Saturday, 18 October 2014

Mongolia to London the long way... My off season adventure

All aboard The trans Siberian train!!
Travelling overland through 7 time zones by train has never been on my holiday wish list. But after an 'incident' for Simon in Mongolia involving a bike race, an unplanned dismount at speed, fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, and a doctor's note saying no flying, an overland trip home became the 'obvious' answer ... Yes, it is possible to get all the way home from Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator) to our very own doorstep using only 6 trains, 2 weeks holiday, and as it turned out, 2 litres of the finest Mongolian vodka...
Simon guarding his ribs in Ulan Bator

Trans Siberian Railway
2 weeks after the accident, 1 week after Simon had a chest drain removed, 24 hours after I landed from London via Beijing, and 2 hours after we picked up Simon's visa from the Russian embassy in UB, we found ourselves in a train compartment no bigger than a small double bed, which was going to be our home for the next four days. 

As I unpacked (ie squeezed our bags under the 2 bench seats) Simon dashed to the local food kiosk to buy essential supplies. He came back proudly holding 2 litres of vodka, 9 bottles of beer, 2 bottles of champagne, 3 tins of nuts and a bottle of coke. "Perfect" I said with only the merest hint of sarcasm...
our secret stash...

As the train began to chug its way through the incredible Mongolian countryside we were soon overtaken by a car, then a lorry, and then a horse!  A Mongolian passenger in the next compartment suddenly burst into song, then a German man well into his 60s passed our door without his top on (it turns out this is how he would travel the whole way to Moscow). We took all this in... This might be a long few days... Only 1 thing to do... Embrace the experience and crack open the vodka!!! 

Travelling across a continent or two by train and watching the world go by was an incredible adventure.  The train windows made it a bit like being in a huge cinema with 2, no 4 screens in the same room. One either side of the train, then looking both forwards or backwards - each screen showing amazing but different views. The guide book had said bring lots of reading material and be prepared not to finish it. How true!
never bored of looking out of the window...

About midnight we crossed the Russian boarder.  
There is something very Agatha Christie about standing in a dimly lit train carriage, wearing nothing but your pyjamas, with 2 Russian border guards flashing a torch into your face as they check your papers. Next came the security guard who was wearing a military cap, a tight grey boiler suit and knee high laced up black boots, who proceeded to search everywhere - even under the floor, and above the ceiling (I have no idea what she was searching for, the German's shirt perhaps?) Then the customs men came around in equally stern uniforms and searched our carriage again. They tut tutted loudly at all our alcohol (Not sure if they thought it was too much or too little...) 

The scenery in Mongolia had been beautiful, but open and quite sparse, with the occasional, isolated Ger (Yurt) or small settlement. We woke at sunrise to find ourselves winding through beautiful forests in the eastern part of Siberia. Being Autumn, the yellows, reds and golds of the birch trees, with the soft sunlight light peeking through, was spectacular.
Siberian forrests

Our first breakfast in bed consisted of coffee, Jaffa cakes and salami and tasted amazing! In my defence I was still on UK time, so this was more like a midnight snack... This may have been lovely but the novelty would soon wear off. A restaurant car had joined us at the Russian boarder and the food turned out to be ok, but not really special.  We chose to see this as a challenge, and with station stops about every five hours, we used these to forage for supplies. Each stop turned into a race against the clock - anything from 13 to 27 minutes to head out, find a shop or a kiosk and guess what the Cyrillic meant. 
results of our foraging in various Russian stations

As it turned out we mostly chose well and smugly feasted like kings on various pasties, pickled fish, meat, cheeses, bread, fruit and ice-cream washed down with fresh coffee, vodka, beer or champagne. Most passengers tucked into noodles (there were hot water boilers in each carriage) and I also tried out some great instant food samples I had brought with me from Sports Kitchen.  These water boilers also meant we had plenty of hot water to wash with, but with only a small sink in a tiny toilet, washing was 'basic'.

Still not bored of the scenery...

For the next three days the soft low autumn sun flickering through slender birch and conifer trees, across meandering rivers, lakes and fairy-tail like wooden huts. Brilliantly shiny onion-shaped golden church turrets caught the sun beautifully and we felt like voyeurs spying on various aspects of back door Russian life visible from the train window. Watching the world pass by, playing games and reading meant that neither boredom or stress existed for us on the trans-siberian railway. Time became an abstract phenomenon - it existed somewhere else, but it didn't really matter to us (except the small exact chunks of time where we stopped at stations for our foraging expeditions). 
Russia whizzing past..

98 hours after leaving Ulaanbaatar we arrived in Moscow, chilled but a bit bedraggled. (The naked German guy was the only passenger to look clean and fresh, newly reunited with his shirt - he might be onto something here! ) We had travelled first class on the train (you don't want to know what 3rd class was) and the theme was to continue. We turned up at the Moscow Savoy looking like a couple of scruffy vagrants. To give them credit the staff were very polite and not overtly put off by our dusty, tatty non-designer luggage (Smon with his race kit bag) and bodily grubbiness. To my absolute delight, not only did we have running water, but a non jiggly toilet that you could sit on without the need to hold on and that didn't blast you with cold Siberian air on flushing! 
Red Square

The only downside was the monotonous view. So showered and slightly more presentable, we headed out to conquer the sights of Moscow in 2 days. A Russian kayaker follower on Twitter, hearing of my return to Moscow a month after the Worlds, had offered her expertise as a virtual tour guide, which we gratefully accepted. We dashed around Moscow following her fabulous recommendations and became pretty adept at negotiating the Metro in Cyrillic, crossing the road (obediently) according to the flashing green man, and ordering coffee and cake in a variety of establishments. 
Compulsory 'oooo' selfie

We saw fabulous buildings, learnt some Russian history, (The Kremlin's Armoury museum was breathtaking, and a Vodka Museum gave great insights into centuries of state control) walked in wonderful parks, and ate in interesting restaurants. Our trip happened to coincide with three notable events: The Moscow marathon; A protest in Red Square against the government's stance in the Ukraine; and the whole of the Bolshoi ballet taking part in the ice bucket challenge....says it all really! 
The Bolshoi Theatre

Two more time zones crossed as we headed into Poland. Simon had chosen the Rialto Hotel, a wonderful arc deco establishment preserved in it's pre war era quirky elegance. It even had an Art Deco lift and air conditioning controls in the room.
Art deco air conditioning controls

Warsaw has a 'refurbished' old town (85% of the city was destroyed in the war) where tourists were expected to go, but Simon experienced an instant allergic reaction to being told by Tourist Information what we should do, so we headed to the other side of the river to Praga, a bohemian and slightly run down suburb. It was full of interesting buildings, shops, caf├ęs and bars - we felt very conspicuous in our red jackets in this earthy area where the brightest colour apart from us was brown. In contrast to Moscow, Warsaw was excellent value and we found ourselves in a local cafes where the dishes were £2! Granted, there were few TripAdvisor stickers or tourists, and one establishment had no menu and a plastic manikin in the corner with a lop sided wig, dressed as a dinner lady/ drag queen - but the plum juice, local dumplings and cabbage were excellent! Yes truly!  Close to our hotel we also found a really top end restaurant with an amazing taster menu at ridiculously cheep prices.  I would definitely go back (to both establishments).

Plum Juice (with plumbs)- surprisingly ok!

Warsaw was a completely fascinating city. We spent our second day with an "alternative Warsaw" guide who said that falling in love with Warsaw was like a good marriage - you don't fall in love on your first 'visit' but as you get to know it more, the love grows.... but I loved it right from the start.  I loved how the pre war, communist era and modern architecture clashed but also managed to sit happily side by side, giving clues to its past, and I found the people forthright, but with a sparkle that gave a glimpse of their survival spirit.

Communist architecture sits next to pre war architecture.
  An alternative city tour in a communist era militia van with Raphael from Warsaw Adventures was a fantastic way to learn about the city, communism and the Ghetto - however I think the Polish Militia must have either been very short or not bothered about looking at the view, as both our eyes fell level with the fluffy maroon interior trim well above the windows. Simon's height meant that he was safely wedged between seat and ceiling, removing the need for a seatbelt or airbag, which was very handy as they were absent anyhow...
Polish Militia van

I had always wanted  to go to the ballet but never been. What better way to round off this memorable first visit to Warsaw than with a performance of Romeo and Julia, a modern take on the classic tale, by the Polish National Ballet.

A short 5 hour train hop later (with the most amazing rail car food!) and we arrived in Berlin in time for "street food Thursday", with our friends Martin and Carole. A fabulous night food market with delicious home cooked dishes from around the world. 
The Berlin Wall

We hadn't intended this trip to be educational, but staying right next to Checkpoint Charlie, in the heart of Berlin's "war tourism district", we found ourselves completing a really interesting history tour. Travelling from Moscow to Warsaw to Berlin, with tours and exhibitions in each city, bullet holes in buildings, and stories of courage and unfathomable human suffering, brought military and social struggles to life from three different regimes and cultures perspectives.
Museum Island

Berlin to Paris should have been the next short hop. 
To our immense shock the first German train was delayed - is this even possible!!? - meaning that our connection from Mannheim to Paris wasn't going to happen. The guard on board managed to find an alternative route via Strasbourg. The only problem with this was that we had chosen this leg (where the scenery was less interesting) to play more Quirkle (our favourite game, despite the current tally - Simon 21 Anne 1) and to get back to the Mongolian vodka. This resulted in a very rushed and stumbled train transfer for us and our 40 kg of luggage in Frankfurt, where we managed to mix up Stuttgart for Strasbourg. This resulted in us not arriving in Paris until I had lost a few more games of Quirkle, the vodka bottle had been emptied, and the sun had set. On the plus side, a taxi ride through night-time Paris to our friends apartment enabled us to see all the floodlit tourist hotspots, meaning we were free to go off the tourist route for the next day. 

Anne the packhorse (hurrah for GB canoeing making me strong)

I don't suppose many people go to Paris end up in the Compe du Trios Generals - a rather eclectic bar full of African artefacts, political commentary on France's influence in West Africa, and shabby green velour sofas (complete with tassels). This was our Parisienne friends' recommendation for quirky Paris (are you starting to get the picture that "off the beaten track" is our preferred adventure...?) and after a hibiscus cocktail Paris took on a slightly hazy quality, despite the brilliant sunshine and clear autumn air. Using a map sponsored by Eurostar meant that this 'off the beaten track' corner of Paris was obliterated by a large picture of the Eurostar train which made map reading a bit difficult. We eventually found a fantastic corner cafe and lost a few hours of Sunday afternoon watching the world go by, accompanied by confit duck an carafe of house wine. The purpose of ending up his far out was a walk in this outlying park with a view. The wine must have been stronger than we thought because unbelievably in the Park we stumbled upon a French steel band playing reggae in the glorious afternoon sunshine and a large  group of women spinning wool and knitting it into jumpers! 

This park, apart from/ because of its interesting inhabitants, was an absolute gem. We sat happily at the top of a grassy hill listening to the live music from a steel band and watching the group of ladies spin and knit with with Monmartre and the Paris city skyline as the perfect backdrop. And, of course, we ended our stay with a night time trip u the Eiffel Tower - it would have been rude not to, given our friends lived just round the corner...
compulsory Eiffel Tower picture

And home...
The last big train leg was from Paris to London and Simon had yet again pushed the boat out (if you can do that on a train?). First class on Eurostar with a 3 course lunch was a new experience for me.  Us - with our slightly scruffy, well traveled clothes and day sacks - also seemed a new experience for the rather posh couple who had to share our table (they did ask if they could move). I often think that other people in restaurants have amazing conversations which are really worth listening to, but the best this couple could manage was a very intent conversation about how vital it was for him to have his teeth polished that afternoon when they got back to London. The last two weeks had been an amazing adventure and Simon and I started reminiscing about our trip across seven time zones from Mongolia.  I noted how our companions stopped talking and started listening to our tale of highlights and crazy moments which definitely, without doubt, was the best adventure I have ever had. 
whiling away the time on the trans siberian express..

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