Traveling Mongolia – part 2

After our misfortune in the Gobi desert, we came back to Ulan Bataar, where Manolo’s sister Eva was waiting for us. The original plan was that she was going to join us during the second half of our Mongolia tour. As our trip was cut short, we had to find a solution quickly, and so we decided to go on an organized tour of Central Mongolia. To cut costs, we found one more travel buddy: Gaulthier, aka “the Frenchy”.

Day 1 – camels and wild horses. After meeting our driver and our tour guide Tony, we hopped in our vehicle for the next nine days – a Russian van this time called ‘the tank’ – and started driving. After a stop at the market to buy food, loud Ulaan Bataar started disappearing, appartment blocks were replaced by green rolling hills and cars by sheep and horses running free in the infinite grasslands.  Our first day was a driving day as we had to do a nice amount of kilometers, so except for spotting some wild horses in Khustai National Park not much happened until we arrived to our ger that evening in little Gobi. Getting our stuff out of the car, the owners of the camp – an old Mongolian couple of probably 130 years old – came to greet us, and Sophie had the feeling she had already seen the couple before. This was the exact camp she had been in 5 years ago when she was in little Gobi!

After we changed our clothes – it can suddenly get chilly in Mongolia – we went for a sunset camel ride. Normally all camels are attached to each other and are walking slowly, but by the end of the tour, Manolo had managed to convince the camel guy to let us ride the camels by ourselves and to let us gallop. Figuring out how you ride a camel proved to be quite easy and we ended up racing each other back to the camp. An unforgettable experience!

 

 

Day 2 – the old capital. The next morning we visited the old capital of Mongolia, Karakorum (or Gharaghorin as Mongolians seem to pronounce it). However, not much is left of the capital – that tends to happen with cities consisting mainly of nomadic tents. After that, we had some more driving time – Mongolia is a vast country – before arriving to Orkhon Valley in the evening, where we were once again treated to an absolutely stunning night sky full of stars and the milky way.

 

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Lunch with a view.

 

Day 3, 4 and 5 – horse trekking to the Eight Lakes. There is no better way to discover Mongolia than on the back of a horse. So after a morning of waiting for the horses to show up and playing cards – even when our guide spoke English, misunderstandings and communication problems are common in Mongolia – our horses arrived and we saddled up for an afternoon of riding through the infinite steppe. This time, our saddles were padded (unlike the first time we went riding and were sitting on a wooden saddle, leaving Sophie with a nice amount of bruises), and our horses were more energetic and manageable, allowing us to fully enjoy galloping through the grasslands. (Except maybe for that moment when Manolo  was thrown off his horse because he scared the poor thing by taking off his jacket – even though the horsemen warned us not to do that.) That evening we arrived to a place that was even more in the middle of nowhere than usual. After watching our guide Tony wrestle with another Mongolian, drinking vodka with the locals and Manolo trying (and succeeding!) to catch a goat, we went to sleep under a beautiful sky full of stars.

 

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Manolo trying and succeeding to catch a goat.

 

The next morning, we got on our horses again, yet this time slightly less enthusiastic as our muscles and behinds were in complaining mode. The scenery changed from grasslands with some forest once in while to a more thick mountains forest with rocky paths that were difficult to climb for our horses sometimes. Luckily Mongolian saddles have a handle in the front to which you can hold on, as sometimes the horses had to jump to get passed a bigger rock or even slipped. After crossing the mountain we arrived to the Eight Lakes, a beautiful volcanic area with – you guessed it – eight lakes which is difficult to access by car. While we let the horses rest for a bit, we set up our tent (ok, Manolo set up the tent and Sophie watched) and then watched how a sheep was killed to be eaten as barbecue that night. After going for another horse ride to explore the area some more, we socialized with the family who killed the sheep drinking yak tea, trying yak butter and braiding our hair (including that of Manolo).

 

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Horse trekking in Mongolia.

 

After the warm evening in the heated ger of the locals, the night in our tent was cold. The next morning we were awoken by weird noises – some kind of snoring that seemed to come from something very close by. Zipping open our tent we discovered the source of the noise: we were encircled by a group of yaks! Also, our tent and the grass were covered in ice, explaining why we had been so cold all night. Nothing a hot cup of tea couldn’t solve, though, and we got back in the saddle. We rode all morning, and arriving back to our starting point, we were sad we had to say goodbye to our horses (our butts not so much, though).

 

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Camping in Mongolia. The next morning our tent was covered in ice and we were woken up by yaks making weird noises and trying to walk over our tent.
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Yaks are the weirdest animals ever.

 

After a late lunch it was time for some more driving. And some more flat tires. Lucky for us most drivers in Mongolia are also mechanics and incredible efficient at changing a wheel or fixing a hole in a tire. After no time we got to enjoy the bumpy ‘roads’ again. That night we arrived to Tsenkher hot springs, where they had hot water for the first time during this trip. No need to explain that we really really enjoyed the feeling of water on our skins and finally being able to wash our hair!

 

 

Day 6 and 7 – another lake, more ice and an extinct volcano. The next morning we slept late – we were on holidays after all – and after brunch Mongolian style, we got back in the tank for – yes – some more driving on bumpy roads. A flat tire, thousands of sheep and horses crossing the road and a stop to stock up on some more veggies later we arrived to the White Lake, another beautiful lake in an gorgeous rocky volcanic setting. The rest of the evening/night we fell into our enjoyable routine of admiring the views, socializing a bit with the locals or other travelers, drinking some vodka, playing Mongolian poker and gazing at the incredible night sky.

The next day we didn’t have to go anywhere, leaving us all day to explore the area. So we hiked all the way up to the top of the volcano, watched Eva and the Frenchy crawl into a man hole (Sophie is just a bit claustrophobic and Manolo’s shoulders were too wide for the narrow hole) and climbed some rocks to reach a natural cave with a tiny glacier.

Day 8 and 9 – saying goodbye to the Frenchy and driving back.

 

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Traveling Mongolia – part 1

As you could read in our previous post, we were a bit unfortunate in Mongolia, but that didn’t prevent us from enjoying this magnificently beautiful country. Mongolia is one of those mesmerizing countries you can drive through and look out of the window in awe for hours and hours without getting bored.

Day 1 – following Ghenghis Khan. After stocking up on lots of fruits and vegetables in Ulaan Bataar (UB) as they are crazy expensive or impossible to find outside of the capital, we headed eastwards. The moment we left the city, we were instantly hit by Mongolia’s beauty: rolling green hills, blue skies, the occasional white ger, and sheep and horses running free.

Our first stop was the massive equestrian statue of Ghenghis Khan, built in 2008 to celebrate 800 years of the foundation of the Mongolian empire. It is one of the biggest statues in the world (though smaller than Mother Russia we saw in Volgograd), and climbing to the top left us breathless – and that not only because of the nice amount of steps we did.

After this must-see stop, we set off to a less touristy destination: the Blue Lake (Kokh Nuur). It is the place where Ghenghis Khan was corronated and became the Khaan of Khans. Being a Ghenghis Khan-fan, Manolo had been dreaming of visiting this place for a while. Though the lake itself is nothing special, there is a commemorative monument with totems of Ghenghis Khan and all the Khans reigning after him, where it is difficult not to feel history come alive.

Walking distance from the lake, there was a ger camp where we stayed the night. Even though the Blue Lake is not normally visited by foreigners, it is clearly a popular holiday destination for Mongolians, as the ger camp was quite big and full of Mongolians having a good time, which meant we would get the full Mongolian experience during our first day already.

 

 

Day 2 – a visit to the belly button of the earth. The next morning, we set off to another non-standard tourist place: Mother Rock (Eej Khaad). Mongolians consider this rock to be the belly button of the earth and an important energy place. We decided to put this place on our itinerary, as you never know that some of this energy could rub off on Sophie (as she could use it).

It turned out that you could take the name Mother Rock quite literally. We weren’t sure what to expect exactly, but somehow we were all surprised to learn that Mother Rock was a stone shaped more or less like a human, dressed up with mother-like clothes. Why the Mongolians come here to worship this particular rock is a mystery to us, but the views from on top of the surrounding hills were spectacular. And as if that wasn’t enough, the sun started to go down and we got to enjoy an absolutely beautiful sunset.

 

 

Day 3 and 4 – extraterrestrial Middle Gobi. The next day we hopped in the car again, and continued South, direction the Big Gobi desert. As roads are bad and bumpy in Mongolia (when they exist), it took us three days of driving through Middle Gobi to reach the Big Gobi. Luckily, Middle Gobi is blessed with some pretty spectacular sights itself: we marveled at the big rock formations of Bagaa Gazriin Chuluu and the seemingly random but very pretty and colorful sedimentary deposits of Tsagaan Suvarga (White Stuppa).

On the way, we stopped at a ger where they were milking the horses, so we got to taste fermented horse milk and understand real Mongolian life a bit better. In the evening, we went for a sunset horse ride which took us through some beautiful Mongolian steppes and some more rocky landscapes which could have been located on some faraway planet (wormholes are a thing). Sophie regretted the horse riding quite quickly though, as the family who got us the horses only owned Mongolian saddles, which are solely made out of wood. That didn’t seem to bother our horse guide though, who was only 5 years old and was probably born on a horse.

 

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Day 5 and 6 – knifes in the Big Gobi. We reached the Gobi National Park on Sophie’s birthday. After stocking up on some water and food in Dalanzagadad, the only town around in hundreds of kilometers, we entered the National Park and went for a hike in Yolyn Am Gorge. This narrow and steep gorge provides an oasis in the desert with a river and lots of greenery. Due to the high valley walls, the temperature inside the gorge is considerably lower and ice survives every year inside the valley until July. Somehow Manolo managed to smuggle a bottle of champagne inside the valley without Sophie noticing, and after cooling it down in the river, Sophie got to celebrate her birthday in style.

The next morning, after our driver lost his temper and all hell broke loose (read more about that here), we drove 200 km into the Gobi desert, to see the famous Khongoryn Els or singing sand dunes. While the Gobi desert is obviously a desert, it is not the sandy kind, but rather a dry rocky land covered with some grasses and white flowers, the Khongoryn Els are the only sandy part, with sand piled up to 300 m high, 12 km wide and 100 km long. It gives the word sand castle a new meaning. Climbing to the top of this enormous pile of sand was extremely exhausting, as the sand dunes are rather steep, and every step forwards is rewarded with the sand where you are standing on sliding downwards. We made it to the top though after a tiresome 45 minutes, after which we were rewarded with the most beautiful sunset.

 

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Day 7 and 8 – catching our breath after too much adventure. After the sand dunes and a little hostage situation, we decided we had had enough adventure for a little bit and our driver dropped us off in Dalanzagadad, from where we took the bus to Ulaan Bataar the next day. Though we were sad to cut our trip short, we were happy to arrive to Ulaan Bataar where we could finally take a hot shower after these 8 days and wash off all the Gobi dust.

Mongolia – amazing landscapes and knifes

We wanted this trip to be full of adventures, and traveling Mongolia was definitely one big adventure. Though sadly not always the good kind of adventure… A story of knifes and extortion.

For those of you not familiar with Mongolia, traveling by yourself in Mongolia is difficult to nearly impossible. Public transport is limited to buses and minivans between ‘big’ cities*, making it impossible to visit the countryside, which is where the true beauty of Mongolia lies. Renting a car to drive around the country by yourself is also difficult. First of all, it is difficult to find a car for rent, and second, Mongolian ‘roads’ are often not much more than little bumpy dirt paths cutting through the endless steppe with of course no road signs indicating where you are or where to go. Adding on top of that the incredible emptiness and remoteness of the country and the very harsh climate (even in summer), and driving through Mongolia by yourself is like a Russian roulette of badly getting lost, running out of petrol before encountering any petrol station and getting stuck in the middle of nowhere because of a punctured tire or engine breakdown. While most Mongolians are quite friendly, helpful and hospitable people, none of those characteristics are useful if there is no living soul to be found in kilometers and kilometers.

So to see Mongolia, we were left with the option of joining an organized group tour or renting a car with an experienced Mongolian driver. As we like our independence and wanted to visit some non-standard tourist places, we chose the latter. We talked to some people, asked some price quotations to different companies, and in the end we ended up getting a driver through Travel Mongolia, a travel agency that many travelers we met recommended to us.

We met the driver the day before leaving, discussed our plans and itinerary with him (and the travel agency who was helping to translate) and took a test ride in his Toyota LandCruiser. The next morning, the driver picked us up together with two other girls we met that would join our trip. Everything seemed great, and we were excited about our trip. Sadly, that feeling wouldn’t last…

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Excited about our trip, before we had any idea of what was coming.

Fast forward to day 6 of our trip together. So far the trip had been great, we had seen lots of amazing places in beautiful Mongolia, and our travel buddies turned out to be great company. There had been some tension with our driver at times, but we thought this was because of misunderstandings due to his limited English and our non-existing Mongolian. Getting ready to visit the 300m tall sand dunes of the Gobi desert, our German travel companion Ina wanted to discuss the route we would take with our driver. Though he had seemed to like her so far, somehow he exploded (we are still wondering about the reason). The situation escalated very fast, and he started shouting things in Mongolian.

The lovely Mongolian guide of a group of Korean tourists that were staying in the same ger camp as us saw we were in a bit of a situation and offered to translate. Soon we started to understand that we had a big problem. Our driver refused to continue driving with the four of us in his car as apparently he didn’t like our two travel companions. He only wanted to continue driving with the two of us. Calling the travel agency and asking them to mediate didn’t help. Even though they told us before leaving that we could call them any moment for help with translating or anything else, that clearly turned out to be an empty promise. Explaining the situation to them, we got a lecture on how badly we were treating our driver and how disappointed they were in us instead of help.

Talking to our driver through the guide of the Koreans who was translating, we started to understand the underlying problem little by little. Apparently the agency did not tell the driver we would be four people instead of two, and he had been unhappy with this from the start. He hadn’t want to start the trip with all four of us, but when he contacted the agency, they convinced him to go with it. Of course no one told us any of this. The longer we were traveling, the grumpier the driver got with the situation, until he exploded. Confronted with an ultimatum – continuing without our travel companions or not continuing at all and losing the money of the rest of the trip (we had to prepay the whole amount) – we chose the first option as we thought the driver would be happier and the rest of the trip would be nice.

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When we still had a normal, happy driver.

We informed the driver about our decision and our travel companion Nancy went to take her stuff out of the car. Apparently she closed the door of the car too strongly, after which the driver got even angrier and lost his temper completely, slapped her in the face and kicked her in the leg. She returned crying to the ger where we were getting ready to leave, and the driver followed her, taking out a knife, pointing it at her and Ina and shouting: “Where is my money? Where is my money?”. (It is surprising how people that speak very little English all of a sudden remember how to speak English using full sentences when they need something.)

After calming down the situation, we called the travel agency again, explaining them what happened. Again they were no help at all. “So if I would have taken out a knife and we would have killed each other, you wouldn’t mind?” “No, it’s your problem, not mine.”

Not wanting to lose the money of the remainder of the trip, and having Manolo’s sister join us on our trip two days later, we decided to continue our trip with the driver. What a mistake that was. After saying goodbye to Ina and Nancy, we drove into the Gobi desert 200 km, to see the Khongoryn Els or singing sand dunes and spend the night there. Randomly, we ended up in the same ger camp as the Korean tourists we met before. Their very nice guide informed about our situation, and we updated her on what happened after they left. We decided to cut our trip short after she told us the driver had been complaining about us to the owners of the ger camp and he was still very angry. Together we tried to figure out our options.

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Though Mongolia turned out to be a tricky mistress, it is still the most beautiful country on earth.

Our options quickly turned out to be very limited. As the agency didn’t want to help, we had to cut a deal with our driver. He proposed to drive us back to the capital Ulaan Bataar, but this would take two days and we had to keep paying for the petrol ($100). Or he could drop us off in the nearest city from which we could take a bus to the capital but this would cost us $100 (on top of all the money of the rest of the trip that we would not get refunded). His final proposition was that we would pay him $100 and he would just leave us there. All three options seemed outrageous to us, as it seems normal to us that you don’t have to keep paying for a service after the person providing the service threatens your life… As we didn’t want to spend another two days in the car with him (and we weren’t sure he would actually take us back to Ulaan Bataar and not drop us off somewhere in the middle of nowhere to ask for more money), we were forced to choose the second option. Just leaving the place and getting rid of the driver without paying was not possible, as it was impossible to find anyone who would drive us to the city, thanks to the lies the driver told everyone about us. Walking to another ger camp where no one knew us also seeemed dangerous, as chances of the driver realizing what we were doing and driving over us with his car were not small (it is difficult to hide when there are zero trees or buildings around and the terrain is completely flat, making it possible to see a person from tens of kilometers away). It became clear that we would either have to pay or we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the place. We slept very badly that night.

Still trying to come up with a better solution, the guide of the Koreans told us the next morning that they had to leave soon and that we should make sure not to be the only tourists in the ger camp, as the family owning the camp turned out to be friends of our driver. Being the only ones there together with our driver and his friends would put us in a dangerous situation where they could ask for any amount of money and there would be nothing we could do about it (law enforcement is a hollow word in a country where the closest police station is probably 200 km away, mobile phones rarely have reception and the closest neighbor lives only 3 km further if you are lucky).

Choosing our lives over our principles and money, we hopped in the car with our driver, making it seem like we would pay the extra money he wanted once we would arrive to the city 200 km further. The car ride was hell, but once we started approaching the city we sometimes had a little bit of cell phone coverage, allowing us to WhatsApp our family and ask for help. Sophie’s dad contacted the Belgian authorities while Manolo’s sister tried to contact the Spanish ones. Meanwhile we arrived to the city, and after taking our stuff out of the car, our driver started asking for his money. As if it had been planned perfectly, we then got a call from the Belgian consul in Mongolia. Our driver understood that we were not going to be extorted and held hostage without putting up a fight, and he called the agency and went to sit in his car as he knew this might take a while (maybe this wasn’t his first time playing this game?). The consul called the travel agency and tried to sort out the situation. All of a sudden they changed their attitude from ‘this is not our problem’ to ‘let’s make a deal’. After lots of phone calls back and forth between us, the consul, the travel agency and the driver, a deal was made. The driver drove away without us having to pay extra and we could finally breathe freely again.

* Note: the second largest city of Mongolia only counts 83,000 inhabitants, giving the concept of big city a new meaning.

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Even though we were a bit unlucky and we saw an ugly side of Mongolia, the thing to remember from Mongolia are the very wide smiles, kindness of strangers and absolute beauty.

A to do-list for the Trans-Siberian

This post is a bit a contradictio in terminis as the whole point of embarking on the Trans-Siberian train is not having to do anything. But even with that, some useful suggestions for what to do on the train during those many many hours.

1. Have a cup of tea. And then have another cup of tea. And then have another cup of tea. Every wagon is equipped with a samovar, providing an illimited amount of free boiling water. Pro-tip: boiling water is not only great to make tea, it also allows you to make (3 in 1) instant coffee, instant noodles, instant mashed potatoes, oatmeal or buckwheat porridge, etc.

2.  Explore the train. Whether you are traveling second or third class, one of the most fun things to do on the train is to walk around in the different carriages and have a look at the people around. In second class, every carriage is divided into nine compartments with each 4 beds, and when walking in the hallway connecting them and lurking inside, you will see life unfold in front of your eyes. From an old babushka unpacking her carefully assembled lunch pack and savouring every bite, a couple of friends playing a very entertaining game of cards, and a mother reading bed time stories to her children, to lots of people napping, a fat half-naked angry-looking guy playing games on his phone, and two very bored soldiers lying in their bunk beds counting the time until they are arriving. Be prepared to have people stare right back at you, though. In third class, one carriage is shared with 52 people and the lack of privacy generally results in a slightly more convivial atmosphere. Pro-tip: do this around lunch/dinner time, and you will see the most inventive packed lunches/dinners, such as a plastic container filled with fried fish or fried chicken with potatoes, a cooking pot containing some kind of stew, lots of boxes with bread, tomatoes and cucumber and lots of little plastic bags with random assortments of sweets and cookies, etc.

3.  Withstand the random temperature changes. This might come as a surprise to some, but yes, it does get hot in Russia in summer. While a lot of carriages have air conditioning, there are carriages without air conditioning (and even some with windows that will not close without the help of a screw driver), and when it is available, there is no guarantee that it will actually work, as with everything in Russia. Moreover, air conditioning only works when the train is in motion, so the carriage will heat up quickly during the day when stopping in bigger stations. Finally, the temperature and settings of the air conditioning for the whole carriage are controlled by the prodzvonita, and so you might be sweating on some trains while you might be wearing thermal underwear on others (true story).

4.  Look up the schedule of the train stops. Not only is it nice to know when there will be a stop that is long enough so you can get of the train a bit and walk around (and maybe even score some extra train supplies or food), it is good – or even vital for people with small bladders such as myself – to know when the bathroom will be closed. Most trains in Russia still use the very sophisticated system of dumping the contents of the toilet pot straight on the tracks when flushing the toilet, so toilets may be closed up to 30 minutes prior to arriving to a train station until 30 minutes after departing again.

5.  Look out the window, and contemplate life. While it is exciting at first to look out of the window and discover the Russian countryside, the countless kilometers and kilometers of repetitive taiga with only very once in a while a sign of life will soon make you get lost in your own thoughts. When is the last time you let your mind wander freely, anyway?

6.  Play a game of cards. Even in the age of smartphones, playing cards is still a popular pastime on the train. Pro-tip: learn how to play Russian card games before leaving. It is the easiest way to socialize with your neighbors when you don’t speak Russian. It is however difficult to figure out the rules to their favorite game by just observing them play. And of course, don’t rely on meeting Russia s that speak English. They are still today difficult to find once you cross the Urals.

7.  Offer some sweets to your fellow travelers. Russians don’t understand the point of drinking tea without eating sweets and sharing your food is an easy way to socialize. Be prepared though to be offered plenty of sweets and other food back. This is especially true when your neighbor is an old Russian babushka, who will make sure you are so full you will explode by the time you leave the train.

8.  Count the number of wagons of the cargo trains passing by. Especially in Siberia, you will see an impressive amount of trains transporting oil passing by. It is difficult to say what is more impressive, the number of oil trains passing by, or how incredibly long they are.

9 things we learned in Russia

When traveling, you always learn something new. These are the nine things we will not forget from Russia.

 

1. Suitcases and backpacks are great for traveling. But next time we travel, we will pack all our stuff in cardboard boxes, plastic bags or packages made with cardboard, plastic and duct tape. We saw lots of Russians travel this way on the train, so they must know something we don’t!

2.  Lada cars are still being produced today. But they are as shitty as ever. We had the pleasure of traveling in a Lada 4×4 (yes, those exist), and they are really great, except for the very hard suspension, lack of most electronic gadgets such as electrical windows, central lock or airconditioning (let’s not even talk about gps), very small trunk space and complete lack of leg room.

3.  Continuous white lines on the road in Russia do not have the same meaning as in the rest of the world. In Russia, they do not mean you are not allowed to overtake other cars, they are merely there for decoration.

4.  Machines are great, but using people for easy routine tasks is much better, seems to be the adagium in Russia. It is much more fun to buy metro, bus and train tickets from an actual person, than to have an automated ticket machine. And we still didn’t figure out what the job description is of the people sitting in the end of the automatic stairs in the metro, but we are sure they must be very necessary. (That it is not helping lost tourists, Sophie found out the hard way.) Yes, these people might have expressions of utter boredom on their faces and not care about customer service whatsoever, that is probably just because they like to be happy and joyful on the inside.

 

 

 

5.  Apparently, we didn’t really get married. Russians like to take pictures for hours when they get married. The whole wedding party will walk around the city and take pictures in parks, in front of monuments, landmarks and pretty buildings and churches. And with taking pictures, we mean do at least 35 different poses like a professional model before moving on to the next place. Sophie started practicing the posing thing in Russia, so maybe we can get married again. Properly this time.

6.  All Russian trains have a samovar, which provides unlimited free boiling water during the whole train ride to make tea or instant noodles. So far nothing surprising. What we did not know, is that the energy used to heat up the water, is actual fire. As in wood that is burning… A bit shocked, we talked to the prodzvonitza (this one spoke some English). “Is this real fire?” “Yes.” “But isn’t that dangerous?” “Yes.” So, we looked at her with a puzzled face. She shrugged, and told us like it is the most natural thing in the world: “This is Russia…”

7.  There is no such a thing as a ‘Russian’. Russia is made up of different republics and people of lots of different ethnicities. People from the republic of Tatarstan (Turkish descent) or the republic of Buryatia (Mongolian descent) for example look different from Moscovites, have different habits, religious beliefs and languages.

 

 

8.  Whoever thought Russia is a confusing country, must have been mistaken. Russians tend to make everything very simple. For example, instead of giving train stations confusing names such as the name of the city or village that it belongs to, lots of train stations don’t have a name, but rather the  number of kilometers from Moscow. How much easier can it be? Another example are the cars. Russians drive on the right side of the road, but why make life complicated and only allow people to buy cars that have the steering wheel on the left? Especially in Siberia and Eastern Russia, people like to buy Japanese (second hand) cars that have the steering wheel on the right. What could possibly be the problem with that?

9.  Stamps are awesome. Russians really love their forms, official stamps and signatures. We have received stamps and signatures for going to the bathroom, receiving bed linen on the train, drinking a coffee and having a meal.

Russian train adventures

127 hours or 5 full days and nights and a bit. That’s the total amount of time we spent in Russian trains during our 27 day stay in Russia. During that time we traveled a dazzling total of 7,557 kilometers. That is more than traveling from Brussels to New York.

 

We started of our trip in St. Petersburg. We decided to kick of our crazy honeymoon in style in this amazingly beautiful city and allowed ourselves some luxuries. A nice hotel, breakfast in bed, a ballet performance in the famous Michailovskii theatre, the occasional glass of champagne, etc.

After that, the real budget backpacking began. The nice hotel turned into hostels, cheap guest houses or a crappy hotel outside of the city. The occasional nice restaurant turned into Soviet-style canteens or cooking ourselves. And the champagne turned into water. Sophie is still moping about this last part.

 

 

The first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey was quite short, with a four hour train ride from St.Petersburg to Moscow. After that, the fun really began: a 21 hour train ride to Volgograd. And what a train ride it was! Somehow we ended up in what must have been the oldest train in the whole of Russia. The train was headed all the way to Tajikistan, where it would arrive 4 days later, so the train was filled with people from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who would be living in this train for days. Luckily, we could get off the next day.

 

Trains adventures

 

We had booked a ticket in platzkart (third class), meaning we were sharing our train carriage with 50 other travelers. The train didn’t have any airconditioning, which can be tricky when it’s 30 degrees outside but luckily the two windows next to us were open when we arrived in the train. When it started raining and we tried closing the windows, we understood why the windows had been open when the train was still in the station. One of the windows couldn’t be closed, while the other window was missing a part. While Manolo was having visions of having to sleep in a cold, wet bed, we tried to figure out the situation with our fellow passengers. While that included lots of hand gestures, miscommunication and laughter, it was still raining inside. Finally, the prodvnik (the train carriage responsible) came to assess the situation, and after calling some technician with a screw driver, window number one was fixed. Fixing window number two involved a treasure hunt for the missing part, but once we found it, it was easy enough to fix the problem using some of Manolo’s engineering skills.

 

 

After visiting Volgograd – where Manolo could pay his respects to the millions of Russians that ensured that today we don’t speak German in the whole of Europe or even the world – we embarked on another train ride with destination Kazan. Air conditioning, a continuous supply of toilet paper in the more or less clean bathroom (we will spare you the details of the bathroom, but it suffices to say that the bathroom in the other train was absolutely horrifying), properly functioning windows, and the occasional cleaning session by the prodvonitza who even spoke a tiny bit of English, etc. Compared to our previous train ride, this train was like a luxurious five star hotel on wheels.

After enjoying Kazan and its mix of Russian and Tatar culture, we hopped on the train again, this time direction Siberia (Omsk). By now, the train started feeling as a routine. We were getting pretty efficient at buying food and supplies for the train, and the whole get-on-the-train-make-your-bed-and-get-yourself-and-your-luggage-organized procedure started to feel natural. In Omsk, we took a regional train to Moskalenki, a small village in the middle of nowhere, where a friend of Sophie and her family lives. The 1h45 train ride felt a bit like a joke. But it was nice to experience real Russian/Siberian life in the countryside and be away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities that we had been in before.

 

 

After 4 days in the countryside, our 41 hour train ride to Irkutsk passed by surprisingly fast. After spending one night in Irkutsk in a bed that for once didn’t  move, we then suffered through a 7 hour mini-bus ride to Olkhon Island – the only inhabited island on the Baikal Lake. This was a perfect preparation for Mongolia, as the last hour and a half we were driving on very bumpy unpaved sand roads. Returning back to Irkutsk after four days, we then slept through our last Russian train ride of 9 hours to Ulan Ude, from where we took the bus to Mongolia.

 

Thank you for a great day

Time flies, especially when in the time span of 1 month you have survived your own wedding, packed up your whole apartment and put it in storage, prepared yourself for an 8-month travel, and spent three times 24 hours in a train in Russia. So this post comes a bit later than planned, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

 

This post is to say thank you to all of you for making our wedding a great party and an unforgettable day. It is also to say thank you to everyone who helped in any way, whether is was helping to set up everything on Friday, clean up on Sunday, make a paella or desert, take care of last minute decorations on the big day, or invaluable moral support throughout the whole experience. But most of all, it is to say thank you to these four amazing people below. Not only would we never have existed without you, it means the world to us that we can always count on you. It would have been impossible to organize this wedding without all of your help! So thank you for being our parents. We couldn’t have wished for better ones.