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.

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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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The Surreal Landscapes that Make Up Bolivia

We had to squeeze Bolivia into our South America itinerary, just because we were fascinated by the magical landscapes of Salar de Uyuni, but we soon discovered that there was so much more to this land locked South American nation than the world’s largest salt flat.

To start right from the top, we had a nail biting journey from Cusco (in Peru) to Uyuni. First the flight from Peru to Bolivia was delayed due to bad weather. They told us “the airport was shut” but it seemed like many other flights were landing and taking off. The flight we were on seemingly wasn’t able to manage the cloudy skies. So we waited and waited, with tempers soaring because we were likely going to miss our connection. We spoke to everyone we could, ground staff, security and even the flying staff later when we finally boarded. We had to make that connection or we were*^($@^.

Long story short we finally took off and landed in La Paz, midway point to get to Uyuni and our entry to Bolivia. More drama! We rushed to get to the front of the queue at immigration, begging and smiling at people and we made it. The visa officers of course took their own cool time. We were then asked to pay the visa fee in Boliviano (?!??!) sorry what? We just landed and haven’t even entered the country! Oh no problem, why don’t you go in and change some money. Err what? You are letting us enter the country with no stamp? Yup go ahead. Are you in a rush to get you luggage? Why don’t some of you go wait at the luggage carousel. Sure! Why not!!! Coolest immigration guy. ever. Of course if we were terrorists (like most countries think we are when they see our passports) we could have blown the airport to kingdom come. But we weren’t. We then ran one by one to get our next flight. Poor Sandi almost died running back and forth to help us with our luggage. La Paz is at an elevation of almost 3700m, us island folk can simply walk and pass out, let alone run multiple times with luggage! Some ladies even offered oxygen seeing that Sandi was nearly dying. But all was well, we made our flight (which was also delayed!!), Sandi remained conscious.

It was all worth it once we got to Uyuni.

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We all cramped up into one jeep and set off on a ride of our lives with Elvis our guide & Carlos our driver. Most people come here just to see the salt flats, but the area around it is as stunning! Given that we were late we drove straight to Villamar and spent the night there. It was a long long long drive, but the spectacular scenery and the amazing sunset which set the desert on fire made it more than bearable.

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The best thing about Uyuni was its ever changing landscape, one minute you were passing through dry dessert land, the next it was lush & green, you’ll then come across colourful mineral lakes, hot springs and geysers, all in one drive. Stunning.

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We drove through dramatic landscapes and came across a hot spring. And a nice pool to go with it. Of course we took a dip until we felt boiled by the water and roasted by the sun.

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Pro lost his hiking boots here, but that’s a sad story we don’t talk about. Key learning: don’t forget your belongings. 15 minutes later when we came back, the shoes were gone.

Our next stop was the most spectacular of the all, the red lagoon. I read some tours that have this as optional or charge extra to see this, make sure you do, because it really was the highlight. Like the name suggests the lagoon water was red and it was adorned with hundreds of flamboyant flamingos. Together with the green grassed shore and herds of llamas, the colour combination was mind blowing!

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I fell in love with llamas. They were the cutest creatures ever. Shy & cute! The locals jazz their ears with colourful wooly thread, llama earrings that only increased their charm. Such bohemian creatures, they fit so perfectly with the rest of the breathtaking landscape.

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We just passed through so many incredible sights, stopping to take pictures and breathing in Mother Nature’s creativity. We saw the stone tree, a geyser, the black lagoon before we called it a day.

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We were so impressed by Bolivia and we hadn’t even see Salar de Uyuni yet! But we did, read that here.

I’ve never been to such a tremendously diverse place that made me feel so keenly aware that I am on a weird floating space rock, just like those alien planets in sci fi movies. Huge red deserts with black rocks, thick green bushy grass, growing in porcupine shapes, mammoth boulders appearing in the middle of nowhere, fiery sunsets – all set against dazzling blue skies painted with dramatic clouds. It just doesn’t get better…

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As always, before I end, here are some useful things you need to know

  1. We actually found it quite a challenge to find a good tour operator. Most people didn’t respond to our emails, the others charged ridiculous amounts or had bad reviews. The one we finally picked, the only one who seemed reliable was La Torre Tours. We highly recommend Elvis & Carlos, who really took care of us.

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  2. You are bound to get altitude sickness. Unless you are a mountain goat or you are from high altitudes, be prepared. We weren’t and we suffered as a result – horrible headaches and nausea. Lovely Carlos gave me a pill, which may or may not have worked. But it’s a horrible feeling to have. We went from 3600m to about 4500m above sea level in one day. That’s a lot and your body will tell you.

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  3. We were a group of 6 plus the driver & guide. We managed to squeeze into one jeep. It’s not ideal, but it can be done, if we had used two, the cost would have doubled!

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  4. Most drivers do not speak English, so you are better off getting a guide. Not because there is a lot to explain in the surroundings, but you are literally in the middle of nowhere with zero facilities, you never know what might happen. So unless you speak Spanish, get a guide.
  5. Don’t expect luxury, you are in a ridiculously remote area. Meals and accommodation will be basic and expect to go to the loo in the wild. We stayed the night at Mallku Cueva, highly overpriced, but had all the basic necessities and was clean! They also provided food. If you are a vegetarian, you are going to suffer, as poor Lavi did. At one point she was eating boiled rice and boiled potatoes!! So I suggest you bring something from home. I don’t usually advice that when traveling, but in this case its about basic survival.

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  6. Be ready for things to go wrong. You are in a part of the world that thrives on chaos, so don’t expect things to be on time or for things to work perfectly. Just enjoy the ride, look out the window and let your jaw drop!

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An Arctic Adventure in Search of Aurora Borealis

“Arctic?!? No way!! You guys are crazy” was pretty much the response we got from any and everyone who heard of our trip. There were moments when I wondered myself if I was crazy, especially when we were buying clothes to prep for the trip. We are islanders. Period. 30 degrees, sun, sand and sea – that’s how we lived all our lives. So venturing out to almost the North Pole was bordering on crazy. But there were too many once in a lifetime things which can happen only that north, so we had to do it.

A few days in Stockholm, acclimatizing ourselves to sub zero temperature, we boarded a flight to Lulea to start our adventure – one that would help possibly tick two items off our bucket list – 1) see the elusive Aurora Borealis and 2) spend a night on ice.

We spent the first night in a hotel with tree houses for rooms! After checking in, we hiked 500m to our own unique little house up on the trees. We had picked the breathtaking mirror cube.

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There was also the not so blue ‘Blue Cone’, ‘the UFO’, ‘the Dragon Fly’, ‘the Cabin’ and ‘the Bird’s Nest’ in the vicinity.

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A group of journalists from the French Channel 5 were doing a documentary on the hotel and found out that a group of Sri Lankans had ventured out into the arctic. Their curiosity got the better of them and we were interviewed, filmed and featured in their travel program! We were feeling like celebrities and it was only day 1!

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After our near famous encounter with the French journalists we decided to take a cat nap in the early evening because there was unfortunately very little hope of seeing the northern lights due to extremely cloudy skies. As we were drifting into a peaceful slumber we were woken up by the shrill of the phone – it was the reception saying that the lights were out. We rushed to layer ourselves and dashed out of our tree houses. But there was nothing visible except for some light white clouds. It was then that I remembered a blog I’d read some time ago that said they saw the northern lights as white clouds but long exposure photographs revealed the elusive green lights. So we tried that and sure enough, there it was – the traveling streaks of Aurora Borealis.

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But there wasn’t much to see to the naked eye, was that it? Was that what the fuss was all about? Slightly disappointed we went off to sleep after dinner. It was then that we got the second call saying the lights were out and it was very strong. We only had to open our doors to see the green hues in the sky all around us, behind the pine tree forest. One look skywards and my heart stopped. The northern lights were out in all it’s glory and put on a show of a lifetime!

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We stood for hours in sub zero temperature admiring natures own fireworks. It had no sign of stopping, showing off hues of green, purple and red. After a while the cold got to our bones, so we called it a night.

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The next day we woke up to a bright and sunny winter day and took a 5 hour train ride to Abisko, a little village up in the arctic mountains known for it’s light shows. The train crossed into the arctic circle and we whizzed past miles and miles of snow covered forests. At first they were thick forests and gradually the trees became short and sparse and vanished all together. All that was left was miles and miles of mountains and nothingness that reminded me of the ice planet in interstellar.

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We arrived at our mountain lodge set up on a small hill on the banks of Lake Torneträsk. This ginormous lake apparently ensured that clouds didn’t stick in the sky and this increased our chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

After having reindeer for dinner (forgive me Rudolph) we wore a gazillion layers and trekked our way up to the foot of yet another mountain to take a chair lift up to the Aurora Sky Station. A viewing deck set up just to monitor and see the northern lights. They gave us warm overalls that weighed a ton, and given our primal fear of the cold we wore it and made our way up the lift looking like mini yetis.

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The ride up the chairlift was cold and eerie. The clouds covered the top of the mountain and everything was pitch black. Maybe it was a good thing I couldn’t see how far down the ground was, I’m not entirely a fan of heights.

We spent 3 good hours in the sky station, freezing our ***** off waiting against all odds for the clouds to clear and the lights to start. Unfortunately for us the cloud cover was so thick, there was absolutely no chance of seeing the lights that night. We had the option of spending the night in the sky station and taking the chairlift back in the morning when it started at 8am expecting the lights to show. But we opted to sleep on our comfortable warm beds back in the lodge. Good call, since the clouds never cleared.

Day 3 morning started with meeting Peter, our guide and hopping into his snowmobile drawn sled before heading off on our own snowmobile adventure. Pramodh and I got a snowmobile to share and of course he drove first. We made our way into the Abisko National Park, we rode through the forest, over creeks and across lakes before lo and behold it started snowing. Oh what beauty. This was the first time I was experiencing a proper snow shower.

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I immediately fell in love with the white flakes falling from above. This was perfection. I could almost forgive the clouds for blocking the aurora last night.

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It was my turn to ride. What an amazing experience, the wind in my face, semi frozen fingers and no complains. The forest opened up to reveal a beautiful frozen lake and we rode right across. I may have exceeded the speed limit here, but I couldn’t help myself.

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We took a break for a hot cuppa, made snow angels and attempted to make a snow man before riding back to the village through the wilderness.

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That night we were meeting the folks from Lappaland Media for a Aurora photo course. We hiked down towards the lake from the lodge and set up camp right in the middle of the frozen Lake Torneträsk to learn the basics of Aurora photography. Nikalas our instructor had built a cute little igloo so we started taking test shots of it when her majesty Aurora Borealis decided to make an appearance (yes! Twice in three days). It wasn’t as strong as the first day but it danced all over the sky and gave us a great show. 

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Standing in the middle of a frozen lake in temperatures waaaay below zero looking up at the sky and admiring this light show was truly humbling. For all the man made marvels and advances in science, nature does have a way of making you feel small. 

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The next morning we set out to explore our surroundings while the sun was still out. We discovered a frozen river, a dead drop cliff and a Sami village. 

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Not bad for a few hours of wandering about. And that afternoon we caught the train and headed south to Kiruna and checked into the Ice Hotel! 

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Don’t ask me why sleeping on ice made it to my bucket list, but it did. So here we were, in the banks of the Thorne River, the site of probably one of the greatest living art projects – the Ice Hotel

The Ice Hotel is built up from scratch every year using ice from the Thorne River. When spring comes the hotel melts and flows back into the river. A perfect cycle. I would have probably gotten bored and given up in year 3, but the artists behind this amazing creation have been doing it for 25 years! 

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From the outside its a bit disappointing because all you see is a short building with reindeer skin covered doors. But when you open those doors, oh boy..you step into the most amazing frozen castle, like something out of the movie Frozen. I could be Elsa and live here! 

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Every bit of the castle is carved to perfection – the ice chandeliers, the long beautiful corridor, the seats and tables – stunning! 

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And then there are the Art Suites! Each one different from the other, each one created by a set of artists with a story to tell. 

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After admiring this epic art project we hit the bar! So this, ladies and gentleman marks the first time I was intoxicated; in front of my in laws no less! I blame it partly on the cold and partly on the very handsome swede who served the drinks. When I picked my first drink his comment was “oh that’s a rare choice. Only a strong few can handle the spice!” So how was I to back down from there. Drinks were served in ice glasses that melted away bit by bit with every sip. There might have been 3 maybe 4 shots that followed..oh well..I was a light drinker and badly needed the dinner that followed. I could only pray that no one noticed me accidentally dropping my phone into the gravy three times. What’s a girl gonna do if her phone decided to test gravity!?!

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After dinner we made our way to the hotel’s dressing room and equipped ourself with everything we needed to survive the night – a sleeping bag made for -40 degrees although it was only -5 inside, hats to cover our heads and scarfs to cover our faces and thick socks. Clad in our thermals as adviced we carried our gear and walked to the hotel. That’s when the lights decided to come out for the night with a show almost as strong as what we saw the first night. Of course Pramodh by this time had seen all he wanted to of the northern lights, especially after the first night’s epic show; he didn’t want to stand outside freezing in his thermals. So we rushed inside and made our way through the ice corridor and found our room. 

The ice bed in the centre had reindeer skin and a soft mattress. We set up our sleeping bag and jumped inside. I wasn’t sure if I would survive the night. I woke up a few times and had serious doubts. But we had each other and the thick sleeping bag for warmth, so we did in fact make it through the night. When the staff woke us up with warm Lingonberry juice the next morning, not only was I happy to be alive (and not frozen), I was also very proud of myself for braving the cold. 

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As a reward we all went dog sledding! A sled drawn by 11 Alaskan huskies was waiting for us by the river. What beautiful dogs! They absolutely loved running and did not want to stay still. So till we got on to the sled and they got the signal to go, there was a complete ruckus – non stop barking, jumping and pulling. 

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It was a thrilling experience once again speeding through forests, across frozen lakes and rivers, watching the dogs eat ice every few mins while running in perfect formation. 

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There is one thing you need to know if you want to enjoy dog sledding – do not sit in front of the sled. Those dogs fart. ALOT. And they poo throughout the ride. Not a pleasant sight or smell. Other than that everything else was perfect. DSC_0353  DSC_0383

Our last adventure before heading back to the tropics was an encounter with a herd of reindeer who lived in a Sami Village. We got the chance to pet and feed them before saying goodbye to the Arctic.

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We got pretty lucky, the Aurora Borealis danced for us 3 out of the 4 nights we were out in the arctic, we raced snowmobiles while it was snowing, lived in a tree house, got featured on the French Channel 5, survived a night on ice and rode a dog sled through the beautiful arctic landscape. There aren’t too many other things that come close to this adventure.