When horsemen ruled the world, the region now known as Mongolia and Siberia, was the seat of awesome, all-conquering power. Today the region is much more tranquil but no less intriguing. Except for eternal blue skies, a rich history, unique cultures, stunning landscapes and nomadic herders slowly giving way to a fledgling, modern agriculture – the place is pretty much empty – and you’ll love it.
We arrive in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbataar, via Seoul, South Korea. Mongolia is ringed by mountains in the north and west and the Gobi desert in the east and south the rolling grasslands (steppes) cover more than 75 per cent of the country. The traditional nomads – 30 per cent of the population – pack up their gers (circular hide tents) and move with their livestock.
We will meet and be hosted by some of these traditional herders as we travel through this amazing landscape. We will also visit some modern and impressive cropping operations spurred on by government incentives towards greater food self-sufficiency. We also enjoy the annual Nadaam Festival where Mongolian independence is celebrated and horse riders, wrestlers and athletes are all on display.
Unlocking Siberian secrets
Onto Siberia where we meet the local Buryat farmers and marvel at Lake Baikal where 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water can be found! We will also visit areas such as the remote, fertile and spectacular alpine valley of Tunka, dotted with agricultural settlements as well as the very attractive and cosmopolitan city of Irkutsk – one of the most important cities of far eastern Russia.
Home is via a direct flight to Seoul or continue your adventure with travel west to Moscow and St Petersburg on the trans-Siberian. Another option is to fly (or train) even further eastwards to Vladivostok.
Daytime flights depart for Seoul, South Korea. There are daily direct flights out of Sydney – one connection out of other capitals.
On our late afternoon arrival in Seoul, we are transfered to our hotel for a well-earned rest and freshen up before enjoying a “meet and greet” at the hotel.
We have a guided city tour this morning to get our bearings. Seoul is a beautiful city consisting of both modern and ancient architecture. The metropolitan area contains no less than four UNESCO World Heritage Sites while street vendors compete for business amidst towering modern skyscrapers.
We also meet with Austrade officials to learn more about agricultural trade and opportunities between Australia and South Korea. South Korea’s export-oriented economy supports a relatively affluent society of 48 million people. The country’s rugged mountains leave a relatively small arable land area but around 2.4 million farmers manage to eke out a living. Rice dominates crop production and has long been the staple food. Corn, barley and soybean are also grown. To meet domestic demand, Korea is turning increasingly to food imports and Australia is a key supplier.
This morning we board our coach and travel to the northeast and the infamous DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) serving as a buffer between North and South Korea. We visit the infiltration tunnel, Dorasan (a restored railway station which once connected North and South Korea) and the Unification Village. We have a farm visit and other scenic stops as we return to Seoul.
We check-out of our hotel this morning before visiting fertile dryland and irrigated farming areas of the Han River Valley to the south of Seoul. We also call in on a South Korean company importing grain from Australia for use in the domestic human consumption market.
Later in the afternoon we travel to the airport for our direct evening flight to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
On arrival at 'UB' airport, we are met and transferred to our downtown hotel. With a population of over 1 million, UB is the largest city in Mongolia. Located in north central Mongolia in the Tuul River valley, the city lies at an elevation of more than 1300 metres. The city was founded in 1639 as a nomadic Buddhist monastic centre. In 1778, it settled permanently at its present location – before that, it changed location 28 times! Mongolia boasts an eternal blue sky, a rich history, a unique culture and stunning landscapes – and just 2.8 million friendly people.
Mongolia’s real attraction lies in the untouched beauty of the countryside, its exhilarating wide open spaces and rich nomadic culture. Mongolia is a large country with a very low population density – 30 per cent of the population are nomadic or semi-nomadic. The average elevation of Mongolia is more than 1500 metres and three mountain ranges stretch across the north and west. The east and south are largely occupied with Gobi desert. The steppes (grasslands) predominate, covering more than 75 per cent of the national territory.
The traditional nomads raise livestock such as sheep, goats, horses, camels, yaks and cattle. The nomads generally move four times a year depending on weather conditions and grass.
In recent years, government incentives have been offered to local farmers to help Mongolia move to a self-sufficient level of grain production. Over coming days we will be introduced to the traditional nomadic lifestyles that 1 million inhabitants (around a third of this intriguing nation) choose to follow. We will also learn more about the development of their modern farming enterprises. During our travels (by private charter coach) we will be very comfortably accommodated in gers (circular tents with one couple per tent). Electricity, mobile coverage and good toilet and bathroom facilities are provided at the ger camps. Local nomadic farmers and their families will be our hosts.
This morning we leave UB and travel southwest into Mongolia’s grassy, fertile valleys. In the Khustai region we meet with a local farmer employing modern techniques and then after lunch, we are introduced to the more traditional nomadic farming methods - including milking the mares and making koumiss (fermented mare's milk).
Dinner and overnight at the Khatan Ugii ger camp.
This morning we travel towards Kharkhorin, about 90 km to the south. We visit the Hoshoo Tsaidam museum as well as a monument to the Turkish khans – rulers of Mongolia between the VI–VIII centuries. We will also see the oldest Buddist monastery in Mongolia, Erdene Zuu, as well as other historic sights.
In the afternoon we enter the imposing Khogno Khan Mountain region where we enjoy breathtaking panoramic 200 km views of the surrounding farmlands and steppes. We continue on to Elsen Tasarhai sand dune, where the shifting sands of the South Gobi desert end. Our ger camp for the night is very near to the Elsen Tasarhai dune. We meet with some local nomadic farmers and enjoy sunset at Elsen Tasarhai. Dinner and overnight at Bayangovi ger camp.
We depart northeastwards today through stunning scenery, and onto Khustai National Park on the northern shores of the Tuul River. The Park is home to the Mongolian wild horses, the “Tahi”. The park is also home to deer, gazelle, wild boar, wild sheep and ibex, Mongolian marmots, grey wolves and more than 200 species of birds including the golden eagle. And here's your chance to name a wild horse foal.
Dinner and overnight at the Khutsai Ger Camp within the National Park.
More fantastic scenery this morning and a visit with a local nomad family specialising in preparing horses for the highly popular Mongolian horse racing. We arrive back in the capital in time for a short rest at the Chinggis Khan Hotel before some guided sightseeing including the Zaisan hill monument and Sukhbaatar square. It’s a Tuesday which means the “Mongolians with Deel” festival is on in the square. The locals dress in traditional clothes and have a wide range of handicrafts on display (and for sale!).
We also enjoy a National Performance Concert before dinner at “Café park”.
As Genghis Khan said: “It’s not how many breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away.” Welcome to Nadaam.
The festival officially celebrates the Mongolian Revolution and independence and features horse riders, wrestlers, archers, athletes, musicians, monks and dancers. For many, the main feature is the horse racing and we get to watch this exciting event at Khui Doloon Khudag. Then it's a free evening to mingle with the celebrating locals.
We travel north today to the border province of Selenge, located at the junction of the Orkhon and Selenge rivers. Along the way we visit some farmers adopting modern agricultural practices.
The Orkhon River rises in the Khangai Mountains of central Mongolia and flows northwards for more than 1100 km before joining the Selenge River which flows into Russia, emptying into Lake Baikal – our destination in Siberia.
We overnight at Saikhanii Ger Camp famed for its fantastic panoramic views.
Early this morning we cross the border into Russia (Siberia), change buses and travel north following the spectacular Selenge River Valley and onto the rural town of Kyahta. If time permits we will visit one of the oldest museums in Siberia - the Kyakhya museum of local lore.
Lunch in town and then we continue north to a farm on the Selenge River growing cattle, sheep and pigs.
Then it's on to Ulan Ude the capital of Siberia’s Buryat Republic. ‘UU’ has a population of 400,000 and is one of Siberia’s most likeable cities. Founded as a Cossack ostrog (fort) called Udinsk in 1666, the city prospered as a major stop on the tea-caravan route from China. Renamed Ulan Ude in 1934, it was a closed city until the 1980s due to its nearby – and very secret – military plants. It is an ethnic and spiritual melting pot of European-Russian, Buryat Buddhist and Mongolian cultures and an unquestionable hub between Russia and the East. The city is also the southern gateway to the amazing Lake Baikal.
Before dinner we enjoy a brief evening tour visiting the city’s Central Square (dominated by the imposing Lenin’s head monument), the historic merchant quarter, St Hodigitriya cathedral and the beautiful view point at the Rimpoсhe Bagsha Buddhist temple.
We leave Ulan Ude this morning to visit Ivolginski Datsan – the main Buddhist Centre in Russia. We will also stop at beautiful Omulevka mountain with its panoramic views of the Selenga river valley. Then it's a farm visit before arriving at the Old Believers village and traditional Old Believers’ homestead.
Some history about the Old Believers... Between 1652 and 1666 reforms within the Russian Orthodox Church were met with incredible opposition. Those who refused to accept the new ritual and textual revisions became alienated. These groups were forced to separate from the hierarchy of the Church of Russia and were dubbed the “Old Believers”. In order to practice their religion, the Old Believers were given little choice but to flee their homes into the depths of Siberia and practice their religion faithfully in the way they knew and loved it to be.
Dinner with the Old Believers before returning to Ulan Ude.
We check-out of our hotel this morning and travel to the shores of Lake Baikal – the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world containing roughly 20 per cent of the planet’s unfrozen surface fresh water. At an average depth of around 1600 metres, it is also the world’s deepest and is among the clearest. By surface area, it ranks seventh largest in the world. In other words, we are talking an awful (and enviable) amount of fresh water.
The Lake has more than 1700 resident species of plants and animals – two thirds of which can be found nowhere else in the world. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 it is also home to Buryat tribes who inhabit the eastern side of the lake rearing goats, camels, cattle and sheep. The regional average temperatures vary from a minimum of −19°C in winter to a maximum of around 14°C in summer.
We enjoy scenic and cultural stops as we travel along Lake Baikal's southwestern shoreline.
This morning we head further westwards and into the spectacular and fertile Tunka Valley. This is one of Siberia’s scenic and farming gems. The Tunka River’s fertile plains are sprinkled with the agricultural settlements of the indigenous Buryat people – the descendants of Mongols. Overnight tonight in the valley near the village of Arshan.
Today we immerse ourselves in the spectacular scenery of the Valley and meet with local farmers. We return to Arshan for overnight.
This morning we travel back to the east and to the town of Sludyanka where we catch the Circum-Baikal Railway train. This historic train runs along the southern shore of Lake Baikal through magnificent scenery, mountain tunnels and regular stops to enjoy some guided walks. On arrival at Port Baikal, we have a ferry crossing to Listvyanka and then our charter coach takes us onto Irkutsk, the administrative centre of Irkutsk Oblast.
With a population of nearly 600,000, this is one of the largest cities in Siberia. During the communist years, the industrialisation of Irkutsk – and Siberia in general – was heavily encouraged by Russia’s central planners. The large Irkutsk Reservoir was built on the Angara River between 1950 and 1959 in order to facilitate industrial development.
We have a guided city tour this morning including sights such as the Decembrists Museum, a traditional concert and the 130th Quarter. After lunch a free afternoon to do some of your own exploration and shopping before we enjoy a farewell dinner this evening.
Transfer to the airport this morning for our 11.30 am direct flight to Seoul with connecting flights to Australian destinations. You can also choose to rest up for a day or two in Seoul (or elsewhere in Asia) before heading home.
TRANS-SIBERIAN RAIL TOUR OPTION
Another add-on alternative is to continue westwards from Irkutsk on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway. Actual time spent on the train/s (in a first class sleeper cabin) is around 3 days all the way through to St Petersburg. But this add-on option breaks up the journey with accommodation and guided touring arranged for Yekaterinburg, Moscow and St Petersburg.
The draft itinerary is as follows. Changes can be made if more time is required in a particular city/region.
21/07: 4.15 pm departure from Irkutsk by train Nos.1 to Yekaterinburg (1st class private sleeper cabin - 2 people only in the cabin). While on the train/s throughout this rail tour, your ticket entitles you to one hot meal per day - other meals are available for purchase in the buffet car.
22/07: On the train. (1st class private sleeper cabin).
23/07: 1.30 pm arrival in Yekaterinburg. Met by a local guide and transferred to the Hotel Atrium Palace (5*). Lunch in the hotel before a city and local area sightseeing tour with a visit to the Europe/Asia ‘borderline’ (The Urals) . Overnight Yekaterinburg.
24/07: Breakfast and transfer to the train station for a 10.12 am departure by train (Nos. 015) to Moscow. Overnight on the train (Private sleeper cabin - 2 people only in the cabin).
25/07: Arrival in Moscow at 9.23 am. Met by a local guide and enjoy a city tour (approx 3 hours) to get your bearings. Transferred to the Metropol Hotel (5* hotel opposite the Bolshoi) at around 3 pm. Check in to the hotel.
26/07: Breakfast then a guided walking excursion to the Kremlin and other sights (approx 2 hours). Then a free afternoon. Overnight the Metropol.
27/07: Breakfast before transfer to the train station for your 1.40 pm departure by train (Nos.768 “Sapsan”) to St Petersburg. 5.35 pm arrival in St Petersburg where you are met by your local guide and transferred to the Hotel Metro Palace (5*) for overnight.
28/07: After breakfast there is an excursion to the Hermitage and Peterhof Palace. Return to St Petersburg and overnight at the Metro Palace.
29/07: More guided sightseeing including Pushkin and Catherine’s Palace. Overnight at the Metro Palace.
30/07: Breakfast then some free time before transfer to the airport with your guide and assistance with check-in for your connecting flights home.
The land component cost of this add-on is US$2780 per person (approx AUD$3,800 per person).
This includes the first class train tickets, 9 nights accomm (split between 2 berth first class sleeper cabins and 5* hotels with breakfast), lunch in Yekaterinburg, transfers and a private English-speaking guide when in the cities (not on the train).
The additional cost of flights out of Europe - or from wherever you decide to turn your heads for home - will also need to be added.
As a general guide, flights home from St Petes will add around $1000 per person to the flights already included in the study tour.
If you’d like, you can choose to stay longer in St Petes. Or if you’re not quite done with your adventure, you might be interested in travelling into neighbouring Estonia and onto Tallinn by a daytime train (about 7.5 hours). Tallinn is a great city. You can then do your connecting flights home from there.
Another "continuing on" option is to take a ferry from St Petes to Finland for a few days. Flights home from Helsinki.