As you all know, a big part of the Silk Roadistan tour was the big bad Trans-Mongolian railway journey. Before you ask: Yes, it was awesome.
It took us a long time to decide our travel path on the Trans-Mongolian train, but it didn’t have to. The standard Trans-Mongolian train takes you from Moscow to Beijing (or vice versa) DIRECT. Yep, that’s over 6 days on a train without getting off, and while the adventure would have still been awesome, we would have missed out on so, so, so much wonderful Russia.
So, we chose our stops along the way carefully, and since there are a list of standard stops on the line, even this shouldn’t have taken us that long. It took us that long because we decided to go off the track to some other interesting destinations, like Tomsk and Kazan, which also meant we got to experience some of the more local trains in the process (both good and bad). Thank goodness Real Russia was there to help us out every step of the way!
>> Read the reasonings behind why we chose to work with Real Russia in this post.
I plan to blog thoroughly about the trip in detail, but just to get you caught up, here is the atypical Trans-Mongolian railway route:
Beijing – Starting Point
Usually the end of the line, we made it our starting point. After a few days of trying to explore gigantic, concrete-covered Beijing (and seeing little kids unfortunately exposed), we hopped on a train in first class, Mongolia bound! It was such a treat to be in first class as Pat and I had our own private cabin together, which made it that much more enjoyable. Surprisingly, the free food vouchers that also came with our tickets got us some grub that was overall pleasing.
It wasn’t until the midnight border crossing and train track changing that my head decided to get a migraine, and let me tell you — every whack of the train carriages as they pushed the new wheels on was like torture! Besides that, overall pleasurable experience.
Ulaan Bator, Mongolia
After an overnight train ride, we finally arrived in Ulaan Bator, the capital city of Mongolia. It was here that we got off the train and headed out into the Mongolian countryside for a 4 day tour (where Pat was belittled as a man). If you have more time, do take it to wander around this country. The barren beauty makes you appreciate the finer things in life… like toilets. Oh yes, toilets are niiiiiice.
When we were planning this train trip, it was as a group, so trying to nail down our exact Lake Baikal itinerary was looking to be a chore. Instead, we just decided to book our tickets in and out of Irkutsk and make our way to the lake when wanted.
Turns out that might not be such a great plan since a short journey from there to the Lake is actually a few hours. In our last minute planning in Ulaan Bator, we actually decided to head straight to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal, a trip which took us 6 hours by car from Irkutsk — a really big trek and portion of the day after already spending a day on a train.
Nikita’s on Olkhon Island ended up being so cosy, we stayed for 3 nights before heading back for a night in Irkutsk.
After our cold, cold stay at Lake Baikal, hitting up Tomsk and getting a taste of 30 degree (Celsius) and humid temperatures was quite the shock to the system. Luckily, Tomsk was a lovely find — such a fun little university town that possesses some of the best wood lace architecture in the region. It was here that our 8th Floor Hostel workers cooked us up some of that delicious borscht soup I blogged about last week!
On the way to Tomsk, we had a lovely few hour stopover in Tayga, which is where we randomly ran into two Russians who owned a little matryoshka doll museum.
Next on our route was Kazan, also known as the capital city of Tatarstan — and therefore a perfect fit into the Silk Roadistan tour. Kazan is actually one of the wealthiest cities in Russia, and it is laden with super nice and almost gothic looking buildings, not to mention dozens of gated communities that happened to look desolate. The food, however, along with a worthwhile stop at the Soviet Lifestyle Museum (post coming soon!) made the trip a memorable stop in our book.
On the way to Kazan, we had to take a long, long route from Tomsk with an evening stopover in Yekatinerinberg. We were only there for a few hours and didn’t see much, but if the rest of the city is anything like the area near the train station then I would not recommend stopping off on your future journey.
Moscow! What a pleasant surprise! I knew at that moment that I had been traveling too long in the former Soviet countries because Moscow was everything but gray and concrete. That city is absolutely grand and beautiful in every way. Even the Metro was a place I could hang out in for hours! I was extremely sad to only have a day in the big city, and I hope I can return some day to finish out the stay.
Normally, the Trans-Mongolian (or Trans-Siberian) line would end in Moscow, but many lucky individuals extend the journey by heading north to St. Petersburg. We did so on a Sapsan train — one that took us there at speeds of up to 250km/hr.
St. Petersburg, Russia
To be quite honest, St. Petersburg blew me away. Not only did we get to stay in the best planned hostel in the world there, we also got to enjoy the European beauty that is this Russian city. That, combined with the white nights, good food, a great pub crawl, and an apartment stay with Roomorama, and St. Pete’s was just so hard to leave!
Only we had to. We had a flight booked back to Bishkek, and more of Kyrgyzstan to explore. I must say I was highly impressed with Russia and would highly recommend Russia to anyone. If that exploration can be done by rail — even better!
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*Real Russia offered my group a discount on our rail tickets, but all thoughts expressed on the company’s helpful nature are my own.