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Moscow

I always find it exhilarating and a bit overwhelming stepping out into a new city.  There is so much to take in, and you’re never sure which direction to head in.  At the same time you have to give an air of vaguely knowing where you are going, so as not to attract the attention of people who might want to take advantage of your vulnerability.  In Moscow we kept stopping in our tracks as we came across iconic buildings we’d only seen on TV or in pictures, somewhat giving away our tourist status.  Seeing them in person, and appreciating their size and stunning colours took our breath away.  It’s surprising what an emotive experience it can be.

After enjoying our first shower in days after four days on a train, we set out from hotel late in the afternoon and went in the direction of Red Square in the rain.  We hadn’t wandered far before coming face to face with Karl Marx.

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This grand monument carved out of granite is opposite the Bolshoi Theatre which still looked beautiful despite grey skies.

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Next we ambled along pretty Nikolskaya Street,

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before turning left where the magnificent St. Basil’s Cathedral came into view.

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In the evening we met up with a Russian friend, Dmitry, who lives in Moscow.  We had met many years ago via email when he helped me set up filming for that documentary on Nureyev I mentioned in part 3.  It was so nice to see him and we went to a great restaurant called Lavka Lavka where food is sourced from small farms across Russia.  We had our first vodka on this trip which was amazing. It was so amazing that the notes I made about the meal when we were back at our hotel say ‘cod for main after cylindrical starter, and ball for desert’.  Oh dear.

Next morning we strode back out to Red Square to see the Kremlin.  We arrived at the gates outside and couldn’t find anywhere to buy tickets.  In the end, with the help of a German family, we worked out that you had to go to a square glass building in Alexander Garden.  Alexander Garden is 865m long, and it was quite a hike to find the ticket office and then double back to the Kremlin.  The choice of tickets is quite confusing and we opted for one saying Cathedral Square, not really knowing what that meant.

The Kremlin is a fortified city (within a city) containing 800 years of Russian history.

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Having only one full free day in Moscow, we didn’t tarry long, just spent an hour or so admiring the beautiful cathedrals and walking around the gardens.  We then undertook the challenge of using the Metro and managed to make our way to one of the impressive Seven Sisters (a group of seven skyscrapers built in the Stalinist style).

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Then it was time to do some Russian watch shopping at SMIRS at 11 Arbat Street.  The Shop Assistant was super patient and helpful as we browsed around the store.  We opted for Vostok timepieces, beautiful mechanical watches at an affordable price.

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Very happy with our purchases we marched on towards Muzeon Park of Arts.  With such a lot to cram into a short space of time, I turned roaming on my phone (top tip -purchase an add on package before travelling) and we used the CityMapper app for Moscow.  We’d already spent too much time getting lost and standing on dodgy street corners with a map wrapped around our faces.  I just checked my iPhone and note that we did 29,186 steps that day!  And that didn’t include our evening walk to eat out because I didn’t take my phone.

Eventually we arrived at the park in an area not dissimilar to the South Bank in London where we came across relics from the USSR.

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We finished our day in Gorky Park where I was so tired I didn’t have the energy to take any photos.   Next time..  That evening we met up with John and Lindsay and had our final dinner of the trip at a restaurant not far from the hotel called The Old Tower, which funnily enough is situated in an actual old tower at the foot of the Kremlin.  We ate traditional Russian fare in medieval surroundings and made plans for our final morning in Moscow which included some last minute shopping in the splendid GUM department store.

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From my brief research it appears to have been opened in 1893, converted into offices by Stalin in 1928, and not opened as a shopping centre again until 1953.  Russian doll and vodka purchased, we had a last wander around the streets taking in the contrasting architecture from very different eras.

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It sounds a bit ungracious, but we had time to kill before heading back to the hotel for our taxi to the airport, and decided we’d have a quick visit to Lenin’s tomb as the queue was relatively short.  I was wearing my glasses with reactive lenses and as we entered the mausoleum, passing stern guards we were suddenly thrust into darkness.  I couldn’t see a thing and stumbled down the stairs, only just regaining my balance as I reached the line of people solemnly walking around Lenin.  Not my most elegant entrance it must be said, but I managed to maintain my composure while taking my turn peering into the coffin.  It was an extraordinary experience, especially as we hadn’t planned on visiting the Russian revolutionary.  And quite an end to our adventure.  What a trip!  Two weeks ago we’d been walking along the Great Wall of China.  Since then we’d travelled  7,621km/4,735 miles by train and ended up at Lenin’s tomb in Moscow.

Sadly our journey was over, and it was time to fly home.  It was a beautiful clear night as we arrived back in London.

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Reflecting on the trip, I’d like to thank John and Lindsay, the perfect travelling companions.  It was a privilege to share this experience with you.  We’ll never forget that hot pot experience in Beijing.  Huge gratitude to my husband, Howard, for going along with my dream with enthusiasm.  What memories we have created!  Thank you also to Chris at Trans -Siberian Travel Company for arranging our itinerary and answering all our pre-trip questions.  And I’d like to randomly mention the Backdoor shoes company who supply the best shoes for long distance train travel – both for onboard, and hopping off and off at stations.

We never did find out why you should pack a cork.

 

[ALL PHOTOS OWNED BY CHRISTINE NEWBY.  PLEASE ASK PERMISSION TO USE]

Ulaanbaatar to Moscow (part 3 of 4)

Knowing the next leg of our journey was to take four days, it was with excitement and a little trepidation that we boarded Train 5 to Moscow.  We hurriedly found our cabin which had a different layout to the one in our train from Beijing.  There was a seat/bed on either side of a table, and this time the toilets/washrooms were either end of the carriage.  Each side of the door was a handle.  We couldn’t work out what they were for, but would find out in the early hours of the following day.

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As we rumbled through the Mongolian landscape on our way to the Russian border, passing houses surrounded by wooden fences against a backdrop of mountains covered in a light sprinkling of snow, we took in our new surroundings.

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We had read about, how shall I put it, less than friendly Provodnitsas, but our Mongolian train attendants, while not exactly ready to crack jokes with us, were polite and attentive.  During our journey, they kept the washrooms spotless, and the samovar topped up with hot water.  Contrary to our experience on the Chinese train, they also turned a blind eye when we opened the windows in the corridor.  You do crave a bit of fresh air when you’re travelling on a train for such a long stretch of time.

Our view constantly changed, it was like watching a non-stop National Geographic documentary.  Small communities started to merge into picturesque snowy scenery.

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Followed by an amazing sunset.

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Here is John and Lindsay absorbed in the vista.

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It was soon time to eat our picnic food bought in Mongolia for dinner and prepare ourselves for the Mongolia-Russia border at Sukhe-Bator.  It wasn’t until about 1am that we were through customs and on our way again, but only for about an hour.  There was a sharp knock on the door, and as Howard slid it open I awoke with a migraine crawling around my cranium and a stern Russian in uniform waiting with little patience for my passport.  Paperwork having been studied thoroughly, we were instructed to leave our compartment.

Standing in our pjs in the corridor, we looked on sleepily and obediently as a lady from border control yanked down the mystery handles either side of the doorway, and proceeded to use them as footholds to clamber up and search our storage area.  So that’s what they were for!  It was a relief when we were allowed back into our berth, I could take a couple of strong painkillers, and we were left alone to get some sleep before waking up in Siberia.  It’s a strange thing when you travel by train that you start to find it hard to get to sleep when you aren’t moving and being rocked by the gentle rhythm of the wheels beneath you.  It becomes a beguiling comfort.

Lifting the window blind on waking, we were greeted with beautiful views of Lake Baikal.

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Originating 25 million years ago and at a maximum depth of 1,632m, it’s the deepest and most ancient lake in the world.  Sitting back enjoying travelling around this 640km stretch of water, I remembered from working on a documentary about Nureyev, that he was born on a train by this very lake!

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At our very first stop this side of the Russian border, we hopped off the train, and sprinted out of the station, crossing the road to a grocery store to spend some roubles on more provisions.  You had to make precision strikes so you made it back on board in time.

We then settled into a routine of non-electronic activities.  In addition to reading and gazing out of the windows, I liked old fashioned puzzle books as I could annoy everyone by asking crossword questions when I got stuck.  We discovered that our brains didn’t work as fast as google and sometimes John would pop his head around the door with the answer to 6 across or 10 down that we’d been trying to think of 24 hours previously.

Occasionally we’d unpack the cork and try and figure out what it could possibly be used for.  Or we’d pop down along to the samovar for hot water and have a cup of tea.  Then when we’d really run out of things to do, we’d wash up and make use of our Mongolian tea towel.  We took living in the moment to a whole new level.

Of course the real joy of such a long train journey is having glimpses of life in a part of the world that has only existed in your imagination; someone galloping bareback on a horse through a Steppe in Mongolia, a gardener busy in their Siberian back garden, small hamlets in Russia with cosy looking wooden houses.

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The dining car was a little different to the Mongolian one.

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We spent our evenings here in the dazzling light of a swirling disco ball, eating, playing cards and listening to the waiter’s selection of Eurovision style music .  It was quite an exhilarating walk to get there swaying by many berths, and experiencing quick blasts of exterior noise and fresh air as we passed between carriages.  Other than a few squats and stretches it was the most exercise we did.

At one late night stop, we stepped onto the platform and watched as coal was loaded on board.  Such sights become your entertainment when there’s no TV or wifi and 4G is only sporadically available.

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We also enjoyed making the most of day time train stops, buying local food from platform vendors,

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and running around taking snaps.

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For about a day and a half, we past by miles and miles of silver birch.  Thousands of them.  Millions.  While we were reassured that there was still a huge area of the world covered by trees we started to look forward to our approach to the capital.

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But just before we pull into Moscow, I want to share a picture of how the many nationalities on our carriage shared the one and only power supply available.  It made our Provodnitsas chuckle and I think serves as a great example of how people from around the world can all work amicably together and share.

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And so it was that on a damp afternoon, after four days aboard the train, we pulled into Moscow, our final destination

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As we stood on the platform in the rain, we had a sense of déjà vu, as once again we searched in vain for a guide holding our name.  It took a few phone calls and a search around the station for a driver to appear, soggy name card in hand.  He didn’t speak English so we weren’t able to comprehend what had happened.  It could well have been bad traffic as that’s what we hit on our way to the hotel.  Regardless, we couldn’t wait to settle in and explore this new city.

 

[ALL PHOTOS OWNED BY CHRISTINE NEWBY.  PLEASE ASK PERMISSION TO USE]

Mongolia (part 2 of 4)

Here in part of 2 of my Trans-Siberian adventure blog, you find me and my travel buddies having just arrived in Mongolia.  The priority was to obtain some Mongolian currency, as it’s not possible to buy it in the UK, so we quickly exchanged any remaining Chinese yuan into Tughrik before leaving Ulaanbaatar train station.  First stop on our whistle stop tour of the city was the Gandantegchinlem Buddhist monastery constructed in 1809, and moved and rebuilt in its current location around 1838.  It survived the Communist led destruction of monasteries and was reopened in the 1990s – a little history lesson for you there.  Inside (you’ll have to take my word for it, or pop in to see it yourself as I wasn’t organised enough to pay to take a photo) is an impressive 26.5 metre high statue of Megjid-Janraiseg (Avalokiteśvara), a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas

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By the time we reached Sükhbaatar Square in the centre of the city, the weather was starting to turn.  We’d been told that it was going to snow, and the temperature was dropping quickly as we took a walk, somewhat briskly, around this grand open space.

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Before heading to the Ger camp, we mounted 300 steps to the Zaisan Memorial, a monument to honour the Mongolian and Soviet soldiers killed in World War II.

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From there you had amazing views of the city.

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With snow storm clouds looming on the horizon, we jumped back into the passenger van, and were driven to the Elstei Ger camp, 50 kms North East of Ulaanbaatar, stopping only to pick up beer on the way (you might be starting to see a recurring theme here).

We were shown our lovely Gers,

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before being served lamb dumplings and banana pudding for dinner in the restaurant block.  We discussed plans for the next day (weather permitting) which included Howard and me horse riding, and John and Lindsay walking to a nearby nomad family.

While relaxing post dinner, Anka (our guide/host/friend) taught us how to play a curious traditional Mongolian game called ankle bones.  Each of the four sides of an anklebone represents a different animal; horse, sheep, camel, goat.  After tossing four of these ‘bones’ and depending on which sides they landed on, you moved another set of bones that represented a horse race!

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After several games, we ventured out into a cold night, and retired to our Gers.  But we didn’t spend the entire night alone.  At 1am and 6am a ‘fire lady’ came into our Ger to keep the stove going.  We felt ridiculously spoilt, and were enormously grateful for this service.  Regardless of the freezing night outside, we were kept warm and cosy.

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Peeking outside our tent at 8am in the morning, there was a layer of snow on the ground.  Wearing many layers of anything warm I could find in my suitcase I ventured to the shower block.  Much as we hadn’t expected such high temperatures in Beijing, we hadn’t packed for a freak Mongolian snow storm in September.  Thankfully hot water was in good supply so showering was a way to get warm before heading back out into chilly winds.  Over a hearty breakfast of soup, egg, bread stuffed with lamb, and tea, we planned our activities for the day.  But alas, the weather took a turn for the worse, and for our own safety we were not able to stray far from the camp.  We read and relaxed until lunchtime, and afterwards went for a blustery wander around the camp.  I managed a couple of cuddles with my favourite Ger camp dog to warm up.

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Returning to the restaurant block where a fire was lit, Anka taught us a complicated Mongolian card game.  We played several rounds asking questions constantly, as the rules were complex, and then we introduced our Mongolian host to Crazy Eights and Rummy 500.  It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon though we felt a little sad having missed out on a horse trek as it had been high on our wish list.  John, who just happens to be a member of the magic circle, performed magic tricks after dinner.  It was a lovely end to the day, and a nice surprise for Anka.

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The clouds were just starting to break early the next day providing beautiful scenery for our brief walk to breakfast.

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With the promise of better weather ahead, we were offered the horse ride that we hadn’t been able to do the day before and taking up this offer instantly, we couldn’t hide our excitement.  John and Lindsay also got to visit a local nomad family.  In fact, we all did, as that’s where our horses would be ‘caught’.

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It was a treat meeting local nomads in their ger, and we were offered hot milky tea and (very) hard cheese.  Having just had breakfast, I took a small bite of the cheese, which was ‘interesting’, and I hid the rest in my jacket pocket.  I didn’t find it again until well into the train ride to Russia, but it was still well preserved.  After Lindsay had played a few notes on the family’s horse head fiddle that you can see above, we were taken outside and introduced to our horses, which we were warned might be a bit feisty.  They were a bit different from the ponies I had learned to ride on a 100 years ago at the Harrogate Equestrian Centre, but we had a really enjoyable journey back to our Ger camp across the Steppe landscape.

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We were sad to say farewell to all the lovely people who had taken care of us but had to press onwards, as we had a train to catch to Moscow!

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We had one more thing to see  before leaving Mongolia – a giant statue of Genghis Khan (known locally as Chinggis Khaan), built in 2008 on the occasion of the eight-hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Mongolian Empire.  At 40m high you can’t help but be impressed by its sheer size.

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Taking a lift, you pop out above the horse’s head, look up into the huge face of this legend on horseback, and take in the view of the plains below.

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In the basement of the building on which Genghis’ horse is standing is an archaeology museum which includes a history of Ger designs which after our recent camping experience was really interesting.

After a busy morning of riding real horses, and climbing to the top of a huge stainless steel one, we headed to the train station.  Knowing that there wouldn’t be a dining car on the train until we reached the Russian border, we stopped off at a big Mongolian supermarket.  We topped up with exciting provisions like a tea towel and kitchen paper (you might laugh, but they came in very useful on the next leg of our journey), and enough food to feed us for the rest of the day.  One thing we all missed was cheese.  We hadn’t savoured any in China or Mongolia, and all we could find in this store was some rather sad cheese slices.  We bought some anyway hoping it would satisfy our craving.  It didn’t.

Back at Ulaanbaatar station, we bid a fond farewell to our fantastic guide, Anka (now a fb friend!), and boarded our train to Moscow.  We were setting off on the next part of our Trans-Siberian adventure.

 

[ALL PHOTOS OWNED BY CHRISTINE NEWBY.  PLEASE ASK PERMISSION TO USE]

 

 

 

 

From Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (part 1 of 4)

‘I have a cork and gas meter key on my list, can someone remind me what they are for?’ Having toasted our success obtaining visas for China, Mongolia and Russia, my husband (Howard), myself, and two close friends (John and Lindsay) were having a pre trip planning meeting.  We remembered that the gas meter key had something to do with locking carriage doors on the train, but nobody could recall what the cork could be useful for.  A couple of weeks later, and cork safely packed, we were on our way to Beijing.  Although it seems that the Trans-Siberian trip is more often taken from Russia to China, we decided we would get the longest flight over with first, getting closer to our own time zone as we travelled back towards Moscow.
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We were greeted at Beijing airport by our enthusiastic guide, David Zhao.  In the traffic jam approaching the city we chatted about many things from pandas to Trump, probably mixing up the two in our jet lagged state.  After dropping our bags at the hotel in the Dongcheng district, we wandered around the local area, taking in nearby Exquisite Park where senior citizens were dancing and singing the afternoon away.

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Early evening, refreshed after a quick nap, we headed to the ‘Great Leap Brewery ‘, hidden down dark winding alleys in the Doncheng Hutong district.  Home to a huge selection of craft beers, it was a lovely little oasis with outdoor seating.  We chose ‘Many Daughters Lager’, and were soon grinning and giggling so much that we unanimously decided it was most necessary to order a second round.  Wandering a little unsteadily back into the narrow streets, we made our way to a small restaurant selling Peking Duck wraps.  They were delicious! (vegetarians, please close your eyes and scroll down)

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Next morning we excitedly set off on foot for the Forbidden City which served as the imperial palace for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1912).  Nothing could have prepared us for the beauty and vastness of this site.  Davey Zhao deftly navigated us through the throngs of people, and we followed him closely, trying to take in as many facts and figures as we could along the way.

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Beijing was already beginning to be a stimulation overload, and no sooner had we zipped through the Forbidden City, than we were on our way to the Great Wall of China, an hour and a half drive out of the city.

As we rode the cable car up to one of the great wonders of the world, the wall came into sight and it was hard to believe we were actually there.  It’s stunning.

For such a hot day we were all inappropriately dressed.  We hadn’t expected the temperature to be so high in late September and sweated in long trousers as we ascended.

My one abiding memory of this amazing site is of a Chinese gentleman at one of the watch towers.  He swiped through his music selection on his iPhone, selected Swan Lake at high volume through the speaker, and off he strode along the next section of the wall to the strains of the Viennese waltz.  One of the happiest people I’ve ever seen.

That evening we took the plunge and flagged our first Beijing taxi to Ghost Street – a 1.4km strip of Dongzhimennei Dajie, jam packed with over 150 restaurants.  Our driver pulled up and pointed and grunted in an animated manner which we interpreted as a cue that we had reached our destination.  Once we had fumbled about working out how much yuan we needed for the fare, we were tipped out into the bustling thoroughfare.  So many restaurants to choose from and we ended up at a hot pot restaurant where we were presented with an iPad containing a menu only in Chinese, and not one person spoke a word of English.

And so the fun began.  Little did we know that at each click of a button, we were ordering ingredients for our hot pot which to our surprise kept arriving promptly at the table.  We ended up with an eclectic mix of raw food which we cooked ourselves in a bubbling cauldron of stock in the middle of our table.

Leaving the restaurant on a high, feeling proud of ourselves for managing to overcome a Chinese menu on an electronic device, we hailed another taxi.  Thinking ourselves well prepared, we gave the driver a card upon which our hotel name was written in Chinese. Squinting and holding the address at arm’s length it became immediately apparent that he didn’t have his glasses with him.  On borrowing Howard’s reading specs who was sat up front, he looked at him, gesturing at a map to see if that’s where we were headed. But having given up his glasses, Howard now couldn’t see, and was unable to help.  Trying to stifle laughter at witnessing this comedic act in the back seat (admittedly not very helpful) we all tried to remember the journey in reverse and somehow managed to navigate our way back to our beds for the night.

Another day, and more amazing sites.  First, the summer palace, allegedly the best preserved imperial garden in the world, just a short 15km drive from downtown.

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Next, the Temple of Heaven situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing.  Built in 1420, it’s the largest building for religious worship in China, originally used by the Ming and Qing emperors to pay homage to Heaven and to pray for a year of rich harvest.

In the gardens leading up to the temple, local retired friends played games, chatted, and sang together.  It seemed like a great sociable way to spend your golden years.  I must have been paying too much attention, for it was here that I somehow managed to get separated from our group and for me the Temple of Heaven temporarily became the Temple of being completely lost and slightly anxious.  There were four exits and I had no idea at which exit our guide was waiting.  I hadn’t been paying attention when we arrived.  Time to turn roaming on the iPhone!

Several frantic phone calls and texts later, we managed to find each other, with enough time remaining for a walk around Tiananmen Square back in the city.  Security was high and we had to have our bags checked and show our passports before having access to this vast landmark.  It was a fitting end to our sight seeing in Beijing.

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Bleary eyed at 6am in the morning the following day, we stood in reception waiting for a passenger van to take us to the train station for the start of our Trans-Siberian railway trip.  Just over an hour later, laden with bags of pot noodles, dumplings, snacks and drinks, fullsizeoutput_1debwe boarded our train, the K23 to Ulaanbaatar.

Our berth had two seats/beds, one above the other to the left as we entered, and a comfortable chair to the other side of a table. We were surprised and delighted to discover we had our own toilet and shower.

The train pulled away promptly at 7.27am, and we were on our way.  It was very exciting, and it took a while to adjust to our new surroundings and relax into the rhythm of our new mode of transport.

Our train guard provided us with sheets, pillow cases and blankets and there was a constant supply of hot water from a tap by his cabin.  You have to bring your own tea bags, coffee and travel mugs and get used to using powered milk, which isn’t as bad as you’d think.

In the corridor, our guard made sure the windows were always locked.  We weren’t quite sure why.  In our berth, however, with the use of our magic gas meter key, we were able to open our window and get some fresh air.  We were able to use the same key to lock our door when we ventured out of our carriage.  As a rule, most people kept their carriage doors open as that way you could take in the views on both sides of the train.

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We used the dining car for lunch and dinner where we met other travellers, and were about to enjoy another round of beers with a Dutch couple we were sat with, when it was announced that the dining car was closing.  It was about 8pm and we realised we were approaching the China-Mongolian border of Erlian.  This was where new bogies would have to be fitted to the train for the Mongolian gauge, with us still in it!

Version 2A train guard ran through our carriage, locking all the toilet doors (we would be regretting those meal time beers), and for the next 4 hours we sat in our carriages being shunted backwards and forwards into huge sheds.  We watched from the corridor windows in amazement as we were lifted up for the new set of wheels to be fitted.

We were relieved in more ways than one, as the one final jolt meant the job was done, we were were on our way again, and the toilet doors were opened.  However, although it was now after midnight, there was wasn’t much of a chance of rest.  We’d just got our heads down when there was a knock on the door.  We’d arrived at the Mongolian town of Zamyn-Ude for immigration formalities.  You learn to have all paperwork nearby at all times for this journey, so you can put your hands on your passport, train tickets and customs paperwork at any moment.  It wasn’t until 2am that our passports had been returned and we could get some sleep before waking up in Mongolian daylight.

 

Emerging into the corridor mid morning, a fellow passenger alerted us to the fact that a Mongolian dining car had been attached to our train, so we headed there for breakfast.  And what a dining car!

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Not really knowing what time of day it was I selected a bowl of borscht which was really tasty.  We’d already eaten some dumplings that we bought on a station platform earlier.  Extraordinarily, our travel buddy Lindsay, had bumped into (quite literally) an Australian friend that she had met on a course in Iceland a couple of years ago!  They were in next door berths.  We whiled away the time chatting to each other in the finely decorated dining car and then prepared for our arrival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

As we alighted at the station looking for a guide with our names on a card, we watched as passengers were greeted by family or travel companies. Everyone slowly drifted away until we were the only ones left on the platform, portraying a rather forlorn group of travellers.  Trying to give the impression we were in control of our situation, we rifled through bags and found an emergency contact number.  After an hour of phone calls  and waiting, our young guide, Anka, apologetically found us.  There had been a bad traffic accident, delaying her journey in.  Phew!  Our exploration of Ulaanbaatar could begin.

 

[ALL PHOTOS OWNED BY CHRISTINE NEWBY.  PLEASE ASK PERMISSION TO USE]