After our lovely time in Volgograd, we had to return to Moscow in order to get into Eastern Europe (to Kyiv, Ukraine). If you look at a map (or the map above how bout), you'll notice that it's a sharp backwards turn to go Volgograd-Moscow-Kyiv (it's the part of the map that is like an A) and kind of silly when Volgograd to Kyiv directly would save hours and hours and make a lot more sense. But guess what's happening on that route? CRIMEA. Can't go through there! Ever since the Russian Federation annexed Crimea (in March 2014), pro-Russian protests in the region escalated to armed conflict between the separatist forces and the Ukrainian government. Thousands of people are fighting still and it's very dangerous. Russia is, as uzh, very cagey about everything bad it's doing, and it deny its presence in the region almost as often as it confirms that 'military specialists' are there. Russia is real trouble and we didn't want to reward its terribleness with more tourism money spent there, but we had no choice so back to Moscow we went.
After our long, challenging train journey from Uzbekistan, we arrived in the city of Volgograd, in the southwest of Russia, I mean it's roughly in that blobular section of the biggest most endless landmass that is old country. That's right, after almost three months, after traveling through Mongolia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, we made our way back to Mother Russia. And we were overjoyed to be back in a place where we sort of knew the language, and where we could reunite with the trappings of modernity, and where I could eat at an actual vegan restaurant. But I didn't realize how important a city Volgograd is, in critical and meaningful ways far beyond its current offerings of comfort for my spoiled behind, and I was and remain in awe of its history. I initially wanted to come here just to see the incredible, enormous statue pictured at left (or above if you're on your phone), but there's so, so much more to Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. We had a lovely few days here, learning more than I ever learned in school about World War II, exploring what the city has to offer today, and finding all the vegan food for me to eat.
After our time in Ulaan Baatar, we were eager to get out in the countryside and desert, because everyone said the best part of Mongolia was outside the city. Not hard to believe! Our 7-day trip seemed to cover a good mix of the country, not just lake like some did, not just Gobi desert like most others did. I knew it would be roughing it, but I was okay with that, because I figured it’s still a tourist company and they’ll make sure we at least have our basic needs covered. Also, I went to overnight camp for 9 years, so I’m a champ at roughing it.
Against all odds, Mongolia's capital city is well-nigh a wonderland for vegans. Ulaan Baatar, despite being in a country that literally eats mutton at every meal and in every dish and frowns upon vegetables, has more all-vegan restaurants than London, and some better ones too (or at least some that I would love to have in London...or at least I've been traveling so long that I thought they were better than what we have in London). From Buddhist temple centers to veggie-friendly chains to nearly a dozen outposts of our beloved cult Loving Hut, UB (as everyone calls it) will let you eat extremely well - as long as the restaurants decide to be open when you go.
Once we decided to do the Trans-Mongolian instead of the Trans-Siberian (Mongolia and China instead of just lots more Siberia? not a hard decision), we knew we had to line up our dates so that we landed in Mongolia in time for Naadam, the most important festival and event in the Mongolian calendar (I mean it’s the only festival and event in the Mongolian calendar that I know, so I could be wrong about that but I’m probably right). The three-day festival is like the country’s own Olympics, celebrating the Three Sports of Men, or the Three Sports of Chingis (Genghis) Khan, something like that. In our English language pamphlets handed out in the stadium it says “Three Manly Sports” which is hilarious so let’s say it’s that one. Those three exalted sports are wrestling, archery, and horse-racing. Seems straightforward enough, right? Ha!
Our first stop and only city visited in Mongolia (also the only city in Mongolia, from what I saw of the rest of the country), Ulaan Baatar improved upon the food in the eastern-Asia part of our trip, continued the sad tradition of incredibly polluted air, and worsened the car traffic situation so far. It’s hard to say no to this city since it has so many Loving Huts and even better other vegan restaurants (I know! In Mongolia! So many!), but I think the annoying parts of it outweigh my ability to have good food. Luckily, we were there for Naadam, the national annual festival of the Three Sports of Men, dedicated to Genghis (pronounced Chingis here, and ya know what, I’m gonna call him Chingis because that's the real Mongolian way) Khan. Naadam (for a separate post) was interesting and something big and fun to do. Without it, Ulaan Baatar is a dilapidated city with some temples and monasteries and museums but I quickly got tired of it. Exhausted, really. Maybe because I couldn't breathe.
Dear little laptop diary,
I didn’t think I’d need to write to you on this train. It was supposed to be barely 9 hours, just a get on-go-to-sleep-get off-in-Mongolia one, as we left Ulan-Ude. But Real Russia, the company that booked most of our Russian train tickets (we didn’t want to risk missing our preferred dates and routes if we did it ourselves) made a mistake with our agenda, and told us our train was at 8:47pm tonight, when it was really at 3:47pm today. (Someone I bet added five hours to get Moscow time (which all trains in the country run on) instead of subtracting. Idiots.) So instead of getting another day to explore Ulan-Ude as we wanted, we rushed around to check out, see a final museum, and walk in the heat to the train station. It was a soul-crushing walk for me, as I have more weight in my pack than ever (stupid good vegan nonperishable food finds I keep finding and buying and then needing to pack!). Well that part was just spine and neck crushing. The soul-crushing part is how nervous I am about the Mongolia border crossing. It can take well over 4 hours, with the train stopped and bathrooms locked. I can’t go for more than 2, and I can’t do anything about it especially in a room with two strangers, so I’m just dehydrated and super g-d nervous. I told myself that as soon as we got on the train, it would be okay, I would sit, and use the bathroom, and make my bed, and relax and read as I learned from our previous trains.
We left Irkutsk after our time on Olkhon Island at about 9pm and got on a baby-sized sleeper train (we are such pros now!) - we literally got on about 9pm ish on Thursday, went to sleep (I mean pretended to), and disembarked at 6:30am. I didn't even have time to write a diary entry! Just waited to take my contacts out (using bottled water of course; I like having the gift of sight too much to use train juice) before getting maybe an hour of sleep. Our roommates were two Chinese women (female roommates are so much better...and rarer) who didn't speak any other language, so Z showed off with the two phrases he learned in Mandarin to prepare for this trip - "Do you speak English?" and "I speak a little Chinese." It was so funny and they loved it. I didn't love that the window in this cabin didn't even open. Remember when I complained about old Russian lady closing the window? THIS ONE DIDN'T EVEN PHYSICALLY OPEN. ughhhh it was so gross and stuffy. Thank god it was short. At 6am, the attendants shouted for everyone to wake up - we were almost at Ulan-Ude, which is our last stop in Russia! Well, until we return from the southwest on our eastward Silk Road journey in September, but that's years away and not part of our Trans-Siberian adventure! Trans-Mongolian, whatevs. So really, Ulan-Ude marked the end of this first part of our journey! Already! It's going so fast. To mark this auspicious occasion, we surely would do something very special once we dropped our bags at the hotel.
After three weeks of exhausting, nonstop activity in our big summer travels, we planned for four days of just pure relaxation in a presumed idyllic spot, Olkhon Island on the famed Lake Baikal, a tiny fishing village that is hard to reach and so we simultaneously assumed two incongruous thoughts: 1) that we would be two of very very few visitors (pretty true) but 2) that even so the island and village would be equipped to deal with visitors (hahah no). Can't have it both ways. Really, parts of the island, like the lake itself and the cliffs and rocky terrain along the northern parts of the island, are beautiful, but getting there and for the most part being there is too stressful to allow for any relaxation, or, honestly, to allow me to recommend a trip here.
After the three days of train of the last post, during which I went just a little batty (silly spoiled me judging the Russian trains so harshly so the universe decided to teach me a lesson because I had NO idea what was coming with the Chinese trains), we landed in Irkutsk. We were truly in the heart of Siberia now, spending one day in Irkutsk before bussing up to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal, promised to be an idyllic, beautiful site and the time we get to relax. Lol.