Sunday, September 11, 2011

On the Trans-Siberian (August 4-7, 2011 or Ulan Ude/5642 km to Kungur/1534 km)

Dining on the Trans-Siberian

I am posting this from Tallinn, Estonia.  It’s a little out of sequence as I need to write about my time in Beijing, Ulan Bator (Mongolia) and Lake Baikal.  Hopefully this will give a bit of flavor to the railroad trip.  Unlike my other travels this summer, I was a part of a tour for this stretch(Intrepid Tours).   I meet the group (there were 8 of us) in Beijing and we toured the Great Wall together before getting on the train to Ulan Bator.  The trip ended in St. Petersburg.

Char and Ben boarding train in Ulan Ude

Day 1 (August 4, 2011)
Siberia is an enchanting place.  At this latitude, in summer, the sun takes a long time to set and I lay on the top bunk for a good hour, my head partly out of the window (we’re on an non-air conditioned train), watching the sun slowly drop behind the far shore of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world and one that holds 20% of the world’s fresh water.  We catch glimpses of the sun’s rays shimmering across the water, in between the birch forests.   It’s after ten (local time as the train runs on Moscow time) when the sun finally disappears.  Afterwards, I read a chapter in Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, then crawl into my silk sleeping sack and pull over the heavy quilt provided for each bunk and fall asleep.  It was quite warm in the car when we boarded late in the afternoon in Udan Ude, but as the train began moving, the fresh air cooled things off a bit. When the sun started to sink, it cooled even more and with the cool air from the open window, it’s comfortable sleeping under heavy covers.  I fall asleep to the gentle rocking of the train, only to wake up as we slow on our approach to Irkutsk. 
Lake Baikal

Ana photographing the sunset from the other top bunk

Sunset on Baikal
It’s 1:30 AM (local time) when we stop in Irkutsk, a town best known for being a position in the game of Risk.  It’s also Yulia’s home (our tour leader), so a group of us (Ana, Judy, Ben, Yulia, I’ll introduce them later) get off to check things out.  It’s a thirty minute train stop.  We take the walkway under the tracks and climb up into the station and then out onto the streets.  There are still a few vendors selling snacks, newspapers and magazines.  There are no English magazines or newspapers even though there are a lot of American magazines in Russian, with Cosmopolitan and Playboy appearing to be the most popular.  Pointing the selections, I jokingly ask if I purchased one would I be able to convince anyone I was just interested in the articles.  After a few minutes of roaming (and I don't buy any magazines), we head back to the train. We don't want to tempt fate and find ourselves left behind.   I crawl into my bunk at 2 AM and sleep till morning light.  

Notice the Kilometer Marker on the left

Day 2 (August 5, 2011)
We’re in the town of Zima (which means Winter), a 20 minute stop, and I get up and walk out onto the platform.  It’s cool in the early morning air and clouds are building to the east.  After we’re herded back on board, I crawl back into my bunk and read a bit more in Frazier’s massive book of his time in Siberia. Everyone else is asleep and soon I doze off again.  I’m in no rush as I’ll be on this train another two and a half days (and even after that, they’ll still be two more overnight trains before we reach St. Petersburg).   
At nine, I rise again and fix breakfast.   Instant oatmeal and coffee, made with the boiling water that’s provided in the samovar at the end of each carriage.   The train is now running through gentle hills.  The tops are barren and some of them have been cut for hay.  On the lee side of the hills and in the depressions are birch forests.  Wildflowers are everywhere in a palate of colors: white and yellow daisies, several varieties of purple flowers, as well as yellow ones and some that appears to be bluebells.  There are some white flowers that are tall stemmed and must be a relative of Queen Anne’s Lace and another yellow weedy plant that has to be next-of-kin to Golden Rod.  Or maybe they’re the same plant as I’m no botanist. 
We stop in Nizneudinsk and I get off the train for a few minutes.  The station is drab, of an older Soviet style and the people standing on the platform seem to have a similar expression.  Clouds have moved in and it has recently rained.  After leaving the station, the train climbs over the Sajan Range, snaking back and forth and providing great views for photographs of the ends of train.  Coming down on the opposite tracks is a train of timber and lumber, followed shortly behind by a train of tank cars.  We occasionally pass small villages: bare wooden houses with only the shutters painted generally blue and white.   Rough-cut fencing separate the yards, with each yard containing a garden of potatoes and onions and other vegetables.  Huge amounts of firewood are neatly stacked by each house, a reminder that winter will come early and last long in this land. 
A Russian Village photographed from the train
Between looking out the window and reading, I engage in numerous make-believe firefights with a Russian kid and his toy AK-47.  He runs into our compartment shooting and we all act like we’ve been hit.  Then, using my index finger as a gun, I hide just outside his compartment where he retreated and wait in ambush for him to reappear.  Sure enough, he soon runs back out with his gun at the ready, only to find my “pistol” at his head.  He laughs, but doesn’t “die” when I shoot, but instead points his gun and bangs away.  Like most six year olds, he’s invincible!  
After lunch (peanut butter on a heavy bread which I brought with me on the train), I read some more and take a 2 hour nap, waking up in Ilanskaya.  Vendors have set up shop along the platform.  The breads are tempting, and so is the baked chicken (but I wonder how long it’s been sitting out).  Instead, I opt for an ice cream and pick up some cucumbers and tomatoes for dinner.  The rest of the afternoon is spent reading and looking out the window.  Somewhere along our journey, I crossed Ian Frazier’s 2001 path the opposite way across Siberia.  His journey across the vast land was in a van.  Tomorrow, when we cross the Urals, I’ll have entered Europe through the backdoor. 

For diner, our compartment has wraps.  Ana supplies the wraps and salami and I provide cucumbers, tomatoes and peanut butter (there is no mayonnaise).   We both have cheese. The tomatoes are wonderful!   Afterwards, there is a long stop in Kranoyarsk, where I pick up from one of the sellers on the platform a ½ liter bottle of Kolchak Beer to cap off dinner.  Later, while reading Fraizer’s book on Siberia, I learn the beer is brewed in Irkutsk and named for a Russian admiral known for his heroic deeds in the 1904 Russia-Japanese War and the Great War.  Interestingly, he was a White Russian, a part of the movement that opposed the Bolsheviks and his end came in 1920 when he was executed by the communists in the same city that now brews his namesake beer.  A beer named in honor of a White Russian is a sign the old regime is dead!   Darkness falls and we all climb into our bunks for the night.
Day 3  (August 6)
I’m up early and slip out of the compartment without waking up the others and sit on the fold down seats along the aisle where I can both work and recharge my computer in one of the few electrical plugs on the train.  I am writing up my notes on my trip to Chengde, which seems like ages ago as we run through Siberia on the train.  The landscape has flattened.  When we stop at Novosibrisk, one of the largest cities in Siberia, we climb a walkway over the tracks for photographs.  I take several and then Ana comes up and I take one of her with her camera and when she starts to return the favor and take a photo of me with mine, a husky Russian woman runs up shouting and wagging her figure, saying nyet, nyet nyet (no, no, no).  She crossed her arms as a sign to stop and points for us to go back to our train.  When we ask Yulia why she didn’t let us take the photo, she said matter-of-factly, “Because this is Russia.”  Communism may be dead but there is still the lingering presence that big brother is watching (but that wasn’t limited to the Communists, for the Czars had their own forms of totalitarianism).
Omsk Station

After forty-eight hours on the train, things are getting a little squirrelly.  Our group is split up between three compartments.  At night, when the bunks are all put down, we’re sequestered inside, but in the day, we move around between the three compartments.  I’m in the middle compartment and joke that we’re the “Old Folks Place,” as the four of us are all over 40 (Ana is 40.  She and Judy are both from Australia. Judy and I are in our 50s and Terry, who is from New Zealand, is in his early 60s).  Judy and Ana quickly chastise me, saying that we are the not the old folks home but the “mature compartment.”  Travelling a third of the way around the world with a Kiwi and two Australian Sheilas, I found myself chastised a lot.   The two of them also corrected me when I addressed the two of them as blokes, a term they frequently use for me.  Unbeknownst to me, the term bloke is gender specific, but I obviously had skipped class the day when Australian grammar was taught.  By the end of the three days, I’m shocked to find myself using “bloody” as an adjective.
To our right of our compartment (toward the engine) is Yulia and Leo’s place.  Yulia is Russian and Leo is from Indonesia, but lives and works in Denmark. They share a compartment with a Russian woman traveling to Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad) and another man.  That compartment is also where the cards games occur, at least until the group of would be card sharks tire of always losing to an old woman heading to Volgograd.  Afterwards, the card game is moved into our compartment.  The game is called “Fool,” and, as Yulia explains, “As with Russia, there is no winner, only losers.”  The object of the game is not to lose! 
The cabin behind us includes the two other Americans, Ben and Daniel who live in Chicago.  With them is Charlene (from New Zealand) and Jo (from Australia). Their compartment serves as the main bar and a classroom where Yulia teaches Russian, using a magic marker on the window.  I make a mental association between the Russian word for “thank you” (spassebaa) and placebo...  The sounds are not exactly the same, just close enough that I manage to have half our group asking for sugar pills instead of saying thank you, causing much confusion in the towns nestled along the railroad tracks.
The two Sheilas in my compartment take turns keeping a lookout for a jukebox, something they’d been hoping to spot since leaving Mongolia.  Yulia, who lives in Siberia, doesn’t know of any jukeboxes, but that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm.  They’re determined to spot a jukebox, which seems strange behavior to Terry and I until they finally educate and entertain us with a duet of a popular Australian song, “Jukebox in Siberia.”  Obviously, the jukebox is a metaphor as they never found one in their 4000 or so kilometer vigil.                                                                                                                         
One of the many "parked" Steamers along the route

The main topic, or at least the most frequently reoccurring one, for our compartment is the condition of the bathrooms on each end of the carriage.  The two Aussies share the exciting news when they observe an attendant heading to one of the toilets with cleaning supplies and rolls of toilet paper.  And when the toilet cleanliness begins to wane, they share disinfect wipes.  Having seen a lot worst bathrooms (they quickly tired of my descriptions of bathrooms on Indonesian and Vietnamese trains), the toilets on the trans-Siberian don’t bother me too much (you do your business and get out quickly).  Ana and Judy find that a better way is to find a bathroom when the train pulls into a station for an extended period.  These bathrooms cost between 15 and 25 rubles (between 50 and 75 cent), but to them it’s worth the extra expense and long before the train comes into the station, the anticipation of a “clean loo” is just too much for the two of them that they began to wax poetically about the possible experience.  Loo is another word that was added to my rapidly expanding vocabulary during these long days on the rail.  Interestingly, according to my processor, which highlights loo in red, indicating it’s not really a word, leaving me with the feeling that I have been corrupted. 
In addition to our bathroom talk, another topic that begins to dominate on Day three is the need of a shower.  We’re all in need of a long hot shower with lots of scrubbing by this point!  After the attendants clean the bathrooms, I go in and using a rag, wipe up and change clothes.  I feel better, but am still not really clean, but am clean enough to go out for dinner.  Everything I’d read about the Trans-Siberian is that eating in the dining car is kind of like playing Russian roulette.  You never know what you’re going to get!  We’re all prepared with plenty of noodles, but wanting a variety, we head into the car.  The menu is about as thick as the Russian words are long (or a small Russian novel), which should imply (I mistakenly assume) there are lots of possibilities for fine dining.  Perhaps I should have taken a clue from the lack of patrons, but I was looking for an experience.  As we combined our knowledge of words and share  a dictionary (along with the help of a drunk Russian who spoke a little slurred-English and whose Russian at this point in the afternoon probably wasn’t any better than his English), we asked for dish after dish only to have the attendant stand by the table with her arms folded, shaking her head no.  In the end, we surmised there were only three options:  a soup, a vegetable salad and a potato and meat paddy entrĂ©e.  I have the latter and it’s good, but expensive.  Half way through the meal, a couple of Russians come into the dining car.  We watch as they discuss their order with the attendant (another clue should have been that they never looked at the menu).  We wait with bated breath to see what they might be eating, and what we might be missing out on, but they're also served the same potato and meat paddies that we’ve enjoyed.  I’m not sure what purpose the menu served, maybe it was just reading material. 
Jude and Leo in the Dining Car

Michael, the inebriated Russian, joins our table.  With his laptop, he attempts to educate us in Russian Rap and other music styles.  His conversation helps the time pass (which is good, for the dining experience takes almost two hours, a pretty amazing feat considering that during this era (which was only slightly shorter than the Napoleonic Wars), there are never more than ten people in the dining car (12 if you count the attendant and cook).  I get the sense that the attendant is a little jealous at Michael’s interest in us (or at least his interest in Ana, who seems the most interested in Russian pop music).  The attendant had Michael for herself before we entered the dining car.  Michael, the Russian DJ, plays different songs from a range of genres.  When we start heading back to our compartment, (I’m the last to leave as I am on the inside of the booth), Ana turns to me and commands with a firm whisper: “Don’t you leave me with alone with him!”  But Michael is harmless and I’m sure that the next morning when we got off the train, he was nursing one heck of a hangover. 

Day 4 (August 5, 2011)
I wake up to the familiar sound of a Russian woman barking out instructions at a station.  It’s a familiar sound as every train station has a woman giving instructions over the loud speaker and they all sound as if they all studied voice in the same school where they all excelled in monotone.  It’s 5:30 AM and a gray overcast dawn.  It’s been raining in the night.  We’re Yekaterinburg (or Ekaterinburg, depending on which book you’re reading).    According to my guide (Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook), we’ve officially left Siberia (we’re now in the Urals), but according to Ian Fraizer, we’re in the western most city of Siberia.  It’s a long stop as they change engines here, and I wait till the train pulls out of the station to get up as I know the bathrooms will be locked.  As we begin to move, we pass a large restored steam locomotive on display, a 0-10-0.  Many of the larger stations in Siberia have an old steam locomotive on display, and they’re all sharply painted and look as if they’ve just rolled off a production line.
According to Frazier, Yekarteninburg/Ekaterinburg, was named Empress Catherine.  During the Soviet times, the name was changed to Sverdlovsk, in honor of a companion of Lenin and the chairman of the Russian Central Executive Committee.  It was in a basement here that last Czar, Nicholas II, along with his family and their servants and physician met their brutal end at the hands of the Bolsheviks.  Frazier also writes about this being one of the few places where there is a monument to the victims of Stalin’s purges, another horrifying event most Russians would just as soon forget.    
The border between Europe and Asia
(sorry, this is not the best photo, but the only one I got)

I’m excited to know that we’re in Yekarteninburg as it means we’re still in Asia (even if we may be out of Siberia).   I start counting down the kilometer markers that are on the south (east) side of the tracks, knowing there is an obelisk around marker 1777 that indicates the spot where we pass from Asia into Europe.  Forty-five minutes after leaving Yekarterinburg, we pass the marble obelisk.  It catches me by surprise and I am only able to get a passing photo.  The guide book says to be ready for a crowd to gather in the hallway wanting to see the obelisk, but because it is still early.  Only a handful of us are up to witness our 6:40 AM crossing.  For the first time in my life, I’m in Europe (and I came in via the back door!).  
The Urals are not exactly the Rocky Mountains.  Actually, they’re no where nearly as majestic as the Appalachians and, if they stretched for more than fifty miles, the Uhwarrie Mountains in Central North Carolina would be a more prominent.   The Ozarks also stand tall next to the Urals.  Of course, if you stretched the Ozarks out 800 or so miles (like the Urals), they might provide about the same rise to the land.  Yet, these low rolling hills define a continent.   The landscape is wooded, as we travel through forest that alternates between birch and evergreens.  Later in the morning, we arrive in Kurgur, but that’s another story.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Mongolia to Lake Baikal (August 1-4, 2011)

 I wake up at 5 AM, as morning light begins to filter through the curtains.  The train jars and then stops and all is quiet.  Wondering what’s up, I quietly crawl out of my berth trying not to wake the other three who are still sleeping.   Taking my camera, journal and guidebook, toothbrush and toothpaste, I step out into the hallway and walk down pass the attendance’s compartment.  As expected, the bathrooms are locked.  Nemo had suggested we keep a few small Mongolian bills just in case we needed to use the toilet at the station.  I go out onto the platform.  We’re in Sukabaator, a border town named from the Mongolian leader of its communist revolution.   The air is cool and dry and a light breeze blows across the plains.  Walking on the platform, I realize that our coach (along with one other coach) sits abandon on the track, without an engine.  To the south of us is another train, which had been a part of us until a few minutes earlier.   The jarring I’d heard came from when they separated our cars from the other Mongolian cars that are being prepared for the journey back to Ulan Bator, where we’d left the evening before.  Only the two cars of passengers will continue on into Russia, which is why we had been informed to stay in our cars at night, for if we found ourselves in the other cars, we could find that ourselves heading back into Mongolia.   I find the toilet and play the 150 Tugirk (about 13 cents) to use the toilet and washroom.  The place is very clean!  The woman attendant has a sideline business, selling toiletries such as toilet paper (which is not supplied, but I have my own).  She also has, to my surprise, deodorant along with toothbrushes and paste, combs and brushes, and feminine products.  In addition she has a multi-prong power strip and a few chargers available, which could be handy as there is no power in our coaches at this point. 

 I walk around the station and out onto the streets of the town.  Everything appears to be deserted except for the passengers who are arriving for the Ulan Bator train.  When I come back to the platform, the Mongolian train attendants are all standing outside their doors at attention.  They’re all petite women who look sharp in their blue uniforms.  In contrast, our attendant the evening before was a big Russian woman who could easily be a sumo wrestler.  Terry is up and has made a similar observation, quipping that they all look ballerinas while our attendant appears to be a champion weight lifter.   I should note that it is practice of the Russian railways to have two attendants, who split the duties and alternate sleeping.  The Russian woman was on duty last night and during the morning, she disappeared and a male attendant took over.

 I spend the early morning hours waiting on the platform reading, knowing that soon we’ll be sequestered inside the rail car again.  But Mongolian customs don’t open till eight or so, so we wait till called back into the cars.  Then the train is boarder.  We have to show our luggage (pulling it down from the storage areas above the bunks) and open up the storage areas below the bottom bunks to ensure we’re not smuggling anyone out of the country.  They take our passports and again Ana has to explain what happened to hers, pointing to a bottle of water and saying it got wet.  An hour later, they give us our passports and soon afterwards an engine is hooked up and we’re finally sent on our way.

We don’t go very far.  We head down the tracks a ways to the border crossing where Russian border agents enter the train and process our passports.  The agent looks at our passports then hands them to the car attendant who stacks them together, turned to the proper page.  Ana again has to explain what happens to her passport, but this time she has Yulia who is Russia helping explain everything.  They seem satisfied with her answers (these guys weren’t nearly as scary as I was afraid they’d be.)  They take our passports for processing as the custom officials come on the train with their dogs, looking for anything askew.  Later, as we’re still waiting for the passports, they come back with the dogs and we learn that the dog is in training and they had planted some drugs in the luggage of Russian man (with his consent) who is in Yulia’s compartment.  The dog passes his test.  Then our passports are return and we’re allowed to proceed into Russia—but not that far.  We follow the Selenga River.  At the border town of Naushki, we stop for hours.  At the station, there is a sign warning that insults directed at border guards can get you a fine of 40,000 rubles and a jail term.  They don’t threaten with sending you to Siberia (as you’re already there), but I’m glad that I was on my best behavior and didn’t give them (or even Ana) a hard time.  

 Hungry for lunch, Yulia asks and is told about a restaurant down the tracks.  The place has the atmosphere of an elementary school cafeteria and is eerily sterile.  Its primary customers are railroad crews.  But the food is good and cheap.  Most of the group has meatballs, but I have already had enough and decide instead to have soup and goulash.  After eating, we walk back toward the train station, stopping in a small grocery store.   There’s very little in the way of food, but half of the store is dedicated to alcohol and there is an incredible selection of vodka, larger than anything I’ve ever seen.  We’re in Russia.   Back at the station, we wait another hour or so before we’re called back on board the train to begin our journey into Mother Russia.  When we finally start moving, I note that in the past ten hours, we’ve covered all of 70 kilometers!
 The run up to Ulan Ude is pretty as we follow the Selenga River and skirt by the shore of by Goose Lake.  I spend an hour standing by an open window watching in amazement as the sun slowly drops from the sky.  The lighting on the countryside is beautiful.  Along the way, I notice a car pulled over by the side of the road and a man standing in front of it.  Something catches my eye and I look back and see that he is taking a leak and the sunlight shines through the stream of urine, giving it a golden color.  I laugh and several people look at me and I point and they too laugh.

When I come back to my compartment from photographing the sunset, I see a pack of Chinese cigarettes on my bunk.  I toss them back to Ana, telling her they were a gift and she can’t give them back.  When she asks what she should do with them, I suggest that she give them to our train attendant (the male one is on duty) as I’d seen him bum a cigarette at our stop.  This she does and it makes him very happy as he spends the rest of our time on the train sequesters in his compartment (the trains are supposed to be non-smoking), puffing away!     

It’s dark when we pull into Ulan Ude (a town, if I heard correctly, means Red River), we’re met by Dennis, our local tour guide.  He takes us to the Geser Hotel, and as we check in asks if any of us are up for a night on the town (on a Monday night).  A few take him up on his offer, but I decide to forgo such an experience because we have to be ready to head out early in the morning.

The hotel room is incredible—Terry and I share a suite.   Unfortunately, we’re only there for eight hours. I shower and wash some clothes (it seems I am constantly washing clothes).  The next morning, we’re provided an extensive buffet breakfast.  I’ve noticed in my travels that the further north I’ve gone, the meals have gotten larger.  At breakfast, I sit at a table next to a table with “the ugly American.”  The suited-man is there for a conference and loudly complains to a couple of women at his table, who obviously are attending the same conference, about how things work (or more correctly, don’t work) in “this god-forsaken country.”   I give him a dirty look as he’s too loud and my Southern conscience tells me it just ain’t right to complain about your host when you’re in their living room.  Later, an American woman from Texas asks if she can sit with us at our table.  She begins chatting about the conference and I pause her long enough to ask what kind of conference.  She thought we were attending the same event.   At least, from her, I was able to learn that there’s an international social worker conference going on in Ulan Ude and she is more than happy to tell us about her work and what they’re doing in Russia.  Although she talked a lot, she was thoroughly enjoying Russia and expressed the hope we’d have a similar experience.

 After breakfast, Dennis meets us and takes us on a walking tour of Ulan Ude, a town that boasts the largest statue of Lenin’s head in the former Soviet Union.  Dennis notes that the people in this part of Russia (who are more Asian) got the last laugh with the statue in which the artist cast Lenin with “Asian features.”  To me, the bronze Lenin looks more like a giant “Mr. Potato Head.”  Over the next week, I’d see enough potatoes to wonder if I ain’t right.

 After our walking tour, we board the bus for a trip to an “Old Believers Village.”  Dennis asks if anyone has ever heard of the Old Believers and seemed both amazed and a little annoyed when I raise my hand.  (I felt like the kid who always sat in front of the class and answered every question, a position that I never assumed in school).  Of course, I had only recently become aware of the sect.  When I was in Malaysia, Cyclops had given me a book written by an anonymous Orthodox priest titled The Way of the Pilgrim.  The pilgrim in the story has an encounter with an Old Believer.  At first, he is impressed with the piety of the Old Believer, but then finds his fundamentalism to be a barrier that keeps him from encountering God.  Then, in the book I’d been reading by Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia, the exile of Old Believers to Siberia is discussed.  The Old Believers broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church during the reforms of Peter the Great who wanted to make Russia more European (which included making the church more like the Greek Orthodox Church).  The Old Believers was the group that said, “We’ve never done it that way.”  Such groups seem ubiquitous in any institution.  Holding to their values, they broke off from the mother church and maintained their purity with eight hour worship services (standing, of course) and the old way of positioning their fingers when they cross themselves.  As most of the Old Believers ended up as settlers in Siberia, the museum showed how they lived in such a rough climate. 

We also got to visit a church, which was fairly new as most of the older churches had been destroyed by Stalin and his goons.  There were a few older icons in the church.  These had been hidden by the faithful during Stalin’s purges. 
After visiting the church, we headed to a recreated home of Old Believers, that is now a living museum.  Unlike most Siberian homes which the siding is not painted, Old Believers paint beautiful patterns on the side of their houses.  At this home, we had lunch where we learned first-hand, that unlike most Protestant fundamentalists, these guys really like to drink.  Our lunch included three shots of “homebrewed” vodka, taken in between a feast of pickled fish, breads, soups and variety of root vegetables as well as meat—a hardy lunch (all our meals in Russia were hardy)!

The fun didn't stop with lunch.  After fortifying us with vodka, it was time to play dress up.  Anastasia and Daniel were selected to play the bride and groom and we all got to attend a wedding with dancing and games.  The party broke up before the union could be consummated, as we had to get on the road and head to Lake Bailak. 

We drive back to Ulan Ude and drop off Dennis, then we head east (once again following the Selenga River which we’ve followed since Mongolia).  Half way to the lake (the Selenga flows into Baikal), we cross the river and head north.  The ride is beautiful and reminds me of places in the American West.  It’s a three hour drive and at one point I fall asleep (I’m sure a three vodka-lunch helped) and wake up thinking I’m on the top of Cedar Mountain, between Cedar City and Duck Creek, Utah as the birch forest resembles aspen and both sites have rolling grassy meadows.  There are even a few black boulders that I mistake for lava rocks.  Like Cedar Mountain, this is open range and our driver has to slow down in order to navigate between cows.  There are few bathroom stops along the way and my fellow Americans, who seem to have small kidneys, need to stop.   After a “mini-Chernobyl” (a term that became to define any fit thrown by one of us in the group), the driver agrees to pull over and they run into a small clump of bushes.  Ten minutes later, we make the scheduled toilet stop and when I learn it costs 25 rubles, I find myself wishing I’d joined them in the bushes!

We first see the lake at the village of Gremyachinsk and then drive along the shoreline for 15 or 20 kilometers.  The waters are magnificent.  In Turka, we leave the lakeshore and stop at a guesthouse that is located on the Turka River, just a few kilometers from the where it enters the lake.  The three Americas—Daniel, Ben and me—decide we’ll try the waters of the Turka River and change into swim suits and jump into the invigorating 14 degrees C water.  We spend two nights at this guest house ran by a couple, Valery and Larisa, both of whom have many gold teeth.  I wonder if Steely Dan was here first.

The highlight of our time in Lake Baikal is the banya (a treat we enjoyed each night we stayed at the guesthouse).   After dinner, Larisa fires up the banya as it takes time to warm the water.  A number of our group went into the village to the store, but since I didn’t really need anything and there wasn’t enough room in Larisa’s car, I go for a hike up the road, looking at the traditional Siberian wood homes in which only the window frames and shutters were painted.  When I come back, the banya is getting hot and ready for action.  I put on my swim trunks and join the group in the sauna.

Larisa is a man’s man.  He’s built the guest house by himself, and did one heck of a job on the banya.  In the center of it is a water boiler, welded out of thick plate steel that has a radius of nearly three feet.  The bottom of the banya is the firebox (with a chimney that runs through the boiler and out the top. As this boiler is in the corner between four rooms, the firebox is in a separate room in which he also stores firewood.  This also keeps the water separate from the fire and smoke out of the other rooms.  In the sauna room, there are cedar benches where we sit or lay and enjoy the banya.  Here, on top of the firebox is an opening and stones that heated and a water drip system that keeps the steam up.  Outside of this room, there is the shower room, where he also has an opening to the banya’s water take for putting more water into the tank and also drawing out warm water to put on the rocks.  There is also a shower in this room.  The fourth room is for changing.

In the corner of the banya, Larisa has a pail of water and a collection of birch branches (with leaves).  The Russian way of cleansing is to lie on the bench and have someone stick the birch leaves into the water and then slap you all over with them.  As weird as it sounds, within an 80 degree C banya, it feels pretty good.  (Or maybe at that temperature, pain and pleasure get all mixed up).   As we began to overheat in the banya, we find that Larisa has an answer.  He’s built a slide off the back porch of the banya (with flowing water) that takes you out into Turka River.  I find that after soaking for an extended time, I can swim way out into the river.   But I stay in the water and keep moving, for there are hoards of mosquitoes waiting to feast on fresh meat.  When you come out of the water, you run back into the banya and do it all over again.
On the morning of our second day at Baikal, Larisa takes us to the beach.  We sit soaking up sun and even swimming (quick dips) in the cold water.  The Russians believe that to swim in Baikal will add to your life (that is, if you don’t have a heart attack jumping in).  Having swum in both Lake Superior (which is colder in the summer) and Baikal, I should have a very long life…   We next visited a hot springs, which was so crowded (the pools were all in buildings and there was a long wait), that we had to be satisfied with soaking our feet in the stream.  After lunch, Larisa took us out in his motorboat, which looked as if he held it together with chewing bum and bailing wire.  I was glad he also had oar locks and oars in case the motor decided to stop spitting, but it kept running and thankfully the oars didn’t need to be employed

After the banya experience on our second night, Larisa built a camp fire and roasted fish for us.  His method was simple.  He scaled the fish, rolled them in salt, and pierced them with a metal skewer and roasted over coals.  The meat was delicious, it fell off the bones in chunks (and I quickly learned to avoid the guts). 
On our final morning, Larisa took a number of the group hiking, but Leo and I decided to stay and take him up on his offer for us to use his boats.  Taking a row boat, we traveled around the river using his homemade oars (that weren’t exactly even or the same size, which meant having to do a lot of correction strokes).  But it was fun.  After lunch, the bus picked us up and we traveled back to Ulan Ude.  The diver wouldn’t turn on the air conditioner until there was another “mini-Chernobyl” and he drove so fast and reckless we were all concerned he’d take out a cow or bounce us off the road.  But we arrived safely back in Ulan Ude, went shopping for provisions for our three day train ride and boarded the train on time.  

For the next installment (which I posted a couple of weeks ago), click here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mongolia (July 28-31, 2011)

I am in St. Johns, Newfoundland, having been around Greenland and Iceland for the past week and without an internet connection...  Next week, internet connections will return to normal.

I should acknowledge as I begin this post that while in Mongolia, I kept looking for magnolias, but didn’t see any.
In an attempt avenge my joking around about her passport, Anastasia proclaimed that our first day in Mongolia would be “talk like an American day.”  Thankfully no one joined her campaign and she soon tired of the game.  The American she tried to imitate was Scarlett O’Hara, but Ana’s “American-talk” sounded like the quintessential southern bell had a speech impediment.  The only worse sounding thing I heard my first day in Mongolia was “throat-singing.”  I must admit, throat-singing was more pleasing than the more frequently heard Chinese “throat-clearings,” but there is a reason such musical delights haven’t found their way onto Casey Kasen’s Top 40 (just as there are similar reasons there are no southern belles from Australia).   Throat singing could only sound good after large qualities of fermented mare’s milk, another Mongolian custom I don’t need to experience again.   Mare’s milk and throat-singing aside, I really liked Mongolia.  Maybe I’ll retire here.  As for a faux-Southern dialect from an Australian, there are not enough cans of Fosters to temper that sound.
Getting off the Trans-Mongolian in Ulan Bator (which means “Red Hero”), we were met by Nemo, our local tour guide. A trained urologist, Nemo has found that since the fall of communism, he can make four times as much as a tour guide than as a skilled physician.  (Needless to say, I am sure health care in his country has suffered.)  He took us to our hotel where we checked in and freshened up after the 30 hour train ride.  An hour later, he led us on a walking tour of the city.  Ulan Bator is a neat place.  Granted, most of it is unpaved and where there are sidewalks, they’re broken up so badly that one is better off walking in the street (which are congested with cars) or walking where there are no sidewalks.  UB as the city is known has swelled since the fall of communism and now has well over a million people (even thought it has a small town feel).  Nemo took us to a small restaurant for lunch, then downtown where we got to stand in the square in front of the parliament building and gaze with awe at its oversized statues of Genghis (or Chinggis as he’s known in these parts) and a couple other Klans.  From the square, we viewed the “butterfly” office building, an ultra-modern structure that seems out of place.  And then there is the capital Post Office that appears to be sponsored by Coca-Cola.     We walked around town, and then took in a cultural performance where we were treated with wonderful music and dance numbers along with the less than wonderful throat singing.  The highlight was a woman contortionist that ties herself up so tightly in knots so that I could have taken home in my backpack.  She was amazing and my back hurt just thinking about her moves.  Afterwards, we ate at a Mongolian barbeque joint, where you pick out your meat and condiments from a buffet and have a chef prepare them.  There similar restaurants in the States, but I haven’t found one that serves horse (admittedly, I haven’t gone out of my way looking for one), but horse was one of the meat selections here, right between chicken and mutton. 
I was up early my second morning in Mongolia, looking for deodorant.  I learned two things in my 90 minute search: people here aren’t early birds and deodorant is a rare commodity in these parts. Later, after we were picked up by the tour bus, we stopped at a grocery store and I was able to find deodorant.  I’d brought a bag full of groceries (snacks and stuff along with some toothpaste), all of which came to the same price as my lone and small stick of deodorant.  But I’m sure the rest of the group appreciated the sacrifice I made to purchase some expensive deodorant.    After stopping at the store, we headed out into the countryside to Terelj National Park, a place that’s about 70 km from Ulan Bator and is filled with ger camps.   There are frequent tolls on this very rough road.  Obviously, the tolls were being spent on road repair.  Along the way, we made a number of stops to see and hold a trained eagle (using trained eagles to hunt is a big thing in Mongolia), to ride a double-humped camel (a lot easier than a single humped one and at least my camel was nicer than those I’ve been around in the past), and to sample fermented mare’s milk (a drink that even the hard-core alcoholics within our group turned their nose up at).  Nemo also had the driver stopped by a cairn built by Buddhists along the roadside at a mountain pass.  We were told we could walk around it three times, adding stones each time, and our prayers would be answered.  Not being Buddhists, most of the group spent the time having pictures taken as they jumped in the sky at the edge of the cliff, against a beautiful backdrop.  I did neither; instead I just stood and looked in awe at the scenery.  The mountains are beautiful; we could just as easily be in the Boulder Mountains of Idaho or the Ruby Mountains in Nevada or the Tushurs, south of Richfield in Utah. 

At the ger camp, our group splits up.  Some of them rented horses and took off for a ride into the mountains.  That evening, at dinner, we learned that some of these horses were just days from the glue factory or perhaps that Mongolian barbeque joint.  Instead of riding, I decided to hike.  The hills were calling my name.  Several of us, along with Nemo, headed high in the mountains, where the meadows were filled with wildflowers.  At the ridgeline, Xiatain and I continued on ahead of the group, checking out a Buddhist Temple in the next valley.  We had wanted to go to a prayer grotto on the mountain behind it, but those at the temple discouraged us, saying it was too dangerous.  It was also getting late.  We hiked back over the ridge and were back at the ger camp in time to begin the preparations for dinner.

There’s a Korean group in the camp and they have a goat roast scheduled for the evening.  They’ve bring the goat into the camp, still alive.  Nemo explains what will happen to the goat and ask if there are any of us interested in watching.  Daniel and I are curious.  If you’re going to eat meat, you might as well know how it is prepared,” Daniel summarizes as his reason for wanting to witness the process.  As a commodity trader who deals in pork futures, I’m sure this is a side of the business he never sees.  We’re invited into an empty ger (undoubtedly they have found that this is too traumatic for many of their guest to watch).  The goat is brought in; its legs have been broken.  A man hold’s the goat’s legs while another holds his mouth with one hand and rubs his head with his free hand, comforting the animal.  Another man (or an old boy, for he looks 14), takes a knife and quickly cuts a small incision in the goat’s abdomen.  He reaches inside the incision, sticking his arm half way inside the goat, grabbing the arteries from the heart and yanking them out.  The goat’s eyes get big for a second and he looks directly at me.  I am thankful when one of the Koreans steps in front of me to get a better look.  The goat quickly dies.  Nemo explains why they kill this way and how it is really more humane than the slitting of a throat and bleeding out of an animal as is done in Jewish and Islamic customs.  I’m not so sure that it is a more humane or peaceful death.  There was something haunting in those eyes and I although I like goat meat, I was glad that we didn’t have goat to add to the dumplings we made for dinner.  Yes, we made our own dinner, while attending a Mongolian dumpling-making class.  The dumplings were good, but nothing like my grandma’s chicken and dumpling recipe.

That night the stars were beautiful and appeared to be so close.  It was cold and the folks at the Ger Camp built fires in each of the gers so that we could stay warm.   I woke up at 4 AM, cold after having a nightmare (I was in Mongolia and my father had died and there were questions about what to do with Mom).  I was cold because I was only sleeping in a light silk sleep sack as it was hot with the fire in the stove that I’d gone to sleep without pulling on the extra covers.  Once the fire died, the ger cooled rapidly.  Ninety minutes later, I got up and woke Leo and then walked over to Xialin’s ger and knocked on her down (they’d wanted to see the sunrise) and the three of us headed up a ridge behind the ger Camp, where we froze while waiting for the sun.  It was cold (especially since I only had a light rain jacket), but beautiful.  After breakfast, we got to try our hand at shooting a long bow.  Needless to say, none of us will be riding with Genghis Klan any time soon.  We drove back into capital.  

That afternoon, we headed to the Yellow Rock Ger Camp on the outskirts of the city, a settlement area for those moving from the country.  In this capital city, most of the people don’t have running water and have to purchase water from wells that are situated every few blocks.  Likewise, there is no plumbing and people refer to their outhouses as “long drops.”  Checking one out, I can testify that it is an appropriate name, for the outhouses are fashioned from the traditional Asian squat toilets and if one slipped while going to the toilet, a long drop would be just the beginning of one’s problems.   The first home we visit is a ger (but a fancy one).  It was a traditional Mongol family and (as part of their contract with Intrepid Travel) they provided us with a traditional meal.  Afterwards, we get to play dress up and act like Mr. and Mrs. Genghis Klans. 
Next, we walk over to a Kazak family’s home.  On our way, we’re caught in a brief shower while the sun is shining.  Yulia tells us that in Russia, they call such an experience a “mushroom rain,” as the water and sun brings out the mushrooms.  As we walk in the shower, we pass one of the community wells where kids are hauling filled water containers in wagons and wheel barrows back to their homes.  The second family we visit is a Kazak, a member of a Muslim minority tribe.  While the woman feeds us a snack, we play another round of dress up with their traditional outfits.  Each tribe has a different type of dress as I’d see the following day in the Mongolian National Museum which has a large room with samples of each style.  Interestingly, in the 45 minutes we’re at the Kazak home, creating chaos with our dress up games, the man of the house sleeps on a bed on the corner.  Also interesting is the woman’s taste in art as there are several posters of Japanese Geishas tacked up on the walls.   
As we’re walking around, I ask Nemo about the name of this neighborhood (which is most famous as it houses Mongolia’s only mental health hospital—they still refer to it as an insane asylum).  Mongolia is big in mining and “Yellow Rock” sounds as if their might be gold here.  Instead, I learn the name has a more sinister meaning.  He points to a rock cliff and tells about how, during the purges of the 1920s and 30s, monks of the “Yellow sect” of Buddhism were thrown to their death off the cliffs by the Communists. 
After getting back to the hotel, Ana and I walk into town in search of warmer coats.  I was surprised to find prices for western-style clothes to be so expensive in Mongolia (I should have purchased such a coat in Vietnam or China).  Walking around, we got soaked in a rain and, while talking about the problems of spouse abuse, got to observe it happening, first-hand.  We both found it difficult to watch the man strike his wife (or maybe girlfriend, we had no way of knowing).  She did strike back and they both yelled at each other.  Not knowing the language, the customs, the legal system, or even the police phone number, we were helpless.
On our second night in Ulan Bator, we all went out to eat (as if we were still hungry after an afternoon mooching off the locals).  The food was good but there was way too much of it.  Then, several of us found ourselves at a karaoke bar.   Personally, I hate karaoke.  It is my belief karaoke, which began in the Land of the Rising Sun, is Japan’s revenge for losing the Second World War.  But, karaoke is now a world phenomena and I figured this was my one chance to experience it in Mongolia.  So I tagged along.   There were six of us and we had fun even if I stayed up way too late.

Our last day in Ulan Bator was a Sunday.  Nemo, who was one of the most helpful guides, had found a church for me to worship at.  This was especially nice of him since he was Buddhist and knew nothing about Christianity.  He asked about attending himself, but ended up not going and spending the time with his family.  I hiked over to the church for their 10 AM worship service (a two hour event).  The place was packed.   The “Eternal Love Church” had been planted by Koreans in 1992, after the end of communism in Mongolia.  There was a Korean Presbyterian mission group present at worship.   They sang many songs (in Mongolian and Korean) with familiar tunes, both hymns and contemporary songs (“Amazing Grace” and “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” were two familiar tunes in a strange language).  The Korean pastor preached and it was translated by a woman into Mongolian, which didn’t do me any good.  I did figure out that the sermon was based on Ezekiel 37 (the Valley of the Bones) and thought it a little ironic as I’d preached on Ezekiel 47 (the vision of the temple) when I was in Korea.   After church, I spoke with an Australian bloke and his Korean wife who are missionaries in Ulan Bator and learned there are over 200 churches in this city of 1.2 million, but most are small house churches.  There is a large new Catholic Church and also a rather large Orthodox Church, but during the Communist era, all religion was suppressed.  It’s only been in the last 20 years that churches as well as the Buddhist monasteries and the Muslim mosques (about 8% of Mongolia is Muslim) have been allowed to operate without strict government control or persecution. 
After church, I had the afternoon free.  It was nice to be on my own for the day.  I ate at a Korean restaurant (perhaps I was inspired by the preacher).  I had a wonderful meal consisting of perrigo (a spiced beef dish), rice, vegetables and pickles and a variety of kimchi.   After lunch, I walked downtown and spent nearly two hours in the Natural History Museum, which features many dinosaurs as well as displays on geology and wildlife and a Mongolian’s first cosmonaut.  Next, I headed over to the national museum, which was truly wonderful.  They had a major display on the Klans and Mongolian’s golden era, but their most interesting section dealt with Mongolia’s twentieth century history.  Mongolia attempted to wrestle independence from China in 1912, at the end of the Qing Dynasty.  China insisted on keeping Mongolia within its sphere, which encouraged Mongolian leaders developing a secret relationship with Russia. The Bolsheviks were sympatric to their cause and supported Mongolia becoming a separate country.  In 1924, Mongolia became the second self-identified Communist country in the world.  The museum portrays a balanced view of the communist years, showing the good and bad.  When the Communists took power, only about 2 percent of the Mongolian population was literate.  Under communism, literacy rose to over 96 percent.  However, such advances came at a high cost.  Mongolia experienced many purges during the communistic era.  Buddhist monks and priests were especially targeted and often killed.  In 1990, the country allowed political parties other than the communist into the political process.  Later, they began to liberalize the economy, allowing competition in the marketplace.  At the museum, I brought some gifts for people at home and two of my favorite souvenirs: a silk Mongolian tie with camels and gers and a Mongolian t-shirt.
I returned to the hotel where I meet up with my group.   We had a new member join us.  Jo was from Australia (which meant we Americans were no longer dominate as there were three of us and three of them).  At 6 PM, the ten of us left the hotel for the train station where we boarded the train for Ulan Ude, Russia.   In the morning, we’d have another border to cross, but that’s another story.  Stay tuned.