Russia, Mongolia & China (by train & horse)


No motorcycles, for a change, but lots of trains and horses this time. My father had been planning for a while to take a trip on horseback in the Gobi Desert and he had invited us along. As we had also been planning for a while to cross Asia by train aboard the famous Transsiberian, it seemed an obvious solution to combine the two. My sister Anne had decided to join us, so the four of us set off end of August 2003.

After flying to Moscow, we boarded our train, spending four nights aboard before arriving in Irkutsk in order to visit Lake Baikal where we did some sightseeing for a couple of days. There are however not very many sights to see, other than the natural spectacle of Lake Baikal itself. Our guides at one point proudly announced the visit of a cave which turned out to be a railroad tunnel that looked very much like … well, like a railroad tunnel. After the visit, they asked if we would like to see another one. We declined.

Also, there was a « Locomotive museum », which consisted of two rusty locomotives parked on an abandoned rail. Probably very interesting for someone passionately interested in rusty locomotives, but our interest crumbled relatively fast under the combined assaults of rain and ridiculous numbers of mosquitoes. Despite those slight cultural setbacks (or maybe because of them), we very much enjoyed ourselves. One highlight was certainly a visit to a typical Siberian sauna where we were busy for several hours sweating, getting flogged (gently, that is), dunking ourselves in Lake Baikal (about 3 C) and drinking infused Vodka. By the end of the first bottle, we started having doubts about the medical advisability of the Siberian technique but who are we to argue.

We boarded the next train and after two more nights, we arrived in Ulan Bator, Mongolia where we met our guides (and interpreter) for a one week horse ride through the Gobi Desert. There is only so much terrain you can cover in a week and we basically only saw the edge of what constitutes the Gobi Desert, but even so, it was spectacular. We rode between five and seven hours every day, through hills and plains dotted with the occasional lake. The Northern Gobi is mostly a scrub desert although there are some dunes. Our luggage and supplies were transported by camel cart that would take the shortest route while we rode detours. At the end of each day, a ger (Mongolian felt hut) would be set up and we would tend to the difficult business of communicating directly with our hosts, a task that became easier as the days went by. We were very impressed with the horses as well as the horsemanship of the Mongolians, most of which looked very much the way we pictured their ancestors riding with Genghis Khan.

By the end of the week, we were all suffering from severely sore bottoms (with the possible exception of my father, at least he wouldn’t admit it) but we regretted that we didn’t have more time to spend with those people. There are not many real nomads left on earth and their lifestyle is slowly but inexorably changing, even if Mongolia’s infrastructure is perfectly suited for them as there is hardly a fence in the whole country.

A final shopping binge and some sightseeing in Ulan Bator were followed by another 36 hours by train in order to get to Beijing from where we flew home. Beijing was a surprise : Ultramodern architecture, interesting sights, great shopping, easy communication, and good food but terrible service are the sum of the few impressions we could gather in our 36-hour stay.

As for the Transsiberian, the total by train came to just over nine thousand kilometers, most of which were fairly comfortable, somewhat in contrast to our usual method of transcontinental travelling. Different but very pleasant. It was interesting to witness the different interpretations of customer service by the various train attendants during the consecutive legs of the journey : The Russians were exquisitely rude, the Mongolians were easily exasperated by uncomprehending tourists but ultimately pleasant and the Chinese were very polite. A train is a good place for people watching, both on and off the train, as there are regular stops (although most of them short), allowing for at least some rudimentary interaction with whatever locals happen to be in and around the train station. We still prefer travelling by motorcycle but riding trains has some advantages. We might do it again.

Ellen & Manou