From Russia with Love
February 26, 2012
The trip from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, took three weeks, and I would say that I learned a few things. Topping the list of things I learned is: Don’t accidentally leave your debit card at Denver International Airport. That’s not the best way to start the trip. The second thing I learned is: If you’re going to leave your debit card at DIA, make sure that you know the PIN to your credit cards. Citibank is quick to remind you that no, they cannot email you or text you your PIN, regardless of the fact that you’re in Russia and have no cash. Having learned those two lessons, the journey through Russia into Mongolia is unforgettable.
The train ride began in St. Petersburg, where you could stay for a long time and never get bored. I was there for three days and found endless little restaurants, historical sites and even shops that seemed to be hidden in basements, but that had a lot of character.
For me, St. Petersburg was colorful, mysterious and elegant. Moscow was a little different. I arrived in Moscow on an overnight train, ready to be wowed. Like many capital cities, Moscow is fast-paced and formal. I found the Kremlin and its surroundings to be interesting, and the Lenin Mausoleum to be strange; but if there is a place to get robbed, Moscow is it, so I didn’t stay there very long. I left Moscow and started the 100-hour journey across Russia to Lake Baikal.
There are faster and cheaper ways to get across Russia, but going on the Trans-Siberian Railway seemed too cool to resist. It is four days and five time zones of Russian debauchery, intermingled with stops at stations where you can buy vodka, beer, food and stuffed animals. I enjoyed the randomness of it all.
Because it was the tail end of the tourist season, the train cabins were not filled with many backpackers. Most of the travelers were locals traveling between Siberian towns and cities, not many of whom were interested in speaking with a foreigner. I was admittedly surprised at how few people I found who spoke English, and I regretted not having spent more time trying to learn Russian before the trip. The train ride gave me time to observe and reflect, and wonder about when I might take my next shower.
They call Irkutsk the Paris of Siberia and I never figured out why. But, that is where you get off to visit the famous Lake Baikal, the deepest fresh water lake in the world. This humongous lake is surrounded by pine forests and mountainous terrain, and there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking and boating. I did a few hikes, but mostly took in the place by taking photos. Every single little house seemed to be decorated with intricate wood carvings and details, and no two were the same.
I eventually found out that the architectural style is typical of the Buryat culture that exists in this part of Russia. Other Lake Baikal delights included eating omul, a delicious whitefish that you find everywhere around the lake. As you get closer to Mongolia, the influence of Buddhism becomes stronger, and monasteries begin to pop up on the horizon. That is, the ones that weren’t destroyed during the communist era.
My time in Russia ended in Ulan-Ude, a charming small city close to Mongolia. From there, I took a bus to Ulaanbaatar that took 12 hours, but felt like 60. Mongolia is too awesome to write about in one paragraph, or to see in one week. I managed to visit the vibrant and energetic capital city of Ulaanbaatar, as well as to visit the nearby Khustai National Park. For me, what makes Mongolia so endearing is that 50 percent of the population are nomads living in traditional yurts in the countryside. I was lucky enough to visit one and stay in one, and loved that some are equipped with photovoltaic panels and satellite dishes, so you can still have electricity – and television! I even ate mutton.
On the last day of the three-week adventure, I bought myself a Mongolian cashmere scarf, which I’ve worn practically every day since I’ve returned, and which reminds me of how lucky I was to visit that part of the world.