Trans Mongolian - September 2013

5th September - To Helsinki

Taxi, train, plane, bus and then a walk that was twice as far as it needed to be (carrying my backpack) and I'm at the Radisson Blu in central Helsinki. Thought I'd treat myself at the start of the holiday because between here and Bangkok it'll be hostels, homestays, one star hotels, overnight trains and some camping. One problem with the room. Cushions. Loads of them on the sofa and the bed, who wants them, who uses them? There's hardly space in the room to stash them all out of the way.

Went out for a walk and as the sun was out decided to head down to the water. It looks like Helsinki is in a really sheltered harbour hiding behind lots of rocky islands. I guess the bigger ones close to shore used to be used for defence but now they all seem to be fancy restaurants with their own little ferries to shuttle diners forward and back. The harbour itself is full of little boats, motor, sail and rowing. I guess at weekends there's a bigger traffic jam on the water than there ever is on Helsinki's roads.

6th September - Helsinki

Early September, the sun is shining and Helsinki looks great. It has a real continental feel; small, quiet, lots of open spaces, clean and tidy. But the most striking thing about the city is how blonde it is. None of the multi-culturalism lark for Helsinki it is blonde, blonde and more blonde. Helsinki is really quiet. Not much traffic at all; a few cars, a few trams and quite a lot of bikes. There are cycle paths everywhere and that coupled with all the parks makes it very bike friendly. Although being built on a rocky peninsular Helsinki isn't flat, no big hills but you would notice it cycling around on a town bike.

Spent the morning walking around, I get the impression that the harbour, water, islands etc. are great but otherwise Helsinki is very livable (when it's not freezing cold) but hasn't got a lot of standout sights. Above is the 1952 Olympic Stadium and a statue of The Flying Finn.

Had lunch in the Market Square (Kauppatori). This is an area down by the harbour where all the tourist boats go out to tour the islands. The market is mainly aimed at tourists with the usual fridge magnets, postcards and scarves along with big wooly jumpers, things made out of reindeer antler and Father Christmas stuff from Lapland. There are also lots of food stalls which all seem to sell the same things. Whitebait, calamari, salmon and reindeer meatballs all supposedly tradition Finnish food.

I then jumped on a tourist boat for a tour. An hour and a half cruising around the islands in Helsinki harbour. Wikipedia says "Helsinki is spread across a number of bays and peninsulas and over a number of islands." On this Wikipedia is right. So many bays, peninsulas and islands it is hard to tell which are mainland, which are islands joined to the mainland by bridges and which are only assessable by boat. The islands contain lots of holiday homes, some resorts and one is a zoo. Some of the more exclusive islands have some very expensive looking boats parked up. It all looks idyllic in Summer, but in Winter the whole bay freezes over and some years the whole of the Gulf of Finland freezes right across to Tallinn in Estonia. Anyway today it was beautiful.

Finland has two official languages. All streets and sign posts show both Finnish and Swedish. I've no chance of deciphering Finnish which is only related to Estonian and Hungarian, but the Swedish is Germanic and I did use it to point me in the right direction a couple of times. On the subject of languages I only speak two, English and Foreign. Foreign is an amalgam of Dutch, German, French, and Spanish. Unconsciously I'll use some Foreign when I'm abroad no matter what country I'm in. My last big trip was to Spanish speaking South America and Spanish is currently most prominent. So for instance instead of 'hello', 'ola' slips out. Normally this isn't a problem, but ... Spain are playing Finland in Helsinki tonight. I would have looked pretty silly had someone responded in Spanish. Thankfully pretty most everyone's goto language here is English.

7th September - Helsinki

A lazy day in the sun. I figure this could be the last warm sun I see in a while. I expect St Petersburg and Moscow to be cooler and Irkutsk and Ulan Bator much cooler. China will be covered in a fog in Autumn. So I'm making the most of the sun here. Went out for a walk around the old town and docks. Below is the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral which was built in the 1860s when Finland was a Duchy under Russian Rule. I guess I'll be seeing a few more of these over the next couple of weeks.

Following on from yesterday, the picture below shows part of the the Finnish Icebreaker Fleet docked for Summer.

Finnish Icebreaker Factsheet

The rest of the day was spent lying down in the sun by the water reading my book and generally chilling. Tomorrow I jump on the train and head into Russia.

8th September - To St. Petersburg

Train across the border into Russia and a very nice train it is too. I think the fast service (3 1/2 hours) to St Petersburg opened two years ago and the trains are like the ones used for Eurostar. Plenty of leg room, a good sized fold down table and a power outlet. It also has free wi-fi so everyone is sat around with their laptops, iPads and phones out, most to them playing Candy Crush. I'm sat typing this and listening to the cricket on the BBC website. Who said travelling was difficult and you had to do without your home comforts?

Sometimes when you cross a border the change is obvious whether physically by crossing a mountain pass or big river and sometimes more subtly with the roads being smoother or the houses nicer. As we crossed into Russia it was subtle, of course they use funny writing and the hedges and verges look more unkept. But the landscape both sides is dominated by fir trees and lakes. We've now hit Vyborg and are in the 'Border Control Zone' so laptop away and passport out.

After checking in I headed out for a wander but unfortunately some cloud had rolled in so just the one picture today. Hopefully it will be sunny tomorrow so I can show St Petersburg off at its best. Above is the Winter Palace which houses the Hermitage amongst other things. My wander showed me that the centre of St Pete's is bigger than I expected and the waterways wider. There are loads of big bold solid buildings and many churches. But there aren't any really tall buildings. The Azimut Hotel I'm staying in at 15 floors is the tallest building in the city.

9th September - St. Petersburg

A day on my own to explore St Petersburg before meeting up with the others I'll be travelling with as far as Beijing. I can safely say I have seen a lot of St Petersburg. Walked pretty much non-stop for six hours. Passed lots of churches and lots of big grand buildings. Crossed many canals and the big Neva River. I went into the Russian Museum which in any other city would be an impressive art collection but I feel it will be totally over shadowed by The Hermitage tomorrow. It is housed in an amazing building (shown below), The Mikhaylovsky Palace, and contained Russian art from the 11th century through to modern day.

From there I followed some canals and passed the Church of the Spilt Blood (below) a very interesting and very Russian looking church. From there I crossed the bridge and walked through the Peter and Paul Fortress which sits on an island of its own in the Neva River. Proper walled fortress including some museums and another grand church which was very gold inside. From there it was back across the river, more churches and some sore legs before getting back to the hotel.

Meet up with the group in the evening and had a few beers (just to be social). I think I'm the youngest! There is an extended family group of Aussies, I'm rooming with another Brit a couple of Yanks and a Kiwi I think. all seem Ok, hopefully it'll be a smooth trip all oldies together.

10th September - St. Petersburg

I thought my legs were sore yesterday, but now I'm really looking forward to four days of rest on the train. Seven hours today, similar sort of things as yesterday, museum, churches, canals etc. After a bit of a roundabout walk I started off by climbing Saint Isaac's Cathedral to get a view over the city. Nearly 200 steps on the stone spiral staircase. But it was worth it, lovely views in all directions. Afterwards took a look inside, again lots of gold, lots of paintings, plenty of bling. Apparently St Issac's is the third largest cathedral in Europe behind St Peter's and St Paul's. Hopefully you all know where those two are without prompting.

In the afternoon we all meet up for a guided tour of The State Hermitage Museum. Now that's what I call a museum. It is massive. It consists of the Winter Palace and the Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and New Hermitage which were purpose built as museums. Catherine the Great and those who came after her obviously had some pulling power and through gifts and purchases (and probably some arm twisting and confiscation) it is a huge collection. Art from all over the world, Egyptian, Classical, Renaissance, Old Masters and some modern impressionist stuff such as Mattice and Picasso which I really don't get at all. Below is Madonna with Beardless St. Joseph by Raphael.

Walls and walls, corridors and corridors full of not just paintings but suits of armour, loads of tapestry, some amazing mosaics which was produced especially for the museum. Some of the floors were intricately patterned in wood block from seven different types (and colours) of wood. There was a lot of furniture and even some old scientific equipment.

The tour took about an hour and a half which was about right, giving the highlights without information overload I probably spent the same again before I definitely had art overload.

11th September - State Politics Museums

Last day in St Petersburg and most of the group when off to Peterhof (Summer Palace) described as the Russian Versailles, I decided to skip that and stay in town and do some politics. Headed to the State Political Police Museum and then on to the separate State Politics Museum. Really good and nice and quiet. They don't seem to be that well advertised I only found them by walking past the Political Police Museum.

The picture above is of the KGB room in the Political Police Museum. It contained lots of photos and documents along with KGB equipment and uniforms. A lot of the pictures looked like they came straight out of an early James Bond film with such bulky surveillance equipment that you would think they could never use secretly. In the bottom left of the picture is a K9 type robot with a long arm and I guess was used for bomb disposal. Other rooms covered Tsarist secret police from about 1850 through spying in the early 20th century and sleeper agents placed between the wars. Interesting stuff and real Russia that I grew up with.

The Political Museum was a lot bigger and it looks like they are expanding all the time. It is housed in a building used by the Communists after the Revolution and contained a room laid out as it was when he was there and there was the balcony he made speeches from. The exhibition again ran from the early 19th century through the Tsarist era and the build up of resentment at the beginning of the 20th, Revolution and beyond. You can see from the picture above that they did cover the good and some of the bad. There was a hell of a lot to read and I'm glad I hunted it out.

I've enjoyed St Petersburg, walked miles and seen the grandeur of years gone by. But it does feel Western, I'm looking forward to starting the journey East tonight. I've heard Moscow is Russia on Steroids and then after that I hit Asia.

12th September - First day in Moscow

Overnight train from St Petersburg to Moscow. All went quite smoothly, the carriages are quite small for four people with bags, it will be snug when we do the five nights from Moscow to Irkutsk. But it was less than eight hours and most of that we slept so nice an easy. Only issue is not being able to wash etc. We had to check out of the St Petersburg hotel at 12 yesterday, walked around all day, caught the train then spent all day today walking around Moscow before checking to the hotel this evening and finally showering and changing clothes. Five nights on the train I think things will get a bit ripe. Only so much you can do with a packet of wet wipes.

Took a walk around with the group so we could get our bearings. Started off just across the river from the Kremlin. Above is the Peter the Great Statue, looks amazing. Story has it that is was offered to the US as a monument to Columbus, they refused it so Russia kept it and called it Peter the Great.

This is the view from the bridge back across the river to The Kremlin. It's a lot bigger than I expected, it is in fact a whole complex, a sort of Citadel. I plan to visit on Saturday so I'll leave anything more until then. We then walked up through Red Square which is big but they were setting up a huge area of temporary seating for some event which spoilt the effect a little.

Next the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which we reached at the perfect time to see the changing of the guard. Goose stepping Russian Soldiers, that's more like it, not quite a parade of tanks, but it's something. Soon after the sun came out so I doubled back into Red Square for better photos of St Basil's Cathedral, the must have photo from Moscow.

Lastly for today the Bolshoi Theatre, another grand Russian building, I seem to be saying that a lot.

13th September - Moscow

When travelling around central Moscow the Moscow metro is a tourist sight in itself. Every station is work of art in itself. Statues, murals, amazing lights. From Wikipedia "The Moscow Metro was one of the USSR’s most extravagant architectural projects. Stalin ordered the metro’s artists and architects to design a structure that embodied svet (radiance or brilliance) and svetloe budushchee (a radiant future). With their reflective marble walls, high ceilings and grandiose chandeliers, many Moscow Metro stations have been likened to an “artificial underground sun”. This underground communist paradise[12] reminded its riders that Stalin and his party had delivered something substantial to the people in return for their sacrifices. Most importantly, proletarian labor produced this svetloe budushchee.

The metro design’s emphasis on verticality was a reinforcement of Stalin's deification. He directed his architects to design structures which would encourage citizens to look up, admiring the station’s art (as if they were looking up to admire the sun and—by extension—him as a god. Another aspect of the apotheosis propaganda was the metro’s electrification; the Moscow Metro's chandeliers are one of the most beautiful and technologically advanced aspects of the project.

Getting quite good at navigating the metro and at deciphering the stop name from the Russian script. Next stop Kurskaya (Russian: Курская).

Anyway today I went to the Contemporary History Museum. Really enjoyed it, even though as you would expect some of the worse bits were skipped over. No mention of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 or the Prague Spring of 1968. But they do mention some unfortunate decisions and mistakes mainly during the Stalin time and the period of the 60s and 70s.

Museum ran from about 1850 to 2000 and it is interesting seeing the story of that period written from a Russian point of view. How Communism came into being, the internal squabbles and how Communism developed through the 20s and 30s to become what it was towards the end of Stalin's reign.

The picture above of one of the posters froma room full of political posters from the last 100 years. This one was entitled something like "All people in all of the Soviet Republics are happy under the Red Banner."

There was quite a lot about the industrialisation of Russia from the 30s on and a full room on the space program. Satellites, Sputniks and celebrating beating the Americans into space. But the most interesting space exhibit was the doggie spacesuit.

14th September - The Kremlin

Last day in Moscow and a tour around The Kremlin. Kremlin means fortress and many cities in Russia have one but this is The Kremlin. It is a walled area on a hill and used to have a river either side, although one has now been filled in. The word Kremlin brings back memories of the USSR and Communism but there has been a fortress here for 700 or so years and Soviet times were a small part of that. Walking around today you'd think the Communism period had never happened.

The Kremlin contains some big buildings where the government sits and others used for functions and banquets. But the main part is a Cathedral complex which was used to announce the births, the coronations and deaths of the old Kings and Emperors. There are three very old (15th / 16th century) cathedrals and an accompanying bell tower which is almost as big. They weren't destroyed during the 20th century unlike most churches in the USSR but preserved as museums. Otherwise the inside of The Kremlin was not much different to the outside.

I also visited the Kremlin Armoury which contains all the state treasures and some old armaments. Lots and lots of gold and silver, orbs and sceptres, robes and crowns and a lot of amazing pieces which were given to the Russian Kings by leaders and envoys of visiting countries over the centuries. Including a whole case full of Faberge. Unfortunately no photos allowed.

Above is Red Square with The Kremlin on the right and St Basil's Cathedral at the end. Below is someone having their picture taken with Lenin and Stalin doubles.

So now it's off for the train, 4 nights / 3 days until Irkutsk. In that time we cross 5 time zones.

Didn't expect to add anything to today's entry but ... We had some drama boarding the train and almost didn't.

We all made it to the station in plenty of time (an hour to spare) and were then waiting around. About 30 minutes before departure we went down to the train, but the guard wouldn't let us on. It transpired that the rules had changed and we couldn't board with printed internet tickets and they had to be exchanged for station issued tickets. So Lena (tour leader) went off with all 18 tickets along with our passports to exchange them. Time went by. About 10 minutes before departure Ryan who went with her cam back with 3 tickets and instructions for those people to get on board. 5 minutes to go we could hear the blasts of air as the train was releasing its brakes. 2 minutes to go the guard on our carriage started to pack up ready to go. Less than a minute to go he was about to shut the door and I saw Lena at the end of the platform trying to run down with her backpack on her back. I went to the guard and pointed at Lena saying our tickets are coming. He told us to just get on. 4 people had got on and the train started to pull away! Thankfully the guard pulled the emergency stop (which worked) and stopped the train. We all piled on and away we went. If you saw it in a Hollywood Blockbuster you wouldn't believe it.

15th September - Train

So what do you do on board a train for 4 nights and 3 days? Apparently you drink. The 4 of us went through a bottle of vodka before going to sleep last night and by lunchtime to day we had done a run to the dining car for beer. 100rub (£2) for a half litre can so not a bad price. Otherwise you look out the window and admire the silver birch trees. And some more silver birch trees ... and then a few more. The scene looks like one big painting by Inam.

Every 4 or 5 hours there is a station stop for 10 or 20 minutes where you can jump off to stretch the legs or buy a few supplies to supplement the instant porridge and instant noodles. The train schedule is displayed in the carriage and pulls out bang on time. I don't think anyone in our group will be cutting it fine getting back on after last night.

The rest of the day we had music on, drank and the conservation spiraled downwards, as did a few people.

16th September - Train

Day 2 on the Trans-Siberian Train and a few people look worse for wear. Each carriage has a western style toilet and sink at each end and a hot water boiler which can be used to make our porridge and pot noodles. In each carriage there are eight 4 berth cabins. Our home is shown below in daytime mode. The backs of the bottom seats fold down to give two more beds. There is plenty of space for our bags etc. both under the bottom seats and from the top bunks back over the top of the corridor. In the corridor there are 4 plugs to charge all our electronic devices and that is about it.

The dining car sells beer and I believe does food as well. Meat and potatoes of course. The group mainly used it for beer. The train was very quiet mostly Russians and some carriages were empty so ours was the only carriage with any life in it at all and we basically had a free run of the dining car. Not quite what I expected of the Trans-Mongolian.

In the evening had a bottle of wine and playing cards with some of the Aussies. Very civilised.

17th September - Train

Day 3 in the Big Brother Trans-Siberian and it's very subdued. Most people just lazing around reading. This is only broken up by the odd cup of tea. I've got my PG Tips, Dave had some powdered concoction which turns into white tea which he describes as horrible. I'm rationing my sachets of hot chocolate. Couple of times a day we have our station stops, most people just go to the kiosk on the platform to buy supplies, I like to briskly pop out of the station have a look around and hurry back before the trains pulls away again. I think below if Omsk station.

One of the big discussion points (and when you have nothing else to do this can take up hours) is what the time is. The whole train system works on Moscow time, that is what the timetables work in, it's the time shown on all platforms and in the train. The trouble is after 4 nights and 3 days we will arrive in Irkutsk at 02:27 train time but it will be 07:27 Irkutsk time. So people alter their watches as they go to keep up. but to be honest on the train, time is only a vague concept anyway. But saying that the train seems to run on time to the minute. Over 8000km and on time. Below is the view out the back of the train through a very dirty window.

Russia definitely is the country that like to say nyet. Can I sit here, nyet. Can I take a photo, nyet. Soon after I took the photo above I was told I couldn't be there (even though it was a designated smoking area). Or I assume that was what the stroppy Doris was going on about.

This neatly brings me on to smoking. In Russia it is everywhere. In bars and restaurants you look through a haze. On the train there are smoking areas at the end of every carriage. As soon as you get on you get the horrible stale smoke smell. The smoke leaks in from the smoking areas and the smokers carry more and more nicotine with them as the days go on without showers or changes of clothes. I can feel it in my nose and back of my throat. Yuck.

Above is a mural I found outside the station at Krasnoyarsk. They obviously haven't got past the Soviet era here yet.

I expected to see people selling food at every station but it wasn't like that, usually just a kiosk selling drink, chocolate, crisps, dried foods, and if you're lucky some fruit or a sandwich. Finally, at Ilansky we got what I expected and there were lots of old ladies with their carts full of food. Most of the things on offer looked the same as could be bought from kiosks in the metro in Moscow. I bought a few things from this cart to give them a try. Starting top left working across the rows we have: dumplings filled with potato, red cabbage (possibly pickled), boiled eggs, pancakes full of meat and onion, doughnuts filled with either frankfurter sausage or with potato, pickles, cooked chicken, a rissole type thing, cooked sausages, potato pancake / hash brown and doughnut filled with cabbage. I think that pretty much covers the Russian diet. Nearly forgot the things in the red basket are caramel filled pancakes.

18th 19th September - Lake Baikal

Arrive in Irkutsk at 02:27 Moscow time but having crossed 5 time zones it is 07:27. From there transferred to Listvyanka, a small traditional Siberian Village on the edge of Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the world's oldest and deepest lake and is the second most voluminous lake, after the Caspian Sea. As the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world, with an average depth of 744.4 metres Lake Baikal contains roughly 20% of the world's surface fresh water. I'm sure it is a lovely place in the middle of Summer, but it is not and it is not.

Mist, mixed with light rain and a bit of sleet. The 100 yards of lake we could see looked nice enough but there was no way we were going to see the snow capped peaks on the other side. So it is two days to rest up, use the internet and watch some films. I did go out for a wander each day even though the sleet felt like pin pricks every time it hit the small bit of my face which was exposed. The thin strip of pebble beach is lined with little beach huts containing benches and a table where you can eat the barbequed meat from the markets and drink your beer. There were still some hardy souls in the market selling souvenirs. They are also selling Omul a fish only found in Lake Baikal, is is in the salmon family and they sell it raw, boiled, smoked and dried. We tried some of the boiled / smoked omul and it was good and a bit like trout.

Many of us have decided to not stay in Listvyanka for another day so will head into Irkutsk tomorrow morning and spend the day there before heading out on the train tomorrow evening into Mongolia.

20th September - Irkutsk

Woke up today and the sun was shining, a bit chilly but beautiful blue skies. So above is a picture of what Lake Baikal looks like when the weather is good. In the background and pretty much surrounding the other side of the lake are snow-capped mountains. Below are the omul fish being sold in the market.

Today packed up my bag and left it at the hotel in Listvyanka. About half are spending the day there and will bring the bags on in the evening to the station, the rest of us made our own way to Irkutsk to take a look around. Most caught a scheduled bus at 11am, but I hung around until lunchtime, took some photos and admired what we had stopped here to see. I then jumped on a locals minibus that that was going to Irkutsk which I worked out using my rudimentary skills in converting the Russian alphabet into ours. Sort of mini bus that picks up and drops off as it goes after leaving once it has enough passengers. Hair raising journey as usual in these things, I think they figure they make more on getting there quicker and making an extra trip than they lose in fuel economy. Anyway got to Irkutsk and jumped out when everyone else did. No map, no idea where I was exactly. But I followed my gut instinct and started to walk and with half an hour or so I'd found the river, then the bridge and soon had the place mapped out in my head.

Irkutsk was called the Paris of the East. Obviously it isn't the s#!thole Paris is but it has seen better days. You can see that that some of the buildings were once grand and the churches and I guess government (ex-communist) buildings are well take care of and there is a nice park / promenade area through the middle which was nice to sit in. OK for a day I don't think you'd want any longer.

Above are two statues, the first to commemorate the Cossacks founding the city in 1661, and the second to mark the invasion of backpackers now that the trans-Siberian has become popular; because of Lake Baikal this is the most popular jumping off point east of Moscow within Russia.

Tonight we re-board the train and have two nights / 1 day across the border and into Mongolia.

21st September - Train

Two nights and one day out of Russia and into Mongolia, although most of that time we seemed to be sat still. Left Irkutsk around 10pm so time to settle, have a bit of vodka and go to bed. Very early morning we hit Ulan Ude which is where you turn left for Vladivostok and right for Mongolia and Beijing. From there we headed gently up hill to less trees, more rocky hills and a lot more water. More corners too and I managed to get this shot hanging my camera out the fan light window.

Definitely a lot wetter, I read the winters and Spring are cold and dry up here and the Summers wet, looks like this one was really wet. From Moscow to Irkutsk, through the trees, we could lots of fields and in many some big bale hay. But in three whole days didn't see a single farm animal. May they Summer the animals somewhere and bring them down nearer the farms and train line in Winter, but still 5000km and no animals; made Siberia look really deserted. On today's stretch, more farms, more towns and animals; mostly cows and horses.

Most of our day was spent at the border. Five hours on the Russian side of which less than half an hour involved any border formalities. Soon after arriving the locomotive and most of the carriages detached and left just two cars sitting in the station. I guess they were Russian and just run up to the border and back. So there we were left sat in a station, a station with a toilet but no shop, cafe or anything else to pass the time.

After our five hours we then got joined to a new loco and got pulled slowly for about half an hour to the Mongolian side. The marker post below was one of the last in Russia, 5902km from Moscow. We then parked up at Mongolian customs, just our two carriages, loco gone for a further three hours. Then a Mongolian loco and carriages attached to us and after 9pm we pulled off into Mongolia proper. No idea how Mongolia looks, it was dark.

22nd September - Arrive in Ulaanbaatar

Got into Ulaanbaater (UB) at 6:10. So up at about 5am to brush the teeth and get changed before the toilets are closed half a hour before the station stop. Clear down the beds, hand in our linen and wait to pull into the station. Scrambled the eighteen of us with our luggage into a mini-bus and off to the hotel. Thankfully we could check-in and have a shower before going out to explore. It's a Sunday but there was a bank open to change money but half way through the group there was a power cut. More exploring to find somewhere else so that we could pay for breakfast. But it was all worth it, the Amsterdam Cafe did a lovely full English which really hit the spot.

Time for some sight-seeing. First up the Gandantegchinlen Monastery which is the an important Buddhist site which has been restored since the end of Communism in 1990. It's quite a big complex, full of pigeons being fed by the visitors and the odd monk walking around. In the main temple was a huge Buddha and lots of small ones in cabinets around the outside. It was also filled with golden prayer wheels which the visitors spin as the walk by.

It's a bit chilly in UB. Probably barely got above zero today and it was windy so the wind chill was biting, add in a little snow in the area and not the best day to climb up to the Zaisan Memorial which is to Russian soldiers killed in WWII. Mongolia had close links to Russia during Soviet times starting with Russia helping to liberate it from China and then it giving financial help after. Down below was a giant statue of Buddha not sure why it seemed to be surrounded by a building site.

The monument is quite impressive with a giant soldier waving a flag and then a circular mosaic showing bonds between Mongolia and Russia.

Next up was Sükhbaatar Square, a huge square surrounded impressive buildings. The Government Palace has a huge statue of Genghis (Chinghis) Khan looking very contented sat in his chair.

I think that's about it to UB. There is a lot of building work going on and I'm sure it will change and grow over the next few years and many of it's monuments will be restored and it's history more celebrated. But at the moment I think it is a one day town.

23rd, 24th, 25th September - Ger Camp in Gorkhi Terelj National Park

We headed out of Ulaanbaatar and into the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. Once out of the city the scenery just got better and better. Grassy plains slowly turned into rolling hills and then rocky valleys with pine trees clinging on to the sides. I read that this area gets 250 days of sunshine a year and our three days out in the countryside / wilderness was under clear blue skies. Add in the autumnal colours and the effect was stunning. I've posted loads of pictures below to try to show you what I mean.

Our Ger camp was sat in a beautiful valley with no marked hiking paths but we made our own. It involved some 60 degree slopes, some scrambling over boulders, using all fours to scramble up gravelly slopes but I did it all just to give you the best photos possible.

Above is a shot looking back down on the camp. The gers were round with a wood burner in the middle and the chimley poking out through the top. The fire would roar away and quickly turn a freezing cold room into one where you were thinking about opening the door to cool down. They sleep three to four but we were spread out across ten gers so we had plenty of room. These are permanent tourist gers but driving around these round white homes are everywhere. Traditionally there Mongolians were nomadic and they would be packed up every time they move on. Some still live like this but even those people who have settled down in brick houses all seem to have a full size ger in the back garden.

Did you know there were dinosaurs in Mongolia? You do now. Near our camp was a derelict dinosaur park. Not sure how they expected to get enough trade out in the national park but it did make for some interesting photos.

The light and shadow along with the colours was amazing. You could just sit and watch the scenery change as the sun moved across the sky. But it wasn't all that warm. Overnight it got down below zero and I guess during the day it was in single figures. Lovely in the sun and out of the wind, but chilly if you weren't.

26th September - Leave Ulan Bator and Cross the Gobi Desert

Up early for the next stage of the journey out of Mongolia and into China. On the train at 07:10 and we don't get off again until 14:10 tomorrow. As we left Ulaanbaatar we could see all the gers in the back gardens and the semi-fertile land around the city. But as we travelled south the land became more and more barren. The set of photos show the transition into the Gobi Desert.

Once we got into the desert proper (although we saw no sand, less than 5% of it is) the amount of animals got less and less and gers got further and further apart. Eventually the landscape was only broken up by the odd herd of camels.

The most interesting part of the journey came at the border. After the usually formalities, it was time to change the bogies (stop sniggering at the back). Russia and Mongolia run on a different width of track than China so the under carriages need changing. We were driven into a big shed and carriage by carriage we were jacked up and the sets of wheels changed. All seemed to go very smoothly, we were just left thinking how strong the jacks must be.

After a night's sleep we wake up in China. In general more populated. More factories, more high-rise, more people, more life. But most importantly we got the Chinese dining car. I've skipped the meat and potatoes served on the Russian and Mongolian trains but I was first in the queue for Chinese. Two big plates of tasty food (a big change from the previous two weeks) and a drink for about six quid. Now I'm in Asia proper. The taste buds can reawaken, already I feel more at home.

China 2013.