This is it…

Another early morning but not for fun… Time to go to the airport and catch our BA flight to London.

The customs seized some of our souvenirs: my eternal matches and Svet’s lighter fom Russia. No matches or lighter allowed on any Chinese flight, that’s the law. Whatever.

Anyway, the last goodie of the trip was that we got upgraded to Premier, so had a very very relaxed flight πŸ™‚

I feel that we left London such a long time ago… we did so many things and went through so many various places since. From the grandeur of St Petersburg to the madness of Beijing, via the secret Siberia and welcoming Mongolia.

We were both very amazed by Russia. Moscow was probably my biggest surprise, such a dynamic and busy city. We had the pleasure to discover Siberia and Mongolia too, which surprised us in a very positive way, getting to know a bit more of the local traditions and people. We knew that we were too short of time there, and I would happily come back and explore those two areas properly. Beijing too was terrific and we did on the Great Wall probably one of the best hikes in my life. All those places connected by the Transmongolian route, which was a unique experience in itself πŸ™‚

Which place, which experience did we prefer of all? I honestly cannot answer, they were all so various and different, the whole lot made such an amazing and exciting adventure πŸ™‚ we loved it all !

Hope you enjoyed reading this blog… On our side, back to work tomorrow, wish us good luck πŸ™‚

Wild, Rough and Great

Let’s start with some dumplings for Svet, expresso + sort out the VPN that constantly drop for Laurent and meet up in front of that … eeerk… restaurant πŸ™‚

We kept the best for the end of our trip: the Great Wall!

The most common ways to visit the wall are to start from Badaling (most popular) or Mutianyu. Those places are of easy reach from Beijing and lead to the refurbished parts of the wall… but we want more πŸ™‚ The plan is to go to the non-touristic part, which connects to the touristic one after a few miles.

We found a detailed itinerary on Internet, let’s try it out. We start with a one hour bus ride to Huairou, followed by another bus to Jiankou where our hike will start. The number of times we were harassed by cab drivers – including in the bus – to drive us to the wall is unbelievable!

Some massive infrastructure under construction on the way

Another group of 4 Germans with a guide are also in the bus, as well as some local guys, up for the same challenge.

We have no guide, an untested itinerary and it is misty and rainy. Common sense would tell us to stop now but we continue πŸ™‚

The first part is a one hour hike to the first tower of the Great Wall.

We proactively ignore the signs πŸ™‚

Not those ones though

Getting a bit muddy and wet

It goes up the mountain through the forest. Amazing vegetation; quite steep though.

Many breaks after, we eventually reach the tower. What a relief !!! We are on the right way πŸ™‚

The right side of the wall leads to the “stairs to heaven”, which is more climbing than hiking. Not for us.

We go to the left side, towards Mutianyu, the touristic part. Some guys were planting their tent in the tower, ready to spend the night. One local guy was also going to Mutianyu, so we decided to go together.

There are 23 towers on the way, we reach them one by one. Some well kept, some quite ruined. Pure magic, the mist makes it all surrealist and magnificent…

Some parts of the wall itself are not in a good state. Careful not to fall as the wall is quite high so falling would surely be fatal

If you don’t fall, it is fine, the hike is not too difficult.

The “ox horn edge” is the most difficult part. It is a steep slope upwards, followed by a steep and slippery slope downwards. We have to hold the wall tightly not to “enjoy” a toboggan-style descent πŸ™‚

The whole hike on the Great Wall is just magical. We are surrounded by outstanding beauty and centuries of history; I never experienced that before. We are in heaven.

We eventually reached the touristic part after 4 miles or so and say goodbye to our friend. Awesome chap, despite the language barrier πŸ™‚

We continue for about 4 miles, meeting a few tourists.

We could have done without the mist and the rain on that part, the landscape looks amazing as we can… mmmh…. guess πŸ™‚

We use the cable car to go down to the valley. Touristic infrastructures are great when you are tired πŸ™‚

We are exhausted but absolutely ecstatic after this amazing hike; 4 hours of pure delight! That finishes our Transmongolian trip in the best way possible πŸ™‚

We will have a quick rest before a well deserved dinner (not Mc Donald’s for sure πŸ™‚ ) and … packing 😦 Our flight to London is tomorrow morning…

The Forbidden City

This time we have our passports with us; off to the Forbidden City πŸ™‚ Coffee first of course

Going through Tienanmen to reach the City’s gate

Many people but the Forbidden City is huge so it all goes quickly and smoothly

Inside the City it is a succession of palaces and temples. Absolutely magnificent! The Forbidden City was the former Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty (1420 to 1912).

Some tourists

That easily took us a couple of hours. Next for us is the Temple of Heaven. Nice walk in the gardens and a look at the amazing halls and temples there

Today we maximised our use of public transports, distances are far too big to do everything by feet. One thing that would please any British: people actually queue for the bus, with actual lines for each bus πŸ™‚

Public transports are pretty good, between the subway and the bus network. Beijing may have been very polluted in the past but we didn’t really feel it was nowadays. Probably due to the new subway (most of it was built after 2012 and still expanding) and those electric scooters that people use too (less noise pollution too!)

Off for some dinner…

…with an interesting menu πŸ™‚

What we went for was tasty but really spicy, far too many chillies 😦

Hope we will be ok tomorow. Anyway had some drinks in a square later, in the warm Beijing evening

Crazy Beijing

First time in Beijing for both of us. The hotel where we stay is a bit basic, but the bed is good so that’s what counts πŸ™‚

Let’s start with our district, Dashilan, close to Tiananmen square. It is a very lively area, full of restaurants and shops. We can’t help stopping everywhere

The main shopping avenue features a “tram”, which is the most hilarious copy of a tram I have ever seen πŸ™‚ It looks more like a slug and please let me know what the overhead pantograph is for πŸ™‚ Oh and the rails are just there as a guide, it actually has (hidden) rubber tyres

We then had a look at Tiananmen square… absolutely massive!

Then a first glimpse of the forbidden city. First glimpse because you need your passport to visit it and I didn’t have mine. We will come back.

We followed the forbidden city walls to go to Jingshan park. The park is magnificent, with a hill and a temple on top.

Nice views on the Forbidden City

We then got lost looking for he closest tube station, as we decided to follow the side streets rather than avenues. That was a great choice though. Interestingly, this area has many Hutongs, small lanes that join courtyard residences together. Hutongs were first established in the Yuan dynasty and, although their number is in constant decline, they are an important cultural element of Beijing.

Quick break at the hotel before some delicious food and drinks out, with a bit of rain this time

Didn’t try this one below… tomorrow we will look for “Fuck the duck till it explodes” πŸ™‚ haha

First impressions: Beijing just looks crazy. It is massive, noisy, busy, lively; we have rarely seen such animation in any other city. A mix of ancient culture and modernism, this is fascinating. Let’s continue tomorrow πŸ™‚

China is Calling

Early start today to fly to Beijing this morning.

Another change of plan. We received an email from Air China while getting prepared, to let us know that our flight was rescheduled to 10pm this evening 😦 I suppose because of the strong winds over UB this morning. That would make us reach the hotel at 3/4am. Too late 😦 Fortunately I found an earlier Mongolian airline flight, so cancelled and rebooked.

Those little things take some time, after which we went for coffee to find out how to exactly reach the airport. The easiest would have been to take a cab but cabs are not reliable in UB, so let’s avoid πŸ™‚

To cut a long story short, we eventually figured out which bus was going to the airport, where the bus stop was and where to buy the contactless card. That may sound ridiculously simple but believe me, it was not. The issue here is that bus stops don’t have a list of busses stopping there nor display any time table or city transport map (not kidding πŸ™‚ ). Forget about Internet, it is impossible to find any up-to-date and reliable information there. Oh and nobody speaks English too πŸ™‚

Anyway, we got there

Had some relaxing time

Yeah sorry, airport food 😦

Very modern airport but glad we re not flying to Brazil πŸ™‚

Nice views from the sky

Finally arrived in Beijing, easy customs but massive airport !

After a full day pretty much spent sorting the shit out, we really deserved a nice meal and quick Beijing evening tour πŸ™‚ Such a warm and nice evening tonight…

Ulaanbaatar Day 2

The plan today was to go hiking in the Terelj park but we were still knackered from our previous travels (and the night before πŸ™‚ ), so hiking wasn’t the most appealing option. We anyway had a look at the transport links and there was just one bus that leaves at 4pm, so you have to stay in the park overnight. Two good reasons to stay another day in UB and have a lazy morning πŸ™‚

Svet just wanted to relax at the flat so I continued visiting on my own. There were indeed a few more places I wanted to see in UB.

I started with the Choijin Lama Museum, which is a group of temples transformed into museums.

Many Buddha sculptures and other artefacts there, absolutely superb! Unfortunately, photos were forbidden inside 😦 Many of the sculptures are made of papier machΓ©, dunno how they managed to keep them that well throughout the centuries. There were also two special lama sculptures, made in honour of deceased lamas. One has the ashes of the deceased mixed with the papier machΓ©; the other one was the actual mummified body wrapped into papier machΓ© to give him a human appearance. A bit creepy but interesting πŸ™‚

I then walked to the south of the city, towards the Winter Palace, passing through UB city and some amusement park.

Not such an enjoyable walk though if I am honest, not mentionng that I totally underestimated the distance. A lot of noisy traffic and massive pollution. UB is indeed one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Reaching the winter palace, which once was the winter residence of the Bogd Khan, the eighth living Buddha of Mongolia, and his wife, the Ekh Dagina. He was enthroned when Mongolia gained independence from China in 1911.

There are 6 beautiful temples there that the Soviets turned into museums, sparing them from destruction unlike the Summer Palace that didn’t get the same chance. They feature a rich collection of statues, Buddhist artwork and personal belongings of the royals.

Back to the flat with some Kazak horse meat for dinner πŸ™‚

And drinks out with Adiya. Last day in UB, we leave tomorrow for Beijing…

Genghis Khan City

Everything became Genghis Khan here after the communists, so why not Ulaanbaatar πŸ™‚ We will take it easy today and stay in Ulaanbaatar to visit the town. Panic in the morning though: we ran out of coffee 😦 We can live without cheese, wine or beer but NOT coffee!

Hard to find any coffee which is not an awful instant mixture though. We did a few shop before finding some at the department store. That will do for tomorrow πŸ™‚

In the meantime we headed off to a local coffee shop to meet Adiya, one of Svet’s connections.

Really cool guy πŸ™‚ We went for a city walk afterwards

Genghis Khan square

Nice change from Lenin πŸ™‚ Apparently UB pulled the last Lenin statue down 4 years ago or so

Gandantegchinlen monastery. This monastery, like pretty much 700 others, were destroyed by the communists in 1937 when any religious practice was made illegal and rebuilt afterwards in the 90s

Mongolian Barbie collection πŸ™‚

We then continued with the ger district, north of the town. A “ger” is the traditional Mongolian habitat, timber framed and covered with animal skins or more modern materials nowadays. The UB ger district is a mix of those and wooden houses, with unpaved but named streets with numbers

There have been many initiatives to replan the ger district and move people to apartments but none have been successful so far. In a country where 30% of the population is nomadic or semi-nomadic, it is easy to understand that this way of life is deeply rooted in the Mongolian identity.

Back to the town centre going through side streets…

… and to our accomodation, on the 13th floor of a block in the 5th district

Not that fun when the lift breaks down but those cleverly designed buildings also have stairs πŸ™‚

We met Adiya in the eve but first, a stop for Svet to buy cigarettes at the light of a smartphone

I was waiting on a bench outside πŸ™‚

You got it, that was a joke. So, on the way to the restaurant

We had some delicious Mongolian meals tonight

There was an “osselet” game on the table (this is in French, dunno the translation) to predict your luck. Good fun πŸ™‚

Then had a few beers nearby

I had some feedback in the past that UB was dull and boring. I passionately disagree !!!! The city may be a hard nut to crack as it is very dissimilar to any European city, but it is vibrant, people are awesome and there are so many hidden gems to explore if you can see them.

Ulanbator, j’adore πŸ™‚

On the Way to Ulaanbaatar

Once the Russian customs were complete, same story on the Mongolian side of the border, except that it went a bit quicker.

First stop straight after the border, for passengers to get some food. Some local people were offering to change money at reasonable rate. Good opportunity to get rid of the Rubles and get some Tughrik, the Mongolian currency.

A welcoming restaurant πŸ™‚

Quite a big difference between Russia and that border village we stopped at. The wealth is not the same, even with Siberian towns and villages not being the most kept up. Cows seem to have freedom of movement here, but we are in the countryside after all πŸ™‚

On the road again after a bit of fresh air. The landscape is of stunning beauty. Mountains in the horizon, large steppes and beautiful light that makes the green of the grass so vivid

A ger (i.e. yurt), the traditional Mongolian habitat

We reached Ulaanbaatar at around 8:30pm and went straight to our accomodation. Absolutely knackered. Good night πŸ™‚

From Russia with Love

Time to start our journey to Mongolia, so we catch the Moscow-Vladivostok for a night train journey to Ulan Ude. Only for 7 hours this time πŸ™‚

There are not that many options to cross the border by land there: you either take the train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar (and wait for 10 hours at the border) or train to Ulan Ude then bus to Ulaanbaatar (quicker and cheaper).

Boarding the Transsiberian is like meeting an old friend again πŸ™‚ “upgraded” decoration as you can see, with fake wood panel lol, a group of a dozen of guys as neighbours going for some kind of uni trip.

Short night again and we arrive in Ulan Ude at 4:45am. The punctuality of Russian trains is absolutely stunning.

Since we are early for the bus (depart 7:30am), we take this opportunity to do some 5am-7am tourist tour of the city. Ulan Ude being the economic capital of the area, we were expecting a working but not so charming city. It was actually nice, another good surprise.

Some more wooden houses

And the main attraction: the biggest sculpture of Lenin’s head in the world πŸ™‚

We were a bit hungry and dying for a coffee, so did something terrible that we are not proud of but it was the only place open πŸ™‚ judge by yourself:

At least someone liked the sandwich πŸ™‚

Back to the bus station, which is now lively, we grab our prebooked tickets and board the bus for a 12 hour journey.

And this is it, we pass the Russian border.

Very straight-forwad, no question asked and friendly clerk. Do all the terrible stories we can read on Internet about Russian customs or police actually exist or are they a thing from the past? Fortunately, none that we could experience anyway!

Bye Russia, we loved every minute we spent there πŸ™‚ Mongolia, here we come!

Lake BaΓ―kal

At last, a proper night in a proper bed πŸ™‚ We slept 9 to 10 hours so feeling (almost) fully recharged. First things first, we quickly dropped our bags at the station, since we will be leaving this lovely town this evening.

No way we would go to Irkutsk without going to lake BaΓ―kal. So, off to the bus station, at the other end of the town, to figure out the transport options. There are regular busses to Listvyanka, which is a small village along the lake and is the best option regarding the time we have available. Busses run about every 2 hours; unfortunately we just missed it. But there is always a Plan B: many minibusses that leave when they are full. We took one of those and didn’t have to wait long before it departed.

Note the effort made on interior decoration πŸ™‚

Bumpy road and crazy driver πŸ™‚ the road mainly goes through the forest, with some views on the Angara river.

Trees on the left

Trees on the right

Some settlement along the river

Glad Svet brought his full collection of jumpers and jackets, it is freezing here (6C) πŸ™‚

Listvyanka is a pretty little village that sits on the shore of the lake. It must be packed during the summer months, judging by the number of tourist facilities around. Most of them were closed anyway, we are off season πŸ™‚

Lake BaΓ―kal must be Russia’s deepest pride. It is indeed the deepest lake and largest drinkable water reservoir in the world, with many endangered species of fishes and birds living there. To protect them, a natural park was created in 1986 that stretches along the whole length of the lake (longer than London to Edinburgh, to give you an idea)

We just had a well-deserved laid back time there, visiting the village and having a walk along the lake.

We didn’t try the smoked Omul fish, which is the local specialty, but had some barbecue food from the Ulan Ude area

And some games (the restaurant owner insisted lol) πŸ™‚

Despite the rainy weather, we had a great day so far. Summer must be terrific here, there are so many options: hiking, go to remote coastal villages by boat or do the Circum BaΓ―kal, a vintage train that follows the old Transsiberian railway. Staying overnight at Listvyanka would have been awesome πŸ™‚

Back to Irkutsk now, we continued visiting this charming city

Almost time to catch our old friend the Transsiberian and head off to Mongolia πŸ™‚ speak soon!