Monday 4th November continued…
We were finally out of Russia. Kind of. Technically we weren’t in Mongolia either and the two attendants on our carriage were still the stern faced sterotypical Russian ladies Elena had warned us about in Moscow a week earlier.
Sometimes a country grows on you but for me and I think I can safely say the majority of us that wasn’t the case, though looking back at the pictures I certainly had some memorable moments. Russia appears to be a country of extremes both in terms of climate, scenery and attitudes. It is hardly a surprise that the older generation, e.g anyone that was over the age of 18 in 1991 will view tourists with a slight suspicion however in contrast the younger generation we encountered appeared more liberal, were enthusiastic to learn about other countries and were friendly. Unfortunately those born after 1991 are not yet working with the public which makes it a bit of an uncomfortable experience especially if you are alone.
The moment we had our first contact with a Mongolian I fell in love with the place. The immigration official smiled and asked us for our passports in English and we were all so dumb with shock due to the politeness we froze. She also asked if it was our first time as we handed over the passports. A soldier came to check the compartment and politely asked if she could enter (we wondered how she’d have reacted if we said no) and finally the customs official who took the scary looking forms we had completed did so with a friendly smile.
We had an early start and even though we thought the train got to the Mongolian Capital at 6.10am, the attendant appeared to take great pleasure in telling us it was actually 5.10am. As a result we made sure our bags were packed in advance and got to sleep about 10.30 with alarms set for 4.00am.
Tuesday 5th November
Bang bang bang. Knock knock knock. Bang bang bang. It was 3.30am. The attendant had a bigger glare than she’d had at any previous stage as she told us we had to get up (in Russian of course but we assumed that’s what she was saying). Chris said she’d made him try to go in the toilet even though he knew Sara was there and Callum thought she was going to make him ‘disappear’ when he handed her the coffee stained table cloth. I got shouted out because Gary had left the bedding outside the compartment and she thought it was me. I shook my head and shrugged my soldiers “Nyet” and the dragon retreated to her cave/compartment.
As predicted we were ready with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately as we arrived in Ulaanbaatar the Mongolian capital and started to disembark I realised a tin of Gary’s condensed milk had leaked out of our bin and left the attendants a leaving present outside the door. There was no time to clean it and the only reaction was to run away from the train before they realised.
Our honcho Odka was waiting for us and like Dimitri she had it all worked out: Bank, travel to Ger camp, have breakfast, sleep, walk, lunch, afternoon activity, dinner, relax/beer and bed. Sadly the 24 bank wasn’t fully open due to it being the birthday of Ghengis Khann the day before (so we couldn’t exchange money) but the intention was there.
We fell asleep on the bus and when we awoke we were at the Ger camp. I was sharing with Gary, Paul and Chris so we finally had a wolf pack den. After Paul had fully accustomed himself with the log fire we headed down to breakfast.
Once that was over the intention had been to sleep but the beautiful slightly snow capped location had re-energised us all and so we went for a walk. Callum and Fi went one way, Gary and Paul another. Chris walked on ahead and Sara decided to drop out leaving me and Clare to support each other. Eventually Paul and Gary caught us up and Chris came back down. Finally we made it and from our view point we could see Callum and Fi on the other mountain. A bit of Rocky was played – fast becoming the tours soundtrack and then we set up my camera to get a picture of the 5 of us and ‘the two kids’ in the background.
Coming down was faster and at times it was easier to slide. As we approached the bottom it had felt to easy and all of a sudden I was lying on my back with one leg in the air and the other causing a domino affect on poor Clare. Luckily all the layers of clothing meant I survived with nothing apart from (another) bruised ego and a bruised elbow.
Returning to the Ger we did try to get some sleep but after a while I had to use ‘the facilities’. I feel I have to mention these because they were quite central to the Ger camp experience but i would also advise the following paragraph is probably not for lunchtime reading. Basically the ‘toilet’ was a hole in the ground which was nothing unusual but the smell was particularly bad, the lock didn’t work and in the day there was little light (the electric light only worked at night). I was therefore in a hurry and didn’t realise my coat pocket was unzipped. In a sudden movement to leave I caused my mobile to drop out of the pocket and turned to see it heading for the abyss below. ‘Luckily’ it landed only half way over the hole and whilst it was gently balanced I was initially scared to breathe in case that pushed it over. The hole later tried to unsuccessfully claim FI’s glasses and Chris’s trainer in other bizarre and unlucky circumstances.
Next we went to lunch where I was particularly greedy and had the Mongolian carrot salad, Mongolian soup and Mongolian dumplings. All were delicious and the portion sizes were particularly generous. Odka said the Mongolian attitude to food is big portions and small prices. My kind of place.
After this we were told about the activities for the afternoon one of which was to visit a nomadic family. All of us except Sara also decided to go horse riding for an hour beforehand. The horses didn’t have names because they were wild but I opted to call mine Ghengis. Odka also told us the human population of Mongolia was 2.8 million and the horse population was over 4 million. 80% of the country was also not inhabited.
Apparently the horses that Gary and I had were particularly good and fast so the guide led them for most of the journey. Callum’s horse appeared to have taken a fancy to mine and they had a kiss each time they were next to each other. Sadly his horse wasn’t as quick and whilst it clearly wanted to follow and keep up with mine it eventually gave up and decided to start heading home. He tried to make it turn back but it appeared the horse had made its mind up and for a few seconds it looked like Callum might disappear over the sunset alone. Luckily after coming to a stop and looking rather sad on its own the horse turned around van rejoined us.
It was amazing to have the opportunity to travel through a country renowned for its horses on horseback and the scenes were stunning. I was surprised that the national park had quite a few buildings dotted around but we later we told these mostly belonged historic nomadic tribes that had permission from the government to live within the park.
After the horse riding we visited one of the families that live in the national park. The lady provided us with Mongolian tea various types of snacks made from cheese/curd and little biscuits. I tried it all but personally I didn’t enjoy any of the curd snacks. We had brought gifts from a local store and Clare played connect 4 with the ladies grandson (letting him win of course).
We also had the opportunity to ask some questions with Odka acting as translator. Gary asked about her thoughts on the future and the lady said she was optimistic that due to the small population money from mining the natural resources would result in more equal wealth and develop the country. Paul also asked whether she felt this would have an impact on local traditions and she agreed that the younger generation were sadly less interested in the traditional lifestyle as they moved to the cities.
By now it was getting dark and when we got back to the Ger our fire had gone out so we decided to go straight for dinner. After dinner Clare read us all one of my blogs as a bed time story and we went back to our Gers which were now warm as the fire lady had restarted the fires.
In the middle of the night the fire lady came back which made me jump and i had so many layers on I felt to hot. As a result I decided to go outside in to the snow and take some pictures of the stars and Paul who had also woken up joined me. The photos weren’t that successful but I was able to cool down and get back to sleep.
Wednesday 6th November
Next morning after breakfast we got some pictures dressed up in traditional Mongolian costumes and then boarded the bus to return to Ulaanbaatar. First though we visited a giant statue of Ghengis Khan on a horse – the largest horse statue in the world. It is hard to describe just how big the statue is but the horses head was about 3 floors off the ground and the panoramic views of the snow covered mountains from the top were spectacular.
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar in the middle of a huge traffic jam. It appeared the Mongolian people were very friendly except it seemed when they were behind the wheel of a car. In order to keep congestion down the government had passed a law which meant drivers could only drive on certain days. Unfortunately for our driver he hadn’t realised it was Wednesday and therefore he shouldn’t have been driving. His licence was therefore taken by police and we remained stationary at the side of the road whilst he tried to resolve the situation. He must have done so in the end because after a while we were back in the traffic jam.
Eventually the traffic eased and Odka took us to a war memorial which commemorated ‘various unknown soldiers from various wars’. As we approached the final set of the 400 steps Chris put Rocky on again and me him and Paul ran. Possibly because of the cold my lungs struggled and I spent most of the time at the top coughing. From the top of the memorial we could also see the Buddhist park which was still under construction though when we’d read the leaflet we’d wrongly assumed it was already complete.
Gary was due to meet the president of the Mongolian law society because the Norwegian law society had provided sponsorship and support to their Mongolian counterparts. Odka had therefore at very short notice been able to facilitate a meeting. Unfortunately this meant they had to miss lunch. Me Callum and Fi went to a lovely vegetarian restaurant where we got a meal and a drink for under £3 each and met the others later.
After doing some other errands in town we visited the sukhbaatar square where the main government buildings were located and went back to the hotel. After finally having a shower we were back out again this time on our way to a traditional Mongolian culture show.
I found it really enjoyable to hear the traditional throat singers, to hear the traditional instruments and to see the different dancers. There was also a contortionist who was particularly amazing and her finale was holding herself up by her tongue.
After the show we met two other groups on a similar tour one of which was going to Russia. Unfortunately they probably took a dislike to us because we wished them good luck with the train attendants and we may have sounded a bit negative about our experience. Luckily after we had dinner at the hotel we saw them again and this time introduced ourselves properly. We were therefore able to provide each other with advice on what to do in Russia and Beijing respectively and how best to get around.
During our dinner we had a shot of Mongolian vodka which is meant to be nicer than Russian vodka though I wasn’t convinced and when drunk straight both tasted equally nasty. Returning to my room I reflected on the fact that stage one of my journey was almost over and by the following night I would have crossed the Chinese border. Really this is just the beginning.