Sat 12/07/08 03:26

I’ve made it to Russia, though I’m not sure it’s such a good thing. J

I’m in a b&b outside of Irkutsk, Russia on the shore of Lake Baikal. It’s overcast and about 50 degrees.

One of the things that I would like to write a little about is Mongolia. I left Ulaanbaatar about two days ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Mongolia is one of those countries that most people, if they’re like me, don’t really think too much about. It’s surrounded by two super-powers that seemingly suck away the attention that Mongolia rightly deserves. When I got there I didn’t have any idea of what to expect so I was surprised to find it a great country filled with friendly people. Many people on the tour didn’t enjoy Mongolia the way I did, but for some reason the Mongols treated me differently. I don’t know if it is my blue eyes, or the perma-grin that I seem to wear whenever I’m somewhere new, but whatever the reason, the people were very friendly and seemed to go out of their way to say hello. Speaking of the people, the Mongolian women are absolutely beautiful; nearly all the guys on the tour have made comments along the same lines of how impressed they were with the Mongolian women.

The train ride to Irkutsk:

After our two-day trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar on the train, I thought that I’d be an expert on riding the train for long distances, unfortunately though I found out very quickly that was not the case. The Chinese/Mongolian trains are much better run than their counterparts in Russia. Russian trains don’t give any meals, the staff are very rude, and there is no air circulation except for open windows, but with the temperatures fairly warm outside there was no rest from the oppressive heat in the carriage. At least on the Chinese trains they would let us get off the train to buy cold drinks along the way, the Russian train that we were on only stopped twice in about thirty-six hours, long enough for us to get off and walk around a bit. It was kind of funny, the first time the train did stop long enough for us to get off, three of our group were left behind. They said that they saw the train pull away and knew there was no way for them to catch up to it. They ended up catching a taxi to meet with us a few hours later. I actually kind of envied them, two hours less time in the train.

One of the things that I should have expected, but didn’t realize the reality of the situation was the border crossing into Russia. I woke up yesterday morning at 7am, the train was stopped and I had no clue of where we were. As I write this the whole morning is a little bit hazy in my memory. Anyway, I look out the window and the train is surrounded by a security (barbed wire) fence, and I see about 10 soldiers and one dog walking towards us. When they get to the train they start making us get undressed and told us to lean against…. Just kidding, they told us to get into our cabins, get our luggage in front of us, and have our passports ready. It was really a sense of old-world Russia for me, actually it was more like a WWII Nazi feeling for me than anything else. While we were sitting there, we could hear people walking on the roof, and I could see the dog walking along the train. What really surprised me was the compound that they had our train in. Like I mentioned we were surrounded by a fence, but it was really much more secure than just a fence, there were guards posted all over the place, there was more than just one fence, and the locomotive was not there. The only thing in this compound were two train cars and a bunch of shocked tourists… well, at least I was shocked.

So, like I mentioned I’m sitting in bread and breakfast overlooking the shore of Lake Baikal, and I’m trying really hard to think positively about Russia right now. It hasn’t been easy though. Yesterday on one of our stops, I bought a 7-Up and a few waters for later. I was with a couple guys as we made our way back to the train, a Russia guy smiles, points to my 7-Up, and says something that I don’t understand. So in a little bit of confusion I kind of hand it to him… still don’t know why I did that, but he takes it opens it up, takes a drink and gives it back to me and says thank you. What? I mean, What? Never would I have expected that… Kind of funny though.

Like I said, I’m trying to stay positive. This morning at the B&B we had the best pancakes that I’ve ever had in my life… they didn’t look like pancakes though. They were small and very thick, but damn they tasted good.

This afternoon I stayed behind while the rest of the group went to a local museum and a hike up to a viewpoint. I kind of wanted to go, but after the harrowing trip on the train I kind of just wanted to be alone, so I kind of just did some little things like clean up my backpack and write on my journal. I really think it was a good decision in the end. About 2:30 I ended up meeting the group for lunch, and even that went really well, before they showed up I sat in a nice little café sipping on a cappuccino overlooking the lake. It was very relaxing and just what I needed. Later we took a lake tour for about an hour.

For the record, I’ve started to like it here in Russia.

Sun 06/07/08 21:55
Back to Ulaanbataar

We got back to UB yesterday and even though I had a great time during my stay at the ger camp it felt pretty good to take a shower and to have some of the comforts one gets used to. It’s now Monday morning and I’ve got to check out of the hotel for our train ride later today, but last night we went to a cultural show that had several types of folk singers, dancers, and music all done in a traditional style. The batteries on my still camera were dead, so I took my video camera instead. It worked out to be a good decision, but it also means that I don’t have any photos to show in my journal.

After the show most of us went to a traditional restaurant and then for a walk around the city. We ended in an Irish pub drinking Mongolian beer.

Just for the record, Mongolians say gingus khan, instead of ghegis Khann… it’s just something that for some reason I wanted to let people know. We in the West have been pronouncing the name wrong for who knows how long… the difference is the first syllable, ging instead of geng.

Tonight we leave for Russia.

Sun 06/07/08 21:42

It’s 830 in the morning and I’ve been up for about a half hour. It’s really hard to describe what the last couple of days have been like, but I’ll give it a shot.

Yesterday we met with our tour leader to take off for a two day camping excursion into the desert. Before we left she took us to the town square and the city’s oldest monastery. Both were really interesting and I could probably write for hours on both areas. The town square is very much like Tiananmen Square, but much smaller. The town had just had riots so the square was full of military and police walking around, from what I heard there were some people protesting the results of a recent election, and they ended up killing 5 policemen. According to our guide 200 people were arrested, but except for the armed soldiers walking around you couldn’t really tell that anything had happened though. The town square was very “Soviet” though, and very interesting. The monastery was interesting. The first building we went in was filled with burning incense and monks chanting. It was kind of strange though because they were sitting in twos, at a certain point one of the monks was place a, what looked like money, bill in front of the other. It seemed almost that the monks were being rewarded with money, totally against what I though Buddhism, and religion in general was about. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of them, so I don’t have a visual proof for the journal. In one of the buildings there was a huge statue, about 75 to 100 feet high. It was gold and contained some precious gems, at least that’s what we were told since you really couldn’t seen any gems.

After our short sightseeing venture we headed out of the city. Our destination was ger camp about 120 kilometers away. Gers are round tents that have been used by the Mongolian people for centuries. To get a visual image, imagine teepees. The journey to our campsite was over dirt roads that took about 4 hours to get there. When I say dirt roads, it’s not like they have been groomed at all like we have in New Mexico or Texas, probably a better name than road is path. People just drive over the same place until it gets so bad that they drive around it, until that get so bad.

 

The camp is incredible. There are about 10 gers in total, and except for a few gers off in the distance, we are the only people around. We’re in a little bit of a valley with mountains all around. I don’t think that we’re in the Gobi, but we’re very close. Our camp is situated in a sandy area that’s surrounded by grassy plains. Everything is “rough” we use outhouses, and our ger doesn’t have electricity (but some in the group’s do), bugs are crawling around on the floor, it’s not difficult camping at all, but it’s definitely not staying in luxury. The camp owners seem to try very hard to make everyone comfortable. Last night we had a four-course meal that was excellent… and they had coffee J

Three of our tour are older guys from New Zealand. They actually turned their ger into an improvised bar last night. Mixed drinks, straight shots, we had it all.

Today I go for a Camel ride.

The camel ride was great. We only went for about an hour, but if you’ve ever rode a camel, you know that for the first time, one hour is enough. Right now as I’m writing, my butt is feeling a little sore from the ride. These camels are the two-hump kind, different than the ones that I rode in Dubai. Fortunately I took the camel that had the best humps… what that means is that when you sit between the humps, the back hump supports your back.

Later in the afternoon we took a ride to a nearby ger tent that was used by herdsman. We had milk tea and fried curd. Later we helped them milk their goats and helped set up one of their ger tents. When I say helped, it was more like we were in the way more than we actually helped them. There may be a tendency to think that this was a little tourist-y, but it seemed authentic to me, and when you get down to it, that is what really matters.

So my cold is getting better, still a little stuffed up, and my nose is about raw from all the blowing, but it feels good not to be sneezing and coughing constantly.

Thu 03/07/08 09:28

Just as things were going good I ended up getting sick. When we were leaving Beijing I kind of had a sore throat and a little bit of a cough, nothing too bad. As the train ride kept going the sore throat mostly went away and then my nose started running, and by the time we got to Mongolia I thought I had a fever and full out stuffed nose. I decided to go for a walk after taking a shower through the city. When I got back every joint ached and I had the cold shivers. So I headed to bed at about 3pm. It’s now 10 and I’m feeling better but still am feeling bad enough to consider not going the the tour tomorrow.

Mongolia: What can I say? It’s a dreary place. I don’t really mean to be negative, but there is a sense the people have a poor sense of priorities. For example, they have a large screen that has advertisements and music videos playing in the town square, this is pretty cosmopolitan, but the in the same place, there aren’t any sidewalks, just mud where a sidewalk will eventually be.  The people here pretty much keep to themselves, so I haven’t had any chance to talk to any of them… it could be also that I’m not feeling well too.

This is an area outside UB. This is not what I was discussing about it being dreary, but it kind of does look dreary though. Those tents are called gers, and if I go with the tour tomorrow I’ll be staying in one for two days.

There is a monastery right next to our hotel room. If you look you can see some monks walking along. Later I was just sitting at the window, and watching the city when I saw some monks that looked really young carrying plates of what looked like food. The last monk had fallen behind and started to run to catch up to the others when he took a huge dive. I’ve never seen anything as funny. The food went flying and he stood there for at least three minutes wondering what to do. I wonder if he got in trouble.

Thu 03/07/08 02:48

We left Beijing early on the second and boarded the train for Mongolia. I know the name of the city that we are going to, but for the life of me I can’t remember it. The locals call it UB because the name is so long.

This was the first time that I’ve been on a train every, (I think), and it was an experience to say the least. Fun for the first day, and difficult the second. The total trip lasted about 26 hours. I’ve included some of the more picturesque images of the countryside as we left Beijing. So of the scenery was unbelievable.

 

 

We entered into Mongolia early this morning, and in so many ways it is like stepping back in time, what era I’m not sure. The people seemed to be split between old world and new world.