Day 12

Monday 29th February

We awoke as the train was beginning its approach to Beijing. The scenery here is dramatic as the train crosses crop land, gullies and mountains which were the original gateway to Mongolia and beyond for the tea, silk and spice traders of the past.

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There are 60 tunnels to navigate and stunning scenes of canyons, frozen rivers, soaring rock towers and evidence of loess (the wind and water born deposits) of this part of Asia.

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Passing through the heavily industrialised suburbs of Beijing we arrived at Beijing Main railway station at 11:35 a.m. five minutes early! The travellers think this is particularly good as we have travelled a total of 7,857km from Moscow on the same train. We are now ready for a shower as the carriage showers were not working!

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Post shower – We have had a little exploration, but more photographs tomorrow and a dinner in a French restaurant served by Chinese waiters. But we did eat Chinese at lunch!

Day 11

Sunday 28th February

We reached Ulaanbaatar at around 7:00 a.m this morning. The temperature was -15C!! We awoke south of Ulaanbaatar as the railway made its way through mountains and eventually onto the Asian Steppe. This is a rough grassland just before a true desert.

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The yurt (tent) is the traditional home of the Mongolian nomadic pastoralists. Many of these people live in permanent settlements now but old habits die hard.

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We stopped for a while at Choir where there is a statue, at a distance, of the first Mongolian cosmonaut, VVT Ertvuntz. The local women meet the train to sell snacks and drinks.

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The train continues south and enters the flat, arid and sparsely populated Gobi Desert. At first this is covered in deep snow and water courses are frozen, but further east and by the end of the day there is less snow and more traditional desert landscape. Access to water attracts animals and people but today in addition to cows, horses, camels, sheep and goats there are machines extracting minerals from the surface and beneath the desert.

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Just a word about the Gobi Desert

This is the world’s most northern desert and is a barren plateau the size of Western Europe. It is 1000km north to south and 2400km west to east. It is more accurately described as a Cold Desert, definitely not to be confused with Polar Regions because they do not exhibit the conditions that means a place is a desert. All deserts experience average rainfall of 250mm, average temperatures of +30C and an average of 30% humidity. The Gobi experiences all this including temperatures of minus 30C in winter. Consequently it is a true desert. The Poles are not so! The Gobi is also landlocked and surrounded by mountains towards the middle of the continent of Asia so it does not receive moist, mild air from seas and oceans. From any direction the air passes over land so once the weather patterns and winds are established they take a long time to change. So this means that in winter the cold is intensified, likewise in summer the heat also.

The surface is covered with rounded gravel which appears to have been deposited by ice. There are sedimentary rocks which leads to Mongolia’s boom in mining and metamorphic rocks that produce copper, gold and other minerals. We also saw part of the encircling mountain range some of which are fold mountains produced by earth movements but some are clearly volcanic which lines of fumaroles extending over great distances. The black tephra (ash and pumice) covers the surface for large distances.

Before the Mongolian frontier it was time for dinner. The Russian restaurant had been changed to a Mongolian at the previous border. Unfortunately today’s speciality of liver and fat was not available!!

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We continued until 8:45 p.m. reaching the Mongolian border town of Dzamyn-Ude where we waited for clearance for some 2 hours. Upon given clearance we moved across the Chinese border to Erlian where we were greeted by a light display and classical, popular and West End show music at the railway station. Here customs officials allowed us entry but progress to Beijing could not be made until we had the bogies (wheel carrying frames) changed from the Russian gauge of 5ft to the standard gauge of 4ft 8 1/2 inches. We stayed on board and were moved to a large shed where giant hydraulic lifts raised the carriages and men removed one bogie and replaced with the alternative. Past 1:00 a.m. we were on our way to Beijing.

Day 10

Saturday 27th February

Now we have found the cold! Minus 7C is now common place during the day, and of course colder at night. Condensation inside the double glazed windows now freezes into amazing patterns.

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During the night the train continued through mountains and forest passing Kuytun which means ‘cold’ in the language of the Buryat people because of the cold springs in the area, but our experience is of the temperature. Another appropriately named place some 70km down the line is Zima, which means ‘winter’. Irkutsk was reached at 7:30 a.m. The city stands on the Angara River which is the only river to leave Lake Baikal, to which we are making good progress. Nearly 100km east from here we get our first view of Lake Baikal as we snake downwards to the lakeside.

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The station at Slyudyanka is only 500m from the lake but our stop does not allow time for a visit. The railway now passes around the south and southeastern sections of the lake which gives the visitor an idea of how big this lake (the largest freshwater lake in the world) really is as this part of the journey is 250km. Along this southern edge is wasteland best described as a flood plain. To most people the following is unusual and occurs because the Angara River flows northwards to the Arctic Ocean. In winter the lower course (nearest the ocean) of the river freezes first. This prevents the water of the Angara to flow to the ocean so there is flooding along the river and lake. Conversely, in summer, the ice of the lake and the river melt first preventing the water from reaching the ocean so flooding occurs in the lower course but over the ice until it melts.

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We saw groups of men ice fishing, i.e. drilling holes in the ice and waiting for a fish to take the bait from their lines. The fish could be Siberian Muklun which one of the team ate in Moscow. It was a delicious white meaty fish.

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During the day we made good progress to Ulan-Ude reaching the city at 3:20 p.m. and a temperature of -7C. During the evening we crossed more taiga to reach the Russian-Mongolian border. This crossing took a total of 4 hours with inspections from high officials. Whilst this was going on the temperatures reached -14C and afterwards we had about 8 hours to cover the 380km to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

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Day 9

Friday 26th February

Last night we stopped at Novosibirsk for wheel checks, removal of ice and a change of engine.

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One member of the team saw the grand station which is described as a ‘real temple’ of the Trans- Siberian Railway. Here the sky was clear and the stars were visible. However, just before daybreak we arrived at Mariinsk, a Siberian gold rush town, which had been covered by fresh snow. For the rest of today we saw track maintenance crews working with snow over their boots to clear the track, points and the overhead electric cables. There were also giant snow clearing trains in use though they preceded our train.

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Yesterday the snow had been frozen by low temperatures and polished by the wind so that when illuminated by sunshine the landscape represented a sponge cake with white icing and silver balls. Today, however, it is covered with soft wetter snow which clings to the coniferous trees but is blown around by our passing train.

IMG_4173IMG_4192 IMG_4194 A little before Krasnoyarsk we passed the halfway point between Moscow and Beijing at 10:15 a.m. The next major stop was Krasnoyarsk at 13:00 local time which is now 4 hours ahead of Moscow. Here the wheels were again checked, ice and snow removed from near the brakes and a fresh load of coal delivered to each carriage for the samovar.
During the day the temperature reached 3C for it seems we are following the snow frontal system across the continent and not experiencing yet extremely cold daytime temperatures. As we write though at 21:00 (now 5 hours ahead of Moscow) it is well below freezing, so much so that as one empties the toilet onto the track below, when the contents of the pan meet the super cooled air under the train (caused by the wind chill of the fast moving train) a cloud of water vapour enters the toilet. One of the team has observed that the colder it is the bigger the cloud of water vapour!!

Snow and ice coat the connections between each carriage. The windows are getting dirtier. Tomorrow morning should see us approach Lake Baikal and Mongolia.

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Day 8

Day 8

Thursday 25th February

Overnight our train headed southeast from Perm and finally crossed the Ural Mountains. 1777km from Moscow we crossed the border between Europe and Asia. This may be Asian Russia but we are still 260km from the start of Siberia. In the early hours we stopped at Yekaterinburg which was the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin and where Tsar Nicholas II and his family met their deaths at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

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We awoke to find ourselves in snow covered Siberia. This mixture of farmland, frozen lakes and birch forest continued across this vast landscape.

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By late afternoon we had reached Omsk. We are another hour ahead of Moscow but still the station clocks show Moscow time. We entered the station by crossing Irtysh River bridge. The river was frozen from bank to bank. People had been driving on ice roads along the surface and on the river banks were large numbers of cranes awaiting the loading and unloading of ships once the ice melts.

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We ate Russian fayre again in the trains restaurant car – beef and pork with interesting, but tasty, combinations of potato, cheese and mayonnaise.

Our train continues overnight to Novosibirsk and beyond. Daytime temperatures now are a little above or below zero, but well below zero at night as one witnesses at the first morning stop when ice is broken from the bogies and steps to the coaches. The windows are getting dirty on the outside from the blown snow and salt used to keep the track clear.

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Day 7

Wednesday 24th February

Last night we boarded the train to Beijing at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station.

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The rolling stock is Chinese apart from the restaurant car which is Russian and will be with us until the Mongolian border in a few days time.

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The provodnitsas (carriage attendant) are Mongolian or Chinese and it is their job to escort you to your compartment and service the coal fired water heater (samovar). This provides continuous hot water for passengers to use in the making of hot drinks. The train, 04 to Peking, as it is still known here, is nearly empty.

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The samovar is heated by the burning of local coal which is stored near the outer door ….

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and acts as a barbecue for the provodnitsa’s cooking. Here is some bread our provodnitsa is preparing.

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Leaving Moscow, on time, the snow was quite thick on the ground but upon awakening the birch forests had really high drifts and at times only the shiny steel of the railway tracks was visible. We have crossed forest and farmland and as we write a snowstorm is setting in as we travel through the darkness to the industrial city of Perm which is 2 hours ahead of Moscow time (5 hours ahead of GMT).

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We ate lunch of sandwiches and borscht (a cabbage and beetroot soup) and this evening we had a simple meal of steak and fried potatoes washed down with some Baltic Russian beer. Delicious. A pity we were the only ones in the restaurant car. We question what others are eating other than oranges we can smell!!

Tonight we pass the border between Europe and Asia. We will try to be awake to witness this.

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Day 6

Tuesday 23rd February

Once again the roads and pavements were being cleared of snow when we awoke. It is a National holiday today and there was fencing around Red Square and the Kremlin to stop access. TV crews arrived and there was strict security with police on every street corner and along the road in front of the Kremlin. The cars outside the hotel which were thick with snow last night are now clear. We found the army of snowploughs waiting for the next snowfall. Yesterday’s snow was collected by this army of trucks and taken to a Moscow water treatment works to be cleaned and put into the Moscow River.

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The roads were quiet when we began our exploration of the Tverskaya which was the historic street used by royal processions travelling from the Kremlin to the city of Tver. This is a commercial, residential and theatre district. The Bolshoi Theatre has been restored to its original state.

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We then rode on the sightseeing bus again and witnessed a helicopter flying into the Kremlin grounds. Little else moved near this area until it took off. Later we also official black cars being escorted at high speed down the diplomatic lane in the middle of the road whilst everything else stood still.

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The clearer weather gave us chance to see some of the sights that were difficult to appreciate in yesterday’s gloom. The posters at every bus stop and on street corners are interesting and mostly in Russian. Here is one example.

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Our train to Beijing departs at 23:45 p.m. so for the next few days it may be difficult to update the blog. We will be making our notes ready to publish as soon as we can. We will see you on the Pacific Rim of Asia.

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BREAKING NEWS

The Moscow meteorological bureau has reported that last night’s snowfall (Day 5) dropped more than 30% of the average monthly snowfall in just a few hours. Some areas of the city received more than 50%. About 30 cms of snow fell in Moscow and a total of 7,500 snow removal vehicles cleared the streets. It also reported that the capital has experienced 58 cms since the beginning of February which is 160% more than the average.

 

Day 5

Monday 22nd February

Hello readers. We have updated previous posts on this trip. Hope you find it interesting.

What a surprise it was this morning as we were met with a snow covered Moscow! Teams of snow clearing machines and people were at work keeping roads and footpaths clear. Overnight the temperature rose from -5C to 0C.

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We began by exploring Red Square. The Square is known as such because in old Russian the word ‘red’ meant beautiful. It is certainly impressive in the number of buildings and the area it covers. The Square has been at Moscow’s centre for more than 500 years. it was here that Ivan the Terrible mutilated prisoners and funded the construction of St Basil’s Cathedral. In 1812 a victorious Napoleon addressed his troops on the Square. Lenin’s Mausoleum was added by the Communists who later demolished some of the buildings to make way for enormous military parades. The Square has since been restored to its pre-Soviet appearance.

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St Basil’s cathedral dominates the river facing end of the Square. It has red brick towers and swirling colourful domes. Ivan the Terrible ordered its construction to celebrate the capture of a Tartar stronghold in 1552. The Cathedral has 8 chapels each representing the assaults made on the Tartars. A ninth chapel was added later to cover the grave of St Basil.

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We walked to the Moscow River to see how the Kremlin dominates this part of the city.

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The Kremlin itself is a collection of palaces and cathedrals and is home to the Russian President. Later we explored the GUM (State Department Store). It was built in 19th century on the site of a market that had existed for 400 years. It has three parallel halls at different levels each covered with marble and the whole building is covered with a glass roof. It is reminiscent of the Arcades of Leeds though on a grander scale, but today it is just another shopping mall with global names.

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We finished our explorations with a sightseeing bus tour around most of the sights of the central area of Moscow.

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We witnessed how Moscow’s daily life continued despite the quickly falling snow which was rapidly and constantly being cleared. By the end of the afternoon all areas were being treated in readiness for any overnight freeze.

STOP PRESS!!!!!!

During dinner Moscow experienced a blizzard but life continues, unlike in Britain.

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Day 4

Sunday 21st February

After last night’s interruptions it was an opportunity to sleep in. For one of us it was 10:45 a.m. local time when he was greeted with a cup of Russian coffee in its official Russian railway cupholder.

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The journey continued through the taiga to Moscow.

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En route we saw small hamlets and isolated farms surrounded by a vast snow covered landscape. The temperature was falling and by midday was below zero, but at least the sun was shining.

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We stopped at Smolensk and Vyazma. Close to this town is the village where Yuri Gagarin (first man in space) was born. After his death the village was renamed Gagarin.

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After crossing the Moscow River we arrived five minutes early. Pretty good for four days on trains!

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A rapid taxi drive saw us eating dinner overlooking the Kremlin at 5:00 p.m.

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Later we went ‘walk about’ to see the Red Square and what appeared to be a UK style Christmas market without Santa but complete with Christmas trees, drinks and gifts. What a way to end the first part of the circumnavigation!

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The temperature forecast on the television was proved to be correct as we returned to the hotel.

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Day 3

Saturday 20th February

At 5:15 this morning we had arrived in Berlin where the Prague section of the train was uncoupled and moved to the rest of its train which had come from another part of Germany.

By daylight we were speeding through Poznam and across the Northern European Plain with its vast expanse of low-lying wind swept agricultural land interspersed with hills of glacial sands covered with coniferous trees. There was evidence of snow along the route from Germany, but most had melted.

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We arrived in Warsaw early and having left our luggage found a sight seeing tour bus.

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This was ideal as, in the short time we had available, we saw the principal sights of the city. The temperature was 7C but as the afternoon progressed the wind picked up, the cloud arrived with its increasing humidity, so that it felt quite cold. As the saying goes, “the cold cuts and the wind aches”. Perhaps we will experience more of this on our journey!

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Our train departed just before 7:00 p.m. and made good progress to the Polish/Belarus border.

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Here we were in for a long stop. First we were inspected and checked by the Polish authorities and whilst this was going on other policemen were outside with large torches checking freight trains. A new locomotive was added and we moved slowly across the River Bug into Belarus where further checks were made, including the inspection of the compartment. By now it was 1:30 a.m. local time and we still had to prepare the train for travelling on the broader Russian track. Each carriage had its wheels arranged from standard gauge to Russian 5ft gauge. By 3:00 a.m. we were underway!