I have one more night sleeping on the rails but technically I can check the Trans-Siberian Railway off my “must do” list. I traveled 4,735 mile (7,621km) by railroad from Beijing, China to Moscow, Russia.
It was actually 3 separate train trips, the Trans-Mongolian, Trans-Siberian and Trans-Ural. The trip included time spent on a Chinese, Mongolian and Russian operated train. In 2nd class we slept in berths that accommodated 4 people. All of the trains had western style toilets, ( on 3 trains the toilets were placed over holes that emptied on the train tracks below) clean sheets and scolding hot water for coffee and noodles.
It was if the quality of the trains increased the farther west we traveled . The Chinese train was hot but the windows opened and there was a fan in each sleeper. The Mongolian train was older but it had a beautiful dining cart decorated with carved wood. The windows on the Russian trains don’t open. But they were air-conditioner. The first Russian train was the only time I didn’t have to use baby wipes to shower before going to bed. I was able to take a shower. (Under these circumstances I am referring to a metal bucket of steaming hot water and a scooper made from the bottom part of a plastic water bottle as a shower.) The train going to Moscow was new with all the modern amenities and the service was first class.
The experiences aboard the trains were interesting but the real highlight was watching the landscape change from my seat by the window. Unfortunately my final train trip will consist of a room without a view; the Moscow to St. Petersburg rail is overnight.
Leaving Mongolia was difficult, not only because I wanted to spend more time there but also because the border crossing into Russia took about 6 hours. The only real hardship was not being able to use the loo. Whenever the train pulls into a station the bathrooms, which have a western style toilet over the hole in the floor, are locked. Anticipating this my morning coffee wasn’t consumed until the afternoon when we were on the move again. The destination was the shore of Lake Baikal, also known as “The Pearl of Siberia,” where I would spend the night.
Lake Baikal is not only the deepest lake in the world (5,714 feet) but it is the largest freshwater lake in Europe and Asia. Upon arrival the group I am traveling with (an awesome collection of people) went to eat the local smoked fish while I rented a bicycle and took a spin around this quaint southern Siberian town. Although it was a warm day and the sun was shining but at 6 degrees celsius ( 42F) my foot is the only part of my body that made it into the clear calm water.
As I sat on the pebbled beach every so often there would be a ripple in the water and I could spot the head of a seal emerge to take a breath.
The night at the lake ended with a visit to a man named Nicholi’s home for a banya. (Russian sauna) An experience that was… well I think the word interesting will have to do to describe it.
The next stop will be Yekaterinburg, Russian. It is just a 48-hour train ride away.
As the train left behind the mountains and gorges just outside Beijing, China the view from my seat at the window seemed to suddenly change. We were in the Gobi Desert. Perhaps the difference in landscape, the gravel plains, seemed so abrupt because it was separated by the cover of darkness. The dust that blanketed our 4 person sleeper only confirmed that our trip through the northernmost desert in the world continued throughout the night while we were asleep.
As we traveled closer to the interior of Mongolia the panorama was spectacular. The rolling hills and the endless flats of the prairie were deep green. The grasslands appeared to have been perfectly mowed and they had been by a rotation of livestock that roams this part of the world.
Mongolians are nomads and the white round structures that dot the scenery are the gers they live in. A ger in the west is known as a yurt. It is a lightweight collapsible structure that is easy to move. It is made of thick layers of felt and has a stove in the center that acts as a heater during the cold season. Many families continue to live in gers that they set up throughout the Mongolian Steppes where their herds of livestock graze.
In 2015 Mongolia counted its animals and livestock and found 55.9 million in the country which included over 3.2 million horses, thus the number of horses in Mongolia are nearly the same as the population.
As the train neared Ulaanbaatar, the biggest city in Mongolia, the green grassland and the white gers fight for space with permanent structures. Thankfully after 30 hours the view from the window hasn’t lost its appeal, the homes that line the hills are painted colors of a rainbow.
I have a good feeling about Mongolia and I can’t wait to get off this train so I can get personal with this place.
As I zigzagged through the Disney-esque immigration line marked “Foreigners” I thought with a smile I’m in China. A country which for some reason has never made it on my must see list. If it wasn’t for my desire to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway, I am not sure I’d ever get around to visiting Beijing.
It was no surprise that Beijing was a big crowded yet very clean city. I saw the sights that in picture form always accompany articles where the words China and travel are found in the same sentence: The Forbidden City, The Great Wall of China and an acrobatics show. Each was much more impressive in person than in print. And of course I went to Tiananmen Square, a place my guide left recent history out of his lecture on all the important events that took place in the square.
After a few days of sightseeing, sampling the local cuisine and elbowing my way onto the user friendly subway I was ready for what I expect to be the highlight of this trip, Mongolia.
The modern Beijing train station is where I embarked on the first leg of my journey by boarding the Trans-Mongolian Railway. The trip was to take about 26 hours before arriving in Ulan Bator.
The sun was just above the horizon when the train stopped at the first platform of the new day. All the passengers were still in their berths. I assume they were asleep; about 6 hours before we went through an eventful border crossing that entailed more than just a passport and visa check. The wheels on the train needed to be changed because in Russian the railroad line is wider than the tracks that took us through China. After three hours at the border we finally left China in the dust, literally.
The platform where I am now standing was the beginning of this adventure to the country I have been anxious enough to wake up early. Alone I stood watching the sunrise over Mongolia.
As I left Malapascua Island by boat I took one last look at the beauty that surrounded me. It was the perfect closing shot to an amazing month in a country that for some reason I appreciated more with each passing day.
The deck of the banca with its bright orange paint and its multicolor outriggers glided over the translucent blue sea as we headed for the neighboring island where the airport is located. From the boat there was no mistaken the rich green of the palms fronds covering the inland and the line of white from the sand on the shoreline where we were headed. Soaking this in I thought to myself how the Filipino people were just as warm and colorful as the inviting islands they lived on. I met a lot of wonderful locals, travelers and expats.
Whether it was drinking a glass of beer with my Filipino friend in front of his home with its metal walls and roof that didn’t properly align or sharing a meal with my new friends from Australia or Holland I enjoyed every moment.
There was rarely a day that didn’t involve a trip on a boat and a dip in the sea, two of my favorite things. I know there are at least 6995 islands of the Philippines I didn’t get to see but it is unlikely that I will return thus I am leaving with a heavy heart.
I gave my fins and rash guard to a young boy on the Island since I won’t need them where I am going. Tomorrow I head to Beijing where I will embark on a Trans-Siberian railroad trip.
What a difference a day will make.
I knew the minute I stepped off the boat that I was exactly where I was suppose to be. I often say I can feel the soul of a place the minute I arrive. As with many first impressions they are not always accurate but this time my intuition was spot on.
I love this island. Yes I said I could live in Siargao but for vacation this island in the Philippines is what I would call paradise. It’s quiet and quaint. There are no cars because the dirt and sandy roads are really narrow alley ways. Just off the beachfront there is a small village. The locals here are very friendly and walking alone even in the dark one still feels safe. I should know I got a bit lost last night. Although Malapascua is a tiny idyllic island there are just enough restaurants for variety unless you repeatedly extend your stay.
I’ve only extended my stay once. I planned for 3 nights but I’m now staying for 5. Good thing I came here last and I have a pre-booked flight or I would have had a very hard time getting off this island. It’s hard to resist good diving and a hotel where you have to enter from the beach. I can’t leave out the sunrises, no the sunsets, actually both are incredible even on a cloudy day. Thankfully it was worth the 2 hour ferry trip then the 3 hour cab ride and the last leg, a half hour Banca boat ride. Bancas are traditional Filipino boats. They have large outriggers made of bamboo but no sails, a very loud motor powers the boat.
I hadn’t planned on the cab but when I asked to go to the bus station the driver offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse, about 30 bucks less than the hotel quote for a private ride.
I didn’t hesitate because at times comfort and convenience are worth that extra expense. This island is so perfect to me in hindsight I would have walked just to get here. Ok maybe I would not have walked but definitely hitchhiked.
As a shark started circling I felt a tug on my BCD (vest that the tank is attached to) it was the dive master. I don’t know if he grabbed me for safety reason, to keep me still or to make sure I didn’t get any closer. Whatever the reason was I didn’t care the sharks didn’t seem interested in us plus I knew I was in good hands.
Thresher Sharks are also known as “fox sharks.” Their tail-fins can be longer than their body and they use it as a weapon that can be as deadly as their teeth. Waking up before the sun is the only guarantee to see the Thresher Sharks as they swim through the cleaning station. Here they say that Malapascua Island in the Philippines is the only place you are guaranteed to see these sharks all year long.
I went on two dives and both times I had the pleasure to see these beautiful creatures up close. Today’s dive was just plain awesome. We saw a few sharks swim by when we were down 31 meters (101 feet). Being down so deep a diver can only remain a short period of time. After a few minutes we made our ascent.
As we were headed for shallower water I heard the dive master grunt. I turned in time to see him point to nothing but wide-open blue water as he put his other hand over his forehead making the shark sign. Of course I had been taking pictures of the colorful starfish and apparently missed another shark swim by. I thought to myself oh well at least my dive buddy saw it.
Unbeknown to me we started swimming in the direction the shark took. At 15 meters (49 feet) we found another Thresher. This one also decided do a few laps in front of us. (There’s video on the FB page) I wasn’t nervous at all; to me it felt as if the shark knew it was being admired and it wanted to show off a bit.
I finally saw a whale shark, which would never have happened if my flight wasn’t canceled. Thank you my travel gods. The whale sharks were amazing. They are so huge and graceful. Truly gentle giants.
I don’t know what I was thinking by booking that flight other than Apo Island is suppose to be one of the best dive destinations in the Philippines. But it’s shark week or so I read somewhere that it was. In honor of shark week I decided to skip Apo Island (plus I’m not in the mood to deal with rustic) and head to Malapascua Island instead.
Malapascua was on my radar early in the trip but I had been reluctant to travel there because a ship recently ran aground and the reports were that it damaged the reef. Light bulb moment, I am not going for the reef I’m going for the cleaning station where the Thresher Sharks are known to hangout year ’round
Once I pulled my head out of the sand, I realized I have to go there before I leave. This could be my only chance to see a Thresher Shark. Three weeks ago I didn’t even know what a Thresher Shark was and now I hope to see at least one.
Plus it’s about time I spoil myself with a fancy place to stay. I’m going upscale splurging in the Philippines for a $55 a night room and that’s the promotional rate. Hopefully it will all be worth it and I will be posting shark pictures soon.
Next up Malapascua for shark week!
The first thing I noticed when I arrived on Alona Beach on Panglao Island were all the tourists. The beach is littered with places to stay, eat and shop. At first glance it was a big disappointment after coming from Siargao. I found my two Aussies friends in the hotel pool and over a drink we discussed that we were afraid we had already experienced the best island in the Philippines. That was until I saw what was under the sea.
Wow, the plethora of dive shops now makes sense to me. I knew the diving here was suppose to be among the best in the Philippines but I heard that before so I wasn’t expecting much. I thought with all these people the reef can’t be healthy. Wrong again. I love to be wrong about things like this.
The diving was great! Sea turtles were everywhere and the frog fish, clownfish and nudibranchs come in all different colors. Eels, snakes, coral of all shapes and sizes it is just beautiful. (I’ll post more pictures on the Facebook page when I get a chance) The only thing missing was my brother, he’s my dive buddy back home.
Last night I thought I was going to make a quick escape from Panglao but after today, well I just extended my $23 a night room for two more days. Tomorrow’s plan involves snorkeling with the whale sharks.