Imagine crossing from Moscow to Beijing on a journey that takes you along 7620 km and across three of the largest countries in the world. Experience the Eurasian blend of cultures as you analyse the different religions, races and languages on your way. Time-travel overland through six different time zones, observing dramatic changes in landscape and urban organization. Sit comfortably and enjoy the scenery, you have got plenty of time. Break the ice and the language barrier and interact with your new car-mates while you learn new facts about remote places and enjoy a warm cup of tea or pot noodles from the car’s samovar. China is still far far away!
FIFTEEN stops along the way.
- Russian visa and letter of invitation from the Russian embassy (both requested in advance, the latter via internet sponsorship)
- Chinese visa from the Chinese embassy (requested in advance)
- Russian train tickets booked in advance (available at http://www.pass.rzd.ru)
- A few hotels or hostels booked in advance to confirm a local address while entering a country.
- Credit card, as rubles, tugrik and reminbi (yuan) will not be dispensed overseas.
- Student card to qualify for admission discounts (mainly in Russia).
- Teacup, water filters, cutlery and sweeteners to enjoy hot soup, pot noodles or tea/coffee on board.
- Interesting reads, music or visual media to keep enterntained during long-haul journeys. Portable boardgames to kill time if you are travelling in pairs or group (usuful while in the Gobi, too).
- Comfortable clothes for train life, sandals/flip flops and walking shoes.
- Extremely warm clothes if you are not travelling in summer (even then, take a jacket with you, just in case), waterproof and windstopping gear.
- Flashlight for Gobi nights.
- Russian, Mongolian and Chinese phrasebooks or “Point It” book to overcome language barrier.
- First-aid kit
- Travel insurance
1. First stop: Revive Imperial Moscow
Freeze time. No February Revolution ever happened. No Romanovs slaughtered. It is Imperial Russia, the era of Peter The Great and a bunch of other great tsars. You are in Moscow, the core of the apple. Dive into sumptuous kremlins, luxurious palaces and barroque churches. Get a glimpse of the Russia before the civil war leading Revolution that would change the course of the XX Century.
For a chronological approach to the city, head first to the Kremlin (the walled city), the actual headquarters of the President of the Russian Federation and the place where the primeval Muscovites built their first settlements around the XII century. Observe some of the standing original medieval buildings, built after defeating the Mongol hordes and during the Imperial times, in which Moscow became both the seat of the Monarchy and the Russian Orthodox Church. Later on French-inspired and Soviet-influenced buildings were added on to the complex. Head first to the Kutafya and then the Troitskaya towers to access the site. Clockwise, observe the Arsenal buildings where the ceremonial changing of the guard takes place every morning and walk to Sobornaya Square. First have a glance at the whitewashed XVII-century Patriarch’s Palace, found along with the five-golden-dome Church of the Twelve Apostles. Turn around to admire the impressive Ivan The Great Bell Tower, the tallest spot in the compound, hosting nowadays a historical exhibition. Mind also the massive tsar cannon and bell behind the belfry. Next stop is the Archangel Cathedral, where the tombs of generations of royal family members lie. Across from it, observe the Assumption Cathedral, hosting some of the oldest buildings and decorations of the whole compound and, beside the Great Kremlin Palace, the Annunciation Cathedral, displaying al fresco icon paintings from some of the greatest Russian painters ever. Other highlights in the complex are the Armory and the governmental buildings -which comprise the Great Kremlin Palace or the presidential palace, the Senate and a Military School-, as well as the gardens along the walled precinct, which offer great panoramic views of the city.
Follow your way out of the Kremlin boundaries to find the city’s and probably the country’s main landmark: The Red Square. The pedestrian-oriented site hosts the unforgetable colourful-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral, the most iconic monument in town, built by Ivan The Terrible in the XVI century to commemorate victory over the Tatars. Embrace the moment along the cobbled pavement, flanked by the Kremlin wall and the GUM bulding, a XIX century glass-roofed shopping mall, which nowadays hosts some of the most refined shops in town, to find the beautifully decorated State Historical Museum and the Kazan Cathedral. If money allows it, walk a bit further north, towards Teatralnya Square, to celebrate the splendour of Russian arts at historic Bolshoi Theater in one of their legendary ballet shows.
Then, stroll along the Moscow River banks to experience the city’s imperial and religious grandeur. First cross the bridge at Bersenevsky, past Bolotny island, to admire the marble-laden Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the tallest Christian Orthodox building in the world (103m). The French inspired neoclassical construction is a replica of the original building, which was demolished by Stalin during the Soviet years -as the régime was in need of gold- to become later Moscow’s largest swimming pool. At the tip of the island, where the Moscow River and the Vodootvodny Canal converge, contemplate the 98-meter-tall metal Peter The Great statue -the eighth tallest statue in the world-, which pays homage the Russian navy. For more religious buildings, spare an afternoon to visit the Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery complex, in Sportivnaya.
2. Along the way: Unveil the Red Curtain
Follow the line of events arising from the 1917 Revolution in Russia and feel how the Socialist movement, in the blink of an eye, spread as far as the Pacific Ocean, engraving in concrete the fates of Mongolia and China, too. Visit gloriously mummified past leaders and observe the praises to the Proletarian movement sculpted in every populated spot across the territory. Admire immense monolyths and colossal concrete blocks of buildings that once became the headquarters of the Party, the apparatchnik or the households of plain citizens. Contemplate incomparable civil works that have helped develop the infrastructure of huge urban areas as well as the sheer landscape until the present day. The past is gone, but the aftertaste still lingers.
Admire Vladimir Ilich’s bequest along the different stops of your journey. Head to the Kremlin in Moscow to observe its Socialist legacy in the shape of civil buildings as the Supreme Soviet. Observe from the compound’s walls the former layer-caked official buildings like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the colossus Moscow Lomonosov State University, named the tallest education building in the world. Get a feeling of what a former USSR city looked like while you wander around the capital’s wide ulytsas and prospekts. As you move along your journey, recall Moscow’s architecture in major cities along the way like Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk or Krasnoyarsk, where the massive concrete block construction still prevails in the form of official buildings and residences. Likewise, observe the Soviet influence in Ulanbaatar and Beijing, whose government buildings and proletarian residences where initially molded as those in Russia.
Experience déjà-vu as you stumble into Lenin iron statues when you walk through Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk or Ulan-Ude‘s city centre. Take a rest in Lenin Square (Ploshchad Lenina), usually the heart of the city in any major Russian town, and admire the interesting blocky Soviet architecture with a nostalgic aftertaste. Revere also memorials to the proleteriat and other Socialist heroes erected in an identical manner along the train line and in further capitals like Ulanbaatar and Beijing. Climb to the top of Zaisan Memorial in the capital of Mongolia to watch murals recalling the fallen soldiers and the Socialist victories over Japan and Germany. In Beijing, go to Tiananmen Square to evoke similar images. Walk along proletarian monuments surrounded by Soviet-style government buildings that lead to the Forbidden City, with Mao Zedong’s picture presiding over the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Both in Moscow and Beijing, line up early in the morning to pay homage to the former embalmed leaders of the Revolution. Both Lenin and Mao’s bodies are preserved for visitors -patriots and tourists alike- to see in the Lenin Masoleum – Red Square, Moscow- and the Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
If you get a bitter aftertaste after so much “revering”, enjoy the transformation of some former Socialist sites into more recreational premises. In Moscow, head to the former USSR Red October Chocolate Factory complex in Bolotny Island, which has been turned into an arts centre with an interesting choice of bars and restautants. An alternative plan is falling into a shopping spree in GUM, the definitive shopping mall in Red Square, which once served as Stalin’s headquarters and around-the-clock retail centre of the Soviet Union’s capital. Finally, in Novosibirsk, do not miss the USSR Museum. Set in the basement of a traditional country house, this quirky site displays everyday paraphernalia from the Soviet days with which visitors can interact, as well as official uniforms to dress up and release your “eastalgia“.
3. Detour: Enjoy the Russian arcadia in bucolic Suzdal
Escape the capital on a day-trip. Upon arrival indulge in the pleasures of Russian life. Relax in a banya for a few hours. Afterwards, walk around the quiet town admiring the river landscape, surrounded by grassy meadows and the fairy tale churches with their rounded doms and spiky cone-roofed fortress. Have a glimpse at the colourful traditional dacha-style homes as you pass through a laid-back local market and cozy cafés. Finally, pamper yourself in a traditional café with your dose of dumplings, lemonade and, of course, a sweet treat before going back to Moscow. Chill. On the way back realise that true happiness is far from the madding crowd.
From Moscow, go to Kursky Station to take a commuting train –Latoschka– or express – Sapsam– to cover the almost two-hour trip to Vladimir. From there, hail a taxi to Suzdal and stop at Heliopark Spa for a traditional banya session. Rent one of their wooden cottages facing the river for a few hours to pamper yourself in a relaxing session, which includes the common cold baths, sauna, self-backslashing with a birch branch and time to rest on a straw bale. Later on, stroll the quiet streets of Suzdal following the course of the Kamenka river or Lenin Street to find colourful traditional wooden houses with decorated windows and splendid river sights of tiny-domed churches and grassy meadows. Trace the boundaries of the Saviour Monastery of St. Euthymius, admire its pointy towers and red-brick walls while you try to hunt sights with your camera from across the river. Bear south to visit the beautiful white and emerald Alexandrovsky Convent on the river shore and the Monastery of the Deposition of the Holy Robe. Further apart, before reaching the Kremlin site, stop by the farmer’s market full of fresh produce, local honey and berries along with the usual ushanka hats and furry clothes. Look around for the wooden Transfiguration Church and the elegant Resurrection Church by the square. Once you reach the Kremlin, relax in front of excellent river views and recap your previous itinerary surrounded by the beautiful Resurrection Church, with starry-sky domes, and the whitewashed Archbishop’s Cross Hall. Once you feel your day is done, search for the Chaynaya hut in the Crafts market to relish in their homemade mint-lemonade, cheese pelmeni with puff pastry on top and syrupy sweet treats. While you gobble up your meal, realise how Suzdal has definitely made your day.
4. Back to tracks: Embrace Tartar culture in thriving Kazan
Understand the complex nature of the Russian Federation by making a detour to thriving Kazan, the capital of the Tartar Republic and home of the Volga Tartars, a Turkic minority group. Experience how Russian Slavic culture and Orthodox creed have historically blended along with laid-back Islam in one of the most pushing cities in present-day Russia. Climb up to the top of the hill and admire the seat of the Republic’s Kremlin along with two of the city’s gems: the Kul Sharif Mosque and the Annunciation Cathedral. Then get a panoramic view of the city set on the shores of the Volga and its recent urban development. East meets west.
Take an alternative route to the traditional Trans-Siberian line for a stopover in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Climb up the hill and admire the stunning view from the Kazan Kremlin and admit that coming here was worth the night ride. Once inside the walled compound, walk through UNESCO World Heritage Site monuments like the Kul Sharif Mosque, representative of the moderate islamic approach of the Tatars, the original Turkic settlers of the Volga riverbanks who founded the city. Dress appropriately to visit the sumptuous interior of this modern reconstruction of the XVI century original. Walk a few meters away to observe how the religious melting pot works out in Russia, as you pass by the ellegant Annunciation Cathedral, the first Orthodox building the be raised in a Kremlin historically ruled by Muslims. Then follow the boundaries within the walls and analyse the architectural styles of the different gate towers that garnish the fortified area, from the Southwest Tower Tartar conic-style with a pointy wooden roof, to the squared multi-tiered leaning Söyembikä Tower, also known as the Khan’s Mosque, or the bleached Spasskaya Tower. Afterwards, feel the harmony and the grandeur of classic Russian architecture as you leave behind the Kremlin’s government buildings and wander through Kremlevskaya Street or Baumana Street, some of the city’s main pedestrian areas. Have a taste of local food, which is a mixture of Russian and Central Asian cuisine, and enjoy one of the numerous cafés on your way. Finish your visit to the city centre admiring the architecture of St. Nikolas Orthodox Church.
Kazan has much more to offer in the newer parts of town. Oil money is constantly flowing in and Kazan is becoming more visible in international media nowadays. Rubin Kazan, the local football team is visible in international tournaments and the city also hosted the FINA 2016 Swimming Championship recently. Income is also transforming the Tartar capital urban plan into a more modern city, which starts boasting a small skyline. Cultural life is also booming with the creation of new arts venues and museums opposite the Kremlin. In any case, the city preserves its relaxed vibe, which has traditionally allowed the peaceful co-existence of the eastern and western worlds.
5. Reach the Urals: Find the imaginary line that draws the boundaries of Europe and Asia
Europe, Asia or both? Experience the feeling of being trapped between two continents as you face the Urals and make a pitstop in Eurasian capital Ekaterinburg. Analyze how the whole Western construct on continent division is geographically meaningless as both “realities” blend in one in the Federation’s fouth largest city. Recall, on the one hand, some of the darkest episodes of Russian history, as the slaughtering of the Romanovs, which led to the Bolshevik uprising. Collect images of the USSR memorabilia at glance and get that wornout typical Eastern European flavour as you hop on and off street cars surrounded by constructivist buildings. Embrace, on the other hand, the ethnic diversity of a city which is just a few hours drive from Kazakhstan and Central Asian influence. Have a taste of both “worlds” while you enjoy a full Eurasian meal.
After a long overnight haul, step off in Ekaterinburg, the capital of the Sverdlovsk Oblast and the Ural region. Stand in the imaginary line that bisects Europe and Asia, two different realities for the eastern and western eye that meet together in Russia’a fourth largest city. Feel the ethnical blend that becomes so obvious in a mining metropolis that is way closer to neighbouring Kazakhstan and the gates of Central Asia than it is to Moscow. First proceed to the Romanov Death Site to recall the tragic events of July 1918 that led to the slaughtering of Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family in the hands of Bolshevik stirrers. Visit the Church upon the Blood chapel to find about the place -formerly a miner’s home- where the royal family members met their fate. Look around for the neighbouring wooden Chapel of the Revered Martyr Grand Princess Yelizaveta Fyodorovna, where the tsar’s great-aunt’s remains lie. Apparently the Monarch’s relative, a nun, was poisoned and buried alive in a mining shaft.
Follow the course of history by scrutinizing the development of Ekaterinburg as a major mining and industrial hub in the USSR. Nearby the Romanov Death Site, find the Monument of Komsomol Ural -the youth branch of the Communist Party-, which overlooks the baby-blue building of the Ascenssion Church. For a closer approach to the Socialist impact over the city, cross the Iset river skirting the city pond to admire the constructivist architecture around 1905 Goda Square, which hosts some of the government buildings along with the reiterative Lenin monument. The Eastern European view here becomes more obvious due to the grayish architecture and the number of street cars passing by.
Then, walk along March 8 street to feel the ethnic diversity of the passersby as you notice the rich smell of grilled shashlik coming out of Central Asian restaurants. Avoid the constant trams passing through by strolling across quiet Dendrariy Park or by entering the Bolshoi Zlatoust Church, also known as the Big Chrysostomo or Maximilian Church. If quietness is not your thing, indulge yourself into some classy shopping in any of the central malls, for example Grinvich. By that time, it might be time for a decent meal. Try Nigora in Kuybysheva street for excellent Uzbek fare.
End your day in the Vysotsky Building. Take the elevator to access its 54-floor glass-covered viewpoint for 360º sunset views of the city. If not staying overnight, take the impressive city underground back to the train station, where another long haul train will be waiting for you.
6. Calling for Siberia: Follow the endless row of trees ahead
Enter the biggest stretch of landscape you can imagine. Occupying 13,1 million of square kilometres, around 76% of the Russian territory, Siberia is known for its ravaging cold temperatures in winter and vast bodies of water, which include Lake Baikal and some of the world’s longest rivers. Observe the infinite rows of trees from your car window and savour the taiga, bogland and steppe scenery as you cruise through it. Make a few stops in a multidiverse territory with a decrease of slavic population and a blend of eastern and western Asian cultures, which progressively expands into language, religion and cuisine. Firstly step off in Novosibirisk, the Federation’s third largest city, rich in Socialist past and traditional Russian architecture around the Ob banks. Further away, experience a change in the scenery as you enter the hilly remote industrial hub of Krasnoyarsk.
Sit comfortably in your car seat, you have plenty of time. Cruise along the endless row of trees, the most representative landscape of the taiga scenery, which stretches over millions of square kilometres. Watch out for muddy bogland and the infinite steppe grasslands. Believe it or not, there is civilisation beyond that. Two big cities await after your longest haul.
First, step off the train at Novosibirsk‘s impressive station and walk through the wide avenues of Russia’s third largest city, with scattered reminiscences of a recent past and interesting religious buildings. Proceed to Krasny Prospekt to admire the tiny chapel of St Nicholas, which stands in the middle of the avenue, and the solemn Lenin Square, dominated by Ivan Ilich’s statue surrounded by sculptures of proletarian revolutionaries. Walk towards river Ob and make a brief detour around Gorkogo, Chapligyna, Oktyabrskaya and Kommunisticheskaya streets to observe traditional wooden houses with elaborated windows and door frames. Take your time to visit the Nikolay Rerikh Museum -for the sake of art- and the quirky USSR Museum to get lots of “nostalgic” photo opportunities while you interact with the objects, posters, gadgets and uniforms on display. Go back to Krasny Prospekt and bear south parallel to the busy trolleybuses towards the red-brick Byzantine Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. From there, walk a bit further to reach the Neberezhnaya Park on the riverbank. Relax in front of river Ob -the world’s seventh longest river- as you envisage tomorrow’s train travelling over its bridges.
Next morning, wake up to perceive a subtle change in the landscape surrounding your train. Yes! you are approaching the forested and hilly Krasnoyarski Stolby and the capital city of the Krasnoyarsky Krai, Krasnoyarsk. Upon arrival, meet friendly coffee vendors brewing cups from refurbished classic vans or comfortably sit in one of the cafés along Karl Marx Street (Karla Marxa ulytsa). Recover your strength and go to Revolution Square to greet Lenin’s statue and to checkmark the traditional Soviet blocky buildings surrounding it. The square’s inviting flower beds may incite you to stay a bit longer or alternatively try the city park right across from the street. When you feel like stretching your legs again, head to Surikova Ulytsa and bear right to have a glance at the green-domed Intercession Church and the social buildings on the opposite side, cast in the same mold. Go straight, uphill across winding streets and alleys of cottage-style houses to reach the top of Karaulnaya Hill. Enjoy the breathtaking views from the city surrounded by the Stolby hills. It is time for panoramic pictures. Before leaving the place, search for a 10-rouble bill in your wallet. The small chapel crowning the hill is the Chasovnya Chapel, the very same one you will find printed on the reverse side of your banknote.
7. Farewell to Russia: Embrace the misticism of lake Baikal
Plunge into Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. Depart from cosmopolitan Irkutsk on board a ferry to Olkhon Island, the sacred land of the Buryats and their shaman creeds. Once there, relax in rustic Khuzhir and take a day tour around the island on a lagendary Uazik car or van. Head to Cape Khoboy, one of the most dramatic spots on the island, for stunning views of the lake. Do not let the mist disappoint you, it will eventually lift to offer you what you came for: the sight of the vast 23,615 km3 body of crystal clear water from the deepest and oldest rift lake in the world. Try to spot the rare baikal seals but do not fall into despair: you will always have a chance to taste an amazing omul fish stew straight from the lake while you stare at infinity and beyond.
Approach the end of your Russian adventure as you leave behind Eatern-Siberia capital Irkutsk and take a five-plus hour marshrutka minivan trip to Sakhyurta harbour on lake Baikal. Then board an evening ferry to Olkhon Island, the world’s fourth largest island on a lake, and complete the last leg of your journey with a couple more hours on your minivan until you get to Khuzhir in the evening. Ramshackled Khuzhir may look like the wild wild west to you, but do not despair, as there will not be any tumbleweed chasing you and no outlaw duels taking place in the neglected unpaved street that crosses the settlement. If you are lucky and have booked at Nikita Homestead, you are sorted out. If not, chip in a few more bucks than usual to expect something that partially resembles western standards.
At the crack of dawn, join one of the multiple tours that take you around the island. Praise yor vehicle, as you will most likely move around in a 4×4 UAZ-452 minivan or a Uazik jeep, both living pieces of Russian history since the 1960s. Get ready for a bumpy ride, though. Enjoy the first hours of the day, admiring the lake’s white water blending with the thick mist from scenic coves and cliffs. While the lake is still dormant, head to Pribaikalsky National Park for forest views. Hopefully by the time you make it to The Three Brothers Rock and Cape Khoboy that mist will have lifted off.
On a clear day, views of Lake Baikal from fang-shapped Cape Khoboy are stunning and there is a chance to spot rare Baikal seals. However, it is not just about contemplating the still waters from the lake and the quietness of the place, but to understand that you are surrounded by the largest, deepest and oldest rift freshwater lake in the world and that you are also stepping into one of the holiest places in Asia. The island is a sort of animist shrine for the Buryats, the local population of Olkhon Island. Religious symbols abound, in the shape of Buddhist flags or rock mounds. The impressive shaman rocks near Khuzhir are not to be missed. Your trip will come to and end after you savor a potato omul stew straight from the lake, boiled in lakewater as you sit by the lakeshore. Yes, it is all about the lake, but it is worth it.
Once your tour is over, you have plenty of time to stroll around Khuzhir, get yourself some supplies, walk around a few more quiet coves and cliffs and get your last glimpse of the lake. Get yourself a good dinner, although there are not that many options, and a good sleep. A long return trip to Irkutsk awaits.
8. On the move: Rejoice train life.
What can you possibly do on a train for so long? 7620 km is definitely no short ride and therefore it is better to come equipped. Travelling in pairs easily solves the question but solutions for lone riders are also at reach: play portable board games like chess or cards, read those books you always wanted to read or watch those videos you always wanted to watch, nibble local staples and enjoy a warm cuppa from the samovar (the Russian version of a kettle), socialize with your “inmates” despite language barrier, admire the everlasting taiga landscape or just rest. Bringing a good travel guide with you may also help you plan the day in advance, as far as scenic highlights are concerned. Bear in mind that you will be crossing some of the largest rivers in the world, go through massive bridges, call in major cities as well as tiny little towns. Knowing where your train stops, will also help you know where you can find food supplies or water on your way.
Train life is what you came for and train life is what you will get. Crossing Russia will take you at least six nights on a train, plus an extra night crossing from Mongolia to China, and therefore some intense planning is needed. Tickets are easily purchased via Russian rail at http://www.pass.rzd.ru some 40 days in advance. Booking ahead of time guarantees a good price as well as berth choice. Compared to most Western prices, and bearing in mind the distance that you can cover on a night trip, fares in Russia are very reasonably priced. Some online agencies will dispatch tailored trips catering for your needs for a commission but you will definitely spare some money if you complete the whole process on your own. Trains offer different types of berth options, from “luxurious” 2-berth lyuks (some of them with breakfast, TV and wi-fi, if you travel to Kazan for example), to 4-berth kupé (soft-sleeper option) or open compartment platskart (hard-sleeper option). If you choose soft-sleeper (the most common option) you will need to decide whether you prefer upper or lower berths. Upper ones offer more intimacy and plenty of space to stow your luggage, whether lower ones offer better seating options, a view, and the chance to store your bags in a safer trunk.
Once on board, you will decide how to kill time. Meet your “inmates” and socialise as far as language barrier allows. Get yourself comfortable, stow your luggage on a safe spot and never leave it unattended. Distribute whatever you need for the ride (toiletries, towel, T.P, warm clothes, slippers, etc.) on the little space available and combine periods of scenery watching with periods of relaxation. Reading, watching videos, playing games, nibbling on food, conversing, walking around the aisle to stretch your legs, admiring the landscape or taking pictures will be your main passtimes for sometimes an over 18-hour journey. Ability to balance resting and killing time will definitely help you cope with long hauls. To make your life easier, you can enjoy electricity on board, charge your phone or tablet, use the samovar to heat water or purchase snacks or drinks from you car’s provodnitsa (stewardess). You will also get fresh linen, pillow cover, a towel and a blanket.
Use long stops in major cities on the way to get off the train and strech your legs on the platform. Walk to the station to use a maybe cleaner toilet, withdraw money or purchase water or food supplies from vendors. Stops are also unique opportunities to see local people in action, most strikingly in rural communities where they usually approach tourist to sell them fresh produce (berries), deli (kolbasa sausages or sandwiches) or dry goods (mainly river fish). Support local communities by purchasing local products.
Finally, do not miss some of the major highlights of your trip. Train stations themselves are interesting pieces of civil architecture throughout Russia, Mongolia and China. Same applies for the massive iron bridges that go though major rivers like Volga (in Kazan), Ob (in Novosibirsk) or Yenisei (in Krasnoyarsk). Far from major cities, rural areas also offer worthwile views of rustic wooden cottages, tiny train stations and colourful images of everyday life. From town to town, enjoy the neverending steppe landcape, represented by unlimited lines of taiga birchtrees, grassland and bogland. You should not miss the train moving around lake Baikal on the last leg of your Russian trip either. You have plenty of time to experiment with your camera.
9. Change of trains: rewind and flashforward history in Mongolia
Say “poka” to Russia and “sain baina uu” to Mongolia, the 19th biggest country in the world and, surprisingly enough, the least densely populated. Get further into the steppes and enjoy the ger-laden grasslands before you reach the chaos of Ulan-Baatar, one of the most striking cities you will ever experience. About a third of the Mongolian population lives in the capital, which is experiencing one of the worst demographic pressures to be seen due to the massive migration from traditional nomads into the city. Climb to Mt. Zaisan and observe UB’s disorderly urban organization, where Socialist blocks meet luxurious condos as well as traditional yurts scattered around in backyards and in the shanty-town outskirts. The city itself -once the epicentre of probably the world’s largest empire ever under Genghis Khan- is a constant flashback and flashforward that drastically combines the presence of the most traditional and the most modern. Expect to see livestock and fancy SUVs at once.
After a first exposure to Asian culture in the Republic of Buriatya, in Russia, confirmation that you are deeply in another continent comes true as you are welcomed into Mongolian borders. The vastness of one of the largest countries in the world lies ahead, a remote paradise barely populated which is all peace and quiet until you get to Ulanbaatar or UB, as the country’s capital is known. Walk through Peace Avenue to get an idea of the complex blend of cultures that make up for present-day Mongolia. Find former Socialist and Chinese influences along with modern ambitions as you walk through traditional shops and modern department stores. Enter the State Department Store, Mongolia’s replica to Moscow’s GUM, for a piece of Soviet history. Proceed and experience the advancing cosmopolitanism of the capital as you pass through lots of international restaurants, bars and shops both in Peace Avenue and Seoul Street.
Time-travel into the times of Genghis Khan, locally known as Chinggis, as you approach Chinggis Khan Square, right in the city center. Revere probably the largest empire mankind has ever seen and acknowledge the accomplishments of its instigator, Genghis Khan, whose statue presides the Government House entrance. Recall the Great Horde knocking on European doors back in the middle ages as you observe statues of Genghis’ descendants Ögedei and Kublai Khan. On the other side of the square, have a glimpse at local families sitting down while their children drive rental toy-cars, teenagers sit on the stairs concentrated on their cell-phones and passers-by ride their bikes around Sükhbaatar’s (Mongolia’s liberator from Chinese rule) equestrian monument.
For a deeper insight of Ulanbaatar, as well Mongolia, Danista Nomads offers tailored tours of the city and neighbouring sites (like Gorkhi Terelj National Park). Head to Mt. Zaisan first thing in the morning to recall the country’s Socialist past as you observe the 360º memorial on top of the hill. Do not miss the panoramic views which help you understand the current demographic problem UB is facing, as nomads give up their traditional life and move into a city with severe housing problems. Observe the traditional yurts and huts blooming along tall modern buildings and condos, while SUVs cruise along old Chinese buses and Russian cars and horses and chickens populate backyards. A problem with shanty towns and crime is also evolving in the outskirts, as empoverishment and lack of opportunities strike the newcomers.
Afterwards, visit the Winter Palace of The Bogd Khan, the last Mongolian emperor, who was also revered as the 8th living Buddha. The former palace -currently a museum- still stands along with a Buddhist temple and his traditional Mongolian house: the yurt.
10. From the window: Life as it used to be thousands of years ago
Experience life as it used to be when people were nomads and were forced to move places according to the change of season, their needs and those of their livestock. Share a part of the day with a nomad family in your outward or return trip to the Gobi to sense the tight bonds woven between family members and their cattle. Feel what it is to live outdoors in some of the world’s most extreme conditions, particularly throughout the harsh winters and dry summers of the steppe and the semi-desertic territories. The land does not have much to offer, as most of it is grassland aimed for the cattle or barren land where crops cannot be sustained. Regardless of the harshness of the conditions in which they are forced to live, the nomads are extremely hospitable. Knock on the door and receive a warm welcome by one of the hundreds of families that populate the steppes. Get in, sit down politely and praise ancestral tradition and family values as you savor a glass of freshly brewed airag (mare’s milk) and gnaw on dry curds.
There is no trip to Mongolia without a few-days visit to the Gobi desert. Now, your train days are almost gone and your UAZ-van and ger-camp days have barely started. In and out the Gobi region, do not miss the opportunity to experience nomad life as it has been for the last few thousand years. The harshness of seasons, along with the lack of water and food, have determined, for a long time, where the ger is going to be laid next. In such vast territory, out of the capital’s boundaries, land knows no owner. Permission to move from one place to another is granted by regional authorities upon demand and according to human needs. Once green light is given, the whole clan packs up their belongings, their cattle and their portable house (ger or yurt) and moves elsewhere.
In a matter of hours, a whole family is able to dismantle and set up their yurt again with the help of animal-propelled carts or trucks to transport the wooden beams from one place to another. Building-up the tent is a work of engineering itself, as the structure is sustained by some wooden beams that spread from a central circle and meet thinner crossway wooden pieces. Then, the whole wooden structure is topped by an animal felt cover and tarpaulin to isolate it from extreme weather conditions outside. Gers are raised one next to another in camps where a whole family lives. There are usually tents for the different members of the family, which function as bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms and storage at once.
Decoration within the ger is minimal and they are barely furnished. However, carved and decorated doors and beams can easily be spotted as well as elaborated chests and Buddhist altars to praise the family gods on the inside. A few beds and rugs will most likely be combined with several tubs, bowls and tins where the airag (or kumis, mare’s milk) is stored and fermented. From the wooden beams, notice the thick rounded pieces of dried curd hanging from strings. Dairy is the central part of a nomad’s diet and, therefore, mares need to be milked several times a day to be able to sustain the whole family, who will drink their milk (raw or fermented) and gnaw on curd. Most of the time, a little meat, wheat and tea will complement a nomad’s diet, which is clearly oriented towards rationalization and optimization of resources.
Outdoors, find the family’s livestock, mainly horses, sheep or goats in the grasslands, deer or yak in the colder areas, and camels, in the desert. Bearing in mind the resources available, it is no surprise that any sort of meat is appreciated in the local diet. Cattle plays a crucial role in every aspect of a nomad’s family life, since dietary needs and income will strongly depend on the well-being of their livestock. Nowadays, as society is advancing, most families have motorbikes to move around and it is not necessary to rely so much on animal transportation, which contributes to the beasts’ health. Tourism-oriented activities like camel or horse-riding, as well as the proliferation of ger-camps for tourists, are also contributing to increase the income of local families and to improve communication.
11. Three-day stop: Your Gobi way to infinite
Face the extreme. Leave aside the comfort-zone urban tourism you have been exposed to until now and head to the Gobi, Asia’s and the world’s 5th largest desert. Join one of the tours available in UB and plan to stay at least four nights under the open sky. Pack accordingly, as you will most likely undergo one of the most extreme climates in the world, ranging from minus 40º on a winter night, with a chance of snow, to the 45º on a clear summer day. The expansive Gobi is also extremely dry, as the Himalayan range blocks most of the clouds from the Indian Ocean, making rainfall in the desert somewhat unusual. However, do not expect just vast nothingness ahead. The Gobi offers a very diverse scenery which ranges from colourful rocky formations, to grassy areas, typical steppe landscape or dramatic sand dunes. At the same time, embrace the opportunity to enjoy nomadic life from the inside of a ger in one of the multiple camps available along the way. Fasten your seatbelts. It is a long way, but it is absolutely worth the effort.
Without a doubt, The Gobi is the main highlight of any trip to Mongolia. Unfortunately, there is a big distance from Ulan-Baatar and it is not possible to reach any of the sights by train. However, there are expenive flights available from the capital to an airstrip in the Gobi, where tour operators pick up their customers, and, to make it more affordable, local agencies in UB that offer tailored tours throughout the Gobi to meet your needs. Before joining an organized tour, read feedback from users on the internet, as it is a very long haul and you do not want to be stuck in a ramshackled van most part of the day with minimal food and neglected ger camps. Danista Nomads, in Ulan-Baatar, offers good deals and the opportunity to tailor your trip according to your interests and squeeze as much as possible in whatever time you have available. Stay in Gobi at least for 4 nights.
Day 1. Be amazed at the vaste steppe landscape, with scattered grasslands and most of the livestock that live in the Gobi, mainly sheep, goat and horse grazing freely. If you have a chance, request your driver to stop by a ger camp to meet a local family and experience nomadic life. Families in the Gobi are very welcoming and are very eager to share with you their airag and assorted curds. Reach the White Stupa cliffs before sunset to enjoy its rich spectrum of colours, product of long-time erosion. Take your time to roam around the stupa-shaped cliffs for plenty of photo opportunities, as you are delighted by the sudden changes of colour shades when the sun hides. At night, enjoy your first stay at a ger camp as a rite-de-passage.
Day 2. Wake up early at the sound of the moving herd. Enjoy an earthy breakfast before starting the second leg of your trip. Make a few stops on the way to Yol Valley to stock up on food supplies, have a shower at the local public baths and have a taste of local food. On your way to the valley, have a glance at the change of scenery and rejoice the large green carpeted grasslands with lilac flowers that drastically contrast with the landscape from day one. Approach the valley on foot following the signposted path and look around for wildlife (mainly pika, ibex and deer), as well as for grazing livestock (Yes! There are also cows in Gobi) around the brooks and marshes. Follow the narrowing path to the breathtaking gorge to admire glacier remains on the shadier side (even in August). Mind your step, as the path may require a little bit of scrambling and rock jumping. In the evening, rest on your ger camp part two.
Day 3. Wake up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun rising in the steppes and get ready for a new change of scenery. Leave behind the grasslands for drier lands through, once again, the classic steppe landscape of bush and grazing cattle. Observe vegetation vanish as you approach the Khongoryn Els sand dunes to confirm, yes, that you are in the desert. Roam around your camp at the foot of the dunes and gain the bactrian camel’s trust, as you will have to ride on them to get a closer sight of the dunes. Make sure you get there before sunset, as the panoramic views of twilight are unique. Allow plenty of time, as climbing the dunes barefeet can be straining. Sit down and relax on top, your day is done. Take the car back after walking down the dunes and enjoy your third and last night in a ger camp.
Day 4. Rise early. It is your last day at the Gobi and you have to make the most of it. Besides, it is a long way from this point to Ulan-Baatar. Enjoy the last sight of dunes and camels before hitting the road again. Find the Flaming Cliffs on your next stop, as you enter again dry and rough territory. Admire the reddish colours of the cliffs while you hike for breathtaking pictures. Sit down and admit the visit to the Gobi has been well worth the effort. Enjoy your last picnic lunch and get ready to set off. Collect the last images of herding cattle and ger-camps, as you find a place to camp on your way back to the capital. Free camp alongside the road and beware of the mosquitoes.
Day 5. Have last breakfast and lunch with your partners, guide and driver. Enjoy the flavour of your kolbasa sausages, canned goods, local puff bread and whatever is left on the van’s pantry. Undo the tent and silently say goodbye to Gobi, as you approach the urban chaos of UB. Thank your guide, driver and Danista Nomads manager. You made the right choice!
12. City-escape: The grass is always greener on the Gorkhi-Terelj side
Tired of watching dry land from the car’s window after a few days in the Gobi? No problem. Take a day trip to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park on your way back to Ulan-Baatar. Along the road, admire the majestic Chinggis Khaan statue before you enter the forested grasslands of the Terelj riverbanks, where cows, yak and dzo abound. Watch out for professionally trained hawking eagles and more nomad settlements. Once in the park premises, relish on the rock formations and, most of all, the Aryapala Buddhist retreat, your way to heaven.
Yes, the grass is greener on this side. Rent a car from Ulan-Baatar and explore the prairies of Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Take a break from the omnipresent dry landscape of the Gobi, as you admire furry livestock grazing from the extensive green-carpeted land of the Terelj riverbanks. Spot for herds of yak and dzo, along with cows and camels, the predominant cattle of the northern nomads.
Make a detour on your way to pay your tributes to Temüjin, that is, Genghis Khan, leader of the Great Horde, highly revered in the whole country as a symbol of the Mongol’s glorious past. Admire the full-metal Chinggis Khaan monument rising out of nowhere. Climb to the top for a better view or just linger around for plenty of photo opportunities.
Watch plenty of livestock, including horses ready to be ridden, as you approach the National Park. Have a glance at the forested areas and the massive rock formations, especially the Frog/Tortoise Rock, probably the park’s most famous sight.
Relish on the park’s quietness while you approach the holy gates of the Aryapala Buddhist Meditation Retreat. Follow the staircase towards the monastery as you read the displays with proverbs that flank you on the way up: you will most certainly find one that suits you. Relax rotating praying wheels, admiring stupas and other religious paraphernalia when you approach the main building. Contemplate the coloured decorations and symbols on the roof beams as you walk clockwise around the temple. Come back to the main entry, turn around and watch the horizon. Then summarize your thoughts: What a beautiful place!
13. Crossing to China: The Great Wall or the longest border ever
Heard about Donald Trump’s plan of building a wall between the USA and Mexico? Well, let’s day that a former Chinese Emperor, actually the first one -Qin Shi Huang-, had the same “brilliant idea” when he built the longest wall ever to prevent northern invasion of the Empire a couple of centuries before Christ was born (yes, that was even before Hadrian started building his in Britain). At the beginning, the construction was just a set of fortifications that throughout the centuries eventually joined together to become the actual 9000 km Great Wall back towards the XVII century. First, a line of defence, and later a major road connection embedded within the Silk route, the Great Wall is one of the historical Wonders of the World that still stands. Visiting the Wall is a MUST and walking through it, in any of the stretches available, a lifetime experience. Plan ahead.
As a matter of fact, like some Americans, the Chinese also got scared of their neighbours thousands of years ago and built the humongous wall through the centuries, being mainly developed through the Middle-Ages and the Modern Era to protect the Ming Dynasty Empire from Mongol invasion. Later on, traders used to road system built atop as a Silk route extension to connect it to Beijing. A great deal of the older construction can still be seen and in some of the sections garrisons, turrets and fortifications still stand in mint condition, especially after extensive reforms were carried out throughout last century. The wall currently covers approximately 9000 km that stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia.
To reach the Great Wall of China from Beijing, head to the Badaling or Mutianyu sections. Both are relatively close by and can be reached by public transportation if you are acquainted with bus or train routes and carefully plan your itineary ahead. Running short of time? There are plenty of agencies in Beijing offering day tours. However, be wary of what it is being offered, as most of them will make a few detours to crafts factories with set meals deals and other second-class monuments, leaving the visit to the Great Wall for last and therefore, limiting your time on the wall. As usual, it is better to go on your own but make sure you know your itinerary, as communicating with locals can be challenging. Avoid visiting the most touristy sections during peak season, unless you want to experience what “crowded” means in China (seriously).
If you opt for the Mutianyu stretch, then take one of the chairlifts available and access the upper part of the hill and roam around the wall to watch the perfect communion between nature and architecture. If the multitude allows, enjoy the views from the elevated garrisons and take your time getting ready for your lifetime picture of the Great Chinese Wall. Make sure time is not constricting you, as the most interesting sites might lie far away from the chairlift station and, indeed, that is were quietness an relaxation are. Walking around the Wall freely it is the definite experience. Therefore, do not let the tourist agencies or the crowd spoil your day.
14. Last stop: Beijing or the grand finale
Beijng or “the Northern Capital” is your last stop, your grand finale. Feel small, tiny or little in one of the world’s largest cities and China’s second. Use your Bertoluccian scope to explore the history of a city that has hold capitality of the Empire for over eight centuries and that triggered the change into the current People’s Republic. Discover the forbidden palace where the last emperor was confined, also the former emperor’s tombs, city walls, gates and towers in an UNESCO heritage-ladden environment that combines the historical architectural designs with a traditionally flavoured way of life, as seen through the narrow hútongs and siheyuan houses that spread along the old quarters.
Romantic or pragmatic? Decide whether to continue on the Mongolian rail services across the Chinese border at Éarlian or save time and resort to alternative means of transportation. Taxi might be a more comfortable way to spare a few hours, as the train requieres time-consuming axle changes at the border. In any case… keep the thrill, the grand finale awaits. Beijing is the world’s third largest city, China’s second (Shanghai still takes the lead) and a city of records. Expect to have lots of things to do. It is not Chinese whispers!
The seat of the Chinese government since the 13th century -a time in which the Kublai Khaan laid the world’s largest Empire- Beijing still holds a power that has seen the legendary Ming and Qing dynasties vanish until the arrival of the current People’s Republic. To summarize eight centuries of history, head first to Tiananmen Square. Turn around to admire the fortified Zhengyang Gate Arrow Tower, that leads to the Dashilar district, and the Gate of Heavenly Peace that grants access to the Forbidden City, formerly the Emperor’s headquarters. Observe Chairman Mao presiding the whole square from a framed picture and understand where you are. Explore the square passing by the Monument to the People’s Heroes and paying your tributes to Chairman Mao in his Memorial Hall (no bags) to understand how the present Republic rose. It is here where the former leader declared the People’s Republic in 1949, where the 1989 demonstrations where violently suppressed by army tanks and where the seat of many of the People’s Party buildings lie. Notice the Russian influence in architecture, recall your first memories from Moscow’s Red Square and come full circle.
Access the Forbidden City through the Meridian Gate and explore the world’s largest palace complex in the world. Your eyes are Bertolucci’s main cameras. Cross the moat and wander around the vast array of imperial halls, ceremonial buildings, galleries, gates, gardens, courtyards, service buildings, store houses and even the emperor’s car park and tennis courts to appreciate the former royal splendour in an area covering 720000 m2. Closed to civilians for over 500 years, the actual “Palace Museum” was the site of the Emperor’s headquarters ever since the Ming dynasty developed the compounds. Go through history by following generations and generations of Chinese royals until the 20th century, when the post-World War II events reshaped the current status quo in the People’s Republic. Eventually, discover how Puyi, the last Qing Emperor, survived into the city’s limits in confinement after the uprise as described by Bertolucci in The Last Emperor.
Find peace and quietness, as you roam the Temple of Heaven Park, south of Tiananmen Square. Embrace Chinese mysticism while you admire traditional religious buildings of Confucian design. Do not miss the breathtaking round altar of the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests and the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which is surrounded by the Echo Wall. It is the perfect spot to call it a day. Relax wandering along the different pathways, admire the flowers and lush vegetation and observe the local population practising traditional arts like yoga, meditation or kung-fu. Likewise, the sandalwood-smelling Yonghegong Lama Temple, is also a good retreat to complete your day. Observe the carvings and decorations that surround the big Maitreya Buddha. Relax spinning tibetan praying wheels and lighting incense sticks. Either of the two scenarios will definitely help you purify your soul.
Finally, understand how the original city plan was laid in labyrinthine narrow alleys (hútong) and courtyard housing (siheyuan) that, over the centuries, shaped community life in Beijing. Embrace Chinese history and culture by penetrating into the traditional hútong life while you wander around the Chaoyang district, which spreads north of the Forbidden City as far as the Houhai Lakes and the Beihai Park. Experience quietness, as you proceed through the narrow alleys dodging cyclists and ricksaws and observing everyday life scenes through doors that have been left ajar just for you. Wander through the original local dwellings at the sounds of chicken and bike bells and the smells of clean laundry and homemade food. Advance towards the lakeside and enjoy the touristic development of a traditional compound that has emerged into a big touristic hub. Enjoy the area’s cafés and snack restaurants, ricksaw tours and pedal-boat rental around the lake. Magic moments, indeed.
15. Closing down: Modern Beijing or the challeges of the XXI century megalopolis
Leave history aside and step into modernity. Change your perspective an anaylse the modern architecture and lifestyle of a XXI century megalopolis. Experience the city’s dynamism and growth as you cruise along wide avenues, a monster skyline and the most modern facilities. Gauge the importance in China in the present world by observing transgressive architecture that has made a global impact. Weigh the importance of both Socialism and extreme Capitalism in either side of the scale as you walk around neverending malls crowded by a consumer-driven youth. Finally, reflect on the challenges of a metropolis as such: sustainability, overpopulation, congestion and, most important, extreme pollution.
Welcome to Modernity. This is Beijing, where traditional meats transgressive. Hútongs and historical sites meet skyscrapers and the most modern architecture in a city of records. An evergrowing population of over 21 million people spreading over 16411 km2. The world’s busiest subway station and the world’s second longest. The world’s second most active airport. 91 universities to cater the needs of a pushing economy, whose technological developments are also set in the capital, considered the Chinese “Silicon Valley” and the headquarters of modern-day business in China. However, everything that glitters is not gold. Beijing suffers also from overpopulation, congestion problems as well as extreme pollution, which becomes apparent by constant haze.
Change of approach. Leave history aside and dive into trend setting state-of-art architecture that lies one of the most modern skylines to be seen. Experience how capitalism has taken over by looking at the avantgarde buildings of frontline Chinese companies and organizations, like the CCTV tower. Live excess from any of the capital’s malls and observe, first hand, a change of attitude among the younger generations. Contrast tradition and modernity in the Sanlitun shopping complex. Finally reach eccentricity by visiting the dragon-shaped Pangu 7-star hotel, one of a kind.
Measure Beijing present-day’s impact by visiting the 2008 Olympic Park. Climb the Observation Towers for a bird’s perspective of two of the cities jewels: the Beijing National Stadium and the Beijing National Aquatic Centre. Cover the Stadium’s perimeter on foot to understand why it has been called The Bird’s Nest. Likewise, experience wandering around the Water Cube at night for an impressive light show. Understand that China’s past low-profile and secrecy is gone. Capital flow has transformed China into a leading referent in many areas that has become more than evident in Beijing. Your initial idea of Beijing will certainly have changed by now. This is the XXI Century.
16. Epilogue: Mmmmm…. Food on the way
Take your chances and sample the best of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Northern China on your way. Vegetarians might have difficulties before reaching China but will have plenty of opportunities at cereal-based dishes, dairy and soups. For the meat lovers, find paradise in the form of meat-filled dumplings and assorted barbecue all over the place. Although, not as diverse as in other places with a warmer weather, Russian and Mongolian diet is rich. Importance is placed on proteine and dairy, with a considerable presence of leave-vegetables, potatoes and beets. Dried fish is quite common as it is freshwater fish. In China, diet is more diverse, but not so dependent on rice as one must initially expect. Options are infinite. Use your instinct to satisfy your needs.
Starting in Moscow, enjoy the most traditional dishes like borsch (redbeet soup), beef strogonoff and a variety of dumplings including pierogi, pelmeni or vareniki stuffed in the most diverse ways: including cottage cheese, potato, mushroom or even sweet-flavored. Do not let aside the oportunity of trying local lake and freshwater fish like Caspian Sea sturgeon, river trout or omul, particularly great in the Lake Baikal area. Taste a variety of vegetable-based dishes like grechka (buckwheat) or okroshka (cold soup) along with the assorted vegetables that basically grow in Russia (mainly beets, roots, spuds and spinach). Do not miss kvas, a drink made of fermented rye bread, and stuffed pirozhki (bread dumplings), that can be either sweet or savoury.
On the way, take your chances at Tatar, Caucasian and Central European cuisine. Do not miss Georgian food in Moscow. Try pkhali (spinach and walnut paste balls with pomegranate) and kachapuri (cheese bread). Around Ekaterimburg, have a taste of Uzbek or Kazakh cuisine: manti (dumplings) and shashlyk (meet on skewers) will do. And, in Kazan, try a full-Tatar menu in a local milk bar. For the sweet-toothed, Russia is really a paradise. Pies, cakes, tarts, sweet dumplings and rolls are always present in menus and hardly ever disappoint. Needless to say, vodka is the national pride as far as alcoholic drinks are concerned.
Mongolian cuisine is more basic relying on dough, cereal, meat and not so much on vegetables. Sample buuz (steamed dumplings) or khuushur (meat fried dumplings) as well as hot pots, stir-fries and barbecue, which seems to be the national dish. On your way to Gobi, you will have to resort to cold meats (basically kolbasa), canned goods and a few vegetables, as it is hard to stock up in the desert. If you have a chance to visit a nomad house, taste their dairy produce in the form of fermented mare’s milk (kumis or airag) and dry curds, which resemble hard parmeggiano. Mongolian food tends to be spicy so try washing it down with some Chinggis beer.
Finally, in Beijing your options are unlimited. Do not miss assorted local steamed dumplings, creamy soups and noodle-based stir fries. If you are not on a tight budget, sample the delicious traditional-style Pekin Duck. Try northern China cuisine, like roast lamb in an Inner Mongolian restaurant and explore the remote western parts of China by trying Uighur fare, which is more similar to Central Asian cuisine. As for the rest, thousands of versions of popular Chinese staples are found everywhere. Looking for sweets? Yoghurt in clay pots might be your first choice when walking around. Candied fruit, ice-cream and, even, churros will satisfy your cravings when exploring the city. Excellent tea should quench your thirst and charge you up.
Days 1-4. Arrival. 3 nights Moscow with a day-trip to Suzdal
Pitstop: Odessa-Mama in Basmanny for excellent Black Sea fare, Mizandari in the Red October Chocolate Factory Complex for excellent Georgian cuisine. Chaynaya in Suzdal for traditional Russian fare, snacks and sweet treats.
Boxes: Hotel Mini on Tishinsky by Belaruskaya Station (affordable).
Day 5. Night train to Kazan/Kazan
Pitstop: Milk bars along Kremleskaya and Baumana for a mixture of Russian and Tatar cuisine, coffee, pastries and snacks.
Day 6. Night train to Ekaterimburg/Ekaterimburg
Pitspot: Nigora in Kuybysheva Ul. for Uzbek bread and manti baked to perfection. Do not miss their assorted shashlyk (meat on skewers).
Day 7. Night train to Novosibirsk/Novosibirsk
Pitstop: Vilka-Lozhka in Frunze Ul. for dumplings, fish dishes, soup and tasty bliny.
Boxes: Hotel H around the train station for a clean and superefficient service.
Day 8. Night train to Krasnoyarsk/Krasnoyarsk
Pitstop: Rada in Lenina Ul. for a vegetarian break and any of Kranoyarsk cafés and stalls for earthy breakfasts.
Days 9-11. Night train to Irkutsk and overland to Olkhon Island and return
Pitstop: Fine dining at Snezhinka (slow service) while in Irkutsk.
Boxes: Nikita Homestead should be your (only) choice in Khuzhir (Olkhon Island).
Days 12-13. Night train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude and connection to Ulan-Baatar/Ulan-Baatar
Pitstop: Molley Malone’s in Ulan-Baator for an invigorating burger and Bull for an amazing DIY hotpot.
Boxes: Danista Nomads for a comfy room and tailored Gobi tours.
Days 14-17. Overland to the Gobi desert and back to Ulan-Baatar
Pitstop: Mainly picnic with opportunities of trying local fare in settlements and in nomad camps
Boxes: Ger-camps along the way: a unique experience
Day 18. Gorkhi Terelj National Park and overnight train to Earlián (Chinese border)
Days 19-23: Overland to Beijing/Beijing and the Great Wall (4 days)
Pitstop: Ninety-Nine Yurts for excellent Inner Mongolian barbecue on cozy individual yurts. Duyichu for quality dumplings and Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant for probably the best Pekin duck in town. Try Crescent Moon Muslim Restaurant for Uighur cuisine. Premium snacks available all over the place
Boxes: Howard Johnson Paragon Hotel, lots of comfort at affordable prices across from the Main Station.