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Moscow In 48 Hours

Moscow has long had a reputation as the one of the world’s most expensive cities to visit. I was warned by other travellers to make sure that I had a…

Moscow has long had a reputation as the one of the world’s most expensive cities to visit. I was warned by other travellers to make sure that I had a big budget and to keep my money safe when exploring the city. What an irony! This reputation could have stemmed from the Cold War where wealthy foreigners inhabited the city and they were charged exorbitant prices and treated like royalty. It doesn’t help that the city boasts the largest number of billionaires in the world – that’s 84 billionaires according to a Forbes report.

But this notion should not shun you from visiting Moscow. The city has so much to offer in terms of history, world iconic buildings such as St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, rich decadent food, spectacular metro (subway) stations, beautiful ballet and a vibrant arts scene. If you’re in for a splurge, dig deep into your pockets and sink into lavish beds at the Four Seasons, St. Regis, Ritz Carlton, the heritage Baltschug Kempinski, or for a family-friendly option, try Mamaison All-Suites. Dotted across the city are other more affordable accommodation options for the budget keepers. Try Petrovka Loft, Mercure Arbat or Ibis Moscow.

When it comes to tucking into a good meal there is no shortage of options. There are 2,750 restaurants dotted all across the city of Moscow and still counting. Make sure you check TripAdvisor for the current top ranking restaurants because competition is tight in the F&B scene. For a full Russian fare, definitely give Pushkin Cafe, Russkie Sezony and Dr. Zhivago a try. You will be enthralled by the grand 18th-century decor and be prepared to be served by waiters dressed in crisp suites and starched white aprons.

Getting around the city can be quite a challenge if you don’t read Russian Cyrillic, especially when using the Metro. So make sure you have some sort of translation app on your phone or stop passers-by on the way. You can also flag down almost any car on the road and, if it is going your way, it will become a taxi – again, that’s if you can speak Russian. The cheapest and most efficient option is to take the metro and the city is very pedestrian friendly.

Now let’s get to it. If you had 48 hours in this dazzling city, here are some suggested must do’s to capture the pulse of Moscow.

(FREE) Walking Tour

Walk tour moscow

Yes, you read it right. It’s free with an option to tip at the end of the tour. Usually, most people tip because these walk tours are highly informative, very engaging and it helps you navigate in a new city. I recommend taking the tour on the day of arrival as I found that incredibly useful especially when it comes to insider tips at the end of the tour about where to eat, shop for souvenirs and things to see.

The Red Square & Kremlin

Red Square

There is no escaping this – the Red Square remains the essential starting point for sightseeing in Moscow. Red Square is an expanse of space bordered by the colourful and charming St Basil’s Cathedral, with its iconic spiral domes; the historical GUM State Department store – where only international luxury brands make it here, the massive Kremlin – the famous seat of Russian rule and the Lenin Mausoleum – where you will have a chance to ‘meet’ the ruler himself in a glass casket.

You can easily spend more than half a day in the Kremlin – within its walls are enormous palace complexes, old cathedrals and a house of just for armoury, bedazzling jewels, carriages and thrones. The ticket prices vary, get your ticket at the ticket office on site and it opens at 9am. The Kremlin is closed on Thursdays.

Moscow night

You need to see the Red Square by day and by night. The lights from the GUM department store, the evening glow from the museum, the illuminated St. Basil’s Cathedral and clock towers in the Kremlin is a wonderland after night fall. If there is one attraction in Moscow worth seeing twice, it is Red Square. Head there again when it’s dark to see the evening glow on St Basil’s and the GUM department store.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

St Basils

Although it’s often seen as part of the Red Square, the beautiful cathedral has garnered a name for itself and is known as the unofficial icon of Moscow. The Cathedral’s full name is the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat – thankfully Ivan the Terrible who commissioned the building of the cathedral shorted it to St. Basil. Named after a holy hermit who lived on the streets, Ivan the Terrible seemed to have found a liking for him. Legend has it that after the architect finished building the cathedral his eyes were gouged upon the strict command of Ivan the Terrible because the ruler did not want him to build another cathedral as beautiful as this.

Contrary to popular belief, St. Basil’s Cathedral is not just one church, instead it is a cluster of nine churches sitting on one foundation. The interior of the church is not airy and spacious, instead it is narrow and winding. Get tickets and explore the interiors of the church while appreciating the view of the Red Square from the many small odd-shaped windows.

GUM Department Store

GUM

Even if you don’t purchase anything from here, it is still worth a stroll. The high domed ceiling and open bridges connecting the floors are an exquisite example of pre-revolution architecture. If your legs give way after a full day of exploring, this is a great place to chill and have a cuppa. You have to try the famous ice cream here. I heard from a local that the ice cream sold at GUM dates back to the Soviet era where children could be seen walking out of the departmental store with a cone in hand.

Bolshoi Theatre

Bolshoi

The historical Bolshoi theatre is home to some of the best ballet shows such as Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty and Romeo & Juliet. Book in advance if you want to catch a show here. There are standing tickets available and ticket counters open two hours before the actual show, but be sure to stand in line early as tickets get snapped up pretty quickly.

Gorky Park

Gorky Park

The Central Park of Moscow, this green lung has a small man-made ‘beach’, lakes to paddle in, playgrounds and carousels for children. There are also fountains, skateboarding ramps, running trails along the Moscow River and plenty of space to bask. On weekends and on weekdays, Gorky is packed and you’d never go hungry with plenty of food stalls to choose from – corn, sandwiches, hot dogs, ice cream, you name it. Be sure to also check out the latest funky Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

Explore the Metro

Moscow-metro

Moscow’s metro is no ordinary subway, not just because some stations were dug deep to serve as bomb shelters (the escalators are incredibly steep), but because the metro stations are in itself a work of art. It is said that the metro stations were designed with intricate carvings, elaborate hanging lamps and etched with paintings as a channel for art to commoners who otherwise had no access to the elite world. Notable metros include; Komsomolskaya, Taganskaya and Prospekt Mira.

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Travel Guide: The BEST Of Siem Reap

There is so much to see in Siem Reap and this little province is bursting out of its seams with eateries, pubs, boutiques, markets and entertainment aplenty. Of course, you…

Siem Reap Travel Guide
There is so much to see in Siem Reap and this little province is bursting out of its seams with eateries, pubs, boutiques, markets and entertainment aplenty. Of course, you can’t avoid the fact that the magnificent ancient Angkor Wat sits at the very center of this booming province making it an essential destination when you travel Cambodia.

I have to admit, every time I make a trip to Siem Reap I’m bubbling with excitement – it’s that sense of familiarity – going back to favourite restaurants and massage spas, coupled with the sense of curiosity – trying out that new cafe or staying at the new hotel that keeps the anticipation stirring. I live three-hours away from Siem Reap, in the lovely countryside province called Battambang. While I absolutely love the laid back, friendly, local lifestyle here, I’m ever ready to play tour guide when it comes to bringing visitors to Siem Reap.

When, Smart Travel Asia contacted me to write a guide for Siem Reap, I was thrilled! The link below will lead you to a comprehensive guide to the province’s BEST. So pass the word around to anyone you know who’s planning a visit to Siem Reap – read it before you arrive, it’ll help you make the most of your visit.

P/s: If you have a few more days to spare, take a bus or a cruise to Battambang. I assure you, the people, ancient temples and old French buildings will make for a charming stopover.

Go to Smart Travel Asiahttp://www.smarttravelasia.com/angkor.htm for the full travel guide.
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Heritage Suites, Siem Reap: Hospitality With Heart

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s…

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s economic progress. Travel ten kilometres out of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s vibrant tourist town centre and you will see the real Cambodia – wooden stilt homes, lack of proper toilets and roads ridden with pot holes.

Now travel back to the heart of Siem Reap and the reality can easily be forgotten. Five-star and luxury boutique hotels, restaurants that cater for any palate with international standards in mind, wine bars and even designer boutiques – but none of these places are patronised by locals. They are established to serve the growing stream of tourists that have been increasing since the tourism boom in 2002.

Cambodia countryside

Those who stand behind the counter and serve the food and drinks are local Cambodians. They are young people who travel out from the countryside to seek employment in hope for a better life. Alongside this boom, organisations have sought to do more for Cambodia through social responsibility initiatives. You don’t have to look hard and long before you spot another initiative that sounds something like this: “Helping local Cambodians craft a future” or “Alleviating poverty one bag at a time”. While all this is great, I can’t ignore the fact that many organisations have also jumped on the bandwagon for marketing gain. Jarring leaflets and posters stuck on walls, tacky and thick compendiums in hotel rooms and websites claiming that they can save the world. When staff are asked if they know of the hotel’s social commitment, they simply shrug their shoulders and hand me another leaflet.

That’s why when I came across a hotel like Heritage Suites and an organisation like Sala Bai, I’m duly refreshed to learn of their genuine commitment and sustainable efforts in helping people through practical ways. In the sea of copycats, there are genuine organisations that want to help and find a way to make their contribution more meaningful and lasting.

Heritage, Creating A Legacy

The luxury 26 room and suites boutique hotel is tucked away in Slokram Village not too far away from the buzz of Pub Street and the Night Markets, but far enough for a peaceful retreat. During the day, I hear children from the local school laughing and chatting and school bells ringing just behind the hotel’s compound walls and at night, along the street leading to the hotel, I watch families sitting out on their verandah enjoying a meal of rice, soup and vegetables. The hotel in all its luxury and top-notch service is set amongst a local Cambodian commune – the very thing that preserves its sense of place and community charm.

Heritage Suites

The facade is that of a French colonial building curtained by palm trees. The hotel’s lobby, restaurant and bar sharing the same space, a lofty open hall with a tall ceilings supported by timbers and grand massive candle lights hanging over top. The arched window panes and large panelled mirrors at the bar facilitate the flow of natural light and magnify the spaciousness of the restaurant.

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The same simplistic grandeur follows through into the suites. My bungalow suite had wall-to-ceiling windows with thick curtains that turn the suite from a bright and airy space into a slumber wonderland. The decor is minimalistic with an emphasis on Cambodian art and modern furnishings. The hallmark of the suite is the private steam room and stand alone oversized stone tub facing the private garden and open air shower.

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Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my suite, I wanted to understand Heritage’s stand on their community efforts. So I sat down for a chat with Magnus Olovson, the hotel’s general manager, a seasoned hospitality professional who’s been in the industry for years and leading in his game. “I’ve been doing corporate hospitality for so long and when I was given the opportunity to return to old fashion hospitality, I jumped at it”.

“What is old-fashioned hospitality?”, I asked. “It’s where I get to greet every guest by name and learn about their day. It’s like welcoming people into your home”. Just then, he spots a couple behind the thick glass doors alighting from the hotel’s vintage Mercedez. He politely excused himself to greet some guests that have just arrived from the airport. After a few handshakes, some jovial laughs and a warm welcome, he returned and candidly said, “My guests are important to me but my staff are so much more important. Without them, all this would not be possible”.

Magnus continued to explain Heritage’s partnership with Sala Bai, a hospitality vocational school that have trained over 1000 students in the last 13 years and given them job opportunities at world-class hotels in Siem Reap and beyond. “Look around, would you have guessed that they (the staff) come from really poor families? Look at them now, they are thriving and building a future of their own”.

Heritage Suites

Dressed in crisp black and white uniforms and a perpetual smile, the staff at Heritage Suites are all hands on deck. During my stay, I was met with prompt attentive service with the genuine warmth of Cambodian hospitality. I have stayed in Cambodia long enough to know that good job opportunities are hard to come by and even harder to keep. Cambodians, especially women have to battle with ongoing issues like human trafficking due to severe poverty and the social stigma that women are better off staying at home instead of working and earning a living. And those who fight through those battles have the chance to emerge as Cambodia’s new middle class.

Hope For Cambodia

Such is the story of Kim Hiv, a sweet, pretty, small statured lady with a big bright smile. At 27 years old, Thy Kim Hiv is the F&B supervisor at Heritage Suites and have hopes to climb the ranks in the future. Just five years ago, Kim Hiv’s story was extremely different. A graduating high schooler with no plans or means to further her studies, she heard from her neighbour about an application into Sala Bai school. She knew nothing about hospitality and her parents were disapproved of her decision to waitress as the job was frown upon and carried negative implications.

Kim Hiv Heritage Suites

After some persuasion, her parents agreed to her application into Sala Bai and she underwent seven months of intensive hospitality training with an additional four months of practical training. For Kim Hiv, this was the ideal opportunity as her food, lodging and tuition fees were completely paid for by Sala Bai and a job was guaranteed after her training.

“Heritage is my first job and I have been working here for five years. I am very lucky to learn about Sala Bai and when I started working, I help pay for my sister’s school fees”. Her family is one of many families living below the poverty line. They are simple farmers slogging to make ends meet. “Now, I am able to give my parents money too!”, Kim Hiv added with a wide grin. Schools like Sala Bai give hope to people who have little to look forward to. Sala Bai’s efforts are realistic with a clear goal in mind, to raise people from poverty and to create opportunities for a better life.

But the model won’t work without the commitment of hotels like Heritage Suites, the Raffles, Amansara and other trusted hospitality names. Heritage Suites give amateur hoteliers a chance to be further trained on the job and allow them equal opportunity to climb the ranks if they so desire.

As with all NGO organisations, Sala Bai is dependant on donations and have been thriving since with strong donor partnerships across the globe. Heritage saw an opportunity to give back and so every year since 2013, the hotel organises an annual charity gala dinner and auction at their beautiful property. This year in May, the gala titled ‘Changing Lives’ featured a culinary feasts prepared by Thailand’s rising culinary star Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn. The dinner was aimed at raising funds to help Sala Bai expand its new campus to accommodate more students. The gala was a glamorous success and Heritage raised a total of $15,000 in funds, which, for a property of its size, is truly remarkable.

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Social responsibility can be a fad that fades off over time for those who jump on the bandwagon, but genuine organisations are those that go the extra mile because they believe in the cause that would outlast the organisations lifetime.

Claude Colombie, director of Sala Bai explained, “Our model very simple, in a country as poor as Cambodia, we need to find real solutions that help close the gap. We find the poorest of the poor, educate them and give them a job. That’s it! And this model has proven successful over 13 years, families who earn less than $500 a year now have a daughter or a son who earns half or more a month and are able to support their families”.

It’s incredibly remarkable what a door of opportunity can do for one life, one family, one community. At Heritage Suites, there are no garish posters that spell “DONATE” or leaflets in the room’s compendium. Instead, an unassuming bicycle with a simple poster at the entrance explains the hotel’s partnership with Sala Bai. Hotel guests can donate if they wish and donations help pay for school materials and bicycles for the students to get to their place of work. The truest and most sincere testament of Heritage’s commitment to social responsibility is in the people, people like Kim Hiv who live to tell her story.

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Exploring Pokrovka In Moscow

We arrived in Moscow after a 40-hour train ride from Omsk. Two nights on the train with mediocre food and no shower, I was ready to jump off the train…

We arrived in Moscow after a 40-hour train ride from Omsk. Two nights on the train with mediocre food and no shower, I was ready to jump off the train and explore Moscow. Coming from the east, we made stops at Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Omsk – each city with its own distinctive charm but it lacked the buzz of a thriving metropolitan like Moscow. We exited the train station and caught a cab to our hotel. The sparkling clean city and her grand architecture stood out amidst the growing morning traffic.

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Moscow boasts the largest number of billionaires in the world according to a Forbes report with New York coming in second. I imagine this city has a lot to offer to satisfy the deep pockets of the rich. It wasn’t too hard to imagine when a group party goers followed from behind, dressed in designer cocktail dresses, to-die-for stilettos, crisp suits and shiny shoes as I entered into the lobby of Mamaison, an all-suites luxury hotel in Pokrovka.

This trendy property with a modern artistic feel is the perfect getaway for savvy executives, artsy hipsters and weekend staycationers. Our suite was bright and lively in a pastel palette of minimalistic and modern furnishing. It had all the mod-cons – a fully equipped kitchen, dining area, lounge and a separate bedroom with a large comfortable king sized bed. While the rooms are more modest in design, the wow factor is definitely in the choice of eclectic furnishings and elaborate chic-looking chandeliers at the hotel’s lobby and restaurant. mamaison1 Mamaisoniphone2

The neighbourhood around Mamaison was a great place to start our exploration around Moscow. Pokrovka Street is filled with dainty cafes, boutiques, upmarket bars and restaurants. When evening falls, the place comes alive and beats a different tune – friends mingling over a bottle of wine on outdoor terraces, live music from a nearby garden bar, families tucking into Japanese bento boxes. Walking the Pokrovka stretch was enough to convince me that Moscow is a melting pot of cultures.

mamaison

I later learned that the street itself had a wonderful history to keep. It was the first stone road build in the 17th century and it was the roadway that connected the Kremlin to the Tsars villages. This was an affluent and gilded neighbourhood speckled with large homes and opulent cathedrals. The glitz never wore off, instead it evolved with time. Old buildings and cathedrals have been restored to near perfection, some new buildings have been put up and sandwiched in between high-end restaurants and bars are small groceries shops – a reminder that this was once a residential neighbourhood.

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We cooked a full breakfast the following morning taking advantage of the fully equipped kitchen and fancy cutlery. Having slept in the train for two-nights, waking up to a sprawling living room and bacon sizzling in the kitchen is pure comfort.

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Putting it on the map: Mamaison All-Suites is located 40 minutes walk from the Red Square. That’s also where the Kremlin, Lenin mausoleum, GUM departmental store and the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral is located. It’s a 10 – 15 minutes walk to the closest metro station – Kurskaya Metro Station or 20 minutes walk to Kitay Gorod station.

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Terelj National Park: Explore Mongolia’s Backcountry

Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks…

Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks or more – some even up to a month! Initially, I was in disbelief – seriously, a month is a long time for one country, but it later evolved into an apologetic revelation with a regretful, “I wish I had planned a longer stay. I will come back for the Gobi desert, climb the Altai mountain range, bask at Lake Kovsgol, traverse Orkhon Valley”.

Safe to say, our experience at Terelj National Park remain one of the highlights throughout our TransSiberian adventure. Getting out of the city we passed undulating hills, plains flecked with gers and small country homes, and wild horses galloping in the distance with unrestrained freedom.

Trelj NP76We entered the national park after an hour plus on the road. I was looking forward to the seclusion and wilderness that it promised, but entering the park, I realised that this was a favourite holiday destination for locals – there were cars parked everywhere, holiday retreats on the left and right, gers made of brick and tour buses. After Naadam, locals made a beeline here for some rest. So, it’s not exactly off the beaten track. Thankfully, Terelj NP is massive, covering 1.2million acres of land – there is enough room for everyone to have their own open-plains experience.

The park is known for the gigantic Turtle Rock formation, named for its resemblance to a turtle. There are several monasteries within the park and we visited Ariyapala monastery. The climb up to the temple was unforgiving but the view at the top was well worth it. Inside the temple Buddhist monks sat crossed legged chanting almost in silent whispers, colourful flags danced to the gentle breeze and the wind chimes played a beautiful tune.

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Meeting Our Host Family

It was time to meet our host family, our four-wheel drive pulled into a small community of about five gers. Some horses grazing nearby against a mountainous backdrop. We entered into the family ger and felt immediately at home. The domed shape home was well lighted with natural light coming from the opening above, a sofa set, a tv, a few small cupboards and a small portable sink were lined neatly along its side. The centrepiece of the home as its kitchen, a wood-fire iron stove with a long chimney sticking up and out of the ger.

Trelj NP_iphone41Our host, Chan’gkhan (I think that’s how its spelt) was a pretty young woman with plump healthy cheeks and sparkling eyes is the mother to a one-year old boy and a superb multi-tasker. She cooks all meals, milks the horses every to hours, takes care of her son and ailing father and attends to all her guests. Her husband works as a horse herder and brings guests on horse riding trips in the summer. When winter hits and the tourist dry spell arrives, her husband travels to Ulaanbaatar and works in construction.

Trelj NP9During our stay, we were flanked with simple home cooked Mongolian meals. I had the privilege of helping and seeing how the meals were prepared. Fried meat dumplings called huushuur was my favourite. Light pastry with mutton, potato and onion filling deep fried to crunchy perfection. Huushuur is usually served with hot milk tea or a clear vegetable broth. We had man tou, a white flour fluffy steamed bread served with mutton soup.

Mongolia FoodMongolia food2Chan’gkhan offered us some mare’s milk, a sour fermented drink that tasted nothing like milk. I took a sip and politely declined seconds. We also had a steady selection of Mongolian tidbits – aaruul, dehydrated yak curds, hard cake-like biscuits and dried milk chips. It’s an acquired taste, I must say.

Mongolia Mares MilkAfter lunch, we walked to our ger about 100 meters from the family home. There were four single beds inside the ger each covered with pretty linen. Sunlight streamed in from above illuminating the beautiful hand-painted orange beams that held the ger in place. There was a small table in the centre and that was it. I appreciated the simple spaciousness it offered. But there was no electrical plug points, no toilet, sink or shower. It dawn on me that we were in for quite a camping experience.

Trelj NP_iphone6Trelj NP66Trelj NP64Trelj NP_iphone35The toilet was about 150 meters away where the horses grazed. There was a wooden box-like shelter that I thought nothing off, until I realised that that was our only toilet! I neared the wooden box and was already overcome by the strong stench – there was only two wooden planks over a deep pit and the only thing that seemed to be having fun were the flies! I made a mental note to avoid the toilet unless for emergencies.

Trelj NP_iphone33Besides the toilet conundrum, we had a wonderful stay. We went on horse riding trips and laughed when our horses had to stop for a wee and a poop. It wasn’t my first time riding a horse, but it was our first as a family and we enjoyed every moment of it – watching how Seth was completely drawn to every movement of the horse, patting the horse and saying, “You can do it!” and today, he sits on pillows and gallops away. Wonderful memories were made.

Trelj NP32We watched and marvelled at the strength of Chan’gkhan as she carried out her daily task. Every two hours, she would put on knee guards and with a bucket in hand she gets down and milks the mare. She makes grunting and hissing noises to coax the mare to let down while her father steadies the animal.

Trelj NP52Our days in Mongolia’s backcountry could not be a better introduction to the vastness and distinct culture and landscapes this country has to offer. We connected with a local family through our similarities of shared family value, our appreciation for nature and curiosity to learn about each other’s culture. Beautiful Mongolia could do with more marketing on an international stage, but somehow, I selfishly hope that Mongolia will stay a little less known because its rugged edge is what makes her special.     Trelj NP26

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Naadam Festival In Ulaanbaatar

It’s the biggest, most celebrated festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course the nation is going to go all out. The festival takes place over three days from…

It’s the biggest, most celebrated festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course the nation is going to go all out. The festival takes place over three days from 11 – 13th July annually with a grand opening ceremony on the first day. Over 35 thousand wrestlers, 40 thousand horse racers and 1,500 archers compete in Naadam’s competitions.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city will be jam packed with cars and shopping malls and streets are filled with people. Locals tell me that the people from the countryside drive into the city to join in the celebration. Hotels are fully booked and the opening ceremony tickets are usually sold out a week prior to the event.

Our hostel would only sell us tickets if we signed up for a full day Naadam tour with them. So we opted out. We decided to walk to the Central Stadium on the morning of the opening ceremony. The streets were eerily empty and we imagined everyone was at the stadium. Nearing the stadium, a carnival mood could already be felt – street vendors parked on the side of the road selling drinks, candy floss, helium balloons, stick-on tattoos, sun glasses, and Mongolian flags. Kebabs sizzling over pit barbecues cast a heavenly scent across the dusty road. It was an upbeat day and our hearts thumped to the music coming from the stadium.

No Tickets For The Opening, Until…

When we got to the stadium’s gate, we asked if we could go in. The gate attendant, a young lady (a volunteer, presumably) asked for our tickets. We told her we didn’t have one. A little disheartened at first, we backed off and tried to peek in. After a few minutes, Terence approached her again, this time he worked his manly charm. He pointed at me, with Seth in the sack – I gave her a weak smile and mouthed, ‘Please’ and a few seconds later, she waved us in. Terence’s ’have-some-pity-on-us’ plea worked! I was grinning from ear-to-ear and I clambered up the steps, gently pushed my way into the standing crowd and found a seat – it’s always good to have a child with you!

Naadam Festival is Mongolia’s very own Olympic Games. The opening ceremony is imposing and grand. We saw a parade of people dressed as ancient warriors, men and women in embroidered robes called ‘del’ and elaborate headdresses, along with burly wrestlers clad in blue and red briefs, soldiers, monks, traditional throat singers, pop dancers and bands. The atmosphere was eclectic. The costume details are unbelievable and for that few hours it felt like I was transported back in time during the Genghis Khan era. Naadam is very significant to Mongolia and in 2010, it was added into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.

The festival’s local Mongolian name, “eriin gurvan naadam,” is translated as the “three games of men.” That is, archery, horse racing, and wrestling. Whereas horse racing and archery competitions have gradually incorporated women participants over the years, wrestling continues to be a highly male-dominated sport. Today, knuckle bone shooting is also part of the competition.

Here are some photos from the day.

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Trans-Mongolian Rail Adventure: Beijing To Ulaanbaatar

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the…

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the sack, we headed to the train station. It was chaotic – mad crowds at every turn, trolley bags knocking on my ankles, people elbowing at my side in a hurried puff, the air was still and incredibly humid. We had to find the station’s entrance, but all signs were in Chinese. Then we spotted a queue with some Western travelers in the line. We promptly asked if they were heading to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia capital and they said, “Yes”.

The line steadily snaked in going through security and then into a large waiting hall. It dawned on me that this is IT! We are really getting on a train starting our Trans-Mongolian railroad adventure! One sure sign was seeing other western travelers with their huge backpacks and hiking boots on – the look of rugged travelers ready to embark on a great adventure.

TransMongolian7The gates opened and there before us, the familiar green train with the famous red star on its side. I’ve seen this train in pictures after many months of researching prior to the trip. We were on the right track. I looked around and saw people taking selfies. There was a tangible mutual excitement that lingered in the air – an anticipation that was almost forceful enough to push the train along with a chugga-chugga.

TransMongolian8Our train attendant was a stalky, middle-aged friendly chap. He checked our tickets and waved us in. This was the first overnight train of many to come as we were headed west straight to Moscow in the next few weeks. New to the whole train scene, we got into our cabin of four, with two bunk beds on each side, a small table next to the window and enough for two adults to stand side by side.

TransMongolian9We stored our luggages under the bottom bunk bed and stowed away our small backpack. Surprisingly, although the cabin may seem small at first sight, after keeping our bags, there was enough room to sit comfortably, even with legs outstretched. Every space and fixture in the cabin has been thoughtfully positioned – we had hooks for small towels, hangers for clothes, a little rack for phones or small items and in each carriage had two power sockets and a samovar for hot water anytime of the day. It’s especially convenient for making instant noodles and coffee.

TransMongolian10TransMongolian11TransMongolian3Since we bought second-class tickets, our carriage did not have air-conditioning. And the worst part was that the windows in our cabin was faulty so it couldn’t be opened. The small fan helped with circulation, but since it was summer – it got a bit hot and stuffy in the afternoon. We would escape to the first-class carriages (two beds per cabin with a cushy seating space) to enjoy some cool air. But as soon as we received stern stares from the train attendant, we exited promptly. We did this several times until the afternoon heat simmered down.

One of the best things of train travel is meeting new friends. Stuck in a small space, we’re forced to forge new friendships. We shared our cabin with Samantha, a young British girl who was also headed for Mongolia and she was going to spend a month in the country before moving onto South Korea. We exchanged travel stories and shared umpteen snacks.

TransMongolian5Not long after we departed, our train attendant (each carriage has one attendant) knocked on our doors and gave us clean bed sheets and duvet covers. Then he gave us two red and green tickets for lunch and dinner – we couldn’t contain our excitement! No where in the ticket did it say lunch and dinner was provided. We did not catch this information on any of the guides we have read – so it was a pleasant surprise.

What we found out after the whole TransSiberian experience was that Chinese trains offered the best food. Who can fault a Chinese cook with a belly sticking out and a towel around his neck? There was a fully equipped kitchen in the dining carriage and the wok was fired up at full steam. We had rice and celery chicken for lunch and rice and meatballs for dinner. Sadly we were too enthused with the food to take any pictures. It didn’t stay long on our plates.

TransMongolian12Eight hours down, 20 hours to go! We’ve explored different carriages, visited the loo several times, read a few stories to Seth, finished a few chapters in our books and popped way too many raisins and nuts. Surprisingly, we were not bored (yet). The novelty of sitting on the train still gripped us. I kept taking out my phone to capture the ever-changing scenery. The train meandered past valleys with towering mountains on both sides, farmers were seen herding cattle and sheep in wide open plains, we saw modest Chinese homes with unmistakable a-framed tiled roofs clustered in small communities and we tunnelled through mountains – and each time we did, the cabin was pitch black. Seth’s favourite was going through tunnels. He would exclaim, “Mommy, where are you?” with hands outstretched, “Daddy, are you there?” groping in the dark. He would snicker as soon as we exited the tunnel.

TransMongolian4TransMongolian15

Changing Bogies At The Chinese-Mongolian Border

Whether you’re a regular train passenger or not, one of the more unusual experiences happens at the Chinese-Mongolian border – Erlian. Here, the train’s bogies (wheels) have to be changed due to the different track gauges used by Mongolia and China railway networks.

We arrived at 940pm at Erlian, immigration officers entered our carriage to carry out customs and immigration checks. They take our passports and ask us to verbally state our names while looking at us with a steady glare. We were given a choice to remain on the train or alight at the station. Once you get off the train, chances are you will not return until after the bogies have been changed – the whole process took about two hours. Terence went down to get some snacks and ended up waiting. At the station there are proper toilets, an ATM machine and some shops for drinks and snacks. Most people alighted, but I stayed since Seth was fast asleep and I had secretly wanted to see how the bogies were changed.

Our train wheeled into a shaded platform where each carriage was raised, one at a time during the bogie change. Toilets on the carriage were locked and electricity was shut down. The bogies are then removed and new ones are replaced. Every time an existing bogie was removed from a carriage the entire train would shake violently. There was a lot of banging and knocking involved too! At some point I thought Seth would wake up crying because of the loud clanking but he slept through, even snoring at some point.

After an hour and more of ground shaking activity, the carriages are lowered back onto the track and we headed back to the station to pick up the other passengers. It was another 30 minutes wait before we got our passports back and then we finally bid goodbye to China.

An hour into the ride and just as we were about to settle in for some slumber, we arrived at Zamyn Uud the Mongolian border. Our jarring cabin lights flicked on, a smart looking lady officer with strong perfume and brightly coloured nails motioned for our passports. We handed it over and she stamped our customs declaration forms. The wait continued – another two hours on a stationary train waiting for our passports to be cleared. Alas at 315am, about six hours since Erlian’s border crossing, the officers returned to the train and handed back our passports. Our train chugged away into no man’s land and we sank straight into bed.

Good Morning Mongolia!

The air was cool and arid, our cabin door was still shut but outside I could hear children from the other cabin exchanging notes on Mongolia, “Dad, can we ride a horse? Do they have camels too?” “What do people in Mongolia eat?” “They look like Chinese, but they are not.” I chuckled under my sheets and thought, what an amazing country Mongolia is – even children are genuinely curious about her.

TransMongolian14The scenery had changed dramatically. I saw horses galloping afar, random gers dotted in the field, and we even passed some grazing camels. The morning has broken and the skies were the brightest blue with stark white clouds and the occasional majestic eagle circling the sky.

TransMongolian6TransMongolian2We made our way to the dining carriage to grab some breakfast and I was completely spell bound when I opened the carriage door. The dining carriage must have been changed at one of the border crossings and I was now staring at a Mongolian-furnished dining hall. Wooden furnishings of Mongolian instruments, bow and arrow and other hunting paraphernalia. Faces of ancient gods were part of the fixtures too. I could tell that every person who walked in for the first time was equally surprised. They had that “Wow” look on their faces, almost gawking in disbelief. We had some hot goulash and buns for breakfast and immediately missed the great Chinese food the day before.

TransMongolian1328 hours after we first boarded the train, we arrived in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The day was incredibly hot, but a new country awaited us. We alighted with our bags and toddler in the sack and was greeted by a cheerful welcome from our hostel host. I love this country already!

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