Recently we presented the short series: Opposing Worlds, where “S” from Russia visited America (specifically: Arizona) for the first time. Whilst the focus here is usually upon westerners heading east, it was interesting to hear the reverse perspective – all in an attempt to understand the differences (and similarities) of our respective cultures.

The plot-twist here is ‘S’s American visit – from the perspective of his hosts: “B” and “G”. What would a visitor from the east bring to our homes – both physically and mentally? Well, that would of course depend upon the person concerned.

As with westerners, ‘they’ are not stamped from the same mould -regardless of what western Cold-War propaganda about a uniform army of indoctrinated “Commies” told us. Who exactly was brainwashed? -We may wonder.

Artifacts

I’m jumping ahead, but the artifacts are easy to discuss. ‘S’ brought a little something of his home, family and culture with him – an act that didn’t occur to me when visiting St.Petersburg with only functional “gear”, I admit.

B&G were treated to selected Russian music and film -some of ‘S’s favourite comedies from the Soviet era of his youth. Family photographs brought insight into life back-home, a winter picnic and visual documents of his son’s wedding, whilst ‘S’s narrative, fleshed-out the gaps. That is, until “his English ran out of steam”.

Language barriers

I asked ‘B’ when he first connected with ‘S’ online: “So long ago!” came the reply. He was looking to “learn a little Russian”, but by his own admission; it’s been difficult. Words and characters dependent upon sounds or structures alien to the English language is still a problem for him.

Similarly, English still still holds challenges for ‘S’. In lieu of verbal communication, an exchange of text provided the key. Who said letter writing was dead? Even if it has migrated to shiny, digital form. That’s not so ideal of course when both parties share the same physical space and wish to communicate on the fly!

Weightlifting

So, the default language on Arizona soilwas English during ‘S’s stay. As if lifting verbal weights; ‘S’ could only sustain the effort for a while, starting with vigour and clarity, then tapering off. “He was always trying to teach,” ‘B’ revealed, before admitting with a smile, that: “I found it hard and gave up!”.

Fortunately, the Russian language contains more English-derived words (but in cyrillic characters, right?) than you would imagine, and even a handful of latin characters too. It’s surprising to find such commonality whilst studying a seemingly alien tongue. “I could manage those words!” says ‘B’, smiling again.

Travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express offers an opportunity to take in some of the world’s greatest wonders. From the mysterious towns and cities of Russia to the far reaches of China, there’s certainly a lot to see. Whether opting for a long or short stay, each Trans-Siberian journey provides a bountiful itinerary leaving travellers with varying tastes and budgets completely satisfied.

In addition to learning more about the fascinating history and heritage of its many destinations, a trip on the Trans-Siberian allows you to take in a bevvy of natural wonders. But nothing can be as wondrous as exploring the world’s oldest and deepest lake. Here we share our essential guide to the stunning Lake Baikal.

Introducing the world’s deepest lake

Lake Baikal is guaranteed to take your breath away. It’s the deepest freshwater lake on the planet – 1,642 metres at its deepest point. The lake itself spans an area of almost 400 miles, an expanse that also awards Baikal the title of the largest freshwater lake by volume. It is thought to contain between 22 and 23% of the world’s fresh surface water. The lake actually holds more water than all of the North American Great Lakes combined. As a result, there’s much to explore.

In addition to this, Lake Baikal is the clearest and the oldest with an estimated age of between 25 and 30 million years. Situated in south-east Siberia, just north of Mongolia, the UNESCO World Heritage site majestically splits the land and could even be the beginnings of a future ocean. Learn more about Lake Baikal by numbers.

Exploring this freshwater reserve

Thanks to its age and isolation, Lake Baikal and the surrounding lands remain relatively undisturbed by humans. It’s regularly referred to by locals and visitors alike as the ‘Galapagos of Russia’, and as you’ll discover, it’s no ordinary lake.

This ancient site is home to a plethora of unique animals and plant species. It’s the only place to view the planet’s only freshwater seal, a beautiful, earless species that’s also one of the smallest. The species, known as the nerpa or Baikal seals, is highly intelligent and agile. These seals can live up to the ripe old age of 60 and they’ve called the lake their home for the past two million years.

At Lake Baikal you can enjoy stunning vistas and explore endless mountain ranges. The lake can be travelled by train, bike or dog sledge during the winter. Brave travellers can also take a dip in its icy waters before drinking from the lake itself.

Winter in Lake Baikal

Winter is a magical, if bitterly cold, time to visit the lake. Whilst not for the fainthearted, a winter trip to Lake Baikal is certainly recommended. One of the top things to do during a winter trip to the lake is to walk on its frozen surface. Silvia Lawrence, world adventurer and blogger at Heart My Backpack, shares her experience:

“I’ve walked on plenty of frozen ponds and lakes without a problem, but venturing out onto Lake Baikal gave me seriously wobbly knees! Because the water is so clear, at parts we could see far down into the lake and it really felt like the ice could simply give way and I’d be sucked to the very bottom. It was ridiculous considering I could see quite well that the ice was incredibly thick, but I guess standing on top of the world’s deepest lake just has to be a tad intimidating.”

Ready to organise your trip to Lake Baikal? Read our guide to planning the perfect itinerary to help you along.

Last week we took an overview of the Immortal Regiment procession, the major Russian display of remembrance that grew out of a Siberian grassroots initiative to be embraced by the authorities and exported via Moscow to the world.

The event is also more multicultural than we may first imagine, even in Moscow. Those drawn into military service under the banner of the Soviet Union are honoured here – not just Russians, alone.

This not only includes ethnic Siberians and Mongolians but also those invited form further afield. “The Scots, the Chinese, the Americans, the Poles (and) the Serbs are the guests of the Moscow procession” declared Nikolai Zemtsov, co-chairman of the All-Russian public movement.

Who do we remember?

Growing from a desire to remember those who perished in the Great Patriotic War (World War II to us) defending the Motherland, it also came to embrace the memory of those who perished in other fields of engagement, or who suffered later as a result of their wounds. Those who departed after leaving their military careers behind and slipping into civilian retirement are also included.

Finally, the numerous civilian casualties who died as a result of hostile enemy action are also honoured, such as those murdered in village raids by the Nazis (during Operation Barbarossa for instance), or those imprisoned in concentration camps.

Undivided attendance

The event grows stronger year by year as millions of Russians unite in a display of unity and camaraderie, irrespective of the weather and of individual financial/social status, to march through major cities across the world. Indeed the event is a great leveller, forcing strangers together on amicable terms like no other initiate – except those instigated by the Orthodox Church– ever could.

As you may already know, there is something of a social barrier when it comes to interacting with strangers in Russian society: unknown interlopers are generally not considered “just friends you haven’t met yet” – as the old western adage goes. Instead, worth is proven over time, trust is earned and friendship is sincere. Betray those at your peril. Here, though, on parade day: witness armies of Russian strangers shoulder to shoulder, sometimes even smiling at each other.

There’s a lesson, underlined: the power of Russian patriotism and Orthodoxy too (incidentally). If you tread carelessly (or worse: deliberately) on either, then you can guarantee a swiftly incoming and very negative response in no uncertain terms.

Fragmented tales

In amongst the tan military caps, the full uniforms (field and parade), the civilian dress, the red, white and blue flags and balloons (yes, balloons!) strides a cross-section of Russian society. Varying ages, wealth, achievements, health, careers, abilities, and other dividers represented -though all temporarily ignored for the greater purpose at hand. Each has a memory and a story to tell.

A young woman and her partner headed in from outlying Belarus to Moscow, with the crowds thickening as participants filtered in closer to the city centre. She remarked on the obligation to help veterans at home: to wash their windows, even – and wondered if those obligated did in fact perform their duty – or just sat at home of social media instead. She is emphatic that no one present was forced to attend, and that it was the will of their own hearts that lead them there.

Designated individuals handed bottled water freely to passing crowds – as if in some slow-motion olympic event; open to all those who chose to simmer in the unlikely May heat. She notes the flowers handed as tributes to the seniors present and is moved by shouts of “thank you” directed  their way as the public files by.

The former Leningrad

In St.Petersburg she joined the procession for the first time, although in her middle age. A duty aching to be fulfilled compelled her to it: the familial memory of the war ravaging her family. Even those who were spared the front were not safe, she recalls the trials of the Leningrad Blockade and now, how this commemorative event unites a nation tired of plodding forwards without unity or purpose. “They are tired of life without meaning,” she states; “From the pursuit of illusory success, from the race for survival.”

She notes how the occasion has been transformed from the funeral-like procession envisioned by the organisers to the celebration brought in by the crowds with their flags and balloons and spontaneous shouts of, “Hurray!”.

She hears strangers enthusiastically exchanging tales of their departed heroes and enquiring about the sombre faces paraded on the placards of others, all barriers of social formality broken down by the weight of the day’s event.

Some began singing old military songs that caught the voices of the crowd and spread downstream as others joined in. Even the words had been thoughtfully printed on sheets that were passed around so that all may participate. Girls, having exhausted their own repertoire, ran to join the songs of others so that they could sing the whole way through the day.

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It’s not just stunning scenery that makes a visit to Mongolia so inspiring. The country is home to several large mammals, including a range of endangered species. With this in mind, many parts of the country are wildlife watching hotspots, drawing countless nature lovers every year. As most of Mongolia remains relatively untouched by human development, it’s the ideal place to explore all the pristine wilderness.

In this blog post, we reveal just some of the wildlife you can expect to see when visiting Mongolia, and unveil the best places to catch a glimpse of the most magnificent creatures.

Grey wolf

The grey wolf is generally found in remote areas. A prolific hunter and an extremely sociable animal, grey wolves travel as nuclear families, which descend from a lead, mated pair.

Grey wolves can be seen in China and Mongolia, among other places. Wolf populations in the latter are said to be between 10,000 and 30,000. Thanks to conservation efforts, including various projects to tackle the illegal trade of wolf products, these numbers are increasing.

Grey wolves can be found in all areas of Mongolia, with regions that have large open areas and an abundance of prey the best places to spot this majestic predator.

Bactrian camel

The Bactrian camel differs from its more common, Arabian relative as it has two humps instead of one. As a result, this species has an even greater capacity for carrying water. These camels can take on the harshest desert conditions over long periods of time, using their stored provisions as sustenance.

The majority of Bactrian camels may have been domesticated but there are wild herds roaming the desert. Wild Bactrian camels are the only truly wild camel that exists in the world today. They are critically endangered but you’ll be able to view herds of wild Bactrian camel in the Gobi Desert.

Siberian ibex

Your wildlife watching mission will take you from the deserts of Mongolia to its mountainous regions. Here, you’ll find the Siberian Ibex, a species of ibex that’s native to central Asia. Western Mongolia, more specifically the Altai Mountains, is actually home to a subspecies of Siberian Ibex.

Snow leopard

The elusive snow leopard is a large cat native to Central and South Asia. Mongolia is home to between 13 and 22% of the world’s snow leopard population. Snow leopards have been spotted in the high mountainous regions of the Altai Mountains.

As the distribution of snow leopards is vast, knowing the habitat that’s favoured by this amazing species is the key to spotting one for yourself. WWF explains more about the perfect habitat for snow leopards:

“Suitable habitats of the species include high mountainous rocky, steep, cliffy slopes, narrow passages, ravines, passes, and alpine in Mongol Altai, Gobi Altai, and Hangay mountain range and mountain steppe that are dominant by grass and shrubbery plants. Suitable habitats of the species are overlapped with the habitats of some rare/endangered species e.g. ibex, marmot, Argali, and Altai snowcock that are main preys of the species.”

Gobi bear

As the name suggests, this subspecies of brown bear is native to the Gobi Desert. In fact, the Gobi bear is only found in the desert of Mongolia. Spotting this particular species may prove challenging though. Gobi bears are critically endangered, with just 30 adults recorded in 2009. This desert-dwelling bear, which is considered a gentle giant thanks to its diet of roots and berries, is the world’s rarest bear.

Experience the real Mongolia and discover all the natural wonders of this amazing country by booking a trip with us today.

Little did they know at the time, but their dour faces would fit the occasion perfectly: 74 years later and still counting. With every step, these portraits dip and shift gently as if their subjects were present instead, marching in a swathe across Red Square; a vast, snaking parade pouring in as lost blood from arterial Tverskaya Street.

It is the descendants who are here today; strangers united in the ritual of commemoration and remembrance, as a softer, quieter counterpoint to the steely, unyielding technologies of Moscow’s Victory Day parade.

This annual march of the Immortal Regiment shares the May 9th date and has emerged from the shadow of it’s companion event with participation growing from the efforts of 3 Siberian friends to include tens of thousands, then hundreds, then over a million in Moscow alone -and with 10 million sharing the occasion in cities worldwide.

Frozen

We cannot help but be drawn from these faces frozen in history to their bearers; holding aloft placards, framed photographs, printed images restored via modern technology – or just names alone, written on boards and whispering, “remember me”, with the same quiet strength of those dark-eyed icons, but here, the faces have been lost to time.

Perhaps our minds insist upon confirming a familial resemblance – or perhaps it’s really there: passed as a gift, two or three generations later as the surviving link to those who have already left, but are still present through their lineage alone.

A colleague in Moscow kindly wrote to me about the Immortal Regiment; it’s origin and rationale. Here’s the text itself, although slightly edited:-

Words from a guest

“It is noteworthy that despite the fact that this movement has become popular relatively recently

(the idea was born in Tyumen in 2007 and the first Immortal Regiment march took place in Tomsk in 2012), the idea of such an event has very deep and ancient roots. This modern incarnation reflects and develops the Russian Orthodox tradition of the Cross Procession during the great Church feasts and other significant events. Also, many people took part in Religious processions in times of severe trials, such as wars, Tatar invasions, natural disasters, epidemics and more.

Thus, during the Cross Procession, led by priests, people carry icons of saints or burning candles. During the Immortal Regiment’s march through the streets, people carry portraits of their relatives who died in battle or later as a result of their wounds, or those who served and recently  passed away. All those who took part in the defense of the country are remembered, including those who worked hard in the rear to provide the army with food, ammunition, and military equipment.

Also there may be photographs of those who were killed in concentration camps, burned by the Nazis in their villages, who fought against fascism openly and in guerrilla groups.

Connections

The Procession, and the memorial event as a whole, unites families and strangers alike, allowing participants to feel the connection to times and generations past, to realise their common history, common tragedy, and the common joy of victory.

The authorities have embraced the event and strive to organize the procession in large and small cities across Russia – while assisting in many major cities of the world where there are Russian communities who seek to participate.

Devotees still join this annual procession quite voluntarily, however; feeling the need for spiritual unity with their ancestors and fellow native people.”

Photo by Dmitry Karyshev

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Spring and autumn are often recommended as the best times to visit China, but this vast country is well worth visiting at any time of the year. Summer, from June to August, is another great time to visit and is popular with many tourists. But if you’re planning a summer trip, you need to be prepared for the crowds. Make the most of your summer in China by reading this essential guide.

The crowds

Summer is a popular time for tourists and locals to enjoy some of China’s very best attractions and activities. As in the UK, school’s out in China, meaning students and families with school-age children flock to China’s most popular cities and towns.

It’s easy to recommend avoiding the big cities during this busier period, but your China trip wouldn’t be complete without seeing the most popular destinations as well as those hidden gems.

Avoiding the busiest times of day is the best bet if you want to enjoy the city’s more popular attractions. Visit attractions either before 11am or after 4pm to see them at their quietest. Without the crowds, you’ll be able to get some great pictures!

Private tours are another simple way to beat the crowds and stay as comfortable as possible. Subways, buses, and other public transportation will be extremely busy. Travelling privately is an option.

Seeing the sights on foot will also help you enjoy your destination in a whole different light. There are many gems that you’ll see when walking that you’d miss travelling by car.

The weather

We’re not going to lie to you – summer is hot in China, with temperatures hitting 33°C in some parts of the country. This average daily temperature may not sound too bad but when sightseeing in heavily congested cities, these temperatures can become very uncomfortable. Staying hydrated is the key to coping with the hot and humid conditions. Find further information on water safety in China.

April to July is also classed as rainy season. South and east China are the worst hit areas with rain clouds making their way north as the season wears on. If you intend to explore a variety of destinations during your summer in China, your mode of transport could help you survive rainy season as TripSavvy explains:

“If you are traveling within China, try to choose trains instead of airplanes if possible. Air traffic usually gets severely backed up during times of heavy rains. Even if you’re in Beijing, where it’s dry, and you’re trying to get to Shanghai, where they’re experiencing thunderstorms, you might have trouble because flights can’t take off from Shanghai so your Beijing flight will be delayed. Take the train if you can. It is the only mode of transportation in China that runs mostly on time.”

Travelling China via the Trans-Siberian Express unlocks many exciting destinations too. Trips can be tailor-made to your exact requirements, with flexible routes and timings making for a trip of a lifetime. Being flexible with your travel plans will also help you prepare for whatever the Chinese weather brings.

The itinerary

Summer offers a jam-packed calendar of events and activities, meaning you can enjoy more than just sightseeing. A number of festivals take place during the summer months, the Dragon Boat Festival being the best known traditional celebration and holiday.

In addition to celebrating like a local with the locals, early or later summer is the perfect time to enjoy sunny hikes in China’s beautiful countryside. Tibet, Yunnan, Guilin, and Zhangjiajie are all must-see destinations for lovers of the outdoors, with the mountainous and highland scenery able to be explored on foot in the right conditions.

Just booked your summer in China? Prepare for your trip with this summer packing list.

Here, in this final examination of ‘S’s American adventure, we’ll turn over a few more stones in the desert to reveal aspects of America as seen through the eyes of a stranger.

I plan to return to these proceedings with one further twist in the tale: yet another viewpoint still. For now though; let’s concentrate on ‘S’s views of the strange new land spread out before him.

Some refreshments

“I didn’t see soup!”, he exclaims with some surprise: “We eat soup, they don’t!”. It’s the most normal thing in the (Russian) world to find soup on the menu.

Indeed, I can attest to fabulous late-night mushroom soup and coffee, in the Stolovaya on the way ‘home’ from another late-night prowl around Nevsky Prospect. This is not my tale however. “And they don’t drink tea” he adds as a follow-up.

Contrary to the western belief that every Russian has Vodka within reach at all times; a massive amount of tea is also consumed. Remember those elegantly-styled samovars?

Someone somewhere in the USA is likely to consume soup and/or tea at some point, I’m convinced. Perhaps though, these just aren’t the go-to refreshments of choice. ‘S’ reports that “coffee, beer and cola” are the mainstays, as well as some “strange food ideas”, such as drinking milk and eating steak” (at the same sitting).

Oddly – to us – the American consumable that ‘S’ praises the highest is orange juice, importantly: the freshly squeezed variety. “I liked fresh orange juice the morning, in Russia it is not fresh” he says.

Not so secret service

‘S’ frequently makes positive comments about the competent, jovial nature of the staff and the experts he encountered on various stopovers; the shop attendants, the man in the liquor store with whom he shared a whisky, the friendly, costumed “cowboy” at the Wild West Town living-museum and the tour leader -with his “good stories”- on the dark, claustrophobic gold mine tour next door.

There, however, any trace of the precious metal was conspicuous by its absence! Though dirt and darkness was plentiful, by way of poor compensation.

‘S’s (and others) personal service “experience” is a significant factor though; something that American commerce takes very seriously. In Russia, the path to customer satisfaction can be a little more rocky.

Don’t expect the “have a nice day” mentality that often, – especially if you happen to catch a disinterested service attendant on a bad day. There were even workshops for some Russian staff prior to the 2018 World Cup: designed to raise the customer service bar in order to accommodate the expectations of incoming western (and westernised) tourists.

Of course, those working on the front line of Russian tourism are (usually) canny enough to give the visitors what they want – in order to receive the cash. It would be bad business not to.

Pins in the map

The fabulous botanical gardens with their towering cacti were worthy of note -unlike anything on ‘S’s home-world. The associated visual documents fell into my inbox as proof: a carefully selected catalogue of species, each resplendent in their individual spikiness.

In anticipation of a soaring balloon ride, ‘S’ marveled at his conveyance’s conversion from flaccid sack to sky-chariot. Unafraid, he had approached on foot to welcome its compatriots: firstly as dots, then giants looming in from the horizon.

A common theme in ‘S’s appreciation of his trip was the ongoing proximity to nature that he felt in Arizona. The aforementioned cacti, the balloon ride and the closeness to numerous birds and animals by a mountain lake in Minnesota are just some examples.

With some excitement, he exclaims: “There were real turkeys in Minneapolis’ centre! -real turkeys!” -an unthinkable occurrence in Moscow, where gangs of stray dogs are the norm -even ones resourceful enough to utilise the Metro.

Metaphysical

Perhaps for ‘S’, the stand-out location above all other was the Grand Canyon. He has to take time to find the words -in an attempt to do it justice. But first, some comments on the (original) locals, who still: “go with the territory”. We’ll end this mini-series in ‘S’s own (though slightly edited) words.

“My impressions when visiting the Grand Canyon:-

  1. About the Indians. My knowledge of them is only through the books of Fenimore Cooper and American or European Westerns. For example, the Grand Canyon is associated with the movie Mackenna’s Gold. I was surprised to learn that the Indians continue to exist on the territories of their reservations almost autonomously. They learned to make money from tourism and casinos.
  2. The Grand Canyon. This place inspires great respect and delight simply by its appearance.

Perhaps this is mysticism, but there is the impression that it gives strength to the people who live there. Perhaps this is mysticism” he says again, “but this place sometimes takes human lives, perhaps as some kind of sacrifice.”

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We recently delved a little deeper into the best time to visit Mongolia, and as we discovered, travelling to this beautiful country during the summer months is a very attractive proposition.

Mongolia is home to the world’s coldest capital city. But from May to September, the climate in most parts of the country makes for a pleasant trip. You’ll see little rain in summer, but many southern areas, including the Gobi Desert, may be too hot to explore when temperatures reach their peak.

Travelling on the Trans-Siberian is a great way to explore the entire country at any time of year, particularly during summer. Packing right for the season is the key to enjoying all of Mongolia’s highlights by foot, rail, or camel. Here’s what to pack and why for your summer in Mongolia.

It’s all about the layers (even in summer)

Even during the summer months, it can get a little chilly after dark. Packing clothes that you can layer will stand you in good stead for those warm days and cool nights. We recommend packing a mixture of long and short-sleeved t-shirts and jumpers along with trousers and shorts.

A lightweight jacket and waterproof hiking boots that have been tried and tested will ensure you’re prepared for the outdoor adventures to be had outside of Ulaanbaatar. During summer, you may also get caught in unexpected showers or whipping winds, so try and prepare with a jacket.

Travel Fashion Girl explains why a mixed bag is always best when travelling to and through Mongolia:

“Mongolia is landlocked south of Siberia and north of China. Extreme weather occurs year-round. During June, 2014, I encountered high temperatures, wind, snow, hail, thunderstorms, and innumerable rainbows. Most days I was comfortable wearing a t-shirt and jeans. In the Gobi Desert it was hot, and sometimes extremely windy, so I wore shorts and a t-shirt there. Much of my clothing is multi-functional, so I fit in with local culture as much as possible.”

Stock up on sun protection

Mongolia averages more than 250 sunny days each year – it’s not called the ‘land of blue sky’ for nothing! Temperatures in Ulaanbaatar can reach 26°C in summer, which may sound rather pleasant – but in the busy capital it can become stifling without the right sun protection. Make sure you pack a sun hat, sunglasses and sun cream. Lightweight shoes or sandals are perfect for some inner city exploration.

A cotton scarf will be your travel saviour

If you are to pack just one accessory for your summer trip to Mongolia, make it a long cotton scarf. A cotton scarf isn’t just an excellent cover up for those cool summer nights and a great form of sun protection in places where shade is at a premium. A scarf can be used as a towel, neck support or sleeping aid. You’re likely to be travelling a lot on your Trans-Siberian adventure, but with a scarf you can enjoy comfort wherever you are.

A cotton scarf is much more convenient than an inflatable pillow. This means you can pack light on your flight over, on the Trans-Siberian rail journey that gets you from destination to destination, and when seeing the sights on foot.

Don’t forget the optional extras

The Trans-Mongolian journey can be long and tiring at times. Ensure you’re suitably entertained every step of the way by packing those optional extras that you won’t be able to live without on those lengthy plane, train, and car rides.

When you’re not taking in the beauty of Mongolia’s rugged landscape, a deck of cards, book and iPod will all be your friends. Earplugs are another extra that you’ll be glad you’ve packed. The Trans-Siberian Express is a great place to forge new friendships, but when those newfound friends start snoring, you’re going to need those earplugs!

Find more tips for preparing for your Mongolian trip here.

Following last week’s introduction to a Russian traveller’s American experiences, it’s time to hear from the man: ‘S’, himself. His journey started a few years before the flight left Moscow; when ‘S’ made an acquaintance, -later a friend; ‘B’ on a language practice site. With mutual understanding and increased familiarity came repeated offers of a “vacation” in the ‘States.

After initial doubts about the practical and financial viability of such an offer, ‘S’ was able to accept, and so applied for an American visa – a process that initially proved problematic. International relations between America and Russia had fallen to their lowest ebb since the end of the Soviet era -with inevitable knock-on effects for mutual tourism. By 2018, staff levels in Moscow’s American embassy had been reduced by such an extent that ‘S’ had to wait for almost a year for an appointment at a Visa centre (an essential requirement). The long wait finally paid off, the interview and application were successful and suddenly, ’S’s travel plans snapped into reality.

I ran ‘S’s original Russian text through a translator and edited the results – but only slightly. I’ll cut in from time to time, but I’d like you to absorb ‘S’s words -and gain his insight- in the most unadulterated way possible. Over to ‘S’:-

‘My opening into America’

“Finally I was ready to go to America. I defined the purposes of my trip as:-

  1. To see ordinary American life from inside
  2. To try to understand the mentality of American people
  3. To tell them about Russian life

‘B’ and his wife ‘G’ welcomed me much better than they would a loving relative. It is very unusual to live in the home of  “alien” people in another country who provide you a room and food – and also pay for your entertainment! They even trusted me to drive their car.

Only now I think I know the American character. They are polite, friendly people: accepting the laws but feeling free enough. They enjoy their life and are not interested in the outside world.”

‘S’ is referring largely to the residents (and countryside) of Arizona – he would tell me later that he found the population of Hollywood to be entirely different, less interested in outsiders whilst also living life at a faster pace. He regards Tinseltown itself as a “reservation for millionaires”!

He continues:

“Some though, would like to satisfy their curiosity about other countries. I brought a few classic Russian movies and my own photographs. My (American) friends viewed them with interest -I suppose.

I guess life there (in Arizona) is very safe. I never saw security grids on the windows or doors, ‘B’ never locked his car. I liked the behavior on the roads; It was very polite and safe. I liked the relationship between ‘B’ and ‘G’. They are very kind, endearing people.”

Distance divides us

‘S’s opinion of American buildings may seem strange to us, but in Moscow -his home city- most residents live in multi-story apartment blocks. The older, post-war variety may have only 5 floors, but modern structures can reach 70 floors or more. Don’t forget that normality for ‘S’ is Moscow’s urban sprawl. Here’s his perspective:-

“To me, America seemed to be an uncomfortable country because of the huge spaces, wide roads and low buildings. Movement is possible only via car. Walking is only done in the park or around shopping centers. It was impossible to stop on the main roads – though this is understandable for safe driving. If you need gas, you have to leave the main road and spend some effort to return.”

Health and recreation

“The Americans don’t eat soup or drink tea! We are not used to that. I suppose the food is not very good because I saw a lot of fat people. Maybe it’s because food is cheap and easily available?”.

‘S’ doesn’t touch on the issues of choice, self-delusion and willpower here of course – or even in special cases: medical conditions. Political correctness isn’t a Russian thing either, they simply don’t do it. That’s our invention/curse, not theirs. Expect a frank opinion at all times, like it or not. He has better things to say about the American service industry, however:

“About the entertainments” he begins, on various themed, tourist locations, “I like their organisation and the American guides. They are very informal and fun! I also like the service in stores. For example, we tried the whisky together with the guy from the liquor store!

That is, of course, a great image to leave you with. Read the final part next week.

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Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on the planet. At last count, it had just 1.9 people per square kilometre. Thanks its natural beauty and fascinating nomadic culture, Mongolia is becoming popular as each year passes. Going off the beaten track and enjoying a truly authentic experience is still possible, despite the country’s rising popularity.

Mongolia is a land of extremes and experiencing life outside of its capital, Ulaanbaatar is a must on your upcoming trip. What you’ll get in return is an experience filled with beauty, authenticity, and adventure. Discover the off the beaten track destinations to add to your itinerary.

Baga Gazryn Chuluu

Baga Gazryn Chuluu has long been a site of religious worship in Mongolia. Modern-day locals make pilgrimages to the rock formations, which are thought to have once been a stomping ground of Genghis Khan during the Khalkh-Oirat Mongol conflict. During the 19th century, the rocks were home to two monks. Remnants of their stay can be seen on the rocks courtesy of historic drawings.

Baga Gazryn Chuluu is the perfect stop off as you journey through to Mongolia’s greatest natural wonder, the Gobi Desert.

Yolin Am

Once you’re in the Gobi, make sure you check out Yolin Am, a stunning canyon which was once an ice valley. The hike up to Yolin Am offers magnificent views from all angles. Although little of the glacier remains, the rock formations left behind are a sight to behold.

Another canyon that’s well worth a visit is the Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs. It is considered the Mongolian version of the Grand Canyon, and you’ll see why when you visit. Look a little closer and you may just discover some prehistoric relics. Dinosaur fossils and eggs are abundant in the region.

Khongoryn Els

Another off the beaten path must-see are the Khongoryn Els sand dunes. Based in the seemingly never-ending Gurvan Saikhan National Park, Khongoryn Els is considered home to the best and largest sand dunes in the world. They measure in at a staggering 300 metres high and 62 miles long and are the largest in the northwest.

As well as opening your eyes to the beauty of the giant dunes, you should also open your ears. The Khongoryn Els dunes are known as the Duut Mankhan or the ‘Singing Dunes’ to locals as the sand makes a whistling sound as it’s dispersed by the wind. You can take in all the sights and sounds of the dunes by foot or by camel, whilst a stay at a local ger camp is highly recommended in this spectacular part of the world.

Ongi Monastery

During the 1930s many of the monasteries in Mongolia were invaded and destroyed due to the rise of communism. Visit one of the last remaining monasteries in Mongolia by travelling to Ongi Monastery at the foot of the Saikhan Ovoo mountain. Destination Mongolia explains why a visit to Ongi Monastery is vital on your trip:

“Formerly one of the largest monasteries in Mongolia, Ongi monastery was founded in 1660 and consisted of two temple complexes on the north and south banks of the Ongi River. The older southern complex consisted of various administrative buildings as well as 11 temples. The northern complex built in the 18th century, consisted of 17 temples-among them one of the largest temples in all Mongolia.”

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