Out in the Mongolian Steppe

Of course, when you go to Mongolia, you can’t leave without going into the wilderness. Or at least some kind of wilderness. Going to the desert Gobi was unfortunately out of the question, since our planned time in Mongolia was limited. But we were able to go out into the grass steppe near Ulaanbaatar.

Aside from the hike to Bolshiye Koty, this was our only booked tour. But the guided part was actually only the transfer to the Camp in the Gorkhi-Terelj (Горхи-Тэрэлж) National Park and back. Still in Ulaanbaatar we first headed to the Gandantegchinlen Monastery (Гандантэгчинлэн хийд). Basically a standard Tibetan monastery with a huge Buddhist statue, so look at the images to get a picture. “Highlights” of that stop were the fact that people here deliberately fed the doves (you could even buy food for them) and that we had to pay extra just to take photos inside the temple.

On the way out of the city we saw a bit more of the outer parts of the capitol (even more of the huge construction site), and gradually ventured into the steppe. But the car wasn’t quite fit for this trip. An Electro-Gasoline hybrid limousine, with a driver that avoided the smallest bumpholes. And there were a lot of bumpholes on the way.

In the steppe we stopped at a big ovoo (a shamanistic rock pile where people ask for a safe journey… being ignorant westerners, we just enjoyed the scenerey, took photos and ignored the souvenir Ger). We also stopped at the somewhat famous (or at least popular) Turtle Rock. We scrambled a big through on the rock and the surrounding area and where accompanied by a dog, who despite an injury to his front leg followed us everywhere, even the more difficult to access areas. Sadly we had neither a snack for him nor a first-aid kit with us and had to leave him there.

Afterwards we finally headed to the camp. We were greeted by the manager, who spoke very good German. Later we learned that he studied in Germany. But you could see that the camp was quite touristy. The Gers were on concrete foundations and somewhat well furnished, there was a sanitary house with running water and other facilities.

We expected to meet Fabienne here, but after seeing how many camps are in the area, we weren’t so sure anymore. But our concerns soon vanished at lunch, when she strolled into the dinning room Ger and joined us.

Later the three of us decided to hike a a rock formation further away, but had to turn around half way, because the weather got bad. Back in the camp, right before the rain started, we were approached by a young swiss lady (yes, the Swiss are everywhere) who was happy to have some company to talk with. Regina is a medical student and came to Mongolia for an internship (hands-on-experimentstraining with the local victimspatients), but apparently all went wrong. The planned internship didn’t happen, so she had to search for another one, her planned accommodation wasn’t working either, so she landed at a family she couldn’t talk with (but picture cards helped) and several other stuff. If one thing stuck to our minds, it was that we never want to go to a Mongolian hospital. Since the weather wasn’t really getting better, the four of us spent the rest of the day talking and having fun. Later we went into a Ger, got some firewood and were warming up.

When the ladies went to bed, we picked our cameras and searched for a dark place to enjoy and capture the night sky. Seeing the stars without much light or air pollution was great. Again, Steffen was well prepared and able to take some nice photographs. But when some clouds appeared, we also called it a day and hit the hay.

After breakfast on the next day, we had to bid Fabienne a final good-bye, for she headed to another camp in another part of the steppe. Soon after we also had to leave Regina behind, but she directed us to a good cafe in Ulaanbaatar, with the mission to relay her greetings to the owner.


After arriving in Ulaanbaatar, our first stop was a bank. We needed some local currency, some Tugrik. After accessing the ATM I was confronted with a few possibilities regarding the amount. Not knowing (as in badly prepared) what the Tugrik was worth, I settled for a medium option: 10,000 Tugrik. Right after that I found an open Wifi at the bank. It appears I have withdrawn the equivalent of 4 Euros. Oh kay, lemme try that again. Meanwhile Steffen’s guess was better, he just needed more than one run to get his desired amount.

Our hostel, the LG Guesthouse, wasn’t far away. On the way there we met a fellow traveler who just needed a room for the night. While he had some reservation at another hostel, he wanted to check out ours and decided to stay afterwards. So we probably had booked some decent enough accommodation. A shower later in the dorm bathroom the world looked better and the dirty train was part of history. Shortly after that we even got our own room, which was quite nice, aside from the fact that the main road was right within sight and hearing range. But we were aware of that before and accepted it because it was close to the train station.

Later we headed out for our first walk around the city, which of course included some geocaching. Our first impression of the city was that it is quite dirty. But after walking around a bit more, another thing became obvious. It’s not so much that the city is dirty, it is just one huge construction site. Seriously, they are working everywhere. Some sites are under active construction, some seem prepared but not started, some seem to have stopped before finishing and others seem to be finished but still have building materials lying around. In between are building that are not under construction, but should be. I’m sure half of the population consists of construction workers.

On this first day we were able to visit most of the important tourist sites, including the Chinggis Khan Square with the statues of Chinggis Khan and Sukhbaatar, the construction site of the Mongolian Circus and a few smaller statues or memorials dedicated to a children song, Marco Polo or the Beatles. We didn’t visit any museums, but stopped for dinner in the “Broadway”, where the serve westernized Mongolian food. This isn’t the most touristic city we’ve been in.

Another thing you see at all places are Gers (Mongolian yurts, the word means “home”), even if they are just symbolic like the one made of flowers at the Chinggis Khan Square. So obviously, even though we are in the metropolis of Mongolia, their nomadic roots are still present there today. As we noticed during the next days, this even goes so far, that people have their own parcel of land with a fence and everything somewhere in the city, but live in a Ger there. Regina (see next post) even has been in a Ger like this, that had a full bathroom… but no running water.

[Images will have to follow, because the internet (or at least our connections) in Mongolia and China sucks!]

Trans-Siberian: From Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar

On Saturday morning (not that we are really aware of weekdays during our trip) we left our home-stay early to get back to the Transsib. This time we had a Chinese train and it seemed to be older than us. Well, it just couldn’t keep up with the more modern Russian train we had before. It was quite a bit dirty (and they didn’t really try to change that, for example using a dry mob to clean the carpet isn’t really helpful), not as comfortable as the last train and smaller things just weren’t as good. But we were prepared for most things. like bringing our own toilet paper.

But we had a fun conductor, who was a main part of our entertainment. At the Russian emigration he made fun with us about the dead-serious customs officer. At the Mongolian immigration he handed us customs forms in Mongolian. At my request for an English form he just laughed. We are quite sure this was his way to make fun of us or keep us busy, since we got English forms from the Mongolian custom officers. But it really helped pass the time at the border. We had to work in a large group to figure out what they actually wanted to know from us. And during their checks he spent all the time to flirt with one Mongolian customs officer. Never give up, funny conductor man!

Well, the whole process from the Russian emigration to the Mongolian immigration took about four nightly hours and then we were on the rail again.

Our compartment companion for this stage was Fabienne. A nice swiss lady (not as old as that sounds), formerly working for the chocolate industry (taking care of sustainability and ecological impacts) and now traveling through Asia for a few months, but with having China as her eastern-most destination and traveling back to the western countries. It was her first trip on the Transsib, so we could tell her all the details in how the Russian train was much better (which became kind of a running gag between us).

Early in the morning we arrived in Ulaanbaatar and bid our farewell to the conductor. Fabianne on the other hand we would meet again in two days in the steppe.

[Images will have to follow, because the internet (or at least our connections) in Mongolia and China sucks!]


In the last episode we left our heroes during their tremendously dangerous odyssey from Bolshiye Koty to Irkutsk. The storm grew strong and inside the ferry they resorted to… listen to music and audio books.

Well, it was some quite strong weather and while we were actually traveling on a river, it felt like rough sea. But nothing to be really worried about. We got picked up at the ferry terminal to be brought to our accommodation. Since Irkutsk seems to be missing a decent drainage system, the streets seemed to be an extension of the river Angara. Having a chaotic road system doesn’t help either.

But they managed to bring us to the Trans-Sib Hostel, which is actually more a home-stay. Just that they didn’t want us to stay, or at least couldn’t since they didn’t have a free room for us. They must’ve been surprised, since we only booked a few months in advance. But the good news was, that the agency actually brought our luggage. So for the first night, they shifted us into the Good Cat Hotel, which was kind of an upgrade. Going from a two bed home-stay to a four-bed hotel (which we didn’t have to share) is quite good. We wouldn’t have minded if we had to stay there. On the next morning, they picked us up again and brought us to the Trans-Sib, where we would spend the next night.

Before that, we set out to explore Irkutsk of course, which also included some Geocaching. We walked around through some urban parts, to the statue of Alexander III, who is responsible for building the Trans-Siberian Railway, to the statue of Lenin at the corner of Lenin Street (there can’t be a Russian city without one) and Marx Street. We tried to get souvenirs to no avail and so just got some postcards, and after walking a little further had dinner and coffee.

The rest of the day consisted of washing cloths and being online. The next morning we left the Trans-Sib for the Transsib and were bound for Ulaanbaatar.

[Images will have to follow, because the internet (or at least our connections) in Mongolia and China sucks!]

Baikal Lake and Bolshiye Koty

As mentioned before, right after the first stage of our trip on the Transsib, we went on a hike. For this we were taken with our guide, Sergej (who was kind of mandatory, since you need a hiking permit for the Pribaikalskiy National Park – where Bolshiye Koty is located – and that way we could get that and find our way to the destination), along a road on the shores of the Angara river (the only flow away from Baikal Lake, which is actually more a barrier lake before Irkutsk at this point) to Listvyanka, a very small town at the point where Lake Baikal changes/flows to the river/barrier lake.

In Listvyanka we had a small breakfast and left our main luggage in hope that the travel agency will bring them to our home-stay in Irkutsk. Right after that we put our trousers into our socks (to prevent tick collecting) and hit the road… well, the trail. Hiking is one way to get to Bolshiye Koty, the other one is over the lake, either by ferry or by car, the later only in deep winter of course.

The first part was also the hardest. We had to hike up some very steep hill through the woods from 520 m to 867 m absolute altitude. That made us feel quite old (some youngers felt older), so Sergej took the time to explain a bit about the local flora on this mountain. A lot of stuff still seems to be used by locals for flavoring, salads and herbal medicine. We also learned why there are so many birch forests along the Transsib, they just grow fast and indicate a young forest.

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Once we were at the top of this mountain chain (all without breathing gear) we could catch the first glimpse of Baikal Lake. Marvelous, but still a lot of trees between us and the water. We descended again into one of the many valleys on the shores. From there we finally could get close to the water, to your first bay. There we had a small lunch and after a while a group old elders joined us. We hiked past the on the way up and now they have catched up. We shared some food (well, since all we had was the stuff Sergej brought, they did most of the sharing) and spiced up our food with fresh bear’s garlic. We took some first photos of the lake and hiked on. That wasn’t even half of the way so far.


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The next few hours we had a lot of ups and downs on the trail, but the view was fantastic on both sides of the trail. Beautiful forests on one side and the vast Baikal Lake on the other. At times you might’ve thought to be at the Croatian Adriatic. We met the elders several times and learned that the were doing their hike along with some photos that seemed like promotion as part of the Great Baikal Trail (Большая Байкальская Тропа; short: ББТ), which is being created by volunteers since 2003.

Of course we met other hikers as well, but since they were usually going into the opposite direction, we were just exchanging greetings.

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After a long hike (which was actually just ~4:30 hours pure walking time, plus maybe 1:30 hours breaks, but felt longer), we arrived in Bolshiye Koty. A tiny (about 40 locals), rural, backwater (in the truest meaning of the word) settlement (village would sound too big) with a ferry stop, a research center (Biostation #1, run by Irkutsk State University), a small natural museum, one shop, as well as some small hostels and home-stays. We stayed at the Bolshiye Koty Chalet, the only House with running water. Coincidentally (?) the Chalet was run by Natascha, Sergej’s mother. She gave us a warm welcome, was very nice and – as Sergej – spoke very well English. We had a very nice room and most importantly: A shower!

After we decompressed and relaxed a little, we went to the dinning room for dinner. There we met five other welcoming people who all (but one) spoke German. Rahel and Andrea were from Switzerland (we’ll count that as “spoke German” for simplification) and a couple with a toddler who’s names we never got. Well, the first story was that they were the Au Pair of the Swiss ladies, taking care of the toddler for them, which is better than relying on social security. (I was waiting to see if the story would get a little political flavor regarding Russia’s agenda against LGBT, but they blew their cover before that.) We had some interesting discussion and exchanges with them for a while, till we parted and went back to our room. And here’s the only problem we had out there. We shrank our luggage to the most mandatory things. Nothing for entertainment like a simple book. And without internet connection… let’s say we went to sleep early.

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The next day after breakfast we set out for a small hike along Baikal Lake. At some parts we encountered Rahel and Andrea, just like we did with the elders on the day before. But at one gravel beach they stayed behind, while we walked a while longer. Soon after we left we heard them screaming, for they tried to take a swim in the Lake Baikal. Apparently it was to cold for them, because from the distance we could notice their small figures taking short dips in the lake.


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According to a story we heard the evening before, it adds ten years to your lifespan if you swim in the lake for one minute.  Of course we were planning to do that as well, so after we figured we had done enough hiking, we went down to the next beach and rushed into the water.


Well of course we stayed there like the tough men we are but figured that ten years are enough for starters. If we want to live longer, we can always come back, so we left the water nonchalantly, let the sun dry us and strolled back to the chalet. We have no idea how cold what the actual water temperature was, but according to some websites (it’s on the internet, so it must be true) and considering the little sunshine and time of the day, we figure  something about 6-8° C.

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At the chalet we had some tasty lunch (called chicken roulette, which is most likely a loose translation), said our good-byes and explored Bolshiye Koty. Not that there is much to explore, but we took some photos of the free roaming cows, visited the museum and… well that’s it, we went for the ferry. Over the last few hours some dark clouds arrived over the settlement and as it started to rain, we took our seats in the ferry and waited for it to leave for Irkutsk. During our wait and during the trip with the ferry, the weather got worse and worse. But we’ll continue at this point the next time.

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To finish this post, a little something for the ladies and of course everyone else who enjoys flowers.

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Trans-Siberian: From Moscow to Irkutsk

This post is a bit late. I wrote it partly on the train with my cellphone, partly in Irkutsk and now am finishing it in Ulaanbaatar.  I will need to catch up a bit.

We were on the Trans-Siberian Railway on our way from Moscow to Irkutsk. Being on a wagon of the second class, we got a somewhat comfy little compartment with four bunk beds and a broken TV. We shared our “room” with Jian, a Chinese student of computer sciences from Paris on his way back to Beijing. At the beginning the fourth bunk was occupied by Alexej, a vodka loving Russian (a pleonasm I know). He left on the afternoon after the first night, which improved the air in our compartment, but also took away some form of entertainment. Since Alexej only speaks Russian (and a hand full of German words) which none of us speaks, conversations were usually a guessing game.

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The other people on our wagon were mostly Scandinavian, who were on a big, organized tour. While they have the same stops like we do, we don’t share the same timetable, so we’ll part with everyone, including Jian, after arriving in Irkutsk (but should meet the Scandinavians again in Ulaanbaatar) They officially gave their support to the German football team, which is surely one of the reasons they won. Unfortunately we weren’t able to watch the game and our only connection to the internet was luck in finding an open Wifi at a train station or Steffen’s expensive data option. Neither Steffen or I are what you would call a sports fan, but we would’ve liked to witness the final game.

Biggest challenge on the Transsib is to kill boredom. While we were passing beautiful scenery (wide planes and a lot of evergreen and birch forests) and nice little towns, it got old quite fast. At least it’s a good way to catch up on some books, though. But Steffen was done with his two books half way to Irkutsk. I got an ebook reader, so I’m lucky to have more material, but am of course dependent on power. We had four power outlets on the wagon, unfortunately none of them in our compartment, but a bit away in the hallway. We also carry battery packs, but those are more for emergencies. But actually boredom isn’t really an issue if you got the right company and are prepared for long distance traveling. It’s just that you could be so much more productive with steady power and an internet connection. But then again you would miss all the fun of the ride itself.

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Every stop of the Transsib is a welcome break to walk round a bit, experience the outside of the train and hunt for Wifi. The later isn’t as easy as in Moscow, where you found free Wifi at every second corner. Actually, outside of the towns you often don’t even get a phone connection.


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The train was actually quite good. When you think of the Transsib, you usually get the image of old well-used trains with a steaming samovar. This had a modern samovar, quite good banks/beds, an air-con and displays at each side of the hallway showing the next stop, the inside temperature and most importantly, if the restroom at that side of the hallway was in use or free. We got fresh sheets that came in plastic bags like you get your stuff on airplanes. The food in the dining car was good (but no caviar  for my pancakes), though, we mostly relied on snacks and something we could pour hot water over (our mothers would be so proud that we were cooking and eating well ). The crew spoke English good enough to get around and even a few word German. They cleaned the carpets every day and the restrooms all the time (you got the feeling they rush in to clean it, right after you leave).

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So all in all, the first ride on the Transsib was quite comfy. The only time where it got a bit stressful was for me, when I didn’t get back in time for the train to leave, so I had to jump onto a wagon at the end of the train. That one was behind the dining car, which was locked, so I had to convince the local conductor to let me through the wagon so I could get back to mine.

Irkutsk – Some kind of civilisation

We’ve finally arrived in Irkutsk. After a long trip on the Transsib, we switched from railway to hiking trail and took a extensive hike along the shores of Baikal Lake to Bolschoi Koty, a small rural backwater village on the banks of the lake. The day after that (kinda today) we spent there and now finally really arrived in Irkutsk by ferry. The weather began to suck when we were boarding the ferry and didn’t get better since. Our hostel didn’t have a free room, so they gave us a makeshift room in another hotel, which is kind of an upgrade, since it’s a four bed room all for ourselves. But tomorrow we’ll have to switch to our original hostel again. Yeah, it’s complicated. But having a shower and being online again is really a good start, so we won’t complain.

Tomorrow will be our only day in Irkutsk and we will try to make the best of it. We hope the weather/odds will be (ever) in our favor.

The posts about the first Transsib stage and Baikal Lake will follow, but for starters, have a life sign.

Hike to Bolschoi Koty

A Walk Through Moscow

Our day started with a walk in the park. Well, with the idea to have a walk in Gorky Park, but before we got there, we got sidetracked…

Ah, let’s make things short (this time for real): Headed out for Gorky Park, wanted to get a geocache before, saw the Monument of Peter the Great in the distance, went there, also discovered Muzeon Park of Art, took photos of many statues there, finally went to Gorky Park, enjoyed the time there, ate Shawarma, crossed the river, walked through urban Moscow back to Red Square, stopped at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, found other geocaches, bought T-shirts, got miss-led by metro signs, but arrived back at the hotel after using the correct station.

The whole day the sky was clouded, but it was okay, since it was said to clear up and let the sun shine through in the next hour… every hour.
(Insider für PH Kollegen: VNP-Stunde)

Tomorrow night we’ll board the Trans-Siberian for Irkutsk. So while we might try to post once more before we leave Moscow, don’t expect any updates for a few days.

Moscow – Izmailovsky Park & Kremlin in Izmailovo

Expecting bad weather, we wanted to do the outdoor part quickly and just headed to the Izmaylovsky Park, which is very close to our hotel. This is mostly a regular urban park, but has quite a few entertainment sites, ranging from simple playgrounds to performance stages. Music is played throughout the park, so all in all a fun, family friendly area. But shortly after getting that impression, we’ve been reminded, that we are in Russia at this little square.

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But there are of course other impressions as well.

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Seeing that the weather was still stable, we went into the other direction from our hotel and visited Kremlin in Izmailovo, which is part amusement park, but bigger part souvenir shopping area. They built a mock-up castle, that – if Russian architecture and fashion wasn’t actual so colorful and fancy – would seem like Disneyland. But since we are good tourists, we went there, took photos, bought souvenirs, ate at a Russian-Azerbaijani restaurant and enjoyed our stay.

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To end our activities for the day, we took the time to find the station from where we’re going to leave Moscow with the Transsib on Saturday.

And all day there was no rain. Hope that won’t get the better of us, like it did back in Hong Kong.

Oh and we stumbled across our daily Japanese surprise (which sadly didn’t have any Calpis). Looking forward to tomorrow.