Tue, 25 Sep 2012 03:00:00 +0000The Big Smoke - BěijīngOur train trundled through Inner Mongolian haze to finally release us on the Chinese capital, Běijīng. To tell the truth, I was apprehensive about China. This was the land of my ancestors, but this was also a country that had undergone dramatic social changes since. I had no real idea what to expect.
We arrived at Beijing's main train station, and met with "the crowd". At least it wasn't rush hour. I know Beijing had a lot of people and I expected crowds, but I didn't expect the presence of crowds to be just so constant. So many lives bustling about throughout night and day, routine and life changing journeys crossing paths seemingly all at once. We resigned ourselves to the idea that "the crowd" would most likely accompany us throughout our China journey. So we fought the queue-jumpers to get our next train tickets (elbows, shoulders and big backpacks help), shrugged off the aggressive fake taxi touts (just be typically Chinese and avoid eye contact), successfully dodged the poopy land mines left by children (that's right, parents encourage their kids to defecate openly in public), and navigated the constant stream of electric bicycles to find our way to our hostel in Nianzi Hútòng.
It was tucked quietly away amongst the web of Beijing's hútòng, an endangered network of small tiled buildings and alleyways in the heart of the city. Somehow in these little enclaves, a local community culture survived, complete with morning table tennis games, bird singing in the park, and card games in the afternoon. One could almost forgive the sight of a mother teaching her child to urinate in the sink instead of the perfectly functional toilet nearby. Our hútòng was amazingly crowd-free, people helpfully pointed out the direction we needed to go, and there were plenty of greasy street snacks to be tasted.
We were well situated in Dōngchéng to get to some of Beijing's main attractions. We discovered 800 year old cypress trees at Tiāntán Park, amongst which city folk spent their Sunday practising their ribbon twirling skills with friends, or whiling away a solitary afternoon with a bout of water calligraphy.
We browsed the bustling streets of Nanluogu Xiang, an historic hútòng street converted into a colourful shopping, eating and sightseeing destination. It had a upbeat, albeit more crowded, atmosphere, where Ben soon found that owning a large DSLR in China did not make you stand out.
And of course we visited Tiān’ānmén Square and the Forbidden City.
The huge, sprawling complex was thankfully vast enough to spread out the crowds, and the audio guide commentary was informative, although rather dry.
Artefacts from various periods of Chinese imperial history were displayed in various halls with superfluous names like "Joyful Longevity", "Heavenly Purity" and "Military Prowess". One cool highlight was the Clock Exhibition Hall with hundreds of exquisite antique timepieces gifted to Qing emperors of the 18th Century, including an automaton robot that could write Chinese calligraphy.
Despite the crowds and some restoration efforts of questionable authenticity, it was a pretty awesome place to see, and we did find some nice architectural features that we'd love to include in our future dream home, one day.
We met up with an old friend of mine from Australia, Meilian and her partner George, who had carved out a life for themselves in Beijing. They took us out to try some amazing Beijing hot-pot - a big city blend of the Mongolian (tasty, mild) and Sichuan (tongue-numbing pepper) styles of hot-pot, including a spinning display of noodle pulling at our table.
We queried our hosts on what life was like in Beijing compared to Sydney. Yes, the pollution is bad, often very bad. Yes, people are rude, often very rude. Yes, children are often found peeing and pooing in awfully public places, but you weren't here at this very restaurant a few months ago when one child was directed to relieve himself into a soup bowl … WTF! But there are certain freedoms one has when moving from an orderly, ordinary established western society to the wild, exciting contrasts of a developing eastern society. Plus Meilian was fully committed to her up-and-coming Sweet Tooth venture.
They also took us to a top class Peking Duck restaurant, where we enjoyed the whole shebang of Peking Duck: start with the crispy, delicate skin of the duck breast, sliced separately for you to dip in sugar; followed by the carving of the tender, lightly seasoned duck meat, which you wrap with scallions and dipping sauce within a pancake; ending with the rich broth made from the remaining fat, meat and bones.
The whole bird even came with it's own certificate to "prove" it was a quality specimen. Decadent.
I was lamenting how we didn't have time this trip to check out any of the famed Chinese acrobatics, when all of a sudden, the restaurant lights dimmed and we were treated to a complimentary show. Score! It started out with four musicians on traditional Chinese stringed instruments, followed by a girl throwing bowls with her foot, catching and stacking them on her head, all while balancing on a unicycle, a Chinese opera singer in traditional elaborate costume, a guy who could pour water in some crazy ways, a dual character with a flipping mask, and a juggler of one huge ceramic pot. It was a happy evening, and a great entertaining way to catch up with good friends.
Sun, 23 Sep 2012 03:00:00 +0000The Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Saga - Part 4It was the final leg of the Trans-Mongolian train journey - Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. This was a two-day one-night journey on the #24 train departing at 7:15am. An early start, but as much we liked Mongolia we had a schedule to get out of the city, plus we were excited to see some bare Gobi Desert.
Our compartment buddies were a non-talkative Chinese man who spent the whole time either sleeping or smoking, and a young Australian called Johnno. Bloody Aussies were everywhere it seemed. He was a chilled out Fitzroy Melbournian who had some interesting travel experiences. We chatted about books we'd read, people we'd met, and his time with the nomads in Mongolia which was much more intense then ours. He had also been to Tibet, a part of China we would not be travelling to on this trip. His accounts of a Tibetan Sky Burial were captivating to say the least.
However most of the day was spent reading, occasionally picking up the camera to snap the hours away and capture the last bits of Mongolian Gobi Desert scenery.
Unlike the Russian trains, we could open the windows of this carriage for some cool fresh air, as well as some cool shots of ourselves when the train went around a big sweeping corner.
We reached the Erenhot/Erlian border around midnight and were greeted with marching Communist music trumpeting over loudspeakers. Chinese customs officers boarded the train and our passports and luggage areas scutinised for any contraband. One officer looked at Tia, looked at her passport, frowned and asked if she was Chinese. "Uh, sort of ..." she hesitated, to which he asked could she speak Chinese. "Oh, not really," she replied, "Ni Hao?" in a very Aussie-born-Chinese accent. It was clear to the officer that she did not belong to the People's Republic of China, so he moved on.
We were then treated to a minor spectacle. Mongolia's railways were built by the Russians using Russian gauge, 1524mm (5ft) while China built their railways to standard gauge, 1435mm (4ft 8½in). So how do they deal with the inconvenient fact that fat Rusky-Mongol trains don't fit in China? Don't bother getting up good passenger, China will change your wheels for you!
At the bogie exchange, the carriage wagons were decoupled from each other and lifted off the bogies using a series of hydraulic jacks. The set of bogies underneath were rolled away, and then the smaller set rolled in. Everything got re-aligned, they set the wagons down again, connected them back together and hey presto! we were on a Chinese train. All this took about an hour, and we stayed on the train the whole time, watching the process in fascination. It was a noisy job so there was no chance of sleeping through it, quite fun really.
It was a late finish, so we were soon snoozing to the familiar rocking of the train journey.
Waking up in China was an unreal experience. Gazing sleepily out the window, it looked like the entire countryside was covered in thick morning fog, but the haze never went away. After a while we realized it was smog. I'd heard that it was a polluted country, but I thought that that was just around the big cities , not in the country. Bewildering.
Despite the best efforts of the smog, we managed to spot the Great Wall for the first time. It’s a little hard to make out in the photo, but it is there, running up the ridge-line from the center to the right.
We were excited to arrive in Beijing. As odd as it sounds, I was craving rice. Food hadn't been that great over the last few months; yeah there has been some good meals, but nothing like South East Asia, Spain or Italy. This also meant the end of our Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Train Saga - 10,000 kilometres travelled over 7 days and 8 nights, with a few weeks of exploring in between to keep it fun. We met a lot of amazing people, more than any other part of this year's trip so far. A lifetime highlight to remember.
So China, bring it on.
Thu, 20 Sep 2012 15:00:00 +0000A Mixed Bag - Mongolian AdventuresOur "Nomad” experience was coming to an end and to top it all off we had a wonderful “morning soup” for breakfast. I would like to put this lightly, but I don’t know how. It was the most foul tasting soup I have ever had. It was basically the leftovers from the previous night's BBQ, mostly fat and innards soaked off from bones that had already been eaten, but it was worse then just that. It smelled foul, and there was no way I was having it. The others agreed, but somehow Tia was able to finish half a bowl.
When it was time to go we were rushed into the vans and before we knew it, we were off. Later we realised how sad, and how rude, this was. We just stayed with a family for a couple of nights and were not given a chance, nor did we remember, to say goodbye. I was quite disappointed in myself.
We hadn’t driven more than fifteen minutes before we stopped again. This time one of the vans drove up onto a ramp. Oh no, what now ... ah yes, better fix that suspension before taking the van back to the boss ... Soon a welder came out and they started welding the lower part of the shock absorber back onto the control arm. It looked like a pretty dodge job to me, and I felt sorry for Nic and Dave who had to ride in the van.
You know the roads are bad when you spend most of the time driving off-road. But as usual, this didn't slow down our drivers, who were racing each other again. Tia was getting nauseous and at points we were reaching speeds of 140 km/h. They were constantly slamming on the brakes, swerving around potholes and seemed to play chicken with other cars. Dave advised us on what to do if the van rolled ... scary stuff.
Surprisingly we made it to our next destination without further incident, a massive 40 metre high stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan. The sculpture actually didn't look too bad, and you got to climb out of Genghis' crotch and up the horses mane for a nice view from atop of the head.
Then it was back into the dreaded van for another ride; this time it was a race to the tour company's ger lodge. The other drivers took the road, our driver decided to take a "shortcut" over rough, sandy backroads and open plains. This part was particularly scary - if he lost it here we would definitely roll. Thankfully the spirits must have been watching as we survived the 20 minute dash to the lodge.
The ger lodge was different to the nomad experience from the last few nights. It reminded me of a school camp or a caravan park. At least it had a shower and a well cooked meal (I was starving).
With no plans for the next day we decided to plan a trip to Terelj National Park. Nic and Dave were onboard, although poor Nigel was ill (something to do with too much milk) so he and Sarah were content to chill. We talked to Oyuun and this resulted in a bit of a battle to get a fair price (we didn’t trust her after the camel incident), but we got an agreement in the end. The evening was spent with all six of us travellers hanging out in Nic and Dave's ger, swapping stories and joking about how this mixed bag Mongolian adventure was turning out.
The next morning we woke up and got ready for a nice hike. But hold your horses, there seemed to be a commotion between Nigel, Sarah and the guides Neesa and Oyuun. Long story shot, at some point in their Mongolian journey someone had stolen several hundred US$ out of Sarah's bag. The guides panicked and had no idea what to do. They went into lock down mode - no-one could leave. They called all the drivers to get them to come out here and they wanted to search everything. Nigel just wanted them to call the police so he could get a statement for his travel insurance claim, but was told that he would need to pay the police to get them out here. Although Nigel and Sarah insisted that we should continue on our hike, instead of waiting for these guides to sort it out, the guides thought we were very cruel (and possibly suspect) for even considering a hike while this travesty was unfolding.
Eventually we settled them all down; Nigel and Sarah would go to Ulaanbaatar the next day to obtain a police report and we were allowed to go on our hike. Later we heard how Neesa had called her shaman to enquire on the whereabouts of the money (it seemed that shamans could now perform spiritual services over the phone). The shaman, after a day of deliberation and consultation with his spirits, came to the conclusion that yes, a large sum of money had been taken, and no, they will never see that money again.
The ride to Terelj National Park eventually got us there around lunchtime. We asked Oyuun if she knew the track. “The last time I took another group for a walk we followed this road up the hill,” she said as she pointed to a trail, “follow this around and you can come down here” (a sheer rock face), “or here” (a slippery slope of shale scree), “or here” (another sheer rock face). We smiled and nodded but felt we were lucky she had decided not to come along.
As we started up the track the skies opened up and it actually started hailing. Amazing ... I love a good hail-storm. It was small stuff so we weren't worried, but it reminded me of my childhood in Northern NSW. The track disappeared pretty soon and it was becoming quite the adventure. We continued up hill until we reached the ridge line. There was no way we could walk along it, as it was much too steep. So we found a high point to have a bit of a look and worked out where we would go; off in the distance we could see another track and decided to head down the other side of the ridge towards it.
The walk was refreshing and enjoyable. It was the start of autumn so many of the trees had turned and golden leaves were falling.
The rain had cleared the air and the lighting was crisp. We passed a ger nestled amongst the rocks and trees but no-one was home. We spotted scampering squirrels and soaring eagles.
After a quick snack at the highest point on the walk, we descended back into the valley. It was rough and steep but we slowly made it down.
When we got back we asked if Oyuun had really done the walk before. "The other group did it by themselves and it took them two days" was her reply. Uh, thanks.
The next day we said our goodbyes to the members of our group headed back to Ulaanbaatar. New friends with new shared stories of Mongolia.
We had an extra night here which we used to do our laundry (ger struts make good hanging spots), write bits of our blog, and go for long walks.
We also spent some more time with our own guide, Enkee. He became more open with the other guides gone, expressing his concern at the overcharged camel rides and stolen money. That aside, he was a kid who came from the countryside, who loved to drink fermented mare's milk ("I like the people in the ger on that hill over there; they gave me four litres of mare's milk to drink!") and taught us how to play knuckles. Not the painful version I grew up with, but Mongolian knuckles. Basically it uses sheep knuckle bones, where each of the four sides of the bone is distinct and symbolises a camel, sheep, goat, and horse. There are many games, but we played a simple racing game where you line up 20-30 bones, horse side up, set your own "racing horse" bone at the start next to the first bone, and take turns rolling a set of four knuckle bones like dice. You get to move a spot for every bone that gets rolled as a "horse", and extra moves if you manage to roll one of each of the four animals. First to get to the end of the line wins.
Our last day in Mongolia was spent exploring museums in Ulaanbaatar. First we checked out the cool wooden puzzles at the Intellectual Museum. I was fascinated with the puzzles that had been invented; I especially liked the desks with the hidden draws that would only open when the proper sequence was complete. We also checked out the rocks, fossils and huge number of taxidermied animals at the Natural History Museum. Mongolia's natural history is interesting, especially since it is a major fossil finding destination. We were close to the museum's closing time so had to rush through some of the exhibitions but it was good stuff.
We boarded the #24 train that would take us to China the following day. Our Mongolian experience was a mixed bag of tricks; at times it was frustrating, but in many ways it was amazing. It can be a difficult place to travel, that is for sure, but there are enough great people for you to meet to make a trip worthwhile. You will have stories regardless.
Tue, 18 Sep 2012 03:00:00 +0000Mongolian MisguidanceI woke up to the crisp, cool morning with stomping and coughing outside our ger. I popped my head out only to see that the animals had sidled right up close to our door overnight. A goat sneeze sounds remarkably human.
Once everyone was awake and the guard dogs chained up (Mongolians keep aggressive dogs to protect their herds at night) we were directed to help round up the herd. A man with a loop of rope on a stick chased down one unlucky goat - tonight's dinner was sorted.
One of the drivers also decided to get some sheep to take home, but he had to catch it and kill it himself. "This is the best way; most humane way," Enkee explained, as he helped the driver hold the sheep down to make a short slit in its chest where a quick hand inside pinched the carotid artery until the creature died from lack of blood to the head. It was relatively quick and clean, although it didn't stop the sheep from shitting itself, literally. The reality of ribs, chops and steak.
I was keen to get into the morning horse milking and herding activities that occupied our nomadic host families, however our guides had other plans for us. We were all loaded into our respective vans and taken on a tour to Karakorum in the Orkhon Valley of the Övörkhangai Province. This area was known as the birthplace of Mongolian civilisation, where the legendary 13th century gathering of clans declared the status of Temujin, aka Chinggis Khaan, as the “Great Khan”, and his military campaigns of conquest began. An informative museum showed us artefacts and models of the ancient settlement, of which nothing was left but a single stone turtle from Chinggis Khaan's royal court. On its site was the Erdene Zuu monastery, one of the oldest and most important Tibetan Buddhist centres in Mongolia.
The day trip would have been fine if it weren't for the behaviour of some of our guides. Firstly, the drivers felt it was a good idea to spontaneously race each other to every destination. Fortunately, traffic was sparse. Unfortunately, pot-holed roads, worn-out dirt trails and rocky river beds did not make a good race track for drivers who were not rally car drivers, in tin-can vans that were a far cry from all-terrain vehicles. A broken suspension mount ended the frivolity, and sobered the other drivers to the fact that the boss back at the office may not approve of trashing the company car.
Then there was the camel ride. "You can ride over the sand dunes!" Oyuun insisted, as we drove past the camels next to the sand dunes to another group of camels in a flat grass field. "An exciting half-hour ride" she pushed, as a grinning man happily took $15 US dollars (₮25,000 tögrög, a huge sum in Mongolian terms) from each of us, barked at his 5-year-old daughter to take hold of the lead rope and went back inside his ger to sip fermented mare's milk with Oyuun. We were treated to a ten minute wander about the lawn, all at a distracted child's pace. Hmm, somehow we felt we were being taken for a ride.
The evening's 'Mongolian barbecue' brought back a bit of fun - a large pot filled with vegetables, water, salt, sections of the butchered goat from the morning and hot river rocks, stewed within a large stick fire.
So more of a greasy Mongolian stew, not too bad, except we were asked to pay Oyuun extra cash for the meat. Shifty character, we mused as we avoided the vodka this evening and tried to focus on the more authentic experiences.
Like the family from the ger next door, with the father and his young eldest son working with his prize horse in preparation for future horse racing. And the Mongolian herder in traditional dress who came from a collection of gers over the hill to visit us in the middle of the night, without our guides, and share some fermented mare's milk.
Mon, 17 Sep 2012 03:00:00 +0000Living with the Nomads"Why is there a car parked in the middle of that intersection?" "Maybe it’s broken down?" "No wait ... you're kidding me, seriously ... that car has actually fallen into the pot-hole and is stuck. Wow, that’s a first."
To say Mongolia's roads were bad was an understatement. Although someone had funded a bitumen highway at some point, maintenance was practically non-existent, with pot-holes seeming to occupy more surface area than actual road. To deal with the suspension-destroying drop-zones, the drivers either drove fast over them or crossed over to oncoming traffic to avoid them, or both. Oncoming traffic did the same thing. Sure made for a swervy, bumpy ride, and this was the major highway out of Mongolia's capital city. We were glad for the lunch break with a view.
After several hours we pulled off the highway onto a rough dirt track that took us to a collection of four gers that was to be our home for the next few days.
In one ger we were sat down next to a freshly butchered goat, whose innards were presently being chopped up and stuffed into fried pastries. Okay, here we go, I thought as we politely accepted a taster and the boys chivalrously took up positions next to the goat's head. I didn't think it was too bad, but Ben looked queasy.
Our host was a quiet woman whose husband we were told was out herding. She warmly welcomed us with fermented mare's milk, a mildly alcoholic beverage enjoyed by all Mongolians and traditionally shared by drinking an appreciable sip from a communal bowl and passing it around. To describe the flavour, I would say take some yoghurt and add a dash of beer, then get the stinkiest horse you can find, dissolve it into your mixture before wolfing all that horsiness down. Yes, everyone drinks it and enjoys it.
And no, that box of fermented mare's milk biscuits will not cleanse the palate. Neither will airag, a clear, distilled fortification of fermented mare's milk. Straight vodka might though.
At this point we were introduced to Nigel and Sarah from the UK, guests of this neighbouring ger and travellers on a quest to circumvent the globe in 80 days. Unfortunately, they were pulled back from an enjoyable hike up the nearby hill by their Mongolian guide Neesa, who felt it necessary that all foreigners meet immediately. Despite this, we all hit it off really well - inevitable really, with so much fermented mare's milk being sloshed about. So after a few rounds of milk, our guides got to cooking our dinner. Our offers of assistance were refused, so we simply hung around and took stock of our surroundings.
The kids from the neighbouring ger were playing. Hang on, it looks like they're fighting. No it's all good, they're just practising their Mongolian wrestling techniques.
Naturally the kids saw us as a bunch of new big kids, here to be harnessed into the fun. Their laughter was so infectious that we couldn't help but be roped in.
This boy seemed like a creative one, so Ben let him have a go at shooting with his Canon 5Dmk2. Not sure how many he's used in his lifetime, but he did pretty alright with this set.
A sharp call from their mother meant that play time was over as there were evening chores that the boys needed to do before sundown. Such as rounding up the herd. The ease with which they handled their horses was amazing.
Meanwhile, the mares were being milked. Three times a day, Enkee said. They really did like this stuff.
Nic theorised that perhaps it was like beer - an acquired taste. It seemed to be their only source of fluids. Speaking of which, I could feel nature calling. Boys had it easier, but where do girls go? "Anywhere you like," said Oyuun, gesturing to the vast expanse of flat grassy land surrounding us, "but you cannot dig holes." I see ...
Dinner was a simple affair followed by everyone huddling into our ger, out of the ensuing night's chill. The fermented mare's milk bowl continued to be passed around, with the holder encouraged to perform a song from their homeland for the audience. Needless to say, we heard more Mongolian folk tunes than Australian or English.
Our nomadic hosts and the children went off to bed, and we were all ready to do the same. However our guides and drivers wanted a party, drowning us in vodka bottles again. The Russians sure left their mark we thought, as it all went downhill from there. We knew it was bad when we found ourselves dancing in the headlights of three minivans blasting music from their stereos.
I wondered how authentic this nomad life experience was, as we stumbled back to our ger to sleep.
Sun, 16 Sep 2012 03:00:00 +0000Urban MongoliaAt Ulaanbaatar train station we farewelled Anita, Stefan, Essi, Mari and the Danish fossickers, and were met by our local Mongolian guide, the humbly affable Enkee who greeted us with a shy smile. Nic and Dave met up with their guide as well, a loud boisterous woman whom I will call Oyuun because I cannot remember how to pronounce her actual name. We were bundled into our respective minivans and taken through the busy early morning city streets to a hotel, not to stay at but simply to have breakfast and a much needed shower.
Awesome, we thought, a hot shower! as the guys headed to the boys room and Nic and I beelined towards the ladies. Turned out to be Japanese style showers, except someone forgot to fill the bathtub. We had only just met, but there was no time for self-consciousness as we shockingly discovered that someone had also forgotten to switch on the hot water. Brr! In contrast, the boys took a long time to rendezvous at breakfast and we wondered what was going on when they finally turned up looking all relaxed after a hot shower and a long soak in a warm communal bathtub. Not fair!
Nevertheless refreshed, we were ready to tackle some sights. We toured Sükhbaatar Square to observe a large group of dignitaries take group photos in front of the glass and concrete Government Palace. Enkee had little to say, except to point out the Genghis Khan statue, and the State Opera and Ballet Theatre where the Rio Tinto supported Australian dance show 'Spirit' was showing. And to comment on the mixed feelings of Mongolians towards the increasing presence of multi-national mining corporations, who provided on one hand a veritable source of income to a bankrupt country, and on the other hand a host of environmental, employment and religious concerns. Shamanism, a common belief system in Mongolia, is opposed to digging holes.
Next stop was Gandan Monastery, a restored Tibetan-style monastery featuring another huge Buddha in a claustrophobic wooden temple. We were taught to enter the temple right foot first, circumambulate (walk around) the interior and spin the prayer wheels in a clockwise fashion, and to exit the temple backwards. "But I am a free thinker!" Oyuun announced, "it does not really matter, we are modern now." We did it anyway. They were also raising money to build another massive gold Buddha, for which only two giant feet had been constructed so far.
Keen to leave the dry and dusty city, we hopped back into the minivans. Foreign-sponsored high-rise buildings soon gave way to the circular white shapes of ger suburbia (big ones, small ones, wooden-picket-fenced ones).
Sat, 15 Sep 2012 17:00:00 +0000The Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Saga - Part 3It was great to be able to stretch our legs around Lake Baikal for a few days, but our Trans-Siberian (now Trans-Mongolian) train journey was far from over.
We grabbed a ride to the station along with an Aussie couple this time, speech therapist Nic and IT professional Dave. They were on their way back home after living abroad for three years and decided replace a boring 30 hour flight with a train journey of a lifetime - top choice! Turns out we had booked through the same agent and were going to be in the same carriage on the same Train 362 departing Irkutsk at 22:15.
We weren't worried this time as it was a short one-day-two-night train ride, although it was amusing to see how much our perception of journey times had changed. Settling into our compartments, this time an upper and lower berth, we waited to see who would be our compartment comrade(s). To our surprise it was not a Russian this time, but a German couple, Anita and Stefan, tourists like us. Also in the same carriage were Finnish nurses Essi and Mari, a newly pregnant Danish couple dreaming of finding dinosaur bones in southern Mongolia, some other European tourist travellers and of course the other Australians, but distinctly no Russians. Hmm, that seemed a little odd. As usual, English worked as a common language and we chatted for some time. I got involved in an intellectual discussion with Anita about global warming and the global economy, stuff that I hadn't thought about for some time, and it was interesting hearing a German person's view of the European economic crisis.
By morning the train had made it around the southern part of Lake Baikal and stopped at Ulan Ude. Here the tracks split. One track continues the Tran-Siberian Railway towards Vladivostock, while the other heads to Ulaanbaatar on the Trans-Mongolian Railway. Our Trans-Mongolian train got shortened and we became the last carriage. I was delighted to freely take shots out the back of the train this time.
It was early afternoon at the Russian border-town Naushki, where we handed over our passports and jumped off the train to walk around. Hang on, we're the only carriage left? Where did the rest of the train go? Apparently it is cheaper and quicker to bus it across the border, so only crazy tourists who are simply in it for the train ride use this service. That explains the lack of Russians.
There was really not much to see in the dusty town (think tumbleweed) and there was nothing to do but sit on the station platform watching slow rumbling freight trains roll by, with carriage shunting for occasional distraction. We were not allowed back into our single tourist carriage (it was busy being shunted) so we just had to wait. Evening fell and the mosquitoes came out and still we waited. We had read that the wait could be long, but this was getting close to vietnamese time. After several hours we were finally allowed back onto the carriage, followed by border inspectors armed with torches checking every compartment with military precision, in case we were trying to smuggle anything, or anyone, out. Our passports were handed back to us and the train moved off. We will never know what took them so long, but there was no problems with our photos this time.
Compared to the Russian side, the Mongolian border processing at Sukhbaatar seemed lightning speed at less than an hour. We changed Russian rubles to Mongolian tugriks with a grinning freelance money trader on the platform. First observation: Mongolians smile more easily than Russians. By the time we were finished with the formalities it was pretty late and sleep came easily. We arrived at Ulaanbaatar at 6:10am the next morning, fresh and excited - we are in Mongolia!
Fri, 14 Sep 2012 03:00:00 +0000The Pearl of Siberia - Lake BaikalHave you ever seen a lake so big it’s hard to believe its not an ocean. A lake so big that you cannot believe it is not salt water.
We arrived in Irkutsk early in the morning with mixed emotions. Relieved to finally get off the longest train ride of our lives and not having to adjust my watch to a new timezone every morning, eager for a real shower (cold sponge baths with water of questionable quality while bracing yourself against a moving train to avoid falling onto a stinky metal toilet just isn't that pleasant), but also sad to be parting with the friendly people we had met.
After saying goodbye to our new friends, we were greeted at the train station by Lena who, like the other guides, provided us with our next lot of travel documents. We also met our driver and pretty soon we were on our way to the shores of Lake Baikal. After observing some animated conversation between the two, Lena explained to us about our driver's passion for mushrooms, and how excited he was about the current wild mushroom picking season. So we started spotting figures foraging for the fungal gems among the dense trees of the taiga.
Then Lake Baikal appeared. At 636 kilometres long, 1637 metres deep and holding 23 600 cubic kilometres of water (thats 20% of the world's total unfrozen freshwater reserve), it is a pretty impressive lake. It is also the worlds largest freshwater lake in the world (by volume).
Our plan here was to spend the first night at Listvyanka, a small village on the shore of the lake. The next morning, we would hop onto a Hydrofoil and head north for 20 minutes or so and from there begin a nice two day walk to Bolshoe Goloustnoye Village, another small village on the lake. Then we would bus it back to Irkutsk.
The first night was great; we stayed in a home stay and were fed home cooked cakes, soups and pelmeni (small meat dumplings).
We visited the informative Baikal Museum, where we learned of the huge tectonic forces at play that caused the rift that became Lake Baikal, saw some big tanks full of fish and even a couple of Baikal seals, all unique to the lake. In the afternoon we climbed to a great lookout. It was a good feeling to know that when we went to sleep we would wake up in the same spot.
We met up with our walking guides on the Hydrofoil, Gena and Max. They seemed like a couple of nice guys, funny and full of smiles (different from your typical Russian).
And then our walk began.
The hike was amazing and the guides were awesome, constantly joking. When Gena didn’t understand my mumbling Australian accent he would look at me blankly, before putting his hand on his heart saying “Sorry, My English”. Cracked me up every time. Gena, despite being the senior of the two, carried a huge backpack, and I wondered what it was filled with, until lunchtime came along and we were treated to the best camp food I have ever had. Fresh produce was cooked in several pots and pans over a campfire, washed down with what we would call billy tea. The scenery was striking; we walked through forests, over hills that gave fantastic views, but we always we stayed right beside the glittering lake.
At the mid way point we stayed at Kodilnaya Village in log huts at what I guessed was a hunting and fishing camp, again only meters from the lake. There were a few other locals there, dressed in the usual camo-clothes that it seemed every Russian man owned (perhaps from their compulsory military service days?), a couple of horses and the occasional souslik. Sunset was a stunner.
We started out early the next day, detouring through dense shrubs and up a steep scramble into a cave, traversing some pretty loose scree, and picking our way through pebble beaches with rocks so flat they just begged for a rock-skipping competition (I won!). Lunchtime was a very tasty fish stew, after which we decided it was now or never, and went for a swim. I braced myself for the cold ... and it was colder! Nine degrees celcius in the height of summer, so it was a quick dip before jumping out into the sun to warm up, followed by another daring dip. Max told us of how the lake freezes over in the winter, so much so that you can safely set up camp in the middle when doing a two day trek across the width. I still couldn't get over the fact that it was fresh water, and we literally drank the stuff we were swimming in. There is a plant in Irkutsk which simply takes the water straight from the lake and sells it in bottles.
We arrive, sore and tired, at Bolshoe Goloustnoye late in the day. But the house was equipped with a banya (Russian Sauna), perfect for easing the muscles - could we ask for anything more? We felt like we had walked a long way, 39 kilometres over two days, but we were surprised by how little of the lake we had actually seen.
My Index Finger is where we started and my Pinky is where we finished. I understand now why it takes two days just to cross to the other side.
After another good night's sleep we took a sunrise bus back to Irkutsk, said goodbye to our guides and spent the rest of the day wandering around town.
We had an evening train to Mongolia so we spent some time stocking up on more pot-noodles and other goodies from the local market for the ride.
Tue, 11 Sep 2012 03:00:00 +0000The Trans-Siberian Saga - Part 2, Day 4Hangover day.
Reminders of the previous night kept turning up. Adidas Sergey actually turned up at our sleeping compartment at eight in the morning armed with a dozen beers and a plate of dried fish. Whoa mate, a bit early don't you think? I'm still working last night's vodka out of my system - Sergey seemed confused by our lack of continued enthusiasm, and our compartment companion Officer Yuri ended up having to turn him out of the room. Then creepy Oh-so-half-naked Russian Man knocked on our door (does that guy even own a shirt?) and also tried to ply us with more drinks. Yuri had to turn him out too. Twice. I believe our approval ratings with Yuri diminished somewhat after that.
It was a quiet day with light bursts of good humoured conversations and funny last-night's-photos recollection with our new friends. We tried some pirozhkis made by some of the platform baboushkas, but resisted from buying any shawls, stuffed toys or taxidermied animals. The day (and another timezone) passed quickly into our last evening on train number 340.
We soon discovered that French Roger was packing an ultra light electric guitar, complete with a little amp, and it didn't take long for us to have a pleasant little alcohol-free sing-a-long session going. Turned out Neil was also quite talented on the frets too, and we were all grooving to the music when ...
Sergey discovered us. It was alright at first, but halfway through the next song a whole lot of plates of food and a bottle of vodka turned up. What on earth ...? "Happy Birthday!" Sergey announced, again, at which point, as Maerii aptly put it, we all turned green. It was impossible trying to convince him that it was his birthday yesterday, and we all had a great time and all, but we couldn't possibly do it again today. One by one some of us peeled off back to our beds, unable to cope with the prospect of another hangover. Kudos to the kids that stayed up to help the poor guy celebrate his birthday, again.
Mon, 10 Sep 2012 03:00:00 +0000The Trans-Siberian Saga - Part 2, Day 3Another day, another place; same train, same compartment. Oh, and a new timezone to boot. A gourmet (not really) breakfast of honey-hazelnut instant porridge followed by a giant mug of black tea dosed with a pod of longlife milk. All this made using hot water from a samovar running on what looks like whatever combustible rubbish our provodnitsa (carriage attendant) could find to stuff into the burner. Whiled away the early morning with a few hundred pages of Kindle reading.
Burly Alec had departed at one of the train stations last night, clearing the way for 4th berth occupant number five, Roma, a young engineering graduate on a short holiday home to Krasnoyarsk from work. His English was marginally better than our Russian, but he was engaging enough to chat to. We learned that two years of military service was compulsory for young men in Russia, that he also did not like America, that he would have preferred to fly to his hometown rather than ride this slow train if only there was an airport, and that Russkiy Standart was indeed a very good vodka.
Likeable Sergey popped by our compartment again this morning, excited to invite us, along with Danes Pia and Rikke, around to his Compartment 2 to meet his new buddies Neil and Maerii, a fabulous Brit couple who had hopped on last night at Yekaterinburg. Turns out these guys had just started an extended life-changing journey around the globe just like us - way cool!
After hours of sharing stories of the world and all our funny and scary experiences (and crossing yet another timezone), it was endearing to see Likeable Sergey loading his camera up with photos of us all to show his family, so obviously chuffed at having gathered these foreigners together, as we hugged and said goodbye to him on the platform of Omsk.
It was evident from Ben's previous attempts to take photos in the rear carriage that moving between carriages was frowned upon, but just for kicks we decided to explore the train. Putting on our best we-belong-here demeanour, we managed to discover all the carriages up until the front engines, including the first class, platzkart (third class) and restaurant carriages. The platzkart carriages looked fun, with whole families watching movies on laptops, beer and card games being played between neighbours, in between napping elderly passengers.
We garnered a few questioning looks from the provodnitsa, especially upon returning back through the carriages, but nobody said "Nyet" this time. Photos were at first refused in the restaurant carriage, but the rules seem to change when this fellow turned up.
It had been a relatively quiet day, and we decided to complement our pot noodles with a beer that evening, so we moseyed on down to the restaurant car for a light beverage. Famous last words.
Young Roma was there, so we got to broken Russian-English chatting again. Then Danes Pia and Rikke, and Brits Neil and Maerii joined us for a few more beers. Somehow the beers grew to several one litre cans (and can crushing) and a bottle of Russkiy Standart vodka. Then it was Sergey's birthday. Who's that?
Oh just a random adidas-clad stranger (not to be confused with the Likeable Sergey we farewelled at Omsk), who was very friendly with the restaurant staff and began plying us with more beer, and rubbery pieces of dried fish.
The restaurant car eventually closed, so we quietly (not really) headed back to our carriage to keep the party going in an empty compartment. Someone kept yelling "Happy Birthday Sergey!" ... oh wait, that may have been me ...
Then Roger and Kathy from France boarded the train, ready to settle into their sleeper compartment, only to find a birthday party in progress.
Oops sorry, we apologised as we hightailed it to the only place left to us on a claustrophobic train - the smoker compartment.
French Roger being the cool guy he was, thought it was awesome to have landed a party train this time and joined us in the tiny room, as did another creepy oh-so-half-naked Russian man who tried to kiss and carry off some of the girls. I vaguely recall Sergey and Neil resupplying us with some more beer and dried fish, vodka, Gammel Dansk, a packet of biscuits, ice-cream bars, a single pear and its culinary match, a roasted chicken leg ...
... before finding myself waking up to the harsh light of the next morning, on the same train and the same compartment as the day before, only this time with a dull headache.