The first leg of the trans-mongolian, the train line that would eventually help us cross Asia through three of the world’s largest countries, left Beijing around 9am from the main train station. Next stop: Ulaanbaatar, capital of the state of Mongolia.
Given the illustrious history of Mongolia’s Genghis Khan and his famous conquests of both Asia and Eastern Europe, one would expect Ulaanbaatar to be an equally great capital. Instead, we entered a city with little to see and less to do. Luckily, we’d planned our travel to arrive on the last day of Nadaam, the annual national festival. The greatest celebration in the country, Nadaam gathers the fiercest wrestlers, the most talented archers and the best riders of the country for three days of games and inebriated celebrations. We were fortunate enough to obtain seats in the National Stadium for a few euros––we had been told it was impossible!––and were able to assist to the last ceremonies, supposedly the wrestling matches of the highest quality. Clueless about wrestling rules, we contented ourselves with soaking in the euphoric crowds as they cheered on winning fighters and followed each victory with the Eagle Dance, a trans-like movement whereby winners run in circles with their arms stretched like to imitate the national bird.
After a day in the capital, we left for the countryside for four days of trekking and horseback riding. I’d underestimated just how big the country is and wish we’d stayed longer to be able to go further as we did not have enough time to visit the famous Gobi desert or the notorious steppes. Nevertheless, the landscapes we saw were breathtaking and the people we met were some of the most welcoming people I’d ever met. On one most memorable night, the tents we were supposed to sleep in broke and we didn’t have any cover. We drove to a random ger-–what the Russians call a yurt––on the side of the road, explained our situation and asked if we could perhaps stay in one of their gers. The owners welcomed us with open arms, gave us beds, a roof to sleep under and food for our starving stomachs, without asking anything. This touching hospitality will remain engraved in my mind forever. We spent two of our days riding horses in the Mongolia mountains, which surprisingly reminded me very much of Switzerland (so much so that the Edelweiss, the Swiss national symbol, is present everywhere) and another day in the Semi-Gobi, a unique semi-desert with sand dunes covered in sparse vegetation. For me, though, the highlights of those few days in the countryside were by far the gorgeous sunsets that graced all of our evenings.
After this peaceful and relaxing week in Mongolia, we left the country and traveled to Russia by bus. We arrived in Irkutsk, the Paris of Siberia as it is called, and after a day walking around the city, headed for Lake Baikal. The lake is not any ordinary lake. Not only is it the largest and deepest lake in the world, but it also comprises 1/5 of drinkable water resources on planet Earth! We took a ferry and crossed the smaller estuary to go to Olkhon Island, famous for its sensational landscapes, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. One one most memorable day, we rented bikes and decided to head to the north of the island for the day and back, some 40 odd kilometers one way. I thought we would make it easy, but soon realized there was no way we would reach the northern cliffs. Nevertheless, the landscape was stunning and the trip, though definitely an adventure, was well worth it. If we were thirsty, we would just bike down to the beach and fill our water bottles in the lake, and if we were hungry, we’d just shoot a bird and roast it. Okay, the last part isn’t true, but we did drink lake water. The water is so clear that you can see straight through it, even if you swim a dozen meters off. We heard that on sunny days, some people get vertigo when they swim away because you can see up to 30 or 40 meters deep!
Leaving Olkhon was difficult as we could definitely have used a few more days of rest there. But time was running out and we needed to leave Siberia. We embarked once again aboard a train but fell this time in a train that had left from Vladivostok rather than Beijing or Ulaanbaatar. Four days later, we would arrive in Moscow. The train was an out-of-time experience. Coupes––small 4-person compartments––were too expensive so we went with Platskarny, or large 40-bed dorms in one wagon. We were the only ones in our wagon to speak English and ended up with four separated beds in the middle of Russia families, grandmothers with their grandchildren and drunken middle-aged men. There is nothing to do but read, sleep, play cards and look out the window. And yet the ride was strangely enjoyable. I’d never had the opportunity to just sit back and do nothing––literally nothing!––for four days, and I have to say, it’s quite a unique experience. I don’t know that I’ll do it again anytime soon, but having so much time to oneself was very enriching. Nevertheless, I think I speak for everyone when I say that we were happy to reach Mokba, or Moscow.
The capital of the great state of Russia came as a very pleasant surprise. We had heard from so many backpackers that Moscow was not worth it, that there was only very little to see and that we should go to St Petersburg directly that we were not expecting much. After having spent two days there, a day before and a day after St Petersburg, I will attest to the contrary––Moscow is a very charming city where, unlike St. Petersburg, majestic in its own right, one can witness the community of the Kremlin and its influence on the imperial past. St Basil’s cathedral, the symbol of Russia and of its capital, is as visually stunning as it is on postcards; and the Kremlin is as impressive as history allows. As we discovered a few days later, the rest of the city is also worth a visit and a few days, with old orthodox monasteries spread out across the city center and a few pleasant river walks (or runs).
Despite its history, however, Moscow paled in comparison to the grandeur of St Petersburg. Imperial in past and in nature, St Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. Colorful 19th and early 20th century mansions line the banks of the many canals that cross the city. The main river that flows into the gulf of Finland is lined by the old medieval fort one one side––inside of which are buried the remains of the Romanovs–– and the majestic Hermitage on the other, remnant of glorious times when the Czar rules over all of Russia and much of Eastern Europe from the city. Briefly renamed Leningrad after the Second World War, St Petersburg also stands out as a very European city, with delicious and relatively affordable restaurants and a cosmopolitan and healthy mix of the wealthier classes with a developed and growing underground art and music scene. Unfortunately, three days were not enough to explore the city as we should have, but we did get a chance to walk around, visit the unique and extremely rich collection of the Hermitage museum, a collection that contains some of the most beautiful paintings I have seen in my life, and attend a performance of the world-famous Kirov ballet in majestic Mariinski Theatre. Wanting to attend a Bolshoi performance a few days earlier in Moscow, we’d settled for the Ballet of the city of Moscow because the Bolshoi was on tour in London, and were seriously disappointed by the quality of the show. What a relief and a delight to see the Kirov a few days later; and what a stark contrast!
This stay in St Petersburg and a last day in Moscow concluded what was an incredible two-month journey that took me from Bangkok to Moscow and served as the perfect break between college and real life. I’d recommend such a break to anyone.