I am fortunate to be able to travel often between St.Petersburg (where I have an apartment) via Moscow to Ulaan Baatar (where I have an apartment). In actual fact I have discovered that this route is also the most convenient and quickest to get from Europe to Asia. It is a five to six hour (depending on time of year and jet streams) Aeroflot jaunt from Moscow to UB, both being so far north the plane is literally flying across the top of the world. In fact by the time the flight reaches Ulaan Baatar, it is closer to the United States (Alaska) than Moscow.
From UB it is easy to fly directly into China – Beijing is just 90 minutes, Hong Kong 4 hours. From there I can fly direct to Sri Lanka, my main Asian residence. It is also easy, at the Russian end, for me to get from St.Petersburg’s compact and efficient airport to Malta, myÂ European residence. Aeroflot provides a very good business class service, and the flight UB-Moscow is fascinating, taking one right across Central Asia in the morning. Time differences also mean I leave UB at 7:30am and arrive in Moscow at 8:30am. Brilliant. The opposite Moscow-UB journey is overnight, which is also fine, I can sleep on the plane.
The other good thing about these particular flights is that I get to commute Russian vodkas and caviars and distribute them around. The only legitimate vodkas in my opinion come from Russia or Poland, with some interesting variants from ex-Soviet countries such as Mongolia or Kazakhstan. Finland also produces decent vodka. But the French and airport duty free mass produced Belvedere and Grey Goose – these are corporate brands dressed up to compete with the real stuff. If you want authentic, easily obtainable vodka, go Stolichinaya red label, or Poland’s Chopin, which is distilled from potatoes. Or, on trips to Russia, stock up on the increasing number of brands now making for an interesting – and authentic selection of some really great vodkas. So, on my latest flight from Moscow to Ulaan Baatar, I found a Siberian vodka – made from the waters of Lake Baikal.
Lake Baikal is one of the largest and certainly the deepest lake in the world. It also has some of the cleanest waters, and several species unique to it, including the worlds only Fresh Water Seal. The Trans-Siberian express trundles around its southern shores (they’d originally tried to lay winter time tracks across the ice, but after three trains fell in, they wisely decided to lay tracks around the shore). The great thing about Baikal Vodka is that the clear vodka is very crisp, almost sweet in its clarity of taste, while the two flavoured varieties go straight for Siberian traditions and are infused with redcurrant and pine nuts. The Pine nut is the more interesting, being a dark brown colour and tasting suitably aromatic. It goes well either on its own or as a cool sipping vodka with a good cigar. I tried both with caviar, and the pine nut vodka works well if you’re going to serve it with brown rye bread – which I often do.
The other great thing about having an apartment in what is the southern fringes of Siberia (loosely categorized as being the geophysical borders of the range of the Silver Birch) is that we get amazing nuts, berries and mushrooms, and this includes the local markets in Ulaan Baatar. Its also not uncommon to see local nomads selling bags of these by the side of the main Ulaan Baatar-Russia road. That means the Baikal vodka proves inspirational, and I buy several bottles of local Chingghis Vodka as my main alcohol of choice to infuse my own vodkas.
Chingghis Vodka (the name is the correct, Mongolian way to both pronounce, and spell the Westernized “Genghis”) is one of the better vodkas in Mongolia, and is both easily available and good quality. There are versions in Gold and Platinum, but I use the standard silver Chingghis for infusing.
Taking glass fruit juice containers, which I have sterilized by boiling them in water for 30 minutes, I add fresh berries – wild redcurrant, cranberry and rosehips. The latter are a pain to work with as all the seeds need to be removed, but the result will be worth it. In a container like that shown, I use three-four fingers of berries in each. Then I fill each jar up with Chingghis, and seal them.
They’ll be ready in about three months as the vodka dissolves the oils of the fruits into its alcohol. Its also a good idea to label them with the type of fruit and the date. Simple, if requiring patience.
Meanwhile, the temperatures have been getting colder and the days often more gloomy, although Mongolia is the sunniest country in the world and famed for its blue skies. It is a quick autumn before we pass into winter, and early evening, it begins to snow, the first of this season. This means it is time to leave Siberia for awhile, I have a book tour coming up, and travelling elsewhere in Eurasia. Winters snows this far north begin in September.