A Travellerspoint blog

August 2007

Nomads for a Night

One Night with 200 Flies and a Mongolian Family

overcast 15 °C

On Friday, we headed out to Terejl National Park (about 70 kms out of UB) to overnight in a family ger. We had arranged the two day trip at the Tourist Information Office (TIO), paying $150 for transportation, food and accommodation. Funnily enough, the TIO asked for $30 in advance, and told us to pay our guides (one English-speaking guide, one driver) the remaining $120. Actually, we knew that the going rate for this excursion was $120, so were fully aware that the TIO agent was simply taking her cut. No problem. What we weren’t expecting was that the two guides would turn out not to be from a local tour company, but two of our TIO agents friends looking to make a little extra cash. Which would have been fine if they had known the way to the park, or at the very least had brought a map with them. Ug.

The ‘english-speaking’ guide also remained elusive, which was a little frustrating as we had so many questions regarding the nomadic lifestyle. Instead, our “guide” was restricted to pointing at the few objects that she had learned the English words for: “old bus”, “hospital”, “bad road”. It tested my patience, to be sure, but Lloyd did a great job of communicating as best he could, working through synonyms until he found the one that could be understood.

After much effort from Lloyd (and the realization that Mongolians do not know how to read maps), we found a terrific German pastry and bread shop (Café Sacher) which we raided for apple strudel and other pastries for brekkie. If you are visiting UB, this place is an absolute must! Then we headed out of town for the relatively short drive to the National Park, with our guide announcing one or two word nouns that needed no announcement all the way.

Even lacking understanding of Mongolian, it quickly became clear that our 20-year old guides had no idea how to get to the Park, and they stopped to ask directions which finally delivered us to the right place. And while this National Park was – indeed – perfectly scenic, with craggy hills and rolling pastures (and actually very similar to Yosemite in many respects), this wasn’t a National Park in the European or American sense. We were struck by how developed the Park was, with tourist ger camps almost everywhere you looked, and garbage (from previous gers or campers) absolutely all over the place.

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Our inexperienced tour-guides also revealed themselves as inexperienced drivers which added to our $120 horror, flying over speed bumps and then giggling nervously like the young school-girls they were. Perhaps inevitably, we managed to incur the flattest tire I’ve ever seen. Not that the rhythmic thudding alerted our guides to this fact. Nor did the fact that the car was heavily tilting over the back left indicated to them that anything was wrong. So, it fell to Lloyd and I to demand that the car be stopped so we could take a look at the damage.

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We were actually surprised to find that there was any kind of spare in the car, so Lloyd got to work changing the tire. For entertainment purposes, we should have left it to the two girls, but that would have been unusually cruel. In the event, the jack proved to be broken and failed to lift the car high enough to change the tire. But a helpful Mongolian family – and I mean all of them – happened to be passing, and offered a functional jack and two additional pairs of hands more than willing to demonstrate their manhood by swiftly changing the tire. We were back on our way in a jiffy,driving nervously on the spare tire designed for little more than a slow and short drive to a garage.

Happily, we arrived at our ger site for the night where we met Purederj and Enkhlyya, our elderly Mongolian hosts. We were based at the foot of a set of granite rocks that towered 100 metres above the four gers that comprised the family’s camp. We were shown our ger for the night, which housed the traditional, colorful furniture and about 200 flies. Of course the decor is spectacular, but in terms of cleanliness and the volume of flies, even Gana’s Guest House had nothing on this place! We immediately wished we’d brought our mosquito net, but the beds felt comfortable enough.

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Next, we were taken into Purederj and Enkhlyya’s ger, which housed the traditional Buddhist alter directly opposite the door. On the right hand side of the ger was Purederj (the man’s) bed, and his wife’s was on the opposite side. Just offset from the middle of the ger (with the support columns) and close to the door was the furnace, which exhausted through the ger’s roof. On the other side of the columns, close to the Buddhist alter, was a table, with four very short, colorful stools where we were seated. Enkhlyya poured generous (FAR too generous!!!) bowls of airag – fermented mare’s milk. I managed one sip of what tasted like off-milk, my entire mouth exploding in protest. Lloyd managed only a little more. Not something that western tummies are ready for! We were also offered little curd-like patties, shaped by hand from some milk product (could be cow, camel, goat or horse!) that was sun-dried on the roof of the ger. I wasn’t brave enough to try it.

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After lunch, we headed out on horses for a four hour trek to Turtle Rock and to a local monastery. Of course, our Mongolian hosts are expert horsemen (funnily enough we didn’t see any local women on horseback), and they our clumsiness (or indeed, my complete lack of experience on the back of a horse!) was a visible source of amusement. Lloyd was put on a fifteen year old (with no name) that made his dissatisfaction quite clear. Happily, given my lack of experience, they put me on the most tame plod-a-long horse they had.

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We enjoyed both Turtle Rock and the monastery which you can see in the pictures. Unfortunately, the constant uneven motion of the horses meant that we weren’t able to catch a good photo of the dozen or so eagles that were flying low above our heads throughout our ride, which were an added bonus from what was already the clear highlight of our visit to the National Park.

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We returned to camp after six o’clock and our two guides proceeded to prepare our dinner for the evening. We were to enjoy “sheep meat” and onion deep fried in pastry shells, which looked a lot like Cornish Pasty. Lloyd and I were optimistic and relieved. Deep fried food looked like the best option by far given the far-from-sanitary cooking conditions and the fact that the “sheep meat” had been stinking the car out all the way from UB. Of course, the 200 flies from our ger temporarily moved to the outside ‘kitchen’ preparation area to add their own special flavoring to our dinner.

Which didn’t turn out too bad. It was edible at least, if a little less like a Cornish Pasty than I was hoping. The sheep meat turned out to have a very gamey flavor, which dominated the onion and carrot. Happily, my last emergency sachet of HP sauce (donated by my Mum at Stansted airport!) saved the day, and made dinner considerably more appealing for both Lloyd and I. We gobbled up four or five pasties hungrily, and then headed to our ger to try and get comfortable for the night.

No luck there! We lay in the fairly comfortable if small bed, with flickering candlelight unhelpfully illuminating literally hundreds of flies and other insects crawling all over the ceiling. We tried to allow ourselves to be hypnotized by the candlelight but were unable to resist keeping an eye on the moving canopy above our heads. I blew the candle out and tried to escape my insect-infested reality.

Sleep was once again elusive. In the morning, we covered our heads with our silk liners and tried to ignore squadrons of flies who dive-bombed us from the wooden rafters. We must have looked quite strange – two bodies wrapped entirely in blue silk lying completely still for a few seconds at a time, in between hand movements to shoo away landed flies. Meanwhile, cows chomped around the edge of ger (which is merely a shell of wooden frame and felt, although surprisingly warm), and were so loud that I had to look several times to make sure the cows weren’t, in fact, INSIDE the ger. Not that that would have been bad. I’d happily have shared the ger with cows rather than flies.

Apparently to compound our misery, it rained in the early hours. Both achy from our four hour horse rides, we decided that we wouldn’t gain much by walking through a number of garbage-intensive, tourist gers (which was the slated activity for the morning). I rather fancied a drive to some of the more remote areas of the park where we might squeeze in a short hike, but we were genuinely concerned about the tire’s ability to support the drive. So instead, we decided to call it a day and head back to UB. Once again, we felt absolutely filthy and in desperate need of a shower and to wash every item of clothing we had taken with us.

Of course, while the flies and insanitary (at least by our standards) were hard for us to take, we wouldn’t really have changed the experience for anything. We were privileged to see a working ger in action, and incredibly impressed by just how hard working these nomadic Mongolians are. From six am to after dark, the family was milking cows, herding horses and cows, taking out tourists on horses, or cooking. Even for the youngest members of the family, it seemed like every daylight hour was filled with work. Only after we went to bed did we hear the generator being pumped up, and the television being switched on – a much needed escape from the hard grind of nomadic life. One night was plenty for the two of us, but we have nothing but respect for the lives being led by Mongolian nomads who apparently comprise something less than 40% of the Mongolian population.

Posted by jacquiedro 01:03 Archived in Mongolia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

In Search of 500 Horsemen

sunny 20 °C

Logistics sorted and after a night in a clean and decent hotel (we have BBC World and CNN – wow, what’s happened to the markets?), we were finally feeling ready to start to enjoy UB and Mongolia. On Thursday, we took a gamble and headed 50km out of UB to a reenactment of a Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan to the locals) battle. We suspected it would be touristy and probably tacky as hell, but were drawn to the promise of – count’em – 500 horses and riders. Apparently, the event was first staged last year as part of Mongolia’s 800-year celebrations. Anyway, we paid our $68 each (that’s a lot of cash here in UB, where $20 easily buys two people a full dinner with drinks), and picked up the bus to take us on the one hour drive out of town (a bargain at 3000 tugrug each for the roundtrip – about $2.50 each!).

The drive was fabulous, and we enjoyed the endless, rolling green pastures with the gentle hills, and herds of goats, cows, horses and yaks. The weather was perfect – with blue skies and a cool breeze, the nicest day we’ve had. We were only slightly worried that there were just two other adults on the bus: this was apparently a major production so where were all the attendees? Our concern continued when we arrived, literally, in the middle of nowhere to an event that seemed to have more staff than attendees. It was a bit like walking through a ghost town in one of those old western movies: I was just waiting for the tumbleweed to roll through as Lloyd and I walked up a long avenue flanked by souvenir vendors towards an eerily empty stage area. Eerily empty except for the forty or so musicians and dancers putting on a pretty decent, traditional Mongolian music and dance display.

As two of the four most recent arrived prospects, Lloyd and I were quickly rounded up by one of the food vendors no doubt anxious to score a few of the dollars available. We ordered a couple of drinks and enjoyed the last few minutes of the traditional show. We were the only white people there among twenty or so Mongolian attendees, and our concern levels were rising. We were promised 500 horses, but looking out over the Mongolian landscape, there seemed little prospect of that. And why would they deliver 500 horses to a crowd that numbered less than thirty?

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Show time was scheduled for 3.30pm, and at about 3pm, and after we had killed some time attempting one of Mongolia's 'three manly sports' (see picture - the other two are wrestling and horse-riding) and posing with camels, we started to see coaches on the horizon. Coach after coach of Japanese tourists were arriving strictly in time for the main event. Mongolian students clearly hired for the purpose greeted the Japanese in their own language, bowing respectfully to each as they filed into one of four stands laid out in a straight line in front of a massive sandy area. But still, no sign of 500 horses. With the Japanese contingent, we were now a respectable group of 300 or so, but I felt sure we’d be short-changed on the horses. Why would you bring them all out for less than a full house?

But bring them out they did. From 3.30pm to 5pm, we were treated to a display of incredible horsemanship, and choreography with military precision and timing. The horses marched over the horizon, at least a kilometre from the stands, in single file and just kept on coming.

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Hundreds of horses raced within feet of the stands, kicking up sand and creating a timeless atmosphere as the riders recreated a famous battle orchestrated by Genghis Kahn (a national hero here in Mongolia).

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Sure, the music may have been overdone at times, and the commentary was comical in places, but the horses, the costumes (I can’t even imagine the expense!) were first rate. We were thoroughly impressed, and incredibly relieved that we had taken the risk to go to this event. The last time I took so many pictures was on safari in Kenya watching things like lions mate - we’re talking like 500-700 frames! After 5pm, the horses rode off, and formed up into four sections about half a mile away.

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The fact that they were still in formation at 5.30pm led us to the conclusion that this was – indeed – a military unit. And really that has to be the only way that this kind of production could be possible. I can’t imagine any other country attempting it, but what a great and proud way for Mongolia to promote its reputation as a nation of skilled horsemen.

Posted by jacquiedro 19:51 Archived in Mongolia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Losing Our Minds on the Way to Mongolia

Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatar

overcast 15 °C

After four relatively sleepless nights on board, we were both looking forward to (a) a good shower, (b) a bed that was wider, and wasn’t moving or jolting every half a mile or so, and (c) a decent meal. Ulan Ude, about 900 miles from the Chinese border and about 200 miles from the Mongolian border, was simply meant to be our August 14 transfer point to Ulan Baatar in Mongolia from where we would pick up the Trans-Mongolian (which goes to Beijing) on August 19. However, we quickly discovered on arrival that there was no availability on any train to Ulan Baatar until August 18! Within an hour, we had experienced everything that Ulan Ude had to offer (world’s largest Lenin head; world’s worst burger restaurant; world’s weirdest internet café which blocked just about every site you could think about visiting including yahoo, google, hotmail etc) - we just HAD to find someway to escape before the 18th!!

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But first, accommodation for the night! After four showerless days on the train, we were in desperate need of a clean and hot shower, so we checked into a ‘prestige’ room at the Baikal Hotel which of course never had a chance of living up to its name (and indeed it didn’t). But happily it was clean and stationary for which we were highly appreciative! We walked through town in search of ‘King Burger’ which was highly rated in our now-despised-for-having-SO-much-out-of-date-and-crap-information Lonely Planet guide book, but left after one mouthful revealed a home-burger of unknown meat content. We gave up looking for a decent dinner in Ulan Ude and instead raided a local supermarket and picnicked in our ‘prestigious’ hotel room - probably the best meal we've had in Russia!

But how to get to Ulan Baatar? Lloyd was somehow able to secure the last two tickets on a bus leaving the next morning that would go direct from Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatar – hurrah! The cost was a mere 900 rubles each (about $35 each) – hurrah! The duration was a mere 14 hours – ouch! Worse than that, the fact that we had the last two bus tickets out of town (and indeed, the next availability was four days later) meant that we had the worst possible seats: at the very back of the bus, in non-reclining seats directly above the engine. This was going to be a painful ride.

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And indeed it was. It is officially the day I lost my sense of humour for the first time. We were thrown off the 7am bus into the morning rain (the one we got up at 5.45am to catch after about three hours of sleep) apparently so the driver could take a bribe to get three non-ticketed passengers on board. A Russian couple was apparently victim to the same scam, and they disappeared into a taxi to make their own way to the border, seemingly unwilling to take the chance with the next bus. When we got our seats on the 8.30am bus, there was no tricking us out of them a second time. Tired, damp, uncomfortable and miserable, when the bus pulled out, we were just happy to be on the bus. There were five seats in the last row of the bus: Lloyd sat in the middle, and I sat next to him. Of course, the lady next to me (in the window) was the most obese, smelly Russian that could be found to torture the tourist, and I spent much of the day fighting for my space (as well as my sanity).

On the plus side, the last two occupants of the Row From Hell was a young, Russian (ethnic Buryat, a Mongolian tribe) couple from Irkustsk, on their way to vacation in Ulan Baatar. Andre is a smart, highly motivated young man who spoke very impressive English, and who was determined to make the most of the opportunity to practice his language skills as well as network with us. He kept Lloyd occupied for most of the trip while I fought with sumo-neighbor and Andre’s delightful girlfriend Lena snoozed in the opposite window seat. Sitting above the engine, we cooked our internal organs while the other 40 passengers in their comfortable, reclining seats snored and continually frustrated our attempts to allow some cool air into the back. Lena and Andre aside (welcome guests in our home anytime!), we added Russians to our list of miserable people (right up there with the Greeks).

I think someone told the Russians how we felt about them, because they decided to torture us at the Mongolian border for not one, not two, but THREE hours. So, here is the process for leaving Russia and entering Mongolia:

- Bus sits in traffic just before border for 20 minutes. Three passengers board and pay 300 rubles to stand on the bus as it progresses the border (you can’t go through on foot)
- Russian official boards bus and checks all passports/visas
- Drive 20 meters - all passengers exit bus, carry all luggage into immigration
- Baggage goes through scanner
- Stand in line for 45 minutes. Visual interrogation by red-lipsticked Russian immigration official. No smiling allowed. Passport stamped.
- Re-board bus. Re-stow bags.
- Drive 20 meters.
- Russian official (a different one, this time even more scary/serious looking) boards bus, checks all passports/visas)
- Drive one mile.
- Mongolian official boards bus and checks all passports/visas
- Drive 20 meters.
- All passengers exit bus, retrieve luggage, stand in rain for half an hour, enter immigration
- (Goes without saying that rude Russian old ladies will inevitably cut in front of you at every opportunity)
- Stand in line for 30 minutes (hey, at least you’re out of the rain now….)
- Pass through immigration.
- Bags scanned.
- Re-board bus. Re-stow bags.
- Drive 20 meters.
- Mongolian official (this one looked like he was about 12, but he had perfected the ‘don’t-treat-me-like-a-12-yr-old’ scowl) boards bus and checks all passports/visas.

Welcome to Mongolia! Again, this was one miserable experience that we were fortunate to share with the only other friendly person in Russia: the male half of the couple thrown off the 7am bus that morning and one of the three passengers who paid our driver to cross the border! He recognized us from the bus-stop and went out of his way to acknowledge us, so Lloyd and he struck up a conversation. Turns out that Petya is a citizen of Kazakhstan, working in Mongolia on a long term mining contract that meant he was only home for 40 days a year. After his vacation at home, he was on his way back to work for the next several months. We really enjoyed chatting with him, and when the bus dropped him off on the Mongolian side of the border, he came all the way to the back of the bus to shake our hands and say good-bye. That brings the total number of nice Russians to 4. Out of a population of about 150 million.

So, the bus-ride wasn’t the most comfortable way to get from Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatar, but it certainly offered some beautiful views of Mongolia (and we had time to enjoy it when the bus – almost inevitably – broke down for an hour).

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By the time we arrived in Ulan Baatar (commonly called UB), it was late and dark, making it difficult to orient ourselves. As I said, I had lost my sense of humor and carrying my backpack through the dark streets of UB, with little confirmation that we were going in anything like the right direction to our Guest House (map in English, street signs in Mongolian – gotta love those Lonely Planet maps!). We walked past an Irish Pub and that was it, I decided a glass of (warm, vinergary) wine was necessary.

It was after 11pm by the time we made it to the hotel, and immediately wished that I’d had the whole bottle. Gana’s Guest House offered a dirty room, with a shower generously decorated with unpleasant components of a previous occupant (or perhaps many), and a bed that was almost unspeakable. Put it this way, Lloyd had to have me look away while he made up the beds (with our silk liners) or I simply wouldn’t have been able to attempt sleep there at all. Not that we slept. Flies patrolled the room and made it impossible for me to sleep. It’s not the buzzing. It’s when they buzz near you, and then it stops. We had a sleepless night, with me using my liner-sheet as a shield from the flies. I couldn’t wait to get up.

In the morning, we checked email, and I had to laugh at an email from my Mum, who was pleased we were off the train and able to ‘pamper’ ourselves and have a nice long bath now we were in a hotel. Gana’s Guest House wasn’t the kind of place I’d be getting undressed in, never mind bathing in.

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The day just got better and better with the realization that the transportation availability from UB to Beijing made the Ulan Ude to UB options absolutely prolific. There was no availability on the Trans-Mongolian until the middle of September. There were, in fact, no trains to Beijing during August at all. And there were no flights from UB to Beijing until August 23rd. All this, and we were supposed to be in Shanghai on the 20th! Still tired from the TSR, and from having crossed five time zones, it was a lot to take in. Lloyd made the executive decision to find a better hotel from which to base ourselves as we figured things out. And so we moved from Gana’s Guest House to the Corporate Hotel, where – after our 14 hour bus ride and long night fighting off the flies – we were probably lucky to be accepted for a room!

Having secured the Beijing flights on 23rd August as a back-up, we looked for alternatives to get out of UB sooner. Turns out there is a train that doesn’t go all the way to Beijing, but that will take us across the Chinese border to a place called Erlian. There are no trains from Erlian to Beijing, but there is a sleeper bus (that’s right – there are beds on the bus!) that will pick us up at Erlian and drive the remaining 842 kms to the Chinese capital. Through an agent, the cost was about $70 each, and we can leave on Sunday, 19th August. It’s one night on the train, and one night on the sleeper bus (there’s a LOT of time allowed for the border crossing on the first night) so that should put us in Beijing early on 21st August. From there, we will pick up a flight to Hong Kong, skipping out the planned Shanghai stop to make up the lost time. Travel lesson #986 – advance planning IS GOOD. I was teased relentlessly by people who thought I was overplanning our trip. Turns out I didn’t plan enough, having completely underestimated the popularity of the UB to Beijing route.

Posted by jacquiedro 19:42 Archived in Russia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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