Mongolia - Gobi Desert

Trip Start Jun 27, 2006
Trip End Mar 28, 2007

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Sunday, July 2, 2006

Bright and early on Saturday (July 1st - I have to use such date format, otherwise I'll be totally confused since Americans use 7/1, and the rest of the world 1/7) I met my travelling companions for the next few days: Claire and Gemma from England and Jacqueline from Scotland. The four of us shared the cabin on the sleeper car leaving Beijing for Mongolia. They all have been English teachers in Japan recently, and all of them have travelled extensively. They taught me quite a few card games, some of which are Snap, Shithead, President and Arsehole. I also played scramble with them during less eventful time on the train.

There are a bunch of other interesting people that I met on our carriage (I think there are 9 cabins on each carriage):

- Alby and Flick from London. Alby is very interested in Century Traveller Club (to be eligible for membership, you need to have visited 100 countries). Flick recently volunteered in South America.

- Another British couple who has travelled for two years are heading home via Trans-Siberian. They spent some time in Borneo (Sabah) and wanted to go back.

- A Japanese woman was on her way to the section of Russia that is across the border from northwest Mongolia (which she is going to travel to for 3 days on a jeep). She wants to learn Russian, and this is her way of full immersion.

- Then there is this family of four who now lives in New Zealand. The husband is from South Africa and wife France. The two little girls cannot be more than 3 and 5.

- An American girl who is travelling with her parents. The trip is the graduation gift from her parents.

- A Mongolia merchant, who brother works at the embassy - presumably Mongolian embassy in Beijing - we have the toughest time communicating, since he speaks very little Chinese, and I don't know any Mongolian.

- A Mongolia kid who studies in Beijing. He speaks fluent English but doesn't understand Chinese.

- Another Mongolian kid who studies in Nanjing. He speaks Chinese, but not English.

- Three British young men who travel together - they met each other in Australia.

I did not, however, meet the Chinese American teenager who was denied entry to Mongolia by the Chinese immigration at the border. The simple reason: he did not speak Mandarin Chinese. He was given a lecture on the importance for Chinese to understand Chinese. I'm sure he wished he had travelled on the American passport.

The Beijing - Sainshand (Mongolian town in Gobi Desert) leg of the journey took about 22 hours. Six hours of which was spent at the border. After the Chinese immigration, the train was pulled to the bogie (wheel?) changing shed. The different gauges used by the Chinese vs. Mongolian/Russian Railway Systems necessitated the change (4 ft 8 1/2 in vs. 5 ft). All carriages are simultaneously raised by a number giant hydraulic lifts, and the bogies are rolled out and replaced.

The vast majority of the passengers are stuck on the train during this process - the train doesn't have the PA system (if they did, they never used it) - as we missed the opportunity to get off. The electricity was shut off (i.e., there's no lights or A/C). Only one of the windows on our entire car was opened. Worse still, we had no access to the toilet for the few hours that the train was in/near the shed/station (Chinese immigration, bogie change, then Mongolian immigration).

The carriage attendants had to lock the toilets because the train doesn't have holding tanks. That's right, when you step on the pedal to flush the toilet, you will see through the hole, among other things, the railway track!

All of this immigrant/bogie change ordeal happened at around midnight. The night turned into a very sad event. A number of people tried, in vain, to tune in to the World Cup broadcast (between England and Portugal) using a short wave radio. Then came a text message "0-0 Beckham injured." Another text message came soon after that announcing the result of the penalty kicks. There was dead silence. The next morning, my new English friends told me that they were very glad that they were not in England - the mourning would be too painful. Such passion!

We spent the next 3 days in Mongolian gers. A ger is a more glamorous tent. It is a collapsible and transportable structure covered by felt. It is tall enough for me to move around in it quite comfortably (standing upright). There is a hole in the center of the ceiling to allow smoke to escape and allow in fresh air and light. The nomads live in gers. Ger is a Mongolian word meaning "home."  

The ger camp is in the middle of the Gobi Desert, located some 11 miles from Sainshand. We travelled in a Russian built military jeep.

This region reminds me very much of Tibet: monasteries, stone heaps with prayer flags, stuppas, prayer wheels and rich colors. Even Mongolian babies are given Tibetan names by the monks. Mongolians don't use surnames. They use their first name, and if necessary, followed by their father's first name.  

We also visited caves where the monks used to meditate. It is believed that after meditating for 108 days (the 2nd 54 days on water only), they could gain 6th sense. We also saw petrified wood and dinosaurs' fossils in the sandy desert.

I visited a camel herding family. The fuel that they use for cooking is camel dung. The camel milk with salt that I drank is not as bad as the yak butter tea.

The family moves at least 4 times a year. The ger (after it is collapsed) used to be transported by the camel. These days they transport it in their family car!

All three British girls were sick (> 48 hours) during this time. The local doctor told them that it is because of the rich minerals found in the water. Not sure why it didn't affect me.

The 12-hour train ride to Ulan Bator is uneventful, except that my "roommates" complaint that my snoring was too loud.
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