Friday, August 21, 2009

Day 6 - 15th July 2009

6am - Early start again! I thought this was supposed to be relaxing? This time I was started from a deep sleep with the arrival into a small somewhat insignificant village in the Mongolian section of the Gobi desert. Yet in a way it was the first and most significant place in Mongolia for me. I looked out of the carriage window from my bed to see a row of little wooden houses unlike anything I had seen before in real life. It was like something from the American Wild West. A rough unforgiving landscape of dry brush and houses dotted around a barren platform. There were a few workers in view although most seemed to be nursing the leftovers of yesterday’s drinks. Quite a desolate place and yet at that moment it felt like the richest place on earth to me. China was behind me and who knew what was to come? Although we were officially in the Gobi desert, it was not what most people would associate with a desert type landscape, by Sahara terms at any rate. After the initial excitement of waking up in a new and undiscovered land of unknown potential I couldn’t get back to sleep. I lay looking out of the window and taking in the dry and slaked landscape, took photographs of nothingness and read up on the shape of things to come. Almost immediately I noticed Gers, or felt yurts or tents dotted around the landscape, along with the ubiquitous rolling clumps of bushes, like tumbleweed, you see in the dustbowls of the movies. Coupled with this was he vision of what seemed to be free running wild horses across the plain.
Apart from the obvious facial differences of the locals I wouldn’t have been surprised to see ‘the Duke’ ride into view packing his six shooter and Winchester. Eventually I got up from my daydreaming and tried to do something constructive. After wakening one of my compatriots, we went for breakfast in the, now Mongolian, buffet car as much to let the rest of the compartment continue to sleep in peace as for sustenance. Breakfast consisted of two pieces of dried up bread, a pat of butter, some jam, and a cup of pre mixed coffee, milk and sugar - no choices. Strangely, it also included pickled carrot shreds with garlic shards as well. An unusual combination. A far cry from the delicious Chinese meal a few hours before. Already I could feel a western influence on the diet, but was it a good one? Time would tell.
We had to walk the whole way from the back of the train to reach our carriage at the front. I hadn’t noticed any problem with smoke from our carriage when I got up but as I walked back along each of the other carriages I noticed each one was absolutely filled with smoke! Maybe smoking is ‘de rigueur’ in Mongolia I supposed, but why not in carriage number 1? Was there such a thing as a non smoking car policy? As I moved forwards choking slightly, I noticed a lady whose head was wrapped in a towel covering everything but her red rimmed eyes. Perhaps a Muslim lady sporting a burka? No, just to escape the smoke. I realised as I went further forward that the smoke was coming from the engine labouring to pull us through the desert. For some reason the heavy thick smoke was being redirected into the carriages behind. Being in carriage number 1, we were too close to catch this residue and thankfully escaped suffocating during the night. The more we travelled into Mongolia the more the landscape became desert like. Green foothills struggling to survive in adverse conditions - dry and a blisteringly hot 30 degrees in summer, down to minus 40 degrees or even minus 50 degrees in extreme winters - just beggars belief or understanding from a temperate European dweller like myself. It was still very hot: hot enough to have just a pair of shorts on - and barely that. The only way to survive was for the compartment door to be fully open to the views of all and sundry, and the aisle windows to be open also. What we didn’t realise was that the more we ventured into the country the more the Gobi encroached.
Within a couple of hours the landscape had changed to little villages sparsely placed amid full desert plains. With all the doors and windows open we were slowly engulfed with a mini desert of our own. Some of the party who had fallen asleep looked as though they were testing some kind of new facial exfoliate product on one side of their face, given that it was covered in a fine layer of sand. The sandy layer covered bedclothes, seats, pillows, anyone sitting long enough in one place and just about every other surface imaginable. It was a stark choice. Get hot and uncomfortable, or sand blasted and uncomfortable. Some choice. We opted for the mid ground. We made a brief stop in the dreadfully challenged village of Choir (probably pronounced CHO-EER as opposed to a collection of heavenly voices) and saw some children trying to sell crystals and coloured rocks on the platform. The moral question arises - do you buy or not? I personally think any help is better than no help. The majority of people who sell ‘The Big Issue’ in the UK need a helping hand. As they say, it’s a hand up, not a hand out they want. This is my philosophy also. We bought some of the stones much to the chagrin of our fellow passengers, a French couple. I felt that they disapproved of our haggling for a better price. Still, the kids went away some money in their pockets for what was essentially lying around on the ground in the village.
As we approached Ulaanbaatar in the final 100km or so the landscape began to change again to rolling green hills marking the end of the western edge of the Gobi. Horses and gers began to make their presence felt more noticeably on the landscape. Trees began to appear as we rose slowly higher and higher, to the highest capital city in the world. With each upward curve came a drop in temperature. Shorts alone became shorts and T-shirts, then T-shirts and jeans, then jumpers as well. By the time we began to enter the approaches to the city it was raining lightly and decidedly colder. The most surprising fact about Ulaanbaatar was that the written guides only gave about 10 or 20 main streets on the map of the city. This gives you the false impression that it is extremely small. Actually there is about 600,000 or more people living there - approximately half the population of the whole country. That’s about the population of my home city of Belfast. In reality though, the outskirts are nothing more than hundreds and hundreds of ger camps. The round felt covered tents that the nomadic people favour. The city centre itself - the city centre of permanent buildings that is - is slightly bigger than the maps suggest but is in such a rough state that it’s very hard to consider it as viable for inclusion in the map. Roads are almost as challenging as the driving. I shall never complain about driving in Spain again….
Stepping off the train we gathered our backpacks and extra bags together and looked for the guide who was supposed to meet us. No show. That was okay though, as we had directions as to how to find our accommodation. The regally named ‘Tiara Guesthouse‘. Surely a jewel in the crown of Mongolian guesthouses? Sadly no. We walked with a couple of other travellers who informed us that they already had a run in with bag slashers at the train station. Thankfully nothing of value was taken but it was sobering lesson nonetheless. Never let your guard down. Following the directions to the letter we arrived at an extremely run down and garishly pink coloured apartment block in one of the back streets of the city. A mistake in the directions perhaps? No, over the main entrance door of the post-war communist block of flats was a small sign saying Tiara Guesthouse.
The tour guide company that held our onward train tickets to Russia was in the next apartment to Tiara. The guesthouse itself, and I use that word very loosely, was multiple dorm accommodation. I had no problem with that really but the fact that the front door was in all but pieces and barely lockable didn’t encourage much faith in their security. The toilet facilities were atrocious, with holes around the pipe work, and to top it all no hot water… My party went to complain about this last issue - we had been sweaty and dirty and sandy across one desert and two countries and really needed a shower badly. They were told by the management that there would be no hot water until mid August! Cold showers were had all round but I’m sorry to say I had to complain in person about the situation. I used all my diplomatic skills but got nowhere and am slightly ashamed to say that I felt obliged to mention that I was writing about the trip for a certain newspaper. Instantly the doors of hospitality opened and we were showered - metaphorically - with goodwill gestures. Another young Dutch couple told us they had complained the day or two before had been offered a couple of free trips and accepted them in lieu of hot showers. We were offered the equivalent of a four star two roomed suite at a city centre hotel. I accepted the offer graciously and we were taken by the managers in person to this hotel for top class treatment. WITH HOT WATER! I can’t help but feel that these tour operators take a chance on the unsuspecting young traveller who hasn’t the sense, or the authority of age to argue their point. The operators then charge ridiculous rates for poor quality conditions and make a relative fortune on the backs of the usual student traveller types.
The new hotel room, while not the Ritz, was a dramatic improvement on what had gone before. Why did they bend over backwards so much? Well, we found out the next day, but that’s another story. Back to today - as a traveller you always try to be aware of your surroundings and your first impressions are usually right. The hotel reception was on the first floor of yet another downtown apartment block and the door was guarded by a heavily armed private security guard hired directly after the completion of the latest Rambo film. The upper floors contained the hotel rooms. We were on the top floor and I realised that apart from the main staircase outside out door, there was no other escape route in event of fire. We were so tired by this stage that we just didn’t care any more. We had a hot shower in the new hotel room just because we could! Wonderful. Then out into the Wild West streets of Ulaanbaatar.
In all seriousness, there was a threatening feel to the place. A lot of drunken persons about and most things in disrepair - cars, buildings, roads, paths, people. On day one I felt vulnerable. I had no guide, and a language that I couldn’t read or understand. Streets became alleyways, cars slowed down to look at you, especially at night leading to a certain level of paranoia that was probably unjust. By day two in UB (as it is called by ex-pats) we had settled down and accepted the place somewhat, at least during the day. I would say that after a week it would seem home from home. Learn some of the language, learn to read the signs and the place would open up before you. So don’t always go by your first impressions. The guide map we purchased was so haphazard that you went by pictures of the buildings you were looking for. They tended to be down side streets and alleyways or behind buildings in out of the way places you could never find. We had dinner in a recommended restaurant ‘The Silk Road’, named after the route we were more or less following from China towards Europe. The old camel drivers route for transporting silk and tea to the European teahouses and shops of cosmopolitan Europe. A terrific meal totally out of keeping with the style of the rest of UB and way beyond the normal price range, but on our first night in town it gave us some much needed westernised comfort. After an uneventful early walk back to the hotel while still daylight we retired to bed instead of finding another bar for a drink. Just too many culture shocks for me in one day.


Rolfe Bautista said...

your blog is very interesting. I love what you are doing!

Rob Innis said...

Tj - Fascinating. I think the photo of the arm handing the money down to the locals is a very powerful image.