We flew to Beijing from Los Angeles via a 4 hour stopover in Tokyo; it's the closest city to Ulan Bator, where we were really going, the capital of Mongolia!! We flew out on Air Mongolia which was fine and got to our hotel, very nice but not always hot water!! Ulan Bator is a very exotic city, I love the architecture which is very Asian, reminded me of Buddhist style, and the people which are also very interesting. There was a big thunderstorm and I took a lot of video, in fact I took video of everything!! You can tell they are very "former Soviet Union" influenced because their language is very exotic and Asian but they write it officially in Cyrillic alphabet, though you see Mongolian alphabet which looks like art, not writing!! They also have the "State" store and very strict with customs forms and all sorts of things, but people are friendly and helpful though not too many speak English!! We walked a lot and managed fine. Sometimes we got confused with the time changes; it happened a couple of times because some countries have Summer Time, we'd be an hour behind or ahead and couldn't tell, with daylight until 10 pm anyway so far North!!
After that we flew to Irkutsk, the heart of Siberia, we were so excited to actually be going to Russia!! We toured all through the city and to Lake Baikal, which supplies 25% of Russia's fresh water, and is a sacred place, in a way, for Russians to go. It is really beautiful there, the food was good and we even got an Intourist salt shaker as a souvenir!! Now there is officially no Intourist but they still organize stuff. We saw certainly the most interesting bathrooms in Russia, my Estonian friend said Americans are fixated with the bathrooms and I never thought of it but I guess we are!! We saw pits in the floor, we saw the dirtiest facilities, for many days we didn't have any hot water, but it makes you appreciate home and after all when you need to go there you work around it no matter how it looks or smells!!
We were to get the Trans-Siberian train in Irkutsk, and it turns out you can't get a reserved compartment until the day of departure no matter how much you paid for it in advance in the US!! But our wonderful guide Natasha was incredible, she got us a "Soft" class car by ourselves, that's like first class, because otherwise you can be in a car with 2 strangers, maybe 2 guys and we didn't like that idea!!! So we were very tired by the time we got on the train at 11 pm and we had to get our bedding and I learned a few Russian words for the train lady like "please lock the door" and "tea" and "toilet" and basic things!! So we slept very well for 2 nights on the train, the scenery is incredible, Siberia is very green and it was very hot, 25-30C which we didn't expect!! I guess they had record heat the whole time we were gone, in Finland we were almost at the Arctic Circle and it was 34C, they couldn't believe it and we really couldn't!!
Anyway, back to Siberia, we saw the most interesting people, we took our own canned food on the train because there was no food, we'd buy some steamed potatoes or dumplings in the train stations from time to time but usually we feasted on our canned tuna and beans, but we were happy!! Also, we found you can't buy water in Russia, at least not in Siberia, and we were always thirsty and hot but found Pepsi occasionally!! We also missed showering and hot water on the train, believe me there's nothing like that!! We met some interesting people though fortunately it was quiet and not crowded on the train at all. It was very fun to do for 2 1/2 days though you wouldn't want to do it for the entire 7 days from Vladivostok to Moscow, we really wanted to shower after 2 days!!
Another thing we noticed in Russia is that it's nearly impossible to change money. Now you could understand that if you wanted to buy dollars, but if you HAD dollars and wanted to BUY rubles you were usually out of luck!! So we changed in all sorts of ways to get money, or banks would only change 2 hours then the line would be too long and they'd put out a sign, oops no more money so we'd be out of luck!! We managed though and there was always a balance of having enough rubles to do what you needed or having too many and not being able to change them back!! We did the best we could, though.
Then we arrived in Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, and I have a penpal there. But you must stay at the hotel so we arrive very early in the morning and drag our luggage to the Hotel Novosibirsk--I also had an extra suitcase because my Latvian friend asked me to bring a few things to her from her aunt in the US and I said OK and I got a suitcase!! Anyway, I was happy to do it of course!! Our hotel voucher said Intourist Hotel so we asked a taxi driver and he said Hotel Novosibirsk so we were happy it was just across the square though that's a long way when you're tired; it was a very stark, gray, serious place, my Russian friend Olga called it "Khrushchev architecture"!! Well, no one there spoke English and basically ignored me so we didn't know what to do, I tried to call Olga but the phones didn't work, so we asked someone else who motioned that we must go to the other intourist hotel!! So we got in a taxi and went there, we were so glad when we got there, it was beautiful and very modern and clean and people spoke English!! The Hotel Sibir is brand new and had direct dial phones with an individual line in each room so you don't go through the operator!!
So we rested and took a BIG shower because we were tired and very dirty from 2 1/2 days on the train!! We then walked around the city, very big, tried to get food in the restaurant (all the waitresses very friendly but NO english), we were feeling a little discouraged, but then we finally got Olga on the phone and felt much better!! She was incredibly nice and sweet and helpful and showed us all the interesting things in Novosibirsk, and knew all about the history and people and it was wonderful, she also took us to this wonderful store that had Matryoshka dolls (the nesting ones that are so famous) and everything we wanted to buy about Russia!! It helps to know someone.
So then we flew to Moscow, which was a very funny experience on Aeroflot!! We checked in, a very efficient, fast, but long line, then when they see our foreign ticket they start yelling at us and pointing, thank goodness Olga was there and she could walk all around and find out what we were supposed to do!! We had to go to a separate lounge, they totally segregate the foreigners even now!! So we checked in a special place, got our bags tagged totally separately, went to a special lounge with comfy chairs and a toilet, and we waited. Then they took us out first, put us in a special bus, put us on the front rows of the plane, where the rows aren't ABC, of course, but Cyrillic letters. We did arrive safely in Moscow, but even in the "new" Russia, the rules are still very strict. We had a great time, though, and I would go again.
Mongolia links Archive.
Siberian Train Timetables
Irkutsk Home Page
Russia Today OnLine Newspaper
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