You’re Going To Miss…The Trans-Mongolian & Tibet

You’re Going To Miss…The Trans-Mongolian & Tibet

Press play. And then start reading.
 
 

 

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin

You’re going to miss the trepidation of landing in a foreign country, for which visas you’ve worked so hard to get now finally proving their worth, then searching for foreign cab drivers without knowing where to even begin looking for them (if they were even there in the first place) before walking across Palace Square for the very first time and coming upon the immense splendor of the Hermitage staircase as your first introduction to Saint Petersburg.

 

 

You’re going to miss the jet-lagged introductions to one another at the hostel, the impromptu cat-naps and alcohol runs right before dinner, then shoving to get through nonsensical security just to hear Putin speak before the clock struck midnight.

 

 

You’re going to miss dancing with fireworks among the thousands sprawled out into the night, popping open champagne on the streets while walking arm-in-arm an entire city along Nevsky Prospekt, before finding the only hookah bar open as you celebrate the beginning of a New Year and a new trip with complete strangers and new friends.

 

 

You’re going to miss the quiet snowy morning of having a world-class city still hungover from the night before all to yourself, the 15 miles of gallivanting in a single day to explore every corner and every house of worship, witnessing countless gilded mosaics of times past.

 

 

You’re going to miss making new friends at the eleventh hour just so you can say goodbye to them when walking together along a snowy wonderland of the Palace Square before embarking upon the beginning of your Trans-Siberian journey.

 

 

You’re going to miss making your beds in your new home on the train, ordering breakfast blinis and beer with the help of a good-looking local and his unapologetically intoxicated, inappropriate family, and playing Monopoly Deal to throwbacks from the 90s before waking up at the crack of dawn in a new city.

 

 

You’re going to miss hailing Ubers on an unfamiliar street and recovering in a new hostel on comfy couches for an hour while meeting a herd of faceless, local men on Tinder who would quickly invite us, unsurprisingly, all to their beds (you might not miss that).

 

 

You’re going to miss the 3 days of freedom among the dazzling lights of Moscow both above and underground, the odd pony on the street, the taste of cheap Soviet hot chocolate and gelato, the mummified corpse of Lenin, the grandeur of Red Square, double facing toilets, the views from Cathedral of Christ The Savior, the overabundance of powdery snow crunching beneath our boots, and saying goodbye to 3 friends on our last night together at the world’s 18th best restaurant, before running into 3 Swedes who we took out on the town as if the town was our very own.

 

 

You’re going to miss ignoring screaming babies on your overnight flight to Irkutsk, occupying an entire airport café, slowly waking up to your first Siberian winter morning and driving out into the wilderness to leave 6 days of urban jungles behind.

 

 

You’re going to miss sliding down makeshift ice luges, wandering a science museum dedicated to an entire lake, savagely devouring your first omul, hiking up the summit of a random ski resort, and taking in the majesty of the world’s 2nd deepest freshwater lake before your very eyes at sunset.

 

 

You’re going to miss spending a Russian Christmas Eve in a frontier Siberian town with splendid ice palaces and churches too immersed in worship to notice your presence, while you can’t help but notice the occasional odd reindeer that pass you by.

 

 

You’re going to miss figuring out which supplies to horde even though you order too much food anyway at another Chinese restaurant, before getting up too early in a hazy twilight to board your first 24 hours on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

 

 

You’re going to miss catching up on sleep on your new mobile home on rails, making new friends with your attendants and bunkmates while avoiding the crazy ones, but nevertheless being the crazy one yourself when you jumped off the train in a clutch 45-minute time frame to see the world’s largest Lenin Head and making it back in time.

 

 

You’re going to miss the late night conversations during the border crossing between Russia and Mongolia and waking up too early in a different country.

 

 

You’re going to miss being picked up by your local guides to take you to a much needed coffee and tune-up, while leaving you to be as you hike up 250+ steps in -22ºC weather to see otherworldly views of the world’s coldest capital city.

 

 

You’re going to miss driving out into Terelj National Park to spot ancient dinosaurs roaming the steppe, climbing over locked gates to get closer looks, riding Mongolian horses on your own into the horizon, finding common ground with a new friend who had also visited the DPRK, streaking together with new said friend from ger to ger, squatting over the world’s largest pile of frozen poo with nonchalance, starting impromptu massage trains, staying awake to your driver’s snoring nightmares, and learning how to keep a fire going in your stove in order to survive the night.

 

 

You’re going to miss waking up to a laughter that shakes the world, introducing our new addition to the group with a visit to a statue of immense proportions in the middle of nowhere before driving around the polluted, congested and yet fascinating streets of Ulaanbaatar.

 

 

You’re going to miss restocking on supplies, not missing the alcohol, meeting friends of friends showing you around their native city and sharing their dreams of starting anew, drinking underappreciated beer at the local North Korean restaurant, before boarding your next overnight train for a night of excessive drinking games and embarrassing revelations.

 

 

You’re going to miss waking up in a new country at a remote border town between Mongolia and China, watching the bogies being replaced for new tracks before you wander off only to get lost and be led in 10 different directions until a Good Samaritan lets you back onboard.

 

 

You’re going to miss the awkward conversations about Donald Trump and giant mushroom clouds with your non English-speaking, Korean-speaking Mongolian smuggler bunkmate, giving and receiving hilarious basic Chinese lessons, and experiencing Chinese bureaucracy, kindness, and curiosity all at the same time while switching trains at the capital of Inner Mongolia.

 

 

You’re going to miss celebrating when your fellow monsooner gets accepted into Cambridge’s PhD program right before boarding your next train, then waking up hungover (again) in an ancient capital to mark the end of your Trans-Mongolian journey, storing bags away as you walk miles upon miles to see the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City before saying our next round of goodbyes to the 2nd round of monsooners to head back home.

 

 

You’re going to miss showing off your skills eating live scorpions (again) as appetizers before dining at the original Peking Duck House, and then leisurely making your way back to the train station just to have leisure make turn to panic when you discover you’re at the wrong one. And even though some of us make it to the correct train station on time, the others don’t quite get there as fast and we all ditch the train just so the group stays together and our newest addition gets a proper monsoon welcome, while leading us to temporary physical (and spiritual) shelter.

 

 

You many not miss the hurried bookings of hostels, flights, and car services to get to your destination in time, while doing your best to ignore the unhelpful backseat driver, but as they always say: when there’s a will, there’s a way. And when things begin to fall back into place, you’re definitely going to miss the exhilaration of your first real shower in days as the consolation prize, and the 4-5 hours of precious sleep in a real bed before getting on an early morning flight that takes you back to where you want to be, continuing the itinerary as before with no love lost among your group.

 

 

You’re going to miss setting eyes upon new friends of friends picking you up from the airport, the relief of getting back on track and in good hands before setting those same eyes on the Terracotta Army for the very first (or second) time.

 

 

You’re going to miss that perfect plate of cold noodles for lunch, the grandeur of the South Wall as you checked into your hostel, beholding the magnificence of both Drum and Bell Towers in the middle of a modernized city, and your giddiness levels rising to fever pitch while walking through the joyous madness that is the Muslim Quarter.

 

 

You’re going to miss bar hopping along the South Wall, playing foosball, darts and pool that would lead to another underslept night before having to catch your second early morning flight, this time to an elusive kingdom on the roof of the world.

 

John McGovern...for being another rockstar in the YPT family, taking us out on Xi'an and organizing our Tibet itinerary. 01/12/17.

 

While you’re never going to miss the awful hangovers of altitude sickness, you will miss the initial landscapes upon driving into Lhasa — as if you’ve stumbled upon a new world — the majesty of its location in a valley 3500m high, and the next 2 days acclimating the home of the exiled Dalai Lama in the world’s most politically guarded region on its highest plateau.

 

31471866303_fb7b50d588_b

 

You’ll definitely miss yak meat.

 

 

Tons of yak meat.

 

 

You’re going to miss sending off our beloved group storyteller with sensual oatmeal, naps, and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time To Say Goodbye” before heading out on “the other most beautiful drive in the world” from Lhasa to Shigatse, making a 9 hour drive feel like minutes when you stop to witness landscapes you couldn’t have imagined even in dreams.

 

 

While you’re neither going to miss lack of heating in your hotel room, nor the bundling up before bed, you will miss waking up to the golden honeycomb dawn of the “gateway to Everest”, immersing yourself amongst the throngs of pilgrims to visit the tombs of the Pachen lamas before returning to Lhasa.

 

31500059294_fd431908dc_b

 

You’re going to miss the last night of the trip walking along the streets of Lhasa with your new travel family, bidding last goodbyes among conversations that would bear one another’s souls on this nude beach of honesty and self-love, and the subsequent surreal early pre-dawn drive among the mountains when an inevitable realization emerged that a life-changing odyssey was about to end.

 

 

And you’re going to miss all this long after when we had embraced goodbye . . . that moment when you finally realize that nobody else for the rest of your life will ever fully understand the 18 unforgettable days you had spent with 10 other strangers and new lifelong friends.

 

Photo on 1-16-17 at 10.00 PM

 

Therefore you’re going to miss most of all, each other; the company of diverse personalities united by a perfect marriage of camaraderie and wanderlust, the way we’ll all look back one day and ask yourself: “did we really do all that?”

 

31944004600_f031403cfd_b

 

“Yeah we did.”

 

 

Having each overcome enormous physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual investments to get to this point, the 11 of us begin to appreciate how our shared experience on this 7000 km, 3400 mile endeavor would also represent a culmination of 11 different souls coming together – if only for a brief moment – in the belief in that we were really completing personal journeys long overdue . . .

 

 

. . . and yet if so they remain so premature, as 11 strangers and now travel family all know . . .

 

 

. . . that we still have many more miles to go.

 

 

Photo credits: Calvin Sun, JC Chan, Mihaela K, Shanika Jayakody, Ihita Kabir

Crossing From Mongolia To China By Train

Crossing From Mongolia To China By Train

 

After a bit of too much drinking on the train last night and sleeping in at around 2am, we woke up at 9am for the border crossing from Mongolia into China at Zamin Uud.

 

 

Although it was a lot less serious than the crossing between Russia and Mongolia, the process was similar: train attendants gave us simple custom forms to fill, Mongolian border guards came onboard to take our forms and passport, and then returned them with an exit stamp before our train crossed over to the other side into Erlian, China.

 

Photo Credit: Mickey Christmas

 

Once in China, Chinese border guards then arrived and did the same thing but stamping us into China instead. Once we got our passports back, our cars were separated one by one and we rolled into a giant warehouse to get the bogies changed (as the track gauges between Mongolia and China are different).

 

 

At this point we stepped out and walked around Erlian. Not much to see other than long streets, funky looking auto-rickshaws, lots of cars, and train station noodle joints.

 

 

Then when we returned half an hour later, a random guard prevented us from getting back on our train and instead yelled at us to enter on the actual train platform about a kilometer away. We had no idea where this was so we hunted down a helpful, friendly office agent inside a random building by the tracks, and he offered to walk with us to the warehouse to get us back in the easy way. Mind you, this is all with my 2nd grade-level Mandarin Chinese as nobody spoke a lick of English here.

Once back on the train, the group felt they had their fill of an adventure in Erlian and we stayed on for about another hour before being well on our way into Inner Mongolia, China.

And this also happened:

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 11.58.09 PM

 

 

- At time of posting in Erlian, China, it was -11 °C - Humidity: 45% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

Ulaanbaatar In One Day

Ulaanbaatar In One Day

 

 

After streaking in -20ºF weather and sleeping in by the fire last night, we woke up to a beautiful sunrise in Terelj National Park.

 

 

After breakfast we headed out for about an hour back into the city…

 

 

…stopping by the 40m high, stainless steel Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue, constructed at the banks of the Tuul River at the site where it was believed Genghis Khan found his legendary golden whip:

 

 

Inside (7000 MTG entry) is the “world’s largest Mongolian boot”:

 

 

Take the elevator up to the 3rd floor and walk up a few flights of stairs (coming out of Genghis Khan’s crotch…we did all come from Mongolians didn’t we?) to get amazing views of the steppe and beyond:

 

 

We then continued further another hour back into Ulaanbaatar, passing by the Zaisan Memorial in the south, which we had already visited yesterday (highly recommended). We drove up a bit north from Zaisan, stopping by the Bodh Khan Winter Palace, a Chinese temple unique for being one of the few structures spared by both the Mongols and the Soviets for unclear reasons (8000 MTG entry fee).

 

 

Then we headed to downtown Ulaanbaatar where in the middle of the city lies the Chojin Temple Museum belonging to the brother of Bodh Khan. The place is closed on Sundays and Mondays in the winter, which we found out the hard way.

 

 

Then we walked around Chinggis Square (formerly Sukhbaatar Square), the heart of the city and the central meeting place for demonstrations (most particularly the ones in 90s the ushered in democracy for Mongolia) and concerts.

In the center is a statue of Damdin Sükhbaatar, one of the leaders of Mongolia’s 1921 revolution, who faces the massive Government Palace with the Monument to Chinggis Khaan at its entrance.

 

 

Then we had lunch 3 minutes east of the square at the highly recommended Modern Nomads:

 

 

After lunch we headed northwest to Gandan Monastery, where over 600 monks live and still perform processional rituals at 9am.

 

 

At around 6pm we went shopping at the State Department Store to grab Mongolian cashmere (priced at about $20 USD for a scarf) and last minute grocery items for our upcoming 28-hour train ride to Hohhot, China.

 

 

There my friend from NYC, who grew up here, Gana, referred me to meet with her childhood friend here Shirako!

 

 

As Shariko enlightened us to life in Ulaanbaatar as a freelancer and clothing line designer, our ballsy group elected to have dinner at a North Korean restaurant called Pyongyang, one of the 100 or so chain restaurants outside of the DPRK that serve legit North Korean beer and cuisine such as dogmeat soup (seriously), cuttlefish BBQ, and “cold noodle”. 

All their servers are handpicked for their youth, beauty, and all go through rigorous screening for their loyalty to the DPRK given that the worry for defection from these restaurants is high. Most randomly, most of them happen to be graduates of art schools, and none of us are sure why. When it gets more crowded, servers and staff perform a set of North Korean songs and dances from their days performing for the Arirang Mass Games.

Photography is not allowed in these restaurants, but…well…remember what I did on the 5th floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel 4 years ago? 

 

 

…so the 5th floor at the Yanggakdo? I’m feeling PTSD all over again. Why did they make this restaurant so dark?

 

After a quick hour dining here we dashed to the train station to catch our 8:45pm train for Hohhot, China.

 

It wasn’t long before we started drinking. Here’s to the next 28 hours on the train!

 

 

- At time of posting in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, it was -19 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Going Streaking In A Mongolian Winter

Going Streaking In A Mongolian Winter

 

Photo credit to Melissa Weinmann for the photo above.

 

The Zaisan Memorial just got served

Ulaanbaatar just got served
15969965_1334983256523649_1351826759_n
Photo Credit: LaiYuen Looi

 

Hello from a balmy -15ºF (-22ºC) in the coldest capital city on the planet: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia!

After chugging along from Irkutsk, Russia, our attendants woke us all up at 6:15am, giving us about 30 minutes to dress up, warm up, and take down our sheets. Our train pulled in right on time at 6:45am.

 

 

And the cold just hit us IN THE FACE.

 

 

But our two local contacts Enda and MTT Ganba were there waiting for us on the platform, holding my name on a placard.

Enda comes from Modern Mongol Hostel, and was gracious enough to arrange us a driver and a comprehensive 2 day itinerary I helped him design, while MTT Ganba of Mongolia Train Tickets was there to provide us our onward Trans-Mongolia train tickets from Mongolia into China. Two trustworthy services I highly recommend.

 

 

They took our bags and drove us to Tom N Tom’s Coffee where were able to warm up our toes, charge up our electronics/cameras, and get on the internet to deliver this blogpost from yours truly.

 

 

While leaving our stuff to charge back at the café, we crossed the street to head up the 300+ steps for the Zaisan Memorial, a memorial complex that honors the Soviet soldiers of World War 2 that fought for Mongolian independence.

 

 

Keep in mind the subzero temperatures and the altitude…this climb can be more difficult than expected.

 

 

After 15 minutes, we were up at the top and treated to gorgeous views of Ulaanbaatar, the Tuul River, and its surrounding mountains:

 

 

Once up here, linger for the views and the 360º murals depicting the fall of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, the friendship between the USSR and the Mongolian people, and the launch of the Soyuz space capsule.

 

 

The sun begins to rise at 8:40am but doesn’t quite reach above the mountains at this time of year:

 

 

But once it does rise, so does the city:

 

 

…except for the pollution, which was unfortunate to acknowledge (all of us are wearing our N95 respirator masks right now; the difference in breathing with and without is quite stark here).

 

 

We then headed back to the shelter of the café, warmed up again, topped off our electronic charges and headed out to Terelj National Park.

 

 

We stopped by a Dinosaur Park inside the National Park along the way. Unfortunately it was shuttered, but it didn’t stop me from jumping over the fence and getting up closer:

 

 

Then we drove by Turtle Rock:

 

 

As we settled into our ger/yurt prepared by a local Mongolian family who lived just past Turtle Rock, we met a fellow Austrian traveller Kevin, who had also recently signed up for a YPT tour to North Korea:

 

 

For $20/hr we explored the park on horseback:

 

 

…and enjoyed a peaceful sunset over the mountains:

 

 

Then, fueled by the sheer thrill of the challenge, we decided to go streaking in -30ºC (-22ºF) weather. It wasn’t so bad; we lasted about 2 minutes outside.

 

15969965_1334983256523649_1351826759_n
Photo Credit: LaiYuen Looi

 

We also took about a whole hour struggling to keep our fire going in our gers, and ended up giving up and making a massage train instead.

 

 

Currently we’re waiting for the moon to set so we can see the stars better, as well as our newest addition Mihaela to arrive directly from the airport where she will continue with us the rest of the way to China and Tibet.

Welcome to this wacky little travel family Mihaela!

 

 

- At time of posting in Terelj National Park, Mongolia, it was -30 °C - Humidity: 77% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

From Russia (To Mongolia) With Love On The Trans-Mongolian

From Russia (To Mongolia) With Love On The Trans-Mongolian

 

This morning we woke up early for our 7am pickup for Train #004 from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar departing at 8:12am.

 

 

And there our train stood waiting for us, emerging from the hazy mist of an early morning fog as if out of a dream — this is where the Trans-Mongolian Railway diverges from the main Trans-Siberian.

A travel goal and dream finally come true.

 

 

The train attendants for Train #004 from Moscow to Beijing are Chinese, so the moment I began to speak in my other mother tongue asking if this was the right train, the attendants stood aghast how a bunch of USA citizens could befall their ears with such Mandarin in the middle of a Siberian winter.

The doors thus opened, and we were promptly assigned to our cabins.

 

 

JC was unfortunately and inexplicably paired by himself with a paranoid schizophrenic; the moment JC sat down on his bed, he was peppered with short, caustic anti-American statements by a man pacing in his room who spoke in a textbook case of paranoid delusions, flight of ideas, tangential responses, and pressured speech (yeah I’m diagnosing here).

From an opening introduction consisting of 9/11 conspiracy theories, accusations of treason, beliefs that the US government were tracking down his movements, while deferring questions of where he came from, this guy had bad news written all over him. After overhearing the bizarre conversation next door, I informed the train attendant in Chinese about the situation and JC was immediately switched with another passenger and moved into our room with the rest of the group. 

Crisis averted.

The rest of the trip wasn’t as dramatic; after an hour and half, Lake Baikal unveiled itself once more.

 

 

We then headed  over to check out the dining car.

 

 

While a charming place to sit in, the food is overpriced for what you get. Only eat here if you’re starving and you got nothing else.

 

 

Otherwise, feel free to linger here, play cards, meet other travelers, and stare out the windows, watching a magical Siberian winter roll by before you:

 

 

Thanks to the holy samovar consistently serving boiling water at the end of every car, we indulged in endless instant coffee, tea, and instant noodles while commandeering an empty cabin for ourselves.

 

 

At exactly 3:02pm in the afternoon, we stopped in Ulan-Ude for 45 minutes.

Knowing and having read in previous travel blogs of travelers rushing out to see the world’s largest Lenin Head Statue within the 45-minute stopover timeframe — with a few barely getting back to their train on time and others giving up altogether — we decided to take up the challenge ourselves. According to Google Maps it would be a 20-25 minute walk each way from the train station to the statue. That’s cutting it close!

So exactly at 3:03pm the 5 of us bolted outside the train station while Melissa volunteered to stay behind and take our bags onwards to Ulaanbaatar in the scenario that we wouldn’t make it back on time (the fail-safe plan was to take the faster 10 hour bus from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar and beat the train).

But reason prevailed as we said “screw this” and flagged down a taxi waiting outside. We then pointed to the Russian word for “Lenin Head” on Google Maps (there’s an actual word for this!) and made hand gestures indicating that we wanted a roundtrip after taking photos. The driver understood and the mission was in play.

The drive took just 4 minutes. Once it pulled into the parking lot, we barreled out of the car and darted past a winter holiday festival filled with little children bewildered to our sudden appearance.

 

 

And there in the center of the town square stood the statue of the world’s largest Lenin Head, staring at us cross-eyed and yet surreal in its presence, while striking us with this dumb awe that such a structure could even exist on this planet.

 

 

After taking our photos, we sprinted back to our cab as quickly as we dropped in and gave the driver 200 rubles for his troubles. We were back at the station within minutes at 03:22pm, with 25 minutes to spare.

Mission accomplished.

 

 

We then celebrated with Siberian vodka, making friends with our new German bunkmate Lucas, and eating more omul from Lake Baikal.

 

 

After 6 hours of stream-of-consciousness conversations, snacking, and the occasional cat nap, we finally reached Naushki located at the edge of the Russian frontier with Mongolia. There we were told not to leave the train as Russian border guards came onboard, took our passports, rifled through our luggage, searched our room, and headed back outside with our passports to give us exit stamps.

After about an hour and 40 minutes stuck on the train during this process (if you take the other trains that arrive in the middle of the day instead of at night, you get up to 3 hours to get off the train and explore), we were given back our passports before chugging along for another 30 minutes over to the Mongolian border town of Sukhbaatar, Mongolia.

Once in Sukhbaatar, Mongolian border guards came onboard to perform the same routine in reverse. And after another hour and 40 minutes on the train having our bags searched, room taken apart, and our passports stamped in, we’re finally allowed to proceed (they’re handing back everyone else’s passports as I’m writing this).

Anyways, we’re about to celebrate with more vodka now that we’re in Mongolia. Unfortunately we also just ran out of cups, so Melissa is going McGuyver on the plastic:

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Naushki/Sukhbaatar border, it was -14 °C - Humidity: 77% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: light snow