Siberian Windows

August 17, 2012 at 4:19 am | Posted in Trans-Siberian | 2 Comments
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I loved the ‘wooden lace’ architecture in Siberia. In Tomsk we saw some very grand buildings, freshly painted and carved with dragons and peacocks. In Irkutsk and Tobolsk the buildings were shabbier and, in my opinion, all the more beautiful.













November 4, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Posted in outdoors, Trans-Siberian | Leave a comment
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Mongolia…a country of vast wilderness, enticing travelers with ideas of Freedom and Mother Nature. I went there with a vague notion of how cool it would be to sleep in a ger in the middle of the desert under a starry sky; but I thought little beyond that.I had no real sense of what it would be like to actually be in a landscape that at first glance, rolled on endlessly but, the longer I spent there, slowly changed and became a more intricate collection of many parts – an integrated whole that I only managed to perceive after the slow hours passed into long days and the bumpy travel in the back of a jeep became second nature to me.I watched amazed as banks of thick fog blocked the road as solidly as would have the grey hills I originally thought they were. I marveled at the mirage taken straight from a storybook-imagination, but actually shining before my eyes.

I wondered at the edge of the horizon which was only metres away until the barely-perceivable incline of the landscape changed to reveal a few hundred metres more of soft undulations to where the sky once again touched the ground.

I walked over grassy billows, dusty moon-like pebbles, tussocky marshland, and slippery golden sands.

I saw blue lakes and grey rivers, ponds of brown, and streams chocked with weedy-green.

I climbed fiery cliffs; stood above an ancient marbled sea-floor; rode a camel through dune-land; and journeyed by horse across a volcano-spewed valley.I felt a wind so cold that face, hands and body all hurt. So strong that I couldn’t look up from my feet, couldn’t face away from it, let alone into it. So loud that I couldn’t perceive animals, people or vehicles.I felt a sun so warm that hat, gloves, scarf and coat all came off. So dazzling that between the blue sky, white snow and brown rocks it was impossible to know where to look. So clear that dusk and dawn were the same, no haziness or mist, just light and less light.I experienced a night so dark that I gave up on the moon and stars. They couldn’t even illuminate the hand in front of me. Engulfed completely in a nocturnal world of sleeping livestock, imagined wild creatures and near silence. One step at a time with the tiniest torch beam and a camp dog to guide my way back to bed.I heard quiet thudding steps pass by at night. I found trails and footprints of herds in sand and snow. I saw skittering, trotting and slowly rambling flocks cross roads and hills.I passed under vultures floating above; chased ibex running among the rocks; scared gazelles grazing in the wide valleys; stopped to face-off a fox along the road.Mongolia was a whole new experience and it keeps coming back to my thoughts. It gave me a new outlook regarding people and our place within the landscape. It made me think more about how I personally encounter the world. And it remains indescribable.

living in a roundhouse

May 8, 2010 at 9:13 pm | Posted in culture, Trans-Siberian | Leave a comment
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In Mongolia, I spent 10 days travelling around the countryside and staying in traditional gers. Most of them were built as semi-permanent camps for budget tourists, but a few times I stayed in ‘real’ gers; those that belonged to a camp’s owner and our guide’s family.Sometimes the gers are built as an extra space next to modern, square buildings, acting as a kitchen, store room or gift shop. In other locations they form small groups of habitable spaces in the wilderness, placed together for shelter, security and sociability.Gers are not exclusive to rural areas either. I saw them in most towns, sometimes several within one compound, which I assume belong to the same family.The structure of a ger is simple; a wooden frame covered by felt and held together with rope. A stove sits in the middle and the smoke escapes from the chimney which sticks out of a hole in the top of the roof. A canvas cover keeps out the drafts and rain, although panes of glass are fitted in the more plush gers.Further layers of felt can be added, as well as rugs pinned to the inside walls and placed on the floor for insulation. In fact, I was surprised at just how warm it became in the ger once the stove was lit and the door closed. The only time the desert chill crept in was when the fire went out in the early hours of the morning and we’d awaken to quickly try to get the flame going again. In most places we used animal dung; it burns easily, produces little smoke and has no strong odour, as well as being a most plentiful source. Occasionally we had precious wind- and desert-dried wood collected from the few places where trees grew.A ger needs no external support or foundation. In the windiest places a heavy weight hung from the roof is all that is needed to keep it stabilised.The gers I saw ranged in size considerably, but in general they had 5-8 ‘sides’ i.e. excluding the door frame there was space for 4-7 beds along the walls. Sleeping in a ger was cosy, if a little chilly when the fire was low. Beds were made from hard bases with several layers of rugs on top, or sometimes sprung bed frames with sleeping mats or thin mattresses. At night it was rather dark as not much light escapes through the closed stove door. In the more urban gers it was possible to hook up to electricity and therefore have lightbulbs. I didn’t experience this until the last night, and it came as quite a shock having gotten so used to making do with just a candle or two to illuminate dinner.Some of the camps’ owners had electricity in their own ger or at the least a portable battery that could be used to power electronics. Inside a ger, the door, frame and support posts are often decorated. Highly-patterned furnishings also add colour. As in any home, family photos are on show and religious paraphernalia is found in a small shrine.The doorway always faces south and the stove always faces east (the woman’s area) – except in one province where the stove is reversed. When I asked why, no-one knew. It’s just tradition. It puts me in mind of my archaeological studies: my lecturer asking why pottery design changed so little in prehistory and my answer of “because no one thought about change, they just kept doing things the way they’d always done”; the division of space as related to the concepts of symbolic and actual time in an Iron Age roundhouse; how Neolithic people came together at henges to trade material goods and social information (much like Nadaam festivals); my dissertation on how human interaction is influenced by architecture; and above all, what it actually feels like to live without plumbing, central heating and electricity. Suddenly all the theory I’d learnt took on a new meaning.It’s no wonder really that gers, or yurts, are gaining popularity among people looking for a sustainable lifestyle. Indeed there is even a market in luxury yurts. But more interesting to me are the lessons to be learned in resourcefulness and prioritising that living in a portable home creates. For example, the reusing of water. I saw these free-standing sink units not only in gers, but also in more modern buildings; the water is placed in the tank at the top and caught in the bucket at the bottom where it can be reused for other purposes.It takes the manpower of five and the time of one hour to erect a ger. When it’s time to move to new land for livestock, the ger and all other worldly possessions are packed onto a truck and transported to the new site. In order to get an education, when children are old enough (6-8yrs), they go to live in dormitories or with non-nomadic relatives so they can attend school.As a necessity, personal possessions have to be kept to a minimum when moving four times a year. Even so, our guide’s family still had a flat screen TV. It wasn’t unpacked when we stayed because they had just moved their ger to the winter campsite the day before.They had also not yet dug an outhouse. Because it was near the end of our trip, I had gotten quite used to going out in the open (or in the communal village cesspit). But it got me thinking, if I had to choose, I’d take a TV over an indoor toilet any day. Why? When you don’t have much, every little counts and a TV provides entertainment in a way a book or board game can’t. It’s the most versatile and easily shared option for a dark winter evening.It’s estimated that 30-40% of the population still live in gers, many in the suburbs of cities to be closer to amenities. I wonder what will happen as traditional lifestyles change and how this will affect the ger and those who live in it.

virtual journey

May 1, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Posted in culture, heritage sites, outdoors, Trans-Siberian | Leave a comment
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In February 2010, Google and Russian Railways unveiled a portal to the epic Trans-Siberian Railway. On the website you can watch video shot from the train along the entire 5,753 miles from Moscow to Vladivostock. Great though it is to listen to Russkoye Radio while virtually riding the rails, I’m glad I completed the real Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian journey in Oct-Nov 2009.

In honor of my own expedition, here’s the video my boyfriend skillfully made from our shaky footage. It’s meant to be one film but since you can’t upload a piece of more than 10 minutes to YouTube, we thought it best to split it in two.


March 12, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Posted in Europe, Trans-Siberian | Leave a comment
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On October 7th 2009, I set off with my boyfriend on a journey from Seoul to London, overland…

The good thing about travelling at this time of year is the lack of crowds; when we stayed in dorm rooms, we had them to ourselves and rates were cheaper. The downside to this season is the fact that most places are on limited opening hours meaning we missed out on things simply because we arrived on the wrong day of the week. The weather was never a problem as it was before winter really set in, but cold enough to give us a quintessentially snowy Siberia.

Below are expenses for two people, in local currency and dollars. Only local forms of transport are included in the tables. See notes below for inter-city and border-crossing transportation. ‘Other’ includes tours, admission charges, souvenirs (we did all our Christmas shopping on the trip), laundry etc.



Accommodation Food Transport Other
average 234








total 1,638 452 1,420 1,700

Train from Beijing to Mongolia 2,156 yuan per person (315.83USD). We had planned on travelling straight to Beijing, but all transport was booked up due to Golden Week celebrations and we were forced to spend three days in Qingdao. Every budget hotel we tried refused to take foreign guests so we ended up paying rather a lot for accommodation. Our taxi driver neglected to tell us there are in fact hostels in Qingdao. In Beijing, I can highly recommend Happy Dragon Hostel.


4 days

Accommodation Food Transport Other
average 14,425








total 57,700 122,650 19,000 106,000

Does not include 10 day all inclusive tour at 72USD per person per day, organised through Khongor Guesthouse. Train from Ulaan Bataar to Irkutsk 80,000 tugrik per person (55.46USD). In general, souvenirs were cheap – the value of ‘other’ is inflated because I bought warm boots and trousers, which later became indispensable for walking about in freezing Siberia.


26 days

Accommodation Food Transport Other
average 1591.2








total 41,370 18,381.45 4,188 8,040

We took sleeper trains wherever possible, saving money on accommodation. Prices per person ranged from 624 rubles (21.28USD third class) to 2,516 rubles (85.81USD second class) for journeys of 9 hours minimum. All train tickets were booked no more than 3 days in advance and bought directly from the stations; this is the cheapest option. Eurolines bus ticket to Tallin 650 rubles (22.17USD) per person. Not having traditionally been a backpackers’ destination, hostels don’t really exist outside of Moscow, St Petersburg and Irkutsk, so accommodation was somewhat expensive. At Baikal I would suggest IF Hostel in Irkutsk, which is newly-opened with friendly staff, and Nikita’s Homestead on Olkhon Island, which is a whole experience in itself that you would not want to miss. Also, Hostel Nord in St Petersburg is wonderfully located and has the best hostel kitchen ever.


9 days

Accommodation Food Transport Other
average 34.34 40.12 45.25 9.65
total 309.10 361.01 407.33 86.88

Cost is calculated in US dollars only, as each Baltic country has its own currency. Transport includes bus and train journeys from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius to Krakow. Daily transport costs were virtually zero as towns were small enough to navigate on foot.

In Krakow and Prague, we spent a lot of time visiting friends so accommodation and food costs were particularly low. For this reason I have not made a table of costs for these countries.

Regarding luggage, I took a 60 litre top-loading backpack and a mini-backpack (I’d guess 5-10 litre) which I used as my daypack. It was a little small, so I often crammed things in the ample pockets of my winter coat. I didn’t buy anything new before the trip, just took old clothes with me. Nothing was especially built for travel. Although everyone says take neutral colours when travelling, I took a couple of colourful or patterned items to brighten up my wardrobe. For me, not wearing earrings is like being naked, so I wore big hooped earrings, with a clasp so they wouldn’t fall out easily:

1 winter coat (wasn’t used until Mongolia)

1 zip-up micro-fleece

1 hoody top (very thin, warm and fast drying as it was made of synthetic materials)

2 thin knitted tops

2 thin long-sleeve tops

3 sleeve-less vest tops

1 pair of pajama bottoms

1 pair of skinny jeans

1 pair of light trousers, zip-off to become 3/4 lengths

about 9 pairs of socks and knickers, maybe 3 bras

1 bikini

1 pair flipflops

1 pair canvas slip-ons

1 pair hiking shoes

Bought along the way: fur-lined boots and fleece-lined thermal under-trousers.

The amount of clothing I took was fine, except between Irkutsk and Moscow when we couldn’t find anywhere within budget to do laundry (one place charged $4 per item of underwear!!). Instead we washed everything by hand in the bathroom sink, which got to be a little tiring after the umpteenth time.

Worn everyday since I bought them, the boots are now a bit worse for wear, as are my jeans and trousers (though I’m still wearing them). Although very useful, next time I’d bring comfy trousers that can be worn outside as well as inside (the pj trousers were really ugly and definitely not to be worn anywhere in public). Sweatpants would probably be a better choice. The canvas shoes were hardly worn, but were useful on the overnight train journeys when getting boots on and off takes too long. At the end of the trip, I threw away the vest tops, long sleeve-top, pjs, canvas shoes, and some of the underwear – they were all pretty old and rigours of the trip had done for them.

I also carried a toiletries bag, digital camera and charger, international adapter plug, small torch, ipod and charger, 1/2 a towel (I cut an old one in half since a hand towel is too small but a regular towel too big) and 1-3 books at any given time. With all of this, I still had extra space in my backpack, which was then filled along the way with gifts for people back home.

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