Thursday, September 25, 2008

Reflections on crossing the globe

If there is one thing that I have learnt from this trip is that when it comes to tourism there are a large number of factors that can make or break a place that have nothing directly to do with the place. For example:

1. Preparation: For some people, going in unprepared is part of the adventure. The unexpected often brings the most brilliant of moments. We met a couple of people at various points who were having visa problems, I don’t think that is the type of adventure that anyone wants. We spent a lot of time researching and planning and it paid off. The “Russia Experience” were excellent and we enjoyed our various homestays, were impressed with the personal guides and were relieved to have all our tickets and accommodations booked for us without being part of a big tour group.

2. Company: It is always more fun to travel with someone and be able to share your experiences, provided things don’t’ go awry! Gideon and I have had our moments when we’ve been tired or hungry (mostly me) and a lot of patience has been required, but mostly it has been wonderful to have someone else to depend on and get excited with. The people you meet can make a place truly memorable, eg. Our nomadic host family or Mongolian train friend

3. Weather: Without a doubt sunny skies are how I like to travel. Helps make those photos look better, even if you have little skill! We’ve had only one or 2 days of rain over the last month, and one of them, our cold day in the nomadic tent made it one of our favourite days of the trip.

4. Attitude: You really have to get in there and “grab the bull by the horns” so to speak, it definitely makes the experience more enjoyable and less stressful. I don’t know if it is my age, laziness or snobbiness, but I am not sure if there is much of the intrepid traveler left in me. While I don’t think I will ever completely lose the travel bug, there is something to be said for the comforts of home or a good hotel! We have met some travelers who have definitely inspired me. Lisa, our American friend who we spent much of the first half of the trip with, spent six months learning Russian before the trip (in addition to studying for The Bar), and it showed. Thanks to Lisa, we were able to go to a restaurant and not end up ordering the boiled ox tongues. Brook and MianXin, the Kiwi we met had a wonderful optimistic outlook and love of trying new things which makes almost any place or situation enjoyable. There was Simon, the 20 year old from Melbourne who conversed with the locals with his little Russian, constantly trying to learn more. While we did learn a few basic words in Russian, and I learnt to read the Russian Cyrillic, I feel ashamed that we barely made an effort in Russia to learn the language. I think it would have made a difference.

5. Sheer luck & Timing: We booked our trip for the dates we did purely because it was when we were due to leave the UK. As a result we had near perfect weather, we missed the ticks at Lake Baikal, we experienced a proper Mongolian BBQ and experienced Beijing post Olympics. On the other hand there are some things that are destined not to go your way, e.g. trying to find deep friend scorpions in Beijing. Although, of course, often bad luck or bad timing can be offset by good preparation (see point 1) or good attitude (see point 4).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Project Peking Duck

My expectation of Beijing was that old image of the crazily manic streets filled with cars, motorbikes, hundreds of bicycles, pedestrians and lined with old ugly run down apartment buildings. How wrong I was. Perhaps having the 2008 Olympics made all the difference, I will never know. Regardless, I was impressed and thoroughly relished our short time in Beijing. The city felt new, clean, spacey and bright.

We arrived at Beijing train station a little unprepared and bewildered. Gideon (no pointing fingers) thought we could walk to the hotel so we were looking to buy a map. Outside the station was chaotic. People everywhere. None of the vendors had English maps and all the information booths were closed. We were surprised, but later discovered the Paralympics didn’t start for almost a week yet. Extremely frustrated with our heavy packs, we finally found a map at a hostel and discovered the hotel was a fair walk. So we caught a taxi. Annoyingly the address we had for the hotel was an English translation of the street name which of course the taxi driver did not understand and my limited Chinese could not explain. In the end we rang the hotel and all frustration was quickly forgotten.

Knowing that we would have been traveling full-on for a month, Gideon had booked us a very swish hotel for our stay in Beijing. With a 3-for-2 night deal, we splurged out on a room at the 5* Westin. I think the hotel alone would have made our trip to Beijing a great one. The room was amazing. A huge king sized bed, ‘rainforest’ shower, complimentary bathologist, slippers set out for us at bed time, free wifi, immense breakfast in bed, an extremely helpful concierge, etc. etc. We were so impressed we didn’t leave the hotel for the rest of the day!

The following day the hotel organized a car for us to go see the Great Wall. The driver only spoke a smattering of English, although he did use “Oh my Gaaawwd!” a few times on passing a couple of inexplicable car accidents. It gave me another chance to practice my Chinese. While I was surprised at how much Chinese I have remembered from 10 years ago, I am also aware just how bad my Chinese is too! The plan was to go see The Wall and the Ming Tombs, then be back in time for dinner. On the way there, the driver asked me something about buying some things (I couldn’t understand what) for friends back home and whether we wanted to make a stop. I shrugged and said yes!

Unsure what to expect, we were somewhat suspicious when a young lady met us at the front of the building and started explaining how traditional copper and enamel potter was handmade on site, taking us through the work shops. We were then taken to a massive sales room, explained the significance of different items and then told we could then purchase some samples (of course!!). I can honestly say we were completely sucked in and ended up spending a lot of money there. I wondered whether the driver made a commission??

Chang Cheng – The Great Wall of China
WOW. WOW…. WOW! My jaw is still hanging open. It is completely understandable why this is one of the Ancient Wonders of the World. We were taken to MuTianYu a small reconstructed section of The Wall that was a little less crowded and sleeper than Badaling where a lot of other tourists were taken. Incomprehensively high, thick and long, The Wall was nestled in a beautifully green and mountainous area, both impressive and stunning, I couldn’t stop taking photos. We contemplated that by the time the enemy crossed the surrounding mountains, there would be no way that they could scale and penetrate it.

My main mission while in Beijing was to get myself some authentic Peking Duck. Going on recommendations in both the Lonely Planet and our Russian Experience information I made a semi Chinese-English booking at LiQun Roast Duck Restaurant. Then after reading that the restaurant, while good, is usually full of foreigners, we decided to cancel the booking and ask for a recommendation from the Concierge. Good thinking Gideon! We were sent off to DaDong Roast Duck Restaurant, apparently famous in Beijing. They didn’t take reservations so we sat at the bar to wait, where we had a view of the 5 or 6 chefs working away in an area dedicated to duck roasting. Near by, on the wall, there were framed messages from important people such as the Spanish and NZ ambassadors. Also a good indicator, a large proportion of the clientele looked like locals, always a good sign. We felt in good company.

I’m not sure how authentic our experience was, but it was definitely an experience. The menu was about A3 size and an inch thick with exquisite pictures of all of the dishes. It seemed to combine traditional Chinese ingredients and ideas with a more modern, European presentation. After some language difficulties, as per usual we ordered way too much. Everything was delicious. The Peking Duck was an experience unto itself. Our waitress showed us three different ways to eat the duck. There was the say I’m familiar with, in a pancake with cucumber, spring onion and hoisin sauce, in some light bread pockets with garlic sauce (and other stuff) and also simply dipped in sugar (who would have thought?). To be honest, I have had better, but overall the meal was a culinary sensation!

On our last day in Beijing we hada sleep in and then headed off to explore the grandeur and opulence of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. After a very long day of sightseeing with only a shared ice cream and some drinks, I was feeling pretty tired and somewhat narky (Gideon can vouch). I started to perk up at the though of food as we had planned to head to Beijing’s famous food market where all sorts of strange delicacies can be sampled at the hawker stores. The book at the hotel said it was located at the end of the big shopping street Wangfumen Dajie. After half an hour of looking at the end of the street we couldn’t find it. By now I was pissed off to the point of not wanting to eat anymore. We headed south towards the main shopping mall area and still couldn’t find it so we gave up and resorted to McDonalds instead. On a full stomach I was much happier although disappointed about the market. We walked back towards the nearest main road to hail a taxi, only to find the food market. It turns out we had missed it earlier due to buses blocking our view as we crossed the road earlier. Oh well! Unfortunately we were both full and had to be at a show to see the National Chinese Acrobats (mind boggling feats of juggling umbrellas with feet, balancing on a piece of wood atop 5 stacked rolling cylinders or 12 girls on a moving bicycle) shortly, but we did manage to fit in some fried seahorse!

Aboard the Trans-Mongolian

We are now on our last train leg from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing. While I definitely enjoyed Mongolia more than Russia I am not starting to really look forward to heading home. I’m also excited about heading into a country where I may have some semblance of a chance with the language!

By now Gideon and I are old hands at this train traveling business. The time so far has flown. It’s a 30 hour journey which includes a 4 hour boarder crossing and one night of sleep. Supposedly the scenery tomorrow morning in Beijing will be sublime! We’ve spent some time sleeping/reading/blogging/studying the Mandarin phrasebook and then spent quite a while in the restaurant car which was much more reasonable that its Russian counterpart despite the attendant trying to charge us $US172 (more like $13 including takeaway drinks)!

After lunch we were pleasantly surprised to the make acquaintance with one of the two other people in our cabin. The other has spent most of the day next door with his friends. This one spent the morning sleeping. We later found out he had spent the night out with this mates before jumping straight onto the train. A student from Mongolia studying in China, he had a little English, but some decent Chinese which allowed for a conversation to be conducted mainly in Chinese. A truly international contingent! We played some knucklebones (cross fingers we get our new set back into Australia) and then cards. Hopefully between the two of us we will remember the rules of a new Mongolian card game that we have learnt.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Nomadic Experience

Sitting here chillin' in our ger tent a the Elstei tourist camp. Through our door facing south (as they all do), I can see one of the many grassy rolling hills that we have been treated to over the last 4-5 days. *sigh*, so peaceful. After a somewhat gentle horse ride this morning to see an obscenely massive silver statue of Ghengis Khan a few hills away, I'm feeling a little sore and very much looking forward to a massage in about 20 minutes.

Ever since Timon returned from his experiences on the Train Siberian Railway many years ago and raved about Mongolia, I have been eager to see it for myself. I can honestly say it hasn't disappointed. The train ride from Ulan Ude to Ulaan Baatar took about 24 hour, but included 10 hours just crossing the border. The train arrived at the Russian Boarder post and it appeared that nothing happened for the first 5 hours. Finally customs and passport control came through and completed their checks over the space of 2 hours. Then there was another 3 hours of almost exactly the same formalities at the Mongolian border post. Passengers were heard to say "it had to be the most boring day of my life!". This train leg was a little different in that pretty much all of the passengers in our carriage were foreigners, ie. not Russian. For the first time, we had English speakers in our Cabin! Between the two border posts, I think we lost a large number of carriages with Russian locals and gained ones with Mongolians to add to our two carriages of tourists.

What is so great about Mongolia, for me, is how unspoilt it is. It has a population of about 3 million people, of which just over 1 million live in the capital city, Ulaan Baatar. As you approach Ulaan Baatar it is as if you can see where the city starts and ends. The city has just started to spread into the hills around it. In the city centre there is a massive square that looks brand new and gives the city the feeling of space. Around it, the buildings seem more spaced out than your average capital city, and there is a lot of development going on. Mongolia's second language is English, so already we felt more welcomed.

We were driven out to the Bayangobi desert by our driver and our personal guide who would be with us for the next 6 days. The trip took about 7 hours along some tarmacked road and lot of off road bumpiness in a crazy minivan. Along the way I was constantly amazed by the vastness and beauty of the scenery. Kilometres of grass, beautiful hills, rock formations and the frequent sightings of herds of cows, horses, goats or sheep. We would be spending three nights as the guests of a family of nomadic herdsmen (depending on the quality of the pasture, they only move twice a year with the change of season).

This was the type of homestay that really makes travel a special experience. We were staying with a young couple and their 3 year old. The family lived in two gers (circular tents), one was the kitchen, the other larger one, their bedroom. We would be taking up residence in their bedroom ger and the family would be living in the smaller kitchen ger. We felt bad, but that was what had been organised.

There was no running water or electricity. Heat and cooking was provided by a stove fired by wood and dung in the centre of the gers. The toilet was almost anywhere you like, although there was a designated hole due north west of the gers, "sheltered" (?!?) by a couple of sheets of material. Some of the nearby gers had an electric light powered by a car battery when needed, but otherwise candles were used. Another nearby ger, belonging to other members of the same family had a TV, I think it was either powered by solar panel or car battery.

On the first night we were there, we were treated to a proper Mongolian BBQ. I was later told they only do these about once a year and it was probably because there was a relatively large number of tourists and their guides and drives around in the nearby area. *Warning: potentially offensive material for Vegetarians*. Two goats had been killed, their heads cut off and their insides removed through the neck. Rocks, heated on a fire, were put into the goat skin through the neck hole and the goat meat mixed with onions were put back into the goat skin. The neck hole was tied up and then the "goat" was heated with a blow torch type contraption (not sure that this was the traditional method) and as it was charred, the goat hair was scraped away. Gideon was particularly interested in the process as it involved meat and fire! To be honest, the result was only ok. Perhaps it was the piece of meat I got. It was tasty, but it was a bit rough (I swear I was still pulling pieces of meat out of my teeth a few days later), it was a bit gritty from the stones and the fire, and I think I found what was a human finger nail in my helping!

The next day we had a day trip to Karakorum, supposedly the Capital City of Mongolia during the rule of Chinngis Khan (Ghengis) although most likely Ghengis would have been nomadic too. There we visited the Erdenezuu Monastery. By now Gideon was in the "not another monastery/church" state of mind. I was still interested, but could empathise. Near the monastery there was a statue of a tortoise said to be the last physical remnant of Ghengis Khan's presence in the area. There was also a large stone penis. It is said that if an infertile woman sits on the stone penis, it would make them fertile. Each woman for whom this had worked then returned and tied a blue piece of cloth around a stone pillar near the penis. It was covered in blue

On the way back to the Nomad's camp we were told that Mongolia would be competing for two gold medals in the boxing that afternoon, the first fight being at 1.30pm. As a result, half way back the drivers pulled over at the first random house/ger with a satellite dish to see the fight. I am not sure what the family thought of this group of 2 drivers, 2 guides and 4 foreigners barging into their home, but they were very welcoming, offering us sweets and allowing us and the rest of their relatives to crowd around a very small B&W TV. In the end the Mongolian forfeited in the second round losing to the Chinese competitor (which country didn't this Olympics?) due to a pre-existing shoulder injury. Still it was a good rsult for Mongolia overall. This year they won 2 gold and 2 silver, their first gold medals ever! That night we also had some fun making our own dumplings for dinner.

After having fantastic luck with the weather all trip, we experienced our first really crap day the next day. We had wondered whether it was to be a wasted day because we had nothing much planned, and now that the weather was bad we were certain. We awoke quite early, pretty much at dawn, in time to see the sun rising in the crisp morning air and the cows being milked. Then it started to rain and didn’t stop much until late in the afternoon. Trapped in our ger we were somewhat bored and cold. At one stage our host family and guide cam in and played cards and knucklebones with us, which ended up making the day very special for us. If it hadn’t been for the bad weather, we probably wouldn’t have interacted very much the family at all.

Gideon managed to make himself useful chopping up wood to keep both gers warm (the dung burns too quickly). When there was a break in the rain we managed to get out to collect a couple more dead trees (not many choose from given our proximity to the desert), then we went on a very touristy camel ride. Just imagine us (or see the photos!) rugged up in jumpers and raincoats sitting on somewhat soggy camels, being led over wet sand dunes by a local boy. At one stage the boy stopped and drew a picture in the sand and then pointed at some distant hills. After a couple of minutes of Gideon and I arguing whether the picture was a snowflake or a compass, the kid write the word “snow” in the sand. It was that cold a day!

The next day we made the 8 hour bumpy trip to the Elstei Tourist Camp. After three days of being in the middle of nowhere with no facilities it was a welcome change to use a flushing toilet and have a hot shower! Makes you appreciate the simple things, doesn’t it? Elstei is not really the full Mongolian experience. The cook is Indian and there are rows of gers. Still, it was a relaxing day we had there with time to socialize with other tourists, horse ride, massage, practice archery and above all enjoy the peaceful surrounds and beautiful Mongolia!

Some Buryiat Culture

Our next stop off the train was Ulan Ude, our last stop in Russia. Ulan Ude is situated in the Republic of Buryiat, an autonomous region of the Russian Federation. I wasn't sure what to expect and whether there would be much to see. The city itself had a massive statue of the head of Lenin. We ended up having probably our famourite home stay of the trip in Ulan Ude. Our hosts Andrei and Olga (I think) had a lovely home (an almost spotless bathroom with running water!), spoke very good english, fed us delicious meals (I must have had 4th helpings!) and were our tour guides as well! Andrei was an interesting man, involved in projects in improving and building walking trains around Lake Baikal, amongst other things.

On our first day there we went out to see a local Buddhist temple where a monk said a prayer for us. Then we visited a typical Buryiat village for lunch. Apparently the road to the village was unusually tarred (most Russian roads are rubbish) because Princess Anne once visited the village. The Buryiats are from the same culture as the Mongolian nomads, except that they are no longer nomads. This ended up being one of my favourite experiences for the trip. We were greeted by a young lady (around 20 years old) dressed in traditional Buryiat costume, who treated us to a delectable meal with many courses, including dumplings that we had a hand at making ourselves, and a gorgeous locally made liquor with a rich honey flavour. After lunch we had a go at dressing up in the traditional Buryiat clothing and then played some traditional games with the knucklebones of sheep and goats. Such a unique experience and one I will remember fondly.

The next day we visited the Ivolgsky Datsan, the centre of Buddhism in Russia and one of the few monastaries to remain standing during Soviet rule. Not knowing much about Buddhism, it was interesting to see how the Buddhist temples differed to the many Russian Orthodox cathedrals we had seen. WE also visited an 'Old Believers' church and village, a groupd who split from the Russian Orthodox church a long time ago in order to "pursue the old ways". Having been mislead to believe the 'Old Believers' were like the Amish, we were plesantly surprised to find the Priest amost accomodating. Unlike the other Russian Orthodox churches, the women didn't have to wear skirts, we were able to take photso inside the church, and he showed us some old bookds from the bible. He also asked us for some Australian coins to add to his personal collection of all odds and sods which he'd turned into a museum. Unfortunately we didn't have any.

So that was the end of our time in Russia. While it has been interesting and we have seen some wonderful things, I found Russia to be much like a lot of Europe (big generalisation, I know), so I was squite ready to move onto Mongolia.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Another cup of tea?

Last I wrote we were on our way towards Irkutsk and Lake Baikal for an epic 2 day hike around the lake including one day of 25km. When we arrived in Irkutsk we were told there had been a change in plans due to a lack of available guides, and that we would be spending a night at a homestay in a village called Listyvanka before going ona 20km round trip over two days with one night of camping. Gideon was disappointed at the change as it would mean seeing less of the lake and missing out on a hydrofoil trip back to Irkutsk, but secretly (or maybe not so secretly) I was relieved not to be attempting the 25 km in one day.

The homestay was as I think as a homestay should be. The house seemed to be mostly traditional and an experience. There was electricity, but no plumbing. Water was fetched from a well at the end of the street and there was an outdoor not-so-long-drop dunny. We bathed in a traditional Banya, a bath house with water heated by a woodfired oven, a bit like a sauna for washing out of a bucket. Not quite as refereshing as shower, but a magical relief after two an a half days without a shower on the train. We were also fed traditional Russian meals.

The hike: to be honest, there was a lot more eating done on the hike than hiking! A group of 9 of us (including the guide and his wife) set off on foot with camping gear and provisions for two days and one night. Much to my relief, although we had mosquitos, it appeared that we have missed tick season around the lake. After about 5km (90mins) of walking briskly uphill through forest, we stopped for lunch. We sat and watched amazed as the fuide built a fire and cooked us a fish and potato soup with tea and fresh vegetables! Then after antoehr 5km of hiking we stopped at our campsite by the lake, firstly for a "refreshing" swim in the lake (I reckon it was about 10dC), then a hot dinner of buttered rice and tea amongst other things. The lake, although freshwater (drinkable!) was so bit, it was just like camping on a beach by the sea, being lulled to sleep by the sound of waves on the shore and rain on our tents, expect that we couldn't sleep due to the bad positioning of our tent across a ridge (I miss my thermarest!) We awoke to a beautifully sunny day and a hot breakfast of porridge and tea. Then set off on the 10km back to Listyvanka.

The second day of hiking was completely different to the first. We followed the edge of the lake closely. As we followed a scarily thin and rocky path along the cliff face, there were quite a few moments, while sprawled against the cliff wall, I wondered if a wrong step might send me plummeting onto the rocks in the shalllows of the lake below. Happily our hard work was worth it, seeing stunning views of the clear blue waters of the lake, surrounded by dramatic cliffs, dotted wit hthe greeneness of pines and pretty coloured flowers. About 1.5 hours after breafast, we stopped for lunch and tea!

After the hike, we were transferred straight from Listyvanka to Irkutsk for a one night homestay in Irkutsk. It was an optional additional night that we had chosen in anticipation of recovery needed from the 25km hike. In retrospect, we really didn't need it. There was very little to see in Irkutsk, and while there was the novelty of staying in an old wooden house and the beds were the most comfortable we'd had in a while, the house was more like a hostel, it was stuffy and had a pretty disgusting bathroom. If we hadn't just done an overnight hike, I might have skpped the shower!