RTT travels the world
RV Traveling Tales travels worldwide!
Beijing to St. Petersburg via train
by Jaimie Hall Bruzenak
August/September 2005, Jaimie and RVer friend, Betty Prange, joined an Intrepid Travel tour group and traveled by train from Beijing, China to St. Petersburg, Russia via Mongolia, Siberia and Moscow. Betty contributed several pieces to RV Traveling Tales. One of our goals was to photograph someone reading RV Traveling Tales at several places like the Great Wall, on a camel and in Red Square. Here is Betty reading by a Mongolian RV in Ulaan Baatar!
Betty registered this copy of RV Traveling Tales: Women's Journeys on the Open Road at Bookcrossing.com We passed it on to trip-mate Geoff, who took it home to Australia for his mother to read. Last we checked, it was still in Australia.
The following is a letter to Jaimie's granddaughter, Gabrielle, about this great adventure.
I started this letter while on the Trans Siberian Express railway.
The Trans Siberian railway goes across Russia all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. We are joining in about 2/3s of the way across ( if you were going from west to east). We are headed west. Our train compartments hold 4 people. They are slightly bigger than the ones we stayed on when we took that cruise in New Zealand, though they have nice windows. But, during the day there is no seating area or deck area to sit on—just an aisle-way with more windows and a dining car where you can buy snacks or meals. We sit on our hard beds. When we have a 20-30 minute stop, we can get out. Most stops are only a few minutes.
I’ll tell you a little about China and Mongolia.
China is a huge country with very different parts. Our trip only went to the capital, Beijing. It is a huge city. I was feeling nervous because I was arriving 2 nights before the trip started and I had no clue about the layout or language. Fortunately Loretta, an Australian, arrived at the airport at the same time and we rode to our hotel together. Loretta is 28 years old. Her husband is a United Nations peacekeeper in Sudan (Africa). They are meeting up in London for a couple of weeks R&R after our trip.
Loretta and I spent the next day exploring. The weather was hot and muggy for the entire time in Beijing. We went to the Temple of Time and rode back to the hotel in a rickshaw (bicycle-drawn cart). That night Betty, my friend, arrived so the 3 of us did some exploring the next day together including seeing the Confucius Temple and walking down hutongs—colorful alleyways with small houses and shops. We ate a fabulous vegetarian buffet and later participated in a tea ceremony. That afternoon we met the rest of our tour group.
Tara, the leader, is Australian (as is the company, Intrepid Travel). She is 23 and did her university in St. Petersburg, Russia and is fluent in Russian. She also taught English in Beijing to Chinese so can speak Mandarin Chinese quite well. Our group of ten consists of 5 Australians—besides Loretta, a 32-year old couple Katelyn & Andrew, Sarah—a 38-year old woman travel agent, Geoff—a 27-year old fellow who is well-traveled and works as an accounting consultant. Christian is a 21-year old German who spent the last year in Australia working and speaks English with an Aussie accent. Gemma is a 22-year old student from Great Britain, starting her last year of university. Three of us are from the U.S. Besides Betty and me, Cheryl is a 38-year old teacher from Los Angeles. Betty and I are the "old ladies" of the group!
We spent the next day t
ouring the Great Wall. It was a long bus ride out and back and we had to climb 800 steps to get there. This is one of the preserved sections and was very impressive. The following day we went to Tiananmen Square and toured the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was home of several emperors. Men were enochs and most of the women were concubines. Security was very high so the general people could not get in except under controlled circumstances. That night Betty and I went to a night market. About 30 vendors lined one street selling food, including pretty gross things! I did find a couple of things I could eat. Some kind of fish (I think) smelled positively putrid!
What surprised me about Beijing were several things:
- How polluted it is- the last morning we could barely see a block away.
- How many cars there were. I had always seen pictures of bicycles mobbing the streets. There are still lots of bikes, but way more cars.
- How easy it was to get around and how friendly people were.
- All the Pekinese dogs that were obvious pets. (I thought Chinese ate dogs, but apparently only in certain regions.)
- Going to the supermarket and figuring out what products were was fun!
- I liked the food in China best of the 3 countries.
Trans Mongolian Express
The next day we got up early to board the Trans Mongolian Express train for one overnight ride to Ulaan Baatar, capital of Mongolia. When we got to the border, in the middle of the night, the train cars going on to Mongolia were taken one at a time into a shed and the wheels changed to a narrow gauge to fit Mongolian tracks.
Surprises about the train:
- No day seating area.
- The restroom stinks! The toilet empties right out onto the track so it is locked before and after a stop.
- Males and females shared the same compartments.
- The beds are like rocks and skinny.
As we entered Mongolia, we passed through some desert-like land but as we moved north to Ulaan Baatar, more and more grass appeared. It’s the end of the rainy season. We started spotting gers—hatbox-shaped white-felt tents—that people live in. They are a nomadic people and can pack up their gers and go. Around the gers were horses, cows and/or camels.
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
We were picked up by Nemo, our local guide, and Mia who drove us in his bus. Nemo is actually a urologist (physician) by trade but can’t make enough money to support his family as a doctor so guides tourists. We enjoyed talking to both of them.
Mongolia was controlled by the Soviet Union for years. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it pulled all its resources and financial support out of Mongolia. This has decimated the country. Now many people don’t get an education or medical care. There are a few very wealthy and many poor and homeless people in the city. Nemo feels they were better off under communism. No one had a lot but no one was destitute, either.
We stayed on night in Ulaan Baatar. It was much cooler here, though a couple of people wore shorts. We attended a wonderful folk performance—kind of the like the Mauri one in NZ. In Mongolia some men do throat singing, a weird sound that has a very low-pitched song plus a high-pitched whistling noise! It’s quite amazing to hear. They also played on their unique instruments, sang, and danced. (In the photo, the man in the front both played an instrument and did throat singing.) In all performances there is a contortionist who can put her body into unbelievable positions. It hurt just looking at her!
The next day Nemo and Mia took us to a tourist ger camp in Terejl National Park. It was up in the mountains and looked much like the Colorado Rockies. On the way we stopped to look at yaks and ride a camel! The camel groaned and protested each time it had to get up and down. (Photo- Jaimie riding a camel)
At the ger camp we split into groups of 3 or 4. Loretta, Betty and I shared the nicest ger that had four beds, table & chairs and a woodstove. The posters and ceiling poles were ornately carved. The sink had a pitcher of water to use. Otherwise we used the restroom in the main building or at night, the outhouses (yuk!). Our meals were included and they did fix vegetarian meals for Sarah and me. We had to keep the wood stove going all night so I woke myself up about once an hour to put in more wood. Since this was the first comfortable bed we’d had on the trip, I regretted having to wake up so often. (Photo below of Jaimie journaling in front of our ger.)
Half of us took a horseback ride after lunch on small Mongolian horses. Our wrangler wore a traditional hat and pretty much controlled the horses. It was a beautiful ride. The others hiked to a Buddhist monastery. In the morning, the rest of us hiked to the monastery, about 45 minutes away. It was quite interesting—very colorful inside. On the outside, up near the roof, were all sorts of paintings, mostly depicting hell!
Back in Ulaan Baatar for another night, Betty, Gemma and I decided to go to a different company that did a folk performance. While they weren’t as professional as the first, they more than made up for it by their youth and enthusiasm. The next day we all went to the largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. This is an active monastery and many Mongolians came to pray in their traditional clothes. What was such a kick here was seeing the monks with their cells phones!
Surprises in Mongolia:
- Mutton is the staple food and there are few vegetables. It was a challenge for a vegetarian!
- There were no pay phones. Instead you’d see someone sitting along a building with a house-type phone with a small antenna. People would pay to use these radio phones to make calls!
- We had to be very careful of pickpockets in Ulaan Baatar. (Actually this was the case in every city on our trip, though this one had the worst reputation.)
Back on the train:
Late that afternoon we boarded the Trans Mongolian Express train for two nights to Russia. This train was a little nicer than the first, with cleaner bathrooms. Betty and I had bought a bottle of airag, fermented mare’s milk that Mongolians are very fond of. We gave everyone a taste and all pronounced it disgusting! Our border crossing from Mongolia to Russia took 12 hours! We had to wait for immigration and customs to open in Mongolia. Then we were shuttled to the first town in Russia, where again we went thru both. Russian officials thoroughly searched the train including ceilings and compartments where we stored our luggage. Then we waited while they made up a new train. While we traveled, Tara had us start learning to read Cyrillic. That is the Russian alphabet. It is different than ours but all signs are written in that.
Letter = Sound
- P = R
- B = V
- Ф = F
- C = S
- Л = L
Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
We got off in Irkutsk, the largest city in Siberia, but went straight to Listvyanka on Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world and holds 20% of the world’s fresh water supply. It is also frigid! Three of the group went all the way into the water. I thought I was brave putting both feet in! It was so cold, I got right out. In Listvyanka we stayed with a Russian family in their flat (apartment). The kitchen was so tiny the table only seated two people so Sarah and I ate separately from the husband and wife. I guess their two boys (16 & 20) also ate separately. Most Russians have a dacha, or summer cottage, and plot of land with a garden. Our hosts had a garden out of town and the halls were lined with a green pumpkin-like squash, plus other vegetables. That night we had yummy fresh tomatoes and potatoes picked right out of the garden!
Riesa, the wife, only spoke a few words of English and we spoke only a few words of Russian. She would have been fun to talk to if we could have communicated. Her husband, Andri, was a physicist, who spoke English quite well, but he wasn’t that interested in having a conversation. He was frustrated with his boys who weren’t taking advantage of their educational opportunities and spent too much time on the computer!
We then went back to Irkutsk, did a tour and had free time to explore. Betty and I did go to a Russian Orthodox church service. The Russian Orthodox split from the Greek Orthodox Church, which in turn had split from the Roman Catholic Church- all several centuries ago. The service was fairly similar to Catholic, but there were no chairs! People stand. The service lasts 2-3 hours, but people stay only for a short time. The most fun we had was going to the Central Market and stocking up with food for the next leg of the train journey. There was a huge building with stalls of food, but outside many vendors were selling fresh produce. Though Russians are mostly serious and rarely smile, we had fun joking with one vendor about Arnold Swcharzeneger.
I can’t say the Russians are friendly or helpful. Three times in Irkutsk I was sold the wrong thing and one salesperson turned away from me when I asked her to explain something! Sometimes there would be an English menu or one with photos. Sometimes not. I don’t eat red meat and dislike beets and cabbage. Sometimes it’s tough picking out something to eat that I will like.
Trans Siberian Express
We boarded the train around eight o’clock for our 3 nights on the Trans Siberian Express. We travel through 5 time zones! This train was even nicer than the first two. This time we shared a compartment with Geoff and Christian. As we’ve moved north, the vegetation has increased and now we are in thick forest, called the taiga. The land is heavily forested with birch and pine/fir trees, interspersed with small villages and farms growing wheat. As we pass through villages, most of the houses are unpainted wood or ugly block apartment buildings. Some factories look empty—abandoned when the Soviet Union collapsed or at the end of WWII (much industry was moved to Siberia during the war so the Germans wouldn’t destroy it). On the outskirts of towns we also see sections of dachas with small houses and their garden plots. The vehicles are mostly old and beat up. There are quite a few old motorcycles with sidecars.
Though we can buy food in the dining car, the selection is limited (more so each day as they run out of things) and expensive. At the longer 20-minute stops, we can get out on the platform. There babuskas (Russian grandmothers) wait with their homemade food- pirogies or fried bread stuffed with cabbage, mashed potatoes, cottage cheese, eggs or meat; dumplings, sugary bread sticks. Some sell ice cream bars. The first time we encountered them we a had feeding frenzy, racing from vendor to vendor, buying and sampling the food!
During the trip, we are practicing reading Cyrillic and trading books. I’ve read a couple of good ones.
We arrived in Vladimir, about 1½ hours east of Moscow. We got off, took a quick tour of a cathedral, then drove south to the cute town of Suzdal. Under the communists, many Russian cathedrals were destroyed. Suzdal was small and out of the way, so many remain. The Russian Orthodox cathedrals are distinguished by their onion domes. There must be 15-20 remaining in little Suzdal! Each cathedral actually has two cathedrals: one is a large one for summer use and ceremonies, the smaller for winter since it is easier to heat.
We toured the Museum of Wooden Architecture, with several old wooden churches, a women’s monastery and a "kremlin." I found out kremlin means fort so many towns have them, not just Moscow, the capital. We drank a local honey mead drink - like a sweet beer.
The next day we drove to Moscow by bus. Moscow is huge. The weather has definitely cooled, though days are nice. We stayed at the Rossiya, a monstrous hotel covering 10 acres near Red Square. This area was fun for me because years ago I taught a comparative government class and studied about the Kremlin. Red Square was enormous. St. Basil’s Cathedral, a multi-colored onion domed structure (looks like it belongs in Disneyland!) is at one end. On one long side is Lenin’s tomb and the Kremlin. The other side is G.U.M., the Russian state department store. In the days of communism, products were in short supply and with shoddy workmanship. Now it is like a western mall, filled with upscale western products.
We toured the Kremlin. This was a surprise because I thought it would be a few government buildings—like the White House and Congress. Since it was built under the czars, it also included several cathedrals. The Amoury building contained tons of items from the days of the czars, including gowns, crowns, carriages, silver services and original Faberge eggs. Quite amazing! One thing that struck me is that Catherine the Great was rather large. She ruled from 1762-1796. As we walked past the gowns of her descendants and other women rulers, the waists got smaller and smaller until it was Victorian times with the waspish (tiny) waists. Our local guide knew all the facts. She was pretty young, had a 15-month old girl and wore a top with her midriff exposed! She was amazingly flat and skinny for having had a child.
Our last day Betty and I took the metro (subway) out to a big market with tons of tourist goods. It was the same old stuff we’d seen before. Just past it we could see a huge column of black smoke. It turned out to be shoe warehouse that was burning. For a while we were worried it could spread our way, but it didn’t. Finally a large helicopter with a water bucket (like they use for forest fires here in the U.S.) began dumping water from a nearby river on it and helped bring it under control.
Surprises in Moscow & Russia:
- We got around using the Metro (subway), which was easy to figure out and cheap.
- Women in all of Russia, particularly Moscow, dress according to western fashion. (They aren’t quite up w/ the U.S. though.)
- How grumpy and unhelpful in general the Russian people seem to be.
- We saw expensive consumer goods like Hummers, especially in Moscow.
- How much richer Moscow and St. Petersburg are than Siberia. In Siberia only one or two houses would even have paint, the rest were plain wood.
- People who have a bit of power throw their weight around just so you have to do what they say. This happened on the train, tours and some stores.
- In stores, prices were fixed, but in markets you could and should bargain.
Train to St. Petersburg
We had one more train ride to go—an overnight ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg was called Leningrad under the communists, but has its old name back now. We boarded the train around midnight. The provodnitsa (woman conductor) on this train was a witch! When I couldn’t understand her she shouted louder! We were glad to get off that train!
St. Petersburg is a beautiful city. It was laid out by czar Peter the Great and has beautiful architecture and canals. (Moscow is pretty dreary by comparison.) It is as far north as Anchorage, Alaska so the weather was pretty chilly. Even when it was sunny, we had some rain every day.
By now I think everyone had some sort of upset system and diarrhea. Loretta ended up in the hospital. Instead of a full walking tour, we took a canal tour too. Betty and I, plus three others, went to see the ballet Swan Lake. It was a beautiful production with wonderful sets.
Our 2nd day, we drove an hour to the Peterhoff Palace, the building, grounds and furnishings evidence of the czars’ opulent lifestyle. We could have gone by hydrofoil boat from St. Petersburg rather than bus.
We had a final farewell dinner at The Idiot, a restaurant named after a book by the Russian author Dostoevsky, lined with bookshelves. We got a complimentary shot of vodka with dinner! The next day was departure day. I went to St. Isaacs Cathedral (gorgeous inside) and Betty and I saw the Hermitage, which we had missed on its scheduled day. The Hermitage is a huge museum with three million items including paintings by the great masters and so much more. We could only see a tiny bit before running out of time and energy.
Betty and I left for the airport at 5 a.m. We both were on an Air France flight to Paris. In Paris we had different flights. I almost missed my flight to Newark, NJ because I had to catch a bus to another terminal. It got me to the terminal 10 minutes before flight time. Since my backpack was already on, they held the plane for me. In Newark I thought I’d have time to buy a Starbucks coffee and something to read but there too I had only 10 minutes to board after I got through customs, immigration and security. Again they held the plane! On top of that my backpack didn’t arrive in L.A. on my flight. They delivered it to Georgia’s sometime in the middle of the night.
All in all it was a great adventure. We passed through 6 or 7 times zones and covered one-quarter of the globe on our trip. Betty and I ended up flying around the world! We had a good group of people on the tour—we all got along and no one held up the group by being late. We learned slang from the Australians and got a kick out of how they talked! Our favorite expression was "I was gobsmacked." That means overwhelmed in a positive way!
We barely scratched the surface of each city and country, but to really see it you could take months. Mongolia was my favorite with its wide open spaces. I’m not really a city girl so enjoyed our one chance to get out in the countryside. I’d love to go back to Mongolia and explore more of the country.
China and Russia, both communist, are quite entrepreneurial. Mongolia, with the sudden pullout of the Soviet Union, is struggling. The transition hasn’t been smooth. Many young people are almost forced to leave to earn enough money to come back and purchase an apartment. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of a landlord who will keep jacking up the rent. It’s a real shame that a doctor, who is surely much needed for his services, can’t afford to raise a family on a doctor’s salary.
Though I thought the Russians unfriendly, when you consider their history as serfs and under communism, it’s no wonder they are glum. They’ve had a history of tyranny and hardship. Tara was telling us that the women are incredibly strong, while many men seem weak. So many men have been lost in various wars that the majority of households are headed by women. They’ve had to be strong to survive, while boys often grow up without a role model.
In Russia you must use a local guide from a government list. (Intrepid’s policy is to use local guides everywhere but most places they have guides they know and like to work with.) One of the Intrepid guides earlier in the year was talking to his group on a street corner and got arrested because he didn’t have a license to guide! He had to pay a big bribe to get out of jail. When you tour someplace in Moscow or St. Petersburg, there are dozens of tours, lined up behind each other, going in lockstep from one point to another. Each guide says about the same thing. Fortunately Intrepid’s groups have no more than 12 people so we could hear our guide. Some of the groups were huge. At the Hermitage, which Betty and I saw on our own, we had a hard time navigating through the tour groups!
I also was reminded how much Americans have in the way of material goods and how you really can do without and be happy. It was fun connecting with the locals and getting to know our group members. It was truly amazing that we could usually stay connected with friends and family through the Internet. Every city had Internet cafes.
I’m glad I did this trip with Intrepid. All the logistics were taken care of—transportation and places to stay. The fact our guide knew the languages (Most Mongolians speak Russian too) was huge. We had tours of the highlights set up, but then time on our own to see what we wanted to see with our guide giving recommendations and directions, if needed. It wasn’t a first class trip with all the bells and whistles. We each carried our own packs, which got heavy! Our accommodations were adequate but not fancy. Some hotels did not have a lift (elevator). We were in "soft class" on the train; not first class but we did have a sleeping berth with shared toilet facilities. This made the trip not only more affordable, but more of an adventure!
It was great to see kids in their 20s and 30s traveling. Interestingly, only two were married and none have children.
I’ve enclosed some photos too. I hope someday you can take a trip that is such a great adventure!