When keen travel photographer & writer, Ryan Gray, got in touch with us to share some photos of a recent trip on the Trans-Mongolian express, we got a serious case of travel envy – so much so that we asked him to share more photos of his adventures. Over to you, Ryan…
Ryan on his travels
”Travel isn’t exclusively about reaching a destination. Sometimes the journey itself is half the excitement and I’m sure that anyone who has sat and watched the ever-changing backdrops of the Trans-Mongolian express go tumbling past their window will agree with that sentiment whole-heartedly.
Starting in Beijing and culminating in Moscow, I saw the gathering hordes of some of the world’s busiest cities dissipate and be replaced by fresh green Mongolian plains; I saw Siberian villages and countrysides gradually build towards colossal Russian metropolises and I beheld Eastern and Western ideals intertwining with one another to create glorious cultural conglomerations, the likes of which cannot be witnessed anywhere else. The Trans-Mongolian express has a smorgasbord of stunning landscapes, amazing people and thrilling experiences laid out upon its tracks and the journey is as integral to the trip as the destinations.
As a self-confessed Sinophile, few places excite me as much as Beijing. The contrast of the old Chinese hutongs situated within the towering modernity of the newly built sky scrapers are a shining example of how China has transformed itself from humble beginnings into an economic super-power. These stark opposites can be seen throughout the city and offer an insightful glance into the worlds of those adapting with their developing landscapes.
An overnight journey to Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar gave me my first experience of life on the tracks and, as the hustle and bustle of Beijing gradually dispersed, a glowing orange sun began to set. Whilst we rolled through the stunning vacant plains of Inner Mongolia, passengers lined up against the windows of the carriages, staring in awe at the natural spectacle playing out in front of them before it slowly faded into darkness.
The daylight of the morning after brought with it a new country and another change of scenery. The plains of Mongolia, at first scattered with wild horses and nomadic gers, gradually built up into a city made from a combination of native shacks, historic temples and modern high-rise facilities, all nestled side by side.
An excited atmosphere filled the air. The annual Naadam sports festival was due to take place and the city was filled with extravagantly dressed natives, peacocking in anticipation of the festivities.
Wrestling, horse racing, archery and ankle bone shooting (a unique Mongolian sport, similar to ten pin bowling, but played with sheep ankle bones instead of balls) were all set to be played out in front of the crowds of enthused locals, many of whom turned up on horse-back to gain a better vantage point of the competitions.
The next leg of the journey delivered the town of Listvyanka; a town perched right on the edge of the city of Irkutsk, deep in the heart of Siberian Russia whose inhabitants live in colourfully painted wooden cottages that add charm to already quaintly picturesque scene.
On Listvyanka’s doorstep sits lake Baikal – a vast blue liquid desert holding a fifth of the world’s fresh water. The shores of its crystal clear waters make perfect congregation points for locals who enjoy meeting for a drinks, meals and even sing-alongs as they gaze out at the shimmering Safire blue waters in front of them.
Following the plush green surroundings of Listvyanka, the locomotives venture along the old Russian railways before trundling into the ramshackle city of Krasnoyarsk. Tall, decrepit former Soviet buildings, some completely abandoned, acned the town and their presence provided the place with a rather sinister atmosphere.
To think that Krasnoyarsk and Listvyanka are in the same country is fairly hard to comprehend initially. The multi-coloured cottages and deep forests of the Siberian countryside seem a million miles from the steel grey, worn down streets of the city. However, every now and then beautifully crafted wooden buildings punctuate the dull modernity and reveal how far Russia has progressed over the last century.
The last stop on this exploration of the East was the Russian capital of Moscow. It’s over two thousand miles from Krasnoyarsk, which meant that a three-night stint on the train was necessary. Urban landscapes came and went, divided up by forests and fields and those three days were spent watching the world change through a pane of glass.
Eventually Moscow rolled into view early in the morning. A labyrinth of grandiose architecture, both religious and political, lies sprawled out, with any sign of East Asia all but completely out of sight. Beneath it a Metro rail system weaves from landmark to landmark between stations decorated in such a way that one could be forgiven for thinking them art galleries or museums.
Between all of these sights sits the jewel in Moscow’s gloriously rich crown – the Red Square. A sparse open space that sits in the shadows of both the Kremlin and the excessively lavish GUM shopping mall, and is book-ended by the severe, blood red State Historical Museum and St Basil’s Cathedral, a whimsical building that looks as it was constructed from different flavoured ice creams.
The sights along the tracks of the Trans-Mongolian express draw in travellers from all over the globe every year. It’s a journey that is long and at times arduous, but watching scenery and culture merging and altering around you is quite a remarkable thing to take in. So travel slowly, see more and have remarkable experiences. After all, there’s really no rush.”
Wow! What a journey – when can we book our tickets? Thanks for sharing with us, Ryan.
Have you been lucky enough to journey on the Trans-Mongolian Express, or is it something you want to add to your bucket list? Let us know in the comments below!