Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Trans Siberian: Mongolia (Part 1)

We screeched into Ulaanbaatar at around one thirty in the afternoon. The sky was blue and the air was bitterly cold. We certainly weren't in Kansas anymore. Our hostel was lovely enough to pick us up from the station and we proceeded through the dull gray pallor of the streets to our hostel. It was a small building, and like most other buildings in town it was a leftover from Soviet times, looking out from behind the hostel you could see an estate with husky old men and women huddled around bonfires drinking vodka. This was like nowhere else I had ever been before. Gana, the owner of the hostel, would tell us stories about how Ulaanbaatar used to be such a great place to live but that now it was rough and dirty, and that he was disappointed in its people for turning it into the ex-soviet slum that it had become. But, really it wasn't that bad, I actually grew rather fond of it. Down the street from the hostel was the old monastery, a beautiful building with an emerald green Buddhist style roof on the top of a giant hill. Further into town there were many shopping malls, a huge square that houses the government buildings and monuments to Chinggis Khan (that's how they spell it), and the main museums in town. We spent our first day in Ulaanbaatar exploring these museums and trying to get a feel for the place, but even the museums felt a little run down and like they had gone past their sell by date. Snow started coming down and you could see your breath in front of you, so we headed to the state department store (a giant store smack in the middle of town) and stocked up on some warm clothes.

After a day or so of exploring Ulaanbaatar we knew all too well that it was time to get out into what Mongolia is famous for; it's endless countryside. We booked a ride with our hostel out to Terelj National Park. Gana gave us a ride out to our ger (a ger is a round felt hut) and it really was in the middle of nowhere. Gana told a good story and filled us in on many of the trappings of Mongolian culture. He told us how 95% of the roads in the country weren't really roads at all but just dirt tracks made by nomads, so it's hard to map Mongolia as the roads are forever changing. Most Mongolians live in the cities, I think a whopping 30 or 40 percent of them actually live in Ulaanbaatar, outside of that you have nomads, people who live a simple life, tax free and off on their own in the wild. Something we were hoping to get a flavor for.

The national park was beautiful, soaring mountains that stretched as far as the eye could see, endless fields with nothing in them but the occasional cow, or horse. Huge rocks cascaded over hills and aging monasteries rotted on the tops of the mountains. It was quite a sight to behold and we were staying right in the middle of the bottom of the valley. We went inside the family ger and were served some breakfast (a sign of things to come) the breakfast was cheese and bread and some mare's milk tea. I quite enjoyed it's simplicity but Natalie did not. After breakfast and meeting the family (mother, father and son Nick) we were shown to our ger. In total the family had three gers at their little country retreat, one for the family, one for the son and one for guests. Our ger was pretty big but not as big as the family ger, it was perfectly round and decorated in true Mongolian style with handmade cloth and blankets. In the center of the ger stood an iron fireplace that would become our only source of heat over many long nights in the bitter cold. We were also shown the toilet about fifteen metres from our ger was the outhouse. A hole in the ground that when you looked down you could see (and smell) the rancid decaying shit below. I can't say it was incredibly pleasant but it was all we had to work with as Gana drove away and left us there, in the middle of nowhere.

Next up was horse riding. Neither Natalie nor I had ever ridden a horse before but we swung our legs over our tiny little horses confidently. Natalie's horse had decided to be a little mischievous, so, Nick (our guide) tied Natalie's horse to his horse and they galloped off in front telling me to follow. There I was, sat on a horse, with no idea what to do. Nick signaled to me how to 'take off' if you will, so I gently kicked the side of the horse and said something loudly like "Haaa", and off the horse went. I pulled one rope for left and one rope for right and I kicked the side of the horse to go faster and could feed it several commands by making several different noises. Galloping through the Mongolian countryside on the back of a horse was an experience I'll never forget. I felt like Aragorn off on an adventure, and indeed the scenery was rather reminiscent of Middle Earth, just without any orcs.

We stopped off at a monastery, tied the horses up, and hiked up the many steps to the top. The view from up there was breathtaking and monks had painted beautiful works of art on the sides of the rocks on the mountains. A crazy old man with a machete, up there showed us the intricate workings of the artist who had painted the temple. There were pictures of people getting decapitated, a bit of the old bestiality and some other rather untoward images splattered onto this place of worship, very strange, very strange indeed. We hiked back down and over a very rickety bridge to our horses and this time Natalie was free to ride her horse by herself as well. We picked up speed and we were off. My back started to hurt and it was bloody cold, but I was still enjoying the adrenaline rush that came from riding my horse through the mountains. Who ever paid for horse riding lessons is a fool, this is where it's at.

We rode to Turtle Rock, this rock was huge and it genuinely did look like a turtle, we took some photo's and had a walk around the park from here whilst Nick got a snack in the local shop, may I add, the only shop for miles around and it sold, well, beer, vodka, and cookies. That's was about it. Oh, and lamb. We galloped back to the gers for lunch and you guessed it lunch was lamb, and dinner was lamb, and lunch the next day was lamb, and lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, bloody sick of all the bloody lamb. Mongolians eat a lot of lamb, very hearty food, I guess to keep them warm during the blisteringly cold winters. Ulaanbaatar itself is renowned as the coldest capital in the world, it has all those Siberian winds blowing over and nothing to protect itself. In the winter Gana told us that it can get down to -40. Can you imagine!?

We ate lunch and then played with the local wolf, it was a domesticated dog to be fair, but it looked like a wolf. Natalie befriended him and they were inseparable by the end of our stay. We went and did some more hiking around the park in the afternoon and started to worry about the night ahead. The coldest night of my life. When we fell asleep the fire was still ablaze, but when I woke up at around midnight, the fire had gone out and the door to our ger had swung open, there was no lock and it had a knack of doing that. So, all the bitter cold air from outside had come into the ger. I spent most of the night trying to relight a fire but with nothing but matches and huge logs of wood this proved rather testing, I did get it going again but it didn't last for long, so we shivered our way through the night, occasionally waking up to take a trip to the outhouse, also in the cold. But, hey, what can you do? It's all part of the experience, right?

The second day in the country and we did much the same as the first. We went hiking around the valley and found lots of old bones lying around. We got some magnificent views from a top some of the rocks and we chased neighboring gers puppies around for kicks. They were so cute. Mainly we just tried to not be cold and we tried to stomach all of the lamb we were fed, oh how we wished we could have a shower. Don't get me wrong though, I wouldn't trade in the experience and although the second night was rather similar in style to the first, it was fine, because we were in Mongolia and we were experiencing something very few people even know exists. Real freedom, real nomadic life, really getting away from it all in every sense of the word. Now I think I understand that idea of freedom a little bit more than I did before I rolled into Terelj.

The rest of our Mongolian experience was spent bumming around the national park and then further more bumming around Ulaanbaatar, it was so cold and eight days really wasn't enough to get out and see a lot more of the country. We would have liked to get down to the Gobi desert, or out to Khustain to see the wild horses, but I suppose it means that we'll just have to come back.

We left Ulaanbaatar on a snowy day from the central train station. We had picked our tickets up from another Soviet style estate a few days previously and we exchanged our money, packed our bags and got down to the station early as to not have another reenactment of catching our Chinese train. We boarded easily and found our cabin. The place that would be our home for the next five days. Five very long days, with no electricity, no idea what the time was, no shower and nothing to do but look out at the majesty of a snow covered Siberia.

Our attendants or provonvistas as they so like to be called, were everything we could have asked for and proved very helpful during the trip. They gave us extra blankets and provided us with all that we needed. Our cabin was pretty small, two beds, plush blue walls, a little storage space and a table with a kettle, or should I call it a flask. Yes, a flask. Home sweet home. As we screeched over the tracks at about 60km per hour we really had no idea what the time was and by the third day we just started living by the sun rise and sun set. The Russian border check was smooth but again it was at about midnight which totally disturbs any sleep you might have been hoping to get. We played a lot of cards, a lot of chess, we tried to steal electricity from the food cart, but they kept overcharging us so we told them where to shove their disgusting food and proceeded to live off of noodles and snacks that you could buy from each platform that the train stopped at. We had these delicious toffee filled wafers from Omsk, they were incredible. The scenery was very majestic and I'll not forget many of the sights we saw any time soon, but on the third day it did start to get a little tiresome. Chug, chug, chug. Noodles. Noodles. Noodles. I was dying for a shower. Sometimes I needed the toilet, but they were locked because we were at a station, or approaching a station, or departing a station, very frustrating, but again, this was the time for character enhancing experiences, and it was indeed that.

On the fifth day I was over the moon to finally be approaching Moscow. Sergey and Ira, our hosts, were waiting for us at the station with a big wave and we were finally of of that train. We waved goodbye to the attendants and set out into Russia. A story for part two of this blog. I'll write about Russia tomorrow, and then I would have finally caught up on these blogs, believe me I haven't been lazy, we hardly had a moments rest in Russia to write about any of this and I had no electricity on the Trans Siberian, but here we are and we're talking now, so isn't that lovely. I'm sorry if this felt a bit rushed but I wanted to get at least something written and posted this morning.

We're in Germany now, and it's not cold here, which is a relief. See you next time.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, the magical countryside of Mongolia! So many great attractions to visit too. Thank you for making readers feel the experience of visiting Mongolia and travelling in the Siberian railroad. :)