orientate ourselves with the Red Square area that includes St Basils Cathedral, GUM Department Store, Lenin’s Mausoleum, The Kremlin and the Natural History Museum. In particular St Basils is one cool church. We didn’t make it inside, but from outside it is just one special building and is obvious why it is one of the most famous landmarks of Russia.

Some of the churches in the Kremlin

After the tour we picked out a few other spots to go, with the Kremlin being the other must see locale. It was a bit of a queue to get tickets, but once inside it was well worth a look, although a bit different than we had expected. When you hear about the Kremlin on the news you think of it like the parliament of Russia, something like the Beehive in NZ or Parliament House in Australia. But it is so much more than that. Being the heart of old Moscow for 100s of years it is where the Tsars and aristocracy lived, within the protection of gated walls. This being the case it is actually full with old churches that, surprisingly, managed to survive the scourge of communism. The churches aren’t the flashest we have seen from the outside, but inside they are all quite well preserved. This meant we were able to get a good idea of Russian Orthodox religion and the make-up of the churches which was quite interesting and a bit different to other Christian churches we have seen.

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg

Being such massive cities it is hard to feel that we did either St Petersburg or Moscow proud in the 4 days we spent in each, but we did get a bit of a feeling for them. St Petersburg definitely has a bit more of an old time European feel to it, while Moscow is more what we thought Russian to be. In particular the disparity between poor and rich was super evident here, with Mercs and Volvos cruising around with tinted window and drivers, sharing the road with rusty old Ladas. Even in the restaurants we ate there was a bit of this, although in the areas we were there was nothing that a poor, or even a working class Russian, would entertain eating at. Some places were just ridiculous for the quality compared to price. Unfortunately it was well outside our budget to mix with the upper class side of things, but with the general cold feeling we got from people, who knows if we would want to. After doing the big cities, it was now time for us to hit the trains and head into deep dark Siberia. After these initial experiences we were a little worried, but also excited to get away from cities, as that had been all we had seen for the last couple of months and were definitely getting a bit sick of them. Maybe this was also part of the reason we had such negative feelings about Russia, and although I don’t think we will be back, it would be interesting to spend longer in both St P and Moscow to give them another chance.

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