A Travellerspoint blog

Gobi

a 7 day desert adventure

sunny 17 °C

Ok, after some thinking we decided to go. The tour was organized by UB Guesthouse and they gave us all the information and alternative tours, but this sounded like the best one. Since our time in Mongolia was pretty limited we had to opt for the 7 day tour and we booked it straight away. 414,000 for the both of us!!!! Wooooow, that sounds expensive, doesn't it? Well it's about the same as 175 USD per person for a 4WD-van (old but good), with driver, gas, sleeping bags and some cooking gear and a translator, all for 7 days. In the end we managed to find a fifth person to join us so it turned out even cheaper. We met Dee, a Dutch girl who had been travelling south-east Asia, Australia and China for almost a year on her own.

We left UB early the morning of the 26th. We just had to stop for some additional supplies, Gas for the stove, matches and, last but not least, water. Pretty good to have in the desert I've been told. :-)

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Gobi was the destination. The name is Mongolian and means desert and is a vast region occupying much of southern Mongolia and a large piece of northern China. By some definitions, it encompasses desert lands stretching more than 3000 kilometers in a broad arc from the Tarim Basin in western China to the Da Hinggan Mountains on the border to Manchuria and from the centre of Mongolia to the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

The tour was planned so that we would drive between 5 and 8 hours per day and then eat and spend the night with Nomad families in their "gers" (tents). We would have the possibility to take one shower in a village that we would pass on the way after about 3 days.

We stopped at a "Sacred Stone" a holy place consisting of a blessed pile of rocks where you are supposed to walk around it 3 times clockwise while making a wish while for each lap adding a rock on the pile.

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After about 10 minutes drive from Ulan Bataar we left the paved roads behind us. We were amazed by the beautiful countryside and we stopped a couple of times to take photos. -"Bairat, STOP!" was the command. Our driver, Bairat, who by the way always had a smile on his face, didn't speak much English, but that he understood. J

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ust before sundown we arrived at the camp where we were to spend the night. The sunset was incredible as was the (full) moonrise. We had Mongolian tea (a kind of salty goat milk) and ate dinner, consisting of small mixed pieces of mutton and rice, together with the family while our guide, Saga, explained about the local customs and translated some questions for us. The family really made us feel welcome and we had a great first night in the Gobi. We went back to our ger, which they had warmed up for us by making a fire in the stove. The fuel was cow dung...

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We slept like babies and since it was so cold in the morning nobody would have wanted to get up unless half an hour before it was time, our hosts lit the stove for us. That was great! Breakfast was fried bread and tea. We paid our 4000 per person before leaving (3.5 USD) and said goodbye.

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The program for the day was to drive another 300km through the wilderness, and stop on the way at the "Mud Cliffs" for dinner. First we stopped at an old temple in the middle of nowhere.

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We bumped in to our first herd of camels and called -"Bairat, STOP!" to check them out. Later we would see camels from time to time as we made our way through the gobi.

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When we arrived at the mud cliffs we walked around the area. There are many crystals scattered around on the ground and the dirt is in shifting tones of red, brown and yellow.

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We then had lunch on top of the plateau that makes out the cliffs. We cooked inside the van which is a good way to avoid the sand and ocasional winds but maybe its not the safest way to cook.

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On the way we saw some mirages, it really looked like lakes in the middle of the desert, but in the end there was just more desert. In the evening we arrived at Dalazadgad village (1450m above sea level) where we arrived late at night and had some difficulties to find the tent in the dark after that all of us had had our showers at the local "bath house".

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Since we were in a "village" we had an electric light in the tent, but no heating so it got quite cold. We had our rice and mutton (Soya meat for the vegetarians again) in our own tent and went to bed.

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After a breakfast of crackers and tea we played some football and packed ourselves in the van again.

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We drove about 300km on bouncy roads to the Ice valley or Yolyn Am (Vulture Canyon), without ice now because of heavy rains earlier this year. Wildflowers line the banks of the gently flowing stream. It was beautiful and we truly enjoyed the scenery and also managed to photograph some of the many "Pikas", squirrel-sized members of the rabbit family with little round ears, who pop in and out of their burrows all around the place.

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We then had a little pick nick lunch before we went straight to the next stop to save one day and to be able to fully enjoy the "Sand Dunes" where we spent two nights. After leaving the valley we had a nice ride through some beautiful terrain. We asked our driver to stop a couple of times and just enjoyed the views.

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As the sun started to set we had still not reached the campsite. We encountered a group of camels and took the opportunity to strech our legs and get a couple of nice photographs of the animals.

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The place is called "Khongoryn Els" and is a spectacular line of sand dunes (180km long and 12km wide) in a valley squeezed between mountains. The highest dunes are some 200 meters. It was more the desert that we had expected and it was nice to not have to get up as early and bounce around in the car all day. Emma had a cold and spent the whole day in bed and Dee, who seems to only need a couple of hours sleep per night, was up before sunrise anyway. Orna, the family's daughter played with us and Sabrina and I went on our first camel ride through the desert. Dinner was pasta and vegetables for all (Dee and I were tired of the mutton and had decided to become temporary vegetarians).

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We also made a new friend. The lovely daughter of the family named Orna. She played with us and showed us how to treat the animals. Also she showed us what to do if you drop a candy on the ground. First you whipe it off on the goat and then you let the dog lick it and, abra cadabra, you can eat it again...

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Saga went with us on the camelride which started at a neighbouring nomad camp. We drove there and rode the camels back to our camp. On the way we met Dee who had went on a walk to the dunes.

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The following day, after the tea and crackers, we drove to Bayanzag, better known as "Flaming Cliffs". It’s a red-tinted badlands famous for dinosaur fossil discoveries that began in the 20's and continue to this day. On the way we stopped in a small village for some food.

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At the Flaming cliffs we walked around a bit, enjoying the grand views and the nice weather.

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The night we were lucky enough to experience a real ger inauguration party. The tradition is that when a couple gets married, the groom’s family gives them a ger and the bride’s family provides the furniture. We met the lucky couple and sat with the groom and his brother in law who, waiting for the bride’s family, had started the celebration with our guide and driver. We were offered "Mongolian vodka" it’s the rest liquid from yoghurt production, mixed with vodka. It has a really "goaty" taste. The other drink we were offered was "Mongolian beer", fermented mares (horse) milk. The third was the normal, Russian style, vodka. Our guide and driver was drinking the "beer" mixed with the Russian style vodka from big bowls (1,5 liters or so). The Mongolians are very bound by many traditions and our guide helped us so that we would not offend our hosts. We had many difficulties to gracefully decline the beverages and in the end I had to drink 4 shots of vodka and 2 silver bowls of the Mongolian Vodka. After that they started passing around the big "milk bowl" again. The only way not to have to drink it was to sing three songs. Our driver and guide sang beautifully together with the others, traditional Mongolian songs about their lands, parents etc. Then Dee got the bowl and started to look a little bit nervous. She started with some local Dutch song which everybody enjoyed and nobody understood anything of. Then I think she sang some Christmas song and finally "Allstar" from the firs Shreck movie. She happily returned the bowl and it was passed to me. Now I had had a little moment to prepare so I started with the obvious choice, the Swedish national anthem. It worked. Then it got a bit harder, but since they wouldn't understand a word anyway, I sang a lullaby. For the last one I had a really tough time figuring it out, until Sabrina got the idea and we sang a Swedish birthday song together and I got rid of the smelly milk. Now Sabrina was up. She wasn't prepared at all and had to think for a while. She started with a German Christmas song, "Oh Tannenbaum" and then after much thought, "Alle meine Entchen". For the last one she chose "Schneefloeckchen", or rather a quick version. We got out of there before they could serve us any more food or drinks. Puhhh.

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The next day we started the final part of the tour. We had seen a lot of animals during the trip but especially during this last day did we really see many. We saw Gazelles, Buzzards, gophers, dessert mice, camels, horses, goats and even a dessert fox.

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To sum it up, Gobi is great!!!

Lots of Love,

Fredrik and Sabrina

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PS 1 The toilets were quite special. A huge hole in the ground with two stones, planks or something to stand on while leaving a gap in between for your "business". Check it out!

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PS 2 We will upload some more photos shortly!!

Posted by fredrik_p 05:39 Archived in Mongolia Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

Train from Irkutsk to Ulan Bataar

Trans-Siberian Railway part 2 (the trans-Mongolian)

sunny 13 °C

The taxi was of course not there in time at the hotel and we started getting a bit nervous. The reception ordered another one and finally it arrived. The driver looked exactly like the typical russian goone from a Hollywood movie. He didn't understand "train station" but when I imitated a train saying - "Chooo chooo" he smiled and off we went. 5 or 10 minutes later we arrived at the train station and the russian gorilla said with a smile - "Chooo chooo".

The train was full of tourists again but not as many as the first train and we didn't see as many Swedes this time. We got to share our compartment with a really nice couple from Germany, Teresa and Stefan. Teresa is 7 months pregnant and both have travelled all over and lived in different countries working with "Doctors without borders". I guess you can imagine how incredibly interesting it was talking to the two of them the whole way to Mongolia.

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The train left at 5.43 in the morning and was scheduled to arrive in Ulan Bataar at 7.30 in the morning the day after. The funny thing is that there was another train that left Irkutsk (also headed for Ulan Bataar) about 8 hours before our train but scheduled to arrive just 25 minutes before us! I think its a cheaper one and more locals take it so the Russian customs want more time looking through that one. Anyway, the trip was beautiful.

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It was great to see the Lake Baikal and then to see the scenery change as we came closer to Mongolia. The sunrise was beautiful and it was great to see the first "gers", the traditional Mongolian nomad tents and the animals in the countryside. It all went superb and we enjoyed the ride.

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We arrived in Ulan Bataar on schedule and were picked up by somebody from the hostal. All of a sudden Emma was there! You remember, Emma? We shared compartment with her and her boyfriend Robert from Moscow to Irkutsk. Now they were planning to go for a 9 or 7 day tour of the Gobi desert and needed more people. We decided to think about it for a little while and to meet up again as soon as we had installed ourselves at the hostal and taken a shower.

Take care for now,

Fredrik and Sabrina

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PS We will upload some photos shortly!

Posted by fredrik_p 23:05 Archived in Mongolia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Irkutsk

Lake Baikal in Sibiria

semi-overcast 13 °C

Irkutsk is situated 5,185 kilometers by rail from Moscow. It's situated in Siberia and has a subarctic climate, characterized by extreme variations of temperatures between seasons. Temperatures can be very warm in the summer, and brutally cold in the winter. The warmest month of the year in Irkutsk is July, when the average (between day and night) temperature is +18, and the coldest month of the year is January, when the average temperature is only −19 "C . Irkutsk is situated in a landscape of rolling hills within the thick taiga, typical of eastern Siberia, and in contrast to the flat, open steppe of western Siberia.

We arrived early in the morning and walked for 20 minutes from the Train Station through the rain and dark to our hotel.

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Luckily we could access our room already and we had a nice breakfast (buffet). We took a long shower and had a nice rest after which we went out to try and find an internet cafe. It was still raining and cold and we were quickly quite wet. After a few hours of walking around without finding an open internet cafe we went into a nice restaurant. We managed to get something to eat and dried up. We then finally found our internet cafe (with the help of a very friendly local language student), called home and sent some e-mails.

In the evening we met two Austrians, father and son, Walter and Walter, who we had met already on the train from Moscow. They had booked a tour with a german speaking guide the following day and we decided to go with them. They were coming from "The Russian Tea House" which they could recommend and we went there for some tea and traditional "Blinis", russian pancakes. Yummy.

The day after we packed ourselves in a van to do the tour. It consited of a drive with the four of us, our guide Olga and the driver (who's name most probably could have been Ivan).

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The first stop was at an outdoor museum ("Taltsy Museum of Wooden Architecture") showing different traditional houses and the way of life in Siberia during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Buildings include farm houses, a Church, a Chapel a School and an eye-catching watchtower.

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The second stop was the natural museum (Limnological Institute) where we could learn a bit more about the local geography, flora and fauna. They kept local fish as well as a couple of the endemic "Nerpa seals" in tanks.

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After the museum we arrived at Lake Baikal. We were hungry and luckily our guide had booked a local restaurant there. We had "Omul" (a cousin of salmon and trout) endemic to the lake, wrapped in hash browns and filled with sourcream. We drank "Mors", cranberry juice, which normally is accompanied by vodka (but not this time). The meal was a true delicacy.

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The third stop was the village of Listvyanka right at the lake, which by the way, is the deepest lake in the world with its 1,637 meters. That means its the largest freshwater lake by volume (23,000 km³), containing approximately twenty percent of the world's total surface fresh water. People didn't really know that much about Lake Baikal until the Trans-Siberian railway was built between 1896 and 1902. It was however quite impressive and a beautiful sight.

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The fourth stop was at the local skiing slope from where we had some beautiful views.

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The fifth and last stop was at a supermarket. We bought some food for the train ride to Mongolia and were amazed by the range of stuff they had.

We had a great time in Irkutsk and lake Baikal and would love to be able to come back one day. Maybe in March to experience the Siberian wintertime (when it's not too harsh). For those who like running (Nick and Kirsti?) we also heard that in March they have a Marathon on the lake. That would be a challenge!!

Lots of Love,

Fredrik and Sabrina

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Posted by fredrik_p 23:03 Archived in Russia Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Train from Moscow to Irkutsk (3,5 days journey)

The Trans-Siberian railway, part 1

rain 12 °C
View The Big Trip 2007 on sabrinakam's travel map.

We were not the only ones waiting for the train. The hall at the station was pretty crowded. A military woman with a mean looking dog was kicking out the drunks who were trying to get a rest inside for a while. The track from which our train would be departing came up on the board and many started moving towards the tracks. A large group of policemen stood in the doors where we had to pass and picked out some people to check their papers but not us.

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Outside, waiting to get on the train, we met a couple of large groups of Swedes. We got the impression that there were many foreigners, actually more than Russians, who were going with the train.

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We shared our cabin with a very nice Swedish couple, Robert and Emma, who were just starting an approximately 9 month long trip through Russia, China, South-East Asia and hopefully Tibet too.

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The Cars
We were traveling in the last part of the train, the Russian cars where all passengers with destinations in Russia were. Food was distributed (some crackers, sausage and tea for breakfast and a small lunch box for lunch) only to these passengers. These were also the oldest and most worn down cars but as it turned out, with the best heating! The first night I was sweating like a bull even though I slept in shorts and a t-shirt. The second night I was a bit more clever and slept without the blanket and it was ok. And as we traveled further east it got a bit colder and soon the temperature in our car was perfect while others were complaining about the cold. Other cars were the Chinese, a bit more modern, cars with a lot of staff. Then there was the first class cars, which I think also were in the Chinese part of the train.

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Food
We didn’t know what to expect food wise, so we had bought some food before getting on the train. Some bread, marmalade, nuts and dried fruits, water, and some fruits. When the train stopped the first time we picked up some juice, cookies and bread and with the lunch boxes we didn’t manage to finish everything before getting off in Irkutsk. At many of the stops food was available in many forms or shapes, dried fish, pastries, cookies, fruits, bread, or entire meals.

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Stops
The train was pretty punctual. There was a timetable on the wall detailing all the stops with minute precision. To our surprise the train kept quite punctual and only at the end was it a little behind schedule. The stops were very precise and always between 15 and 23 minutes. Some people almost were left behind at a station with a 15 min stop as they had to wait in the kiosk queue. It was really interesting to watch people and just see everything that was going on. The stops were about every three hours or so and the highlight of the day.

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Hygiene
There were no showers but we had two bathrooms in our car. There was a sink and it wasn’t too difficult to keep clean and relatively fresh.

Activities
We played some board games, read a lot, talked more, looked out the windows, took photos here is some of what we saw:

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Then we ate, slept and generally just enjoyed each others company. It was great! The time flew and all of a sudden we were in Irkutsk!!!

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Bye for now and take care!!!!!!!

Love,

Fredrik and Sabrina

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Posted by sabrinakam 03:16 Archived in Russia Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Moscow

overcast 13 °C
View The Big Trip 2007 on sabrinakam's travel map.

Hello there!!!

We have now (18 Sep) spent 5 days in Moscow and it’s time to carry on our eastward journey. But before let me tell you what we experienced in the Russian metropolis.

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To our surprise, the hotel we booked through our travel agency had a really good standard with nice rooms, TV (some international news channels), quite good (English speaking) service, Internet access, big breakfast buffet and so on. By the way, it has so far been the most expensive hotel on our whole trip, 1.200 Kr (130 Euros or 180 Dollars) for a double room with breakfast buffet. Since we were dead beat after our train ride from St. Petersburg to Moscow and adding the terrible weather, it rained cats and dogs, we took it really easy the first day. We had a solid breakfast, took a nap, watched TV, explored the hotel, used the Internet, called home etc. The only productive thing we managed that day was to pick up our pre-booked train tickets to Irkutsk and Ulan Bator from the Leningradsky train station. We took the metro and after some disorientated moves at the station, we found the office from where we were supposed to pick up the tickets.

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The second day well rested and to some extend acclimatized, we were ready for Moscow downtown. The weather hadn’t improved too much, the sky was still covered in grey colors, so we decided to go to the State Tretyakov Gallery, the foremost depository of Russian fine art in the world, with a fantastic collection of Russian icons and other pre-revolutionary Russian art. The museum was a big hit for both Fredrik and me. As Western European one has seen fine arts from countries such as Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, the US, the UK but Russian art somehow has never come to our sight before. We rented an audio guide and found it most interesting to listen to the different interpretations of and histories behind the paintings. Unfortunately but not that surprisingly, we were not allowed to take photos inside the museum so you have to come and see the Tretyakov Gallery for yourself.

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After the museum, we strolled around. We walked through a park where we saw at least 6 couples of brides and grooms with their friends and family posing in front of reflex and video cameras. We also discovered a piece of art which made an impression on us. Close to the park we found some “iron” trees decorated with masses of spring locks. Each spring lock had two names and a date engraved, probably two beloved ones hoping or wishing their love to last forever. Cute!!!

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From the park we carried on walking towards the Kremlin. By the way, Kremlin is the Russian word for "fortress", "citadel", or "castle" and refers to any major fortified central complex found in historic Russian cities. We crossed a bridge from where we had the first views of the stately Kremlin, the apex of Russian political power and once the centre of the Orthodox Church. It is not only the kernel of Moscow but of the whole country. It’s from here that autocratic tsars, communist dictators and democratic presidents have done their best and worst for Russia. We decided to visit the Muscovite “fortress” the next day and kept walking along its high walls through the Aleksandrovsky Gardens, along the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” where we stopped and took photos. The Tomb contains the remains of a soldier who died in December 1941 at Leningradskoe sh, the nearest the Nazis came to Moscow.

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We kept walking in the hope to get to see the Red Square which lies outside the Kremlin walls. It was once a market square but during the centuries it has been a place where the occupants of the Kremlin chose to congregate, celebrate and castigate for all the people to see. To our surprise, the Red Square was fenced in and guarded; we could not get to it. We found out that there was an International Military Tattoo taking place, where 47 military bands from around the world would come together and perform, inspired by the Edinburgh’s Military Tattoo. What an amazing thing we thought in particular thinking of the location, Red Square. Wow!!!! We got some tickets for the next day or I should better say night. Fantastic!!!!

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After a walk through and a short break at the GUM shopping mall, housed in a beautiful 19th century building with elegant and pricey shops, we finished our downtown trip for the day with dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Yummy!!!

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The next day we were ready for the Kremlin. We were lucky, after having bought the tickets, we got in right away. We passed the Trinity Gate Tower started to wander around a bit until we heard the sound of a loud whistle from somewhere. Obviously, we had entered into an out-of-bounds area and the Kremlin police informed us “nicely” to stay out of there. There were no signs however, that could tell us where the out-of-bounds areas were. From time to time we heard the whistle and then we knew. We felt like dogs on training!

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Eventually, we made it to the main attraction of the Kremlin, the Sabornaya Square with its beautiful, ancient cathedrals, palace and bell tower. The Assumption Cathedral was built between 1475 and 1479 and is the focal church of pre-revolutionary Russia. It is the burial place of most heads of the Russian Orthodox Church form the 1320s to 1700. The Annunciation Cathedral, built in 1489, was the royal family’s private chapel. Both cathedrals contain some stunning icons. No photos, sorry!!!

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After a quick lunch break, we made our way to the Armory, a numbingly opulent collection of treasures accumulated over time by the Russian State and Church. We were above all impressed by the Faberge eggs, jeweled eggs made by Peter Carl Faberge for the Russian Tsars between 1885 and 1917, the joint coronation throne of boy tsars Peter (the Great) and his half-brother Ivan V with a secret compartment, baroque style horse coaches and gilded, gem covered jackets. Brilliant, in the full sense of the word!!!

Then at 7.00 pm we made our way to the Red Square to see the Military Tattoo. The view from the galleries was spectacular. We had St. Basils church, the towers and wall of the Kremlin right in front of us and thousands of Russians around us waiting for the music spectacle to start. Little by little it got darker and the illumination of the Red Square went on. Fantastic, what a view! The military bands started their show. We saw dancers from Ukraine, Danish, German and Russian military bands playing their drums and trumpets and others juggling their rifles to the music. There were Italian standard-bearers throwing their flags into the air and a huge multicultural bagpipers group with Australians, Canadians, Scottish and English played in full tones on their pipes. All together 1500 musicians and dancers came together who entertained an audience of about 40.000 people. And we were in between!!! What an amazing experience!!

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The following day we visited St. Basil's Cathedral. Rising from the slope at Red Square's southern end, this crazy confusion of colors and shapes was created between 1555 and 1561, replacing an existing church, to celebrate Ivan the Terrible's taking of the Tatar stronghold of Kazan. Its design is the culmination of wholly Russian style that had been developed for building wooden churches.

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The same day we allowed ourselves a real splurge at the Pushkin Café, the queen mother of haute russe dining, with an exquisite blend of Russian and French cuisines. Delicious!!!

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Our last day in Moscow was filled with packing, buying food and getting ready for our Trans-Siberian train trip to Irkutsk, mailing home CDs with our digital photos, loading up photos on the internet etc. At 19.30 we got picked up by a taxi (we shared the taxi with a Swedish couple we met at the hotel who had the same destination) to the train station (Yaroslavl Station) where we waited for the train that should take us to Siberia.

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Before I leave you here, some words about the Russians or the Muscovites. Apart from very few exceptions –like the receptionist in St. Petersburg whose shining teeth we never saw -, the Russians are very friendly people, always willing to help, for example, when you are lost in the street or need some translation help with the Russian menu. The only Russian words we really learned are “spasiba” (thank you), “pazhalsta” (you’re welcome), “dobraye-utra” (good morning) and “dasvidanya” (goodbye), somehow it works. The funny thing is, people in the street kept asking us things (actually, we have no clue what they were asking) as if we were locals. Somehow we must have blended in quite well with our grey outfits and bum bags. The only thing that was missing to make the look perfect was to have a cigarette in one hand and a beer bottle in the other.

That’s all for now, dear friends, but there is more to come in the next reports.

Big hugs and kisses,

Sabrina and Fredrik

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Posted by sabrinakam 16:49 Archived in Russia Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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