In China, interacting with locals can be extremely tough – the toughest I’ve found in my travels in fact. But once you break the ice, you’re in. Like anywhere else in the world, a smile goes a long way. I was walking in the hutongs of Beijing (small alley neighbourhoods) and wearing a tank top because I was fortunate to get a few rare sunny, blue sky days. An older woman was sitting in one of the alleys and she pointed at me, and then at her shoulders. Clearly commenting on my tank top. I pointed to the sky and flexed my biceps, laughing, and wondering how, “sun’s out, guns out” translates in China.
I don’t think the phrase translated, but it didn’t stop her from laughing. I wonder what she thinks I was trying to say? It doesn’t matter. For the rest of the week, every time I walked down the hutong, there she was, in her chair. And whether I was in a tank top or covered up, each time I passed, her face lit up, she started laughing and tossed her flexed biceps in the air. Sometimes you don’t even need to speak a word to create a memory.
You would have to work extremely hard to get a cold reception in Mongolia. Everyone is smiling and everyone is happy to welcome you, especially into their gers (mobile homes, like a yurt). When looking for a place to stay in the desert, you don’t call ahead. You just turn up to a ger, if you can find one, and knock on the door. Mongolian culture values guests, and you will be taken in. But it doesn’t stop there – you’ll first be greeted with camel milk tea and a type of fried sweet cookie. I was with a group and every family that we stayed with was beyond generous, sharing their homes, food and spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen people smile so consistently, and for so long.
One Mongolian in particular, smiled just a little extra as I cuddled one of his baby goats. The family had never hosted foreigners, so I’m sure they were amused at our fascination with the animals that surround them every day. He laughed at me with our guide. She told him how much I liked the goats and sheep and he perked up, quickly chatting to the guide. “If she likes the animals, she can have some! I have a son her age. She can move to Mongolia and she’ll get the animals AND a husband!”
Both the family and the group burst into laughter and I told him that I had to think about it. It’s not what I’m looking for, but aside from how tempting the landscapes and animals of Mongolia are, people who are as happy as Mongolians are the kind of people I want in my life.
An American traveling by train is a bit like a fish out of water. Unfortunately, and a bit embarrassingly, the United States severely lacks a sophisticated rail network. So, while I’d heard of the iconic Trans-Siberian railway, I couldn’t quite relate to the notion of traveling an entire country by rail. Thankfully that changed, all starting in Beijing.
Since I didn’t know what to expect, I decided that I would be sure to experience each seating travel class throughout the journey, splitting it into several legs, so I’d have a true understanding of the different ways to travel by train. Would third class be so bad? Would first be that good? Time would have to tell.
I got my visa, started studying Russian, and booked the tickets. Though that wasn’t as easy as you might think. Especially starting in Beijing. I was glad to be working with a third party to purchase the tickets, because while I tried to buy them in person, I spent hours going from place to place in the city to end the day still without a ticket. China tends to be difficult for English speakers, and leaving is no exception.
I loaded up on snacks and drinks for the ride, not knowing what would be available on the train. In the US, everything is more expensive on planes and trains, so to avoid extra costs, I was stocked up. But I gave the dining car a chance and was pleasantly surprised. Appropriately from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the car served Chinese food, which switched at the border to a Mongolian car, and at the Russian border, to Russian food. All reasonably priced, and more importantly, a great representation of the local cuisine.
While I had a hard time shaking the urge to bring my own provisions for the ride, I can’t say it’s necessary.
I am officially a fan of rail travel. I write this while on a train. Way less security, train stations are closer to everything than airports, no mucking around with bags, people are friendly, food is good and you can sleep. I’m not sure what more one could want in their mode of transportation.
Thanks, Jessica for sharing your experiences onboard the world famous Trans-Siberian railway.
Last summer, Real Russia were lucky enough to work with Jessica, an American travel writer that has visited more than 95 countries in the last few years, sharing her experiences with the world through her blog How Dare She, her Facebook and her Instagram page jess_ismore.
Alongside writing two fantastic, and informative, guides about planning a Trans-Siberian adventure (Travelling solo as a female on the Trans-Siberian and Making the most of the Trans-Siberian), she has put together a few blogs exclusively for Real Russia, going into more depth about her incredible experiences travelling the most famous railway in the world.
In this first blog, Jessica shares her opinion on Mongolia and its incredibly friendly people.
Take it away Jessica!
When I thought of the Trans-Siberian railway, I honestly never thought of Mongolia. I thought of cold days in Russia huddled around a bottle of vodka. More on that in my upcoming blog about Russia. But as I started to investigate the Trans-Siberian journey, I was excited to find out it could be started from Beijing. Which meant that the previously mysterious Mongolia would be on my route.
On the train from Beijing, you know you’ve arrived in Mongolia when the cars start clanging around. At the border, the wheels are changed for the different tracks and I should have had a few more beers from the dining car if I wanted to sleep through it.
Bogie changing at the Chinese-Mongolian border
Despite the somewhat restless night, I woke up at about 5:30 as the sun started to rise. Taking advantage of a train full of snoozing passengers, I grabbed my camera and searched for the best spot to see the sunrise. Soon, light was pouring over the landscape of the Gobi and I knew I was going to get what I came for.
Sunrise over the Gobi desert
Before I knew it, we were arriving in Ulan Bator, as was a snow storm. In May. But I guess they don’t call it the coldest capital in the world for nothing. Luckily, I just had one night in the cold capital before heading back out to the desert to see the real and raw Mongolia that had been so hyped. Off to 8 days in the desert.
So, what was Mongolia like? Four words: smiles, landscapes, animals and meat.
Smiles. Mongolians are known for their hospitality, and for good reason. We went ger (pronounced like ‘gear’) hunting to find a place to stay at night, and it was expected that you could show up to any ger, unannounced, and be taken in. Every family greeted the group with warm smiles and tea. At one home, the father of the family even hinted he had a son for me if I liked Mongolia and wanted to stay.
Landscapes. Going around the country was a constant battle of charging my camera because I just couldn’t put it down. The variety is wide – from ice gorges to sand dunes, lakes to sparse deserts – but absolutely stunning all the same. The summer made for long days and incredible, late, sunsets.
The Flaming Cliffs
Animals. The nomadic culture of Mongolia stems from the need to make sure the animals are fed. If you don’t like cuddling baby goats, then maybe Mongolia isn’t for you (then again if you don’t like cuddling baby goats, you may need to re-evaluate life). Don’t try to cuddle the baby camels though, mom doesn’t like it and she’ll be sure to let you know. The cows are fuzzy and the horses majestic. And you’ll see more than just livestock – mountain goats and rare birds take as much advantage of the landscapes as humans do.
The smiling goat
Meat. While I’m no vegetarian, I am not a big meat eater. Which was a challenge in Mongolia. Mutton, horse and camel are common staples of the Mongolian diet. Don’t cringe away just at the sound of it though. It is worth a try, and some like it more than others. But it can be hard to think about it when you’re having dinner in a ger surrounded by the family’s livestock. We even got the chance to see a camel slaughter, which is so rare to get a peek into that our guide had never seen one in her whole life living in Mongolia. Two families came together to take on the huge task, which was completed far from the other camels who are smart enough to get a sense of what’s going on.
Food in a Ger Camp
Back from the desert, I had one more day in Ulan-Bator before hopping back on the train to Russia. While I waited for the laundromat to wash the entire Gobi out of all my clothes, I wanted to check out the bustling capital, and couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast between the traditional and humble (and massive) black market, with the shiny tall buildings housing the country’s business side, all with towering mountains in the background. How could a country be so modern, and just kilometres away, so authentic to their origins? It’s truly impressive.
Luckily, the train from Ulan-Bator to Russia offered the same views and time to reflect on the previous week.
I expected to like Mongolia, but I didn’t expect for the warmth of the people to so wash over the cold of the landscapes. I expected beautiful sites, but I didn’t expect for the vastness and diversity of the countryside to keep my jaw perpetually dropped.
Happy camels in the desert
Thanks Jessica, for sharing your experiences in the incredible Mongolia. Be sure to come back soon to read more about Jess’s adventures along the Trans-Siberian railway, and make sure to follow her inspiring global adventures on her travel blog How Dare She, Facebook, Twitter and her Instagram jess_ismore.
If you want to follow in Jess’s footsteps, Real Russia offer a comprehensive range of tours, taking in the three different ‘Trans-Siberian’ routes, between Moscow and Vladivostok, and Moscow and Beijing.
Click here to take a look and book now!
Late last summer Real Russia had the pleasure of working with travel writer Jessica, Collector of Countries (over 50 so far!), of the website How Dare She, as she embarked on the greatest rail journey in the world, the Trans-Siberian railway; well, technically a bit each of the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Siberian!
While taking in a hundred new experiences, she found the time to write a few new guides for Real Russia; guides that should hopefully help you, “make the most of the Trans-Siberian railway”, and most importantly, give confidence to solo female travellers that the Trans-Siberian is eminently doable while flying solo.
In addition to this, Jessica has written four blogs exclusively for Real Russia, taking in topics such as what it is like to mingle with the locals, and what it is like on-board the Trans-Siberians famous trains! These will be posted over the coming weeks, so keep your eyes peeled to our social media channels.
For now, we thought we would ask Jessica a few questions, to get a better idea of why she travels, and what inspires her.
1. What is it about travel that inspires you?
I love learning and creating the opportunity for every day to be different.
2. What is it about rail travel that intrigues you?
In the United States, we don’t travel much by train; so it has always seemed like a fancy mode of transportation from the past, but I know it’s very modern and common today.
3. What do you aim to achieve from your travel blog and Instagram, and what inspired you to start them?
I share my travels because I want people along with me, and I want them to see that the world isn’t so scary. That people are as kind as you let them be. And this is best told through stories.
A view of Nevsky Prospect and famous Zinger House in St.Petersburg, Russia. Photo by Jessica.
4. What advice would you give to people who would like to become travel writers themselves?
I have a degree in journalism, so I felt confident as a writer, I just needed to add in the travel. But the advice I give to anyone who wants to write – whatever the topic – is to read more. Read veraciously and you will find the styles you like and don’t like, and it will help you find your voice.
5. What was your favourite travel experience, and what makes it different from the rest?
I ended up going to a Kazakh wedding because I was eating mashed potatoes with my toothbrush. I was on a train in Kazakhstan and had made a cup of mashed potatoes (like a cup of noodles, where you just add hot water), when I realized I didn’t have a spoon. The closest I had was my toothbrush, so I used the handle to stir and started eating. One of my cabin mates was laughing watching me do this and offered a spoon. That started a conversation that lasted the rest of the train ride, and weekend, ending in me going with him and his friends to their high school friend’s wedding because they thought it would be a neat thing for me to experience. It was!
6. What are some of your most memorable experiences travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway?
The first morning on an overnight train, I was up before the sun. I walked from car to car as the sun rose and delighted in the beautiful sunrise that I had all to myself. A few legs later, I was in third class and ended up playing a Russian card game with my new friends for hours. On another leg, I had the cabin to myself and enjoyed the ride to myself, staring out the window and reading.
7. What was the first experience you had that made you realise your passion for travelling?
The first that I remember is that when I was little, my dad travelled a lot for work. He would come back from cities I’d never heard of, usually with a small toy for me. I didn’t care about the work stuff, but I always thought it was so cool that he went so many places (plus the gifts didn’t hurt).
8. Based on your experiences, what do you get from rail travel that you can’t experience with other mode of transportation?
I think that rail travel is the most social form of transportation. Because you have space to get up and around, and a dining car with beer, there’s no reason not to chat with the people traveling with you.
9. What is the one place you haven’t travelled but would like to go?
Very high on my list is Antarctica. When I get back to South America, I’ll have to go.
10. What is the best piece of travel advice you have ever been given?
Always bring a scarf!
11. For someone who has never travelled the Trans-Siberian, what would you say to them about the experience and the adventure?
It’s infamous for a reason. Several days by train, several countries; there’s nothing in my travel past that I can compare it to. But to best experience it, be sure to stop along the way. I met too many travellers who were stopping in Irkutsk and Moscow only, but there is a huge country between those two cities!
Thanks Jessica for your fantastic answers.
Don’t forget to check out her guides to making the most of the Trans-Siberian, and travelling solo on the Trans-Siberian, and come back soon to read her exclusive blog about her incredible adventure!
Oh, and remember, if you want to keep up with Jessica’s ongoing travels, head over to her website, How Dare She, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at jess_ismore.