Posts Tagged ‘Mongolia’

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.

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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.”

350.org is an organization, which has declared October 24, 2009 an International Day of Climate Action. Since my co-traveler to Mongolia, Romany Redman, and I are interested parties, and fall into the category of “international,” we’re planning on participating en route to Mongolia.

But we need ideas for our “climate action”! Other climate actions include rallies, demonstrations, art pieces going up, and other interesting, creative things. And they all feature the number 350 in some way, representing the highest possible, known-to-be safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Learn more at 350.org.

We have a few ideas, but would like to hear yours. The only criteria are 1) must include the number 350 and something relating to the environment, and 2) can’t upset the Russians and Mongols on the train, but hopefully will involve them somehow.

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