A Steppe Too Far – Moscow to Ulan Baataar.

02.03.2020 Berlin.

Cutting it very close, the Mongolian Embassy came up with their final question about which COVID-19 infested countries I had been to in 2020. They had already asked me to write statements about my travels to China, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Fortunately these were all in 2019. Now over the phone, with my visa agent standing outside the embassy, they asked if I had visited Iran this year. I was happy to say no and I was then told I could collect my passport. This was just hours before it would have been too late to travel to the start city of the trip in Moscow. H and I celebrated and got into the swing of things in a Russian restaurant in Berlin-Charlottenburg called “Samowar” where we sampled the borscht, stroganoff and vodka.

03.03.2020 Berlin to Moscow.

Final packing in the morning and Steffi came by to take us to Tegel. We had a lot of time to spare as the taxi drivers were having a strike and we wanted to get ahead of the disruption. They were complaining about Uber and other services taking business away from them. The answer for you drivers is: give people a price upfront; don’t take people who are unfamiliar with the city on magical mystery tours and don’t add made-up charges. Then I, for one, would be more likely to take a regular taxi in the future. The “Knowledge” is an anachronism now and anyone with a phone can easily see what is going on.

We arrived at a cold an damp Moscow Vnukovo Airport and slipped through immigration on the end of the “diplomatic passports only” line getting ahead of hundreds of what looked like Cossack tribesmen getting a good grilling by the officials and getting temperature screened. We then jumped in a car from the local version of Uber called Yandex. H has a thing about views from hotel rooms and we are staying in the Baltshug Kempinski for a few days which has insane prices but we have probably the best view of St. Basil’s and the Kremlin in the city.

04.03.2020 Moscow.

We walked across the Bol’shoy Moskvoretskiy Most bridge next to the hotel and we were right at St. Basil’s Cathederal and we had a look around inside to the sound of Gregorian chants from a trio of singers.

Another short walk and we called in to see Lenin on Red Square. This is a very creepy setup. The guy has been on public display since 1924 and is under a red/orange light like a rotisserie. He looks good but is presumably mostly waxwork these days. The lines were too long to visit the last time I was in Red Square.

Onward to the Kremin Armoury. Lots of the empress’s dresses and furry hats for H and coaches and weaponry for me. Later we had an early dinner at the legendary CafĂ© Pushkin. It has nice Russian food and the place is old and atmospheric but the legend only goes back to 1999 when the restaurant first opened.

Then, as no trip to Moscow would be complete without a visit to the Bolshoi Theater, we went to a ballet there in the evening called the Bright Stream by Shostakovich. Not really our thing but we tried.

05.03.2020 Moscow to Sudzal (219 km from Moscow) to Moscow.

We took a train from Kurskaya station and went for a couple of hours to the town of Vladimir. From there we got another Yandex through a bleak snowy landscape to the town of Sudzal. Sudzal is almost like a theme park for Orthodox churches. There are a large number of them and mostly with shiny gold onion domes. Car and train back to Moscow by evening. It was a taste of train rides to come.

06.03.2020 Moscow and train towards Kazan

To get in the mood for Siberia we went to the State Museum of GULAG’s History. Very depressing and a bit light on finger-pointing in my view. This was followed by a session in the swanky GUM shopping mall. Once a place where only foreigners and high government officials could buy stuff.

Then we were off to the train station to continue our journey east. We had a two-berth sleeping car for an overnight to the city of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan.

07.03.2020 Kazan (822 km from Moscow)

It was very cold early in the morning, with a grey sky and grey slushy snow but fortunately our hotel (the Marriott at Kazan Kremlin) let us check in early so we could nap and shower before exploring. We found a restaurant doing Tartar food for lunch which was nice. We were persuaded to have chak-chak for desert. No idea what it is but you see it everywhere. Then we went on to look at the Kazan Kremlin. It was the usual collection of Orthodox churches and this being Tartarstan, there was also a large mosque. You can see the huge, partly frozen Volga river running along one edge of the city but we didn’t get close enough to dip our toes in.

08.03.2020 Kazan and train towards Ekaterinburg

We got on a bus for a slow tour of the streets of Kazan and took a look at a mildly tacky Tartar village theme park. The streets are generally a bit muddy when not frozen and I suspect muddy becomes dusty in the summer.

Then it was off to Kazan-2 railway station. This is a station on the opposite side of the city from Kazan-1 where we arrived yesterday. This train was the best we could get but significantly scruffier than the Moscow-Kazan train. The sleeping compartments are 4-berth. H bought all four beds so we didn’t have the danger of sharing with any travelling livestock. It seemed to work. These trains are very battered and with gruesome toilet facilities and you need all the comfort you can get in the early days of exile in the east. Crossing between wagons is an experience. The gaps in the rusty metalwork may be too small to allow you to actually fall through onto the tracks below but the icy wind howling between the doors doesn’t give any sense of security.

The landscape through the train window is becoming much snowier and empty looking. It’s not even Siberia yet.

09.03.2020 Ekaterinburg (1,814 km from Moscow)

The train pulled in early in the morning in sub-zero temperatures. We checked into our hotel, the Tsentrainy, and had a shower and breakfast to recover from the train. The hotel is somewhat historic and hosted Fidel Castro in 1961, probably in our suite.

By mid-morning we trudged out through the slush and sleet towards the magnificently named Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russia Land. This is an Orthodox church build on the site of the Ipatiev House where the Romanov’s were gunned down and bayoneted in 1918. The church itself looks convincingly medieval but was actually finished in 2003.

We had a nice lunch including smoked Baikal omul fish and locally made pates at the excellent Pashtet restaurant.

10.03.2020 Ekaterinburg to Tobolsk (2,367 km from Moscow)

In the morning we trudged out through the muddy snow to Ekaterinburg’s Literary Quarter. It was a bit of a disappointment but a few old houses where Urals writers used to live was never going to have us on the edge of our seats. Walking back towards the center, we stopped at a big building called the Visotsky which was just across the street from our hotel. It’s one of the few big buildings in the city and we went up to the observation deck on the 52nd floor for a good view of the slushy streets and frozen lakes. Further down the building we found a restaurant for lunch. I had mackerel and smoked potatoes. Can’t say I’ve had smoked potatoes before but I can report they are tasty.

For the evening’s entertainment we went to the Ural Opera & Ballet Theater for a spectacular performance of Puccini’s Turandot. Russian’s are big on opera and the prices for seats are very low. We had a box to ourselves for next to nothing. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay to the end as we had the Trans-Sib waiting for us at the station to take us to Tobolsk overnight.

11.03.2020 Tobolsk and train to Omsk

Tobolsk station is a long way from the town which was probably a cheaper option for the Trans-Sib planners. A long taxi ride took us to the Tobolsk Kremlin area. Having huge bags with us and in need of a shower and breakfast, we checked into the Siberian Hotel just opposite the Kremlin. A throwback of a place with over-eclectic furniture but it was good for a day-time base while we explored. Our train onward to Omsk was in the evening so we never really slept in the room but it did keep us from freezing to death.

The Tobolsk Kremin, like most kremlins, is a sort of fortified hill with Orthodox churches and monasteries. There was something going on in the church while we were there with hundreds of Rasputin-like clerics chanting and ringing bells. The interior of the church was amazing but as photos were not allowed, you will just have to take my word for it. We walked down a steep wooden staircase, called the Kremlin Ladder, down to the floodplain of the river below. There is a museum in a grand house where the Romanov family were held briefly in 1917. nearby there is an area of old dilapidated but colorful Siberian style shacks which must have been an eye-opener for the czar. Assuming he was allowed to wander.

12.03.2020 Omsk (2,711 km from Moscow)

We only had a couple of hours in Omsk and we used the time at the ornate rail station to use the “restrooms”. Not what you think as they are like hotel rooms with beds, toilets and showers. As with many stations there are stalls on the platforms selling smoked fish. Some of the fish are large sturgeon almost a metre long. We’ve not tried the fish for the train ride yet as the smell in a small sleeping compartment may be quite bad but closer to Baikal I think we will.

Leaving Omsk we were soon in the endless snowy taiga forest which changes little for hundreds of miles and consists of clumps of silverbirch trees, flat open snow-covered plains and sometimes a small village of tiny wood houses. Mostly painted green for some reason.

By evening we pulled into the city of Novosibersk. We had four hours to kill so we went to a Siberian restaurant with some kind of German connection called Puppenhaus which did the usual smoked stuff including sturgeon and moose and there were local pates and mushrooms and cheeses which I’m sure they never tasted in the gulag system. They were also reputed to serve bear meat but fortunately it was not on the menu.

We, or actually H, have been scrambling to deal with the closure of the Mongolian border to rail traffic and the cancellation of international flights out of Ulan Baataar. Also we have visas that expire soon. Most international flights in Russia pass through Moscow and Moscow is now also now closed to people like us. We have found a flight out of Novosibirsk going to Prague which might work but first we are going to the Lake Baikal area and we are back on a train heading east to Irkutsk. This is the good thing about not using travel agents as changes of plan are easier.

13.03. 2020 Trans-Siberian, Novosibersk to Irkutsk (5,185 km from Moscow)

Two nights on the train rattling eastwards through Siberia. Vodka helps. We found out that the Novosibersk-Prague-Berlin escape route is not going to happen as the Czechs have closed their border. Plan B is now to fly Irkutsk-Moscow-Berlin. Moscow may be a problem but we will have been in Russia long enough by then to be considered as not coming from an infected area. Who knows. The world is going crazy shutting stable doors.

14.03.2020 Khuzir, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal (5,476 km from Moscow)

We arrived at Irkutsk rail station early in the morning stocked up on more vodka and jumped in a minivan for a 300 km ride to Khuzir. Out of the city the landscape was mostly open rolling steppe with brown grass mostly covered in snow and the occasional herd of hungry looking horses. The steppe gradually gave way to more mountainous and tree-covered countryside as we approached Lake Baikal. Our destination was Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal but this is no problem at this time of year and our fairly heavy bus drove straight out on to the black glassy ice and raced a couple of kilometers over what, in the summer, would normally be very deep water to the island. Olkhon is not a small island either being over 70 km long and about 10 km wide with just dirt roads. About half-way up the island is the settlement of Khuzir where we booked a stay in a guesthouse.

We wandered down to the frozen lake and H spotted a small tatty hovercraft buzzing about which she flagged down and hired it. We had an hour or so racing up and down the ice with our heads sticking out of the roof hatch and stopping at small islands and ice formations. We also stopped a few times for some repairs to the hovercraft. On the way back to our room we found a restaurant in town to have dinner but they didn’t have much. Just some local dim-sum like meat dumplings and black tea. Still peckish, we bought a smoked Baikal omul from another shop and made our room a bit smelly carving it up. An omul is a relative of salmon and the main commercial catch in Baikal.

15.03.2020 Olkhon Island

After breakfast we were picked up in a Russian UAZ 4×4 for a tour to the northern part of the island. The driver/guide only spoke Russian but fortunately we shared the tour with a Russian-speaking Kazakh-German lady who translated into German and H translated into English for me. A bit humiliating but it worked.

We drove out onto the ice and headed northeast a good distance off what would normally be the shore of the lake. Apart from the black ice and thin snow covering, the ice develops some fantastical formations where water and thinner ice have crashed onto the rocks during storms before the lake water has frozen to a driveable thickness.

For lunch our driver, Ivan, lit a fire on the ice and cooked up a bucket of excellent potato, meat and onion soup with liberal servings of vodka drunk out of carved blocks of ice. There were many stops at ice caves and icicle formations. On the way back to Khuzir, Ivan took the three of us to admire his new log-cabin home and drink tea.

There is now no possibility of wandering the Gobi desert next week as originally planned and we are going to try to head back towards Berlin in the morning before our visas expire. We now have a reservation for new flights and hopefully it will just be a simple return drive across the ice to Irkutsk, a flight to Moscow then another flight to Berlin. No guarantees though.

16.03.2020 Baikal to Irkutsk

Our bus arrived in Khuzir to take us back to Irkutsk but seemed not to have heard of our reservation as it arrived already stuffed with locals with no space for us and no room for our bags but with a little pushing a shoving we eventually squeezed our way in for 300 km of a very uncomfortable ride on dirt tracks and across the ice of Lake Baikal and through the steppe back to Irkutsk.

In Irkutsk we took a look at the famous old British-built Angara icebreaker once used to take passengers across the Baikal in winter as part of the Trans-Siberian system and is now a museum. It was closed as it was Monday but it looked a bit scruffy from the outside. H then did a bit of shopping in town which seemed to be mostly jars of jam made from pine-cones. Only in Siberia. For dinner, by way of compensation for being thwarted from going to Mongolia, we went to a Russian-Mongolian restaurant in town and had an enormous meaty feast of Mongolian stuff washed down with Russian champagne. Overnight was in the Marussia Hotel in Irkutsk. A couple of hours sleep anyway.

17.03.2020 Irkutsk to Moscow and Berlin

We arrived at the airport extremely early in the morning expecting at anytime to be hauled off to the Gulag Covid-19 for a 14-day sentence but, even though I had some suspicious glances at my passport, all went well and we high-fived as we took to the air. A six hour Aeroflot flight to Moscow-Sheremetyevo and another three to Berlin-Schoenefeld and then we were home. It was quite possibly the last flight out of Moscow for anyone for some time. It wasn’t by helicopter from the roof of an embassy but it felt like that.

The Gobi Desert will have to wait for less infectious times.

No more vodka. Ever.