Since 1988, we witnessed many changes, huge developments, and historical turning points! In the early days, we sold tickets on the Trans-Siberian train including the onward section to either East Berlin or Budapest for a mere $150. Spring of ’89 saw the democracy movement trying to change politics in China, with the main focus on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. They were violently suppressed, but after the wall came down in Berlin and the Union of the Soviets broke up, the Mongolians successfully took their chance during the following harsh winter.
Those days, no traveller wanted to visit Mongolia, as most horror stories we heard came from Polish traders stranded in Ulaanbaatar for a week or more before escaping to Beijing. With direct train tickets is short supply, some had no choice but to use the almost empty Mongolian trains. In summer, travellers that didn’t reserve in advance could be waiting for up to 3 weeks before a place was available. A dilemma for most backpackers with just enough spare change to make their way back to Europe.
This gave us the idea to have our Mongolian friends start the very first private tourist company, breaking the monopoly Juulchin enjoyed for many years, the equivalent of Intourist in Russia. It took 10 months of relentless lobbying and fighting bureaucracy not familiar with the new democratic possibilities, to secure a license!
From then on, stranded backpackers had a choice: waiting for a few weeks for a berth on the direct trains, or take our offer to leave on the weekly train to Ulaanbaatar and board the train to Moscow 5 days later! All was taken care of for those 5 days – hotels, meals, guides and sightseeing, for only $25 per day, partly recovered because the tickets were cheaper. Adventurous times for everyone and Mongolia soon became a hit instead of a forced choice!
Not only stopovers in Mongolia became more popular, so did stops at Irkutsk and the chance to explore the magical Lake Baikal. Reservations those days were done by Telex! A trip by bicycle to the old famous Beijing Hotel, and again 2 days later to collect the confirmation. It got a bit easier when we smuggled in some Fax machines.
From the early years in room 716 at the Qiao Yuan Hotel, the home base of Mister Monkey for five years, via several offices around Beijing, we packed up again at the Millenium, this time for better pastures. Nothing beats the Sanlitun area, and nothing beats a Belgian Beer! Our office together with the Hidden Tree was located in the South Bar street until continued reconstruction in December ’04 made us move again.
We spent two happy years in the Red House Hotel before being reunited with The Tree once again. Our office was in a small office hostel building in the heart of Sanlitun bar street, but it turns out beer is more profitable than beds and the hostel turned into bars, one floor at a time. We started in the second floor, moved to the third floor before realizing in late 2012 the area had outgrown us, or we had outgrown the mess drunk party goers leave for the morning!
All these years saw constant expansion and improvement of available services in all the countries we deal with – mainly China, Mongolia and Russia. Gone are the days of cheap subsidized railway tickets and weak currencies! The motivation to travel the Trans-Siberian route changed from the cheapest way to return to Europe, to a unique chance to explore and visit first hand three mayor civilizations, while getting the experience of real overland travel by train for over 10,000km.
Currently we do not have a sales office in Beijing as our work has shifted to online sales. We have staff based around the world (China, Hong Kong, Nepal, Belgium, England) and if you wish to have a personal meeting we will be happy to meet in a convenient location, depending where you are based of course.
Since 2018, Monkeyshrine is the trading name of The Russia Experience Ltd in the UK, a fully bonded tour operator registered in the UK, where EU law requires us to protect your travel funds. We are members of the Travel Trust Association (TTA) www.traveltrust.co.uk – your travel funds are frozen in a Trust Account until your trip is complete, and only released to us by the TTA`s approval Trustee.
‘Your handbook is GREAT and we really had time to read it when we were finally on the train … I must say Monkey is a bold name for an agency that travellers have to depend on every step of the Trans Sib. But … according to the Hindu mythology Monkey is a symbol of dependability.’Michelle Noullet & Sundar Venkatesh, August 2006