Part 1: Moscow
It had been clear for a while that we would begin our big trip in Moscow, so we started our adventure rather well prepared. As mentioned before, I had been practicing to read Cyrillic, so I would at least be able to find my way around the metro network. Also, I had done some research on how to get from Sheremetyevo airport to the city center using public transport. After we had spent what felt like an eternity at immigration and retrieved our backpacks from the baggage claim, we headed straight for the Aeroexpress, a train which took us to Belorussky station. We had to search for a while until we found the entrance to the metro, and once we did, my prior studies came in quite handy – as there was no English whatsoever to lead us on our way. The same was true when we were trying to find our hotel once we came out of the metro as the street signs, too, are in Cyrillic only. But finally we made it to our hotel, interestingly named Hotel Budapest, but without any connection to the Grand Budapest Hotel. The hotel is huge and rather old, but still affordable compared to many other Moscow hotels, and, most importantly, is situated perfectly in walking distance to the main sights. Consequently, we spent our first evening in Moscow walking around the Bolshoi Theatre only a few minutes walking distance from the hotel and then sat down at a nearby square to listen to a band playing there and enjoy some cold beer from a street vendor.
The next day, we had time for some sightseeing, as our train would only leave late in the evening. So after breakfast, we walked to the Red Square and the Kremlin and from there all the way to the Arbat – an interesting, but also very touristy pedestrian street, which is supposed to be one of the oldest streets in Moscow. For once, touristy wasn’t such a bad thing: Cafés and restaurants all along the street were handing out free samples, so after some chocolate ice-cream and iced coffee, we didn’t need to spend too much money for lunch anymore. After we had seen most of what we had wanted to see before lunch, we spent the afternoon strolling around the city some more, took a look at the famous GUM department store and spent some time in the Alexander Gardens right next to the Kremlin. In the late afternoon, we went grocery shopping for the long trip ahead of us: 10 liters of water, fresh fruits and vegetables, oatmeal, tea and crackers would be building the basis for our diet on board the train. Afterwards, we had some salad for dinner (well aware that fresh food would be scarce on the train) and once again sat down at the square close to the Bolshoi Theatre, this time watching two competing hip hop dance groups.
Part 2: The Transsiberian Railway
Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel, where we took a taxi to Yaroslavsky train station. With all our groceries and our backpacks, we didn’t feel like walking the twenty minutes to the closest metro station. Once we arrived safely at the railway station, we realized that – contrary to what we had read before – the train’s platform would only be announced shortly before its arrival. So we put our bags through an x-ray machine in order to get access to the station’s waiting hall, were we had to wait for quite some time. But finally, the correct platform was announced and when we arrived there, the train was just pulling into the station. The sun was about to set and the platform was full of tourists with backpacks as well as locals loading boxes onto the train – all in all a great atmosphere, smelling like adventure and the great unknown. We soon found the right carriage, handed our tickets to the Chinese attendant and finally found ourselves in the tiny compartment which we would call our home for the next six days. Before departure, we took the advice from our guide book and cleaned our window (which cannot be opened), so that we would at least be able to take some photos from our cabin. And then the train started rolling and like all the other passengers in our coach, we were standing at the open windows on the other side of the corridor and watched Moscow passing by. We were exhausted from our day of sightseeing, so more or less all we did that night was prepare our beds with the sheets the attendant handed out shortly after departure. Then we lied down for the first of many nights on a moving train – not yet knowing that we would soon get used to the constant rumbling and shaking.
After a surprisingly cold night on the hard bunk beds, we took some time to explore the train. Our two-bed cabin in the first class was small, but comfortable (once you got used to the hard beds). In addition to the beds, the lower of which served as a sofa in the day time, we had a small table and a chair, plus a few places to store our luggage. We shared a bathroom with the cabin next to us. It was smelly (as there was hardly any ventilation) and only contained a small sink with a shower head attached to it. The water was cold and non-potable – but we hadn’t even expected a shower, so we were happy with what we got. The toilet was on the hallway and it was a good thing we had brought our own toilet paper. Lastly, the samovar on every coach was extremely useful, always providing hot water for tea and porridge. We were on the Chinese train, which is supposedly more comfortable than the Russian train. Consequently, all the attendants were Chinese and not Russian. They hardly spoke any English, but were still very helpful, locking our cabin doors behind us and warning us whenever the train was about to leave the station. What was also interesting was the fact that the restaurant cars were exchanged depending on the country we were travelling in. We mostly ate the food we had brought, but occasionally went to try some local food there as well. The food at the Russian car was quite expensive, but the blini (Russian pancakes) with smoked salmon or salmon roe were good (though not as good as the price implied). On the Mongolian car, I tried some kind of soup containing noodles and horse meat – cheaper, but admittedly not that delicious. Finally, we were given vouchers for the Chinese car, so we didn’t have to pay anything. The food wasn’t great, but we were grateful for some vegetables at this point of the trip.
Describing the entire trip on the Transsiberian Railway would go far beyond the scope of this blog post, so I will confine myself to a short summary. We spent the first four days driving through Russia and saw beautiful, but still very European landscapes along the way. Mostly we saw birch trees and grassland, and finally the huge Lake Baikal (though unfortunately it was raining a lot when we passed it). The landscape only changed when we came close to the Mongolian border, growing more mountainous and more sparsely vegetated. My personal highlight of this train ride was the moment when I woke up at five in the morning, looked out the window on our first morning in Mongolia, and saw a sky still red from the sunrise, vast, lush pastures, the first yurts, and herds of cows and horses. Although the larger Mongolian cities were just as ugly as the Russian ones, mostly with large old concrete buildings and somehow seeming to be in decay, the Mongolian countryside included some of the most beautiful views I have ever had and I definitely want to visit this country again. In the afternoon of our day in Mongolia, we moved into the Gobi Desert, were the cow herds were replaced by camels and it grew extremely hot and dry. By night, we arrived at the Chinese border and after three very exhausting hours, during which the train’s entire chassis was exchanged (with us still on the train) in order to fit the Chinese track width, we were finally on the last part of our trip. On our first day there, China was extremely foggy, so we couldn’t see much of the landscape. All I can say is that we passed large rice paddies and vegetable fields, many villages and a mountain range, before we finally arrived in Beijing after six days on the train.
Note: This was our route with the train (give or take a few smaller stops): Moscow – Nizhny Novgorod – Kirov – Perm – Ekaterinburg – Tyumen – Omsk – Novosibirsk – Krasnoyarsk – Tayshet – Irkutsk – Ulan-Ude – Ulaanbaatar – Erlian – Beijing.
Part 3: Beijing
Our first impression of Beijing: so many people! Getting out of the station took us quite a while, as everyone had to present their ticket, which was then checked by hand. It was still extremely crowded when we were finally out of the building and the smog and the humid, hot weather contributed to the somehow stressful atmosphere. We went to find a bank to exchange some money and then decided to find a taxi to take us to our hotel. Exhausted as we were, we let us be ripped off by the cab driver and paid a price far too high. But I guess we learned the lesson and it was still cheaper than the same distance would have cost back home. And after all, we wouldn’t have been able to find our hotel without the taxi, as it lay hidden in one of the Hutongs, a kind of narrow street typical for Beijing. After a much needed (warm!) shower, we explored the very interesting neighborhood, had some extremely hot and spicy noodles, and enjoyed a cool beer and some music in a bar with excellent live music.
We stayed in Beijing for a few days and I really enjoyed the area around our hotel – although the rest of the city was less friendly. On the second day, we gave up on trying to get into the Forbidden City, as there were just too many people. It was also very exhausting to walk from there to the Tiananmen Square, as there were fences and security checks everywhere. So on the next day, we fled the city and went to see the Great Wall at Mutianyu with two guys we had met on the train. Climbing all the steps to the wall and then climbing the very irregular steps of the wall itself was again very tiring, but well worth the work!! On our last full day in Beijing, we took a look at the Temple of Heaven. Here, the crowds were still bearable as we got there relatively early and the heat was quite extreme that day. On our final evening in China, we explored the bars around Houhai Lake, which were all really busy and full of tourists, but a very nice alternative to our usual habit of going to bed early. On the next day, we flew on to Hanoi, which you will read about in the next post.