The Trans-Siberia/Mongolian Express: Unexpected Stories

Russia: 12 January 2010

During the Trans Mongolian train ride we not only had the great opportunity to enjoy the amazing landscapes of deep Russia, the face of pure nature with freckles of villages scattered throughout, but we were also able to share closely with locals both the space of our coupe, and the stories of their lives.

Trans Siberian

With each visitor joining us for a short stay during our 4 day travel in a 4 person coupe, conversations ranged far and wide though two themes always seemed to recur: the Soviet times, and Vodka. Our favorite subject though we were often able to integrate as well: wine. Perhaps we were just very lucky, but everyone had something to say about it.

Our first coupe mates were a newly-wed couple who joined us soon after Moscow. In fact, it was at 5am while we were fast asleep. After a hectic time rearranging the room to accommodate the new arrivals in our berth, we found out they actually had been involved in the beverage industry for quite some time. They said it was difficult to sell wines in Moscow, imported ones even more so. Common inquiries they said while selling foreign wine were on issues of trust. ‘American Wine? You don’t even know what they put in there.’ Indeed US wines account for 1% of wine volume imports in Russia.

Soon after they disembarked somewhere in what seemed like the middle of Russia to us, a woman joined our coupe who was just returning from her 45-year high school reunion. A character herself, upon seeing us examining her fur coat she proclaimed in Russian, ‘sorry green-peace, but it’s cold over here.’ In relation to wine, she thought that it would never find its way into Russian tradition. Vodka itself had surpassed tradition, becoming a mentality.

Our new friend

Further on our Siberian odyssey, this time from Irkutsk going towards the capital of Mongolia, another Russian woman joined us with her child. She loved wine herself and especially Lindeman’s. Her stories couldn’t seem to stop coming. Most interesting to us was about the fraud that happens with Mongolian drinks. It’s not uncommon for drivers to be stopped at the border between Russia and Mongolia with large gas caskets of generic wine, cognac, and vodka, all to be used to refill premium bottles and sold at high prices. So visitors be warned!


The city of Irkutsk, an early sunset

Along our trip through Siberia and Mongolia we stopped in the 2.6 million strong city of Irkutsk. Ironically, we managed to accidentally walk into the only wine shop/restaurant around. After taking some time to talk with the manager we discovered that the restaurant we were in, ‘Victoria,’ was the first specialized wine shop in Irkutsk which opened in 2005. It offered over 150 different wines from around the world, including the Michel Rolland collection. A large effort to assemble a high quality wine list and boutique unfortunately had to succumb to the apparent mentality of the region, and from over 150 different wines offered 5 years ago at its opening, the only fine-wine related restaurant in Irkutsk now offers only a selection of 50 wines. Future prospects are aimed at only 20. The idea for the future will be to sell only very high end wines for those connoisseurs in the area, and a few table wines for those ordinary wine lovers who manage to find their refuge. They have high hopes however that the future will look as bright as the start of their existence.

Inside the Victoria Irkutsk Wine Shop and Restaurant

In any case, our trip on the trans-Siberian/trans-Mongolian express taught us that everyone seems to have a story to tell, and you can find wine ones in the most unlikely of places.

Join us next time as we arrive in Mongolia, and have interesting encounters with local beverage. Top Pick: Fermented Camel Milk, Fermented Horse Milk, and a special berry wine!

~Anja and Georges

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