Crossing the border from Russia to Finland

We had a final breakfast of pancakes with bananas, nutella and chocolate sauce. Oh man they were good. Then we were ready to leave Russia.

Trains for Helsinki leave from the ‘Finlyandskiy’ train station. We showed up nice and early and sat in the waiting hall. When they announced that our train was boarding we were the only ones that stood up and tried to board. The check in woman told us we had to go around to the ‘Express Hall’. We tried to ‘go around’ and were still a bit confused so we went to the information desk. Before we even opened our mouths the woman there held up a sign in English saying that the ‘Express Hall’ was out of the building and around on the side street.

Unrelated but pretty photo from St Petersburg

We followed instructions and found it pretty easily. The place was heaving with people. The hall we had sat in was much nicer. To check in we just showed our passports and put our bags through security. Easy.

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Cafe hopping in St Petersburg

We arrived in St Petersburg not-so-fresh from an eight hour overnight train journey from Moscow. After a pretty average night’s sleep we were woken at about 6am as preparations started for our arrival at 7:30am.

We dropped our bags at our hostel and found a cafe for breakfast. Although we had expected St Petersburg to be much more western and European, the menu was all in Cyrillic. The waitress didn’t speak much English so after some failed attempts at interpreting the menu we just pointed at the only picture that showed some bacon and vegetables in a pan with toast on the side. “Omelette?” asked the waitress. Yeah sure, I guess that sounds fine.

Turns out ‘omelette’ was three eggs, baked in a cast iron pan, with two teeny-tiny pieces of toast on the side. At this point I had a minor breakdown which I’m going to blame largely on lack of sleep and my love of carbs. I managed to eat about half of my eggs before my toast ran out and I just lay down on the couch, no longer able to function. Too tired and still hungry and disappointed with our lacklustre breakfast.

The iconic Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

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Reflections on the Trans-Mongolian railway journey

The Trans-Mongolian, and to a greater extent its more famous sibling the Trans-Siberian, seems to hold an almost mythical appeal for people. Often when describing our year-long trip to someone the part that they would be most excited about was this train journey. Countless people told me that it was on their bucket list. It was precisely because the trip was so well known that it made its way into our itinerary early on in the planning phase.

You hear a lot of stories romanticising the trip, the faded elegance of the trains, sitting in your cabin watching the frozen wastes of Siberia pass by, swapping vodka and food with Russian locals. We heard tales that sounded much more intrepid as well – passengers trying to hide illegal imports as they crossed borders or carriages full of locals merrily shotting vodka. I even read one story where a Russian passenger pulled out a gun.

The train from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar

Now that we’ve completed the Trans-Mongolian, we thought we would share some of our thoughts about it. Obviously everyone’s trip is different and experiences will vary depending on where you stop, the types of trains you choose and the people in your carriage. So here is our version.

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Lenin’s mausoleum and other Moscow attractions

The next highest priority in Moscow was visiting Lenin’s mausoleum. It is only open at certain hours on certain days of the week and I really wanted to see it. We had visited Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, but then missed out on Chairman Mao’s as his body was away for restoration. Even though I had failed on my quest to visit the mausoleums of three great Communist leaders I was still aiming for two.

On a Saturday it opened at 10am so we showed up promptly at that time. Along with dozens of other people. I dithered a bit, baulking at the length of the queue, but in the end Andy counselled that we should wait. The queue moved in fits and starts but made pretty steady progress, taking about 35 minutes in total.

I had read online that you weren’t allowed to take any bags or phones or cameras through to the mausoleum. We had come prepared by not bringing anything (hence the lack of photos). This turned out to be false information, most other people were carrying bags and lots of people were taking photos outside of the mausoleum itself. After passing through security you walk past the graves of various other important people.

A photo of Lenin’s mausoleum taken the next day – the scaffolding wasn’t there when we visited

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A tour of Moscow’s vegetarian restaurants

The final stage of our Trans-Mongolian journey was pretty uneventful. It was about 28 hours from Yekaterinburg to Moscow and once again we travelled in third class. The most interesting moment was when the guy sitting opposite us pulled out a big cardboard box he was carrying and gave us two dried fish, one for each of is. They smelled pretty strong and we had no idea what we should do with them but it seemed like we had to accept the gift. He gestured that we should peel and eat the fish but knowing that we would definitely do this wrong, we stowed them in our food bag under our seats. The guy got off about halfway along but we just kept the fish in our bag. We weren’t really sure what to do with them.

A gift from a Russian guy on our train

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Andy’s first steps into Europe

Andy and I had booked two nights in Yekaterinburg to give ourselves a break from the train. Amber however only had about 14 hours. And only one goal she wanted to achieve: visit the obelisk at the Europe-Asia border.

Having done a small amount of research I had established that there were two Europe-Asia borders, each with an obelisk, which I thought reduced the legitimacy of them somehow. I’m not convinced they’re both on the same line. Or even that either is on the official line to be honest. However when we booked a taxi through our hostel I stressed that we wanted to see the old one since it looked to be the more impressive of the two.

The Church on the Blood in Yekaterinburg

Our taxi turned out to be an unmarked car with a Russian driver and huge sound system in the boot. It didn’t look like a normal taxi but our hostel had organised it so it was probably fine. Our driver didn’t really speak any English but he seemed to know where he was going, following the map on his phone. We drove for about 30 seconds and then immediately got stopped by the police. This freaked us out just a little bit, you hear lots of bad stories about police in Russia, but the driver just showed them his papers and we were waved on.

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The Trans-Siberian: Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg

We were technically following the Trans-Mongolian route, from Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia. Not to be confused with the Trans-Siberian route which runs wholly within Russia from Vladivostok to Moscow. But by Irkutsk we had joined the official Trans-Siberian route, so there were a lot more trains and more people travelling.

In Irkutsk we were staying in the same hostel as Amber who we had met while visiting Lake Baikal. Unfortunately, we were also sharing the hostel with about 20 rowdy Russian school children. There were six children in our dorm with us and they were not quiet. I’ve never seen so many small children in a hostel before, and to be honest would probably prefer not to again.

A church in Irkutsk

We also ended up meeting up with Karl (from the cheese state, remember?) and that evening found ourselves hanging out in a hipster cocktail bar. The bartenders were very impressive with their cocktail making (think tasteful waistcoats and vigorous shaking), except when Amber ordered a Moscow Mule and received a frothy concoction of egg white and candied orange. We found a restaurant styled on the London Underground for dinner and Karl introduced us to garlic croutons which are made with rye bread and delicious. They have them everywhere in Russia and you really need to try them.

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Ice ice baby

Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world and holds 20% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater (Lake Taupo eat your heart out). Marius, one of the Germans in Mongolia, had recommended that we visit Olkhon Island instead of the lakeside town of Listvyanka. And a French girl we met in Xi’an had recommended Nikita’s Guesthouse on Olkhon Island – she had stayed there ten nights! On the strength of these recommendations we booked a room.

Nikita’s guesthouse is basically the place to stay on Olkhon Island. It’s pretty expensive – 2000 rubles/person/night (~NZ$50) including dinner and breakfast, but the food alone totally made it worthwhile. Every night there would be soup and fish and three different dishes to choose from, plus salads and bread. Then every morning there was porridge, pancakes, eggs and another option plus fruit (and leftover salads and bread). It was soo good. Their hash browns were delicious.

Lake Baikal, still completely frozen

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Crossing the border from Mongolia to Russia

Stocked up with a huge bag of snacks we boarded our train in Ulaan Baatar for an 8:30pm departure. We were in a cabin with two Thai guys who were pretty friendly.

The first night was pretty uneventful but the next morning we were woken at 7am by the carriage attendant saying “toilet – station, toilet – station”. You’re not allowed to use the train toilet while it’s stopped and we were at the Mongolian border point. I decided to wait for a bit and in the meantime a man came down the corridor offering to exchange money. We only had 70 tugrik (~NZ$0.04) left. He was pretty unimpressed. So I offered it to him for 1 rouble (~NZD$0.02) and he took it off my hands.

I was stoked that we had so neatly used up all of our Mongolian money until I realised that we needed to pay for the toilet. One of the Thai guys kindly gave me the 200 tugrik (~NZ$0.12) that I needed. I got off the train and turned out that our carriage was all alone at the station. We had obviously been attached to a domestic Mongolian train for the first part of the trip and were going to be attached to a Russian domestic train for the second part. In the meantime we were all alone.

Our solo train carriage

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