A Travellerspoint blog

August 2007

Ulan Bataar Bound

Off the Trans Siberian . . . onto a bus!

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Just a quick posting from Ulan Ude in Russia, where we are staying at the Hotel Baikal. For reasons beyond us (or our understanding!) Hotmail and Gmail don't seem to work, so this is how we're letting you know our next steps!

We were planning on catching a train late tonight to get us to Mongolia, but it turns out that there are no seats on that train until the 20th August!!! So, we had to do some thinking on our feet, and found a bus that leaves tomorrow morning at 7am, and should deliver us to Ulaan Bataar (Hotel Bayangol) tomorrow early evening. We have reservations at Gana's Ger where we are staying for the next four nights, and we expect to have very good internet access, so we will email and update the blog from there. Suffice to say, the Trans-Siberian was an awesome experience, but one we're glad is behind us after four nights of bad sleep and terrible food!

Ulan Ude is actually quite an interesting place to stop - kind of the boundary between Asia and Russia, and the local Buryat folks are the first signs that Asia is nearby!! The city is set in quite beautiful, rolling countryside - distinctly more attractive than west Russia, and perhaps best known for the world's largest Lenin head!! Says Lloyd, "Man, that's a big bust". We'll post a piccie tomorrow and you'll known what he's talking about (we suspect that a young Russian girl was being photographed in front of the statue for 'Find-a-Russian-Bride.com'.

OK, we're off to find some decent food (we hope).... frankly, we'll settle for edible at this point!

You'll hear from us soon . . . . we hope!!!

Posted by lloydthyen 12:03 Archived in Russia Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Life on the Trans Siberian

Moscow to Ulan Ude

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When we made our Trans-Siberian reservation, we were careful to ensure we were booking for the Rossiya, or train number 002, which is apparently the most comfortable and fastest train on the Trans-Siberian route. We made the decision early on to incur the additional expense of having our own cabin, rather than sharing with two unknown companions, even though this effectively doubled the cost (and this route is not inexpensive!). The ‘first class’ cabins are almost identical to the ‘second class’, except that there are only two berths rather than four. This gives Lloyd and me a little more space, and also means that we can worry less about our belongings. The second class cabins look just fine, if cramped, and I think – given the ‘wrong’ roommates – we could have been quite miserable, so we’re both pleased with our ‘first class’ investment. For anyone thinking of the TSR, we were surprised to find that there is only one ‘first class’ carriage on the train, and in fact less than half of the eight cabins were occupied for much of the journey. While we had the Nevsky Inn in St Petersburg secure our tickets for us, I suspect that second class tickets would have been harder to come by!

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Each carriage has an attendant (provodnista) who is responsible for – well, I’m not sure what! The cabins are not serviced at all, nor do the smelly, stainless steel toilets seem to get cleaned that frequently. At each station, an army of provodnistas stand outside their respective carriages in their navy and white uniforms which at the very least seems to discourage non-ticketed individuals from boarding the train and raiding the cabins (a la Indian rail service). But this service aside, it’s not clear what these ladies do!!

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A 24 hour supply of piping hot boiling water is available which we’ve used for tea and coffee in the morning and – more recently – for some noodles. Incidentally, we bought the noodles at a kiosk in Tatarskaya station with some candies. The total price: 62 rubles. Lloyd handed over 70 rubles, and received 6 rubles and a sachet of sugar as change! Apparently a sachet of sugar (just like you’d pick up in a café) is fair exchange when vendors run out of small change. Two rubles is about 8 cents, or 4 pence.

I wasn’t brave enough to try the local noodles, but would kill for a chicken and mushroom pot noodle at this point, if someone could just pop over and drop a couple off for me. Aside from tea and biccies for breakfast, the lack of activity (getting on and off the train three or four times a day to stretch our legs hardly counts as exercise!) means we’re down to one main meal a day. While the buffet car’s menu is limited, and the ‘chef’, clad in his ‘genuine fake’ Addidas track suit) looks like he could be on his fifth consecutive trans-siberian round trip without bathing, the pork escalope and boiled potatoes qualifies as Jacquie-edible at a price of 275 rubles (about $11).

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Our first time in the Pectopah (p’s are r’s, and c’s are s’s, and h’s are n’s), we created some fuss by asking for the Russian menu, which our waitress proceeded to hand write specially for us, taking care to copy the prices from the English menu!! Suspecting foul play, Lloyd intercepted a ‘real’ menu from a Russian who was not-so-discretely whisked away to the bar for the sole purpose of seeing the ‘real’ menu. The waitress was furious, and physically body-blocked Lloyd from approaching the Russian, and we thought we were about to uncover a scandal of substantial overpricing for non-Russians. We were almost disappointed to discover that while there were some differences in the prices on the two menus, the differences were one or two rubles here and there…. Nothing that would have merited the intrigue created by the very deliberate and defensive handling of the two menus! Needless to say, Lloyd has spent the last two days trying to get back in the good graces of our waitress in a vain attempt to avoid having our food maliciously tampered with behind the scenes…

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Actually, we were planning on buying supplies from vendors at our station stops, but nothing has been able to tempt us after the unbelievably good roast chicken at Moscow station. We were able to buy a banana and some oranges at one stop, however, which was the first fruit I’d seen since Cape Town.

So, with our Trans-Siberian odyssey, I am actually completing my list of top three travel destinations: India (achieved with Dad in 2005), Easter Island (achieved as part of my MBA in 2005), and now the Trans-Siberian. While there isn’t actually that much to see (largely because much of the track is banded with thick forest), the adventure is the trip itself and that hasn’t disappointed, although Lloyd’s ability to speak Russian has smoothed things considerably. Four nights on one train is probably enough, but I think a small part of both of us wishes we were continuing on to Vladivostock rather than ducking out at Ulan-Ude tomorrow to join up with the Trans-Mongolian. The days have passed quickly and, I think, surprisingly easily, with a combination of reading, snoozing, playing cards and writing. Put us on a beach and we have no idea what to do with ourselves. Trap us on a train for four solid days and we’ve had no trouble relaxing! I think confusion over the time zones mean that we’ve been able to justify sleep at almost any hour (the train runs strictly to Moscow time, and yet we’ve crossed four time zones so far, adding four hours to local time), so our bodies are operating somewhere in between. Sleeping late and snoozing in the middle of the day mean that it has been hard to fall asleep at night, although Lloyd has yet to accept my challenge of 3am Yahtzee…

Posted by jacquiedro 19:37 Archived in Russia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Plane, Trains, and Automobile to Get to the TSR

And we Almost Missed It!

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Travel Lesson #356 (and yes, we should have known this!): allow at least twice as much time as you think you could need to travel and check in to unfamiliar airport terminals. We had allowed about two and half hours to get from the center of Petersburg to the airport and to check in for our domestic flight. Unfortunately, our taxi was almost a half hour late, and the “fifteen minute” journey to the airport turned out to be more like an hour. When we finally arrived at the airport, it was about thirty minutes prior to scheduled departure, and our hearts just sank when we saw the long lines to even get into the terminal.

Hey, we’re all for good security, but the Russians have made it a little bit too much of a gauntlet, especially when you’re running late! We arrive at Pulkovo 1 – the domestic terminal – and you can’t actually drive up to the second level where departures are. We lug our bags 100 meters (the closest the cab could get after driving like a mouse in a maze through the parking lot) to the entrance on the arrivals level, and find a line out the door – they have x-ray and metal detectors to get into the airport!

Then – once inside, you have to walk upstairs to departures, only to get into one of 6 or 7 lines to go – again – through the same security setup (x-ray bags, metal detector, pat-down) only feet away! Luckily, as we were pressed for time, I left Jacquie in line, did a quick recon and found an entrance upstairs with no line! Typical Russian fashion – they could have easily let people know there was an alternative but did not – the staff just sat and read and looked official doing nothing until we showed up. In any case, I ran downstairs again (nearly sprawling face forward down the smooth stairs twice and learning another lesson- always wear lace up shoes when checking in at a new airport esp. when running late!) and grabbed Jacquie and the bags to head upstairs to the shortcut I’d found.

Once through that entrance, we walk 3 meters to the next metal detector line (a line of 10 -15 people) and join the shortest line we can find, which is being manned by a Russian blonde, with no interpersonal skills and who was more concerned with her nails than with checking in passengers. With only a few minutes before the line closed, we cut in front of a group of Asian tourists boarding our flight . As her ticket printer was broken, she simply gave us the “too bad” frown and pointed us back to ‘blondinka’ who finally checked us in, but only after her printer had been repaired by 3 – count ‘em 3 – IT personnel. That’s right – one to open the printer, one to change the ribbon, and one to supervise. In true Russian fashion.

Once we checked in, we walked toward the gate and were surprised to find that there were just three gates at this domestic terminal! Given the chaos to get in, and the fact that half of Moscow and two thirds of Tokyo seems to be fighting to get in, we expected something at least the size of Heathrow Terminal 3! Anyway, a prize was in store for Jacquie with the discovery of REAL IRN BRU, which she enjoyed just as the loudspeaker crackled that our flight was now closed for check-in. We had only just made it.

In any normal circumstance, missing a flight would not have been too bad, but this was a connection to our Tran-Siberian train (TSR) departure, for which we had date specific tickets, non-refundable at $1800 for the two of us. We counted our lucky stars! All three of them . . . .

Our Aeroflot flight (in a TU154M!) passes without incident and Lloyd scores the bargain of the trip with transportation across the city to our train for a little over $2 each. First, we catch bus 851 across Moscow, which delivers us to the metro where, about one hour and one change later, we arrive at Yaroslavsky Station with more than an hour to spare!

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By far the least enjoyable experience of the trip so far was being propositioned in Yaroslavsky station by a greasy Russian who offered me (this is Jacquie talking now) $100 for – well – thank heavens I can’t understand Russian. It’s quite funny really, given how scantily and provocatively clad so many young Russian ladies are. And there I am in my travel trousers, fleece and baseball cap! Lloyd would have killed him, but he had left me sitting close to a couple of Russian women as he went off to try sort out some additional train tickets. The most distressing part of the experience was the lack of assistance from these two female observers who were sitting no more than one and a half metre directly opposite me, and witnessed the entire exchange.

Happily, our excitement on finally boarding the TSR (indeed, on even making it to the station in time!), was building and the unpleasantness was quickly forgotten. We found what seemed as precious as the secret of the universe on platform 1 at Yaroslavsky. A whole, freshly roasted chicken! To carry out, it was wrapped in very large tortilla-type thing. We were so excited that we practically tore it open and ripped at it with our fingers until – after about five minutes – we realized we were gorging ourselves on the chicken, from the ass-end up! Damn it was good . . . !

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Jacquie unknowingly starting from the bottom . . .

Finally – we boarded the TSR, finding carriage number 7, which was about a third of the way from the front of the train, and a convenient two carriages from the restaurant car. We checked out our cabin, and met our provodnista (carriage attendant) who looked amused at her first-class back-packers. With about twenty minutes before departure, we walked up to the front of the train to check out the engine (a little disappointing!), and to admire ‘Rossiya’ (which means ‘Russia’): all decked out in blue and red – everything proudly customized with her name (curtains, sheets, plates etc).

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As she pulled out of the station, majestic music played from the loudspeakers, and we felt quite grand as the train picked up speed, our heads sticking out from Rossiya’s windows and waving Queen-style at passers-by.

Posted by lloydthyen 10:59 Archived in Russia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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