Sunday, June 28, 2009


If you remember, I should currently be somewhere between Mongolia and Russia on my train journey, so this week to keep up to speed, I am going straight into the brief overview for Mongolia. In stark contrast to China and Russia, Mongolia has developed into a paragon of democracy since the end of communism in 1990. Free and fair elections have become the norm here, with voters overturning the ruling party three times in succession since 1996 - a fact that has made Mongolia a darling among international lenders and the donor community. Mongolia’s reversal of fortune is most evident on the streets of Ulaanbaatar, where Korean taxis and Land Cruisers have all but erased the Russian Lada, and where fashion boutiques and elegant restaurants have made ’dollar shops’ a distant memory. Despite this only half of Mongolians have access to clean drinking water and one-third still live under the poverty line. Infrastructure across the country is rudimentary and important economic sectors such as livestock husbandry have proven susceptible to natural disasters. 11 million heads of livestock were killed between 1999 and 2002 in the wake of bad winter storms. Increasingly Mongolia has turned to countries such as Japan, Germany, the US and the UK for assistance in redevelopment. Whilst in Mongolia I hope to experience the changes as the society becomes, if not westernised, at least more open to world influences, and also experience the traditional side if life for Mongolians both in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, and by living in a Ger (yurt) camp for a number of days.
I must explain that although I am travelling on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, the main track leads across Siberia and is known as the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Mongolian section is one of a variation of offshoots that takes the traveller into a realm of unknown possibilities and cultures. However, most of these countries are so strictly controlled, you cannot move around as freely as you would in Spain or the UK for example. Plans have to be made in advance and invitations to stay in hotels must be purchased otherwise you can’t move anywhere legally.
Starting in either St. Petersburg or Beijing, the whole Trans-Mongolian Railway journey takes 7 days non-stop and covers a distance of 7,865km. I will be travelling east to west against the normal trend (and therefore losing an hour on average every three days as each time zone is re-crossed back towards GMT). I have scheduled stops planned in each country to break up the journey, in an attempt to understand the myriad of countries, landscapes, peoples and cultures of such a vast area of the world. I hope to include images, photographs, colours and views taken in along the way, and even touch on the culinary experiences at out-of-the-way stations, with the possibility of menus and cookery tips for readers interested in trying something new. Finally - some etiquette in case you ever find yourself there and don’t know how to behave.

Mongolian Etiquette
When meeting Mongolians or visiting a ger (yurt), note the following customs and habits:
Avoid walking in front of an older person, or turning your back to the altar or religious objects (except when leaving).
If someone offers you their snuff bottle, accept it with your right hand. If you don’t take the snuff, at least sniff the top part of the bottle.
Try to keep ger visits to less than two hours to avoid interrupting the family’s work.
Don’t point a knife in any way at anyone, when passing a knife to someone ensure that the handle is facing the recipient, and use the knife to cut towards you, not away.
Don’t point your feet at the hearth, at the altar or at another person. Sleep with your feet pointing towards the door.
If you have stepped on anyone, or kicked their feet, immediately shake their hand.
Don’t stand on, or lean over, the threshold, or lean against a support column.
Don’t touch another person’s hat.

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