by Kevin Crequer

The road less travelled isn’t a road at all as I found out in May when I took the Trans Mongolian train from China to Siberia.

My adventure began in Beijing – a city I hadn’t been to for 20yrs.  The differences were soon apparent the next day when we took a bicycle ride around the city, biking past Tienamen Square, along wide boulevards and then deep into the Hutongs for lunch with a local family.  Turned out later we were eating in the grandparents bedroom which kinda explained the unusual decor.

After a visit to the Great Wall at the almost deserted and little known area of Huanghuacheng, we then boarded our train bound for Siberia.  Leaving Beijing we started climbing into quite mountainous areas with lots of tunnels and ravines before breaking out onto the Northern Plains of China.  Very agricultural, but almost wholly farmed by manual labour.  These villages and fields of northern China slid past our windows as night fell and we headed towards Mongolia and our first border crossing.

Around midnight we crossed the border after stopping to change the bogies (wheels) on the train, as the tracks in Mongolia are a different width to those in China.  We woke at dawn to a landscape like nothing else I have seen before – The Gobi desert.

Books and card games were forgotten as we gathered around the windows watching this amazing country roll past.

A few hours were spent exploring the capital of Ulaanbaatar before the wide open spaces beckoned and we answered the call by driving into the spectacular Terelj National Park to spend time in a traditional Ger. These are faithful in design to those still used by the country’s nomadic herdsman, but with more creature comforts for us soft Westerners.

Mongolia is called The Land of the Blue Sky, as it is cloudless for 2/3rds of the year and we were to experience this over the next 2 days, walking for kms, visiting a local family in their home (Ger), and attending a special presentation of a Naadam Festival.  (Horse racing, Mongolian wrestling and archery).  The grandstand they put up for us was brand new and (very) freshly painted.  Does anyone know how to get white paint out of trousers?

After visiting the amazing 40 meter tall monument to Genghis Khan made out of stainless steel, we then boarded an overnight train to Siberia leaving Mongolia at Sukhbaatar. Unlike Mongolia where we crossed uneventfully, at the Russian border the officials pulled off ceiling, floor and wall panels in their search for contraband.  (Much to the disgust of the train attendant who had to clean up after them)

Beyond the Russian border we continued west along the southern shore of the world’s deepest freshwater body of water – Lake Baikal – and onto the University City of Irkutsk.

This is a city with a history dating from the fur and tea trading days when it began as an isolated Cossack outpost. Aristocratic exiles from the West brought a touch of elegance with their ornately decorated wooden houses, while Asian traders from Mongolia and China introduced flavours of the Orient.

Later we drove down to the nearby lakeside village of Listvyanka, where we spent two nights. This is typically rural Russia.

Amongst other things, we visited the surprisingly interesting Museum of Wooden Architecture, had afternoon tea at the house of a local farmer who has a passion for dog sled races, (using Siberian huskies of course), and then some of us visited the local Banya (Sauna).  I’m told that cooking yourself in a steam room, being whipped with birch branches and then jumping semi naked into a freezing lake is fun.  And good for you apparently….

Takes all kinds I guess.

All good things come to an end as they say, and I soon had to leave the comparative warmth of Siberia and head back to the start of an Ashburton winter.

We farewelled our guide with a Kiwi mangled version of “Do Svidaniya” which hopefully means “see you later” and went our separate ways.

The true test of a destination is whether you would return to it – and in this case the answer is a definite YES.

Those few days have only served to whet my appetite for travel on the world’s greatest railway journey so I plan to go back next year and do the full trip from Beijing through to St Petersburg.

I want to take a group with me so they can experience what I was able to.  If you are interested in getting a bit out of your comfort zone, are prepared to roll with the punches and have a real adventure then give me a call on (03) 3088219

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.