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Goodbye UB, Hello Two Nights of Train Travel

Day 13 UB to Irkutsk

sunny 26 °C

Jen started the day with a run in with the “Toast Nazi” at breakfast. Not wanting to be the cause of her electrocution, while the "Toast Nazi" was out of the room, Jen decided to cook her own toast. Upon returning to the room, discerning that Jen was happily munching toast, her face changed and instant dagger looks were directed at Jen. She was clearly not happy. We suspect if Jen had gone back for another piece, there would be a curt “No toast for you!”
We used the day to walk the streets of UB as we were pretty confident to get around. First order was to see “Dr Shoe” and get the soles of Jen's trusty Keens reglued. We found this shop yesterday with the aid of the guide otherwise as all it was a small sign in Cyrillic and a brown front door. I was happy to be able to purchase dice in the market we found by chance - let the Yahtzee Challenge begin! We did a big loop of the town leading eventually back at the main business district and the Blue Fin café for a long lunch - beers are certainly big in Mongolia. With a litre of beer each on board, we stocked up on supplies at the supermarket as we'd been told that this leg of the train has no dining car. Going to supermarkets was a challenge in a real fun way. Trying to read the packaging to understand ingredients, the cost in Aussie and walking amongst the locals is perfect for seeing how the locals do it - great way to get a feel for everyday life. Lots of pointing and gesturing in the deli.

Our Driver to the airport zigged and zagged his way to the train station, a virtual game of dodgem cars in peak hour, Jen and I gasping, squealing and exclaiming "Eeek!", peering through our white knuckles as we weaving through, traffic sometimes on the opposite side of the road.
Fortunately we arrived without a scratch with plenty of time.
A fellow traveller wasn't so lucky earlier in the day, and had to run three kilometres with baggage due to traffic jams to catch his train.

With a dust storm rolling in, the stark empty platform was a little unnerving.
Venturing inside, we were surprise with the impressive interior architecture - harking back to an era long gone. Magnificent white marble, vaulted ceilings and chandeliers seemed so out of place.
Notwithstanding its grandeur, no Noticeboards to detail train times and platform numbers to be found. After watching the 5-star German luxury liner on Platform 1 warmly greet its guests and settle down for sumptuous dinner in the Dining Car, eventually the Westerners at the station began to congregate as the word had gotten around that Platform 3 was were we needed to be. In stark contrast our battered and weary train, that desperately needed a wash, rolled in.
Our first exposure to Russian hospitality was our female train attendant, slouching at the carriage door - her posture clearly depicting her ambivalence to the prospect of the next two day. Unimpressed with our enthusiastic faces excited by the prospect of boarding our train, she snatched our tickets, glanced disinterestedly at them, snarled and tossed the tickets back at us. Jen described her “joyless, contemptuous, and arrogant”. Sadly, she likely grew up in the cold war soviet bad days.
We boarded the train, and were immediately aware that our accommodation was quite a step down from our Red Velour China carriage. Harder seats, common toilet at the end of the carriage that is locked 30 minutes before and after each town, built in the 80’s and a classic coal fired hot water boiler in each carriage.
Clean laundered sheets and linen was distributed, but best not to investigate the rolled up sleeping mats too closely. Oh the stories the bed bugs could tell! There is no option to purchase 'First Class" tickets, but buying all four seats in a cabin means it is now classified as “First Class” - purchasing one seat means "Second Class" and you don't know who your bunk buddies might be. Unfortunately the romance of the Trans-Mongolian Train lost a little of its shine and this train does not look like the ones James Bond always got travel on! It is nevertheless, spacious enough, warm and quite clean (after Jen diligently cleaned the little table with three rounds of antibacterial wipes).

Once all passengers appeared accounted for, the train groaned, squeaked, rattled and clickity-clacked its way out of the station at 8:45pm and we're away. Our fellow travellers are a friendly bunch. Our 'neighbours' are a retired couple from Sydney and two ladies en route back to England. We made up our beds and tucked ourselves into the top bunks with a little apprehension to see what morning would bring and the border crossing into Russia (still traumatised from our previous crossing).

Goodbye Mongolia and bring on the land of “those crazy Russians”!

Posted by tszeitli 13:12 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train border_crossing mongolia passports reality_check Comments (2)

Big Sky, Genghis Khan and Mongolia’s Past & Present

Day 12 Ulaanbaatar [or 'UB' as the locals call it]

sunny 25 °C

A simple western breakfast to start our day featured death defying feats by the waitress, who we later dubbed the “Toast Nazi”. The toaster would cook better on one side than the other so diligently managed the toasting process for each guest, wielding the metal tongs to pluck the toast out of the operational toaster, rotate and reinsert the bread to ensure even toasting. Whilst the result was a crunchy golden accompaniment to the morning meal, Jen and I just laughed waiting for sparks to fly and a scream to fill the room while we drank our coffee.

A lovely young man, Carl, was our guide for the day, an IT graduate with a love of Hollywood movies. His English was fantastic as a result, and often we could communicate impeccably with movie references. Our day tour started with a walk to the Children’s Square featuring a statute of Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj, the father of modern literature in Mongolia - poet, writer, and playwright, and founder of the Mongolian Writer's Union. More information here It is also outside a building that saw some bloodshed in the early years of democracy with a politician being killed. Riots and molotov cocktails were thrown when the people objected to the political party elected. The building has been restored and is a sparkling white government administration building.
Whilst modern Mongolian language is written in Cyrillic, the traditional script is a unique beauty. It is featured prominently in the city, and still understood by many (Carl could read much of it, including centuries old artefacts).
Mongolian history is filled is icons, including the turtle as its national symbol.
Next to Chinggis Square. Located within the centre of the square is the statue of Damdin Sükhbaatar, Mongolian revolutionary. More information here He led the army that liberated Mongolia in 1921 after 200 years of Japanese imperialism.
The previous building, a drab grey stone building housing mausoleum and harking to a drab past, was torn down and replaced with the quite magnificent government building today.
The new parliament house stands at the end of the square with a huge statue of Genghis Khan sitting on a throne with 2 Mongolian soldiers riding horse guarding the building and symbolically protecting the countries leader and the country.
We entered the government building and were able to explore a small display of the governmental history of Mongolia with some unique memorabilia of the Great Khans (Genghis, his son Ögedei Khan, grandson Kublai Khan and the rest of the dynasty) as well as past presidents through to more recent times as the country slowly modernised, including presidential laptops from the 80s, some of the first mobile phone bricks were funny to see displayed in glass cases, and a Rolex watch that shouldn't be locked in a case, but out being worn.
We were struck by how many antiquities from historical Mongolia had been retained, including official seals of the Great Khans, and old forms of 'travelling visas' - usually a metal tablet embossed with the official seal giving the bearer the approval of his ruler to seek trade, commerce or diplomacy with faraway lands. In addition, there were nasty letters exchanged between Ögedei Khan and later Kublai Khan with the Pope in the Vatican - from what we could gather the Vatican wanted the Khans to relinquish their immense power to Rome. Obviously, the response was not friendly.
After coffee at a most cosmopolitan French cafe, we visited the National Museum and spent the next 2 hours going through a chronological history of Mongolia.
Mongolia had existed for a long time but it wasn't until Genghis Khan came to power, that the region had a huge impact on the world and shaped history forever. He was born in 1162 and died in 1227 and ruled from 1206 until he died. The Mongolians have a reputation of being brutal and great warriors, wiping out 11% (40 million) of the world’s population. Carl told us the story that often Genghis Kahn would send messengers to the nearby tribes wanting them to trade and be part of the global power he was developing. Often these messengers were killed and Genghis Kahn retaliated. He was a brilliant military technician, unified tribes under rules of what we now call constitutions and allowed all religions to continue.
It is also said because Genghis Khan controlled so much of the world that 50% of males can traced their heritage directly back to Kahn through his numerous wives.
His empire extended as far into Europe as Hungary and this is where it is believed the Hungarian nation started with the Mongolian Tartars. Being of direct Hungarian decent myself this fact was quite interesting to me. Carl explained that one surefire way to determine lineage as a descendant of Genghis Khan is blue birth mark / spots on their bum. I will save you the sight of not adding a photo of the one I have on my bum. So Jen has probably married a descendent of the Great Genghis Khan - that's my story and I am sticking to it!
We were really impressed with the National Museum - artefacts and archaeological treasures. There was a great display of brilliantly coloured robes of kings and queens including the traditional boots of nomadic Mongolians. The boots feature a curled toe so the sharp point of the boot doesn't touch the ground and disturb the earth. This represents the respect and reverence the Mongolians had for their land. Unfortunately, it is a little ironic when you see how rubbish is strewn all over the countryside especially outside UB today. I wonder what Genghis would think of modern day Mongolia with its sprawling power stations and mining operations extracting precious resources from the earth...
The robes were fascinating and Carl was able to bring in Star Wars references, explaining George Lucas' extensive research into Mongolian Queens as the inspiration for Queen Amidala.
Not just were the costumes inspired by Mongolian Matriarchs, it was as if he modelled the Star Wars Saga on Mongolian Dynasty - Diplomacy first then the Force strikes back!

The museum was a great snapshot and a superbly presented history including the breadth of the empire, Genghis Khan’s family history, clothing, life in a Ger, weapons, the rule by the Japanese Manchuria, domination by USSR and the major turning point of independence in 1990, gained through perseverance and diplomacy - a bloodless exit from Soviet control. I recommend anybody going to UB they need to take the opportunity to see this museum.

We then hopped on a trolley bus up to the hill to walk around the Gangdantechenling Buddhist Monastery. We got to walk around the building clockwise and spin the prayer wheels, quite mesmerising and calming. Inside is the largest Buddhist statue in the world at 26 m.
The day with Carl was very informative and both Jen and I could not believe the history on Mongolia. We also got to walk the streets of UB and could get a sense of the strong nature but very welcoming Mongolians especially the women. A highlight of the day was a lovely lady with her child coming over to us on the street, in the most sincere genuine way, saying "Welcome to Mongolia" with a wide smile.
Women seem to be empowered, very business like, seen out and about impeccably dressed and very much in control. Even on the bus a young lady next to us took to chastising a drunkard on the bus giving him a mouthful for being a lazy drunk. Mongolian men are said to be "relaxed" which comes across as lazy, hence it would seem that women are taking up the challenge and driving Mongolia forward.
Our day with Carl was great. He was so generous and informative - even though we were his first ever guests.
The night finished with a wonderful dinner at the Silk Road restaurant with our Jacobs' work colleagues residing in UB for the Oyu Tolgoi project. They told us some great stories of day to day life and just reinforced how much progress is going on in UB with new hotels, office buildings, the number of westerners and restaurants. One area always good for a laugh is the traffic and how they drive, often 4 cars pushing into one spot and the end result is just gridlock. A strange fact is they drive on the right hand side but most of the cars are imported from Japan and Korea so the steering wheel is on the right hand side. Numerous left hand drive cars are also there which sometimes you need to have a double look at who is really driving the car.
Next stop is 2 nights on the train to Irkutsk, Russia.

Posted by tszeitli 02:00 Archived in Mongolia Tagged mongolia ub ulaanbaatar modern_city big_sky feisty_women Comments (2)

Chinese Border to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Day 11 - 6 hours of Border Control

sunny 20 °C

We trundled in to the Chinese border town at 9.45 pm. What proceeded was a series of knocks at the door to hand over our passports, be given a series of forms to fill in (some which inconveniently required passport information) and a bizarre protocol of checking our rooms including an infrared heat sensor to check our temperatures in case we were suffering from some nasty disease. Jen was quite nervous as she was carrying a fever but fortunately the guard in charge of the sensor, giving us only a cursory swipe, was more interested one of the other westerners who received a closer examination with medical bags and officials cramming into her room. Thinking all was okay (even though we hadn't seen our passports or tickets in quite a while) I laid down to rest to see if I could get some sleep. However, the next 3 hours was a series of banging and shunting of the train that involved quite an engineering feat. Jen said my running commentary of bewilderment as I stood in our little doorway, at each step along the way was hilarious (well, she was laughing on the inside through her cold and fever)
The train track between China and Mongolia is a different gauge (and the Mongolians and Chinese are adamant that they will not make it the same) so every carriage has to have its Chinese bogey removed and then replaced by a Mongolian gauge bogey. We stayed on board through the entire process as we'd been warned. The train was moved into a massive shed and then one by one each carriage was disconnected and aligned against a pair of hydraulic hoists. Once half the train was disconnected, carriages were pushed forward and then back onto a parallel track, again disconnected and each carriage aligned with another pair of hoists - the whole train is now separate carriages in a big illuminated shed.
The whole exercise at near midnight obviously meant everybody on the train was woken up and unable to get to sleep. Tip: do not get off the train or if you do be prepared for a 2 to 3 hour wait standing out in the cold on the track with nothing to do. Many a traveller has been caught out watching their train go off into the dark night wondering if they are now stuck in China with no passport or tickets.
The bogeys are unbolted and then ever so slowly the carriage is raised up about 1 metre, the Chinese bogeys are pushed out of the way and the new Mongolian bogeys are rolled into place. The carriages are now lowered and the new bogeys are bolted on. Two guys per 2 carriages perform this task and the train then goes back through the shunting process of reconnecting all the carriages. Yes, no chance of getting any sleep as each connection is a massive jolt to the whole train almost shaking you out of the bed. It is hard to describe the true experience of recoupling train carriages at 2am - they slam together with such force the whole interior shudders. If we were to do this trip again, we would recommend a bottle of hard liquor and down a shot with each collision would make it less traumatic.
Once complete the Train trundles back to the station and collects anybody who got left behind, passports given back, then we begin the process of Mongolian customs and immigration forms, our passports are collect, we suffer the indignity of a burly Mongolian guard inspecting our carriage and we head off to Mongolia. We are now about 3 am and we stop at the Mongolian station. We eventually fall asleep but not for long as we get woken up again to have our passports given back to us. This whole border crossing takes about 6 hours.
We woke up to a view of lunar landscape as we are now crossing the East Gobi desert. The view for the next 7 hours was basically a dust bowl, flat nothing, 2 hump camels, one main road, small villages dotted with Gers (traditional Mongolian tents for nomadic locals), coal train loadout and the odd station with one guard standing at attention and holding a yellow flag - probably his only and most important task for the day.
About 1 hour out from UB the scenery starts to change and we saw the landscape had changed to a cover of low green grasslands. The outskits of UB are pretty ramshackle and after a 27 hour trip we arrived at UB station. We were met by our ambassador, Carl and drove us to our hotel located about 1 km away from Genghis Khan Square. Whilst UB greeted us with blue skies and sunshine, during the drive to our hotel, it started to sleet. Carl assured us that this was unusual as the previous days had been warm. Fingers crossed tomorrow would be better.
As both of us were suffering from a cold we quickly picked up cash and Carl took us to a Pharmacy. It was an interesting discourse trying to explain what we needed, coming away with sachets of Mongolian "lemsip" and a curious bottle of brown liquid that worked wonders for our sore throats. We decided we needed the afternoon to recover and not venture out.

Posted by tszeitli 17:11 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train mongolia trauma head_cold Comments (4)

Our Trans-Mongolian Train Adventure Begins!

Day 10 Overnight to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

sunny 25 °C

Our 12 day Trans-Mongolia train trip from Beijing to Moscow stopping in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk starts today.
Easy morning as the train does not depart until 11.22 am but conscious of how crowded Beijing Trains Station could be we want to get there early.
Fortunately we are only one station away from the station so we caught the subway even though we had to lug our bags up and down a number of steps through the crowed station. We had people climbing over our bags as we heaved them up the stairs. We expect it is the Chinese culture to rush otherwise there is a risk of missing out.
We enjoyed our favourite local local breakfast of steamed buns and egg pancakes. The task of getting through security was quite easy as we had stories of hours of checking and sat in waiting room no. 3. From our previous experience to Suzhou, we positioned ourselves close to the gate armed with knowledge that when they open, the surge of people can be overwhelming.
However, we were pleasantly surprised at how gentile the experience became. The train sign for Ulaanbaatar with the correct departure time was hung on a hook at our gate - always a relief to know you're in the right spot - and we were allowed to get on the train about 30 minutes before departure.
As we stepped through the doors to the platform, it was like stepping back in time to another world. 15 carriages and neatly dressed a guard/steward waiting to greet us at every carriage.
The carriages were beautifully presented, and the cabins were something out of the 50’s. Our private cabin with velour furnishings, a neat little table, bunk beds, fresh laundered linen and even an en suite toilet, shower and vanity unit and a nifty thermos for hot water, which was available at the end of the carriage. Jen and I just looked at each other in amazement of how opulent this was.
Train left right on time and for the next few hours on the Chinese side we saw the horizon of apartment buildings melt away to be replaced by tunnels, valleys, cliffs, gorges, numerous windfarms, massive highways, and a magnificent sunset.
The train had a dining car so I investigated to see what was on offer. Open the door and I was met with a thick cloud of cigarette smoke that you could carve with a knife. All the guards were smoking in there so I quickly retreated coughing and spluttering. We had bought food supplies so we started our dinner consisting of 2 minute noodles, and some small cakes and tea.
Jen and I by now were coming down with a cold with Jen suffering the most so she was drifting in and out of sleep in her bunk. I was able to catch up on some blogging and taking photos of the trip. We arrived at the Chinese border about 9.45pm and what encountered us over the next 6 hours is just one of those travel episodes that whatever is written up in the travel agent notes before you leave does not prepare you for what we would encounter. We were warned by our neighbours back home but I will leave the rest of this story for the tomorrow's blog!

Posted by tszeitli 16:41 Archived in China Tagged train china mongolia Comments (5)

Our Feet touch the Great Wall

Day 9 Great Wall Jiankou to Mutianyu

storm 20 °C

Normal wake up at dawn with a little apprehension about the tour we got onto at the last minute. Got to admit the internet for travelling is just fantastic to able to do research on the run and book days in advance, nothing like it when I backpacked yes 30 years ago. We were going to get a taxi to get to our meeting point but the taxi drivers said just take the subway, traffic gridlock at 8.30am. So it’s off to the Beijing subway, peak hour with hundreds of other commuters, gulp! After about 10 minutes of map reading and seeing how the system works we showed the ticket lady a screen shot of the Lama Temple in Chinese, we got told platform 2 and paid $1.20 for 2 tickets. Worked out how they went and off we were and pretty happy we got through it all. Taxi would have been $9 and 1hr plus travel.
Got to the Lama Temple and thankfully the owners of the tour were there to meet us and we were off to the great wall with a group of 10 others. The tourist sections of the Great Wall are about 75km north of Beijing and I remember from the times I had been there this drive took about 3 hours due to the poor condition of the roads. Now it is a 4 lane perfectly smooth highway all the way and about 1 ½ hours later we are at this village. This trek is about going to places where the wall is still untouched and few tourists get to. We start in Jiankou and walk up to the wall, along the ridge and down to Mutianyu. Lunch was in a rural village and a very typical farmers type of lunch, simple but delicious.
The first hour of the trek was pretty much straight up hill through the bush and the weather a lot cooler than yesterday with a prediction of rain. Finally we got to the top of the ridge and the scenery just opened up and we were below a 400 year old tower. You looked over the range and you could see the wall just follow the ridge and just meander across the range to as far as you could see. The haze also added a mystic to the atmosphere and you really did feel like time had stood still. We climbed up this tower and got a better view of the wall. It was great to be here with Jen and taking in a very special moment. You stand here all day and marvel at the sheer effort it took to build the wall running east to west across northern China.
About the wall, firstly it is not the only man made thing that can be seen from outer space and it is not just one wall but a series of many walls that line up or go off in all directions. The wall is a series of fortifications and stretches from Dandong in the east to Lop Lake in the west. The wall measures 6259 km and was built 220 BC to 206 BC with the majority is from the Ming dynasty.
We then started to walk along the wall and just enjoyed every step knowing no one else was doing this and we were actually walking along the Great Wall in its original form. All of us commented on why build this wall in the most inaccessible terrain.
For being 400 years old the wall is in very good condition, although nature is slowly reclaiming this magnificent structure. Some sections are very steep. We reached the highest section and started our descent which was over 20% gradient. We literally had to hold onto the wall and crawl step by step down for about 50m. Got to the bottom and unfortunately the clouds closed in and the rain started to pour. On with our raincoats and ponchos and we still had about 1 ½ hours to get back to Mutianyu.
We continued to walk and eventually got to the tourist section where it has been totally restored and in fact has 2 cable cars to take tourists up from the town to the wall and allow people to walk along this section. One thing the rain did was get rid of all the tourists so we had one section all to ourselves. The rain also added to the mystic as the clouds rolled through the hills and valleys. The last 45minutes was all downhill and lucky Jen and I had done a lot of leg training before we left as everyone else commented on the legs were getting pretty sore at the end of the day.
I have to correct a previous blog where I commented on the Terracotta Warriors and compared it to other great ancient historical things I had seen. I forget to mention the Great Wall as I had already been here a number of times but each time at the tourist places. The Great Wall is special and to walk along the untouched areas is something Jen and I will always treasure.

Jen’s hiking boots that have accompanied her on her travels (Machu Pichu, Grand Canyon, Alaska, Patagonia, Cradle Mountain) and now her trusty Keens have trekked the Great Wall and this time she was no longer on her own.
Trans Mongolian and Ulaan Baatar here we come!

Posted by tszeitli 16:46 Archived in China Tagged history trekking china great_wall Comments (6)

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