A culinary adventure in search of Sichuan’s Lost Plate

If there is one city you need to take a food tour, then Chengdu is that city. Sichuan food is an experience that deserves its own tour. That’s why we jumped at the chance to hop on a tuk tuk to discover it with Lost Plate food tours.

We met our guide Chin Oh and 8 other American, British, French and Singaporean travellers and packed ourselves into 3 tuk tuks and set off! It was a strange sight to see tuk tuks in this modern Chinese city, but it definitely added to the charm.

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Our first stop was Dan Hong Gao, a tiny kiosk selling egg baked pancakes. We would have never discovered this place if not for Lost Plate Food Tours. The chefs at Dan Hong Gao were making 2-3 pancakes at a time, stuffing it with all sorts of sweet and savoury delicacies.

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Chin Oh recommended the pancake named “strange” because it was sweet, spicy and nutty all at the same time! What a great recommendation, it wasn’t strange at all, just really yummy! No wonder Dan Hong Gao had won many awards all proudly displayed in front.

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Stop #2 was my most favourite one. Set in the middle of a private military housing complex, Chao Shou is a apartment turned restaurant, named Chengdu’s best hidden restaurant in 2017, serving the best Chengdu dumplings.

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It was something right out of king fu panda, not only because they served dumpling (the best I’ve ever tasted) but probably also because of the unassuming setting where bowls full of dumplings kept coming non stop that made me feel a tad bit like Poh!

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We tried all sorts of dumplings – original, dry chili, sour spice, soupy!

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While we were enjoying our feast, two girls wandered in and were turned away because they had no reservation and the place was sold out. One of the girls started dramatically crying! Only after my first bite into the dumplings did I realise why. Although it was the most basic place set in the middle of no where in there was a reason why it has won a ton of accolades. It wasn’t about the ambiance or the experience. It was just all about the food.

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Our next stop was a Sichuan noodle place that Chin Oh said was only a “little bit famous, not too much”. For the life of me I can’t figure out why, because the noodles were delish! Once again we tried all sorts of noodles in small bowls – cold noodles for a hot summer day, strong sweet and nutty noodles, the sad jelly noodle that was spicy as hell and the sweet and sour one.

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Here we had our first taste of Ma La – the mouth numbing Sichuan red pepper. Although in small doses, this can be deadly but also really really good! The best types of Ma la numbs your mouth for at least 5 mins according to Chin oh. The best type of anaesthetic if you have a tooth to be extracted maybe? But don’t worry the Ma La in the sad jelly noodle (which got its name because the emotion after having Ma la) is really very good. We had tons!

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Stop #4 was Sichuan stir fry, really really good Sichuan stir fry.

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We had everything from the double fried pork (the best!) to beef soaked in a mala soup/ gravy, stir fried green peppers, the original version of the famous kung pao chicken (the best I’ve ever had) and century egg.

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For those moments when you feel like you can’t take more spice, there was also a plate of sticky rice with pumpkin and orange peel, a strange but great combination.

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This last dish was a revelation to the history of Sichuan food. It’s evolution has 3 eras: firstly the time before salt mines were discovered in China, everything tasted sweet! And hence the sweet sticky rice with pumpkin, after the discovery of salt, everything was salty! And when westerns started traveling to China in the 16th century, they brought along chili, which the Chinese have now mastered and hence the feeling of fireworks in your mouth.

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Our last food stop was another hidden restaurant in a private housing complex. This time it was hot pot.

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Not the traditional one, but this hot pot was for satays dipped in a hot bowl gravy. Chin Oh helped us pick all sorts of veggies and meats on sticks to be cooked.

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By the time the bowls arrived we were so full, but we couldn’t stop ourselves from reaching out to the aroma filled satays dipped in the bowl. Gluttony at its best (or worse).

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Fun fact – Chinese characters are a little bit like hieroglyphs and the word/letter for stick hot pot, looks like food on a stick!

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That was it for food and we could barely move, but we had one last stop – drinks! Chin Oh took us to the coolest ancient Chinese styled bar.

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It was a dark den where the group downed bottles of Chinese rice wine. If you thought Ma La burnt your throat, wait till you try Shaoxing! Gambe!

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All in all we had a great time. Lost Plate Tours had certainly discovered Sichuan’s culinary extravaganza and they are the perfect people to help you discover it too! Thanks for a great time..

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Book your tours here and prepare your tastebuds to be wowed.

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A play date with the pandas

Seeing pandas in Chengdu was a dream, part of our bucket list. For us Chengdu was synonymous with the cute and cuddly panda bears, so much so that unknowingly we had rechristened our favourite Sichuan restaurant back home Chengdu Panda. We honestly thought that’s what it was called until one day after recommending the place to some friends who then later walked all over Chinatown in Singapore in search on Chengdu Panda without much luck, did we realise the place was named Old Chengdu. But our brains saw Chengdu and thought panda, so for years we visited the place unknowingly calling it that. Anyway the point is we love pandas, so off we went to Chengdu to see them.

We wanted to get as up close and personal with the pandas as possible, so we booked the panda keeper volunteer program at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, Dujiangyan Base.

Pro tip: this “volunteer” experience is a paid one and you have to book well in advance because they only take in 30 volunteers. Book directly with the center, if not various travel agents will charge you a crazy amount of money. We paid RMB 700 per person in March 2018, which in itself was quite expensive. They don’t have a proper website that I could find, so email them pandaeducatecenter@163.com.

Our day started early as we had to make the 70 min journey from Chengdu to Dujiangyan. The program starts at 9, but get there early so you can finish all the paperwork and make payment (made directly to the center with cash or card). We were then divided into groups, 6 in a group led by their lovely English speaking staff.

We dressed up as panda keepers in blue jumpsuits and gloves and hopped in a buggy that took us through the massive bamboo forest to our allotted panda enclosure. And there we got down to business.

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Pro and I were given a cage to clean up and when we walked into the cage, there they were – the cutest two pandas in the world! When they saw us coming in, they rushed to the front of the cage and looked at us with those adorable eyes!

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Doris our group leader was trying to get the two pandas to step out so that we could clean the cage, but the two fur balls refused to leave. I think they liked us! So she had to bribe them with carrots and drag them out. Once we were given the all clear, we opened the doors and set to work. We had to clean out the panda poo and sweep the bamboo leaves off the floor. You can guess who drew the short straw, so I picked up the broom while Pro shovelled away the poo.

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As I was sweeping, Doris came in and sternly asked me to move away from the back door. Without me noticing, the pandas had come back and were right behind me trying to get in (I knew they liked me). As cute as they were, pandas are still bears, Doris reminded us.

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After the clean up, we walked around the center from one enclosure to another to gawk at the cutie pies.

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It was drizzling and we were given rain coats but the good thing is that apparently pandas loved the rain, and it sure looked like they did because they were out and about playing and just being cute.

We started for hours. Started at one panda hugging a tree peacefully asleep..

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…one looking intently at the falling rain drops…or engrossed in his morning prayer..

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….another munching away on fresh green leaves

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..two pandas playing with each other…

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…doing a little stretch dance, maybe tango?

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…pandas sitting like humans and munching on bamboo shoots…

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…pandas believing they can do acrobats..

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…pandas searching for something far in the horizon

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…And finally a 7 month old panda baby curled up into a ball and sleeping!

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When we got back after our walk, it was time to feed the monochrome giants. After their hour in the rain, the pandas made their way back to the cages and prepared themselves for lunch. We were each given a tray of carrot sticks and we sat down in front of the cages and fed them.

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Doris warned us to pull our hands back as soon as the pandas took the carrot, if not our fingers would be part of their lunch. They don’t mean any harm, but those powerful jaws can crush your bones!

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Sitting next to and feeding a panda was a magical experience. They are like big cuddly babies that look at you with imploring eyes. And they way they take the food to their hands and eat!! Really tugging at my heart strings here! At the end of the carrot tray the pandas were rewarded with a bamboo cake which they seemed to love…

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The pandas had eaten, and it was now time for our lunch. We went to the staff canteen and feasted on a buffet of great Sichuan food. When I booked the tour I was told it was going to be a simple lunch, the same as what the staff eat everyday. It was anything but simple. The food was really very good! Read about our Sichuan food experience here.

After lunch they show you a documentary about pandas and releasing them into the wild and post that you repeat the morning tasks of cleaning and feeding.

The last activity of the day is a chance to make the bamboo cake for the pandas, after which you get a certificate for being a panda keeper.

If you want to pay a hefty fee of RMB 1800 (as of March 2018) you can opt to hug a panda and take a picture. It’s strictly for 20 seconds and you get to sit next to a panda and have your arm around him. We didn’t think it was worth the money since we anyway got very very close and were in fact able to touch the pandas during the day.

Pro tip: if you don’t want to spend the entire day at the center you can be like us and skip the afternoon activities. We wanted to go back to Chengdu since we only had 3 days and tons more to see and do in town. Read our 3 day Chengdu itinerary here. Although you end up paying the full amount even if you do a half day volunteer, it saves you some time and anyway the afternoon is a repeat of the morning.

All in all it was a wonderful play date with pandas, getting really up close and personal with these once critically endangered species.

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Know before you go

  • You can volunteer in one of two places – the Dujiangyan base or the Wolong base – both run by the same company so the experience is pretty much the same. Dujiangyan is 1.5 hour drive from Chengdu, Wolong is 3 hours away, thats the only difference you need to consider
  • The interaction you get with pandas with the volunteer program is limited to feeding them
  • When you clean their cages, make bamboo cake etc, there are no pandas around
  • You get to walk around the park to see the pandas in their enclosures – this is the same as what you would get if you buy a normal ticket priced at RMB 50, so its a big price difference
  • Bulky cameras like a DSLR aren’t allowed while you are volunteering so you will have to be happy with photos from a phone camera
  • All in all what you pay for is the chance to feed the pandas (unless you are really into cleaning cages :)), this time is roughly around 1-2 mins. Of course you can touch, stroke them while you are at it.

How to get there – there are 3 ways to get to the base:

  1. Taxi: you can show the driver this words, :四川省都江堰市青城山镇石桥村中国大熊猫保护研究中心都江堰基地(怀中路青城山镇与大观镇之间)
  2. Train: take subway to XIPU(犀浦), then take the train around 7:53 in the morning from XIPU(犀浦)to Qingchengshan Railway station(青城山站) then take No. 102 bus to Panda Base (熊猫乐园)
  3. Bus:Take bus from Chadianzi (茶店子客运站) to Dujiangyan(都江堰)then take No. 102 bus to Panda Base

Not wanting to risk getting lost early in the morning we booked the transfer through Chengdu Holiday (chengduholiday@yahoo.com) well in advanced and paid RMB 600. This seemed to be the standard lowest price we could find.

Hope you enjoyed the story of our play date with the pandas. If you are interested in doing the same and have more questions, give us a shout in the comments below and we’ll get back to you.

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Trans Siberian Rail Journey – everything you need to know

Firstly lets start with definitions. There are a few “trans” trains in this region that are used interchangeably, so to avoid any confusions these are the names you’d hear –

  1. Trans Siberian: this is the most famous one, partly owing to the movie and partly because it is the longest train journey on the planet. This goes between Moscow and Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia.
  2. Trans Mongolian: as the name suggests this branches out from the Trans Siberian and goes across Mongolia to Ulaanbataar and Beijing.
  3. Trans Manchurian: this goes all the way across China to Harbin and then to Beijing

Most people take the Trans Siberian and its branch Trans Mongolian all the way to Beijing and skip the cold of the Russian east coast. This is what we took, covering 6000km on rail.

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How to book the Trans Siberian tickets

Unfortunately there is no official rail website where you can buy these tickets, you have to go through a Russian travel agent or a 3P website. I suggest you pick a Russian travel agent as it gives you a few advantages

  • You can customise the itinerary as you wish, getting off and on from different stations and spending as much time as you want along the way
  • Its MUCH cheaper than buying it from a local travel agent. We tried buying off some Singaporean agents and the cost was more than double. We met a Norwegian couple on the train and they had the exact same experience trying to buy from Oslo.

If you are planning on making some stops in between, remember that you can’t buy one ticket. It doesn’t work like a hop on hop off. You will need to buy as many tickets depending on the number of stops you make. We stopped in Irkutsk and Ulaanbataar, so we had to buy 3 tickets: Moscow – Irkutsk, Irkutsk – Ulaanbataar, Ulaanbataar – Beijing.

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Our Trans Siberian Rail Tickets!!

Picking the right train

There are normal trains and express trains depending on the dates you pick to go. If you make stops in between in Siberia, you might end up in a normal train that doesn’t go all the way. This is not ideal because its slower and stops in many places. The normal trains don’t have first class. If your travel agent offers you first class on a normal train, that means he’s giving you a second class cabin to yourself.

Check out seat61.com to get a detailed understanding of each train. We took train number 4 from Moscow to Irkutsk and train number 306 from Irkutsk.

There are also Russian, Chinese and Mongolian (run by Russians) trains. Depending on the flag of the train the staff will be from that country. Although neither really speaks any English, this is something to keep in mind.

Solely based on the two trains we travelled in, my biggest advice is to pick the Russian or Mongolian trains. They are newer, MUCH MUCH MUCH cleaner, better maintained with staff who were more professional.

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The beautiful Russian train staff

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The slightly annoyed at being photographed Chinese staff

Picking the right cabin 

You have an options of picking from

First class: there are two per cabin, although one is still a bunk bed. There is also one “shower” room between two cabins, so you have to share with your neighbours. This has a sink, tap and a shower. However, don’t attempt a full shower because the doors aren’t entirely sealed and it will start leaking into the cabins. Trust me, it happened to us. A damp carpet in your cabin is not what you want on the longest train journey on the planet. There are 2 toilets for each carriage, which usually has 16 people. There is enough storage for 3 big bags, 1 small bag and 1 back pack, very comfortably. The cabin also has a power socket for all your devices.

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Inside the Moscow – Irkutsk Chinese Train

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Our wonderful cabin inside the Irkutsk – Ulaanbataar Russian Train

Second class: this has 2 bunk beds for 4 people and can be a little bit cramped up.

Third class: I haven’t personally seen this, but everything I have read that one should not to take the third class cabin unless you are Russian.

When to go: Summer vs Winter 

Ah here is a question we mulled over for quite some time. Go in the summer when the sun is out and the temperature is comfortable or see Siberia like how we’ve heard all our lives – completely frozen. We picked the latter and I will personally recommend it, although I have no comparator. Winter is Siberia is bitterly cold, but with the right clothes, its beauty is beyond words. Miles and miles of monochrome landscape gleaming in the winter sun.

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Siberian landscape as the train slowly rolled past

We did consider a middle ground in our typical compromising style and although I haven’t personally experienced it, some Russian friends advised us not to go there in Spring when the thaw happens. The melting snow slush makes everything cold and not so beautiful.

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Onboard!

Where to go

The popular stops along the way are

  1. Yekaterinburg – if you want to see the remains of the last Tsar Romanov family or enter the heart of what was once the center of Russian organized crime.
  2. Irkutsk – to see the breathtaking Lake Bikal. Read about our stop over in the most famous part of Siberia here.
  3. Ulaan Baatar – enter the wilderness of the Steppes and Gobi desert through Mongolia’s capital

While on the train

The first thing to keep in mind is the time table on board the train. These timetables were made before smart phones and GPS and also keeping in mind the patchy connection in the middle of nowhere, so all times are in Moscow time. This can be a bit confusing at first especially because you cross about 5 time zones enroute, so it makes sense to have Moscow time on your phone.

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The slightly confusing time table on board our train #4

The weird part is that when you stop at stations, the time shown on the station clock is also Moscow time!

Everyday the train will stop 3-4 times. Once in the middle of the night and maybe 2-3 times during the day. Each stop will be about 15-20 minutes but they start calling you back after about 5-10 minutes so you don’t get much time on ground. In any case you cant go too far, just in case the train leaves without you. You can hop off the train to stretch your legs or buy some essentials. In the winter we didn’t see many stores, but this could be different in the summer. The stores we came across had all the basic necessities – toilet paper (although your bum might scream in pain if you use it), cup noodles, bread, chips etc. We also came across some roast chicken, bacon and fried fish although its freshness is suspect.

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Small stores on the platform selling food and basic necessities

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Another quick stop at midnight. Weather: -20 degrees and light snow fall!

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Fried fish being sold by vendors

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Pro and his dad coming back with groceries

The restaurant car

There is a very warm restaurant car on each train. The food is very very mediocre and over priced. We had soup which surprisingly tasted fresh and good, but the roast meat and sandwiches were quite bad. The bread was stale and the meat was hard and chewy.

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The train conductors cooked their own momos!!! and luckily for us shared them with us

Each carriage has a hot water dispenser where you can get unlimited hot water ranging around 80 degrees.

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Pro’s dad filling hot water into the flask provided by the train

Be ware that some trains do not have restaurant cars. The one we took from Irkutsk to Ulaanbataar only did that leg and since it was just a day and a half, there was no restaurant car on the train. Imagine our surprise heading for dinner! But the staff onboard did sell tea, coffee and snacks. The coffee came in very fancy crystal mugs!

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Coffee served in fancy crystal mugs and metal holders

What to pack

Food – since the food onboard is limited and there isn’t much to buy from the train stations, we packed most of the food we needed. This included

  • Cup noodles
  • Cup soup
  • Tin fish
  • Cheese
  • Salami
  • Beef jerky
  • Instant rice (Dont judge, us Sri Lankans cant go long without rice)
  • Some packeted Sri Lankan food – seeni sambol, pol sambol, fried sprats
  • Vermicilli (since its easy to cook – you only need to dip in boiling water)
  • Fruits
  • Tea
  • Instant coffee
  • Milk powder
  • Ready to eat Quinoa mix from Jamie Oliver
  • Biscuits
  • Chocolate
  • Nuts
  • Whiskey
  • Vodka (we were in Russia after all)

We had also taken some cutlery

  • Disposable plates
  • Forks, knives, spoons, scissor
  • Cups
  • Flask: so that we could easily take the hot water back into our cabin

Other than that we packed

  • Toilet paper
  • Wet wipes for the body
  • Lip balm
  • Enough moisturizer
  • Swiss army knife
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We borrowed a pot from the staff and cooked rice!!!

How to pack

We had arrived in Russia with two big suitcases on wheels. But since the cabins are small and room to manoeuvre is minimum we also took with us some foldable duffle bags. The clothes and toiletries we need on board was packed in one duffle and the food was packed in another. This was Pro’s ingenious idea and worked brilliantly for us.

What you get onboard 

You will get a bed sheet, duvet, blanket and mattress cover, pillow and pillow cover. They also give you a plate and a hot water flask – its cleanliness is questionable so we didn’t really use these.

The Toilets

This is a stress point for me and I couldn’t find much online. So if you are finicky like me, here are the deats.

Moscow-Irkutsk (Chinese Train) – We were in first class and only 6 people including ourselves were using the toilet. It was a metal toilet, with a flush peddle that you had to step on. Overall it looked clean, although I didn’t dare sit on that toilet seat. From time to time it smelled a bit bad, but there wasn’t much choice.

Irkutsk onwards (Russian Train) – The toilets were in great condition here! the set up was exactly the same as the train before, however it was MUCH cleaner and regularly cleaned. There was fresh toilet paper and hand towels as well as liquid soap.

Border crossing

If you take the train all the way from Russia to China or vice versa, you will experience 2 border crossings and therefore 4 check points as you cross each country. This is what you need to know

  • The train stops and immigration and customs officers board the train and will come to you to do the check. You are not allowed to get off the train or wander about inside the train until all checks are completed.
  • You also can’t use the toilet (since its stopped in a station) till the checks are completed. So remember to finish all your business before the train stops
  • You will receive an immigration and customs declaration form from the train staff before the check point so remember to fill them up as soon as you get it
  • Keep your passport and forms ready to be checked when the officials board the train
  • Also keep your luggage ready to be checked. If you have any bags kept in the luggage space on top, bring them down and keep them ready
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Mongolia border check

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Russia border check

We haven’t answered all your questions? Leave a comment and we’ll respond.

Siberia’s Frozen Nothingness

Siberia – that word in itself sends a cold shrill down my spine. Known for being probably the world’s bleakest, inhabited, vast land of frozen nothingness. As I type this out, sitting in a train enroute to Mongolia, I look out of the window and see the frozen Lake Bikal – an expansive large white mass with distant snow covered mountains.

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Pro loves trains and ever since watching the movie Trans Siberian, he had wanted to do the world’s longest train journey. Something about whizzing past a vast land area with nothing, doing shots of vodka with strangers that don’t speak the same language appealed to him. So it made it to our bucket list.

The first big pre trip decision we had to make was whether to do the train journey in winter or in summer. Do we brave the sub zero temperatures (remember its always +30 degrees where we come from) or go in sunny summer when we can perhaps stay out for extended periods without the risk of frost bite. In the end, the decision was simple – we had to see Siberia the way we had heard it. The way my mum described it written in Doctor Zhivago, the way the movie Transsiberian showed it, the way we expected it to be when we walked into a cold room with a centrally controlled air con and said “jeez this feels like Siberia”. So winter it was.

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Close to midnight on a cold winter day, we hopped on Trans Siberian Train #4 from Moscow. Read all the logistical details about our trip here.

After settling into our cabin which looked straight out of a Wes Anderson movie (Thanks T for the apt reference) we journeyed through the center of Russia for 4 not so long days.

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I had expected to be bored, so my kindle was equipped with 6 new books, I was armed with my laptop to write and of course had my camera to snap every passing scene. But to my surprise the days on the train were pleasantly eventful. Time just whizzed past in us playing house – preparing our meals, tidying up, washing and cleaning dishes; making friends – having that occasional vodka shot with strangers, befriending the conductors who fed us with freshly made momos (YUM!); getting layered up to jump off the train in -20 degree weather when it make a couple of short stops each day.

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Siberia was pretty much exactly how we expected it to be – a vast landscape covered with snow, dotted with a few evergreens. With each passing day the landscape changed. We woke up to a misty mornings where everything was pretty much…white. The scene outside our windows seemed to be in the inspiration for Monet’s Magpie. As the hours passed and the winter sun rose, blue skies framed the landscape and the powdery snow glittered. The sun dipped early making everything almost monochrome in the early evening and after that, pitch black.

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Four days of gentle rocking on the train stopped when we got to Irkutsk, on the shores of Lake Bikal the world’s largest fresh water lake. It was half the size (without exaggeration) of Sri Lanka! Imagine that.

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This was the perfect place to finally experience the real Siberia, after seeing it outside our window for days. It was half past 7 when we jumped off the train, but it was still very dark and foggy in Irkutsk. We got off to a snow covered platform lit by 19th century lamp posts and watched our train engulfed in the mist, while the conductors were herding the moving passengers.

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From here we drove off to the complete wilderness of Siberia – Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Bikal. Given its geographical positioning, Olkhon was thankfully isolated from most of civilisation that had creeped in on Siberia. And given the extreme winter weather, we had the place almost to ourselves and the 1000+ locals who lived on the island. Olkhon was a mystical place of significance to the Shaman believers.

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But for us, the magic was in the lake. Around the island, the water is so pure that when it freezes in winter, the frozen lake is completely transparent. Imagine that you are standing on a glass on top of a 1500m depth – thats the feeling you get standing on the frozen Lake Bikal. The water is frozen solid for a good 2m and is completely strong. So much so that the only way in to the island from the mainland is to drive above the ice.

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At first I didn’t get this – I’ve seen frozen lakes before that resembled skating rinks and were white as snow (yes yes, because of the snow). But Bikal was different – partly because of how pure the water was and also because of the micro climate on the island, as cold as it got (way past -20) it doesn’t snow much! All of this made the lake so magically (and a tad bit scarily) transparent. Yes its all a bit confusing and hard to imagine, but look at these pictures..

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For the most part I was half expecting some white walkers and the ice breathing dragon Viserion to just come by. This landscape looked eerily like something north of the wall. Or maybe they had just been here and hence this scenery.

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We spent as much time on the ice as our tropical loving bodies would allow it. Peeping through the ice to see if we can spot any fish below the frozen surface (spoiler alert: we didn’t, we did however see the rock clad bottom of the lake it some shallow places), playing a game of ice foot ball (or ice foot block), exploring ice caves and munching on icicles (yes, Pro did do that).

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While the lake is for the most part frozen and safe to trod on, some parts, particularly whats known as the “big sea” can be a bit dangerous. The lake freezes in parts starting from the top. As the still liquid waves keep rippling up, massive slabs and blocks of ice forms one on top of the other. Some of these were about 10ft tall! This can also then create cracks and crevices in the ice curving along for a few kilometres!

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When we got to the “Big Sea”, Anatoli our driver sped right over the ice touching 100kmph and came to a screeching halt next to an area with massive and beautiful blue ice slabs (think colour of the White Walkers eyes) and a long crack.

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We jumped off the jeep and while I was capturing the breathtaking aqua blue scenery, Pro started playing with the ice slabs. Seeing that there was a thin layer of water on top of the long crevice surrounded by ice blocks, his curiosity got the better of him and he started throwing smaller blocks in an attempt to make a splash.

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Thats when we heard a heart wrenching sharp, thunderous crack sound emitting from the lake! At first I thought it was thunder, then I realised it was the ice, and the floor beneath me was vibrating ever so slightly. I wasn’t sure if I should run for my life, and if so in which direction or if I should cling on to the largest ice block I could find or just let my fate be decided by the great Shaman powers who possessed the lake. In the end I think I froze (no pun intended) while watching a mammoth ice plate move and change its resting position.

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As we rushed back to the jeep (to get the hell outta there) Anatoli was calm and implored for us to stay longer on the ice (no way in hell.) and as he did this, he told us the story of how his brother died when the frozen lake gave way and opened up, right here on the big see and pointed to a grave site on top of a mountain (was he for real?!) While we thought we escaped a near death experience, here he was calmly telling us of his loss, one that happened in a very similar situation to what we thought was unfolding then and there.

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In the end we of course made it out to live another day, enjoy the reflection of the setting sun on the legendary Lake Bikal ice and to later sit beside a warm fireplace eating honey cake.

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It was a good reminder that the lake specifically and mother nature in general was precious and jaw droopingly beautiful, but it needs to be handled with care.

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Delightfully Salty! A Photo Shoot Like No Other

What have you imagined heaven to look like? Living in the blue sky, walking on white fluffy clouds? Welcome to Salar de Uyuni.

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The doors of our jeep opened and we leaped into the sky. Or at least it felt like it, until our feet touched a shallow layer of cold water. Here we were in the middle of the Bolivian desert, in the largest salt flat in the world, stepping on the largest mirror in the world.

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Everything you’ve read, seen and heard about this place is true. The place is almost surreal. I’m not sure where the sky started or ended. What was real and what was the reflection. For as far as your eye could see it was the sky, above and below you.

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Perched up ~3600m above sea level, in the land locked Bolivian desert is this natural marvel. No doubt it was once submerged in sea water, probably a few millennia ago before tectonic plates shifted to make the world as we know it today. But today this salty delight is in the middle of the South American continent. Accessed from a non-descriptive little town called Uyuni, the salar is the crowning jewel of this little nation.

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The best time to visit the salar, in my humble opinion is the rainy season. Although most would prefer the dry winter months, when it rains a thin layer of water remains on the surface of the salt flat creating an amazing mirror effect that gives the feeling that you are walking on clouds. The dry season I’m sure is perfect, but when you see the sky and ground collide to create one seamless white & blue paradise, you know it just cant get any better.

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There isn’t much to see here other than whiteness for as far as your eyes can see (over 10,000 sq km to be precise), but the setting does make for a fantabulous backdrop for perspective photography. So we hired a few “props” from our hotel (side note: all hotels have cupboards full of toys and toiletries and what not that one can rent for props for a day of photography) and set out shoot the day away.

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Just remember to bring out the crazy in you, or ensure you have a crazy friend in tow, like we did (thanks Swa for the brilliant photo direction!) to end up with pictures like this

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A few things to keep in mind when visiting the Salar,

  1. If you go in the rainy season, remember to pack water proof shoes. Stepping into the cold water early in the morning was not pleasant as a few of us discovered

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  2. Pack water proof clothes, pants at least, so you can roll around in the water, shooting pictures with no worry
  3. Consider staying in a salt hotel, its an interesting experience to say the least! Read about our’s here.
  4. Nights in the salar can be bitterly cold, so pack well
  5. You are in the middle of a salt flat, so be extra careful with your camera and such devices, the last thing you want is the insides of your precious SLR corroding
  6. Tons of sunscreen is a must. You are completely exposed to the sun with no where to hide. At the end of the day we were burnt crisp.

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  7. Take tons of props with you and let your creativity unfold.

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