My back jarred with every rut. The small Japanese saloon was poorly suited to Ulan Bator’s potholes, let alone the enormous bumps and holes over which we creaked in the Mongolian countryside. It was clear that at some point, the arid steppe climate had experienced some rain, and the trucks and 4x4s that had come before us had churned the mud into deep and now rock solid furrows. Having spent two nights tossing and turning on the train from Irkutsk, and a good nine hours hanging around at the border, I was beginning to wish I’d taken my chances with the pickpockets of UB (the guide book’s judgement, not mine!) and not been in such a hurry to get out of the city. It had its advantages though.
A 40-metre high statue of Chinggis Khan an hour or so out of the city posed serenely in the early morning dawn, awaiting its hordes of visitors once they had prepared their picnic lunches. We paused briefly to admire it by the roadside before moving onwards to tangle with a stray herd of cattle. After two hours, we reached the Steppe Nomads ger camp, where my Italian travelling companions alighted. For me, a half an hour jaunt across the fields would take me, jolt by painful jolt, to my nomad hosts, with whom I would stay the night.
The setting was idyllic. Enormous blue skies dwarfed the gers, the traditional Mongolian felt tents, perched halfway up the field; scrubby meadows led enticingly to deceptively distant mountains. I took in my immediate surroundings. Four gers, a 4×4 and, underneath the latter, three dogs snoozing in the early morning calm. A short way up the hill was a rustic corral containing a few horses, downhill, a couple of small paddocks for sheep and goats. In the distance, cows and horses roamed free, down by the River Khergen. A couple of other gers and a truck back the way I’d come completed the picture. It seemed wonderfully simple compared to the complicated life I lead back in the west.
The guest ger was beautifully decorated. Intricately painted designs on orange woodwork contrasted with the faded cream canvas of the ger’s exterior. Hot pink beds with carpet mattresses were pushed to the edge and a matching dressing table was festooned with family photos and mementoes. It seemed to me a fairly comfortable introduction to camping! My driver indicated that the small structure across the field that looked like a British Telecom workmen’s cocoon was actually the toilet.
On closer inspection, the structure was tall enough to provide sufficient privacy, the boards firm enough to avoid any hapless falls and there was even a shovel and some loose dirt by the side for me to cover my tracks. Having a wash was going to involve several kilometres of trekking down to the river, but I figured I’d already had two shower-free nights on the train, and, let’s face it, the horses weren’t likely to complain. I felt very smug.
And then I was served breakfast.
I struggle with a piece of toast some mornings, so my traditional Mongolian breakfast of sick on a plate was hard to stomach. In actual fact it was some kind of curd cheese, and to some palates, delicious I’m sure, but, for me, that morning, it was sick on a plate, served with small finger shaped pieces of lardy bread. The cinnamon tea was lovely though, so I drank plenty of that, forced down some bread and sick and finished off with a caramel flavoured boiled sweet which had been thoughtfully provided in a small dish. I felt terribly guilty for struggling with the food, as it was served by a delightful nomad lady with a squeaky voice and a smile as broad as the Gun Galuut horizon.
After breakfast, I grabbed my camera and headed up to the corral to watch the horses. I envisaged lounging by the fence, channelling Kristin Scott Thomas in the Horse Whisperer. Unfortunately, unlike in the States, these poles were not fixed and periodically they would be charged by the horses before they made a break for freedom and hurtled down the field. Not wishing to be trampled, but still wishing to be close enough to secure some decent shots, I kept one eye on the action and the other on the camera, as poles cascaded down around me. The young men of the nomad group had the difficult task of roping the horses and fitting their bridles ready for the tourists at Steppe Nomads to ride them later in the day. It was certainly no easy task. Even with their dexterity, lassoing the only semi-tame creatures was no easy task, and the animals’ mad eyes and toothy grins only served to add to the humour of it all from the bystander’s point of view. Many times I watched as the horses bolted and their would-be captors rode expertly after them to herd them back up the field. I’m not sure I would have neither such patience nor the perseverance, especially whilst being watched. I was reassured to see that the young girls at the nomad camp thought it was as funny as I did, much to the lads’ embarrassment. Eventually, to the relief of all those involved, sufficient horses were roped and galloped down the field at an impressively fast pace to meet their excited riders.
Watching the action is all very well, but I felt a bit uncomfortable being the outsider, and so came ten year old Tilly to the rescue. Her name was something much longer and infinitely more unpronounceable, so Tilly was settled on as a name we both could manage. Tilly set about making it her mission to teach me to play volleyball. “Gee-oo-lee-aah!” she would cry, lengthening my name so much that it seemed I had been re-christened especially for Mongolia. At regular intervals throughout the afternoon, she would call for me, and we would continue with her attempts to refine my awkward technique. “Yee-ess. Verrry good!” was the response I hoped for, though more often than not, she just collapsed in a fit of giggles and ran down the field after the stray ball. It was an ice-breaker, nevertheless, and I was soon adopted as the new friend, someone to show off to (but not to share with!) her younger brothers. Before I knew what was happening, I was carted off the field to help milk the cows. The nomad women (and tiny infant children!) made it look simple, but for me, the hardest part was balancing on the tiny wooden milking stool without toppling over and falling into the freshly dropped manure. Once I’d mastered that, milking was easy – if a little messy. Much the reverse of volleyball, it seemed.
By the time the tourists came up to visit on their horses, the latter looking much tamer than they had that morning. The Italians looked a little uncomfortable and slightly saddle sore. It seemed like forever since I had left them this morning and I was surprised at how easily I’d settled in to such an alien environment. Dinner was brought out – a watery but delicious mutton stew – and I savoured every mouthful. I helped to unload two horses from the nomad’s truck and watched, toddler on hip, as the farmer administered some medication.
Later we sat, watching the sun set and the stars brighten in the blackening sky, smiling contentedly and watching the animals settle in the paddock for the evening. It was clear to see that this was a tough life, but the community was close-knit, the scenery was world-class and I had laughed more than I had for a long time. Shower aside, did I really need any more than this?
During my recent trip to Georgia, I spent a day in the hotch-potch straggle of villages collectively known as Ushguli.
They’re reached by an apology of a road from Mestia, the main focal point of tourism in Svaneti. I shared a taxi with a couple of Germans to bounce and slide over gravel, in and out of potholes and scarily close to sections of road which had just fallen away. The road’s in the process of being rebuilt, so don’t let that put you off.
Ushguli translates as “fearless heart” which matches the reputation of the Svans historically being a fearsome people suspicious of incomers. Five villages form the settlement of Ushguli: Murkmeli which you pass as you go in, Chazhashi where your driver will park, and then higher up Chvibiani, Zhibiani and Lamjurishi, the highest of which claims to be the highest permanently settled village in Europe. It’s a slightly dubious claim, though, not least because geographers and other experts can’t even decide whether Georgia is European or Asian. (I’ll save that one for a later blog post.)
So what is it about Ushguli that makes it worth the arduous journey? Mostly, it’s the setting. Reached at the dead end of this rural road, all that stretches ahead of you are the few clusters of homes and Svan towers that constitute the villages and then meadows framed by the mountain peaks of the Great Caucasus. UNESCO have had Chazhashi on their list since 1996. Part of the attraction is just to find a quiet corner and sit. There’s also an ethnographic museum in one of the towers which is far more interesting than it sounds. Honestly. I’m no great fan of museums but it was good.
In Mestia, the person to find is the lady that sells the marshrutka tickets from her agency next to the bakery in the centre of town. She manages more of the drivers and you’ll wait for less time. A return ticket in a shared taxi costs 20 lari. Be prepared to negotiate how long a wait you’ll have in Ushguli with your driver. Tip: if you wish to spend more than a couple of hours, it’s worth popping into the restaurant he’s likely to have holed up in to make sure he’s not been knocking back too many beers.
Some of my favourite shots from the day:
If you’re planning a trip to Georgia – and you should – make sure you don’t miss Svaneti. You can stay in Ushguli and you can even do a three day hike there from Mestia in the short summer season. Or you can do as I did and base yourself in Mestia and visit Ushguli for the day.
On Tsitsernakaberd Hill, overlooking the city of Yerevan, you’ll find a pilgrimage site dedicated to the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide. Their harrowing story cannot fail to move you, as it did me.
I sit, alone. The music haunts every inch of stone and every speck of dust. The sound of violins, melancholic yet soothing, permeates the soul. I feel it. It seeps into my heart and as I focus on the flickering flame, I raise a hand to my cheek, wiping a persistent tear. A few sorry bunches of carnations have wilted where they were placed. Tall slabs of basalt crush the sunlight. The sky is obstinately blue but in here, inside the stone circle, it’s a place of shadows and ghosts. I’m shocked at the strength of my feelings. Until yesterday, I hadn’t been aware an Armenian genocide had taken place. And I’m ashamed of that.
A cleaner arrives with her broom and sweeps, rhythmically, until my attention is forced out of its sad reverie. She busies herself collecting dead blooms and rearranging those that will stay. A young man follows her with a camera, framing and reframing his shots. He clicks repeatedly but then he too is still. A family of five arrive, speaking Armenian, and pose in endless configurations for snapshots beside the flame. The emotion I felt is lost and I glance at my watch. The museum is open. I head inside.
I read, missing nothing, trying to make sense of what happened. In the late 19th century, Armenia was a divided country. The Persians had ceded territories to the Russians, who occupied what was then known as Eastern Armenia. Strategically important Western Armenia had fallen to the Ottomans in 1555 and over four centuries later, they retained control. War between the Russian and Ottoman Empires had torn Armenia apart. Armenians living under Turkish rule looked to the Russians for protection but though the 1878 Treaty of Berlin set out basic rights for Armenians they were not honoured. Amidst growing calls for independence, Sultan Abdul Hamid, the leader of the Ottoman Empire, tightened his grip on the dissenters. Words were banned: Armenia, rights, freedom.
To ban the word freedom is an alien concept. From my privileged life in a stable democracy, how could I understand?
Compelled, I read on. In 1895, 300,000 protesters were massacred in Constantinople in an attempt by Hamid to shut down the Armenian Question for good. It didn’t work. Nine years later, there was another uprising. The stability of the Ottoman Empire was under threat. In 1908, a political party called the Young Turks seized power. Their policy of the “salvation of the Turkish homeland” could only be achieved, they held, by the liquidation of the Christian population. Under their watch, anti-Armenian atrocities continued unpunished. A further 30,000 were killed in a market in Adana in 1909. Their treatment was horrific. Many were set alight or stabbed repeatedly. The backs of children’s legs were gored with cotton hooks leaving gaping holes. A series of photographs documented the horror.
I’m struck by the eyes. They stare, vacantly, yet implore those watching to act. But it’s too late. I’m a century too late.
World War One was to provide cover for the vilest act of all. A secret treaty was signed, allying the Ottomans with the Germans. Needing the support of its largely Islamic population to survive, the Turks proclaimed Jihad in an attempt to demonstrate their religious credentials. In October 1914, 60,000 Armenians were called up to fight, joining others already conscripted. They fought, bravely, at Sarikamish on the Caucasian Front under Enver Pasha, but were no match for the wintry conditions. The Ottomans suffered huge losses and 70,000 lost their lives. A scapegoat was required. The Armenians were that scapegoat. Soldiers who had fought alongside Pasha were killed on his orders. Afterwards, the Young Turks turned their attention to civilians, murdering politicians, clergy, intellectuals and other eminent Armenians. Mass arrests followed, in Western Armenia and Constantinople.
The Armenian family I saw at the memorial see that I’m making notes. It’s diaspora season and they’re from LA, bringing their children to the home of their ancestors for the first time. They ask if I’m a writer and if I’m going to write about this. I promise them I will, emotion choking my words. The mother hugs me, an unspoken thank you.
Unarmed Armenians in Ottoman territory were rounded up to be sent to the deserts of Mesopotamia and Syria, their property looted as they left. Men were separated and stabbed. Women, children and the elderly were spared, but instead driven south. On the way, their police and army escorts stood by and did nothing as bands of Kurds and Turks kidnapped and murdered the helpless. Those who did complete the journey ended up in concentration camps. In Rakka, Bab, Deir Ez-Zor, Ras Ul-Ain and Meskene, 600,000 endured horrendous atrocities. They were subjected to medical experiments, pregnant women were used for target practice, bare feet were shod as if they were horses’ hooves, children were burned alive or dragged behind horses until they died from their injuries. Rape was common. An estimated 600,000 lost their lives.
It’s hard to reconcile what I’m reading with the gentle and welcoming Turks I’ve met on my travels. I’m shocked to find I’m upset, not because I think it’s not worth getting upset about, but because at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, I haven’t been. Sobered, desperately sad, but not upset like this. The tragedy that befell the Armenians feels worse, somehow, because I wasn’t aware it had happened. I feel that in some way that means I’ve betrayed them.
On May 24 1915 France, Britain and Russia issued a joint statement condemning and declaring the Turkish government responsible for a “crime against humanity and civilisation”. After the war, the Young Turks were brought to trial. The key perpetrators – Mehmed Talat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal – were brought to justice and punished for what they’d done. Yet today, the mass extermination of Armenians isn’t acknowledged by all countries. Britain views what happened as a war crime and doesn’t recognise it as genocide.
I climb, slowly, from the bowels of the museum back up into the sunshine of the plaza, legs and heart heavy. Another tear escapes from my eye but this time, I let it fall.
To visit the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial it’s easiest to take a taxi. From Republic Square I paid 700 drams, just over £1. The museum is free to enter. Leaving, the unofficial taxis in the car park were asking for 2000 drams for the same ride. I walked down the hill and across the footbridge to the Dalma Garden Mall, from where I caught the #27 marshrutka back to Mashtots Avenue for a 100 dram fare. The bus stops right outside the Blue Mosque, also worth a visit.
The older I get and the more my knees creak, the more I need to research possible hikes before setting on to ensure I don’t end up with aching muscles or worse, being stretchered out. But no one, least of all me, wants to find out that they’ve missed out on superb scenery on a hike that would have been perfectly within their capabilities. So when I found out about a glacier accessible from Mestia on foot, I set about reading up. The trouble is, many of those who post are young and fit. Their definition of an easy hike isn’t necessarily what I’d call easy. So here are the facts about hiking to the Chalaadi Glacier.
You don’t have to walk all the way
Technically, the Svans consider this hike a 25km round trip. The official tourist board literature states the duration of the hike as being eight hours. That’s beginning and ending in Mestia and walking up the road past the airport until it runs out. Well, 25km would take me more than eight hours including collapses, even if much of it is fairly flat.
Keen not to have to quit before the good bit, I hired a lovely driver called Nodani. I found him in the main square in his adapted Subaru – look for the Subaru sunshield and a disabled badge in his rear windscreen. He agreed to drive me to the suspension bridge that crosses the River Mestiachala. It costs a flat rate of 80 lari (about £26). It’s also possible to rent horses, but they looked pretty frisky and once you pay for the guide too, it’s not a cheap option.
Allow time to enjoy the hike
Most people book a two hour gap between rides; I made it three so as not to have to rush. I was keen to take the hike at a steady pace and allow enough time to appreciate my surroundings. I thought I’d make an afternoon of it but in actual fact got back thirty minutes ahead of schedule. No biggie: there’s a cafe at the bridge where I waited for Nodani to come and collect me.
You won’t get lost
A concern if you’re hiking solo, as I was, is getting lost. Most trails are marked but the frequency of such signs can be less than you need. Not so here, where they’ve helpfully painted red and white rectangles on assorted rocks and tree trunks. There was even an arrow cut into the tree trunks in some places. It was very clear which direction you needed to take, so you won’t get lost.
The uphill bits were a bit of a slog
Remember, I’m no athlete. If you are reasonably fit, then this will be a piece of cake. But the altitude at the river is around 1600 metres above sea level, rising to about 1920 up near the glacier. If like me you live at sea level, the thinner air won’t help either. But it’s shady amid the trees and where the route passes through the forest, you’ll see plenty of pretty flowers and lichen covered rocks.
The path wasn’t difficult to navigate as the stones formed a natural staircase. I took frequent rests and carried plenty of water. Further up, heavy rains a few days before my hike meant the water was running high and parts of the path had turned into a shallow stream. Luckily it wasn’t deep enough to leave me with wet feet.
You have to cross a boulder field
About halfway to the glacier, you reach an area where rockfalls have created a big obstacle. Boulders of various sizes lie piled up. Some are steady, others move disconcertingly beneath your feet. I fell foul of such a hazard when I hiked one of Sweden’s High Coast trails last year and ended up with a nasty cut and bruised elbow. There are also deep gaps between some of the stones, meaning a misstep would leave me with a twisted ankle or worse. This was the scariest part of the hike, more so on the way back down as higher up the slope I could hear rocks falling. Fortunately I managed to cross without incident and didn’t end up a casualty of a rock avalanche. You’ll need decent boots though.
You can cut out the very top part of the hike and still see the glacier
Once you’ve successfully negotiated the boulders, the path is an easy one and leads to a flower strewn meadow by the river. Here, you get a fabulous view of the glacier itself and in its mountain setting, it really is a spectacular view. Turn around, and you’ll see mountains behind you too. Unless you’re really dead set on touching the glacier, you’ll be scrambling over terminal moraine to get any higher. Personally, given the timing of my visit in early summer when the ice is melting and there’s a real possibility of being hit by falling ice or rocks, I didn’t continue. If you carry on, as many do, it’s advisable to use walking poles.
Is it worth it?
That’s a resounding yes! If the weather’s playing nicely as it was during my visit, it’s hard to imagine a better way of spending an afternoon. But to maximise your time spent at the scenic parts of the trail, I’d definitely advise hiring a driver for that dull airport road.
It’s been a long journey involving an overnight train and a four hour ride in a marshrutka, but I’ve finally reached Svaneti. My base is in Mestia and I’m writing this holed up on the hotel balcony overlooking three of the famous towers that dot the village. The birds are chirruping and the neighbour’s dog is letting me know if anyone walks up the rutted and very steep road that joins us to the main drag. The sun is valiantly making an attempt to break through today’s persistent low cloud, but tomorrow’s forecast promises sunshine and blue skies.
I spent yesterday travelling along the Georgian Military Highway, the route linking Tbilisi to the Russian border. The epithet “military” conjures up all manner of images, but you won’t see tanks or soldiers, just great scenery. I travelled with Envoy Tours in the capable hands of their guide Beqa. He was great fun, doing everything he could to ensure my Singaporean travelling companion and I had a fun day. From tour guide to chef to toastmaster, there was nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to.
Our first stop was on the edge of the Zhinvali reservoir built in the 1980s to supply water to Tbilisi. It’s a picturesque addition to the landscape, though one that necessitated drowning several villages. The water level was high enough to conceal them yesterday, but when the water level is low, sometimes the tops of churches can be revealed.
We skirted the edge of the reservoir to reach the fortress complex of Ananuri, where they were selling these fabulous sheepskin hats. Once, there was just a tower here on a hillside; now there’s a cluster of buildings with defensive towers and a 17th century church featuring ornate carvings.
It was the first time I’d been asked to wear a skirt over my trousers as well as the headscarf I’d been expecting. Not the most elegant of looks, of course, but when you’re in someone else’s country you play by their rules. Inside the church walls bear a few faded but interesting frescoes. When Georgia was under Russian rule the frescoes were whitewashed and are slowly being restored.
While the tallest tower was off limits, it was possible to climb the smaller one. I’ve no head for heights, so the narrow, worn steps missing a handrail had my heart missing a beat. With plenty of encouragement, my two younger companions got me to the top. Inside, each level was surprisingly spacious, with a fireplace and plenty of room to live. These towers would have been hiding places when the area was under attack. The castle’s dungeon was quite claustrophobic in comparison.
Heading north from Ananuri, the road took us past the ski resort of Gudauri and over the 2379m Jvari Pass. Next stop was the Georgia-Russia Friendship Balcony.
Our guide, no fan of Russia, was quick to point out that it was built in 1983 when Russia was still in charge and Georgian independence was eight years off. Despite its name, the monument was very tastefully done and its multiple balconies were perfect for capturing a shot of the dramatic mountain scenery which formed its backdrop.
Our last port of call was right near the Russian border near the town of Kazbegi in a little place called Gergeti. Lunch had been arranged: my first experience of a Georgian stupa or feast. First, though, we had to make the local dumplings known as khinkali. Pastry had already been made and rolled; a spicy lamb filling had been preformed. All we had to do was assemble it, which involved lots of pinching of pastry and some rather dodgy looking shapes. Our hostess demonstrated a far higher level of skill, putting together a double decker khinkali quicker than we could pick up our cameras. They were delicious, though I resorted to using a fork instead of eating them the traditional way – bite off the top, drink the juice and then munch on what’s left. Beqa proved to be a good toastmaster too, ordering us to raise our glasses at regular intervals through the meal to God, peace, ancestors and women.
A hike had been planned. The Tsminda Sameba church, also referred to as Holy Trinity, is perched high on the mountain pastures above Kazbegi. Apparently there was once a cable car (those Russians again!) but the locals were none too impressed at having a sacred place defiled so they tore it down. A bumpy road led up to the church, but, said Beqa, it didn’t take much longer to walk up. Yeah right, if you were a goat maybe. The others walked, but told me later – as I’d suspected – that the path was pretty much straight up to the church and not an easy hike.
I took the minibus option, to my later relief, though that in itself was a hair-raising experience. Deep ruts characterised the gravel track for much of its length. In a couple of places the road had fallen away altogether. At the top, heavy rain made the pastures soft. I held my breath as we screamed across the grass, deep in some other vehicle’s tracks. How we didn’t get bogged down I don’t know. That fate was to befall someone else later, much to everyone else’s amusement.
The church was as impressive as its setting, though cloud obscured the 5047m Mount Kazbek which can be seen on a clear day. Inside simple candles stood in sand illuminated the icons and other works of art that adorn this simple church. Despite the constant tramping of tourists’ feet (including mine, of course) it had a spiritual feeling, perhaps not surprising as it is a working church to this day. The forecast rain that had held off all day materialised while we were at the church and so we all headed down by minibus. Come down on foot when it’s slippery like that and you may as well be on a toboggan.
For more information on Envoy Tours and to book this Embracing Georgia tour, please visit their website:
I’m not Asia’s greatest fan. Though you’ll find some of the world’s most fascinating natural and cultural sights, I find it irritating that they’re buried amidst jumbles of telephone wires and that reaching them often involves darting out in front of more motorbikes than it should ever be possible to encounter on one road. Nevertheless, I enjoy reading about the place, when I can filter out the bits that I don’t like to be left with a vibrant and enticing locale. There are exceptions, however, and one is most definitely Sri Lanka. I visited last year and cannot wait to return.
The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries
It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, to learn that one of my choices is a work of fiction. The story is enthralling but most of all, it captures the essence of the country in which it’s set. Here’s one of my favourite descriptions from the book:
“She took a deep breath of what she’d expected would be salty air, and marvelled at the scent of something stronger than salt.
“What is that?” she said as she turned to look at the man, who, she rightly sensed, had not shifted from the spot.
He paused and sniffed deeply. “Cinnamon and probably sandalwood.”
“There’s something sweet.”
“Jasmine flowers. There are many flowers in Ceylon.”
“How lovely,” she said. But even then, she knew it was more than that. Beneath the seductive scent there was an undercurrent of something sour.
“Bad drains too, I’m afraid.”
She nodded. Perhaps that was it.”
For some reason, though this scene takes place in Colombo, it feels to me like it should be set in Galle Fort. Quite possibly that’s because I grabbed the first train out of Colombo to head for the hill country and quite possibly because Galle Fort oozes history, spice and sewage from every cobblestoned street.
Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson
My next choice focuses on an Asian country I also love: Japan. Travelling through Japan ought to have been a challenge, what with the different alphabet and all, but the Japanese go out of their way to make sure they can understand you, even if the conversation can get a little stilted. Here’s the author on the art of Japanese conversation:
“This was conversation by Non Sequitur and I was thoroughly familiar with it by now. The trick was to answer with equally arbitrary statements, until you sound like a couple of spies conversing in code.
“Yes, I can eat Japanese food. Baltimore is very big.”
“How long will you stay in Japan?”
“Until tomorrow, forever. It is very cold in Baltimore.”
He shook my hand. We smiled warmly at each other, clearly this was an International Moment.”
Fortunately, when I reached Kyushu, the lady in the tourist office at Yanagawa defaulted to technology when she realised our language abilities were sorely lacking. Video conferencing with a disembodied head on her computer, I was able to secure a map and a recommendation for lunch. The head seemed very disappointed that I had no further questions and I felt guilty as I thanked it and headed off.
Three Moons in Vietnam by Maria Coffey
Years ago, I found myself sleeping in Michael Caine’s bed. He wasn’t in it, of course – of course! – but he had stayed in that same room and slept in that same bed while filming The Quiet American. The bed was located in Hoi An, in an old Chinese chophouse that had been converted into a guest house. Despite that it heaves with tourists (more so now, I understand, than when I was there) I found Hoi An to be a wonderfully atmospheric place. Maria Coffey describes the place thus:
“It was no problem to while away some time in Hoi An. We explored the fish market along the river bank, where women vendors smoking fat hand-rolled cigarettes squabbled nastily and noisily with each other.”
I don’t remember any squabbling, but I do remember the noise.
Mirror to Damascus by Colin Thubron
On to the Middle East now, and a book set in a city whose history stretches back seven millennia, giving me hope that when the present conflict ends, the city will rebuild and restore. I visited shortly before the war kicked off and was enchanted by the place and its people. Clad in what felt like a mediaeval cloak, I marvelled at the Umayyad Mosque; free of my robes, I haggled in the tiny shops on Straight Street and never felt unsafe in the streets of its old town, even late into the night. In his book, Thubron tackles some of the city’s history:
“Some cities oust or smother their past. Damascus lives in hers.”
Here’s to when Damascus can live freely again.
The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames
My final choice is another reminder that time changes everything. Mention Baghdad now and the Iraqi capital is still, to many, a place that instils fear instead of hope. But less than a century ago in 1928, none other than Agatha Christie made the journey from London to Baghdad by train. Her route took her through Syria, where she frequently stayed at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo. (Rumour has it that this historic hotel, which I visited but didn’t overnight in, has so far survived the war almost unscathed.)
Eames quotes the 1928 edition of the Thomas Cook handbook which “advises customers packing for Syria that “There is nothing better for travelling than a suit of Scottish tweed, supplemented by an ulster or other warm overcoat and a good waterproof.” The author had probably never ventured further than Ramsgate.”
Times change and for some places, that’s a good thing.
I love a good train trip and the ultimate in rail journeys has surely got to be the Trans-Siberian in some form or another. If you’re thinking of crossing Russia by train, I’d suggest doing some background reading beforehand to get your head around what seems like a complex trip but in reality is more straightforward than it looks.
What is the Trans-Siberian?
Some people wrongly believe that the Trans-Siberian is one single luxury train. It’s not. It’s one of several long distance routes that stretch across Russia. Generalising a little, there are three main routes: the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian. Following each of these routes, it is possible to travel on a single train, but most people stop off along the way to explore some of Russia’s great sights – and see something of Mongolia and China as well, perhaps.
How long will I need?
To follow the classic route from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east without stops will take 6 days. If you plan to do this, you’ll need to book the Rossiya train (number 1 or 2 depending on the direction you take). Extending your journey , you could begin (or end) in St Petersburg rather than Moscow, which are connected by an overnight train taking about 8-9 hours, or the high speed Sapsan train which covers the distance in about 4 hours. Personally, I’d allow at least a couple of days to scratch the surface of Moscow or St Petersburg, though it’s easy to spend more time in either. To cover the whole route with a few meaningful stops, it’s best to allow a couple of weeks, more if you can. And of course, you can do the whole trip overland with connecting trains via Paris and a route that takes you through Berlin, Warsaw and Minsk.
What was my itinerary?
Mine is, of course, by no means the definitive tour. On these three routes, it’s easy to tailor your journey according to your own personal preferences. I flew from London City airport to Moscow as at the time I booked, this worked out cheapest. When I planned my trip, I’d already been to Beijing, so I opted for the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, leaving the Trans-Siberian on the map above at Ulan-Ude and heading south to the border. Read more about Russia here:
I stopped at Vladimir (for Suzdal and the Golden Ring) and then Perm (to visit one of Stalin’s notorious gulags). I skipped the popular stop at Yekaterinburg for reasons of time, though I’d like to visit next time, making the journey from Perm to Irkutsk in one go (a little under three days and over 3000 miles) as I wanted to experience a multi-night trip. I think that was enough: though you can book itineraries which involve staying on board the train for longer, I was definitely ready to sleep in a proper bed after two nights on the train and it was an amazing feeling to luxuriate in a bath and soak away all that train grime and staleness. There’s only so much wet wipes and dry shampoo can achieve!
I had a couple of days at Irkutsk so I could visit Listvyanka at Lake Baikal. On a second trip, I’d build in more time here as it was beautiful – and frozen in winter, it must be a special place indeed. Reboarding a train, I crossed over the border to Mongolia. Having seen a little of the Mongolian capital I set off into the surrounding countryside for an unforgettable stay in a ger with the steppe nomads. Culture shock is an understatement! Read about it here:
I then retraced my steps to Ulan-Ude from where I caught a flight back to Moscow with budget airline S7 – a six and a half hour domestic flight which gives you some idea of the country’s vast size. This worked out considerably cheaper than finding a single leg fare to Moscow and home from UB. In all, the train tickets cost me about £500, with flights adding about £350 to the total. In all a couple of weeks’ holiday cost me around £1500 including basic hotels, meals and sightseeing.
Is it easy to do as an independent traveller?
Yes and no. I’m a big fan of independent travel, not only for the cost savings, but also for the flexibility it gives me to tailor the itinerary to suit my exact requirements. But I’m also not a Russian speaker and I felt I needed support with the booking process to ensure I ended up with the right tickets for the right trains. As you can see from the ticket below, it’s not at all easy to understand not only a different language but a different alphabet as well.
Due to the complexities of the railway ticketing system plus visa considerations, I decided to use a single specialist travel agent for those two aspects of my trip. As is my usual style, I booked my own flights, accommodation and most of my sightseeing myself; the exception was a private tour to Perm-36 Gulag which I also outsourced. I used a UK-based company called Trans-Siberian Experience (https://www.trans-siberian.co.uk) who were very efficient and helpful. The day trip was a 260km round trip from Perm, customised to my personal requirements and cost £170, the most extravagant part of my trip but more than worth the outlay.
The company I used at the time was Real Russia.
Their website has a dedicated Trans-Siberian section which enables you to check train times, suss out possible routes, check prices and order visas. It’s clear and in my experience the support offered by the team was excellent. All my tickets were sent in good time with English translations, the visa process was uncomplicated and every aspect of the trip that they’d arranged went according to plan – which was more than could be said for some of my own bits:
Since switching careers, I’ve done a lot of work for Just Go Russia, another London-based agency specialising in Russia, and they are always extremely efficient. If you’re looking for a tour, they do offer a wide range of options. You can find them here:
Even if you don’t end up booking a tour, it’s a good way of getting an overview of the route and whittling down the options about where to stop off. Another source of information is The Man in Seat 61, my starting point for every train trip I’m planning outside the UK. There’s a good overview here:
What’s it like on the train?
Each of the trains I took was a little different. I “warmed up” on the short leg from Moscow to Vladimir and this was a regular seated train. That took away some of the nerves about checking I was on the right train, right seat and so on, without the worry of a missed long distance connection. From Vladimir heading east, some of the long distance trains leave in the middle of the night, so I opted for one departing early evening which arrived after lunch the following day. The overnight trains varied considerably in terms of speed and quality, something that is reflected in the price.
Another thing to factor in if travelling in Russia’s hot summer is that the air-conditioning is turned off when you stop at the border and the windows of such carriages don’t open; more basic trains have windows that can be pulled down to let in a breeze. (In winter, in case you’re wondering, the trains are heated, so prepare to swelter on the train and freeze on the platform.)
Some compartments featured luxury velour seating, others were more basic, such as the one I travelled on from Perm to Irkutsk. In my opinion, that didn’t really matter as I followed the lead of my compartment companions (all Russians) and stretched out on a made bed all the way rather than converting it back to a seat. When I did the Irkutsk-UB leg, the train was more luxurious, those sharing the compartment were all tourists like me and we all sat up during the daytime. To be honest, I liked the local approach best.
In all cases, I opted for second-class tickets which provided comfortable accommodation though no en-suite facilities. The logic to this was that as a solo female traveller I didn’t want to be alone in a compartment with a single man and the first-class compartments came as two-berth not four-berth kupe. I shared with three men from Perm to Irkutsk but as everyone sleeps in their clothes nothing untoward happened and actually I was well looked after by one of them in particular, a Russian army officer heading on to Chita.
Border crossings can be daunting, but knowing my visas and documentation were in order was helpful. Formalities vary and the immigration officials will make it clear whether you are to remain on board or not. It is normal for them to take your passports away; that can feel stressful but having a photocopy of your papers is a comfort. Note that the Chinese trains run on a different gauge so the carriages have to be lifted onto new bogeys.
What should I pack?
As you are likely to sleep in your clothes then picking something comfortable like jogging bottoms and a loose T-shirt is a good idea, though clearly you won’t win any fashion awards. Who cares? I found it helpful to pack changes of clothes (socks, underwear and T-shirts) in a day pack so I could store my suitcase under the bed and forget about it.
In terms of footwear, most of the locals seemed to favour blue flip-flops with white socks. Slip on shoes of some form are convenient to help keep your bedding free of dust picked up from the floor. The provodnitsa, or carriage attendant, will come round with the vacuum cleaner each day and will chastise anyone who’s made a mess, so keep the compartment clean.
It’s a good idea to book a lower bunk as you are then sleeping on top of your bags, affording grreater security than the open stow holes up top. It’s possible to lock the door from the inside, but not from the outside, so when you visit the bathroom it’s reassuring to know that your belongings are out of sight. Having a small handbag to carry passport, money and other valuables – like train tickets! – was also helpful. When I’m travelling by overnight train I always take a lockable, hard shell wheelie; it’s narrow enough to wheel down train corridors and light enough to lift from the platform, but also more robust than a slashable canvas bag. A determined thief will steal or break into anything, so it’s about making yourself a more difficult target than the next passenger.
When I travelled, the bathroom facilities were pretty basic so I would definitely recommend taking lots of wet wipes and also a can of dry shampoo. It’s amazing how clean you can get yourself in a small cubicle with just a small sink. These days, most Russian overnight trains have a special services car with a pay-to-use shower which would have been great. You do need your own towel, but I use a special travel towel which folds up small and dries fast. I won mine in a competition but you can get something similar here:
In terms of sustenance, the provodnitsa also keeps a samovar boiling from which you can get hot water to make tea, noodles or soup, so I packed some of these too. Some were more accommodating than others; if you get a grumpy one, she’ll lock her door or disappear for hours at a time. I was lucky to have a smiling provodnitsa on my longest leg, which made a difference. The Russians travelled with plenty of food which they generously shared, most memorably omul, a kipper-like smoked fish common in Siberia.
There’s a restaurant car as well and at station stops, despite the queues there was often enough time to nip off to buy food from the platform vendors, so carry enough small change for these kind of purchases. Finally, it’s a long way. Although batteries can be charged (though sometimes in the corridor on older trains) I’d pack an old fashioned paperback to read or carry a pack of cards to entertain yourself. Take family photos – in my experience it’s true that Russians love to share theirs. It’s also true that a bottle of vodka can break the ice though some compartments sounded more raucous late at night than others – the luck of the draw! I also had a copy of the Trans-Siberian Handbook (as opposed to the Lonely Planet which I would usually take) because the level of detail about what you’ll see out of the train window was much better.
Anything else I should know?
One of the things I was most worried about before I set off was missing a train or missing a stop. In the event, neither of these were an issue. At the station, huge signboards helped identify where the train might pull in and showing the ticket and smiling a lot got me escorted to many a carriage door. Pretty much without exception, I found the Russian railway staff very helpful. The trains used to run on Moscow time which could be a little confusing at first, but there are timetables up in the corridors and even on the longer legs I usually knew roughly where I was. Since summer 2018, they’ve switched to local time and are showing both times to help ease the changeover.
A phrase book helped me decipher the Cyrillic alphabet; my technique was to focus on just the first two or three letters rather than trying to remember the whole name. Thus Suzdal became CY3 etc. The train provodnitsas were very good at giving their passengers plenty of warning when their stop was imminent and so I managed to get across Russia without incident.
I never felt unsafe during my trip but I would say that you need to be a bit savvy when it comes to your valuables. Keep your passport and money with you, don’t flash around expensive cameras or laptops but equally, don’t get too paranoid.
Would I do it again?
Yes! The scenery at times was monotonous but that was missing the point. The adventure was in the interactions with people on the train; the sightseeing came after I alighted at the station. Next time I think I’ll begin in St Petersburg, detour to Kazan and make that visit to Yekaterinburg before heading east to Vladivostok. Now where did I put that Trans-Siberian handbook?