Home' The Australian Senior Traveller : March 2010 Contents 4 THE SENIOR TRAVELLER March, 2010
WE STARTED at St Petersburg and
travelled to Beijing. You could stay on
the train for about eight days and complete
But why would you? The delight is in
getting off to stay at some of the towns
along the way, meeting the people and get-
ting a feel for the rich diversity and history
of the countries you visit.
In St Petersburg we stayed with Maria,
the first of our several homestays, which
are a wonderful way to connect with local
people and to hear about their lives and
They were charming and keen to help us
see their cities and neighbourhoods.
St Petersburg is a cultured, elegant city
-- a bit faded now, but simply staggering in
its wealth of art, palaces, cathedrals, muse-
ums and history.
Peter the Great built it in 1723 to be very
European, a 'northern Venice' built on
canals. His Winter Palace, now the
Hermitage, overlooking the imposing
Palace Square is superb, and the grand
boulevard, Nevsky Prospekt, is still the
place to promenade.
Our train to Moscow was The Rossiya,
pride of the fleet, modern and spotlessly
The four-berth cabin had fold-down
bunks, comfortable but firm, crisp linen,
and nifty little cupboards behind the seat
backrest, in peacock blue.
The mini-ladders for climbing to the top
bunks were a challenge, however, and get-
ting down elegantly was a task that defeat-
There were no showers onboard, but
every carriage had a wash basin, toilet and
samovar for hot water.
In Moscow our homestay host was
Anna, a retired biologist who accepts a con-
tinuous flow of visitors into her home.
With four guests in her one-bedroom
flat, Anna slept in the kitchen while we
were there. We talked with her about
grandchildren, life in Moscow, what to see,
how to get around and her local market.
Anna's market proved very interesting.
Built in different styles of traditional
wooden architecture, it sold every Russian
souvenir imaginable -- matryoshka dolls,
traditional arts and crafts and stern Soviet-
era posters urging people to work harder.
We enjoyed a lunch of kebabs of barbe-
cued fresh salmon and shared a table with
Russians playing chess. We visited some
other historic cities, many older than
Moscow. Suzdal and Vladimir on the train
route, sparkled with old Kremlins, cathe-
drals and museums. Every city had newly
restored churches with domes ablaze with
gold leaf or silver stars.
It took about 26 hours from Vladimir to
Yekaterinburg on the train, but filling in
time was easy. We met fellow travellers,
shared food and drinks and caught up on
Stopping at a station was always a high-
light. Babushkas with dour, weather-beaten
faces plied us with dried fish, boiled eggs,
chicken, salads, and blinis (pancakes)
stuffed with mouthwatering fillings.
Tiny kiosks dotted stations too, with just
small square openings to place your order
and collect your purchases.
Yekaterinburg marks the border
between Asia and Europe and it was fun to
visit the marker and stand with a foot in
For millions of prisoners centuries ago,
this was their gateway to Siberia and the
end of all hope. Few survived.
Trans-Siberian trains run around the
clock, so it was 01.29am when we boarded
our train to Irkutsk for the longest haul,
about 50 hours, across four time zones.
We watched the endless Siberian forests
of silver birch and pine trees, with drifts of
summer flowers adding colour. Small vil-
lages of wooden houses with steep roofs
and brightly coloured window frames
flashed by. Vegetables grew in rows of
abundance. The few roads we saw were dirt
tracks and very muddy.
It was a relief to arrive at Irkutsk, close
to beautiful Lake Baikal, the largest and
deepest in the world.
The history of Siberia as a place of pun-
ishment can still be glimpsed in Irkutsk's
Here we changed to the Trans-
Mongolian train and turned south.
When we awoke in Mongolia, vast flat
plains swept out in front of us. With no veg-
etation you could see forever.
The early morning fog that day gave the
whole scene a beautiful, dreamy quality.
White gers -- the round felt tents of the
nomads -- dotted the plains, with small
herds grazing nearby. We felt we were look-
ing at a scene unchanged in centuries.
Ulaan Baatar, however, was modern,
industrialised and clearly growing very
rapidly. The Russians left in 1991 and
Mongolia is now a democracy. Its growing
pains were obvious with traffic chaos,
homeless people and beggars on the streets.
At Teralj National Park we stayed in a
ger camping park, with rocky crags above
us and a wide, treeless valley below.
We seized the opportunity to visit a fam-
ily of seven living in a single-roomed ger
and talked about their nomadic way of life.
They offered us homemade yoghurt,
cream, milky lollies and the salted, milky
tea that's a Mongolian favourite.
Back on the train for our 30-hour leg to
Beijing, we experienced our only uncom-
fortable trip, through the Gobi Desert.
Villages got fewer, poorer and the coun-
tryside faded to beige. Dust seeped in, the
temperature climbed to 35 degrees Celsius
and our fan was on the blink.
However there was great excitement
when we saw the Great Wall zigzagging
over the mountains before us. Then, in
total contrast, irrigated crops and ordered
towns replaced the desert and mountains.
Exactly on time, we pulled into the mam-
moth Beijing Railway Station and joined
the thronging crowds.
We had crossed three countries, seven
time zones and travelled nearly 8000km
from St Petersburg. And yes, we would do it
Homestays great way
to break rail journey
THE Trans-Siberian which sweeps across European Russia and through the remote Siberian wilderness
is probably the most famous train trip in the world. Then there's the Trans Mongolian variation through
exotic Mongolia finishing in oriental China. For SHERRYL GARBUTT the idea of the long-distance rail
journey was irresistible. She'd always dreamt of doing it and finally she had the time.
EAT UP -- Station kiosks help fuel
passengers for the journey.
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