Mongolia Trip day 2 15.10.16

After tea last night, we asked Badz what would happen with the leftovers and he replied it would be reheated into breakfast, so with some relief we welcomed his unannounced entry into our ger with bread, liver pate, jam buns and tea.

The temperature had noticeably dropped and the wind had risen. Cows were now settled infront of our ger. We waved bye to mum and shy crazy daughter while dad hacked up round the back. Dirt track. High speed. Bouncing. Tarmac.

Before you can ponder how immense this epic landscape is we’re at Erdene-Zuu, the oldest Buddhist Monastery in Mongolia. The main temple buildings appear to my ignorant eye very Chinese in character with pagoda roofs and tiles. We enter the subsidiary buildings which have images of various Buddhist deities hanging and Badz explains their meanings to us. The main three temples have huge statues of Buddha as a young, middle aged and old man. We hear a loud chanting and Badz explains morning prayers have started so we head inside to see monks banging drums, clashing cymbals, blowing conches and singing. We respectfully sit at the back and watch the rituals.

Next location is Khakhorum, literally round the corner from the monastery. This was the old capital of the Mongol empire, founded by Chengis Khan, brought to glory by his son Ogdei and abandoned by his grandson Kublai who moved the capital to Beijing and founded the Chinese Yuan dynasty. Not much remains now as the stones were reused to build the monastery. The are info boards about an archaeological dig undertaken here and a modern plinth representing the post holes of a palace on the site. My imagination runs wild with what was happening here during the late 13th century.

But enough daydreaming, stomachs need feeding. We drive into the local town Kharkhorin and stop at a cafe. Once again I copy Badz and have fried small dumplings, deep fried crspy pancakes, milk tea with salt and Al has fried rice with kimchi. 

We need to stop in at the shops for tonights tea so we head to Khakorlin market. Its a dusty wild west affair, with meat being sold off pickups, farmers sat around on their motorbikes and young men playing pool on tables outside. One of the Mongolian specialities is airag, an mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented horses milk and there is a shop here that produces a good quality one. The shop has an overpowering unctuous odour of fermenting dairy. There are huge blue tubs of milk and cheese and a mound of cows butter in an inflated cows stomach on the counter. Badz buys 10 litres of airag and we try some out of a bowl. It has the sharpness of a goats cheese leaving a slight fizz on the tongue.

Next is meat for tonight so we head to the horse meat van, where piles of very red meat with very yellow fat sit on cardboard. We buy what we need and high from our market experience, head to a museum.

The museum is closed, so as an alternative we head to penis rock.

The cloud has edged out the blue sky and the wind has dropped the temperature so its back in the van to head to tonights camp.

We head off the main road and drive towards a rock escarpment jutting out of a wide plain. This is Khogno Khan where we will stay for the next two nights.

The family are out working with their flock but there are three other backpackers here who have been on a 30 day tour! Crumbs. We say hello and then they retreat to their ger and us to ours. This is a summer camp so the ger is not sealed at the bottom and force drafts swirl around our ankles.

I head to the most remote but picturesque longdrop I’ve ever seen sandwiched between beige steppe and pale blue sky.

The temperature is dropping and back in the ger the fire is fading. A Grandma suddenly appears at the door, steps into the ger and shuts out the cold wind behind her. She is stooped and small and weatherbeaten but tougher than us soft westerners. She opens the hearth door and mutters to herself. Over the next 10 mins she fetches fuel, builds the fire, lights it, patches a hole in the ger where draughts are coming in whilst constantly talking to herself. We are both utterly captivated by her and her cheeky grin. We find out later she is 77.

Toasty, we relax a bit waiting for the nod for tea. A bird flies out from under Al’s bed startling us both. It attempts to fly out of the clear plastic at the top of the ger near the chimney pipe. We casually dive out of the door and a few seconds later out flies the bird.

Our next visitor announces tea and we head to the family ger for deepfried horsemeat dumplings. They are rich and sweet and delicious. I eat five. Al doles out presents for the family and Dad ( Dorio) opens the vodka. We have first go, then Dad, Mum (Dolgor), two tour drivers, two tour guides, two family helpers and mums nephew. Only Grandma and the kids miss out. I’m amazed at how many people are in the tent. The men are also drinking homemade airag which I get handed. Its smoother and less sharp than the one earlier. The thirteen year old daughter (Altantsetseg, which means Golden Flower) shows us photos on her phone and practices her English. Eventually the vodka is finished and we’re told that due to the strong winds the family may have to herd the sheep now so they don’t lose any of their flock in the night, so we leave them to it and trudge back through the fresh snow to our ger. We are asked if we mind someone coming in at 3am to add fuel to the fire, we reply that we don’t mind at all.

Romantically, we fell asleep to flickering firelight from the hearth and in the warmth, the smell of mutton fat dripping on the floor from the piece of meat hanging from the ceiling.

Mongolia Trip Day 1 14.10.16

We have booked onto a five day, four night tour into the Mongolian Steppe to see wild horses, ancient Buddhist temples and the ancient capital of the Mongol horde founded by Chenggis Khan. We will be staying each night in a ger (yurt) with a local family.

I revel in the luxury of a shower and pack and the hostel owner introduces us to Badz, our English speaking guide. We wander downstairs and outside head towards a Soviet 4×4 called a UAZ where we are introduced to Moogii our driver.

Moogii loves his van. They are one.

We head out of Ulaan-Baataar at rush hour named after the adrenalin rush you get and we stop at a supermarket on the outskirts. It is recommended to take gifts to the families you stay with so we buy 3x bottles vodka (dad), 3x tea towels and soap (mum) and 5x bags of sweets (kids). We have no running water for 5 days so we also buy wet wipes and another bottle of vodka for ourselves. We are basing our hygiene routine on the Glastonbury model.

The traffic thins, the buildings become more run down, then we pass multiple industrial plots and finally we leave the city behind. We are able to see a black layer of pollution against the hills created by fuel burners in gers in the outskirts.

After around 80k we swing off the main road and bounce down a dirt track for another 15k until we are inside Hustai national park. Badz spots some Przewalski wild horses on the horizon so we stop and head towards them on foot. We pass marmot burrows, some of which are sealed with their own dung showing they are hibernating for the winter. We manage to get to within 250m of the stallion and his two mares before they run off. 

Down the valley, shaped like an arrow, marches a flock of sheep and goats with cattle to their rear and a few dogs either side. We stare transfixed as they seem in perfect formation hoovering up grass as they shuffle forward.

Back in the van Moogii demonstrates his superb driving skills as we bounce back down the dirt track to the tarmac highway. 

Eventually we stop for lunch of sizzling beef and peppers with rice at a service station, then its back on the road heading west.

We doze a bit after lunch but the scenery stirs us. We are driving down vast flat plains flanked on the horizon by shadowy mountain ranges. The road is dead straight disappearing to the vanishing point. This is the Mongol steppe; beige scrubland underneath bright sun and blue sky. It is an epic landscape. 

Moogii swings off down another dirt track without troubling the brake pedal and we bounce around for a while enjoying the scenery. In the distance we see a camp of tourist gers and our hearts sink. We head towards them but out of no where we take a hard right and drive over a dry river bed through a pack of camels onto another track and a while later we pull up at three gers and a stable.

The mother and young daughter emerge from the central ger looking ruddy and rosy cheeked. They smile and we shake hands and say hello and we’re invited into a toasty tent. In the centre is a cast iron hearth with a chimney pipe. There are three beds arranged around the outskirts of the tent interspersed by two cabinets, one used as a shrine and one used for kitchen equipment which has a small table next to it. One of the beds has a rope tied to it and on the other end is a toddler, crawling around safely away from the hearth. Dad is lying on the floor snoozing. They explain that he is ill but after we leave our guide reckons he has a hangover. We smile at each other and Mongol is spoken around us. I am offered snuff which is a traditional male greeting on the Steppe. Badz demonstrates by taking a pinch from the bottle onto his right hand, rubbing most of it away with his left index finger and then sniffing nothing from his left index finger. I copy him. Black Tea with salt is served with dried sweetened yoghurt.

A family helper arrives and we are led out for a camel ride. The family look on grinning as we mount them and are thrown forwards and backwards as they rise. Despite my English reserve and in spite of my cynicism I really enjoy it. A bright full moon rises behind a rock escarpment as we plod up rippled sand dunes with the Steppe tinged orange from the glow of the sunset behind us. A truely magical moment.

After a graceful dismount, we are back in the family ger watching mum cook goat stew in a huge wok on the fire. In front of the hearth is a box of dried animal dung which is used as fuel, on top of which sits a pile of lamb fat. Mum is adding bits of meat to the boiling water and things she made earlier, like blood sausage and inards sausage. A dough is rolled out and placed onto the stew and the boiling liquid ladelled over it to create a giant noodle. Eventually its ready. Mum removes goat pieces from the wok to a plastic washing up bowl and carves a few bits off to throw into the fire as an offering.

Finally, tea is served and the expression ‘in at the deep end’ springs to mind. We have goat kidney, lung, liver, blood sausage, inards sausage, ribs with a potato and some noodles. The expression ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ springs to mind and I start with the inards sausage. My senses are assaulted by rich flavours and unusual textures that I’m not used to. Aware that I don’t want to appear rude, I’m conscious of my facial expressions as I chew and swallow. Things become more familiar with liver and kidney and I like the noodle so much I eat Al’s too.

Al dishes out the presents to the family and the vodka is opened. The traditional way to drink is from a small round saucer that the host fills and the guests pass round. You drink using your right hand and toast ‘tok tooy’. The dad starts but I get the impression it is mainly for our benefit to kill any stomach bugs as it’s mainly us who drink it. We chat to Badz who asks us how old we are, we tell him and he exclaims ‘Wow, same age as my parents’. 

The bottle gets emptied and its dark outside so we hit our ger which heated by burning animal dung is about 30° and home to a thriving bluebottle colony circling round our lightbulb powered by a car battery. I’m told that to turn of the light I have to pull the cable from the battery and don’t touch both connectors at the same time.

Before turning in we head to the long drop bathed in moonlight serenaded by lowing cows.

Moogii slept in his van. Inseparable.

13.10.2016 Ulaan Bataar 

How excited are we to be in the capital city with the most vowels in it, and the capital of the most sparsely populated country in the world (4.3 people per sq m)? Answer – Very. 

After very little sleep we we woken up at 4.40am by the carriage attendant as the train crawled into the station. We have never done 650km on a train so slowly, it has taken us 24 hours. 

As promised a chap was there to pick us up from the hostel…. we felt like royalty! We arrived at the hotel at about 6.15am there was a hushed atmosphere when we got there as quite a few people we packing rucksacks in the main area for their trips into Mongolia or the train to Bejing. One chap had a bottle of Genghis Khan vodka, climbing equipment and 2 bottles of motor oil (we later saw him with a motorbike outside which went someway to explaining the motor oil). We are slightly dazed and quiet. Still we had WiFi so we were happy having a quick catch up with the vital events of the past 24 hours (none) .

Hostel owner arrived and our room was ready so we unpacked, showered (cold for me, hot for Guy who worked out the shower fitting was fitted the wrong way so hot was cold and visa versa) and we decided to stay awake and battle on through. Checking our tour information we then had to somehow get a couple million of Mongolian togrog out of the bank so we started our withdrawals. 

Some money obtained we decided coffee would be a great idea and so clutching our battered old money, held together with sellotape (no new fivers here!!!) we went to get some. I hadn’t quite got the hang of the cash so tried to pay with 4 20,000 togrot notes, the equivalent of £40. Guy quickly intervened and I eventually handed over a tenner for the three quid coffees.  

The sky was blue and the air seemingly)  clear so we wandered around the city and avoided being killed by mongolian drivers who aren’t that bothered about stopping at traffic lights, and certainly not the (voluntary) zebra crossings. Human shields were used. A lot. 

The place has a real feeling of Asia about it, one vendor had his stall set out with scales (for weighing yourself), telephone (for phone calls), cigarettes and matches (for smoking, of course). I didn’t jump on the scales as they looked like they wouldn’t take the shock and so I could end his livelihood. 

The place is really relaxed, there are knock off H&M, Mango shops, streets are shabby chic in their paving with the odd hole through the concrete, and everyone has really good pair of boots. Toilet paper has taken a nose dive in quality with toilet roll holders not having been introduced here yet (how they make anything from 1970’s Blue Peter is beyond me).

We did see a brown murky haze at the end of one street which had snow sprinkled hills in the distance and found out later that Ulaan Bataar has bad air quality, it was worse than Bejing yesterday!!! But the hills looked very picturesque. 
There were plenty of restaurants with mongolian food on offer however we had our hearts set on an Indian restaurant behind the wrestling stadium (every town should have one) so got there easily and had a feast. 

We took our leftovers with us and had another wander around, it was glorious sunshine and we were taking off the layers of clothing whilst seeing statues and the very impressive square. We decided to take a rest in the square and watch life pass by, kids on roller blades whizzed past us, older people walked past in their clothes which looked like costumes to us but seemed to be normal kit for them and also the now familiar toy cars for cute kids to ride around the square until the battery ran out. It was a lovely relaxing way to spend the afternoon.

We managed to negotiate the ATM’s and got lots more battered old notes out of the machine and handed them to our hostel owner. 

Chatted to more travellers in the hostel, we have met loads doing the same route as us and just winging it. It seems strange to be back in a route again, but fun. We even met someone from Coventry! 

Ulan Ude to Mongolia 12.10.16

Up at 5.45am and a brisk 10 minute walk to the station. As usual we can’t see the signs for the platform but unusually there is no friendly Russian to help, so we follow two backpackers to a long train and ask a  carriage attendant who points to carriage 8 which is bound for Mongolia. Tickets checked by our first Mongolian crew and we say hello to Patrick our French cabin mate who has also just boarded. Mattresses are laid out and as its still dark we rest for a couple of hours until I’m woken by Patrick’s camera shutter repeatedly clunking. I look out of the window to see a beautiful rolling landscape tinged orange by the fresh sun and get out the compact camera.

Mongolian railways don’t provide a glass and silver holder like their Russian counterparts but a cup of tea from a papercup still tastes good. It is soon apparent that we are in the tourist carriage as I haven’t seen this many westerners in one place since Stockholm. Hellos are said and languages and accents eavesdropped upon. A windows is opened so we can take it in turns to get the vital ‘train round the bend’ Trans-Siberian photo that you simply must have. I decide to finally walk the entire length of the train to the back to get the other vital ‘tracks behind the train’ photo and am pleasantly surprised to find that our carriage is the end of the train.

We chat to Patrick and watch the scenery as from out of nowhere, huge refineries churn smoke with their ugly reflections polluting mirror smooth lakes.

Noise in the corridor. We look out to see our crew placing four boxes of bananas in a locker under the carpet. Nothing to see here.

At 1.15pm we reach the Russian side of the border. We are ordered off the train as are the prisoners in the jail wagon a few coaches down from us. Unlike them we are not handcuffed together in bunches of six and marched down the platform. We all stand transfixed, watching them as they stand and stare at us. We have paid for our ticket to Siberia. 

The distraction finishes and we chat and as travellers do, swap stories of where we’ve been and info on where we are going. The train is moved and sits and is moved and two hours later we are allowed back on. We sit in our compartments as the sniffer dogs and customs check us and then its time for passport control with the usual smiles and laughter. Not really. We all sit there, as if before our maker in solemn desperation hoping we get the stamp. We all do and four hours after we stop, we’re off again.

Sundown is coming so cameras are out and relief and excitement is tangible as we roll through no mans land. The Mongolian border guards wave at us and we are greeted at the station by two saluting soldiers. Immigration arrives and collects all our passports and we wait for two hours. Patrick tells me of a holiday he took in the south of the USA seeing bluesmen play in small bars and his enthusiasm is so great I want to fly there now.

After dark and the passports are back and off we go. Eventually the crew tell us to go to bed as we are going to be woken up at 4.40am for arrival into Uaan-Baatar at 5.50am. We crash but I’m very excited about seeing the capital of Mongolia and shifting into Asia.

P.S. – we arrive and say our goodbyes and as we walk down the platform we see the contraband fruit getting wheeled away. The trolley hits a dint in the platform and over the boxes go and and their value on the black banana market rises.

11.10.2016 Ulan Ude 

Last day in Russia and for once we were under budget and had roubles to spend / get rid of. I was going to buy some earrings but the shop was closed (much to Guy’s delight) so we went to the supermarket (called Titan) and bought vodka and pot noodles. Thought we should do some culture so visited the Buryat museum for that. It was filled with a lot of information about Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism (both of which the Buryats followed) but very little about Buryats themselves so if like us you want more information please visited Wikipedia!!! Save yourself £3.50 and Trans Sib fare. 

Lunch was at Marco Polo restaurant, soups followed by vegetables and chicken on a stick. It was delicious and filling. 

As the sky was clear blue we had another wander round to see everything in the sunshine and enjoy that weather. 
Tea was in a fancy  canteen restaurant, which had a slight odour of creosote, which was ok.

 We took another photo of Lenin with the moon. 

We then spent our last 121 roubles on 2 cans of beer, one of which was very similar to special brew, delicious! 

Thinking that an early night was a good idea we turned in and tried to get some zzzzz’ s before our 5.30am wake up call. Only to have the hotel owner politely waking us up at 23.45 with our police registration papers!!!! Fortunately I did not know the Russian for ‘Why the hell have you woken me up for that when I had just dropped off to sleep and have to be up in 5.45 mins’ so I just glared at him and thanked him. 

From Russia with Love

Tomorrow we head to Mongolia after 28 days in Russia. We have both enjoyed ourselves here and wanted to record some observations.

Russian people are, on the whole, lovely. They can have a stoney face but a few badly pronounced words of Russian melts the frowns into smiles. 

Russian hostels are hard to find, most don’t have signs and if they do they are small and in Cyrillic. Many are in a block of flats which just has one number for the block but multiple separate stairwell entrances.

Doors open outwards not inwards. Shops, houses, toilets, all of them. People never hold the door open and metro doors will fly back at you with some force.

Shoes are removed in a hostel.

Hostels sometimes have travellers in but normally have Russians. Either young men or middle aged women. Four out of seven hostels we’ve stayed in have not had other travellers in.

People talk Russian to you even if they know you are from abroad. They don’t seem to understand that you don’t understand.

Supermarkets have covered windows with pictures of goods that they may sell.

No one weeds their gardens.

Uneven pavements, cobbles and ice won’t deter the fearless Russian women from vertigo inducing high heels.

We have been able to order two green teas and two beers but can’t pronounce hello.

Museums don’t seem to have a logical order to follow round.

Cars stop for pedestrians at clearly marked zebra crossings. People in Russia accelerate very quickly and brake hard and in Moscow they drive very very quickly. We are not ashamed to admit we have used old women, young mothers with prams and schoolchildren as what we call “human shields”.

Station platforms for the train you want are difficult to find. Several times we’ve had to ask as a sign for platforms has led to a dead end. Even taking into account the early mornings and our beginners Cyrillic we are right on this.

Craft ale and coffee shops are everywhere.

Pizza restaurants sell sushi. Sushi restaurants sell pizza. Obviously.

Vodka is cheaper than beer and wine.

Hostels don’t allow you to drink.

Litter bins are everywhere (handy for secretly disposing of empty vodka bottles you  ‘may’ have drunk in your room)

Dosvidania

10.9.2016 Ulan Ude

We had read deep into the night due to inability to know the time and good books (mine is about a Journalist driving the great wall of China,  Guy’s is about some chap called Genghis Khan  and we we totally unprepared for breakfast being served to our room at 8.20am! I couldn’t stomach to milky tea,  noodles, grated carrot and unnervingly soft frankfurter, thankfully Guy could and ate both portions. I had cup of green tea and chocco pie.

Our host had offered to give us a lift to the Buddhist monastery, a 3.5km climb uphill out of town, we left at 10am. He was very proud of his Japanese car which was right hand drive, in a country that is (predominantly) left hand drive. Guy was sitting in the front, with seat belt firmly intact.

There were morning prayers being held in the monastery so we were respectful and quiet, our hotel man was keen to show us round as he did his prayers so we obediently followed him round, trying not to disturb the chanting,  I nearly jumped out of my skin when they changed the melodic monk chanting to cymbals clashing and drum banging.

Our chap had to get on with his day but with the help of Google translate he told us ahout a trail around the monastery. 

Google translate has been revolutionary on this trip, we have used it numerous times and are getting used to speaking or typing into the phone and showing the results to a local. It is slightly unerving as you are never sure if it correctly translates, but so far we haven’t offended anyone.

We then had a blast of heating from the souvenir shop, and then headed downhill to town through the suburban sprawl of Ulan Ude. We saw a village cafe and decided to stop for tea, we can say 2 green teas in Russian now, so that bit was easy. Trying to get breakfast was a little more difficult but we got eggs, fried luncheon meats and a sliced pickle. A number of bus drivers came in afterwards and had some ace looking soups,  but all we got translated for soups was potato puree soup,  which didn’t appeal. 

Full of warmth we went downhill into town across a long, high precarious looking bridge over the train station that had too many holes in it for my liking. 

Into a supermarket for a nose about. Lots of smoked fish.

Another wander through town, okay, we might have just got lost, we went into the Opera house and pushed our noses to the locked door to see a very plush interior, then needed another fridge magnet for Guy via a giant Lenin head (to note the scale, that tiny blob at the bottom is me).

Time was passing and food was needed so we saw a restaurant with wonderful photos of pelmenis, dumplings, kebabs, salads and were fooled into entering!  In England you would get them on trade descriptions.  We had pork (I think) with under cooked rice and a raw cabbage and cucumber salad, Guy had sausage meat patties with a dried egg on top and salty canned veg, no photos taken.

Another walk around town and we went back to our friendly pastry place for cake and back to the hotel for blogging.