Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Day 11 - 20th July 2009

I awoke again around 6am. My sleep patterns had been erratic to say the least with all the time changes and jetlag, and still had to reset themselves. I watched as we gently rolled along through the countryside and observed it change from trees and green hills to numerous ‘dacha’ - Russian weekend retreats where the city dwellers escape to and tend their vegetable patches, used to supplement their diets and attempt to reduce their monthly overheads. As we drew closer to Irkutsk, the city described as the ‘Paris of Siberia’ the landscape became more concrete and factory based. You could feel the human influence creeping in. We slowed to walking speed as we entered the station area and crossed track after track.
About half a kilometre from the station we stopped abruptly. I thought perhaps we were waiting for a train to move off our section of track further up and sat looking out of the window at the people in the train beside me. They sat disinterestedly for a few minutes then slowly one by one they moved over to the windows on my side of their train to look out at the carriage behind ours. I moved over to our compartment window to see what was of interest and saw a small crowd of people being ushered away across the tracks by state police. When I looked down onto the ground I was shocked to see a dead body lying next to our train. It appeared to be the body of a man and going by the state of his clothes had possibly been homeless. His dirty bare feet pointed towards me and he lay face down but I couldn’t see his head from my viewpoint. His left foot showed some trauma as though it had been hit by a train. It was sad to see such an end for someone.
I don’t know how or why he died but if it had been our train that had hit him I think all passengers would have been interviewed. This wasn’t the case, so shortly afterwards we left this man alone, save for the investigators to trace his last movements, and slowly and solemnly we pulled into Irkutsk station.
The sun was shining but there was a heavy mist rising from the large river that ran through the city. A sombre impression on our arrival into this new place and our first major contact with Russia.
We gathered our rucksacks and were met by Dmitri, our main guide on and off over the next few days. A friendly character of former soviet military stock who seemed far too laid back for a career in that field. Instantly we were made to feel welcome and he dispelled the myth that all Russian people displayed a coldness that we in the west found standoffish. After a quick tour through the city we were taken to our accommodation. A home stay on Lenin Street. We were met by Alex, also a young former soldier but now a computer programmer. He took us into his parent’s apartment which was a mix between Soviet era style d├ęcor and the beginning of a move towards western eclectic tastes. The mother, we later found out, was at the family dacha over the summer, while Alex and his father worked during the week and supposedly went to the dacha at the weekend.
Although you could tell there were certain restrictions in lifestyle, whether money based or simply personal taste, this felt like a middle class family home. A few more luxuries than you would have expected to see. The home stays provided much needed income and I noticed that the bedrooms that we stayed in had new PVC windows fitted while the rest of the apartment was still awaiting much needed renovation. A very comfortable stay and a vast improvement on our Mongolian experience. Once settled in, and with Alex’s permission, we put our clothes in the family’s old washing machine for some much needed laundering. We made a reccy of our position in the city. We were right in the town centre on the crossroads of Karl Marx Street and Lenin Street. The buildings were colourful and ornate, and such an unexpected surprise. We found prices jumped up significantly though, compared to our previous countries, when we went for a coffee - €4 each!
Walking down by the river Angara later we stopped in a flashy hotel that we knew had internet access. While we sat outside with a coffee a bullet-proof security truck pulled up. Three burly, heavily armed guards with automatic weapons jumped out and made sure the area was clear for their clients to safely enter the hotel. We waited to see who it was - some aging politician perhaps or a fat-cat industrialist? No, just a young couple, her with handbag and him curiously with a small vacuum cleaner. They were followed by one of the armed guards with a large rectangular shaped canvas bag. The guard and young man came back out about 10 minutes later, this time with the canvas bag and a computer keyboard, but minus the woman! What did it all mean? Intriguing…. Perhaps the young man was a multimillionaire eccentric or a cleaner-upper after a major espionage incident? I like to think he was the latter.
Either way we got bored of speculating and left to enjoy other pursuits on Karl Marx Street, namely sushi. We were finding prices went up the further west we went and this bill was no exception. We could barely have had enough to fill a hole in your tooth and the bill came to exactly 1350 Roubles (about €40) which was ironic as I had been reading about Lenin during the day and the little known fact that the registered weight of his brain after death was also exactly 1350 grams.
Also ironic was the fact that we were staying on Lenin Street and that outside the apartment was a statue of the man himself. The link between Lenin, Irkutsk and raw fish has now been welded into my brain. Anytime I think of either of these subjects in the future I will always mentally relate to the others in my head involuntarily.
Sitting out in the little park below the apartment while being overlooked by Lenin’s oversized brain, we drank beers and counted Lada cars as the sun went down. An exciting night. There was at least one Lada a minute drove past Lenin’s statue. That‘s 1350 Lada’s in 22½ hours (a little known fact you can use at dinner parties - courtesy of me).

Day 10 - 19th July 2009

Woke up in SukhBaatar on the Mongolian/Russian border. Another hot day with 25 degrees toasting us in the compartment. It was 6am and all movement had ceased. The station area was quiet and I wondered how long the train would wait at this place until we went through our customs checks. I stepped off the train to find that not only were we not going, but that all sections of the train, the engine and all carriages in front and behind had gone! We were sitting in the station alone - just one carriage!

What was going on? Asking the attendant (or Provodnitsa) how long before we would get going, she said ’Five’. ‘Five minutes? That’s okay then’ I showed her my watch. No, no - five hours was the impression she gave me. Five hours in nowhereville? Such are the train timetable differences between countries; and so we sat for hours as the heat became oppressive.
We could get off, and frequently did, but there was nowhere to go and nothing to do except watch an old man stand on the platform looking at the carriages.

He was undernourished and poorly dressed and appeared in need of sustenance, but seemed too proud to ask for help. He never once put his hand out or pleaded for alms, just stood waiting for something to happen. A Russian man in the next compartment went out to him and they started talking. After a minute the Russian motioned to his wife to pass down some cigarettes which he then gave to the old man. Later, before we left the station, the same Russian passed some bread rolls to the old man which he gratefully received before opening his overcoat and putting the rolls under his armpit to keep for later. All the time he kept his dignity. A far cry from the ‘professional’ beggars that we so often come across in towns and cities across Europe.

By 11am it was all go and the platform filled with lots of people with even more bags. Our carriage had been reconnected to an engine and we even had a couple of other carriages join us. A load of big buxom Mongolian women got on the carriage with bag after bag after bag of purchases. Everything from knickers to flip flops, and large inflatable beds to cured sausages similar to giant chorizos. The woman who came into our compartment was amiable enough and seemed pleasant. She would say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you very much’ over and over again in English. Admirable words and enough to make friends anywhere. I could only say thank you in Mongolian so I was at a slight disadvantage.

She was sweating profusely and seemed quite excited and agitated. She would jump up and down and run from the compartment to talk to her compatriots in other carriages. Then as we started to make our way to the border crossing through green fields and tree lined waterways I offered her some of our food. I had heard that sharing your food and drink was normal practice on the Russian rail network, so I figured it would be welcoming for me to offer her first. She graciously accepted and wolfed down everything offered and finished with a ‘thank you very much’.
Within 15 minutes she began tipping out her bags and produced 10 whopping great foot long sausages on strings. She handed me three of them and I thought what a wonderful gesture. I said ‘for me?’ She nodded and said ‘thank you very much’. I said the same and was touched by her generosity. Then she shook her head and pointed to the window. I didn’t understand. She removed the sausages from me and took the curtain pole off the window frame, then slid the strings along so the sausages were hanging from the pole. After replacing the pole in its holder she pulled the curtain around the sausages so they couldn’t be seen from the inside of the train. As she did this for the other side of the window it finally dawned on me that she was a smuggler.

Sausages were hidden all over the compartment along with bottles of booze, clothes and electrical items. She moved them around the seats so it looked as if they were ours as well. We watched incredulously as she smiled and kept saying ‘thank you very much’. As the first set of customs officials came around - Mongolian - she talked her way round any problems as did her partners in crime in the other parts of the train. Passports were taken in no-mans land and scrutinised as before on the China/Mongolian border. We sat for ages waiting for their return. During this time more soldiers and border guards stood outside the windows to prevent escape. Searches of every possible orifice in the train was carried out again and again, just to be sure. This smuggling was even bigger business than the monastery!

Finally, passports returned, we slowly moved into Russian railspace and just as slowly stopped a few hundred metres up the track. Passports were studied and taken, customs clearance forms filled and refilled and stamped, questions were asked of the regular and obviously familiar faces of the smugglers.

Cabins were searched and re-searched. Yet no-one saw the sausages behind the curtains! One bag remained unclaimed in another compartment and a Mongolian man was taken in for questioning. Our girl, whose bust size had now increased dramatically with 20 pairs of knickers stuffed in her bra, got away with it. She relaxed and stopped her sweating as we pulled into the little station of Nauski, our first Russian settlement. I thought that maybe she would have given us one of her sausages at least considering that she had used us as a human shield for her pork products, but no. All she said was ‘thank you very much’ took everything away and scurried off to leave us with curtains smelling like a butcher’s shop.
We got off the train to be told that we were stuck there for another few hours. There were little wooden stalls outside the train station. I recognised one of the things that were for sale - SAUSAGES! The same sausages I had just shared my first Russian border crossing with. Another long wait in the relative no-man’s land of border crossings and we were eventually re-connected to another train. It was 4.30pm. It had taken us 10½ hours to cover about 5 kilometres. A long day doing very little. Before this we had been on GMT+8 hours to tie in with China and Mongolia.
We went to the restaurant car, an old fashioned affair like something out of the old movies; all dark wood and heavy green velvet curtains. The man who ran it, a big Russian with a deep vodka voice informed us we were now on Moscow time. In fact it was MT+5hours, which was the equivalent of GMT+9. An hour extra even though we were further west.

We passed our first Russian graveyard, all fences and light blue paint. Incongruous, but pretty in a way. Why blue paint we wondered? We retired to bed with the window slightly open to take out the last sausage fumes and during the night it rained in on our heads. Ending the day with thoughts about the Russian dead in the graveyard, little did we know that we would begin the next morning with death on the rails upon our arrival in Irkutsk….

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Day 9 - 18th July 2009

10am start. This was another train day but not until 9.30pm. We walked into the city centre for some brunch after our last lovely warm shower for a while and left our bags with reception to be collected at 6pm. After taking the necessary snapshots we had a delicious brunch overlooking an ancient monastery right in the centre of the city.
It was tucked behind some modern buildings. At least they were when the Russians built them in the 1960’s. After handing over 55,000 tugrugs (the Mongolian currency) for lunch I felt heavier in my stomach but a lot lighter in my pocket.
We walked through the city in scorching heat, such a difference to the cold, wet night in the ger. Again, there was absolutely no point in trying to decipher the Cyrillic hieroglyphs to work out where we were going. The map had pictures of buildings that we used as pointers and we made our way up to a wonderful old monastery still in use. 150 monks live and work in the surrounding buildings and it was interesting to see them going about their traditional business. What was strange was to see monks in full regalia and a mobile phone stuck to their ear.
A direct line to God perhaps? I hope their credit was good. We continued into the grounds after paying an entrance fee and looked at all the people either spinning row upon row of prayer wheels, or holding onto what looked like a telegraph pole without the wires.
Each building was in a certain state of disrepair but still quaint and colourful. The older people looked as if they were perhaps potentially making their last pilgrimage to the place. They were respectfully dressed and hobbled along with their families to help guide them.

Finally we went up to the main monastery and went into the darkened doorway. Inside the body of the church, in fact filling the body of the church was another giant body.
The biggest Buddha I have ever seen, 26 ½metres tall. That’s approaching 100ft! It was incredible. Absolutely breathtaking and totally unexpected.
Golden in colour, it rose over four floors high, going by all the little balconies built around it and was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of prayer wheels. In such a relatively small space, by church standards, this was no mean feat. We walked around the clockwise flow of people turning the wheels and praying. On some of the prayer wheels people had taped the names and birth and very recent death dates of their loved ones so that each prayer whispered by devotees could somehow transfer good feelings to their newly deceased.
In one corner a monk was making large beeswax candles, obviously to order, as there was a lot of cash changing hands. The candle was then put on the altar and lit for the customer. Big business. You were not allowed to take photographs of the Buddha in such a religious place - unless you paid the attendant an absolution fee first of course. Everything has a price, even access to deities.
We left the monastery and took a short cut through the Mongolian equivalent of the Beijing hutong. A mix of shacks and lean-to’s on the outskirts of the city. Although this area was pretty rough the majority of people seemed quite well dressed considering. The first street we started walking down had a group of young men standing pestering an old Mongolian in national dress. He was slightly drunk and one of the men pushed him roughly away while his friends laughed. We backtracked and took the next street instead and arrived back at the main road without mishap.
Still too early to collect our bags we stopped in a local restaurant just to kill time. A coffee and beer later, we returned to the hotel for our bags and took a taxi to the train station.
Another two hour wait twiddling our thumbs and the train arrived. During that time we were able to watch the comings and goings of train station life in Ulaanbaatar. Nomadic herdsmen in traditional dress waited for trains with their families.
One man had skin like an old leather jacket. He looked about 60 but his wife was barely 30 and his children were not much more than toddlers. Perhaps he wasn’t all that old himself but the harsh lifestyle obviously took it’s toll. Stalls lined the platform selling all manner of dried foods and soft drinks. Bright, colourful bottles filled with E-numbers and additives lit up in the setting sun. We entered the train and thankfully we were lucky again to have a four berth compartment to the three of us. Much more relaxing than having to share a space. This was the train that would take us into Russia in seven or eight hour’s time. I wondered what to expect.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Day 8 - 17th July 2009

2am - The heavens opened and Chinggis was on the warpath. Torrential rain soaked the felt gers and drips started to come in through the roof at the central point. I got up and lifted all the bags and rucksacks off the floor and onto one of the empty beds to keep them dry. The fire was out and it was decidedly colder. I gladly got back into bed to warm up and promptly fell asleep again. 5am - I dreamt I could hear drips of water very close to my head and could almost feel the odd splash back circle my head. Then the real thing started dripping on my head like a Japanese/ Mongolian trade agreement water torture. I jumped up with a start and my pillow and head were soaked. I had to use one of the other empty beds and tried to get some sleep with what was left of the night. After a basic but adequate breakfast, we went to a ger museum where the attendant, an old man in traditional costume, showed us around the equivalent of a camp used in the time of Chinggis Khan. The main ger was surrounded by nine other gers, four on one side and five on the other. Each was dedicated to elders and relatives of Chinggis throughout the years. It was interesting to see all the artefacts but the guides grandchildren stole the show as they insisted on coming with us into each ger.

It’s possible of course that they were his children. Life was hard there, so perhaps he was actually a lot younger than he looked. The older boy was dressed in traditional costume and his little sister was a natural poser with her cute chubby Mongolian features. The old guide passed me some snuff to try and I felt like it burnt all the hairs off the inside of my nasal cavity. The snuff was passed around and one of my travelling companions mad a faux pas by trying to pass it back to the guide between the two upright posts. He was horrified but thankfully explained that nothing should be passed between the posts as this signified the entrance to heaven.

We went outside and were asked if we wanted to try our hand at archery. Of course, we said, and I did wonder about the safety of the offer, as where the targets were, we had previously entered the arena area. What if some other groups arrived as we let go a volley of badly aimed shots in their direction? Thankfully, the arrows had rubber tips so no danger there. After a few false starts we managed to at least get the arrows to go in the general direction of the targets, but we would never make great marksmen in the next Mongolian invasion. As we were leaving a wild and dangerous bareback horse race started with mostly young boys as the jockeys. This was part of the Naadam Festival that is held every year in July.

We had missed the main event by days but this was one of the country offshoots that would take place during the rest of the month outside of the capital. Every year horses and riders were killed in these literally breakneck races across the plains. To die in a race like this was considered a great honour. I passed on the chance to be so honoured. A bumpy ride back to the capital saw us dropped of at our dream hotel. Again there was a guard armed to the teeth watching the door. Was it so dangerous here?

The clouds began gathering again as we headed into town to look around. The second deluge of the trip hit us just as we passed a restaurant bar and we ducked in out of the way. A good excuse for an early lunch. Okay but not great, but at least the local beer was decent. We sat for two hours until the rain eased and ran down the street into a bookshop. Some art book purchases and coffee later we ducked and dived between the cars determined to soak us in the big lying puddles. We had a dilemma. Do we go back to the hotel and lie down or just go on out for dinner?
The large Irish pub on the corner ‘The Grand Khan’ called out to us and beckoned us in. Four hours and three bottles of wine later, each at a cost of 23000 tugrugs, we staggered out thinking how wonderful Ulaanbaatar was. One of our party, a 23 year old student got a note passed to her in the bar by one of the waitresses with an invitation from another customer and with a telephone number on it. She was a bit embarrassed but decided that maybe that was the way that dates were arranged in Mongolia. Needless to say she didn’t phone the number. Later, the author of the note built up the courage to come over and speak to her in person. An amiable Mongolian man around his early thirties introduced himself as Mogi. After a brief exchange he got the message that she wasn’t interested and wished us a pleasant onward journey anyway. We left the bar and headed towards the hotel. Then we got lost, couldn’t work out the street names and drunks and slow passing cars were calling out to us in the darkness. I like to think the drunks were just amiable drunks, and the car drivers were no more suspicious than illegal taxis but we took no chances and made our own way back as quickly as possible. Glad to be back behind the door watching guards we went to bed tired but happy and expecting the hangover from hell to come knocking at the door in the morning.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Day 7 - 16th July 2009

07.30am start. Warm shower! Dream hotel. Breakfast not supplied. Our Mongolian guide picked us up at 8am for an overnight stay at a ger camp. Garditours - the tour company of the previous day’s accommodation had arranged for minibus pick up and run to Terejl, the national park some 80km from the city. The roads were even worse than in China, and that’s saying something. We bounced and bumped and weaved and swerved our way through the traffic of four wheel drive jeeps and old wrecks of Soviet era trucks. It was a society of two halves. Very noticeably so. The haves and the have nots. I wondered though, those who had the money to buy big jeeps, did they live in fancy apartments of gers on the outside of the city. After bumping along for half an hour or so we stopped at a very flash hotel that had even created it’s own beach on the side of a river that ran through it’s grounds. Prices were the equivalent of a four star in London or Madrid. Expensive, but not out of the question. However, by Mongolian standards it was a month’s wages for each night’s stay. We picked up a Danish and Romanian couple, lawyers who were doing the Trans Mongolian the opposite way to us.
Another hour and we arrived at the national park. A breathtaking region of big rolling grass hills punctuated by rugged peaks and rocky outcrops. The further we went into the park, the more dramatic the rock formations. They grew in stature until they dominated the hills in the valleys. The sun was shining and it was a crisp day. Perfect for ger living. We stopped at a mound of rocks with a wooden pole sticking out of the top. This was covered in colourful pieces of cloth that were tied on. The guide explained that people would make wishes to the air and water gods for good luck and then tie something to the pole, walk three times round the stone pile in homage and lift stones from the bottom and throw them somewhere near the top of the pile. This was meant to cement their wish and helped create a living statue of sorts that would always change shape according to the people who made wishes and took part in the little ceremony. On the hilltop, just behind the stone mound were three tourist gers selling the usual tat that you would expect to see at any tourist spot.
Then it was onward to our next tourist style destination. The aptly named ‘Turtle Rock’. This rock stands proudly in the basin of the surrounding mountain range and is very impressive. Weathered and shaped by winds and winters it looked like a gigantic turtles head. Around it flew a number of majestic eagles.
They flew with such ease, not a wing beat, simply riding the thermals rising from the surrounding rocks. The would swoop down as low as our heads before rising sharply up again on the lookout for fresh food. Of course there were the usual tourist attractions as well, dromedary camel rides and horse rides. I was surprised there weren’t turtle rides as well.
With no takers for rides, or fridge magnets, we finally moved on towards our ger camp. On the way we passed the ger camp advertised on the Garditours website. We were expecting a traditional ger camp set up - and got it - so no complaints there, but their website showed photographs of access to a nearby hotel / guesthouse with, I quote ‘exotic hot swimming pool, Jacuzzi and sauna, bar and restaurant’ That wasn’t what we went for, so we weren’t disappointed with that., but more with the false advertising. We kept going however, past other reasonable camp sites. They were dotted all over the valley. We were wondering how much further we had to go. The camps got thinner on the ground and a little bit rougher the further we went.
Finally we turned into one of the camps. A simple site with a communal circular wooden hall for meals, a toilet and shower block with the shower door locked so we couldn‘t use them, and about twelve or so gers, each brightly painted with linoleum on the floor. Felt circular tents that had a fire and chimney stack placed in the middle between the two upright posts holding up the ger. Around the perimeter were placed five single beds with one inch thick mattresses. The pillows were sealed cloth bags filled with dry beans. Comfortable enough actually. We were called to lunch - a little salad, then some kind of soup and followed by a beef (or horsemeat) stewy thing and a scoop of rice. We had to buy beers at an exorbitant price to help wash it all down. Edible but not spectacular. The Mongolian people, primarily nomads, do not as a rule grow vegetables. They eat meat in winter that they have fattened up during the summer grazing, and come summertime, they eat dairy products mostly - milk, butter (usually rancid), cheeses, natural yoghurts and of course drink AIRAG - fermented mares milk. Airag, when stored for a few days, goes sour and lumpy. After straining the curds off through plastic bags with holes punched into them, the liquid becomes mildly alcoholic, about the same strength as beer. It was sold unregulated by the bag or bucket on just about every street corner, but I just couldn’t bring myself to try it.
The troops decided to go on a horse riding trek for an hour while I caught up on my journal. Peace and quiet. After they returned walking like John Wayne, we went for a walk up the nearest hill. Amazing rock structures heavily weathered over thousands of years gave me wonderful ideas for my paintings. At the top of a flat section of rock I found a skeleton. The backbone and ribs and hips were visible but no skull that I could see. Not sure what sort of animal it was, but for a moment it occurred to me that this was what happened to troublesome tourists. They just disappeared if they complained too loudly.
Back down in time for dinner, a couple of beers and then afterwards sitting outside the gers to drink in the scenery. We invited the couple we had travelled with into our ger, now officially called the ‘Party Ger’ along with a couple of Dutch girls who had been at the camp when we had arrived. Supplies were short but at least we were long on laughs. A bottle of vodka or a few beers would have been better but the official kitchen / bar was shut and in darkness. One of the local kids came in and lit the fire for us. Earlier it had seemed we wouldn’t need a fire lit but the nights get cold so high up, even in July. Wild party over by 11pm, we were glad of the heat when we settled in to our beds for the night to dream of being Chinggis (not Gengis) Khan’s warriors.