scenes from a dream

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Tuul Riverside Lodge, Terelj National Park, Mongolia

Anyone who follows my Instagram account might have noticed the glut of posts I made over December as I finally fulfilled two long-cherished dreams: ride on the Tran-Siberian railway line, and take a long trip with my two sisters, with whom I've always shared a wolfpack-like bond.

The Trans-Siberian requires a bit of planning, but compared to anyone who made the journey decades ago, travellers today have no lack of information at their fingertips to make the most of the trip. I mostly relied on tips for the bible of rail travel The Man in Seat 61 and a website called Way to Russia. My sisters and I probably had it easier than most by travelling in winter, where bookings for bunks on the trains are easier to secure, not to mention often having sites of interest all to ourselves.

The downside of travelling in winter is obviously the cold (and I had never experienced such cold in my life), plus those who come from temperate climates might find the winter landscape monotonous. But in sunshine or snow, the sights on (or around) the Trans-Siberian often left me speechless. 

We began by flying to Beijing, where we did a five-hour trek on the unrestored bits of the Great Wall which finished at the shiny, restored Jinshanling section just in time for the sunset.

We then embarked on a 28-hour train ride to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where we spent a magical three nights in a ger camp (for tourists) in Terelj National Park.

This was followed by 35-hour train ride to Irkutsk, Russia, itself followed by a 5-hour van ride to the shores of Lake Baikal, where a ferry took us to Olkhon Island in the middle of the lake. There, we spent two nights, exploring the gorgeous coastline and taking in the seemingly endless taiga (coniferous forest) that covers much of the island.

Then it was back to Irkutsk for a night, before we boarded the train for a 75-hour, 5,200km-long train ride to Moscow, on the very comfortable Rossiya train, on which we drank tea, watched snow-capped forests out of our window, played cards, and slept, occasionally attempting to converse with the other passengers, who were almost all Russian.

The Trans-Siberian ends in Moscow, but we immediately got onto the Sapsan high-speed train to St Petersburg to spend a few days there first, before returning to end our trip in Moscow (for logistical reasons). St Petersburg has all the beautiful Old World grandeur that earned it the nickname of Paris of the East, but it has a grit and pride that's all its own, and I liked how laidback it felt compared to Moscow, which has the rush of a much bigger city, and more reminders of its Soviet past.

Is there a favourite? No way I'd choose one from this 22-day trip, which overall was endlessly surprising in how it constantly exceeded expectations and upended whatever notions I had of each country. I came home tired, awed and content.

The experience of catching the Tran-Siberian (in my case half of it plus the Trans-Mongolian) isn't something I can contain one post, so I'll just share some (more) photos and general impressions - hopefully I get down to doing more detailed posts about the stops I made in Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, Lake Baikal and others as I go along.

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Gubeikou Great Wall, China

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Jinshanling Great Wall, China

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On the train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, through the Gobi Desert

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Gers at the Tuul Riverside Lodge, Mongolia

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Sled dogs at Terelj National Park

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Tuul Riverside Lodge, Mongolia

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On the train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk, my favourite train experience

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Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia

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On the beach on Olkhon island in Lake Baikal

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The Three Brothers lookout point, Olkhon, Lake Baikal 

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Near Cape Khoboy, Olkhon, Lake Baikal 

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Olkhon, Lake Baikal 

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Shaman pillars, Olkhon, Lake Baikal 

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Olkhon, Lake Baikal 

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Olkhon, Lake Baikal 

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On the ferry leaving Olkhon

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Passing through the taiga on the train from Irkutsk to Moscow

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Winter Palace along the Neva river, St Petersburg, Russia

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The Raphael corridor, Winter Palace, St Petersburg 

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The Malachite Room, Winter Palace, St Petersburg

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The Pavilion Room, Winter Palace, St Petersburg

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Winter Palace, St Petersburg

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Etagi Loft Project arts space, St Petersburg

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Red Square, Moscow, Russia

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Red Square, Moscow

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Kremlin grounds, Moscow

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Subway station, Moscow

A few things to keep in mind:
- The Trans-Siberian is not a hop-on-hop-off rail pass. You need tickets for every trip, and if you are travelling during peak periods and have limited time to spare (i.e. you can't wait till next week for the next train), pre-booking rather than buying tickets at the stations is recommended. My trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar was practically empty, probably because again, few enjoy travelling in frigid December. But my train from Irkutsk (considered the capital of Siberia) to Moscow was near full. 

- It is now possible to book rail tickets within Russia on the Russian Railways website, although the tickets are only released for sale a month before the travel date. The time table is also slightly glitchy but it can be cross-referenced on the website of Real Russia, a third-party one-stop service that has a handy trip planner on its website and can do all bookings for you.

- Although Real Russia is convenient, reliable and far less expensive than using the services of a travel agency, there is still a considerable mark-up from booking the tickets yourself. To save money, my sisters I resorted to booking only the trips we couldn't book directly in advance - i.e. the Beijing to Ulaanbaatar train, and the Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk train. Travelling in winter probably meant my sisters and I could have risked it and just turned up at the stations to buy the tickets ourselves. But we were travelling on a schedule so we decided to play safe and secure our tickets.

A final note: to all those still reading this blog, happy 2017. 

Comments

Para said…
This is amazing. Thanks so much for sharing!
Pret a Porter P said…
Incredible journey.
Happy new year
Ammu said…
Happy new year! What an extraordinary gift to yourself -- love this post.
I spent December in LA on holiday before returning to Hong Kong, where I now live. Big change from Kathmandu! I miss the mountains but am looking forward to exploring the region. Going to Taipei for the first time in two weeks' time -- very excited!
Anonymous said…
happy 2017 to you as well! i value your perspective on this blog very much. thank you for continuing to update and giving us a peek into your thoughts.
Anonymous said…
Happy New Year!

I've been reading your blog for a long time (when Dead Fleurette was still active lol) and I really enjoy it... once in a while visiting to see if you have any new updates.

Your travels sound incredible!
Archana said…
What a journey.

Happy New Year Lin !
SA said…
Incredible Journey! Happy New Year to you too!!
Joy said…
A much more exciting trip than my own but I loved Russia very much!
Anonymous said…
I discovered your blog last month. So happy I did!
Great trip.
Bookmarking this post! My sister is also my adventure partner, would love to do this trip someday with her!

Thank you for sharing, as always.

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