When I first started planning my trip to Australia, I knew I wanted to get to China and work my way through parts of Asia. How exactly I was getting there was a little more difficult. My original plan to go hopping through Europe and Egypt was scrapped when I worked out the budget (and when the current situation in Egypt made that less than recommended). Then I remembered the Vodkatrain, which I’d been looking at for years in the STA Travel brochures. It seemed like a fantastic way to get through 2 unique countries, and have some company. My original plan was to go on the cheaper ‘Budgeting Bolivshek’, but thanks to a generous cash injection, I was able to upgrade to the longer ‘Ruski Huski’ tour:
PRICE: 1,475 pounds
PLACES: Moscow, Irkuutsk, Lake Baikal (Russia), Ulanbaataar, Terelj National Park (Mongolia) and Beijing (China)
INCLUDED: Dog Sledding at Baikal, Mongolian Ice Games and Cooking Class
I chose this tour for 2 reasons. One was the length of time – you seemed to get a decent number of days in each place which the cheaper tour didn’t offer. The second reason was the added extras – I really liked the idea of dog sledding and the additional extras sounded like a lot of fun.
So how did the brochure translate into real life?
Well for starters, the Vodkatrain website and brochure can be a little misleading. It promises honchos in each city (which it does deliver) that are there to help you figure out what you want to do, and how you can do it. However it also insists that they are not tour guides – they are there to give advice so you can explore independently.
In reality, that’s not always the case. Our Moscow and Beijing honchos definitely fit under that description – Anna and Lily gave us ideas on what to do and we decided for ourselves. The Honchos in Irkuutsk and Ulanbaataar however, didn’t. Dimitri and Vogy had very clear ideas on what we were doing and when we were doing it – and seemed quite put out when we tried to fight against it. Vogy was very reluctant to go to the vegetarian restaurant 2 girls were desperate to try, and Dimitri offered very little (if indeed any) alternatives to his itinerary. We did stop by a few places on the way to destinations and asked if anyone wanted to stop while they moved on, but most wanted to stick with the group rather than make an impulse visit.
Secondly, the added extras. Our group only got one of them. This was not Vodkatrain’s fault – as it happens, when our trip set off it was the warmest November Moscow had known in about 175 years. Baikal had no snow when it normally has over a foot, and same goes for Mongolia. However, the alternatives to the dog sledding didn’t seem equal in value. We did some blacksmithing and some tame horse riding, but its not quite the same as as saying you went dog sledding in Russia. Especially when that’s one of the biggest draws of this particular tour. Mongolia had the same problem – no snow for sledding, so our honcho seemed to improvise by having us play charades outside as an ‘ice game’ substitute.
And the biggest scam in this ‘extra’ section, the cooking class. Where you are given the ingredients, and allowed to make plenty of dumplings…but are not allowed to eat them unless you pay for lunch. Apparently the trip doesn’t cover you eating what you make, which seems like a ridiculous oversight. Its not a lot of money, but its the principle of the thing.
The brochure also doesn’t specify that the Ger Camp is a holiday camp, not a homestay – which surprised a lot of people on my tour.
However, it wasn’t all negatives. The tour does have many good points. The honchos are excellent at getting you to shops for food, and getting you to the trains on time. The cabins on the train are exactly what you expect, and with the group, you’ve got the added safety of knowing whose staying with you. After spending several days in confined quarters with several people – especially when you’re the only English speakers around, its very easy to bond. I’ve already made plans to meet up with my fellow Vodkatrainers later in my trip.
The accommodation off the the train is also pretty good value for money. Moscow is not a cheap city, so the Godzillas Hostel is relatively well located for the price. My biggest issue is how hard it is to get to if you don’t organise a transfer. The Chalet in Baikal is a good size and holds just your group which is great for socialising (and the laundry is cheap) – though a group larger than ours might struggle with just 2 showers. As for the Sant Asar in Ulanbaataar – its getting quite rundown, but there was nothing hideously wrong with it, and was also in the centre of town. Plus it had a Piano Bar which was great for getting together in the evenings.
The only accommodation that I felt wasn’t fantastic was that of Beijing. The Jade Hostel is cheap, and within walking distance of Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City, but is a good 20 minutes away from any form of transport that can get you to the train station or airport. Which at the end of your tour is a bit of an issue. Plus the hotel itself had a few hygiene issues that give me pause. A hostel with a location closer to a subway would be a better option.
Finally, the duration. Personally, if you’re looking to do a quick trip 17 days is more than enough. Admittedly I could have done with more time in Moscow, and it would have been nice to actually spend a nice in Irkuutsk, but saw enough of Baikal, Ulanbaatar, the National Park and organised a Great Wall trip while in Beijing without ever feeling I was in a rush. Been on a few tours where you’ve been racing against time to get everything done, but this was a good, if not entirely leisurely, pace to keep.
All in all, I’d do the Vodkatrain again, just not the Ruski Huski. It relies too much on the weather, and if you don’t get it, you feel like you’ve lost out on your extras. But the aspects that weren’t ‘Huski’ related were well worth it.