Thumper…

March 31, 2013

Beijing Bound – Trans Mongolian almost at an end

My epic 3 week journey from St Petersburg in Russia through to Beijing is getting closer to the end.

That morning we were due to leave Ulaanbaatar at 6.30am and board the train for the last time and off for a 30hr trip to Beijing, 7 of which is spent at the border.
The train left just after 7am. We’d stocked up on food from the pretty ordinary supermarket the night before (supposedly it was a big one with lots of stuff, but had nothing actually useful to any of us). It’s always weird shopping in supermarkets where you can’t read the language. Most of the time you can get a rough idea from the pictures, but I did happen to get some bread rolls which turned out not to be bread rolls, but some kind of sweet cream bun. It didn’t go so well with the cheese slices (the only cheese I could find), but when I put some of the left over Russian jam on it, I was able to offer a makeshift devonshire tea to the guests on the train!

Grabbed a taxi that had “in-cab entertainment” (a tv screen in the back of the front seats for the back passengers!) to the train station and enjoyed some suprisingly traffic free streets. The streets around Ulaanbaatar were choked with traffic most of the time, even late at night.

in taxi entertainment on the way to the Ulaanbaatar train station

in taxi entertainment on the way to the Ulaanbaatar train station

So got on the train and found that it was a fairly modern one. We had some potential for in-train entertainment (there was a tv screen on every bed, but it never worked), it had a shower at the end of the carriage (but that was full of junk and didn’t work either), it had a sink with dish washing detergent where we could wash dishes and it had HOT water at the sink and toilets! WOW, that is a huge upgrade!

Complimentary cups and cup holders (which were to remain on the train when you left...)

Complimentary cups and cup holders (which were to remain on the train when you left…)

Traveled quite slowly through the rest of Mongolia – this train had a little info display at the end of each carriage which told us the altitude and how fast we were going. It was almost fascinating traveling slowly past the cities as you got to peek on “normal” life as people went about their daily lives, almost oblivious to the train passing so closely by. Cities in Mongolia were very few and far between though, the country is very sparsely populated (least densely populated country in the world). Scenery was still amazing through Mongolia – definitely a place where much more time could be spent.

Playing in the sand

Playing in the sand

We were running a bit late, but eventually made it to the Mongolian/Chinese border at Zamyn Uud/Erlian. The Mongolian border people were really friendly. They said hello and smiled. Guess they were happy we’d visited their little country. Train border crossing was interesting. They boarded our train, then took every passengers passport. We were the first compartment in the first carriage, so when they came back to deliver our passports (with another stamp, this time an exit one), the guard had a stack of passports as long as his arm. I presume they’d kept them all in order so they knew who to give them back to – ours were right anyway and I didn’t hear anybody else mention they’d got the wrong one. We even offered the Mongolian guards some of our food – but they politely declined. Guess they had a stack more passports to return…

You can just see the LONG queue of trucks to get into China at Zamyn Uud, must have stretched for at least 5kms

You can just see the LONG queue of trucks to get into China at Zamyn Uud, must have stretched for at least 5kms

After that, we were officially in no mans land. We couldn’t leave the train, not that it stopped anywhere anyway… and we slowly made our way a bit further on to where we were greeted by Chinese border officials.

We’d heard these guys were a bit more serious than the Mongol guards, but they did at least greet us. I guess if you walked into a compartment of people singing about being stuck in no mans land perhaps a good thing to do would be to say hello… glad they did. We stopped our singing and handed over our passports again. The guards collecting our passports left, but other guards were stationed in our carriage – in fact, just right outside our compartment. We were a bit careful about what we said for a while, just in case he decided to tell us off, or worse, throw us off the train, deny us entry to China etc… This is where it gets interesting.

Ever seen those movies where you have a train (or car, anything really), moving very quietly through the dead of the night, with guards on board, sweeping over a huge, dark area with spotlights? Anyway, that’s what happened next. The bogies on the train carriages needed to be changed, because Mongolia and Russia have a different guage (track width) to China. So with us still being in no mans land, it meant we stayed on the train to watch this happen. But to get to the shed where they changed it, we went through this huge railway yard with heaps of old carriages and empty bogies sitting in it. Every part of the yard was swept more than once with huge spotlights, looking for illegal immigrants trying to cross into China. It was like a scene from a war or movie or something. It was really eerie. Apparently carriages are normally searched for illegal immigrants as well. Because we were clearly tourists and therefore highly unlikely to be hiding illegal immigrants, they didn’t bother doing a thorough search, although as the guard came in at one point, he did do a pretty quick look round and up to see if there was anything (there is luggage storage above (plenty of room for a few people) and some below our seats – both out of direct line of sight.

So a run down of the bogie changing process: Undo the bogies, jack up the carriage, roll the new ones in, the old ones out, let down the carriage. Repeat for each carriage of a 16-17 carriage train. Thankfully the guard outside our compartment left at that point, probably a good thing, coz I’m sure he would’ve got a bit sick of watching over 36 people staring out the window as all this happened.

Changing bogies

Changing bogies

Finally – all done and off to China. Even though it took a while, I suspect that it took a whole lot less time than by road. The queue out of Mongolia at Zamyn Uud must have been at least 5kms long. Now our train picked up a bit of pace and we all went to sleep. The scenery coming into Beijing was totally different to that which was left behind in Mongolia. Perhaps not as spectacular as Mongolia, but it was good in it’s own way (until we got to the city). It just goes to show how far you can travel in a few hours to change from gentle rolling hills to high rocky mountains, clear skies to a smog filled polluted sky.

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Hustai National Park and the Ger

The Hustai National Park in Mongolia is not far from Ulaanbaatar – approx 100km and is home to the Przewaslki Horse. Viewing the przewaslki horse is a goal of any visitor who comes to the park. Coming into the park there is a large sand dune which we stopped at. Weirdly, there growing wild around the place was rhubarb! It wasn’t a weed, apparently it’s native and perfectly normal to find it growing there. I’ve only ever know it as something you’d grow in the garden, but there you go!

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

Their visitor center in the national park was quite informative and well worth worth stopping by if you had a chance. They also sell some souvenirs there and there’s a bit of a cafe, as well as some good toilets and showers to compliment the ger tents (traditional mongolian homes) that can be found there for tourists/researchers to stay in.

Ger camp at park headquarters

Ger camp at park headquarters

That afternoon we went on “safari”, on the lookout for the przewaslki horse. We had a few sightings, with the guides spotting a rather large herd away up in the hills. I’m sure they spent about 20mins trying to point them out to us, but eventually with the help of some of our photographic gear, we all spotted them. It never ceases to amaze me that guides in these places can spot wildlife seemingly so easy while the visitors (including me) seem to struggle. Safari’s here are different to safaris in africa, because over there you don’t get out of the vehicle. Here you can. Nothing really dangerous round here, except some wolves (supposedly). So not only did our guides get us out of the car but also sent us out exploring, as long as you don’t get too close to the wildlife (as in all national parks), you’re pretty right. Walking around the hills of the national park was great, and a bonus on the way back was rounding the bend to find a group of about 4 horses just off to the side sheltered in a little natural dugout. This actually proved one of the highlights, because there’s nothing like seeing wildlife in their natural habitat doing they things they normally do. So this time we watched as one horse tried to break his way into the other group, then literally being booted out with a double hind kick to the gut by one of the other horses!

No, you're OUTTA HERE!

No, you’re OUTTA HERE!

After that highlight, we headed off to our accommodation for the night. We were actually staying somewhere else, with a local family in one of their ger’s. I’m not sure whether they were actually in the national park or not, we did ask, but they didn’t really know, it seemed they didn’t even know where the boundary of the national park was!

Our hosts ger and animal yards

Our hosts ger and animal yards

They live a very simple life – there were 3 gers, one was for them, two for tourist groups, and only one toilet (a drop toilet), probably about 70-100m away from the gers (mainly for the visitors I suspect). They lived by the river during summer, which was when we were there, then in the winter packed up and moved to the shelter of the hills. They had herds of goats, some cows and horses. No power, some solar panels on the roof which powered some lights, mobile phone chargers and of course the tv!

Solar panel, satellite dish, tv inside...

Solar panel, satellite dish, tv inside…

We had some afternoon tea when we eventually found the gers (doesn’t seem to be any roads, just little tracks all over the place), spent some time with the kids playing archery and soccer and just watched the family do their normal farming stuff. Had some traditional mongolian food for tea – although didn’t seem too much different to African (in fact a whole lot less variety than there). Potato, rice and beef cooked in different pots, simple and filling. Amazing scenery, a great sunset and moonrise and a fire kept us entertained at night, which all added to the wonderful hospitality received from our hosts. It’s really hard to put into words the beauty of this place. For me, I love open spaces, I love standing on hills and staring in awe at the view and God’s creation. The hills of Mongolia are an area unlike I’ve ever seen and the simplicity of life would be compensated 100 times over by the view, . In winter however, I’m sure it would be a different story and the beauty of the surrounding area would become as harsh and isolating as the seemingly unending wind and snow. All I can say is if you ever get the chance to visit Mongolia and spend some time away from the cities, do it – whether you’re a scenic person or not, either way you’ll end up appreciating life a whole lot more. You’ll either be glad you don’t live there, or feel privileged to see some amazing views.

River winding away, national park in the background

River winding away, national park in the background

We left early the next morning to return to Ulaanbaatar, passing through some more amazing scenery, hills as far as the eye can see, but surprisingly very few birds and other animals around.

Back in Ulaanbaatar, there was a few hours left to do a few things – mainly grab some souvenirs. It poured rain here in Ulaanbaatar, water absolutely everywhere and flash flooding. Spent some extended time in the souvenir shop, but still not extended enough and ended up running home in the rain. Stocked up on food from the pretty ordinary supermarket (supposedly it was a big one with lots of stuff, but had nothing actually useful to any of us) and had a farewell meal at a local Mongolian restaurant to finish.

Downpour!

Downpour!

March 29, 2013

Stop Thief!

Continuing on my trip last year…

In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, I was staying in the Lotus Guesthouse, which was comfortable enough, showers and toilets were small but clean, although hot water was unreliable. Ulaanbaatar is said to have a central hot water system, with the hot water being piped through through the town to everyone, but it is meant to shut down during summer for maintenance. When I saw the entrance to the guesthouse, I was a bit worried about what what we’d find, but the dark and dirty stairwells are apparently the norm around this city (according to wikitravel). There was a small little corner store type shop in the middle of these high rise buildings, it didn’t sell much, but it did sell ice cream!

Blue door leads to our hostel

Blue door leads to our hostel

I spent today looking around Ulaanbaatar, starting in Sukhbaatar Square, then heading to the National Museum of Mongolia, which is well worth a visit. It is completed to a very high standard and gives a very detailed view of the history of Mongolia. Very interesting!

National Museum of Mongolia

National Museum of Mongolia

Had some lunch at a nice little cafe in Peace St, sitting on the second story veranda watching the people go by. Eventually got to the State Department Store just to have a look around. It was filled with reasonably expensive (and good quality) goods, you could get everything from souvenirs to camping equipment, as well as the usual clothes and makeup that you find in those stores.

Recycle your bag!  From the State Department Store

Recycle your bag! From the State Department Store

Went to the post office to grab some postcards and drop a quick post card to Mum and Dad (I’m trying to send them one from every country I go to). Interestingly enough INSIDE the post office there’s a sign that tells you to watch out for thieves. But it was outside the post office where I nearly had to yell “stop thief”! Got pick – bagged – well he tried. Seems he didn’t want my toilet paper and jumper. Actually I knew he was there, so I disturbed him before he got anything, but all he would’ve got was toilet paper and jumper anyway. Everything valuable was not in my bag, but I’d still prefer not to be a victim of petty theft. We had been warned that Ulaanbaatar was particularly bad for this kind of thing (hence the reason nothing valuable was in the bag) so all of us had been keeping a pretty close eye out and being aware of those around us. Kinda good to have a “somebody attempted to steal from me story” to tell I guess. Another thing to be wary of, as we experienced when walking home from our meal that night, is groups of kids. They’ll try to “ambush” you almost so they can rob/pick pocket and we could see them working together – one being sent in as a decoy to distract you or hold you up, then the others coming in. We got rid of them no problems, we were in a reasonably large group (about 10-12), but you wouldn’t want to be walking alone around there after dark.

Be careful of thieves - inside the post office!

Be careful of thieves – inside the post office!

Went to a performance put on by the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble, it was fairly good, we had front row seats! First time I’d ever seen a contortionist in real life and it’s a bit freaky how they actually get their body into those positions.

Contortionist

Contortionist

The Altai Mongolian Grill Restaurant was excellent that night. We actually got to eat some vegetables! It was all you could eat, so plenty of meat, noodles and fresh vegetables, we got to watch them cook it in front of us – and got to watch the chef mess up the sauces! You select your food and some sauce, then take it to be cooked on a huge grill with everyone else’s. They normally keep the sauce relating to your dish in front of your meal on the grill. This time he’d got a bit fancy and “moved” the meals along one place so the sauces didn’t line up. He didn’t realise til he got to the end with one sauce dish left over and looked around with a bit of a shy grin as he realised what he’d done. Was pretty funny. Definitely enjoyed this place, mainly because you could eat as many fresh vegetables as you liked…

One of the dishes I created at Altai Grill

One of the dishes I created at Altai Grill

There’s a cool Beatles tribute statue in one of the public areas there, kind of weird seeing it there as it doesn’t seem to fit in with the history of the place.

The Beatles Monument, Ulaanbaatar

The Beatles Monument, Ulaanbaatar

Anyway, here’s a few photos…

Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Continuing my St Petersburg – Beijing journey that I completed last year, mostly on the Trans Siberian/Mongolian Railway, my last post was in Ulan Ude, and today we leave Russia, heading for Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.

We stayed at the Ulan Ude hostel, a stones throw from Lenin Square, where the celebrations for the end of the car rally had gone on well into the night. We had an early departure time, and were departing by private bus to Mongolia, a journey of around about 12 hours, depending on time spent at the border. We made pretty good time, had a couple of stops along the way and thanks to an honest lady one of our fellow travelers still had is camera. Somehow, the guy who never put his camera down had put it down and left it in the toilet/shop at one place. Just as we were about to drive off, she comes running out and one very very grateful passenger who didn’t know it was missing, was reunited with his camera!

I’m not sure why, but many of the service stations down this way were barricaded up, with wire mesh on the windows and doors, like they were abandoned. In fact, if you didn’t know the area, you would presume they were. You could also see much more of a similarity between the cities of Asia and here, and in fact some places were even similar to some of the places in Africa.

Where do you pay?  Can I buy a drink?  Guess not!

Where do you pay? Can I buy a drink? Guess not!

At the border crossing from Russia into Mongolia: Kyakhta, Russia into Altanbulag Mongolia, we had nothing much to do except fill-in time. They had a restaurant there and all I can say is I’m glad I’d gone shopping the night before for some lunch because that looked much more appealing… However we still frequented the shop and the sales lady was quite fascinated with our love of Mars Bars. While you’re waiting at border crossings, you’ll do weird things… we gathered all our remaining Russian coins and bought as many mars bars as we could. But we went back about 4 or 5 times though as we kept finding more coins. Seems even some places don’t want the half rouble coins and we were given them back. She didn’t ask for any more money, probably realising we didn’t have it! That was a bit more entertaining than the music videos playing on the bus – somebody described them as “soft porn”. DHZAM singing “I’m from Russia” is one of the better ones. The line “I’m from Russia and all the girls love me” was the hook that got stuck in your head…

While the crossing wasn’t busy, it still took time – about 4.5 hrs for us to get through and out the other side. Our bus driver was on the ball though, and when a couple of buses tried to push in front of us (3 lanes into 1), he actually went and had a chat with the Russian guards. Next thing we know these other buses are backing up and in we go. The toilets outside the border are definitely not recommended, wait til you get to the Mongolian side, there’s some just inside the building, just before you actually get your passport checked and cross into Mongolia.

Toilets at Kyakhta, Russia - Mongolia border crossing

Toilets at Kyakhta, Russia – Mongolia border crossing

On the way out on the Mongolian side, you’ll be greeted by many money changers who’ll force themselves in to your vehicle. I changed my money inside the building at the Mongolian side and the rates were about the same. Just saves being hassled and harassed – and at least you won’t get (unknowingly) ripped off.

We stopped briefly in Sukhbaatar, the northernmost town in Mongolia with a Railway station in this area, then continued through the amazing rolling hills to Ulaanbaatar. It’s actually quite a contrast between Russia and Mongolia here, in Mongolia there seems to be a lot more productive use of the land. There were herds of different animals, the odd crop and at least people looking industrious. Coming through some areas of Russia, it looked like a lot of land was sitting there idle – guess they have so much of it in contrast to the Mongolians. This area of Mongolia definitely impressed me – rolling green hills wherever you looked, as far as the eye could see. Also, remarkably few houses (or gers) and people once you actually left the cities. I guess that bit is not so surprising given that is the least densely populated country in the world. I’m sure I could’ve find a place somewhere and spent ages just sitting there soaking up the amazing scenery. Definitely one of the highlights of my 7 odd weeks away.

Mongolian Hills outside Darkhan

Mongolian Hills outside Darkhan

We passed the Metal Man near Darkhan, placed there because there’s a metal factory nearby where many people work. (Apologies for the photo of metal man taken through the window.) We stopped at a roadhouse, and to the amusement of the locals, proceeded to order based on the pictures of the food. Seems it’s not only in Australia where the pictures on the menu look far better than the food in real life…

Metal Man, Darkhan Mongolia

Metal Man, Darkhan Mongolia

There were opportunities to buy some fermented mare’s milk from some roadside stalls, but we decided we’d have plenty more opportunities and continued our journey as it was getting late. Incidentally, we never did get another opportunity!

We finally got to Ulaanbaatar fairly late in the day, it must have taken us around 15 hours, including the border crossing. Coming into Ulaanbaatar reminded me of what it was like coming into Kampala. So much dust, so much traffic and noise and so little vehicle movement. They were re-doing one of the major roads into the city, hence the dust, bumps and traffic jams. Only difference was it was white dust instead of red.

March 17, 2013

Ulan Ude

Here’s some more on my Russian trip last year…

After our quick walking tour of Ulan Ude, we had about half the day remaining and decided to head to the Ethnographical Museum. We had the guide book to help us and headed off to catch some public transport there. The first mini bus didn’t want to take us there, and shooed us off his bus after we were nearly on. That’s fine, because we wanted a better one anyway… The next driver was nice enough to take us there and happened to have some locals who were going there as well already on the bus. The mini bus to the museum has to detour slightly to drop you off at the gate, otherwise it’s just a shortish walk from the main road. The mini bus was really cheap, so we got value for money there.

Stone work of Nomads

Stone work of Nomads

At the museum, you have to pay extra to take photos. Given my photos aren’t that good, perhaps I should have asked for a refund! Anyway, the Ethnographical museum has heaps of different styles of housing from the different people groups in the area. There is also a zoo there and a church, which of course was flat out with weddings. There was some strange arrangements of stones, which was meant to characterise the nomad culture of the central part of Buryatia. There were some teepee type dwellings, a Mongolian Ger, some old believer houses and others which I never knew what they were anyway. I didn’t tire of seeing sleds in the “sheds” though. It’s just something we don’t have here – I’ve been to plenty of museums, but never one in a snow country. So yes, looking at sleds in sheds and backyards was a bit of a novelty while I was there. The zoo – well, don’t go to the museum for the zoo. Although they have some different animals – yaks, camels, bears, tigers and deer to name a few, they live in very different conditions to what we have here in Australia.

Sleds in the "shed"!

Sleds in the “shed”!

Colourful Old Believer Gates

Colourful Old Believer Gates

After the museum, we grabbed some lunch at the next door restaurant. It was rather strange ordering, because nobody there spoke any english and I don’t think there was an english menu. So we just pointed, guessed and hoped we came up with something good. There was also a street vendor type guy there selling some meat on sticks (ok, hopefully it was meat), so we had some of them as well. Wish I had’ve got some photos of the meal that day, it was definitely different.

We caught a mini bus back to town and because it is a detour from the normal route, you will have to wait for a mini bus dropping others off at the museum so you can get on. We actually got on one going the opposite way back around the town, which was a good idea because then we got to see a bit more of the town. Except not long into this journey, the driver saw a mini bus coming the other way, bailed him up, kicked us off and sent us back with him. We didn’t get to see the other side of town after all!

Spent some time walking down Lenin St taking in some of the old buildings, the atmosphere and browsing the souvenirs and shops. Had some ice cream at a nice restaurant for arvo tea and an interesting meal at a local place not far from there.

Opera and Ballet Theatre, Lenin Street, Ulan Ude

Opera and Ballet Theatre, Lenin Street, Ulan Ude

That night they had a celebration out in Lenin Square. It was the end of the 2012 Tea Road China Mongolia Russia International Auto Rally (I took a photo of the sign!). They had extremely loud music til quite late. I was happy with the music, because it almost drowned out the snoring from the others in my dorm.

The end of the road in Lenin Square for cars in the 2012 China/Mongolia/Russia International Auto Rally

The end of the road in Lenin Square for cars in the 2012 China/Mongolia/Russia International Auto Rally

Tomorrow… the end of Russia and beginning of Mongolia. In blog world, I’m not sure when that next post will actually happen though!

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