Our First Steppe into Mongolia

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Sunday, March 20, 2005

March 20th
Leaving Irkutsk we reflected on what a great time we'd had in BG a truly fantastic place and wholly recommended (summertime is supposed to be as beautiful but with a mass of wild flowers and teperatures in the 30s).During our enforced stop enroute to irkutsk station to repair our puncture, we noticed a small tree at the side of the road with strips of cloth tied to it. Our driver explained that the local Buryat people believed that if you tie a strip of cloth (something personal) to the tree you will oneday return and have a happy journey. So we duly obliged and hope it proves to be true!

Our train carriage this time was not as well appointed as the russian train (this one was Mongolian)but we soon settled in for the 1 and a 1/2 day journey to Ulan Bator (UB).

The faces at the stations are now noticably changing in to the more typical Mongolian features although we are still in Russia (the hit with a shovel look)Also on the train we have met one Aussie couple and 4 English couples, (and an American Sikkh from Boston) all travelling on the trans Sib route towards UB.

The scenery has now changed becomming very barron and sandy with patches of snow and bright sunshine although the temperature is still below freezing before the sun comes out when it is a pleasant 16 degrees or so.

Arriving in UB at 7:30am we where taken for a shower at the local brothel(suspected) come snooker hall (yes really...there were lots of scantily clad young girls sleeping in rooms next to the snooker tables they showed us to the shower room and provided towels for us. After showering we hit the streets of UB for a look around.

Our first stop was the main city square which had on one side an exact copy of Lenins mausoleum which housed the remains of the founder of Mongolia. His statue dominated the centre of the square. From here we walked to one of the only remaining (original) Buddist temples in Mongolia (Stalin had destroyed the rest and slaughtered all the monks in the late 1930s) This temple had survived only because Stalin wanted it left as a reminder to everyone of how backward the nation had been in the past (ie for stupidly believing in religion).Inside the temple was a massive statue of the Buddah (not original as this had been melted down by Lenin after the first world war)covered in gold and silver (over 300Kg)with devotees walking clockwise around the statue and spinning the prayer wheels. The main alter was strewn with offerings and at the entrance stood a large inscence burner helping to complete the architypal temple atmosphere.

Many of the older people on the streets were dressed in traditional Mongolian atire, large felt lined leather boots (a sort of cross between wellingtons and cowboy boots)with long wrap-around coats edged in coloured braiding and topped off with fur hats. This helped to give the place a frontier town feel. They all had weather beaten faces that reflected the kind of climate they have to endure out here.

The remainder of the day we spent walking around UB soaking up the atmosphere which is much happier than Irkutsk with people laughing and smiling openly in the street. Many of the signs were in English and it was obvious from the advertising hoardings that Korea has had a big influence on the aspirations of the Mongolians (many of the fasion concious local girls were wearing 'white' make-up in an attewmpt to look more korean...which is the current fashion).

We had our first experience of being pesterd by beggars during our 'tour' of UB and we were warned to be extra careful of our belongings and not to go out alone at night (even the men). Downtown UB is very similar in appearence to many of the russian provincial cities we had seen, uneven pavements, and a rundown look to it, even relatively new buildings (like the wrestling stadium...only 4 years old)appeared to be 'battered'and worn out.

Our drive out on to the Mongolian Steppe and the Elstei ger camp took us over dirt tracks (we were in a 4x4)past ex soviet army barracks and seemingly into the middle of 'nowhere'. the camp we were to stay at for 2 nights consisted of 6 Gers (russian name for mongolian felt tents) or Yurts as the Mongolians call them. (the mongolians have largely lost the use of their own written language due to the years of 'oppression' by the russians and chinese.. during which time it's use was made illegal).

Close to the gers was a larger brick building which we used as a dining hall. In total there were about 12 people staying in the camp but in summer this can rise to around 100!

The weather followed a similar pattern every day. At night the temperature was around minus 15 with no wind, as the sun rose the wind picked up, at times being pretty strong , blowing dust from the tops of the surrounding hills and biting into any exposed flesh (your nose and cheeks took the brunt of it and if you removed your gloves your hands became painfully cold within a minute). The guest book showed people had visited in winter when the temp drops to minus 40!

The Gers are circular tents made of thick felt (double skinned in winter) with a central wood buring stove. The beds are raised wooden affairs arranged around this stove positioned against the inner wall.They were very comfortable and extremely warm infact sometimes too warm, we had to open the door periodically at night to cool off. The stoves were kept stoked up by a 75 year old mongolian (the fireman as he became known)who would appear in your ger at all times of the day and night to load on more wood and coal. (he was always muttering to himself and laughing loudly whenever we saw him....a great character!).

After an evening meal of 'Buuz' a kind of Mongolian mutton dumpling (delicious)we sat drinking Vodka and chatting with the group untill 10:30pm.

Many of the others decided to go Horse ridding today but we opted for a hike up a nearby hill which resembled a large breast complete with errect nipple (well it was extreemly cold). After walking for around 45 mins towards the hill we spotted a Mongolian in traditional dress on horseback heading towards us as he approached he dismounted and led his horse over to where we were standing we shook hands and through sign language from both parties we understood he was offering us the use of his spare horse (for a fee of course) we declined, he looked puzzled, mounted and rode off into the distance.

Half way up the hill we rested and sheltered from the biting wind behind a rocky outcrop. This vantage point gave us a fantastic view of the rolling hills that surrounded us with the ger camp nestled in the bottom of the 'valley' below and larger more mountainous terrain in the distance. The surprise was that there was little snow and that which we had encountered was very icy and only a few inches thick with large patches of sandy soil and dead brown grass breaking up into rocky ground as we climbed higher up the hill.
At the summit (or nipple) we found a mound of stones with a pole planted into it and 'prayer flags' attached, at the foot of the pole was a cows skull. The other main discovery was that we had walked up the hill mostly sheltered from the wind....as we hit the summit it almost blew us over (and froze us to the spot). It was colder than anything I have ever experienced before! We covered our faces and pulled our hoods tight but we could only stay ontop for a couple of minutes, despite all our protective clothing and sun glasses our eyes were streaming from the cold.

Decending the hill out of the wind was a great relief and the bright sunshine made it very pleasant. We passed sheep and cattle being watched over by a shepheard from a small hut on the hillside.The whole walk took us around 3 hours (at a very steady pace). On arriving back at the camp we were met by one of the camp dogs (very freindly)it was carrying a large bone with the Hoof still attached!

Being quite tired after the walk we spent the afternoon snoozing and reading in the comfort of our cozy Ger.
In the evening we chatted to the freindly group we had met on the way to the camp (hi to you all!)Learned how to play mongolian games with 'knuckle bones' and a few useful mongolian phrases including "byan-La"... thankyou, and "chock-toi" ...cheers after every drink of vodka. Suzie (one of the group)however insisted on shouting loudly "Cock Toy" (a freudian slip Suzie?)

We headed back to UB around 10:30am and all too soon our stay at Elstei was over. The people we had met were good company. Especially Simon who provided the entertainment as despite acheiving an honours degree he could'nt work out how to use the toilet or stay on a horse...he actualy fell off and got dragged along the ground as his foot was caught in the stirrup!
The weather during our brief stay was cold but very sunny and the scenery magnificent purely for it's desolation.

Back in UB we decided to go shopping for a few presents to send home. We can recommend the State department Store...it had lots of choice, everything from fur hats to old banknotes and all at cheap prices.

At 7pm we met up with the rest of the crew from the camp and our Mongolian guide for a final night out in UB. We ended up in the 'Brau Haus' one of several micro-breweries in the area and surreal as it sounds after completing a cheap meal and several litres of 'homebrew' we joined a packed house and played BINGO IN MONGOLIAN, and what's more WE WON! (to be precise Paul won.)We all cheered along with the locals as he had to go to the front and collect his prize much to his embarrassment. Everyone laughed as he turned bright red and returned with a cuddly pooh bear and two free litres of beer! We understood not one word the compare said it sounded like a cross between Welsh and Klingon at high speed!
(If anyone had asked me what I expected to do in Ulan Bator it certainly would'nt have been to play Mongolian bingo).It was a great night and everything, food, beer and bingo cost us the princely sum of five pounds!! If you're ever in UB we can heartily recommend it!

March 24th
The train left UB station at 8am and the weather was again bright and sunny with 14 degrees predicted for later in the day. The scenery changed again as we left UB behind. 7 hours into our journey the landscape had become flat and barron (desert like) and we saw camels being herded across the steppe.
Our tickets included a free meal which cosisted of sushi a meat burger and a sweet bread bun a strange combination, which Jane didn't fancy so I ate both (an event to be repeated over the coming weeks). The train passed through Choir, Shand, Zamin-uud and Ereen to accompany us along the way we had chinese pop and classical music piped into the carriage(this was a Chinese train)and the only speaker was right outside our compartment. it was wonderful when they turned it off but just as we began to relax on it came, again and again. It nearly drove Jane mad and by the end of our journey I had started rocking back and forth uncontrolably. Silence truly is golden!

We passed through Chinese and Mongolian border checks and customs amidst reams of paperwork.. passport number and personal details ad nauseum.

Then around midnight we changed the Bogies on the entire train (the whole undercarriage of the train including wheels) This is because Chinese tracks are a different width to the russian and mongolian tracks (a deliberate ploy by the chinese to prevent invasion via the railway). The entire carriage was jacked up with us in it and new undercarriage fitted and the whole operation took only 1 and1/2 hours! and quicker than a Mongolian bingo caller can say 'House' we had entered China!

We slept untill mid morning and awoke with the prospect of arriving in Beijing by 2:30pm.Our Trans Siberian train journey was finally over and we would miss it!
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