Thumper…

September 12, 2013

Lilongwe, Malawi

Filed under: Russia,Trips,Uganda — pearsey @ 5:19 pm
Tags: , , ,

After my big trip last year to Africa and Russia, I wasn’t planning on doing much at all this year. In fact, I still haven’t blogged much of the African part of the trip last year, so going on another journey so soon wasn’t even on the radar. But sometimes our best laid plans change, so when I was asked by a couple of friends to go to Malawi, after a bit of hesitation, I was convinced to go. Of course you can’t go to Africa for a couple of weeks, so this trip became a hastily organised, rather short 5 week trip! That brought the total to more than 12 weeks of leave I’d taken within 12 months, so yeah, this time I REALLY won’t be going anywhere for a while until I accumulate a bit more annual leave again…

So where did I go this time? Back in mid May I headed off to Malawi, Uganda and Madagascar. The onward journey home saw me spend a bit of time in Kenya as well! After numerous requests, I have finally got around to posting about some of it – or at the very least, I have made a start.

Relaxing in Bangkok Airport

Relaxing in Bangkok Airport on an extended stopover

Just to get to Lilongwe was an effort – I went via Thailand, Kenya, Zambia and finally landed in Malawi at Lilongwe. It was great to get off a plane into brilliant sunshine. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I was wishing the brilliant sunshine would be hidden by a cloud… Three planes of people happened to arrive at the same time. This airport wasn’t big enough for 1! It took more than an hour to get through customs, and half that time was spent just trying to get into the airport itself. No problems getting through customs once I got to the front of the queue and I collected my luggage, not so fortunate was one of my friends whose bag did not make the journey to Malawi today. Met up with the rest of our group, Andy and Malee, at our accommodation, Korea Gardens Lodge. After some lunch, a trip to the bank and the supermarket filled in the rest of the day. In many ways Lilongwe was a lot like Kampala – dusty, plenty of rubbish around, contrasting lives of the rich and poor and the sales guys harassing you to buy at the markets. But it was nowhere near as chaotic, nowhere near as many people and (the Ugandans won’t like this), but the people seemed more friendly in Lilongwe. It was a much more relaxing place to be – I felt safer there and it didn’t feel like I needed to look over my shoulder every 2 seconds for somebody trying to rob me (like in Kampala or Ulaanbaatar) (although it always pays to be alert).

Wet Cement surrounding the ATM at the bank in Lilongwe...

Wet Cement surrounding the ATM at the bank in Lilongwe…

The next morning the familiar African smell of burning plastic drifted through the window welcoming me back to Africa. No need to worry about breakfast, the Korea Garden Lodge served up a great breakfast, which was included in the price of the room!
Today’s agenda was simple – take a look around Lilongwe and get some supplies for the next part of our trip. We caught a private taxi to the Lilongwe Wildlife Center, a refuge for animals (and people) in the middle of the city, mostly a place where they’ve taken in some injured animals and look after them to release them (if possible) or give them a home. Everything from owls, crocs, lions and monkeys dwell here, to some natural park area alongside the Lingadzi river. The river flows through the middle of the reserve and also separates the Old Town and City Centre of Lilongwe. We were shown around by a young girl who knew her stuff about the wildlife – whatever question we threw at her she could answer – hopefully she is able to find paid work (she was volunteering full time) as she did a very good job.

Lingadzi River

Lingadzi River

The taxis go right past the wildlife center, but not many had room for the 4 of us on the trip back. Not to worry, a smaller car pulled over and offered us a lift – we negotiated a price, then as we opened the door, to our surprise the drivers wife (who was laying down on the backseat) sits up looking a little startled that people were now climbing into her car. It was rather tight (even by African standards) in the back seat there, but they made some money out of a journey they were making anyway and we didn’t have to walk! Back to the old town center for some pizza for lunch and then a tour of the supermarkets so we could stock up. I made a mental note to be sure I came back here for some of the cakes they were baking fresh in the store!

Advertisements

April 1, 2013

Beijing and home

Sunday I woke up, opened the curtains and nearly fell over. There was BLUE SKY!!!! BLUE SKY IN BEIJING!!! Almost unheard of! Ev and I spent this day out at the National Stadium – aka Birds Nest, the venue for the Beijing Olympics opening/closing ceremonies, athletics and soccer finals. Walked around the Olympic precinct there, it was extremely hot and humid in the morning, but still, with blue skies above, I wasn’t going to complain.

Birds Nest Stadium from the Olympic precinct

Birds Nest Stadium from the Olympic precinct

Took a tour inside the stadium, which is just like any other really (although I suspect the Chinese would not say that) and they had plenty of Olympic displays there, including highlights of the opening and closing ceremonies running on the big screen for the visitors to enjoy and a wax museum of Olympic presidents.

Inside the Birds Nest

Inside the Birds Nest

Outside there was an honour roll of every Olympic medalist, including the Paralympians. Got the impression that the Beijing Olympics wasn’t just an “event” for China, but something that they have marked as a turning point in the history of their country.

Olympic Rings

Olympic Rings

The food court tent there was enormous, it must have been at least 100m long. The most interesting shop was one that sold insects on skewers. It had the most people gathered round it, but it wasn’t doing a roaring trade! Really enjoyed looking around the Olympic area anyway, definitely the highlight in Beijing for me.

More delicacies ready to eat

More delicacies ready to eat

Sunday we went back to the Silk Market, but I didn’t really buy anything at all (two small things as a present). There were a lot more people than the day before and it almost seemed like the stall holders were intentionally trying not to sell anything – didn’t see many people buying at all. That night, my last in Beijing, a few of us headed to Ghost street. Heaps of lanterns on the street, it looked really good. Food was ok too and yep, big screens set up in and outside most of the shops with the Olympics playing! You could only imagine what it would have been like when Beijing actually had the Olympics there – the atmosphere would have been amazing.

Lanterns in Ghost Street

Lanterns in Ghost Street

So Beijing – spent way too much time in McDonalds (the coffee lovers tell me they had good coffee there, plus they had the Olympics on the tv) and KFC. Beijing has improved a lot for visitors since I was there last (before the 2008 Olympics) and it’s still hazy, crowded, polluted but at least not as much spitting, smoking and it does seem a whole lot cleaner.

Olympics in McDonalds

Olympics in McDonalds

Caught the shuttle bus out to the airport – we scoped out the departure point the night before and I can say that I’m glad we did. We had a bit of trouble finding it then, seemed like anybody with a scrap of english had left town and my chinese wasn’t quite up to scratch yet! We left with plenty of time to get to the airport and find where we had to go – which was a good thing, we went to 3 departure check in desks before we got the right one… That wasn’t really our fault, the helpful staff kept sending us to the wrong one. There’s not much to do at Beijing airport though, if you’re hoping to fill in a few hours browsing the shops before your flight, you may have a problem.

Flew out from Beijing to Guangzhou on an A380. That is a very nice plane. Managed to get a couple of bonus hours in the A380 – we got delayed in Beijing and spent 2 hours sitting on the tarmac after preparing for takeoff. The captain announced he was sorry for the delay – I reckon only 90 seconds later we were in the sky. No announcement, just bang, we were screaming down the runway and 10 seconds later off the ground. The poor hostess was delivering some water to the people in front of us and as soon as she felt the plane move she literally ran for her seat. By the time she got buckled in, I think we were off the ground! After the delay we got rushed through by the airline to make our connecting flight. We all got to the gate there and they said oh yeah, this plane’s been delayed as well, it’s not even here yet… Oh well, meant that our luggage made it to this next flight…

A380 ready for takeoff

A380 ready for takeoff

The last leg of the journey home was uneventful. It ended with me doing some of the exercises that China Southern get their passengers to do when the plane’s not far off landing. It’s funny looking around seeing everybody doing their best to copy the people on the video.

Homeward Bound

Homeward Bound

And with touchdown at Melbourne, so ended a 7 and a half week odyssey and a journey of contrasts that took me from little villages in Uganda to little villages on the opposite side of the globe in Russia and Mongolia, a journey that saw me leave one continent to visit 3 others. I saw things and went to places that many people won’t get to see/visit in their lifetime. I canoed around one of the lakes in Uganda, saw hippos, crocs and elephants and then traveled the Trans Siberian/Trans Mongolian Railway line, one of the great railway journeys in the world. Some things are common to people around the world, regardless of where you are and that is people in 3 continents making the best of their life with all the hardships that go with it and without all the luxuries that are taken for granted in Australia.

For the record – I did the Intrepid Russia and Beyond trip, which I can’t link directly to as it seems they don’t do it anymore. They have similar trips, mine was an “original”, which means you have plenty of time to look around and do your own thing, but the benefit of having a guide around if you need it and your transport/accommodation organised for you (which is often just public transport with the locals).

Now, for those who are waiting, yes, now that I’ve finished the Russian section of my trip, I will get back and post some details of the Ugandan trip!

Beijing!

Made it to Beijing, off the train for the last time, bringing to an end the epic 6000km train trip from St Petersburg Russia to Beijing China, which started on my blog here. Then to look around. For me it was a repeat visit to Beijing, so no visit to the wall this time. Saw Tienanmen Square again – a couple of extra big screen tvs (like huge – makes our “outdoor big screens” look miniature) – I suspect seeing as the opening ceremony of the London Olympics was on this night, they were having a gathering to watch it. There was certainly something going to happen, we were screened to get into the square (that may be normal now, I don’t know) and plenty people were making their way there.

Tienanmen Square

Tienanmen Square

Our group farewell meal that night was at a restaurant I’d actually been to 6 years ago! I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s tucked away in some side streets not far from the Beijing City Central Youth Hostel where we stayed. The meal was good then, as it was this time, and not a lot had changed in the restaurant. That night, in keeping with capital city tradition on this trip, it absolutely bucketed down as we were leaving the restaurant. We finished up in Macca’s opposite the hostel for coffee and ice cream, which accidentally became a bit of a haunt for us these few days in Beijing.

Farewell Meal

Farewell Meal

Spent the Saturday morning shopping at the silk market – bargain hard with these people who are out to sell fake stuff to westerners at high prices. Don’t be afraid to walk away. Got a few good bargains though – a pair of ski pants for about $38, a few t-shirts and stuff like that. Spent a bit long shopping there, so had to really hurry back as a couple who were in our group were due to catch the plane pretty soon. Helped them pack (read madly squeeze last minute bargains into already overfull packs).

Too much shopping!

Too much shopping!

In the arvo Ev and I went to the temple of heaven and had a quick look there. I know we didn’t get to see it all, but a lot of what we did see was just overgrown gardens (by Chinese standards). Saw some people singing in the park inside. They were actually quite good. That was until they started singing jingle bells. We’d had Jingle Bells played to us on the bus a few days ago (just after crossing into Mongolia), so we’re like what’s with the jingle bells at this time of the year…

Tennis at the temple of heaven

Tennis at the temple of heaven

We went for hot pot that night for tea, a restaurant tucked away in the basement of the shopping center opposite our hostel. It was not as good as the night before, so after that we headed back up stairs to finish with some supper at Macca’s… I was just there to watch the olympics on the tv’s they had there! Actually that was one thing, the Olympics were playing everywhere you went. Train stations, shopping centers, big screens in public places – you were never too far away from the action. There were 3 channels to choose from on free to air tv and they showed sports that we never get to see in Australia, although the commentary and writing on the screen was all in Chinese and just like every other country, they mostly showed their own athletes…

Watching the Olympics at Tian Tan Dong Men Station

Watching the Olympics at Tian Tan Dong Men Station

Found Beijing subway/metro to be much easier to get around on this time round. The Olympics were good for Beijing in that respect – they have made the town much more accessible for non Chinese speaking tourists – English is written underneath in many places, including all of the subway.

Ok, I’ll leave it there, and finish off Beijing and my trip evaluation in the next post!

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.

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!

January 20, 2013

Departing Irkutsk for Ulan Ude

Filed under: Russia,Trips — pearsey @ 7:23 pm
Tags: , , , ,

My last blog update was here where I spent the arvo hanging around in Irkutsk.

After our evening meal and having a bit of a clean up in the bathrooms, we headed off to the station to catch the train for the next part of the Trans Siberian journey. This section of our journey was an overnight train from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude. Unfortunately for me, perhaps the most scenic part of the Trans Siberian, the part around the lake and shore of Lake Baikal would be completed in the dark.

Angara River Bridge in Irkutsk

Angara River Bridge in Irkutsk

Our train tonight was one of the newer ones, but still farily standard with the facilities – a vaccuum toilet with a wash basin and 6 bunks per “compartment” (no doors) with two bunks in the corridor opposite each “compartment”.

Obviously no doors means no privacy and no security.
So here’s where I describe the next intersting encounter with the people in the Irkutsk area.

Generally on the train you have a bit of a “lights out” type situation – a bit like being at school camp almost! The main lights go out, then you’re left with minimal lighting til the wake up call the next morning.

This partuicular time, not long after the lights had gone out, I joined a couple of others in the queue at the toilet. I hadn’t been there too long before a policeman (or train security) came up to me to have a chat. “Chat” is used loosely, because I don’t speak much Russian…

So he starts talking to me… and talked away. I looked blankly back at him… eyes getting wider, face getting blanker the longer he talked. The more I did that, the more
he talked. I’d like to say I had some idea what he was talking about, but I had no clue. The closest I could come up with was that perhaps you weren’t allowed to go to the toilet after the lights went down on this particular train. (But then why wasn’t he talking to the others, so I wasn’t convinced on that one.) So when he’d finished, I shrugged and said questioningly “English?”. He sighed, rolled his eyes and proceeded to repeat his tirade, this time with hand gestures, which included patting his body and pointing toward the bunks. So I slunk off toward my bunk and thought maybe I’d sit there a while and see what happens. Then I heard the lovely policeman having a “chat” to some of my friends in the next compartment. So once he’d gone from there, I headed in to see what he’d said. Yes, the irony of that is that they don’t understand Russian either, but I was hoping that maybe they’d be able to shed more light…

Turns out that one of our travellers had left their ipod out on their bed. He’d noticed it and assumed that it was mine. When I’d gone back to a different bed, he obviously realised it wasn’t mine and gone and talked to the correct people. It was a huge relief to know that I could go to the toilet…

Next morning we woke in Ulan Ude. Even though it was early (7am), we headed to our hostel, hopeful that for the first time since leaving Moscow (7 days ago), we could have a shower (apart from those who had found one at Novosibirsk station four days ago). Imagine our disapointment when we arrived at the hostel to find that there was one shower. ONE shower between 17 of us and those who were already there. It was nice of the hostel to allow us to check in early I guess. We settled in for a long wait… one shower… so many people… I guess at least they had a good common room and it was fairly central. Lots of tourist info and the hosts are very helpful. (For the record it took nearly 3 and a half hours for us all, plus other guests to get through. And yes, I was one of the quick ones!)

So while we were waiting, a couple of us went for a wander round Ulan Ude. Think we found all the dodgy places that exist there… Down by the river we found the drunks and homeless, the area littered by broken glass and rubbish, overgrown weeds and the footpaths and landscaping that were there, was in serious disrepair. On the walk back we found the seedy area of town, with the dodgy looking bars and some “beauty parlours”. Despite that, you didn’t feel unsafe, but perhaps that was because it was morning – later on in the day it may be a different story.

Rubbish near the Uda river edge

Rubbish near the Uda river edge

More on Ulan Ude later on…

January 18, 2013

Whirlwind tour of Irkutsk

Irkutsk – Weddings, churches, honey show, markets, wooden buildings, sculptures, interesting locals and oh yeah, weddings!

Pig Pastries at the market, Irkutsk

Pig Pastries at the market, Irkutsk

Wooden houses, Irkutsk

Wooden houses, Irkutsk

We had an afternoon to look around Irkutsk, and no agenda, no idea what to see and no idea where to go! As we had been “dumped” at the museum, that’s where we decided to start. So, we headed into the Volkonsky’s house at the Irkutsk Region Historical and Memorial Museum of Decembrists. We met some lovely (cough cough) locals here. I’m sure the museum staff were lovely, they just haven’t quite mastered the art of charades yet. So consequently we had absolutely no idea what they were trying to tell us or get us to do. Despite being shooed from one room into another (the best we could figure out was that there was an order to the rooms and we’d gone the wrong way), we eventually managed to find an english version of the life story of the Volkonsky’s. Great fun was had reading that out loud as I assumed the role of Narrator on the museum tour, I’m sure if the other visitors had any idea what we were saying they would have got quite a laugh out of it as well, instead of just laughing at us…

Irkutsk Region Historical and Memorial Museum of Decembrists – SG Volkonsky’s manor house, Irkutsk

Irkutsk Region Historical and Memorial Museum of Decembrists – SG Volkonsky’s manor house, Irkutsk

The Volkonsky’s were exiled to Siberia – and we were under the impression that they had lived a hard life. We figured that surely the house had been done up later on by somebody else. But no, the Volkonsky’s had turned their life around and turned out to be quite the aristocrats of Irkutsk, holding many social functions with the well to do in their house. And by the way, the house had been moved from another location, not now, but in the 1800’s! Who’d have thought they had that kind of technology back then! The house even had it’s own indoor greenhouse, growing quite exotic plants for Siberia. Some of the plants were rather originals I think, but even after a few weeks in Russia I still hadn’t quite picked up enough Russian gardening words to figure out what one of the staff was trying to explain to us. In the end, she actually entered the greenhouse and pointed out the pineapple. A pineapple growing deep in Sibera. Who’d have guessed hey?

Pineapple, Volkonsky's Manor House, Irkutsk

Pineapple, Volkonsky’s Manor House, Irkutsk

Wandering around the streets of Irkutsk we stumbled on markets, with all the fresh berries, food, fruit, nuts, baked goods and pets you could want. Yes that’s right. Right on one of the footpaths there were all kinds of pets for sale, all kept in conditions that would nearly make even the most hardened animal hater cringe. This area of town had many old wooden buildings from a by gone era lining the streets. I’m not sure how some of them were still standing given the angle they were at, but they were.

Berries at the market, Irkutsk

Berries at the market, Irkutsk

We dropped in to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Church, where we met some more wonderful locals. As I remember the incident, I just sit here and say Oh dear… I can’t remember if we had to pay or not, I’d be guessing not otherwise we’d probably have left. There were 3 of us, but for some reason Ev was singled out to wear a pretty head scarf. None of us had hats on, so I’m not sure how come she had to wear one and not the rest of us… We had a good chuckle at Ev anyway. This church was being done up on the inside when we were there (about July 2012) so there was plenty of scaffolding and work going on. We found one of the ladies to ask whether we could take a photo and when she didn’t speak english, we decided to get one of the younger ladies there to ask for us. I’m not sure she spoke english, but she understood enough of what we said to figure out what we wanted. She went up and asked one of the old ladies for us. I feel a bit sorry for the young lady coz she got a 30 second (no kidding it was that long) lecture in Russian before coming back to us looking totally confused, shrugged her shoulders and left us with the old lady. After a lot more of an exchange (ok, no exchange, just long long sentences from the Russian lady at us), we figured out that we could take photos but she arranged us in the place we could take them. Maybe it was the better angle, who knows. We sat on the steps outside for a bit and just as we were heading off, one of the old ladies comes running outside after us. We’re wondering now whether you weren’t allowed to sit on the steps, but this lady actually knew a few words of english! She didn’t know much except hello and goodbye, but we did learn she was from Holland and perhaps it was their best attempt at trying to help us leave with a more positive memory of them.

Inside the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Church

Inside the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Church

After that experience, we decided no more Irkutsk churches, so we steered clear of them. Around in the square near the theatre we stumbled upon some flower stalls, КвАс (kvass drink) and a honey show. Ev, the only brave one to try it, reported that the kvass drink was very very ordinary, and thanks to google, we found out that it is a fermented drink made from rye bread with a low alcoholic content. The flowers though were excellent and the honey show was even better! Free samples of honey, entertainment from singing bears and bees and songs in Russian promoting the honey market blasting out from the platform! Quite a find and I got some Russian honey as a souvenir!

Honey with nuts!

Honey with nuts! A great souvenir.

We headed toward the Angara river, stumbled upon another exhibition in Kirov square – the sculpture exhibition, admired the buildings and then we got to attend the Russian weddings. A gangster theme, quite a few traditional ones and the most stunning pair of wedding “dress” pants I’ve ever seen – only because I’ve never seen a bride in pants before. Only problem with these pants was it left NOTHING to the imagination. It was just like looking through a window.

Wedding pants - not the best angle to highlight the "window" effect of the pants...

Wedding pants – not the best angle to highlight the “window” effect of the pants…

While there was plenty happening around the banks of the river, there’s nowhere to eat at all down there. We thought there’d be heaps of cafes – ok, even just one cafe or something like that around there to eat at – but nothing. Should’ve learnt that lesson from other Russian cities, I guess. Maybe three months of summer is not enough to sustain a business year round, but every other place I’ve been to that has a river has places to eat alongside it.

Angara River, with Moscow Triumphal Arch on the left (big cream rectangular arch)

Angara River, with Moscow Triumphal Arch on the left (big cream rectangular arch)

We ended up eating at a place opposite Kirov square, can’t remember the name of it, but something english and it had good food, a good bathroom and was showing the tour de france!

Lovely lasagne!

Lovely lasagne!

The railway station was next on our timetable and the Irkutsk locals hadn’t finished with me yet – but more of that later!

Some highlights of Irkutsk.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.