Our rail journey will start in St Petersburg then to Moscow and Yekaterinburg, across Siberia to Lake Baikal and Irkutsk. Into Mongolia to Ulaanbaatar and flying South to the Gobi, before returning to the train to conclude in Beijing.
  • Day1

    Almost ready.........

    August 26, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    It’s 24 hours until departure and we are now focussed on remembering everything we need to take with us (which we suspect is impossible!). Choosing what clothes to take is not such an issue it’s more about the other things that will make our time living on the train and in the Gobi Desert more comfortable (travel pillows, flasks, tea, coffee, sugar, milk, wet wipes, toilet seat covers, spare toilet rolls etc etc etc). Apologies in advance - this is probably not the last time you will see the word ‘toilet’ in our blog! Also critical is remembering all of the chargers for the range of electrical equipment we’re taking (3 iPads, 4 iPhones, camera, 2 kindles, 2 headphones, remote control etc etc) plus 6 battery chargers as there will be limited access to electric supplies at some stages. Later today we will have to pack everything into our two bags and hope that it all fits. Fingers crossed!

    A few statistics before we go. We will complete around 11,500 miles from start to finish, with over 5,000 of these miles on the train. Our longest single rail journey is a four day, 3,200 mile trip across Russian Siberia. We’ll be off to Heathrow tomorrow morning for our BA (help!!!) flight to St Petersburg departing 9:20am . We’ll keep in touch all the way.
    Read more

    Your link works no problem. Bon voyage John and Janet, it should be an amazing trip! Fingers crossed BA don’t cock it up before you even leave the Uk. Will follow and look forward to your usual interesting and off beat experiences along the way Elaine and David x

    8/26/19Reply

    Four iPhones ? John E.

    8/26/19Reply

    Janet have you checked JT's excel spreadsheet depicting the cloths he is going to wear on each day, with options....these needed a few macros to get working effectively I believe.......safe travels

    8/26/19Reply
    11 more comments
     
  • Day2

    Welcome to Russia

    August 27, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    Well it’s a solid start to the trip. Taxi on time at 06:30, 20 minutes to Heathrow T5, a quick check-in then bacon rolls for breakfast in the BA lounge. Board and take off on schedule at 09:40. Settled down for a while and looked forward to lunch...... unfortunately BA thought it was too early for lunch so it was a second breakfast but with some ‘bubbles’ now.

    Arrived at St Pete’s Airport early at 13:40 local time. For some reason approaching Russian Immigration had an element of fear and trepidation (obviously seen too many films and read too many books) but all entry formalities were surprisingly undertaken without being interrogated by the secret police in a soundproofed room. In fact we were through Immigration in a world record two minutes.

    Over the next month we will be greeted by multiple drivers and guides holding up pieces of paper with our names on. In these situations there is always a bit of doubt that someone will actually be there (silent contingency planning is usually undertaken to avoid potential panic)... However, no fear, our first proper Russian, Nadiya, was there to meet us and whisk us to the Rossi Hotel in her Kia (is every other car in the world a Kia now?).

    On arrival at the hotel an exceedingly helpful doorman/concierge/bell boy named Vitaly was immediately on the scene and into the taxi boot making it abundantly clear that we weren’t allowed to touch our luggage at all as that was his job. A quick check-in and Vitaly, resplendent in his uniform of shirt, tie, waistcoat and interesting hat, was leading us to our very nice room which has a beautiful traditional Russian ceramic stove in the corner. Not that we’ll need it as its been 26°C here today! The riverside Rossi Hotel is very impressive in all respects and we are very happy here.

    Unpacked, relaxed, cup of tea, sorted out the internet, shower and ready for the first night out. Decided on a quiet one and researched some places within no more than 15 minutes walk from the hotel. Had our first Russian beers pre-dinner in the ‘Siberian Crown’ bar nearby, then a nice meal at ‘Ivan & Maria’s‘ topped off with a post-dinner nightcap at a well recommended little pub next to our hotel named ‘Top Hops’. All three establishments specialised in a large array of Russian and International draft and bottled beers which didn’t disappoint. Janet ended the day with a very apt beer named ‘J&J’ which was mandarin flavoured and weighed in at 6% whilst John closed the evening on a local 5% Milk Stout.

    Will talk more about St Petersburg soon but first impressions are very good indeed as we reflected before sleep on a surprisingly quick and stress free journey and promising start to the trip.

    After a decent sleep we awoke to the first minor issue. At lights out John heard the unmistakable sound of an angry mosquito in the room. Tiredness ensured nothing was done about this (not sure what could have been done anyway) but lo and behold the Russian bloodsucker had visited John in the night and got him in various places (ankle, elbow, back and a particularly nice one on his forehead - reminiscent of a visit to Venice on our round Europe train journey which some of you will remember!). It obviously either liked (or maybe didn’t like) Janet as she escaped bite-free. Maybe it was the mandarin in the ‘J&J’ that put her off.

    We’ve had breakfast and now await a hotel pick up from a guide who will give us a City Tour. Over the next two days we’ll get to know St Petersburg well and share it with you.
    Read more

    Mike Newman

    Now you know why immigration was so easy, they bugged you instead! Mike

    8/29/19Reply
     
  • Day4

    The World famous Hermitage Museum

    August 29, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    More quite serious stuff we’re afraid to say. This morning we had booked a three hour tour to the Heritage Museum, reckoned to be one of the World’s greatest Museum and Art Collections.

    Our tour commenced at 10am which is 30 minutes before the public are allowed in. This gave us a head start on the hordes and believe us when we say that we were soon joined by thousands of fellow visitors, including some huge groups from Cruise Ships and an appreciable number of kamikaze oriental herds (more of them in the next blog).

    The Museum is enormous with much of it housed in the Winter Palace. In three hours our guide Olga showed us (and an Irish couple) only a fraction of the exhibits however we managed to see all of the highlights, which after the State Rooms were art based. In terms of artists we saw examples of the World’s best including Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Rafael, Rembrandt, Goya, Velasquez, El Greco, Rubens, Van Dyck and Canaletto (plus the sculptor Michelangelo) to ‘name drop’ just a few.

    Here are some pictures of our visit.....
    Read more

    Zoe Karen

    Hoping you dont replicate this John

    8/29/19Reply
    John Townley

    Depends on tomorrow’s train journey Zoe but if I do you’ll be the first to see it!

    8/29/19Reply
     
  • Day4

    St Petersburg looking good

    August 29, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    So having had a half day City tour yesterday and a tour of the Hermitage Museum this morning we thought we’d cover these off in two (quite seriously - sorry), mainly pictorial blogs and then close St Petersburg with a final one about evening activities and other bits and pieces.

    St Petersburg was only founded in 1703 and was the Capital of Russia for two periods before power transferred permanently to Moscow in 1918. It has a population of over 5 million (2nd biggest in Russia) and is built on a number of islands hence the presence of rivers and canals all around and through the city.

    It is architecturally stunning. Just volumes of wonderful buildings constructed in the 18th, 19th and very early 20th Centuries and none more than a few floors high. There are literally no tower blocks to spoil the vista within sight of St Petersburg centre. No more history lessons just some photos for you.....
    Read more

    Never realised St Petersburg had so much cultural beauty. We both enjoyed the historical tour. We hear so much about it. Tommy B.

    8/29/19Reply

    By the way. Mossies are attracted to anything yellow Tommy B.

    8/29/19Reply

    Wow - that's not what I expected St Petersburg to look like at all

    9/10/19Reply
     
  • Day5

    Farewell St Petersburg. We loved you.

    August 30, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    It’s Friday morning and we’re writing this tidy-up as we travel to Moscow for the next leg of the journey.

    St Petersburg was absolutely wonderful and would be ideal for a standalone 3-5 day break, except for the fact that if you are British then the whole cost and hassle of a getting a Russian Visa is pretty prohibitive for a short visit (e.g. complex forms, fingerprinting in London, Manchester or Edinburgh). You would barely realise you were in the old Eastern Bloc as it feels like any other vibrant, bustling West European City full of bars and restaurants with plenty of grocery stores and bars open 24/7.

    By the way we must mention how lucky we have been with the weather for our three days in the City, as we have enjoyed a perfect unbroken blue sky and 26C daytime temperatures for our stay. This is well above the average for August here and a real bonus which looks like extending into Moscow.

    It is obviously a busy, growing tourist destination and as with other places we’ve been to over the past few years, the Chinese dominate. They are bonkers, travelling in big groups and dashing around photographing everything in their path and barging their way past anyone hindering their progress. They were at their most manic in the Hermitage where they were running between rooms trying to photograph as many of the three million exhibits as possible before they left, even if they didn’t have a clue what they were looking at.

    Speaking of the Hermitage we must thank our guide Olga who took us round and educated us on the exhibits. She is partially sighted, which would not seem ideal for a guide in an art gallery but it seemed to work well. Our other guide in St Petersburg was the red headed Ludmilla who facilitated the City Tour. A lovely lady who walked us for miles and kept us entertained and informed.

    We ate well and on Wednesday dined at an traditional Russian restaurant, Gogol, which was preceded on Tuesday by a modern Russian dining experience at the upmarket Hamlet & Jacks. We promise we won’t recount every meal (or photograph all of our dinners) however we feel we should mention the deconstructed Turkey Lasagne main course and desert of Beetroot cheesecake with gingerbread crust, baked potato ice cream and candied carrot, served at the latter. Both meals were accompanied by good Russian wine and were excellent.

    Now we had been warned in guide books and the internet that Russians will only ever drink Vodka neat and it is sacrilege to consider sullying it with another liquid. This did not stop John fancying and ordering a pre dinner Vodka and tonic at Hamlet & Jack’s. On receiving this request the waiter looked on, quite aghast, in a lengthening stunned silence seemingly providing John with an opportunity to change his mind and withdraw this embarrassment. He then asked for the order to be repeated and with a scowl told John ‘OK....we will make you a cocktail’. Lesson learned. We will now only drink neat Vodka for the rest of the trip. G & T is of course perfectly acceptable.

    So we expect you’re worried about John’s mosquito bites from Tuesday? Or maybe not...but the good news is that they cleared up quickly and that afternoon Janet saw the mosquito in the room and splattered it on the nice white net curtain. Problem solved, apart from the fact that when we went to bed that evening we saw another mossie and couldn’t catch it. Janet awoke the next morning to several bites so the insects must be working on a rota basis. This was proved as John then encountered a wasp sting on the arm as we waited to go into the Hermitage. We are now both OK until the next time.

    Finally it’s confession time. We are doing something which we are not proud of and, hypocritically, have ridiculed others for in the past and however hard it is to admit to our friends.....we have brought with us.........a selfie-stick! Please forgive us and try to understand why we have done it. We feel ashamed but somewhat easier now we have shared this with you.

    OK as mentioned we are on the train to Moscow. The Sapsan express is unlike any of the other trains we will be taking on this trip as it is a modern high speed shuttle between the two biggest cities in Russia and takes just 4 hours at up to 155 mph. Just to mention that after boarding the train it was 20 minutes to actual departure time and they played some relaxing music through the carriages. Not sure who chose it, however a playlist containing Away in a Manger, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Auld Lang Syne may not have been totally appropriate for the time of year!

    As we approach Moscow we’re on time for a 13:20 arrival and are excited at the prospect of reaching one of the World’s iconic capitals. They’ve put music on again and our train arrives to the unmistakable Summertime strains of ‘While Sheperds Watch Their Flocks at Night’.

    We’ll let you know how the second leg of our tour goes.
    Read more

    Bob Scott

    A selfie stick!! No!!

    8/30/19Reply
    John East

    Why no selfies amongst the photos?

    8/30/19Reply

    Fab! Fancy the beetroot cheesecake & baked tattie icream! I’d stick to the GnT tho to keep the pesky rusky mozzies away! X

    8/31/19Reply
    4 more comments
     
  • Day6

    The Hunt for Red Square

    August 31, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    So we left you on Friday afternoon as we arrived at Moscow Station. Despite the chaos that ensued around the platforms and concourse, we easily found our driver holding up our names and within 15 minutes we were in the Budapest Hotel (great location, big room, bit tired looking and the longest walk from the lift to our room you could imagine).

    We decided on a quick reconnaissance mission and within a few minutes had walked by the impressive Bolshoi Ballet and had an overview of Red Square and the Kremlin ahead of us. As we approached Red Square we thought something was amiss as the entrances were blocked off by security and no one was entering. To cut to the chase we discovered that there is an annual week long festival being held in the Square and it appeared that unless you had a ticket for an event then you couldn’t enter. Much disappointment, added to by the fact that we discovered tickets were required for the Kremlin too and that these would not be easy to obtain. As we only had 48 hours in the city it looked as if the two main sights of Moscow were unlikely to be visited.

    Anyway Central Moscow was absolutely buzzing with a young, wealthy, after work crowd. We had a good Friday night out, eating at a lively modern restaurant called Tehnikum whilst continuing to ponder on our misfortune (and in the case of the Kremlin poor planning - unusual for us!) regarding Moscow’s Tour highlights. We pretended to ourselves that it didn’t matter and consoled with another glass of wine.

    On Saturday morning we had a three hour City Tour booked and were met in reception by Tatiana. Before setting off we told her about our plight and she phoned her office about the potential for Kremlin tickets and drew a blank for the period we were in the City. There was however some light at the end of the Red Square tunnel, which was one of our first ports of call.

    Through tight security (a recurring theme across Russia so far) we were able to enter Red Square with Tatiana as we discovered it is only closed for specific events during the festival. The problem was, however, that the whole square was covered in a temporary stadium, stalls, cranes etc so you couldn’t actually view it in any recognisable form as a Square. But we were most definitely in it (tick that box!) and had access to view the main sights on the edge of the Square, including the quintessential, and incredibly impressive, onion-domed Saint Basil’s Cathedral.

    Tatiana’s tour was excellent and after Red Square and a few other sights she positioned us on a bridge over the Moskva River from where we had an excellent view of the vast Kremlin complex, home of the Tsars and Russian leaders of various persuasions over centuries. At least we’d seen it from the outside. As we closed the Tour at 1pm Tatiana suggested we had a look at the Kremlin ticket office in case anything could be done, although she said normally the queue was between 60 and 90 minutes to book for days ahead. A stroke of luck meant that due to a Remembrance event being held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the ticket office the area had been closed to the public all morning and had literally just reopened. Tatiana got in a quickly forming queue with us and within 20 minutes we had tickets in our hands for a 2pm same day entry into the Kremlin. We were very lucky and massive thanks go to Tatiana who gave up her personal time to assist us. I think she was more surprised than us that we were going in.

    After saying farewell to Tatiana we queued through another laborious security queue but we were inside the walls of the Kremlin and enjoyed the very impressive Armoury Museum (no photos allowed) and then all of the regal and government buildings, including Cathedral Square, which gives the Kremlin its iconic UNESCO World Heritage status.

    Somewhat exhausted by a full day on our feet we really enjoyed an hours rest back at the hotel. It was then out for the evening and we had booked a restaurant in another part of town named Chemodan, an old established Russian restaurant which came well recommended. It specialised in serving fare sourced from Siberia. We won’t go into too much detail of what was on offer in respect of meat and fish but we remained fairly safe with venison and polar partridge. It wasn’t cheap but the quality of food and service was immaculate as was the atmospheric dining room.

    Of additional interest to us was the table of two couples next to us and the two large black suited, white shirted, bald, unsmiling, mean looking, gentlemen who sat quietly on their own at a table in a dark corner. Janet noticed that these two had earpieces in and after they got the nod from their boss next to us at the end of the evening were standing to attention by the doorway, checking the exit and escorting the couples out to waiting cars. Proper bodyguards and we suspect something that is necessary for quite a few in this part of the world.

    After a taxi home we had a brief wander round the area of our hotel where the bars and restaurants were still busy and music was filling the street. We were absolutely worn out though and went to bed feeling we had just about managed to do Moscow justice in the time we’ve had. We’ll give you a summary of the City tomorrow. Sunday morning is packing time and preparation for our first overnight train journey...26 hours to Yekatinerberg.
    Read more

  • Day6

    Must Go Moscow

    August 31, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    Following our earlier blog here’s a Moscow pictorial bonus as we prepare to leave in a few hours time. Still sunny and 24C here but apparently raining and 9C on arrival on Monday evening in Yekaterinburg.Read more

    John East

    Couldn’t you have left the selfie-stick in Moscow !

    9/1/19Reply

    Surprise package Moscow. Got a lot to offer. Very impressed. Tommy B.

    9/2/19Reply

    DP - Looks like change of clothing will be required then??

    9/2/19Reply
     
  • Day7

    Moscow Station

    September 1, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    So just to close on Moscow we had a great time there, but it is quite different from St Petersburg, mainly because as the Capital of the Country with a population of 15 million Moscow feels so much busier and ‘in your face’ than the latter.

    Moscow certainly has a lot of money around. The sheer volume of designer shops, top end cars, expensive restaurants etc gives an indication of the wealth that now exists here. It looks like the younger set are now really enjoying the benefits of the new open Russia, as we saw how busy bars and restaurants were on the weekend evenings in the beautifully lit streets around our hotel. The pavements, buildings and public areas are all spotlessly clean and well looked after. No wonder the President is so popular.

    So we checked out of the Budapest Hotel (a plaque by the entrance commemorates the fact that Lenin stayed there twice...) having left our luggage earlier in the day with the worlds most miserable hotel doorman, a ranking that he is unlikely to lose whilst he is in employment!

    On arrival at the Moscow Station concourse we awaited the call to board our first journey on an official Trans Mongolian train, 26 hours to Yekaterinburg.
    Read more

    John East

    Great selfie. Where did you get the concierge uniform ?

    9/2/19Reply

    I know I'm a bit behind keep up with progress (excuse = on a strimmer handling course on Mon!) but have you got your first pot noodle rations standing by??? Djxx

    9/3/19Reply

    Tommy B. I'd be well screwed there.

    9/3/19Reply
     
  • Day7

    Our journey to Yekaterinburg

    September 1, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    Our train is called and we go through boarding formalities with our Providnista who is the lady who will look after our carriage for the next 26 hours.

    We’re pleased with our compartment. There’s no first class on this train so we have a four berth second class compartment booked for just us (i.e. we have bought four tickets for the journey). Most other couples are sharing and there is no doubt that spending 26 hours in a confined space would be an interesting way to meet total strangers, but certainly not for us! We are not sure that with us and our luggage there would be room for anyone else anyway!!

    Now our Providnista is a very important person as she is ‘Queen Bee’ and responsible for everything in our 36 berth environment for the next day. We have read much about the perils of upsetting these ladies, but ours appears to be very friendly and we established a smiley relationship with her from the start.

    She does not speak a word of English so we had a very interesting situation shortly after departure when she sat down with us holding a pen and paper and rattled off questions in Russian. Don’t ask us how we got there (iPhone translate assisted slightly) but we finally established that everyone in second class is entitled to either a complimentary dinner or lunch, however, as we had bought four tickets for the journey we would get both and these would be served to our compartment at 6pm and midday.

    Dinner came, airline style, and was OK with a salami starter and a chicken and rice main. John ventured 5 carriages down to the restaurant/bar car where he bought a couple of local beers to go with the food.

    As darkness fell we read for a while, enjoyed a couple of vodkas (mixed with lemonade - a secret! Don’t tell the Russians!) and then prepared the beds which were already made and cleverly fold down. Lights were off about 11pm and we both slept pretty well through to 7.30am. There were a couple of stops during the night including 40 minutes at the city of Kazan (6th biggest in Russia), but we weren’t disturbed much and the gentle rocking of the train on a comfy bed did the trick and we awoke for a nice cup of (English) tea feeling refreshed.

    Now after the Providnista the most important thing on the train is the Samovar, a piece of equipment housed in every compartment which provides a constant source of boiling water for travellers to use for tea, coffee, soups, pot noodles etc. These are a long standing tradition on Russian trains and the water is still heated by a coal burning boiler which sends the water through the carriages at over 100F.

    Life on the train during the day is enjoyable. Looking at the views of the countryside (no shortage of trees) and seeing village life passing by makes the time drift by. Most people leave their compartment doors open daytime so you pass acquaintances and are able to get a view on both sides of the train and stretch your legs. By the way, sorry to disappoint some of John’s friends, but the toilet is absolutely fine and kept spotlessly clean by our Providnista, with hot and cold running water.

    By the way, much to our surprise (following our negative pre-trip research), our compartment has it’s own power sockets so we have been able to keep all of our electrical devices fully charged up. We should mention that we had a real result at the beginning of the trip when we purchased Russian SIM cards for our old iPhones for £12 each - amazingly cheap. This will provide us with unlimited 3G internet throughout our time in the Country. Reception is intermittent away from civilisation but it has allowed us to keep in touch with home regularly via WhatsApp, FaceTime and email and even when we’re on the move.

    Lunch was delivered to our compartment at midday and what should it be.......surprise surprise, exactly the same as dinner last night, a salami starter and chicken with rice. Fortunately we had some mustard with us so mixed it into our meal to make it more palatable. Washed it down with a Budweiser (turn in your grave Lenin) as the only Russian beers left in the bar were a bit too strong for lunchtime drinking.

    Unfortunately the weather forecast has proved accurate and during our journey on Monday the blue sky gradually disappeared until by mid afternoon we were travelling through dark skies and steady rain. As we had unbroken sunshine for 6 days on arrival we will live with a couple of poor days and then hopefully things will pick up again as we travel further east across Siberia later in the week.

    Following lunch it was an afternoon coffee, Picnic bars (a real treat), a bit more reading and then our 26 hour journey was in it’s last couple of hours. Where has that time gone? Our first long train journey has been enjoyable and encouraging.

    Our arrival in Yekaterinburg is 30 minutes late at 8.45pm. We say goodbye to our lovely, but nameless, Providnista and look forward to a swift hotel check-in and quick turnaround before having a meal and drinks in town (we have plans on where to go). Then it’s two busy days of sightseeing before we board our next train.
    Read more

    Brings back memories of our first iron curtain train journey from Hook of Holland to Poland - only the samavar in our carriage was more decorative, if I accurately recall. Love the restaurant car - very 1930s looking. Djxx

    9/3/19Reply

    Bet you miss Greggs. Tommy B

    9/3/19Reply

    Tommy B. Thought the Urals was Russian for the Toilets

    9/3/19Reply
    2 more comments