IAIN McGILL'S TRANS SIBERIAN EXPERIENCE
AFTER SPENDING five consecutive nights sleeping on a train, and four full days, I like to think I'll never moan on a wee jaunt from Edinburgh to Paris on the Eurostar again!
I always wanted to take the train across Siberia - and the experience did not let me down, though I'm happy to be flying back for my return journey!
In my carriage I was one of 4 Brits, there were also 4 Germans, 4 Mongolians, 3 Dutch, 2 Norwegians and an Iraqi who travelled the whole way from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar without stopping. You can well imagine that we knew each other pretty well by the end of the trip! Two of the Germans were on their honeymoon - and sharing a cabin with two other strangers, never mind a carriage full! To be fair to them, it was just five days out of a three month honeymoon, but it raised some eyebrows!
It's fair to say that without Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon being around to protect us from ourselves we indulged in a fair bit of behaviour that is now outlawed in Scotland - don't tell them, but we managed to have a drink after 21.00 on a train! Every night! We even enjoyed it! The staff even joined us on a couple of the evenings.
Siberia at this time of year looks surprisingly pretty - but you don't need to imagine too hard that it's a different proposition at other times of the year.
The Mongolian staff on the train were full of fun about where we were from - from Germany they knew of a certain Adolf Hitler and were not shy to ask the Germans about him. From Iraq they asked about a certain Saddam Hussein, from Scotland they were asking me if the men there really all wear skirts – and told us all proudly that Mongolia is most famous for Ghengis Khan.
The Mongolians appear more open than the Russians - keener to interact. I discovered if I scowled, said nothing and handed money over at Russian museums I got charged local price, if I smiled, said nothing and handed money over I got charged tourist prices. It's not often it pays to scowl!
It was the same at the borders on the trains - Finnish border officials friendly and helpful, Russians cold and distant, Mongolians friendly and helpful again.
The Mongolian Steppe looked great as we came through it this morning. The next few days will be spent exploring it a bit more. Ulaanbaatar is a fairly unremarkable city - it's attraction is the countryside surrounding it. So it's horses and camels and yurts and nomads for the next few days.
One of the most startling things in Ulaanbattar is the liberal use of the Buddhist swastika - it's been an important symbol in Buddhism, and in Mongolia, long before Hitler flipped it round and tainted it with his evil. But most Westerners are surprised to see the monk taking their ticket at Gandan Monastery wearing a swastika ring, or shops and restaurants having swastikas in their windows. My education continues!
On my last day in Moscow it was the Red Army Museum - there was more than enough differences from the St Petersburg one to keep it interesting - not least Gary Power's U2 spy plane that the Russians shot down back in the day. It's an interesting exhibit, but the US spy plane Enver Hoxja got his hands on and put on display in his hometown of Gjirokastra, Albania is a more complete example, and more curious story!
Then it was Gorky Park for a bit of sunbathing and a look at the space shuttle they have as a feature there. Spy planes and space shuttles beats the ballet anyday of the week!