October 20, 2006

Must-See Mongolia

Mongolia is a spectacular country with some of the most generous hospitality and unique experiences you could ever hope to enjoy.

We're back in the capital of Ulaan Baatar after an amazing 10 day trip into the Mongolian countryside. I'll start by saying that the hallelujah chorus stuck up as we drove back into the city in the knowledge that a hot shower and change of clothes was in our immediate future. The last 10 days have been pretty full on, we have been sleeping on ger floors at night and by the end of the trip we had every Mongolian mammals manure over our trousers and half the Gobi desert in our hair.

The night before we left on the tour we went to dinner with a group of people all departing on Gobi trips the following day. For some reason that completely baffled us later, someone suggested that we go to a Mongolian restaurant for a taste of the local cuisine. UB has a plethora of western restaurants so it's pretty easy to eat any kind of food. Instead of savouring a big pizza or burger for our "Last Supper" we headed off for a big cheap dinner of mutton and noodles. This proved to be a very big mistake to make the night before heading out into the Mongolian wilderness where days of mutton lay in wait for us.

The countryside of Mongolia is completely desolate. There is not a lot there at all at all. Of the 2 million people living in Mongolia, about 850,000 of these live in the capital, UB and everyone else lives in traditional gers in the countyside. One of the first things you notice about the countryside is the sheer emptiness of it. Traditional nomadic herdsmen keep goats, sheep, camels, horses and dogs. There are no such thing as fences, the animals forage for grass during the day .. the average Irish cow would probably last about 10 minutes before getting hungry. When the animals have eaten everything around the ger or if the season changes the family takes the ger down and moves it to a new location. It's a nomadic lifestyle where nothing much has changed (even the gers) in the last 800 years. All the families we visited were in their autumn places and getting ready to move to their winter location to endure months of below freezing temperatures. The gers themselves are a simple wooden frame supported by two central columns covered in felt with a smoke hole in the centre. Apparently one can be put up by two men in a couple of hours.

Joining us on the trip were our friends Roger and Cindy and our trusty guide/driver/translator/all around top guy Miga. We headed off in good spirits stopping at a supermarket to buy some presents for the families and extra supplies for ourselves (highly necessary stuff like Werthers Originals, tinned peanuts and noodles). We had only gone a little way along the road when we came upon a truck that had careered into the ditch at the side of the road. The boys got out to help unload it's over sized cargo of pine nuts and push/tow the vehicle back onto the road. Everyone helps each other out ... it's necessary because there aren't very many other cars on the roads so if you breakdown you can be there a long time. We had a fully paved road for about 4 hours the first day and then we turned off into a dirt track. We didn't drive on another paved road until the last day of the trip when we were about 30 minutes outside UB. Needless to say with so few cars on the road the road rules become a bit arbitrary - but one thing that made us chuckle was going past a truck parked up in the dead centre of the 2 lane road (on the only good bit of paved road going)....as we went past we could see the two guys asleep in the cab, seemed like a reasonable place to park for a nap...to them at least.

:: Erdene Zuu in Kharkhorin ::

We spent our first night in a tourist ger in the small city of Kharkhorin. Tourist gers are beginning to pop up near popular sights to provide comfort (read hard bed) accommodation for the increasing number of tourists visiting. A musician, in full Mongolian dress, called Baska knocked on our door after dinner to inform us that he would be coming around to our ger later to perform a concert. Baska also happens to be the local air traffic controller for the town - you wouldn't have guessed it in a million years! All the other tourists from the gers around us crowded into our little ger. To be honest it was a bit infuriating because they were all on their day 9 of their trips going the opposite direction and they smelt. They also sat up on our nice beds in their bare feet and didn't make any excuses for it. By day 5 we would feel the same. The concert was great, Baska was master of numerous Mongolian instruments, an expert throat singer and knew lots of songs about horses (Mongolia's most precious animal) The concert became an extended event after a bottle of vodka was produced ... it turned out that Baska was a sing for your supper kinda guy. Miga, our guide also surprised us by pulling out a flute and singing some duets with Baska.

:: Air traffic controller by day ... ::

Our family ger experiences were a dive off the deep end into a world of the unknown. We pulled up to a family ger and all clambered out and in the door making sure to enter and move clockwise around the space. The doors are tiny and at some point we all whacked our head on the way in much to the amusement of all the families. Once welcomed inside the ger we would sit on the floor and drink some tea (watery milk with some tea stalks and salt in it) and eat some Aaruul (curdled milk, dehydrated and thoroughly dried in the air and sun).

A busy family ger is a far cry from the plush tourist gers.
The more well off families (less than half of the ones we stayed with) had satellite TV and a light running off a car battery.... in every case these families were highly addicted to soaps beamed from Korea! Each family we stayed with was very different, all were extremely interested in us all, our countries and what we thought of Mongolia. One surprising aspect of the nomadic family life was the importance they placed on education. All children over 7 years were sent away to live in the nearest village so that they could attend school. This leaves families without an all important pair of extra hands, we also met a little boy who was too young to go to school along with his older brothers and sisters and so felt lonely as the only kid around for miles.
The family gers are all laid out the same way. The doorway always faces south. The khoimer, which is directly opposite the door, is where valuable objects are stored or displayed, as well as a small Buddhist shine. Most families also keep a collage of photographs of family at the back of the ger. There is a dung fired cooking stove in the middle of the floor, some families have a bed each side some families sleep on the floor. The male area is on western or left side of the ger. Here a man keeps his bridles, Airag (fermented mare's milk) and Arkhi. Women traditionally have the eastern side of a ger, where they keep kitchen utensils and their belongings.

:: The Mongolian horses are small but very strong (proof sitting 2nd from right) ::

The Mongolian people use EVERY part of the animal ... there is no such thing as waste . As water is precious it is used sparingly. People drink milk 24X7 .. horse's milk, sheep's milk, goats milk camels milk. Their diet consist of noodles, lots and lots of mutton and horse meat. Often times breakfast, lunch and dinner are the same meal. Women take great pride in making Airag, the fermented mares milk. Heaving with live bacteria this is sure to toughen any digestive system up.

One family we stayed with held the title of having award winning Airag (from the local show) ...always good to sample the gold standard beverages! The women work hard milking the goats and horses mulitple times a day, looking after children and cooking the meals. The girls in our group were put to work milking the horses and goats and making the dinner while the boys relaxed. Ok ... well once they had to cut some wood and carry a fence.

Our ten day trip of 2000KM looped around the must see spots of Mongolia including the awesome Gobi desert sand dunes, Flaming Cliffs and Eagle valley. The highlight was without doubt climbing the towering sand dunes of the Gobi desert. We arrived there at sunset to see the sun spectacularly disappear behind the dunes. Waking the next morning to a gloriously sunny day we scaled the 250 meter high dunes and hiked along the ridges at the top. It was an incredible experience. The dunes form very steep sides, looking very much like snow on a mountain. The wind at the top was whipping and kept challenging your balance as you inched along the sharp ridge lines. Some of the sand that is windswept was firm enough to hold your weight if you managed to put your foot down flat, other times it was like climbing straight uphill in porridge. The climb up was hard, the walk along the top was exhilarating, the run straight down was a great rush after the hard work.
Most of the tours are done in big Russian vans that look like duplo lego cars. They are notorious for breaking down and apparently you have to stop every couple of hundred kms to let the engine cool down and start up the engine a couple of times during the night to prevent fluids from freezing. Our van turned out to be a 10 year old Mitsubishi so it was plush in comparison! Suspension is all important on the atrocious roads. Well not so much roads as car tracks through grassland, rivers and mountain passes. Miga had an incredible sense of direction, working only off landmarks and contours (and directions from a few friendly horsemen along the way ;-) ).

One of the challenges was finding where his friends Ger was pitched when we went looking to stay...they are all white and most are dotted away from sight of the roads.

Our vehicle only broke down twice .. a puncture in the middle of the Gobi desert turned out to be a cracked swing arm. Miga managed to MacGyver himself out of the situation which was just as well because we hadn't seen nor didn't see a car for the rest of the day.

:: Russian Van ::

We went to a village the next day to find a welder .... some creative wiring was used to connect up the welding machine to the towns power lines (direct from the generator). Doesn't look particularly safe!

We trundled through a couple of the local provinces main villages on our way around the South of the country. We would stop to pick up some supplies at the local markets. If you ever get the chance, grab yourself some fresh pine nuts, everyone here munches them when they are in season (cracking the kernals from the husk in their mouth). One thing that added colour to these markets were the surprising find of outdoor pool halls, basically 6 or so tables surrounded by the obligatory youths...

Thanks to our guide Miga we had an incredibly memorable and authentic experience of Mongolian life. We even got to taste a marmot- acquired on the black market at a roadside cafe-ger (seemingly they are not meant to be hunted anymore)

:: Miga and our trusty Mitsubishi ::

:: The Marmot (deceased) ::

We really enjoyed our time in Mongolia, it was a privilege to have spent time quality time with all the families. Each night we would drive, sometimes for miles looking for a family. We would pull up to a random ger and the family would welcome us in and give us food and their floor to sleep on for the night, it was an overwhelming display of hospitality and generosity which is a rarity these days in most places in the world. The Mongolian people carry on their traditional simple nomadic way of life surviving harsh conditions. As television and mobile phones penetrate the wilds of Mongolia (ahead of roads and running water) one has to wonder how many more centuries this way of life will exist for.

As I said at the beginning ... a hot shower, de-sanding and a couple of nights in a softbed back in UB was welcomed by all. Following the trip we chilled out in UB for a couple of days, enjoying some of the..ahem... imported cuisines before jumping our train for the last hop of our journey that begun in St Petersburg...through the Great Wall into Beijing.

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October 16, 2006

Farewell Russia... Hello Mongolia...

As borders go the Russian-Mongolia one is an infuriating experience. It's renowned for being time consuming, a massive delay is even built into the train schedule. We pulled into the Russian border station at 12pm and were informed that nothing would be happening until at least 4:30pm. There wasn't another train in sight so it is hard to see what the delay was. The choice was to sit on the train or to wander around the village. The village proved to be tiny and doable in 15 minutes flat so it was back to the train to play the waiting game. We travelled Kupe class this time sharing a compartment with an English couple Steve and Sarah. Out of boredom we decided to spend the last of our roubles on sweet cakes and some beers and let the hours drift by. It's important to note that during this entire time the toilets are locked, this causes problems even for the most dehydrated traveller let only anyone consuming extra liquids. Steve got handy with his leatherman and managed to let everyone into the toilet whilst Marcus distracted the provodnitsa with a barrage of questions.

Other travellers have warned us about this particular train, it is regularly used to smuggle goods over the border and for this reason custom officers take a long time checking all the nooks and crannys. Our whole carriage was full of western tourists so we missed out on any smuggling action - not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. After a few more hours we pulled away from the Russian border into no-mans-land to be met at the Mongolian border by smiles and female border officiers dressed in short black skirts and knee high boots. We've definitely left Russia behind!!! An overnight journey brought us into the city of Ulaan Baatar and for the first time on this trip we were met by a "Marcus and Dee" idiot board giving us a smooth ride to our guesthouse.

The minute you hit Ulaan Baatar you know you're in Asia. The dusty city bustles with activity, minivans accelerate towards you, accommodation prices drop dramatically and life becomes a little bit more relaxed. Shirking relaxation time we hooked up with old friends Rog and Cindy from Canada and left the very next day for a 10 day trip around the wilds of Mongolia.

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October 4, 2006


Arriving in Irkutsk at 4am Moscow time, 9am local (it really does take a bit of getting used to seeing clocks throughout the station showing a time 5 timezones away) we made our way out into a grand, bustling station.

We had ambitious plans to get straight off the train and race to the bus station to catch a bus up to Olkhon island on Lake Baikal for Marcus's birthday the next day. Our late arrival and the infuriating town planning of the bus and train station miles away at opposite sides of the town soon dashed this plan forcing us to hang around Irkutsk until the next day.

Irkutsk city currently resembles a hard hat construction zone. It seems like absolutely every path and building is in the process of "improvement" forcing pedestrians out onto the busy dusty roads. The drivers are crazy, the newly painted white pedestrian crossing lines on the streets seem like a waste of paint, nobody pays them much heed. We heard a rumour that a one Mr. V. Putin is due to visit shortly and the last time he came through he thought the place was a bit of a kip so apparently there is an 11th hour effort to polish it up a little. One thing you immediately notice about this Russian city is how Asian looking most of the inhabitants are, a true indication of how East we have travelled in the last few days. The city bustles with big Chinese markets selling lots of smuggled goods. When you walk around the markets you get the feeling things are not quite above board. The ever present Russian police presence is not as tourist targeted so you don't feel like you are looking over your shoulder all the time. In one of the markets we witnessed a teenager sprinting away from a policeman. The policeman was carrying a big bag of fruit but it didn't seem to hamper his speed as he pursued the young man dragging him back .. fruit still safely in hand.

Irkutsk's character and charm can be found in its old wooden houses with fantastic windows. Serious subsidence has caused alot of these to lean dangerously to one side or have bottom floor window sills at street level.

Lake Baikal lies 70km east of Irkutsk, in wintertime this massive body of fresh water freezes allowing people to drive across the ice. At one stage train tracks were even built across the ice. We spent most of Marcus's birthday crammed into a little van travelling/bumping 6 hours north to Olkhon island. An ex-Russian tabletennis champ and local entrepreneur Nikita has cultivated a tourist industry in the small town of Khuzhir. Nikitas is an eco friendly complex of little cozy wooden cabins serviced by a big restaurant and long drop toilets. It was like paradise full board accommodation for us! We caught up on lots of sleep and ate lots of great food. The restaurant served up three mammoth meals a day. Breakfast was two runny fried eggs, porridge and a pancake. A few hours later everyone sat down to a big plate of omul, the local fish. There was lots and lots of fish! (Lunch and dinner everyday...served in different guises). It was great not to have to worry about what you were going to eat .. you just had to turn up hungry. There were a couple of times we were stuffed from the previous meal but turned up for the next feed just because we were curious as to what it would be.

Nikitas it located in Khuzir, the biggest village on the island. It is a real wild west town. There used to be a fish processing factory here but that has been closed for some years. Mainline electricity only came to the village towards the end of last year and there is no obvious industry...apart from tourism which is a pretty small endevour at the moment, very hard to see what supports the people here. Shops look more like peoples front rooms, cows wander the dusty streets and tumbleweeds roll on through.

To burn off the calories we set out each day on some long walks down the beach and surrounding areas coming back each evening to see the spectacular sunsets at the Shaman Rocks close to Nikitas. Our most challenging and memorable day on Olkhon island was indisputably the day we set off to cycle across the island on a 50km round trip. The eastern part of Olkhon island is barren and dusty however once you climb a few (very steep) hills the landscape completely changes and drops off into wooded valleys with lush long grass. The scenery was made all the more special by all the vibrant autumnal colours. We reached the other side of the island and the big expanse of Lake Baikal by lunch time. It's been a few years since I've been on a bike so a little bit of saddle soreness had set in by lunchtime, we'd both suffer for severals days afterwards!

The ride home was tough going at one point, exhausted after a climb, we contemplated waiting for the rescue vehicle. Digging deep we made it back to the sight of home just as Marcus's pedal fell off.

:: Needless to say our tongues were hanging out by the end of the day ::

As there is no running water in Nikitas the whole world of the Russian banya was revealed to us. The banya is a small wooden house containing a big trough of hot water heated by a fire. In essence it acts as a bathing area cum sauna cum steam room. You mix up some hot water with cold and throw it over yourself. It works out to be a highly efficient shower. The banya soon became the highlight of the day - we are easily pleased these days!

Russia has been a fantastic experience for us both. From the imposing cities of St.Petersburg and Moscow, to the long train journey across Siberia to our week at Lake Baikal, we've enjoyed so many different aspects of the country. One thing we'd both like to do is come back and see the landscape in the depths of winter ... I guess that's another trip with a warmer wardrobe. We've got used to being given the run-around at train stations and not seeing too many smiles. However, after borrowing a lonely planet Mongolia we were excited about a change of country and culture and it was back to Irkutsk to catch the train to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

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The Train ....

The Trans-Siberian railway at about 9300 km is the longest railway line in the world. It crosses a whole continent through European Russia across the Ural mountains (which separate Europe and Asia), continuing into Siberia's taiga and steppes, and finishes in Vladivostok — the Russian Far East coast on the Pacific Ocean. The main route crosses eight timezones. It is mind boggling to think of the distance.

Our journey wasn't going to take us the full way across to Vladivostok, that would have to wait for a future trip, our plan was to follow the Trans-Siberian route as far as Ulan Ude then break off and take the Trans-Mongolian line down to Ulaanbataar and ultimately Bejing, China. Some people do the whole trip from Moscow to Beijing non-stop which takes around 6 days. We included two stops to break up the journey and to give us an opportunity to visit two of the highlights across this vast distance, Lake Baikal and Mongolia.

So on with our post....

Laden down with an extensive variety of noodles, teabags and baby wipes we made our way to the platform in Moscows Yaroslav station to size up our transport across Russia. Despite everyone having numbered beds there was a full on urgent scramble at the platform to get onto the train. Somehow we thought that people wouldnt quite sharpen the elbows to get onto a train that they were potentially going to be on for 77 hours. We later realised that securing territorial luggage space early on was the name of the game. We reached our beds just in time to witness an old woman stuffing her huge black bags up into our luggage space... or rather she was barking orders at a tall man who was doing it for her. He departed leaving her satisfied and all was well until Marcus started to jig around her bags to fit ours in. She started to squeal and shout like she was been robbed - we didn't know what she was saying but we could feel the air turning blue. Our aim was to get on with our close neighbours on the train and not go to war before the wheels had started turning so it was all a bit stressful. After a couple of high exertion minutes (with the screaming still going on) Marcus successfully snookered all the bags in and turned to her giving her the thumbs up sign. Suddenly it was all smiles and peace was restored. It was just as well because the next four days were looking like hell on earth up to that point.

Even thinking about spending 77 hours solid on a train is a feat in itself. We expected the worst and instead were pleasantly surprised. We decided that to get the fullest travel experience we would choose Platzkartny class for this leg. Basically the classes come down from 2 bunks in a cabin to 4 to 54 (Platzkartny). Its a bit like hanging out on your local park bench for a few days watching the comings and goings. There are no doors between compartments and there are beds along the corridor of the train. At any given time you are eating, sleeping and living in close quarters with six people around you. We were the only tourists on our carriage, coming to think of it we actually didn't see any tourists for the entire journey. Our fellow travellers were mostly older woman and young families so the surrounds were peaceful. Once everyone was aboard train comfort clothes were pulled out of respective bags. These became the night and day uniform. The men sported vest tops, shorts and sandals. The women wore tracksuits and slippers. The next few days were filled with reading, noodle making, tea making, trips to the toilet and practising some russian phrases with our neighbours. People seemed to handle the surplus of time remarkably well... there were lots of afternoon naps. Marcus and I had two top bunks. Limited space in 3rd class makes the quarters a little coffin like as the ceiling is considerably lower to make room for a luggage rack. Poor Marcus only had a few inches to manoeuvre around in and his legs stretched out into the corridor causing people to duck as they moved up and down the carriage. We had combed Moscow unsuccessfully looking for plastic cups the day before we got on the train. As necessity is the mother of all invention we resorted to using two pickle jars in stubbie holders for our mugs. They worked out great (no spill as you walk down the swaying corridor) and doubled up as a great hot water bottle at night. (Oh and the pink shorts were also a purchase for the train, only colour shorts in the shop and only 2$)

Each carriage is patrolled by two provodnitsas (lady stewards) they work the entire journey constantly cleaning the toilet, vacuuming the carpets and meticulously laying down a runner between stops to save the swanky carpet. You don't really want to cross these ladies, they take their job very very seriously. The TranSiberian has scheduled stops a couple of times a day along the way. At each of these the providnitsa would get all dolled up in the official jacket and hat and authoritatively stand outside her carriage. The stops are a great opportunity to stretch the legs, hawkers line the platform selling breads, sausage rolls, smoked fish and ice creams ... a welcome break from instant food. We took full advantage of these stops although as we travelled further across Russia the time allowed at each station was curtailed as we were running behind schedule. I had a truly epic near miss at one station where I (along with half the train) ran across 3 train tracks and into a little station shop to buy some (cold) supplies. I came out of the shop and looked across the tracks to see our train all ready to go, the platform empty and Marcus frantically shouting and pointing towards a another train about a kilometer long steaming into the station cutting off my path. There was a split second decision to be made so Marcus jumped my side of the oncoming train (I had the all important passports) and we both ran for the overhead bridge feeling completely paniced and hoping that the train wouldn't pull away without us. At the top of the bridge we could see the twenty providnitsas all standing inside their carriage doors. Shouting and waving our arms to catch their attention we sprinted up to the first open door and had to beg the providnitsa to release the steps down for us. Needless to say we weren't very popular and there was a lot of stern Russian been thrown in our direction. The experience ended any extended shopping at any future stops!

The TransSiberian train runs on Moscow time ... in all the train station along the way big clocks tell the time in Moscow. There are 5 hours between Moscow and Irkutsk our stop to visit Lake Baikal, so along the way we lost the time but there was no standard way of making allowance for this. On the second night we noticed everyone was in bed really early and the lights were switched off. People began operating at weird hours. We were caught out by this and suffered a little bit of train-lag, on the final morning we had to get up ridiculously early and get packed up. I woke up looked around and felt totally disorientated, we were surrounded by what looked like complete strangers. All the comfort train gear had been replaced with makeup, good suits and stylish clothes. People seemed very practised in the art of not looking like they'd travelled for days solid on a train. Pulling into Irkutsk, we said our goodbyes to the new friends we'd made and stepped out into the early morning cold ... it felt a little weird to be finally out of the cocoon like atmosphere of carriage number 10 on train number 10.


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