A Tale of Four Cities

We keep piki-piki-ing along the Silk Road. Behind us; we have trade routes through wide deserts and high mountains. Before us; we have a trade route of Siberian furs and Chinese tea. And we sense an end.

There is a fork in our road. We need to make a call; east to Vladivostok or south to Mongolia. And just like the Silk roaders before us … we let Politics, Economics, and Weather decide. There is an Asian Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) in Vladivostok. President Putin is there! Security is tight and costs are high. It is cheaper to AIROPLANE our bikes out of Mongolia than to SHIP our bikes out of Vladivostok. Also Siberia’s icy-ness squeezes us. It may stay a little warmer for a little longer if we turn south to Mongolia.

And Mongolia sucks us in. Its heyday, during the 13th century, sees Genghis Khan, and then his sons, thunder across the steppes and create the largest land empire ever in the world. Almost all of the Silk Roads fall within its boundaries! They boast that a father can safely send his virgin daughter with a bar of gold from one end to the other! The end of the Mongols also marks the last of the Silk Road. The Chinese overthrow their Mongol masters and build the Great Wall bigger and better than ever.  This bars trade on the Silk Road. So do ocean-going ships and trade-by-sea and the Trans Siberian Express and trade-by-rail.

Mongolia it is! Our decision is made. We piki-piki on, through the old SILK ROAD trading posts of Irkutsk, Ulan Ude, Kyakhta (in Siberia) and Ulaan Baatar (in Mongolia).

This is our Tale of these Four Cities.

… hear the dice roll  … it seals the fate of a city … and ‘all who live in her’…

We find Irkutsk ‘wide awake, Ulan Ude a ‘musical mix, Kyakhta ‘fast asleep and Ulaan Baatar a ‘booming mess!


Irkutsk is ‘wide awake’ …

Irkutsk of the Silk Road dispatches furs and ivory to Mongolia, Tibet and China in exchange for silk and tea.

Irkutsk, today, still prospers. Although caravans no longer sigh along the Silk Road; trains rattle along the Trans Siberian Express! It stands grand between Moscow and Beijing and is called the ‘Paris of Siberia’.


This is the Trans Siberian Express …


… and IRKUTSK is one of the more glamourous cities along its track from Moscow to Beijing.


IRKUTSK has a propserous feel about it … then …


… and now …


Lots of serious shoppers.


And some equally serious little girls off to church (Russian Orthodox).


Others relax along the Angara River that flows into Lake Baikal.


And others text away in a city centre park.


Needless to say … these two storm off in opposite directions not much later.


And most residents, to us, seem Russian-Siberian in origin.


We follow the Trans Siberian Express to the next big city, ULAN UDE. This is the capital of the Buryatiya Autonomous Region.


Ulan Ude is a ‘musical mix’ …

Ulan Ude, like Irkutsk, today gratefully receives trains in lieu of caravans. Ulan Ude does it, not with greatness and stateliness, but with song and dance.  Harry and I find in the city square, under the ever-present Lenin, a microcosm of the world at dance. Faces beam Russian, Mongolian, Chinese & Korean, hearts beat Christian, Buddhist & Shamanist and bodies ‘shake, rattle and roll’.


ULAN UDE feels totally different … in terrain, in buildings and in people …


Here on the outskirts we bump into these bikers. When they take off their helmets we realise we are on the other side of the world! They come from Korea and Japan.


At the foot of Lenin we chance upon a practice ‘group dance’ performance.


Where we see the wonderful mix of people that makes Ulan Ude tick … Russian, Mongolian, Chinese, Koreans …








Some are Christian and go to the Russian Orthodox Church.


Many are Siberian Buddhists and go to Datsany.


Almost every Datsan is wrecked during the communist anti-religious mania in the 1930’s.


This is a multi-building datsan complex in a nearby little village of Ivolginsky. It is founded in 1946 and is the centre of Siberian Buddhism.



Kyakhta is ‘fast asleep’ …

Kyatha of the Silk Road, on the border with Mongolia, is one of the richest towns in Russia. A town of tea-trade millionaires! It has a cathedral with solid silver doors embedded with diamonds. From Mongolia 5000 cases of tea, arrive on a stream of horse and camel caravans, every day.

Every day until the Trans Siberian Express turns its back on Kyakhta! All commerce redirects toVladivostok or Harbin- overnight! Kyatha, today, is a sad shadow of its former self. Grim and grub is left for those who didn’t get away.



We leave the Trans Siberian Express and turn south towards Mongolia via the last Russian town of KYAKHTA.


KYAKHTA doesn’t feel sleepy; it feels dead. And to think Kyakhta, in Silk Road times, was one of Russia’s richest towns.


Here and there signs of former glory.


We go and sit in a sad, little park …


… and are later joined by these 2 teenage girls.


Life looks tough …



The next morning we leave KYAKHTA for Mongolia through the window. A rare treat not to have to lug all our stuff down passageways, staircases and parking areas.


Harry manages to snap this in motion. We spot this Russian tank just before we enter Mongolia. We rode in its tracks rather than overtake it, just in case!


Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, is a ‘booming mess’…

Ulaan Baatar of the Silk Road is made up of felt tents (Gers) to move easily as the grass goes dry. Genghis Khan, who creates the nation in 1206, does not leave a single monument, temple, pyramid or palace to himself. Just Gers! But the Russian bear and Chinese dragon always loom large over Mongolia. After a communist triumph in 1924 the city gets grey apartment blocks, bright theatres and hollow government buildings.

Ulaan Baatan, today, is nuts!

Ten years ago they discover one of the world’s five largest mines. Gold and copper makes it last year’s fastest growing country. Ullaan Baatar’s population doubles in less than 10 years. And one-third of Mongolians still live as nomads! Glass towers frown upon Gers and Soviet concrete blocks. Land Cruisers and Ladas do battle on potholed roads. Louis Vuitton shares a square with Genghis Khan. Mining companies scramble, politicians blow bubbles and citizens dog watch. The world starts to stare. Will the sons and daughters of Genghis Khan rise again! Or will this golden resource be their curse?

!!! Crazy things have, are and will happen along this old Silk Road !!!

This is our Tale of Four of its Cities.

Who can foretell! Who can foresee! A glamorous city is dirt poor. A poor little nation is stinking rich. And power shifts like sand …

… hear the dice roll  … double six? … double one? …

Now we are in Mongolia and see our first signs of ULAAN BAATAR (background). And it is still very much Genghis Khaan and Horses in the foreground.


Here on the outskirts of ULAAN BAATAR there are still many gers (felt tents) scattered around.


And then we see this …


And then this! ULAAN BAATAR! Last year the capital city of the fastest growing country on earth! Just look at all the ‘gers’ still circling the exploding city centre.


Rapid new growth all over the place …




But such rapid growth comes with chaos …



It takes hours to get anywhere. Cars (by license plates) have one day a week they are not permitted to travel. We are told the ‘new rich’ simply buy another car.



This is a huge container market … see all the new apartment blocks in the background.


The city’s roads are ALL potholed.


And we sense a new optimism in it’s people …




At a state sponsored theatre we get a glimpse of a unique culture that rose during its ‘first’ heyday …


… shamanist beliefs …


… an array of ‘unusual’ musical instruments …


… sons and daughters of the fearless Ghenghis Khaan … dance …


… and play …


… and sing …


… in the most ‘unusual’ ways … it is impossible to describe the sound of ‘throat singing’ …


7 Responses to A Tale of Four Cities

  1. Schalk Potgieter

    Well done!

  2. jan and gail

    Jan this time: What an amazing flow of scenery and people. Irkutsk indeed justifies its name of the Paris of Siberia with much of the architecture clearly going back to the Czar. On the other end that poor sleepy town of Kyakhta with even so little reminding of its former prosperity. The world is full of such places that died through changes in trade and traffic patterns or sometimes a sand bank gradually choking the life out of a city.
    Ulan Bataar like a gold rush city, as Johannesburg was at one time and still there, while others have gone to dust. The two of you accomplised a mighty voyage; Congratulations.

  3. jan and gail

    Gail heartily agrees with comments of Naude, Muriel and Jim and the Scottish Stephens! I loved the turn and flow of the text, I loved all my learning experiences. What a great mix of characters you photograph! What a great mix of scenery and history in these four cities. Thanks for putting it in words and pictures for us.

  4. Scottish Stephens

    What a tremendous amount of interesting information you are giving us. Your enthusiasm is infectious. Your pictures are wonderful. Your courage and stamina in making this journey defy description Thank you for sharing it all so well

    • Linda

      Oh Valerie … we love your sticky toffee pudding!

  5. Anonymous

    Another most interesting tale and series of excellent pictures about things that we would never have known about in such an intimate way—-thank you VERY much Linda and Harry——–so pleased you could exit via the window !!
    Love as aye Jim & Muriel

  6. Naude

    Wow, a real diversity of cultural experiences …. priceless. You guys make me just wonna travel now. Pity this journey must have an end. Travel safe. Regards – Nod’s

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