Archive for the ‘Mongolia (Fall)’ Category

Day 8 (Sat., Oct. 31): Mongolian Tricks and Treats

A sample of a pretty standard Mongolian music video, i.e. what you watch on state busses for hours on end as disco-lights make it all the more exciting, as we had done the day before:

 

I had a nice sleep-in kind of morning our last day in Ulaan Baatar: had breakfast, wrote postcards, gathered up my things. Romany made our game plan for the day and headed out the door around 11.

Winter Palace. We first walked a few kilometers to the south side of the city where the Mongolian kings lived in the wintertime. The multiple temples and all the artwork, artifacts, religious items, tapestries, and so on had been well preserved and made into more of a museum than an actual, living datsan or monastery, as many of the other historic temples in the city.

After a stroll around the snow-powdered grounds in what had become a pretty steady snowfall that lasted the whole day, we got to the building labeled “Part 2.” It was filled with huge fur and gold-threaded coats, diamond- and gem-covered crowns, and other really cool luxury items that filled the palace back in the day. They even had a pair of “musical chairs,” which played music when you sat on them, a gift from Russia’s tsar Nicholas; a display of German taxonomy; a ger made out of leopard skins; and the Mongolian declaration of independence from the early 1900s.

A well-spent $2.50 all-in-all. Walking away, we were patting ourselves on the back for seeing the Mongolian equivalent of, say, the National Smithsonian museums for so cheap, and then we realized that it’s free to get into the Smithsonians. Scam, I tell ya’. . . .

We tried our luck and were happy with the results in an Italian restaurant for lunch on our way back. I got bruschetta (sp?), garlic bread, a meat-sauce pasta dish, and a fairly good glass of red wine for about $11. Not the all-you-can eat bread sticks of the Olive Garden, but still not bad.

Toys! Our next stop was the International Intellectual Museum. Apparently, this Mongolian man has been sitting around for years and years making wooden puzzles based off traditional Mongolian patterns, and putting them in his two-story museum.

So that’s basically what it was. A cool German guy, about our age who was volunteering there for a year, gave us the tour and shared all the fun facts with us. Something like 336 possible solutions to a puzzle (what looks like an unbreakable block of little wood cubes) about the size of your palm. The largest metal chess set in the world (all pieces, tables, etc. puzzles). The smallest San Fran cable car theme chess set in the world. And so on.

If you could solve the famous turtle puzzle in 10 minutes that the founder made, you win $10,000 (US). I didn’t bother trying. He came out and did some magic tricks, and then went back into his little room. Funny little man.

All aboard to Russia. Around 4:30 we started to head back to the hostel/State Department Store area. Romany and I stocked up on souvenirs, groceries for the train, went back to the hostel for our stuff, and went to grab dinner.

We thought we’d enjoy a last imitation restaurant, as they are definitely in lesser supply in Irkutsk, so we tried “Texas Restaurant,” a 100% rip-off of I think the Church’s Chicken logo. Bad decision.

After placing our order with our faux-hawked, 20-something waiter, who failed to tell us at the beginning that they had 0% of the Texas-themed items, of which the menu was full, but instead, only had 2 Mongolian dishes available, of which we each ordered one, we waited literally 45 minutes in a basically empty, smoke-filled bar (admittedly, they had the décor right on. . . just not the service) before we finally inquired 1) where my beer was and 2) where our food was, seeing as our train was leaving within the hour and a half remaining before 9:00 p.m.

Finally, the food came about an hour after we got there, luckily it was rather good and filling–I had already been let down from expecting BBQ, beer, and a relaxed walk to the train station when we were done, so had it not been edible, I might have cried.

We speed-walked through Ulaan Baatar one last time in the dark, got to the train station, found that the train was to arrive in 10 minutes, got on once it came, and pulled out of the station, Siberia-bound about a half hour later. Sweet survival. . . .

Days 9-10 (Sun.-Mon., Nov. 1-2): Long ride home

Ze French. Our compartment-mates were a French couple (who spoke really good English). “Yes, so oui queet our jobs [stock brokers] to take zees wourld tour,” they said. “Oui ‘ave been wouanting to do zees for a vary long time.” I think in the French translation, “world tour” means traveling outside the Euro-zone, so their trip from Japan to China, Mongolia, Russia, and Tibet counted.

They actually weren’t even French. He was half Spanish, half Italian, and she was half German, half Moroccan. And they hated the French and were constantly reminding us about how lazy the French are and how they abuse their system, and so on and so forth. So our conversations about politics, education systems, healthcare, etc. were interesting with everyone looking at France from the outside in. Ohhh les français. . . .

It was also fun to eavesdrop on their conversation and realize that I hadn’t forgotten French. I accidentally laughed a few times when they said funny/ironic/snooty things to each other.

The same route, just backwards. Dodging aggressive Mongolian moneychangers, passport control, and customs were no issue. Except that the little thermometer (blue gun looking thing that they point at everyone entering Russia to test for H1N1) said that I should have been dead with how low my temperature was. The Russian woman in gloves and a face mask operating the thing didn’t look baffled.

Naushki was just as unexciting as we left it, so we spent about 30 minutes of our 6 hours there outside, 3 minutes in the bathroom, and the rest of the time doing homework as our French ami’s explored.

We played a game of cards (“Oui just laave to play cartes, but it is too bed, becaause we do not knouuw many games!”) while we had beer (“Oui teenk zat eet is razzer strahnge, how Americains are forbeeden to ‘ave alcohol before zey are 21 years old. I cannot imagine what eet is like to not ‘ave a meal weezzout a glass of wine.”) that they sold on the cart that came through (“Zees is interesting, zat zey ‘ave more alcohol in zees Russian beer!”). Welcome to Russia, Frenchies.

Once we pulled in to Irkutsk early Monday morning, Romany and I sent them on their way to their hostel (we told them it would be easier to to just walk across the bridge rather than try to find the right bus) and then found our marshrutka (van-bus-taxi thing).

Home sweet Irkutsk.

Day 6-7 (Wed.-Thurs., Oct. 29-30): Getting out of dodge

Family life. Our third family consisted of the mom and dad, an older son or two who weren’t around most of the time, assumably tending the livestock, a five-year-old son, a nineteen-year-old son, and an older daughter.

The mom was really nice and friendly, and insisted on serving us only western-style tea with tea bags in Christmas-print mugs. She cooked good food, which included the noodles and meat, but with fried potato slivers and cabbage. Her sweater-vest reminded us of the uniforms that Michael’s Craft Store employees wear.

The dad was in the middle of making a bunch of rope out of dried leather hides. It was neat to watch the two-day-long process of making several meters of rope, which were tied between the rods of the ger structure to straighten them out. He was quiet otherwise, and usually made himself invisible in the family’s other ger.

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The five-year-old was a cutie, but there are only so many games of sword fights, gun fights, ninja fights, sword-and-gun fights, and sword-and-ninja fights that can keep two twenty-year-olds entertained in the Mongolian steppe. Some other gracious tourist had apparently equipped the rascal with basic English vocabulary including, “You! Me! Come here! No!” which he would cleverly link with gestured explanations of how we were to die at his all-powerful hands.

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Romany and I eventually had to add some subtitling to our games: a WWII-type guerrilla scene turned into a strange mix of jedi fights with some Gandalf and “Wingardium levioooosa” exclamations thrown in there. When I became a horse, with galloping sound effects to boot, the kid’s version of a Little Red Riding-hood reenactment degenerated into a very amusing (for us two Americans, that is) Monty-Python-esque escape from the French. . . “Run awayyy. . . .” Ohh, good times.

The daughter generally busied herself with making noodles and pozi and expressing amusement at what her youngest brother had suckered the two Americans into doing, whether it be us losing, “Agaaain?!” to him in Connect Four, tic-tac-toe, or a rules-rewritten game of checkers.

The nineteen-year-old, Saanjan, turned out to be really cool, not that we had any reason to doubt that. He knew some English, showed us his favorite shows, wrestlers, and music videos (Kelly Clarkson and P. Diddy!) on TV, got out his high school yearbook and pictures from last June and told us a bit about his school life, and showed us a much more fun and skill-involved game with the ankle bones akin to jacks.

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Camelback. Since we had declined the horse ride of the day, we had extra time to kill on day 3 of the tour, so it was good that we had the younger family members to entertain us/babysit.

In the afternoon after lunch, though, we took our ride on the camels with Saanjan, who accompanied us on horseback. We were supposed to make it to the Khadagt Khoshuu holy place, but it was 10 km away, according to our guidebook, and the weather had gotten a lot colder, and the wind was wicked, which long underwear and two pairs of jeans didn’t help stop from freezing my knees. So, instead, we made it to the top of a nearby mountain, got some photos, and then headed back.

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Riding on the camels was really great. They bob their heads a lot when they walk (or run, which is also funny) and have a sort of glide to their motion. Mariana, the Scot we’d met on the train and stayed with in the same hostel, had said (in her great accent), “I hear i’s a lot like shagging. I mean, what, when else do you really ‘ave to use those muscles?” Good point, I suppose.

Saanjan, as promised in the guidebook, liked to sing, and he sang a traditional Mongolian Long Song as we went for part of the way, which was really neat.

[Video coming soon.]

Part of the deal with singing is that if someone sings a song, it’s obligatory for everyone else in the company to sing one, which for Mongolians, isn’t a problem, because the best nomadic singers know upwards of 200-300 unique verses to traditional tunes. So the only thing that Romany and I had up our sleeves was the Peter, Paul and Mary version of “If I Had a Hammer,” which turned out alright. No video for that one.

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We got back soon enough to our hot tea and the oven with time to settle in for a night of continued playing with the young’uns. Finally somewhat used to the pace of life and general practice of living in a ger, we went to bed on our last night slightly bummed that we were leaving already the next day, but also more than ready to get back to not-wooden beds.

Leaving. So the problem, or rather anomaly, of the fact that we had not at all followed the itenerary of going from family 1, to 2, to 3, but instead, went 2, to 3, to 1. This generally wasn’t an issue, apart from the fact that we had to guess what we were seeing, who we were with, and worst of all, how/if we were going to have a ride back to the bus station, where we might have tickets waiting for us to get back to UB.

These questions still hanging over our heads, we got our stuff ready late in the morning on day 4, thinking our jeep would arrive between 2 and 3 in order to get us to the bus station (we had no idea how far away we were from Sansar, the bus stop). The lady had said our time of departure would be 4:00 p.m. So we were ready at 2:00. Then it was 3:00. Then it was 3:15. We asked how long it would take to get there, and we got a 30-minutes guess. Ok. No sweat yet. Then it was 3:30. Then it was kind of panic time.

I, of course, realized that there was really only so much we could do. At the same time, I was a bit more adamant than Romany about the fact that we could do at least try to do something to make sure that we could be back in Ulaan Baatar by the end of the night. I finally found the tour agency number hidden on our little “I’m-on-this-tour” ID Card which we never used, but apparently the mom didn’t get cell phone reception except on the tops of mountains. So I kind of resumed the “I don’t know what to do” pacing/dance.

3:40.

3:45.

3:50.

Then there was a sound of a motor in the distance. Jeep! There is a God! Not that I was seriously doubting or anything. It was just more clear we weren’t completely on his bad side that day.

The driver relayed the news that our bus wasn’t until 4:40, and we pulled into Sansar at 4:15, at which point my blood pressure slowly began its climb back down to human levels. Going along some back street, we slowed down for some reason, and a lady got in the car. She was smiley and said cheerily “Helloo!!” We were confused.

She bought us tea in the cafe, where we sat and waited the 15 minutes for the bus to arrive. We asked, “Bileti?” (“Tickets?”) a few times, but she gave us the “just wait” wave of the hand. Blood pressure resumed to climb, but wasn’t totally out of hand, only because I had the sense that all the random arrivals, pickups, waiting had to be planned, meaning that there indeed was a plan, meaning that at some point, we’d be ok.

And ok we were. The lady, who we eventually figured out hadn’t brought her cap uniform that day (I mean, what’s it to her? Just a cap. . .), talked to the bus driver, and we got on, no problems, and breathed our final sigh of relief once we were comfortably sitting in our two seats in the back row.

Friday night party-bus to UB. Not really. Instead, try amazingly awesome put-together state-run bus to UB. So we were in the back row, which was a row of five seats, slightly elevated above the rest of the seats. A drunk guy, who somehow the driver didn’t kick off, got on, and lay down across the boxes at the feet of our neighboring back-row passengers. Funny, and didn’t bother anyone, so no harm, no foul, I suppose.

Romany and I got out our hard-boiled eggs, cheese and crackers, peanuts, and chocolates that we hadn’t touched the whole trip, and had a nice dinner as it started getting dark around 6:30. And then the most amazing thing in the world happened.

The bus lit up with multi-colored, flashing disco lights. I kid you not. The comedy programming on the HD flatscreen changed to music videos (see Mongolian music videos, exhibit A and exhibit B for an idea of the awesomeness that this involved). The rest of the back-row burst into murmured song, going along with the generally jovial atmosphere.

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We exchanged some thumbs up and chuckles with our back-row collective, which, as a matter of fact, contained the only passengers making any noise whatsoever. The drunk guy’s merriment, though he was sleeping, was apparently contagious.

Around two hours later, the pitch-black surroundings of the steppe changed back into the city lights, and we rolled into Dragon Auto Station in Ulaan Baatar Sweet Ulaan Baatar, and couldn’t be happier or more fatigued.

So close. . . . We’d promised ourselves a celebratory dinner out at one of the great, low-priced imitation restaurants of UB as soon as we got back, but we were way too tired to enjoy it. So we decided to get the city bus back to the hostel.

However, when we inquired at the ticket counter (Russian language–so handy) whether or not the 23 and 36 numbers could get us to where we needed to go, we were told that one of those bus numbers didn’t exist, and that the other one was already closed, seeing as it was 9:00 at night already. The impression of Ger-to-Ger/the rep there, unchanging ’til the end: LIARS!

So we wandered to the nearest city bus stop, asked a few people but to no avail. So we just started walking towards the next stop/the hostel. After all it was only 6 km, and we only had like $5 on us total to be ripped off if someone wanted to mug us. That end of “Peace Avenue” was dark and had the bad urban feel, most definitely. We ran into two girls who were students who had studied English, and who walked with us to the stop. They told us which busses would work, and got on theirs. But that’s when all the busses started driving by with their lights off.

Bad situation. We asked another lady, who chased down a few busses pulling out of the stop to try to see if they would get us to our side of town. She finally expressed, in Russian luckily, that we were probably out of luck, and asked if we wanted help getting a cab. We agreed, and when she got there, she asked if she could ride along to her stop, on the way. Again, we agreed, realizing it was the least we could do, and plus, would probably not get overcharged as foreigners if we had a Mongolian with us.

Great success. We stumbled into the hostel, exasperated, around 10:15 p.m., sent our “I’m alive” emails and tweets, and drifted into a deep, deep sleep in mattress’ed (!!) beds.

 

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Another 350 plug!

Day 5-6 (Wed.-Thurs., Oct. 28-29): Wandering and wondering

Last place. On our horse-ride from ger one to two, my horse turned out to be the stubborn one. I’m blaming it on the fact that the father (who was leading Romany’s horse next to his the whole way) and son both had leather whips and the Mongolian accent of how to say giddy-up (“Chshuuu”), whereas I had a rope and no practice time and no Mongolian accent. So anyways, I straggled in a minute after the rest of the company arrived at ger two, we tied the horses, and went inside to begin the process again.

Unfamiliar faces and familiar places. The ger was occupied by a really old grandma with a spine that ended up being higher than her head and a large protruding lower tooth, her son (the father) and his wife, their two daughters (about 3 and 16), their younger son (14), their older son (maybe a few years older than Romany and I) and his wife, and two guests. Plus us four, just arrived. Could have filmed the Mongolian version of the sitcom “Full Ger” on location.

After a quick, second round of get-to-know-you across languages with milk-tea and cookies, and just as we were starting to realize how much our bodies were enjoying the relaxation of being off the horses, we were summoned outside again. When Romany and I shot each other horrified glances when we realized we were getting back on the horses, they laughed. We did too, but really behind gritted teeth.

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If the physical difficulty of being bounced along like a rag doll on a wooden saddle wasn’t enough, then going back exactly where we came from definitely did the trick of wearing us out. But, as this was our holiday, we made the most of it, and got to see the land we had just crossed in a few different lights.

The path we had made from ger one to two consisted of us crossing to the other side of a long, narrow strip of sand dunes and continuing north along the eastern side of them to Swan Lake, surrounded by horses and then turning westward and crossing the length of a long and wide valley, with high and rocky mountains on the northern side, in which ger two was nestled at the valley’s eastern end, and with gradually rising hills and mountains to the south, to which we’d travel to ger three the next day.

Tracing our horseshoe-steps, father and son number one herded a herd of horses from the field adjoining ger two, while father two led Romany and I across some hills as a shortcut back to Swan Lake. Father and son one left the horses they’d just herded at the lake, we said our farewells, and then they rode off home. Father number two gathered another group of 25-30 horses, which we helped herd back in the direction of his ger (number two, that is, on the far eastern side of the valley).

About a third of the way there, though, he dropped us off at the gers of one of his other sons, where Romany and I had tea, talked (the wife knew some English and spent most of her time in Ulaan Baatar working), and bought two handmade, silk bags for about four dollars each. We would have got some more, but we hadn’t brought enough money with us.

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Final tour. The father returned, and the horses were gone, meaning we assumed he brought them back to his field himself, since he could do it easier without having to worry about his two tourist-guests. When we stepped back outside, the sun had seemingly fallen considerably lower in the sky, and the late afternoon light played beautifully on the mountains and dunes. Unfortunately, my battery on the one camera I had with me was running low.

Instead of going in the homeward direction, we went back to Swan Lake, where the father enthusiastically took our pictures with the dunes and the setting sun in the background.

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We finally began our journey back home, with only the moon in the still-light sky.

But, though we were full-on galloping, the half-darkness made it seem the ground went by slower beneath the horses’ hooves, since night was quickly falling. Nevertheless, we stopped at the monument to the wise Mongolian Queen Manduhai atop a hill/mountain, as promised.

The last hour of our total 6 hours of horseback riding on our first full day in the wilderness (wolves are not uncommon) was by far the hardest. Not only did every bone and muscle of my body already hurt from the first five hours, from fingers and toes to tailbone and back, but we were galloping for the whole last hour, and since Romany’s horse was still being led side-by-side, and I was on my own, that meant that I was stuck doing all the whipping, coaxing, and, obviously, riding myself. Which made it all the more authentic, I suppose. But I hurt.

Still, galloping across a valley with silhouetted mountains against the black-blue sky with the moon standing out against it, in Mongolia of all places, is categorically a great experience, and as much of a toll it took on my body, being alone out in the open, slightly behind the father and Romany up ahead, is probably as “alone,” population density wise, as I’ll ever be, which was a totally unique feeling.

Staying for a night, off in the morn’. In near darkness, we crawled back into the ger and plopped down on our little wooden stools. Somehow, we managed after another delicious meal of noodle-and-meat soup to keep up social interaction with the family and especially the kids, with whom we played the traditional ankle bone game (if rolled like a die, an ankle bone can land on one of four of its sides, which each represent a different animal–sheep, goat, camel, horse–and accordingly different moves across a board, also constructed of the ankle bones, for instance, in the shape of a horse race trail), thumb wrestled, and watched Mongolian TV. Our energy level was probably related to the two huge bowls of the best tasting (again, homemade) yogurt I’ve ever had, which we each had.

Soon, we piled our stuff in the family’s car and drove up the side of the mountain to the family’s second ger, where despite my physical exhaustion, I was never able to get much more than an hour of uninterrupted sleep. Part of the problem was the fact that adjusting positions on the bed out of discomfort was made much more difficult by my out-of-commission abs and legs.

Regardless, we got up to a bright, sunny morning considerably warmer than 24 hours earlier. The younger son had driven up the hill to get our bags, since we were taking the horses back down, much to our dismay. Since my butt bones hadn’t developed calluses yet, it was a rather unpleasant wake-up call, but the warm breakfast and yogurt from the mom somewhat made up for it back in the ger.

 

The family, seeing us in our obvious soreness, hobbling around and bent over ourselves almost as much as the grandma, bless their hearts (in all seriousness), offered us a ride in the car since they were bringing the kids to school. Romany and I looked at each other and agreed in a second.

Thirty minutes later, we pulled into the, well, “front yard” of the final ger of our adventure, still sore, but much less so, had we declined the carpool and gone with the horses.

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Day 4-5 (Tues.-Wed., Oct. 27-28): Out on the Mongolian steppe

Nomad hospitality. A mentally tumultuous hour after our arrival in Sansar, Bulgan Province, we were received into our first ger. Climbing out of the jeep with our stuff, the mother and daughter, having come out to greet us, helped us get our stuff inside the ger.

They showed us our seats and put out milk-tea (hot, water-diluted milk steeped in tea leaves with salt added) and the cookie bowl filled with little, thumb-sized fried bread biscuits; a milk product made by scraping the layer off the top of boiling milk and by letting it dry and cool into a white, crumbly, bendable sheet of almost creamy, almost tasteless, well, food; and a mass of a granola-like substance that was also a byproduct of boiled milk that was aged a different way (crunchy and mostly tasteless, if not sour).

We did the “well, here we are” sigh, awkwardly laughed with our hosts, and then remembered we had our phrase lists at hand, so we offered the greetings, “San ban uu” (“How are you?”) and the more traditional Mongolian “Ta saihan zusadzh ban uu?” (“Are you having a good winter?”). We did names, where we were from (Amerik), said we were students in Russia.

The mom went out, so we tried some more phrases on the daughter, probably about 12 years old. Figured out she went to school and liked her teachers. Also happened to have the vocabulary to say “I mom teacher,” which I’m fairly sure was understood. Next, the son came in. He showed us pictures of him at Mongolian-style wrestling matches and the medals he’d won. He also tried out some English on us, which was also neat.

But soon he left and we were left in the ger alone. Romany and I figured out that this family mostly matched the description of the family we should have stayed with the next day: the son “likes to wrestle;” the daughter studies, but in the wrong grade; and the mother, who we’d heard humming, “sings a song.”

Ger life. We exchanged our first excited impressions and identified different parts of the ger we had learned about in the seminar. Gers are built out of 4-12 hatched walls, six feet tall, which form a circle covered in layers of felt (1 or 2 depending on the season). The roof is made out of a shallow, cone-like structure with 86 wooden rods, all beautifully decorated in bright orange, blue, and green paints, coming out of a central wooden ring, which is probably 10-12 feet from the ground over the center of the ger. The top of the cone can be covered or uncovered with felt depending on the weather and how much smoke doesn’t make it through the chimney out of the oven, also located in the center of the ger and run on burning cow-dung. Interesting smell.

If the ger is a clock, the door is located at 6:00, which faces south. The right side (12:00 – 6:00) is the female-household-related side, containing cabinets with kitchen items, food, and linens, and the left side (6:00-12:00), the male-important-things side, where the family saddle, valued items, and guests are located. 12:00 is where the man of the house sits, his family on his left, the guests on his right, and the table between him and the central oven. As a man, I held higher status than Romany for our trip, meaning I had to go in the door first and sit closer to the 12:00 position than she, and I noted I was always served first, be it a meal, tea, or a horse. Beds (wooden benches about 3 feet by 6 feet with maybe a thin pad topped with an oriental rug) are lined up at 12:00, 3:00, and 6:00. At 1:00 is the sacred area, where a Buddha statue, prayer wheel, picture of the Dalai Lama, candles, and other religious items are housed in a glass case.

The gers are brightly colored: the walls are draped with oriental rugs, tapestries, silk, or other material; the wooden parts of the ger (structure, doors, cabinets) are carefully painted; even the linoleum patterns were usually more exciting than a fake tile or stained wood look.

Their functionality is efficient, which is appropriate, given the nature of life involving a transfer of location every 4-6 months: the beds are also sofas, kitchen surfaces, and dining furniture, during the day; the cabinets hold the covers for the night during the day, and alternately the kitchenware and food during the night; the fire, which is sacred, in the oven heats the house and is used for cooking; bowls are basically the only dishware, with the exception of the random silverware or coffee mugs that the host families have accrued for foreigner-use, which, actually, when offered, was a really nice gesture.

So after sitting for a while, taking in our first impressions of the new aspects of the daily life we’d be living on the trip, we didn’t know what to do. So we took a step outside to see where everyone had gone. We could hear the family in the ger a few yards away from the one we had been in, but decided not to intrude. After all, what could we say?

It was hot-ish back in the ger, so we stayed outside, enjoying the brisk wind and observed our surroundings in the Khogno Khaan Natural Reserve Area, as our guidebook told us. Two gers. A droll-looking camel tied to a string draped between two stakes in the ground (the standard method of keeping horses/camels tied up) about 30 yards off. Low mountains on all sides, but really far away, excepting the hills situated behind the dunes to the east. Oh, and the jeep.

And then in between: steppe.

The friendly nomad reappears. Our driver appeared out of the second ger and invited us back in the first ger. We figured out he wanted the money to get our tickets for us, though handing over the combined equivalent of $60 or so for transportation home (to Ulaan Baatar, that is), we still didn’t know how we’d get the tickets, seeing as somehow the cap lady had been reduced to “No,” and we still didn’t know if it was understood that we were on the four-day “Quest for the Last Emperor” itinerary, and at a different ger than we thought we’d be, and what, if any, implications that had for our ticketing needs. Regardless, the $60 were now in the jeep driving away with our friendly nomad.

The tour begins. We were served a huge plate of puzi (Buryatian “buzi,” Russian “pozi,” but in the end, the same food–boiled noodle-like shells filled with meat about half the size of a palm, though the Mongolian version is slightly smaller than the Buryatian variation we’d already tried in September), and it was made clear that we were supposed to eat them all. Fortunately, we were hungry, and they were really good.

Soon, the father pulled up on his sputtering little red motorcycle. After quick introductions and milk-tea, round 2, in the ger, he motioned for us to dress warm, pointed to the phrase in the phrase book meaning “Today is a nice day,” and made a motorcycle gesture.

Conclusion: Today was a nice day, but we needed to dress warm because we were going for a ride on the motorcycle.

I was fine with said conclusion, except I had paid for travel by ox cart to see and/or participate in an ovoo (sacred pile of stones, bones, wood, and silk scarves on top of a mountain) worship ceremony. Though I’m still not sure whether or not I totally got my money’s worth, since motorcycles are common in the rest of the world, whereas Mongolian religious practices are not, instead, Romany and I got a ride on the back of his sputtering little red motorcycle to the top of a hill where a monument stood (we still don’t know what it was, apart from a structure present outside of most Buddhist temples we’d seen–it wasn’t listed in the itinerary).

On the way back, about 25 km round trip (I know, sorry Mom, no helmets, but it wasn’t very fast–Irkutsk traffic probably ends up being more dangerous), we drove past an ovoo. Instead of having a worship ceremony, Mr. Otgonbayar just honked at it. No conclusion.

Warm evening, cold night, colder morning. Romany and I, despite the wooden beds, immediately fell into a deep sleep after returning home and napped until dinner time, just after sunset. We had fresh, homemade noodles in broth with meat. (Most of the meat we had on the trip was beef, though there was another one we think might have been goat.)

We sat and observed the nighttime business of changing the house over, the kids doing some of their homework, and interacting with their parents. I wrote in my journal for part of that, and, I think, remember writing “tender family moments.” But tender family moments they were indeed. Sensing our level of tiredness from a day of generally not knowing what was happening, culture shock to the extreme, they cleared off the beds, added pillows (rather hard, probably full of camel-hair), and let us make our sleeping bags to go to bed.

It was a tough night of sleep since 1) the beds were very hard, 2) the lights stayed on for a while, 3) about an hour after we’d laid down, 5 people came over to talk and have tea, and 4) the fire went out about two-thirds of the way through the night, and there were no matches left. When we finally got out of our beds, frozen to the bone, the family included, I was wearing all the clothes I had brought (minus the extra t-shirt and pair of boxers) and still cold. Romany and I went outside to see if that would be warmer doing jumping jacks:

[Video coming soon.]

It was only partially helpful. Luckily, the daughter had run to the store for matches. Pause. Literally, ran. By foot. Like 2 km each way. Baller. Too bad all we could say was “Thanks” (“Bayarlaa” for those of you working on your Mongolian). So we were happily thawed in front of the oven, sipping milk-tea (suutei tsai) and having a breakfast of larger cookie-biscuits (boortsog) within the hour.

On the move. Sensing we were due for a move, like true nomads, we packed our bags, and were ready to go when they led us outside where four horses had appeared that morning. The father and the son took our large packs on their horses, and we mounted ours.

Now, at the orientation, the agency rep had told us that we needed to tell the family if we weren’t experienced on the horse, and that we needed to have a little practice time. So we used the phrases “I ride a horse bad” and “I have never ridden a horse,” and the gesture of “one,” to indicate that we had each only ridden once. They laughed. And gave the thumbs up. And we were off, trotting across the step.

Basically, I had somehow not arranged my jeans in the correct fashion when I was getting on, because for the next forty or fifty minutes, with every bounce of the horse, well, I’ll say, “I hurt.” There. I’m fairly sure that the entire half hour I was grimacing as you’d see in a cartoon, which I think the prepubescent son, laughing (to my general displeasure), took for my being afraid of being on the horse or for the general pain of the behind against the hard wooden saddle.

We stopped for a bathroom break, and I was able to readjust, but the bulk of the damage had already been done, and the lower half of my body’s bone, muscle, joints, and tissues painfully bumped along for the rest of the 2-3 hours, on our way to ger number two.

Day 4 (Tues., Oct. 27): But. . . there was no lady with a cap. . .

I consider myself someone who’s ok just “going with it,” “easygoing” as it were.

But, when in a country, of which you don’t speak the language, when you find yourself half-stranded at a bus stop in a town of population of 100 (?), and the person described to you as “lady wearing a cap” with a name of a long stream of unfamiliar phonemes isn’t there, things change.

To rewind seven hours or so: Romany and I got up at 6, had breakfast, double checked that we had everything, checked out of the hostel, and walked out the door at 7:00 a.m. to our taxi waiting for us while crossing our fingers we’d be back safe and sound four days later. Our hostel hosts at the Golden Gobi (the best in UB–no joke) let the taxi driver know where we were headed, and sent us off.

A quick note on the Ger-to-Ger program, to clarify: we’re basically on our own until we get to the first family, who takes care of us, takes us to the second, who likewise gets us to the third. Tourists on their programs are supposed to meet the Ger-to-Ger rep (lady in the cap) at the on-location bus station who helps arrange a jeep to the first ger from the bus station, a jeep back to the bus station at the end of the tour, and who gets money from tourists to buy their bus tickets back to Ulaan Baatar. So step one: get to the bus to the village.

We had a map of how to get to the bus stop, albeit made out of poorly-constructed boxes and lines in Microsoft Word, meaning not terribly useful. However, good enough, so that when our taxi driver was getting ready to turn off the main road, I had enough of an intuition to make some general I-don’t-know-Mongolian-but-I-need-to-say-something noises (more of these to come) in the back seat, and withdraw our guidebook with a picture/name of the bus station (“Dragon bus station”) included.

“Ohh,” murmured the taxi driver, maneuvering the car into the other lane. We got there a few minutes later, about 50 minutes before our bus was scheduled to leave.

The bus station was a wide, dirt parking lot in front of a brick building with the label “Auto-Station” illuminated in red lights. It was still dark, but getting lighter. There were small stands of for-the-road goods and snacks. Families of urban-dressed folk were saying their happy goodbyes to those traditionally dressed, getting on the buses, and vise-versa. As with my general Mongolian/non-Russian Asian experience in general, the goodbyes involved more smiles than their Russian counterparts.

Needless to say, stepping out of the cab, Romany and I stood out with our tall, bright red and yellow backpacking packs and with our wide, half-eager, half-scared eyes, looking for the bus labeled Ovörkhangai-Arvaikheer. Irrelevant, but perhaps fun, fact: if we didn’t know Cyrillic, we might have thought we were looking for a bus that sounded like “Obepxahta-backwards-N-Apba-backwards-N-x33p.” We found the bus, handed over our tickets, and took our seats. Part one, done. Whew. Now for the watching for our stop. . . .

Now the lady at the travel agency told us that we should get off the bus at the first stop, at Sansar, which would be five hours after we left. So we stopped for gas, but that obviously wasn’t our stop.

Then we stopped so people could get off the bus and pee on the side of the road (80% of the bus participated), but that definitely wasn’t it.

After that, we stopped on the side of the road again, but it was only so that one guy with some lumber could get off, but since we figured it wasn’t a “‘stop’ stop,” and since even if it was, it looked far too uninhabited (i.e. the side of a country highway in Mongolia–mountains and wild animals the only objects in sight) for our taste, we didn’t want to get off anyways.

Finally we pulled into what looked like a little strip of 10 cafés and grocery shops in a “town.” Only problem: it had only been 4 hours. Since everyone else got off to use the real bathroom (meaning side of the road for men #1, or the outhouse a stone’s throw away for woman and other business), and since the bus driver said enthusiastic- and positive-sounding Mongolian things when we said “Sansar?” and pointed downwards, we figured, why not? Part two, bus ride, done. We think. Whew? Now to find the lady in the cap. . . .

As I’ve already ruined the surprise of that one, yes, no lady in the cap. Romany and I look at each other. Then turn our heads the other way. Assess surroundings. Small town. Then we look behind us. Road, two houses, Mongolian wilderness. Repeat the looking from side to side. Then we kind of take two and a half steps one direction, look the other way, make a quarter of a step to go that way, then kind of turn around to make sure the other one is still there. In the general sense, you can call this “not knowing what to do.”

I had to use the facilities, so I found a nice patch of side-of-the-road. Meanwhile, traditionally-dressed nomad approaches Romany back near the bus doing the “not knowing what to do” dance, albeit a slightly less concerned version of it than mine, and says to her “girtugir.” She figures it out: “Ger to Ger.” I return from the restroom. She updates me on the developments. Cool. But where’s the lady with the cap who we’re supposed to pay for our jeep and tickets back?

No big deal, we say to each other, not really believing it. The guy is showing us to his jeep, knew our agency’s name, but otherwise, really, has no other credentials. Speaking of the agency, my feelings about “Ger to Ger” at this point: LIARS!

So we’re driving down Mongolian highway x, the town gone by as quickly as it came up, thumbing through our 11 pages of Mongolian-English phrases (which, we would soon note, didn’t include rudimentary feelings of desperation like “Why?” “Who?” and “I don’t know”). Doing the “not knowing what to do” drill, sitting in our seats, Romany and I agree that I shall have the wherewithal to initiate communicative exchanges number one through three.

1. “You?” Point to the fuzzy picture. “Ee-cheen-hohr-lu?” (that was the name of cap lady). Friendly nomad replies with a mighty vicious shake of the head, as if “Oh no, no, definitely not.” Right. Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who relates in an affirmably negative way to Ms. Ichinhorloo, Absent Cap Lady, with whom our rendez-vous was planned. Hm. (Incidentally, gestures may have international cognates, but I beg to differ with whomever it was, who said that they mean or connote the same things across languages.)

2. Point to Romany and myself. “Ger?” Point to fuzzy picture of host father number one. “B-yam-bah-tog-oh?” (host father number one’s name). Friendly nomad replies with another shake of the head, but added in the hand motion of “cut it out,” as if “Nahh, not goin’ there.” Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who is in fact, not taking us to our first home stay. Panic level somehow still not activated.

2b. Friendly nomad points to picture of host father number two, Mr. Otgonbayar, and waves down the road. Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who is taking us to our second home stay. Slight relief. However the question arises: does he know that’s wrong/does that matter? Answer still unknown.

3. Look up word for “tickets.” Russian/French cognate, thank God. Look up word for “bus.” Again, score. “Bileti? Avtobus?” Point backwards. “Ulaan Baatar?” Friendly nomad replies with nod of the head, as if,”Oh yeah I gotcha,” then points to himself, and then does the “later, later,” wave of the hand. Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who will take our money later and who knows that we want to buy tickets to Ulaan Baatar, although unfortunately with whom, due to the Great Wall of Language Barrier, it will be impossible to arrange a rendez-vous in order to get these tickets.

If two years of a Russian major and two months in Irkutsk weren’t enough of a practice in dealing with contradictions and irony, I suppose I’d been put in the right situation. Regardless, I’ll spare relating the ensuing stream of consciousness because I don’t remember (or frankly, want to remember) how I managed to convince myself that, well, probably, we’d be, to some degree, at some point in time, “okay.” We had paid a tour agency after all, right?

Insert cliffhanger here.

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Day 3 (Mon., Oct. 26): Dollarpower

Dundundundun, dundundundunDUNdun–Downtown. Multiple people had recommended going to the black market in Ulaan Baatar, despite the long walk there and the so-called best pickpockets in the world that hang out waiting for unknowing tourists. Stopping at the post office along the way to pick up postcards with the famous large Mongolian stamps depicting exotic animals (in this case, wild boars), we took our walk down Peace Avenue.

The part-industrial, part-high-rise/new-tech, part-overexcited-advertising aspects of the city more or less made me realize that this was my idea about what an East Asian city à la Beijing would be like, grandiose, snowy mountains looming to the south of the city and all. Granted, in UB, everything was on a slightly downsized level. The pollution wasn’t completely overbearing, glass skyscrapers and new apartment buildings didn’t soar quite as high as other places, the Olympic training center wasn’t a full-scale, made-for-2008 stadium, the face-masked population didn’t exert your typical big-city tension or unfriendliness.

On the note of random communication with strangers on the street, not only did people look at you (perhaps because you’re 1) not Asian and 2) not wearing a face-mask–just asking for the H1N1), but also, for the most part, people were willing and sometimes enthusiastic about helping with directions.

What’s more, to Romany’s and my surprise, Russian actually proved useful in real life. If we had to ask “English? Russki?” to a few people at a bus stop, we usually got about 1 in 4 or 5 who could help with whatever fractured or oftentimes almost-fluent knowledge of either language.

Black Market. After wandering around a few pretty sketchy alleys in the general area of where the market was supposed to be, I finally spotted the entrance. We stuffed our moneys into or socks and gloves, double-checked our pockets for any valuables, paid our 50-cent entrance fee, and went in.

About five people with handheld racks and trays of leather gloves assaulted us right after we got in, shouting their prices in whatever languages they knew. Luckily, gloves weren’t on the shopping list, so we breezed past obstacle number one with no loss of momentum. Then a kind young gentleman dressed in black coming in our direction said rather clearly, “F— you,” while looking me in the eye. Romany and I turned to each other, continuing on, and laughed.

The complex is pretty huge. Two big, blue, plastic-looking, two-story airplane hangar type structures housed the food markets, and the multi-acre property surrounding was home to rows upon rows of leather boots, gloves, wallets; (fake-brand) clothing, jackets, camel-hair socks, purses, luggage; housing goods; Buddhist religious items; antique-looking and Soviet-era items; and more. All for dirt cheap.

We realized we hadn’t brought enough money to satisfy our bargain-getting-value out of Mongolia, namely, from the UB Black Market, but assessed our options as we browsed for an hour or so. My final decisions included: a $25 heavy, Russian-looking, winter jacket with the label “Jack Jones” spelled “Jack Jcnes” (clever, right?), a handful of pins and medals depicting Stalin, Sputnik, the Red Star, and life in the USSR for about 5 bucks, and a pair of (authentic?) camel-hair socks.

Ger-to-Ger. Thinking that the Ger-to-Ger (travel agency) office closed at 2, we speed-walked the 4-5 km back to the center only to find that the office was open until 6. Ger-to-Ger is an eco-tourism project founded within the last decade that lets travelers go from ger (“yurt,” the moveable living structures of Mongolian nomads) to ger, living in “cultural homestays” with the agency’s partner families. The families feed you, give you a bed in their home (ger/yurt), and then take you to the next family via horse, camel, or ox cart. 80% of the company’s revenue goes directly to the families, and since you’re living and traveling with families, the idea is that your Mongolian wilderness expedition will involve minimal ecological damage.

After a chat with the lady working there, we decided on our tour: 4 days, 3 nights on the “Quest for the Last Emperor” trip in the national park 5-hours west of UB. We’d see sand dunes, Swan Lake, a few cultural and religious monuments, and get to travel by all 3 horse, camel, and ox cart. Since we liked the price, and since the only 4-day period before our train on Friday night began the next morning, meaning we had to complete the travel/cultural/language orientation class that afternoon, we ran to the ATM to get our cash our to pay.

Getting back just in time for the class, we sat down with two Australians doing a 4-day, 4-night trip where they’d participate in the nomads’ preparations to move to their winter settlement, and the agency lady led the 2-hour orientation. She explained the day-by-day schedule and logistics, the safety issues, plus the cool new cultural things that we’d have to navigate the next few days including not using your left hand, accepting a tobacco snuff bottle, playing a type of board/dice game with sheep ankle bones, asking for boiled water in Mongolian, only speaking Mongolian, riding animals, and so on.

Basically, we were pretty excited.

Getting ready. Since we had to be out the hostel door at 7:00 the next morning, we needed food and our stuff. We ran across the street to the oh-so-conveniently located State Department Store, grocery store included, to pick up some fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, and peanuts and raisins for trail mix. Coming back to the hostel to pack our food and the bare necessities for the trip, the hostel offered to hold our extra stuff for a few bucks until we got back, which was great.

Everything in order, we sat down to a humble meal at the hostel of cup noodles and snacks we’d found in our food bags from Irkutsk, but then ended the night with a luxurious chaepitie (tea-drinking) with ginger cookies, orange slices, and a chocolate bar.

Day 2 (Sun., Oct. 25): 22 steps to a [pick-your-adjective] day in UB City

1. Know that UB City is the somewhat gangsta’ name for Ulaan Baator so that you can feel hip and cool in conversations about the capital of Mongolia. Facts: 1.5 million people of Mongolia’s 2.5 million population live in UB. UB is less polluted, but just as face-mask filled as Beijing. The face-masks of UB are, however, due to the threat of the H1N1 flu, which the government figures could wipe out a good 20-30% of the country’s population if it got to epidemic status in the capital.

2. Get your train times right to avoid rude, early-morning awakenings. Not really rude, just unexpected. Our train tickets from Russia said that arrival time was at 5:50 a.m. Which meant that you add the 5 hours to that, because all Russian train tickets are printed in Moscow time, to get 10:50 a.m., another morning of sleeping in, right? Wrong. Moscow-time rule only applies with arrival times to arrivals to Russian cities. Not confusing at all. So we got up at 4:50, the hour out of Ulaan Baatar, 30 minutes out of when they lock the bathrooms for the sanitary zone around the city. But we didn’t want the extra 5 hours of sleep anyways, did we. . . .

3. Find nice Mongolian lady from your hostel who will lead you past the mob of “taxi” drivers to the van she has arranged for you and included in the $6/night rate of the hostel.

4. While Mongolian lady leaves you at van to go advertise some more for her family’s hostel at the platform, try to learn first Mongolian phrases from van driver and reading random signs.

5. Learn quickly that Mongolian is an Asian (from the Altai group, related to both Korean and Finnish) language, printed in Cyrillic (thank you USSR influence), which means that you know absolutely nothing. Accept equally quickly that on a vacation from a year-long language-learning program, your motivation to start a new language = 0, and that you will probably leave with fewer than 20 phrases under your belt. Check.

6. Enjoy comfort of free bread-and-coffee breakfast in nice lounge room surrounded by fellow travelers, mostly from the U.K.

7. Enjoy the accents, mostly from the U.K.

8. After you gather your things for a day on the town, remember advice from Professor 1, Program Coordinator, Professors 2-4, and Babushkas 1-3, and avoid the possibly rabid dog standing directly outside hostel door.

9. Decide that the loud gun shots you heard just down the block while crossing the street at 9 in the morning were prooobably just from an air-gun.

10. Cross your fingers that your parents told the bank you’d be in Mongolia for the next week so that the bank doesn’t shut down your debit card when you try to withdraw tugrugs (1400T to a USD, which means that if you think 1000 to a dollar, it’s actually less!) from the ATM at the main department store complex (the State Department Store–not store of the State Department, as I was figuring, but Department Store of the state).

11. Speed-walk to the Buddhist Gandantegchenling Monastery a few kilometers away to catch the sunday morning services, realizing that a Catholic church isn’t going to pop up along the way. Note the beautiful chanting, the slightly more relaxed atmosphere (compared with the Buryatian datsans), the decidedly older and more beautifully time-worn feel of the temples.

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12. Snap pictures of pigeons flocking back and forth between the rice spread on the ground and the temple roofs. Snap pictures of the old and young monastery inhabitants.

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13. Look confident when walking into the gers (yurts) and buildings of the Mongolian Buddhist University, which you’re not sure whether or not you have permission to enter. Strangely, no one bothers you. Realize, this isn’t Russia. Browse pamphlet. Consider, but then decide against transferring from Middlebury to get a bachelor’s degree in Buddhist Chanting there.

14. Leave monastery, stop in at gift shop, take some time to notice the generally happier, smiling, and easier-to-approach (Asian) (mask-covered) faces of the streets of UB. Realize again, this really isn’t Russia.

15. Drop in at the store labeled “Made in Mongolia” and agree that that’s a good name for it. Camel-hair products and pointy Mongolian hats abound.

16. Get to train station to buy tickets back to Russia (for a week later. . . figure that the time away from Siberia could be therapeutic. Step 35,470,907 from Day 3 or 4: think again about the therapeutic part). Find out that ticket office is located across the street, which is huge, traffic-filled, and the scene of a just-happened accident. Get to ticket building, and read sign in funny English with complicated directions saying ticket counter has moved down the street behind the third building. Walk down street, past 3 buildings, get to ticket building. Find out nearest ATM to get cash (tugrugs) is back at train station. Retrace steps both ways. Return to ticket building 15 minutes later. Buy overpriced foreigner tickets to Irkutsk for Saturday evening. Hope you don’t want to leave Mongolia earlier than that.

17. Eat last food from Russia picnic-style outside of ticket station on nice yellow benches. Enjoy international meal of imported-to-Siberia-from-abroad oranges, Finnish yogurt-covered cashews, and cookies from Naushki.

18. Browse names of shops along UB’s main drag, Peace Street (the USSR’s preferred Lenin Street didn’t stick), which include The British Store, Scottish Pub, Books in English, Texas Restaurant, American Technology Pizza Shop, and get hungry for world-cuisine imitation restaurants, despite filling picnic lunch.

19. Take a walk through the Natural History Museum of Ulaan Baatar and see dinosaur bones, gear from the first Mongolian ascents to Everest and outer space, and lots and lots of taxonomy work, all for 2,500 tugrug (meaning $2.50, but less!)

20. While crossing the main square with the large government building and its huge Lincoln-like statue of Chinggis Khan, find out and briefly express disappointment that tonight’s showing of Die Fliedermaus at the Mongolian National Opera, in fact, costs closer to $20 instead of $7, like the sign said, and decide that $20 could buy that many more souvenirs, and that German opera is probably best seen when a) not fatigued from a day of walking around the city and b) when not in Mongolia. But we wished the artists well.

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21. Grab a nap back at the hostel before dinner at American Technology Pizza Shop. Enjoy almost American pizza and almost American Coca Cola, along with great conversation with co-traveller. Be impressed at your waitress’ English, and, as a matter of fact, most people’s English in UB, if they know any.

22. Finish day with hot shower and watching the Liverpool/Manchester United soccer game with a group of young English mates. Try not to attach too much significance to the fact that they used “you yanks” once when referring to Americans.

The saga of my trip with Romany to not-Russia, almost-Far-East Asia begins. To sum it up, and in honor of Asia, I’ll even compose a little haiku (with full knowledge that the haiku is, in fact, not a Mongolian poetry form).

Train across the steppe.
UB. Camels. Really far.
Russia seems better.

Publishable almost, right?
. . .

Day 1 (Sat., Oct. 24): Getting abroad from abroad

Packing and leaving. Around noon on Friday a week and a half ago (Oct. 23), I realized the train left about 2 hours before I originally thought, meaning I needed to be at the train station around 9 p.m. So packing and getting ready was slightly more rushed than I had planned. But manageable, seeing how I packed for my whole year in Siberia within the 24 hours before my plane’s departure for Russia.

For a week in Mongolia, a really warm set of clothes, and a few spare pairs of boxers, socks, and t-shirts were basically it. Plus a small stack of books that were barely opened. But who didn’t see that one coming. After getting back from the central Irkutsk market where I got a pair of cotton Nike-knock-off gloves for the trip, I got everything packed in my backpacking pack, which I’ve found to have been a great choice over a suitcase.

Evgenii Evgenievich (who’s taken over the household duties in my host mom’s absence visiting family across the country) boiled some eggs for me and packed some bread and cheese and fruit, plus the tea with candy. He insisted I take the same 6-fl.-oz.-ish container of sugar that he had taken on his train trip. I told him that I don’t have sugar with my tea and couldn’t think of any reason why I’d need a cup of sugar in Mongolia. He nodded his head in acknowledgment, walked out of the room, and then returned with the container refilled in his outstretched hand with an incomprehensible smile on his face.

I took the sugar with me, but that doesn’t mean he was right. When I returned this morning, it was completely full, minus the spoonful Romany used last night on the train. I guess I took his sugar cup sightseeing.

The taxi to the train station cost 30 rubles less than the taxi I took there on the way to Buryatia. I was intentionally trying to be less tourist/American and more brash/Russian than the last time, and I think it paid off. A whole $1.10. But considering that’s about a 15% over-charge/savings due to my Americanness/Russianness, I’m still pretty happy about it.

The Foreigner Car. Train tickets for foreigners in Russia cost significantly more than tickets for citizens. Bureaucratic markup, I supposed. But. When we got onto our train car with plush seats (i.e. smelly and seedy old train mattress pads not necessary to add beneath complimentary sheet set) and a flat-screen TV (granted, only with 3 channels of static and 1 channel of blue screen), we were less upset about the markup.

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What’s more, we didn’t hear much Russian at all on the car, since as they had put all the over-charged foreigners into the nice car: some English, a Scot, some Chinese. Plus us 2 Americans.

Our compartment-mates were two Canadians from British Columbia, grade-school best buds Kyle and Kelly, who were traveling from Sweden, through Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet, and India on their way to Thailand. Conversation over tea introducing ourselves and comparing our two-month impressions of Russia with their two-day impressions went on until about midnight, and then went to bed, rocked to sleep by the motion of the Ulan-Ude-bound train.

Day on/off the train. We, the four young 20-somethings with nothing to do on a train for another 24 hours, slept in until about 11:00. After waking up, we discovered we were the caboose of a five-car train, consisting of the over-priced foreigner kupe (4-person compartment) car, and four packed-to-the-brim-with-Russians platskart (6-people to an open, nook-like area) cars. The landscape was great, especially passing Goose Lake.

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After another few hours of eating and talking, we pulled in to Naushki, the town on the Russian side of the border. The first great anomaly of the trip was the fact that the train was stopped there, not doing very much for 6 hours. They rearranged the cars, added some, etc. But other than that, we never figured out the reason for the extremely long stop.

So we got off the train to explore Naushki. Pretty dull, but we managed to fill a few of the hours at least. Walk through the park. See the small WWII monument. See the crumbling moose/horse statues. Climb to top of town hill. Stand at top of (windy) town hill for 20 minutes, wondering where Mongolia starts and taking pictures. . . .

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Descend town hill. Walk down typical Russian village street. Take pictures of typical, but pretty painted Russian doors and windows. Realize village street is typical, thus a dead end. Go down another street. Find a pack of staring, growling dogs. Avoid said pack of dogs. Walk past closed stores. Go into market. Buy last Russian cookies. Leave market. Pay 8 rubles to use surprisingly clean station toilets. Get back on train because you’ve “done Naushki.”

We filled out our border-crossing paperwork as we started up, and then went at a stop-and-go pace from about 7 to 9 as different passport and customs officials of both Russia and Mongolia got on and off the train, muttering requests in half-English, half-native language. Then the money changers/hawkers got on the train to rip us off and scare us that we wouldn’t be able to change money easily in Mongolia. So we changed a little bit, just to be sure. Again, another made-for-foreigner rip-off.

After the border madness, we settled down for an evening of word games (in English–woo!) with the Canadians. Then a little Mongolian girl came in and entertained us with her drawings and pointing at the silly foreigners who had no idea what she was saying. She got a real big kick out of the last part. Her mother took her away for bedtime when she saw her daughter dragging a bemused and only half willing American (me) down the car. Bedtime for us wasn’t too far away, either.

350.org October 24 happened to be the International Day of Action against global climate change. Basically, people around the world did crazy things involving the number 350, which is the number of parts-per-million of CO2 that has been exceeded and is contributing to global warming. It’s a grass-roots awareness type of thing, so what we ended up doing was at least in the spirit, if not as over-the-top as other actions.

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Romany and I had created an account on the site to say we’d participate by doing an action at the border. We didn’t have any ideas that we were really psyched to carry out, so we ended up talking with the occupants of The Foreigner Car about it, making a few signs, trying to convince a few Russians to pose with the signs, 100% predictably failing to do so (but hey, had to try for the record), and then just taking pictures of ourselves (Canadian compartment-mates included) holding the signs around various not-automobile modes of transportation for the rest of the trip.

Lessons learned on Day 1:

  1. Canadians are great.
  2. Don’t plan to stay in Naushki for more than 2 hours.
  3. Don’t plan to stay in Naushki for less than 6 hours if traveling across the border by train.
  4. Win the provodnitsa (train-car manager woman) over early by getting tea and using your endearing Russian grammar of a 5 year old as much as possible.
  5. Once you cross the border into Mongolia, you realize: you’re in Mongolia, as in, “Mongolia.”