Reports and Travelogues
Omul and Genghis beer, Don Cossacks and nomads – a journey on the Trans-Siberian railway is the dream of every world traveller.
Ulaanbaatar. The endless wastes of the Mongolian steppe go by the window of my compartment. Nothing but yellow-green steppe grass as far as the eye can see. It’s early morning on the “Transsiberian” special train, and the view of the treeless gently undulating wilderness is simply stunning.
The train started from Beijing two days ago. Since then, we’ve rolled over 1,500 kilometres of track, with some short stops in between. The first is at Erlian, on the Chinese-Mongolian border. Here we change trains, because, unlike China, Mongolia and Russia use a wide gauge track.
Coach 11, compartment 7 – my new home on wheels.
Oriental carpet, wood panelled walls. Curtains with tassels, two beds opposite one another, 187 centimetres long and 67 wide, with a gap of some 50 between them. Small, but basically comfortable. There is a toilet at the front and rear of the coach. I have to share a shower with 35 other passengers. And because everyone wants to have a wash sometime, you have to register on the shower schedule – 15 minutes for the big scrub-down, then it’s the next in the queue. “It’s almost like a youth hostel”, says Regina Forster from Plauen with amusement, as she adds her name to the list, “I find it so funny!” The lady from Saxony is underway with her parents. “They’re celebrating their golden wedding anniversary next year, so that’s why the three of us are taking the big trip now.”
In total there are 186 guests aboard. Americans, Germans, Indonesians, Swiss, Brazilians, Australians, Britons, South Africans, Spaniards, Danes, Austrians, on average 55 to 60 years old. We get to know each other quickly on the train. The Indonesians at the end of the coach always show us their nightclothes when they make their obeisances early each morning in the narrow corridor. And my nice Swiss neighbour sleeps best with the compartment door open, and sometimes snores a little.
Life on the “Transsiberian by Private Train” is structured by mealtimes.
Mornings, middays, evenings is when we meet in the dining car. There’s plenty on the menu – blinis, borsch, and pelmeni. Anyone who gets on well with Lyudmila, who’s boss of the dining car, is allowed to sit for a while after the meals. She’s particularly pleased if someone orders “Champagnskokye” It’s only late in the evening when the mood might change. Lyudmila gets irate then, because the hard core of the travellers keep the Russian lady from her well-earned rest with yet another round of vodka.
Ulaanbaatar – all change. Already waiting for us on the platform is Gerelt, our guide in Mongolia. He raises the little orange flag, our identification marker, and we tag along behind. Into the bus and into the jams. Almost half of the 2.7 million population of the country live in UB, as the Mongolians call their capital. “In 1990 there were only 500,000 people living here. No-one had reckoned on so many people, and that’s why there’s always such traffic chaos”, Gerelt explains to us. Even Felix, our tour leader, is amazed at the scale of the development. “I was here two years ago – there were none of these high-rises here then.” Ulaanbaatar is seen as a boomtown. Bit anyone who really wants to get to know Mongolia needs to get out of the town. Out there where the tarmac ends and the steppe begins.
Our yurt camp is located in the middle of a huge nature park.
Waiting to greet us is Mongolian Genghis beer and a generous helping of meat. Mongolians love this above all else. In this case, it’s lamb roasted in a milk churn – a good solid repast.
Our horses are already waiting for us. But what we see is something of a disappointment. Are these supposed to be the “wonder weapons” of Genghis Khan? Shaggy, small, stocky – fully grown they look more like ponies. In fact, Mongolian horses are very tough cookies indeed. They live outdoors the whole year round, up to 30 degrees in the summer and down to minus 40 in the winter, and they find their own food. At the Nadaam Festival, the Mongolians’ national holiday, they run courses of 35 kilometres with a child on their back, at full gallop.
We ride off, with Mandakh, the head of the nomad family, taking the lead. He is totally laid back on his horse. Hannah gets too hot, and takes her coat off – and her horse bolts. Ankhaa yells “Shoo”, and is luckily able to bring the stallion back under control. Mongolian horses are sensitive. Unusual noises or even smells – they have a problem with this, so simply don’t try anything out of the ordinary. Just sit still in the saddle and enjoy the magic of the landscape.
In the evening we fall onto our beds in the nomad tents, with the stars glittering though the opening in the roof. There is the scent of sheepskin felt, and outside the horses are whinnying – the romance of the yurt, straight from the days of Genghis Khan. Since sunrise our train has been running alongside Lake Baikal, and the Don Cossacks are singing on the on-board radio.
Baikal is a lake where everything is superlatives:
636 kilometres long, 27 to 80 kilometres wide, and up to 1,637 metres deep, making it the biggest body of fresh water in the world. And at 25 million years, it’s also the world’s oldest lake. This is where the unique freshwater seals live, and the omul, a tasty edible fish, and a huge number of other indigenous species. Nature here is unique. We rush past thousands of birch trees, firs, cedars, and Siberian larches. Behind we catch the glint of the “holy sea”, as the Buryats call their lake. For a matter of five Euros we get the opportunity of savouring this fantastic stage setting from the most front row seats of all, from the locomotive itself. A truly spectacular experience.
Later in the afternoon we sit on the shore of the lake and enjoy smoked omul, savoury gherkins, tomatoes, dill, potatoes, and, of course, vodka. Baikal vodka, because it is amazingly mild. Before us is the lead-blue crystal clear water. It’s not all that warm, even now in summer, perhaps 13 or 14 degrees. Despite that, some of us pluck up the courage to take a dip. After all, when are we next going to have the chance to swim in Lake Baikal?