Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Trans-Siberian-Mongolian Railway – One of the World’s Great Train Journeys!

                                                                                                    By John and Doreen Berg

A dream, a desire, a discussion, a decision to undertake the legendary Trans-Siberian-Mongolian train journey from St. Petersburg to Beijing became our goal.  Our dream trip enabled us to traverse the vast Eurasian mysterious land mass from vibrant Moscow in the west with an extended Mongolian stopover to experience the nomadic lifestye on the vast steppes in central Asia, then to the east ending in Beijing to climb the Great Wall, wander the narrow Hutong streets, visit the Forbidden City and dine on Peking Duck!
There are two main train routes- the Trans-Siberian-Vladisvostock and the Trans-Siberian-Mongolian route.  Our route selection was the Trans-Siberian-Mongolian as we wished for an introduction to the nation’s nomadic way of life practiced by many Mongolians today.  Plus an opportunity to visit one of the world’s largest deserts – the Gobi and to experience home stays in family gers sharing a bowl of fermented mare’s milk and the local nomadic cuisines.

This article’s objective is firstly, to share our trip of a lifetime and secondly, to encourage you, our reader, to duplicate our excursion which includes stopping along the train route to enhance the epic train journey.  For someone to board a train in Moscow and remain on board for six or seven full days, in our humble opinion, would be a lost travel experience.
Along the route are hundreds of kilometers of birch forest, interspersed with small drab wooden homes often featuring brightly painted window trim, a backyard vegetable plot complete with small outhouses.  Our days on board the train were spent looking out the window, standing in the corridors, making numerous cups of hot coffee or noodle soup meals using the hot water from the steaming samovar, playing cribbage, reading novels or guidebooks, sleeping soundly, conversing with fellow travelers, attempting to speak to local Russian travelers, briefly disembarking at small remote stations for a stretch to returning to repeat the activities.  Our long term stops provided a golden opportunity to be immersed in Russian-Siberian history and culture.

A digression to outline our train procedurers
We booked second class or Kupé carriages on all our trains.  There are four berths in each cabin and we always booked the two lower bunks as they provided more luggage storage and easier bunk access plus immediate access to the small table under the window.  Bedding is provided.  Each bunk has a reading light and a 200 volt plug-in to charge electronics.  There are usually two washrooms, a Western style and a squat style, at one end of the carriage. At the opposite end, the much used samovar and attendants' quarters are located.  As a result we booked in the center of a carriage avoiding berths one to four and twenty-nine to thirty-three.  The trains have a dining car but we never booked tickets with meals included nor did we eat in the dining car.  We found it easier and more economical to bring our own food supplies on board which included drinking water, noodles, cheese, bread, salami, fruits plus Doreen’s favorite – a jar of peanut butter!  We had two insulted mugs plus plastic spoons, forks and a Swiss army knife.  No need to dine out! Our train dining provided us with an opportunity to justify the exquisite dining opportunities enjoyed at our various stopover destinations.

On each train there are first class (luks) cars that use only two bunks in each compartment plus more space with a well appointed interior.  Apparently, most first class coaches have televisions and complementary meals.  Unfortunately, first class is rather expensive.

Third class is an open floor plan carriage having four bunks in the main compartment plus a pair in the narrow corridor.  There are no doors in third class so less privacy and more noise.  I would suggest the only benefit offered in third class is the cheaper ticket price.  Our impressions are based on visits to first and third class wagons.

To select and book our trains we logged onto an English site which adds 30 plus per cent to ticket prices.  “Real Russia” is an excellent site to determine which trains suit your timetable for departure and arrival times.  Who wants to leave or arrive in the middle of the night if it can be avoided?  The lower the train numbers the better and faster the train.  While the “Real Russia” site was more expensive we found their service to be excellent.  We ordered tickets for the first two trip legs and the tickets were waiting for us in Godzillas Hostel in Moscow.  In hindsight I would only book our first leg and book the remainder independently through our hostel or at the train station.

Using the website www.ticket.rzd.ru to book your tickets online will save you money.  The only difficulty is the website is in Russian!  A Russian speaking friend could help with the language issue.  We attempted to use the site but found it too difficult and frustrating. www.maninseat61.com provided a wealth of train information and current train schedules.  “Real Russia” is also a significant part of the site.  On the schedule below, your selected date may not agree with our train numbers so you may need to change your day of travel as a specific train does not run every day.  

Trains We Booked:

St. Petersburg - Moscow:  Red Arrow 001                $155.00 p/p

8 hours 0 minutes       Departure 23:55          Arrival 7:55 next morning

Moscow –Yekaterinburg:  Ural 016                            $225.00 p/p     (also spelled Ekaterinburg)

25 hours 24 minutes   Departure 16:50          Arrival 20:14 next day

Yekaterinburg - Irkutsk:  Baikal 010                           $331.20 p/p

            50 hours 36 minutes   Departure 6:30            Arrival 12:06   two days later
Irkutsk- Ulan-Ude:      008                                          $65.00 p/p

6 hours 3 minutes       Departure 7:55            Arrival 14:25    same day

Ulan-Ude - Ulaanbaatar (Ulan-Bator): 008                 $162.00 p/p    

           17 hours 26 minutes   Departure 13:04          Arrival 6:30      Next day

Ulaanbaatar - Beijing: 024                                          $222.00 p/p

30 hours 49 minutes   Departure: 7:15           Arrival 14:04

Thursday – Direct train                                              

Prices were obtained from “Real Russia” postings and will vary throughout the year.  However, again it’s cheaper to book yourself at the station or through a guesthouse. For example, Ulaanbaatar to Beijing costs $100.00 p/p less when booked by Khongor Guesthouse!  To us this was a huge saving.

Our epic Eurasia train voyage actually began a year earlier in St. Petersburg.  We were visiting the Baltic countries and included a visit to St. Petersburg, Moscow and two of the Golden Cities near Moscow, in our itinerary.  Therefore, we blended our earlier Russian experiences with our second trip where we actually began our Trans-Siberian trip departing from Moscow.  Find the extra time to begin your trip of a lifetime in St. Petersburg, a magical city that Peter the Great ordered built on a swamp.

Fly directly into St. Petersburg and pre-arrange a taxi transfer to your hostel/hotel.  Plan to visit the world renowned Hermitage, stroll Nevsky Prospekt, stopping to marvel at the Saviour on Spilled Blood Church.  Provide time to visit other sites such as the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Arrange or purchase train tickets for an evening departure on the Red Arrow #001 leaving at 23:55.  This will save you the cost of a room and you won’t miss any sights not taking a daytime train between St. Petersburg and Moscow.  There is little to view from the train’s windows plus the day trains are usually costly express trains.

Our current holiday began in Moscow with us pre-booking a double room at Godzillas Hostel and through the hostel arranged for a car/driver to meet our British Air flight.  Godzillas Hostel is professionally run and spotlessly clean.  The reception has an English speaking young adult on duty 24/7.  We experienced exceptional assistance with our many inquiries.  Nearby is a metro station with fares only two rubles to any place, inexpensive restaurants, food marts, ATM machines plus the Moscow circus.  And it’s only a twenty minute trek to Red Square!  Godzillas Hostel is perfectly located and most importantly met our budget needs!

Moscow has economically embraced capitalism with open arms.  As a result, food and room prices are sky high, but don’t permit the cost factor to curtail your enjoyment of the cosmopolitan capital.  Soak in its history, marvel at its architecture, feast on its cuisine, cheer at its hockey matches, enjoy its circus performance and wander through its many museums.  Once on the train recharge your drained batteries!

Our first visit was to Red Square to marvel at the multi-domed and colourful St. Basil’s Cathedral!  I’m sure we must have a hundred plus photos of the magnificent cathedral.  Thank goodness for digital cameras.   A trip through the G.U.M. department store surprised us with its many high end and expensive stores.  The Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb were on our agenda saving a circus performance for the following afternoon.  Our four nights in the magical city were extremely busy as we worked our way through our Lonely Planet guide books, “Moscow Sights” section.

To visit two of the Golden Cities, Vladimir and Suzdal, we used Moscow as our hub city, leaving extra clothing at the hostel.  The Godzillas’ reception staff suggested booking the daily express train which stops at Vladimir and then bus to Suzdal.  This was the travel plan we followed.

Early morning saw us disembarking at the Vladimir train station.  Leaving the station we hiked up a steep hill pausing often and soon located Hotel Vladimir.  We didn’t have hotel reservations but this was not a concern.  The hotel is a renovated state hotel and our room was charming complete with an ensuite and the price included a buffet breakfast.  The hotel did not accept credit cards and was cash only.  The hotel’s “cash only” policy resulted in our first destination being a walk to the bank.  Fortunately the bank’s ATM machine spewed our rubles! 

Again, cash richer and relieved we concentrated on visiting the white Assumption Cathedral, viewing Vladimir’s golden gate and wandering the residential streets admiring the older wooden historical homes.  The following day saw us climbing a narrow staircase to check out the Military Museum followed by a visit to two other museums.

On the morning of the third day we returned to the bus/train station and caught a mini bus to Suzdal.  The local buses run every half hour to and fro from Vladimir taking about a half hour.  Suzdal was a step back in time having a rural country side ambience.  We spent two nights in medieval Suzdal admiring the numerous ancient architectural buildings and charming churches projecting picturesque spires and cupolas.  Our favourite church was the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral with its blue onion-shaped domes sprinkled with gold-like stars.  A short hike across the river brought us to an outdoor museum featuring early peasant life in the region.  Early morning saw us at the small bus depot patiently waiting to board a mini bus back to Vladimir.  At the Vladimir station we could not believe our good fortune as a Moscow bound bus was ready to depart in ten minutes.  No waiting for us!  But, alas it was not to be.  Even though the bus had ample empty seating we were unable to purchase a ticket from the service counter or from the coach driver.  We had to wait two hours for the next Moscow bus and to this day don’t know why we couldn’t purchase a ticket.  The setback is all part of the travel experience and lack of being able to communicate.  Once back in Moscow we took the efficient and inexpensive metro to the Tsvetnoy Bulvar metro stop located close to Godzillas Hostel for one more night prior to leaving Moscow.  Since our train departure was late afternoon we had time for a trial run to Kazansky train station and to visit Museum of Modern Art before enjoying a late lunch at Grabli Restaurant.  From the restaurant it was a short walk to the hostel to grab our stored bags and say a final farewell to an incredible staff and manager.

A bit unsure of just what to expect, we planned to arrive at the Kazansky railway station early with time to spare.  Better to be early than late, and as things turned out security was minimal and we reached the train platform area without delay, providing time to wander.

Our Ekaterinburg train #16, departed promptly at 16:50.  As this was the first leg of our odyssey the adrenalin was flowing as we wondered what we would encounter on our 25 hour journey.  We unpacked our travel needs and stowed our bags and shoes under our bunks and set out our food supplies.  This routine would be duplicated each time we boarded a train.  Our dinner planning flowed smoothly and we enjoyed bread and cheese washed down with hot noodle soup followed by a sweet.  Guess this could be called gourmet train dining!

Arriving in Yekaterinburg the following late afternoon, we took a taxi to the Meeting Point Hostel.  Katia, our hostess, met us and introduced us to the many people resting in the small cozy hostel.  It seemed to us the small hostel was wall to wall people and backpacks!  Doreen and I weren’t sure what we had booked ourselves into!  It seemed our best plan was to go for dinner and worry about finding a bunk when we returned.  But, upon our return from dinner many guests had left to catch trains and we enjoyed a quiet two-night stay.  Katia Tkacha was exceptional and went out of her way to assist us and three other Irish lads with our train bookings and locating hotel rooms as her hostel was pre-booked for our third night.  It turned out to be a fun enjoyable stay at her hostel.

Our city explorations began with a stroll to Yekaterinburg’s historic square, followed by a visit to the massive Byzantine Church of the Blood.  The seven domed golden church honours the Romanov family.  The nearby royal family death site is marked with an iron cross.  To the right of the church we discovered a beautiful three storey building that was the Romanov’s family home and is now a memorial to Tsar Nicholas II and the royal family.  Well worth the visit.

The afternoon found us searching for the new office location of the Yekaterinburg Guide Center to determine if they, on short notice, could provide a tour to the Monastery of the Holy Martyrs.  After much searching we located the office staffed by two helpful ladies who organized a taxi and driver to arrive within a half hour.  Maria, one of the staff members, spent considerable time clearly explaining our tour desires to the taxi driver as we could not.  A service we never expected as we were charged only for the taxi service not Maria’s assistance.  Maria’s explicit directions resulted in a smooth excursion.

The Ganina Yama pilgrimage site is beautifully situated in the depths of a pine forest 16 km outside Yekaterinburg.  The Orthodox Church has constructed five or six wooden churches crowned with golden onion-domed spirals plus as observation platform that overlooks the mine shaft where the Romanov family remains were dumped and later located.  The sacred grounds are spectacular in colour and structure, but also rather thought-provoking as a page that changed history.

Our second train leg of fifty hours found us in Irkutsk.  Irkutsk is probably the most popular stop on the entire Trans-Siberian Railway route.  And most certainly one stop that needs to be part of any itinerary.  We bussed to centrally located Baikaler Hostel and were happy with our greeting and the organization and cleanliness of our double room.  The first item on our agenda was to have the hostel book a taxi van to transport us to Olkhon Island the following morning.  Olkhon Island is about halfway up Lake Baikal’s western shore and is a great spot to explore and view Baikal Lake.  The solo reason we stopped here!

Lake Baikal is 644 km long and 32 to 65 km wide.  The lake is 1637 meters deep and as the world’s largest lake contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.  A fear of pollution has led to the creation of one of the largest protected areas in the world.  Gone are the feared Siberian gulags and harmful industrial plants.

Nikita Guest House organizes daily tours to the island’s northern tip.  The tour presents opportunities for beautiful views of Lake Baikal from sheer cliff tops.  The tour included a campfire fresh fish lunch cooked by our driver, complete with a salad, bread and great fellowship.  On our return drive our driver further demonstrated his versatility when our ancient Russian jeep developed a mechanical problem.  With tools in hand he was under the jeep’s front end and a few bangs later we were on our way again.

We returned to Irkutsk via van to spend one more night at Baikaler Hostel before catching the morning train to Ulan-Ude.  Due to an overbooking at Ulan-Ude Travelers House Hostel we found ourselves staying at the newly opened Hostel House.   As fate would have it, this initial disappointment turned into one of our most enjoyable and comfortable hostel stays, as we had the whole well-equipped and modern hostel to ourselves!

Ulan-Ude was a brief stop for us as we visited the main square dominated by the world’s largest Lenin head.  Well worth an evening visit is the city’s picturesque light fountain.  The excellent Ethnographic Museum is an outdoors collection of burial mounds, reconstructed nomadic camps, old believers’ complex and much more for a worthwhile full day visit.

Our next train excursion was to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.  The Ulaanbaatar train #06 was an eighteen hours thirty minutes trip.  Crossing the Russian border into Mongolia was a rather time consuming process with dogs sniffing their way through each carriage and Russian officials checking passports.  The next interruption was the Mongolian border guards duplicating the passport checking procedure. Finally we could settle in for some much needed shut-eye.

Mongolian’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, welcomed us with a gorgeous sunrise as our pre-arranged driver transported us to Khongor Guest House.  An exciting time as our Mongolian visit was to be the highlight of our Trans-Siberian train journey.

Ulaanbaatar is a city experiencing the rapid pace of modernization with older style Soviet built apartment blocks contrasted with modern glass-faced office towers.  And of course there is the curse of all urban cities “grid lock” traffic.  As a pedestrian, crossing streets became an art of survival.  But we were not discouraged and enjoyed our visits to the Gandan Khid Buddhist monastery plus visiting its museums including the Museum of Natural History which houses massive dinosaur fossils dug from the Gobi Desert.  After our train diet of noodles and bread, Ulaanbaatar’s international restaurant cuisine was a welcome change from our train menu.

Our main goal was to travel the Gobi Desert and experience the rural nomadic lifestyle.  Through Khongor Guest House tour personnel we arranged a seven day Gobi Desert tour staying in family gers.  Even if we desired we could not have stayed in tourist gers as they had closed for the season and we would have missed the essence of the cultural experience.

The evening desert lodgings that we stayed at usually consisted of the family ger plus one or two gers furnished to accommodate tourists to provide extra cash income for the family.  The rental gers contained four to six single beds placed around the ger’s perimeter.  The open central space was taken up by a low dung burning stove, a small low table and a few stools.  The woodwork and door entrance were beautifully carved and brilliantly painted. The very comfortable but basic accommodations provided an insight into nomadic family life.  Can you imagine your family sharing one room complete with outdoor plumbing?  Truly an experience!

Our Gobi Desert highlights were a climb to the top of the sand dunes at Khongoryn Els, a trek to ice patches in Yolyn Am canyon, a view of the flaming cliffs and to marvel at the colourful limestone formations of Tsagaan Suvraga.  Our experience was so wonderful that upon our return to Khongor Guest House we immediately booked a second four-day tour.  Our only stipulation was that Hurlee, our wonderful guide, and Sumiya, our exceptional driver, would be our tour personnel.  Both were happy to accommodate our wishes.

The highlights of our second tour were first a visit to Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s first Buddhist monastery.  Stalinist purges of 1937 ended with all but three of the many temples being destroyed with an undetermined number of monks either killed or transported to Siberian gulags.  Today Buddhist temples are being restored and Tibetan Buddhism flourishes.

The second high spot was a visit to Khustain National Park, home to the magnificent takhi horse.  After viewing a documentary explaining the reintroduction of the wild horses, a park ranger climbed into our jeep to guide us on our park safari.  This was our day as we were rewarded with not only one sighting of a takhi herd but three separate herds plus a herd of yaks and deer. This was a glorious adrenaline-packed park visit.  Hurlee was astonished at the number of animals we encountered on our park drive and stated that she had never viewed that many animals in one drive!

On our drive back to Ulaanbaatar we were a quiet subdued group and a bit sad as we reflected and realized our time together was rapidly coming to an end once we reached the hostel.  We said our heart-felt goodbyes and parted – us to the guest house to leave the next day and Hurlee and Sumiya home to families.  Would we be able to continue our new found friendships or over time would our bonding become a fond memory in the recesses of all our minds?

Early the following morning, our hostel driver swiftly delivered us to the train station for a comfortable boarding.  The Thursday #024 train pulled out sharply at 7:15 for our last 30 hour journey ending in Beijing.

By now we considered ourselves experienced train travelers and quickly stored the luggage and had our breakfast spread out on the small table.   We prepared to enjoy the last segment of our odyssey quickly settling into our train routines as the kilometers clicked away through the barren Gobi Desert toward the Mongolian border and our entry into China.

Since the Chinese rail system operates on standard gauge track and Russia employs a narrow gauge the bogies of all wagons must be changed.  The carriages are unhooked in a bogie change shed and using hydraulic lifts each wagon is raised and the Russian bogies are released.  As the small wheels are being pulled out from under each car via a cable a line of wider bogies is simultaneously being pulled into place under each carriage to be released and attached to each wagon.  While consuming five hours, the procedure was a slick, smooth operation.  Oh, yes, the Mongolian customs processing took another couple of hours and the Chinese officials repeated a similar time-consuming process.  The border crossing guaranteed that we would receive little shut eye that night.  However, still an interesting experience!

After a few hours sleep we awoke to find we were climbing and serpentining through a mountainous region.  Fellow travelers informed us that we would be able to spot glimpses of the Great Wall of China.  Somehow we missed the opportunity and would not see the Great Wall until later.  We must have fallen asleep or were watching out the wrong window.

The Beijing train station is modern and massive with what seemed like wall to wall people ebbing to and fro.  After a visit to an ATM machine for a yuan withdrawal, we were in search of a taxi.  Rather than wait in a long slow-moving taxi line I thought I would be clever and avoid the long wait by accepting a ride, in what turned out to be an illegal taxi.  Fortunately a nearby traveler gave us a heads-up before we climbed in.  Will I ever learn?

After a long wait we had our taxi and soon arrived at the Beijing Jade International Hostel.  The hotel/hostel was well located within walking distance to the Forbidden City, about a pleasant ten minute walk.  The neighborhood contained numerous nearby restaurants and small shops.  Within walking distance was the Sijiminfu Restaurant where we enjoyed our Peking duck dinner, plus two other fantastic meals in the busy restaurant.

Our first Beijing morning was cloudy and heavily polluted, reducing our vision and appreciation of Tiananmen Square.  From the square’s center we could not clearly see Mao’s giant portrait hanging over the Gate of Heavenly Peace.  To us this seemed to be an oxymoron considering what happened in the summer of 1989!  We crossed the street to stroll Forbidden City.  An independent tour guide approached us and we negotiated a price.  As it turned out, Johnson, our guide, spoke excellent English and did such a great job that at the end of our successful tour we contracted him to hire a car for the following day to drive us to the Great Wall of China.  For our climb of the wall’s ramparts we chose Mutianyu as the location is considered to be a less commercial experience.  Since my energy level was at a low ebb, we caught the cable car to the wall and spent three plus hours enjoying the bright sunny day as we walked the wide ramparts marveling at the colossal size of the Great Wall itself and admiring surrounding scenic countryside.  To encapsulate our experience in a single word - stunning!

A favourite tour company procedure is to spend a minimal amount of time visiting the wall and maximum time transporting clients to tea shops, to herbal clinics, to silk factories and to other businesses where drivers are paid commissions.  We were aware of this procedure and had discussed our concern with Johnson and he agreed our focus was to be the wall with one visit to a silk factory.  The simple reason for the single visit was that Doreen wished to purchase a silk duvet!  At the factory I’m sure records were broken for the fastest silk making demonstrations of all time before ushering us to the main sales rooms.  I suppose one could view our silk factory visit as a win-win situation as all three of us were satisfied.  Doreen had her new quilt, Johnson had his extra commission and I had to only suffer through one sales pitch!  The end of our day saw a quick visit to the Olympic Village of 2008.

On our three day Beijing visit we wandered in the Summer Park, booked a bike tour through the Hutong district and attended a performance of Chinese acrobats.  The last act found us holding our collective breaths as four motorcycle riders defied death as they rode inside a large metal sphere - the climax to the show.  Our time to leave Beijing arrived quickly signaling the official end to our Trans-Siberian Mongolian Train journey.

Was this the final termination point of our travels after forty-one days?  Fortunately not!  We were to continue a further busy sixteen days travelling China before flying home from Shanghai to Vancouver, Canada. Our secondary travel experience provided us with an opportunity to see the famous Terra Cotta Warriors, the awe-inspiring Yuanyang Rice Terraces, the picturesque water system of Gulin, and the spectacular rivers and mountains surrounding Yangshu, finally ending in cosmopolitan Shanghai. 

The Trans-Siberian-Mongolian Train odyssey was the easiest of our many trips to organize with only one mode of transportation going in one direction to complete a travel experience of a life time.

Helpful Facts to Ponder:

Obtaining Visas:

A visa is required for each country and we strongly recommend obtaining all visas early and in Canada.

Russian and Mongolia require an invitation letter usually obtained as a service from your hotel or hostel.  Or this can be done through a travel agent, but doubles the cost.  Apply for a tourist 30 day visa and download the necessary application forms from each embassy’s web page.

The Canadian Russian embassy does not accept mail-in applications.  This may force you to use a visa agency thus further increasing your visa cost.  For us the turnaround time was four to six weeks and the fee is $135.00 per person.  We used International Visa Passport Service Corp.  www.ivpsc.com.  

Mongolia’s visa was easier to obtain.  Download the forms and send directly to the Mongolian Embassy.  This takes ten days and the fee is $90.00 per person.

China requires you to obtain a visa directly from their embassy.  Since they have an embassy in Vancouver, we arranged to have our daughter do the footwork to obtain our visas.  This took two to three days and the fee was $35.00 per person.  Obtain your invitations and visas as early as possible.

Purchasing Train Tickets:

www.realrussia.co.uk             Using “Real Russia” is an easy way to book tickets on line, but will cost 30 plus percent more than booking directly.   I would book the first leg and then book at the train station or arrange with your hostel to assist with purchases.  We referred to the “Real Russia” site to assist us in train selection as all trains and schedules are posted on this site.  The “Real Russia” site can be easily accessed using www.seat61.com., which also contains a wealth of helpful train travel information.

Booking Hostel Accommodations:

All the hostels employed English speaking staff, were centrally located, provided kitchens and were clean and secure.  Bathroom facilities are shared.  We pre-booked our first hostel and then using www.hostelworld.com or www.hostelbookers.com booked as we travelled.  We recommend all the hostels we booked
 St. Petersburg: 
Hostel Pilau, www.hostel.ru., provided our invitation letter at a cost.  Excellent ratings.  Great staff.  Perfect location for walking, restaurants, groceries, and the metro. 
Godzillas Hostel, www.godzillashostel.com   this is an excellently run hostel with extremely helpful well-trained reception desk staff.  Bright rooms.  Metro and restaurants close at hand
Hotel Vladimir.            www.vladimirhotel.ru  Renovated hotel, spacious rooms with ensuite and buffet breakfast included.
Rizopolyhenskaya Hotel (two stars) booking sites only, located on a monastery’s grounds, adequate rooms, café, can arrange board, good location.
Meeting Point Hostel  mephoho@gmail.com.  Katia Tkacha is an excellent hostess.  Books train tickets plus travel ideas.  Tea/coffee available.  A small comfortable hostel.
Baikaler Hostel, www.balkaler.com   one double room.  Bright and comfortable room, helpful staff.  Tea and coffee available.

 Olkhon Island:

Nikita’s Guest House.  www.olkhon.info   Best place to stay.  Book early.  Full board.  Decorative room with ensuite.  Arranges island tours.
Hostel House  www.hosthouse.ru  Near train station, easy walk to center, new hostel comfortable beds and spacious rooms.  Limited English.  Excellent hostel.  Tea/coffee available.
Khongor Guesthouse www.get.to/kronger or Kronger@mongol.net provided our invitation letter free.   Extremely helpful staff, organizes many tours, and will book train tickets free.  Tea/coffee and bread/jam breakfast included.  Needs refurbishing but clean and secure.  Fantastic location. Cheap double room in October.  $7.00 p/p
Beijing Jade International Youth Hostel.  www.xihuahotel.com   Seems to have three names and is a hotel style not a hostel.  Rooms pleasant with ensuites.  Excellent location.


Our "Golden Age Backpackers in Mongolia 2011" Blog article expands our visit to Mongolia.

Monday, April 2, 2012


Tequila Has it All, Except the Mexican Riviera Beaches

Story and Photos by John and Doreen Berg

When Mexican tourists mention Tequila, numerous images spring to mind.  Certainly, one thought that is often overlooked is to consider Tequila as a multifaceted tourist destination.  The majority of tourists visiting Tequila simply tour a distillery and partake of its famous drink then immediately return to the Puerto Vallarta coastal area or to the Guadalajara region.  Tequila and the surrounding countryside has much more to offer.  The inquisitive tourist is able to plan excursions to visit exceptional museums, historical sites, natural springs, concentrical pyramids, spherical boulders and photographical landscapes as well as taste-testing tequila, and all at a reasonable price.  What more could the intrepid tourist wish for?

Each winter season, Doreen and I abandon the damp chilling British Columbia rains to enjoy the warm dazzling sun and clear sparkling waters of the Mexican Riviera, Nayarit.  Basking on the beach with warm sands trickling between our toes, with pristine waters washing against the shore, and with frequent fitness hikes continue to be our Mexican activities.  However, after a month or so we require an alternative to enjoying our beach paradise and our decadent lifestyle and must seek different destinations.  Last season we visited Tequila and enjoyed the town's ambiance so we decided to revisit Tequila and expand our travel plans to include excursions to two nearby archaeological sites:  Los Guachimontones and Piedras Bola.  The interior destinations seemed the ideal region for us to visit as we both enjoy exploring Mexican ruins and learning more about the regional history.

An 8:30 a.m. start, saw us loading our one suitcase into the back of our rented Jeep Cherokee.  We drove from Rincón de Guayabitos, stopping at Las Varas to enjoy a breakfast in our favorite restaurant, La Birra de Angelita.  After hueves rancheros and a Mexican omelette washed down with numerous cups of coffee, we headed toward Compostela, where we switched to the toll road (cuota) and continued driving to Chapalilla and here changed back to the free road (libra).  Along the roadside many small pottery stalls can be found.  It's a great place to pause to purchase pottery gift items.  Our purchase was four different shaped and coloured coffee mug sets for family Christmas gifts!  Nice when you luck out as the four kids loved the gift mugs!

Continuing along Highway 15 the next major town encountered is Ahaucatlán.  On this year's trip we elected not to turn off to again visit the wonderful hot springs at Burranca de Oro.  The springs are located deep in a narrow canyon with sturdy access walkways, adequate change rooms, and a variety of swimming pools.  Located at the canyon's rim is a restaurant and accommodations.  Last year our group of four spent an enjoyable few hours swimming, exploring and consuming a poolside lunch.  Barranca de Oro would be a convenient overnight stop.  However, we elected to push on to Tequila.  Attempt to find time to enjoy Barranca de Oro as it is a fascinating spot and will be a complete surprise.

We returned to Highway 27 driving to Etzatlán junction where we turned north to Magdalena to join the toll road to Tequila.  The secondary road is satisfactory but expect rough sections.  If in no hurry, Highway 15 is a scenic drive passing through farmlands and small villages.  An alternate to consider is to drive back to Ahaucatlán and take the faster toll highway directly to Tequila.  From the elevated Tequila approach highway you can enjoy sweeping views of the agave fields.  The area was declared a World Heritage site in 2006!

This trip we managed an earlier mid-afternoon arrival at Hotel La Rienda Mision Tequillan's enclosed parking area.  The hotel is centrally located in Tequila's historic downtown area.  Once checked in it was a short walk to visit the 17th Century Santiago Apostol Church and a few meters away is the Plaza de Arms, complete with a colourful bandstand.  Located just off the square is the Sauza Family Grandparent's Museum.  The museum is certainly worth a visit!  Here you'll find personal artifacts that once belonged to the Sauze family, as well as displays depicting the traditional tequila-making process.  After our museum visit we noticed tequila keg-shaped vehicles parked nearby.  Couldn't miss them!  After inquiring we booked a distillery tour for the following morning.  Next was a search for an evening meal.  After checking out several restaurants we decided to dine at Cafe Rossy and later watch the social interactions in the plaza.  A few night photos and it was back to the hotel to tuck in.

Probably the most popular distillery tour is the José Cuervo Distillery as its within easy walking distance from the plaza.  Having visited three distilleries over the seasons, José Cuervo, La Cofradia and Romo, we recommend the Romo Distillery Tour.  The tour provided a visit to the original distillery area where we were able to view the old washing stands where once ladies chatted as they washed their clothing.  Did these ancient wash stands evolve into our present day laundromats?  Next stop was a visit to Distillery Reyes, an older equipped factory which only operates part of the year.  After a brief tour and a few sample drinks we felt an obligation to purchase an almond tequila drink which, I'm sure, pleased everyone.

Back on the Tequila bus to visit a blue-tinted agave field followed by a tour of the Romo Distillery.  At the time of our visit the plant was in full operation enabling us to enjoy the sweet smell of cooked agave nectar wafting through the spotlessly clean distillery.  I was surprised, for safety reasons, at how near the tour guide brought us to moving tractors and operational machinery.  The keg tour bus returned us to Plaza de Arms where a visit to an obsidian (volcanic rock) stall led to a home factory visit!  As we chatted and admired the curved obsidian shapes the owner invited us to his home workshop to view how the beautiful obsidian pieces were made.  A short taxi ride brought us to his abode.

We entered the living quarters and passed through to the rear factory area.  Not a large workshop where four or five workers were busy working at various machines cutting, shaping and polishing obsidian pieces.  Out of all the designs the ever-popular heart shape was the favourite as it allows one to appreciate the beautiful colours of the rainbow obsidian and it sells well too!  Doreen fell in love with a beautiful 20 -25 cm tall female statue of silver sheen obsidian.  At the time, the price caused us to reconsider its purchase.  However, in hindsight, Doreen wishes she had purchased the lovely lady.  Over time the price would be forgotten but the statue's beauty would continue to be enjoyed in our living room.  Or this is what I'm being led to believe! The final event of the day was a dinner at El Palmolar Restaurant on the church square.

The next day after a breakfast at the market we visited, Nunat, the National Museum of Tequila.  The museum depicted the history of tequila making complete with tequila bottles from three generations of Sauza production.  We returned to Hotel La Rienda to collect our baggage and check out.  We retraced our drive back to Magdalena but before turning off to Etzatlán we browsed the local shops selling opal and obsidian handicrafts.  I'm sure their beautiful store displays will tempt a purchase or two.

From Etzatlán we drove Highway 27 to Teuchitlán watching for the turnoff to Los Guachimontones, the archaeological site of the round step pyramids.  The site is easily located with highway signage to keep you on track and a paved road into the site's parking lot. 

Los Guachimontones was discovered some fifty years ago, quite by accident.  Apparently, Dr. Phil Weigand and a teacher Acelia Garcia stumbled upon some skilfully crafted obsidian objects in the town of Teuchitlán.  Further investigation led the pair to present-day Los Guachimontones.  The site continues to be excavated and present literature states there are 10 pyramids and the main round step pyramid is named "La Iguana."  It is approximately 10 meters high and has a diameter of 29 meters.  La Iguana is an impressive mass and quite different structurally as compared to the East Coast Mayan pyramids.     

We observed a tour guide and his student group performing ancient chants. Later we spoke with the tour guide and he informed us that each year previous to March 21st, people come to Los Guachimontones and for two days, dressed in white, they take part in indigenous rituals which includes native dances and concerts with pre-Hispanic music.

Climbing a hill behind the main pyramid presented us with an excellent overview of the site with La Iguana in the foreground and Teuchitlán combined with Lake Presa de la Vega in the background.  A great photo opportunity!  Los Guachimontones is a splendid archaeological site to visit, and is especially important to the Jalisco region which only a few years ago was thought to contain few  if any archaeological finds.

At the day's end was a return drive to Etzatlán where Hotel El Centenario, our hotel choice for the night, is centrally located.  The hotel can be found just off the corner of the town's main plaza.  The hotel has great ambiance with an airy courtyard ringed with antique furniture plus our room was spacious and well appointed. The courtyard was a great spot to relax and enjoy a card game before our rumbling stomachs encouraged us to venture out for an evening dinner.  Unfortunately, we found it difficult to locate a suitable restaurant.  The one that was recommended turned out to be mainly for lunch or breakfast dining.  Finally finding a restaurant, we consumed an "okay" meal and after watching dancers in the plaza and enjoying an ice-cream we returned to our hotel for a well-earned sleep.

After our morning breakfast we visited the Oaxicar Museum with its recreations of shaft tombs, clay pottery and many more artifacts.  Next on our agenda and our main goal for the day found us enroute on Highway 27 driving toward Ahualulco de Mercado to find the protected area of Piedras Bola (round boulders).  Just before Ahualulco we turned onto Highway 608 driving towards Ameca for 14 km.  The highway climbs from the valley floor into the mountains.  Just past the 14 km marker is a pullout area complete with a clearly illustrated park map.  Well worth taking time to study the map to obtain an understanding of the parks layout and the location of the round boulders.  Unfortunately, we failed to notice the pullout and signage on our journey into the park.  As a result we missed the park's signature display of tall compacted soil mounds each supporting a single round stone ball.  Apparently they're located about 1.5 km from the amphitheatre and behind the main boulder find!  The 5 km single lane dirt/gravel road was in good condition and while we navigated it slowly we encountered no difficulties or other vehicles.  It would appear that the park was an ecotourism project that is either seasonal, or didn't gain popularity, or monetary funds were withdrawn.  We passed camping spots, hiking trails and zip lines in disrepair and without seeing a soul.  The park seemed deserted.  And what a shame as there appeared to be much potential for a variety of outdoor recreational activities.

At the Piedras Bola site we found an amphitheatre with benches, an administrative building and numerous toilets with their doors flapping in the breeze.  We followed a path past here and soon encountered the first of many round boulders.  What an amazing sight!  We wandered the area taking numerous photos, in complete awe of the huge perfectly formed spherical stones.  Some approximately two meters in diameter, numerous smaller boulders scattered here and there and many partially buried with their round tops poking above the ground's surface.

Naturally questions sprinkled our discussions as we asked ourselves how were these many perfectly round boulders formed and how did they get here?  As you can imagine there are many theories and legends to explain the phenomena.  After much "intellectual" speculation our theory is that centuries ago gigantic giants occupied the park area and the Piedras Bola site was their outdoor bowling alley!  Visit and research the site to formulate your own theory!  Our return drive back to the main highway was quicker and more comfortable as local road conditions were now known to us.

Once we rejoined the highway our focus was to return to our coastal hotel before night fall, for us avoiding Mexican night driving is a cardinal safety rule.  Since we knew the route it wasn't long before we reached the Magdalena junction , switching to the pay highway brought us quickly to Compostela.  The next driving segment found us arriving at Rincón de Guayabitos late afternoon.  A brief visit to the shops to purchase dinner items and we soon found ourselves safe and sound in our bungalow preparing our evening meal.

The three-day road trip exceeded our expectations.  With a variety of Mexican towns, archaeological sites, informative museums and active tours we were exposed to a great host of experiences to recall and share.  For us the trip was not only a learning experience but also provided an alternative to our beach life.  One thing for sure- this was a journey to remember and one we encourage others to travel and to expand the time frame to include visits to other interesting nearby spots.

Helpful Facts:     Jalisco, Mexico



            Hotel La Rienda Mision Tequillan

            Abasolo #47 Centro


            Phone: 374 742-3232

Great location with secured parking.  Rooms well appointed      450 pesos ($37.50)


            Real Marinera- Seafood Restaurant

            Juarez # 92 Atrás de Parriquia Cáfe

            Rossy and Pasteleria        

Two restaurants located beside each other on the square in front of the church.  Great spot late evening for eating and people watching.

            Local Market  -located beside church plaza

            *Many small restaurants

            * Great for breakfast


Tranvias Turisticos de Tequila  -Look for tequila keg van

            Tour time - two hours approximately every 30 minutes

            Mon - Fri       10:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

            Sat. - Sun.     10:00 a.m.- 5:30 p.m.

            100 pesos ( $10 approx. )

www.vistandojalisco.com.mx               Phone:  045-33-12-99 7536


            Sauza Family Museum

            Vicente Albino Rojas #22

            Central Plaza behind the bandstand

Features family memorabilia. 10 pesos ($1 approximately)

            National Museum of Tequila

            Ramón Corona # 34

Well designed displays of photos and artifacts detailing the history of Tequila.

            Water Park

            Parque Acuatico La Toma

La Toma water park is an often a missed destination .  Cascading natural spring water, swimming pools, panoramic views and much more.  La Toma is located approximately two kilometres on the right hand side of the highway driving towards Magdalena.  While we didn't partake of the swimming it was enjoyable to visit and wander the walkways and take advantage of an opportune photo shoot.  Take a few hours to kick back and enjoy La Toma water park.

            Barranca de Oro

Located a short drive from Ahaucatlán off Highway 15.The canyon development is a man's life time dream project and he has done a wonderful job of developing the location.  There are a variety of swimming pools to enjoy and paths to follow providing an opportunity for the camera buffs to photograph the steep colourful canyon walls.  Great spot to spend a day swimming and relaxing.




          Hotel El Centenario

            Escobedo 290, Etzatlán    500 pesos ($50)

Rooms are well -appointed, secure parking , splendid courtyard


Oaxicar Archaeological Museum housed in the House of Culture has a collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts.  A short walk from the main plaza

            Escobedo # 359 Centro,   Monday to Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

                                                            Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

                                                            Telephone:  386 753 3052





Hacienda El Carmen described in James and Sonia's TTS  September 2011 article is nearby.


Museum of Archaeology:  Located in Teuchitlán's cultural center.  The museum exhibits artifacts, obsidian objects, and stone utensils.

            16 de Septiembre 10,       Monday to Friday 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

                                                            Saturday to Sunday  9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.


You will find the Inmaculada Concepción Church with a beautiful plaza and picturesque surrounding area approximately 11 kilometres from Tequila on Highway 15.

Other Road Trip Opportunities reported in TTS:

1)  "The Hidden Gems Close to P.V." by James and Sonia Symes, vol. 29, No. 7, September 2011

­                James and Sonia's article stimulated us to share our similar driving adventure.  An intriguing happening is that Sonia and I had connected soon after completing our respective road trips.  Experiencing a "similar moment" I was unable to recall where or how we met, but somehow we compared our experiences.  In fact I've Sonia's first draft on my desk!  Small world!

2)  " The Mexican Riviera Beyond the Beautiful Beaches" by John and Doreen Berg, vol. 20, No. 9, November 2010.

Outlines an exploratory drive to a small interior silver town, San Sebastian.  Provides driving directions, restaurant selections and a great hotel.  Drive is on a very good paved highway!

3)  "Visiting the Sierra-Madre Silver Towns Beyond Puerto Vallarta" by John and Doreen Berg, Vol. 25, No. 7, September 2011.  The article re-traces our steps to San Sebastián del Oeste and Mascota, with the main focus to tell about our exploration of Talpa de Allende, another easy, but rewarding road trip from Puerto Vallarta.