Our journey into the heart of Asia begins one early morning in Beijing, where we board the Transsiberian Railway (the route between Beijing and Moscow is actually serviced by a chinese train). We get to share our four bed compartment with a whole family. Well, a mongolian mother and her three kids. They are a little noisy, but great fun and very friendly. At the end of the 36 hour ride in Ulan Bator they invite us straight to a restaurant that the family owns. A good start, especially since Lilian was a little afraid of those incredibly long train journeys.
On the train we actually run into the next family that adopts us. A young man hands us a card of a guesthouse that we go to. It turns out, that his mother is managing the place. Over the next ten days she helped us organising trips and tried to get back train tickets, passport and camera that were stolen from us in a restaurant. She actually called the local radio station and had them search for my passport. People are what really make this region special. People in South America were nice and fair, but here they get involved.
The theft of my rucksack in the Khan Brau restaurant was the only bad thing that happened. The loss of my new camera with all the pictures from Mongolia was especially painful. The passport contained my russian visa, which we were able to get replaced quickly. Luckily, my second passport was at the Kazakh embassy at the time.
Mongolia outside the capital is as you imagine it. Green rolling hills with the occasional yurt, herds of sheep, cows, horses and the occasional camel. We managed to organise two excursions into the countryside, where we got to share a yurt (they call them ger) with a grandmother. Of course everyone from surrounding gers came round for dinner to watch. And I thought they were the attraction! Wrong!
Irkutsk in Russia was our next stop. We travelled two nights in a train, although the truth is, that we spend most of the time waiting at the mongolian and russian borders, waiting for the traintoiletts to reopen.
From Irkutsk we immediately travelled to Olkhon Island in the Baikal. Some call it the world's largest freshwater lake, others just call it Baikal. It exists on a widening tectonic rift and will some day become an ocean. In the meantime it may be called the world's deepest lake (1637m). The surrounding landscape is absolutely beautiful, only the at times rainy and windy weather stopped us from hiking around Olkhon Island.
We stayed in Olya's little private guesthouse. She looked after us while we cured our colds. In reality life must be pretty hard for people in this village. Electricity was reintroduced only two years ago and there is no running water or telephone landline. Mobile phones do work. This all seems okay in the short siberian summer, when many Russians and local Buryiat people come the island, who consider the island sacred.
In winter the island is sometimes cut off from the mainland for weeks because the ice is blocking the ferry service, but is not yet strong enough to support any vehicles. Some try to cross anyway and we heard a story of one indestructible Russian who crossed with his car, broke into the ice and waited until his car was almost full of water. He then swam up, breathed from some air that had escaped from his car and was still trapped under the ice, before he found a gap in the ice to get out.
Many stories are not so happy. Russian men often drink themselves to death (mostly alcohol related accidents), leading to a life expectancy of only sixty years for men and over seventy for women. I would still vote for Russia as my favourite country of this journey. Not just for the young soldier who got me totally drunk on the train from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk. Also for Ewgeny, a guy from Krasnoyarsk (he really loved his hometown!), who adopted us on our day in Novosibirsk and bought a family ticket (!) for the zoo so we could see Siberian Tigers.
Next stop Almaty, Kasachstan. This must be a backpacker's hell. All of a sudden, everything is expensive and nobody is able to tell us why or even how we could find a way out of this. No tourist information, nobody seems to speak English, washing our clothes for example costs 30 Euros. Ridiculous! (okay, we protested and paid 15 Euros in the end). But we needed to stay here in order to get a visa for Kyrgistan. Within eight days we changed our accommodation four times, moving from 50 Euros a night to a friend's mum's free flat. Hooray and thank you Vera and Irina.
Between Visa applications, hotel searches and visa registration worries (it turned out in the end that the kazakh embassy in Mongolia had done our registration, but forgot to tell us!) we could afford one single day off to go into the admittedly beautiful mountains.
Not all was bad though. On the train from Novosibirsk to Almaty we had met Alexander from Almaty, who fed us very well during two days on the train. At every stop he jumped out to buy fish, bread, beer, icecream and other local products. Even in Almaty he and his wife Djamilah showed us around Almaty. To sum it up, the landscapes of Mongolia and Siberia were stunning, but what really makes this region special is it's people.
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