There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

With the Mongolian Nomads: Part 10 of the Trans-Siberian Railway

Back to Part 9
Across the Mongolian Steppe to Buurd Sum
On to Part 11

Our morning started with a quick wash, which was the only sort of wash available. We had brought drinking water from Ulan Bator but otherwise relied on our hosts’ supply. As this was dragged laboriously from the stream in large, blue plastic butts we were reluctant to create work by using too much.

Morning in Buurd Sum
Lynne outside the ger

Bayara had brought eggs from Ulan Bator for breakfast. Although our hosts kept horses, cattle, sheep and goats they, perhaps surprisingly, had no chickens.

Cleaned and fed, though with stomachs still not entirely settled, we set out to visit Erdene Zuu monastery.

Oggy drove us out of the valley and then further south to a tarmac road where we paused by a Buddhist shrine.  It was nothing more than a pile of stones with a tangle of flags, but every passer-by either stopped or hooted their horn. We walked round it three times in a clockwise direction, which is the appropriate thing to do, and placed another stone on the top. Mongolian Buddhism is of the same Yelugpa sect as Tibetan Buddhism and they recognise the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader, but Mongolia also has a long tradition of Shamanism, and sometimes Buddhism and Shamanism become intertwined.

A pile of stones with a tangle of flags
Buddhist (or perhaps Shaman) shrine, Mongolia

Twenty or thirty miles take no time on a proper road, particularly when there is very little traffic.

We stopped on a low rise overlooking Erdene Zuu. Beyond the monastery, the small town of Kharkhorin was marked by an ugly smudge of smoke from a rare example of Mongolian industry.

Erdene Zuu with Kharkhorin in the background

We had halted by an interesting stone which had been arranged so that it pointed into a folded cleft in the hills.  I have been unable to find out when this little monument was erected, but, in theory, it channels away the monk’s sexual energy, allowing them to live pure and blameless lives. That sounds to me like a post hoc justification for the chief lamas’ childish glee at having found a stone shaped just like a willy. It also provided an opportunity for a few locals to set up trestle tables and sell trinkets to passing willy watchers.

Phallic stone, Kharkhorin

Ghengis Khan built his capital of Karakorum here around 1220. Not being a settling down sort of guy, Ghengis soon moved on, though the city thrived for a while before being destroyed by a Ming army in 1388. Erdene Zuu was built in 1585, using such remnants of Karakorum as were available. The site is surrounded by a wall containing 100 stupas. 108 is a mystical number in Buddhism, so perhaps some builder miscounted and nobody noticed until it was too late.

Erdene Zuu

By the end of the 19th century there were over 60 temples here, but in 1939 the communists destroyed many of them. What remained became a museum until 1990 when the site was handed back to the lamas and again became an active monastery.

Erdene Zuu

The ‘thinning’ of the buildings in 1939 had the unintended consequence of providing a pleasant and uncluttered site to walk around. The temple buildings are similar in style and architecture to those of Tibet, and the interiors are richly coloured.  Unlike Ivolginsk, there were plenty of visitors, though I think we were the only westerners there at the time. The site was also equipped with clean, modern flush toilets, and as the airacke had not yet fully passed through our systems we were duly grateful.

Temple interior, Erdene Zuu

The exit was through the gift shop – the Mongolians seem to be adapting to capitalism more naturally than the Russians. We had bought some Tögrögs before leaving Ulan Bator, but discovered the gifts were all priced in US dollars. Suggesting we might pay in Tögrögs produced a sigh and a pocket calculator. ‘This must be for the foreign tourists’ we thought, but there were none except us.

Monk with a prayer wheel, Erdene Zuu

We returned to our ger in time for our midday mutton. After eating, we were informed that Shitter’s father-in-law had acquired a couple of camels - I have no idea where from - and thought we might like a ride. Payment was again requested in US dollars.

My previous experience had only been with Arabian camels which are smelly, bad-tempered, supercilious and uncomfortable, so I approached this new opportunity warily. The two humped Bactrian camels, I soon discovered, are docile and sweet-natured, and also have an obvious place to sit. I know there are people in the Middle East who love their one-humped camels the way cowboys loved their horses, but I will take the two-humper any day of the week.

A lesson in camel management
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

Shitter’s second son and a friend were in charge of the beasts and showed us how to control them, though they had little faith in our abilities and walked with us all the way. Four year old Ugana ‘assisted', showing no fear of the large beasts, walking right underneath a camel at one point.
Ugana helps
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

Once mounted, we set off on a longer version of our walk of the day before, first visiting the desert and then circling through the whole of the encampment. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, though I had no idea how much my knees would ache when I dismounted and straightened them up.

Totally confident and in control
Buurd sum, Mongolia

Later, as we were chewing our evening mutton we heard voices outside. They were speaking English, and speaking it with the familiar lilt of the south Wales valleys. The W family, father G, mother D and daughter K had arrived to stay with Shitter’s in-laws. They had already had their first brush with airacke and were in urgent need of the noisome hole in the ground.

Camel's eye view of the desert
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

We let them sort out their problem before introducing ourselves, swapping some stories and then letting them sort out their problem again.

That night was peaceful – for us - interrupted only by the occasional howling of the dogs.

Dawn brought another beautiful morning, with nothing to do except spend a day in camp with our hosts. We watched what they did, helped where we could, which was very little, and tried not to get in the way.

One job that was carried out morning and evening was the working of what would become leather. Shitter and his father-in-law hung a hide cut into twisted strips on a wooden gallows and attached a weight. Then, with considerable effort, they ran a pole up and down through the twists, twirling the weight and stretching and strengthening the leather.

Shitter and his father-in-law work the leather
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

After this it was time to milk the horses. The foals were tethered to a line set in the grass. Shitter brought up the mares one by one, allowed the foals to drink their fill, before pushing them away so that Oyedoo could collect the excess. Finally the milk was poured into a butt half buried in the ground where it could be stirred and fermented.

Oyedoo waits for the foal to finish
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

We did little for the rest of the morning but it was interesting to watch the life of the encampment go on around us. Shitter’s solar panel powering a single light bulb, but we had heard of gers with much larger panels, satellite dishes and bored teenagers inside watching MTV. Nothing like that happened where we were. The two older boys spent all day with their father, helping out in all he did. Each had his own horse and they looked completely at home in the saddle as they galloped across the valley, standing in the stirrups holding their lassos like lances. Their younger sister spent the day helping their mother.

Number 1 son with his lasso
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

We may no longer like the idea of ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ but survival in the camp depends on everybody knowing their job and getting on with it, and if their traditional way of life is to continue this is the way it must be. The older children also spend a large part of the year away at school so they are properly equipped should they choose to follow another path.

Little Ugana was, undoubtedly the star of the show. He spent much of his day ‘galloping’ astride a stick to which a white ribbon had been attached for a mane. At other times he could be found walking around the camp with a stool over his head. This was clearly an important job, but only a four-year-old’s logic could explain why.
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

Goat milking was an afternoon job. On horseback Shitter and his sons gathered the herd and drove them to the appropriate area. Shitter picked out the family goats – identified by their blue painted horns – and tethered them in two rows facing each other. His mother-in-law started milking one side, his sister-in-law the other.

Ugana among the goats
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

Ugana galloped over and muscled his way in among the goats, standing shoulder to shoulder with them. He clambered onto the back of one, grabbed its horns, and started making motorbike noises, twisting his hand round the horn like his uncle opening the throttle on his bike. The goats seemed to accept this as normal behaviour.

Ugana rides his goaterbike....
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

A lot of work was involved and the quantity of milk produced was not great, but the cheese produced is an important part of their diet. The traditional Mongolian diet consists largely of dairy products, with added mutton. The concept of ‘five a day’ was alien to them, indeed the Mongolians do not traditionally grow vegetables, considering it an insult to the earth to go digging in it.  Today almost half of Mongolia’s 2.75 million people live in Ulan Bator and few of them could be considered to live a ‘traditional way of life’.

...while Granny does the milking
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

Later, Oyedoo asked about our lives and we showed her a picture of our house. She stared at it for a while with a furrowed brow. ‘How many rooms?’ she asked at last. ‘Seven’ we told her. ‘How many people live there?’ ‘Just us two.’ She thought about that, decided it made no sense and returned our photograph with a shake of her head and a smile that said that we could hardly have been stranger had we come from Mars. She could not imagine our lives any more than we would have been able to imagine hers just a few days earlier.

We felt privileged to have spent a few days with Shitter and Oyedoo. Their culture is still strong, but it is a hard life, and much harder in the extremely cold winters. They are sophisticated people and not unaware of the outside world. Given the opportunities and alternatives their children have I wonder how many more generations will chose to live like this. They are also a friendly and welcoming people. It may be hypocritical, but I hope tourism of the sort we indulged in does not end up damaging their culture.
Mongolian herdsmen learn to ride young
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

After our evening mutton we were joined by the W’s, their guide, driver, Bayara, Oggy and Shitter. Oggy produced a bottle of vodka and Shitter found a glass. We drank in a circle, as is common where glasses are rare. The host pours for the person on his left who downs the vodka and refills the glass for the person on their left and so on. With so many people the bottle did not last long, even though Shitter seemed happy to stick to his airacke. When it was gone I rummaged round in our luggage and miraculously came up with another one.

The Mongolians started the singing, Oggy and Shitter giving us some folk songs and proving they had very good voices. Lynne replied with a lullaby in Welsh and so the evening progressed. By the time the second bottle was empty everybody had contributed to the singing except GW and me. I am uncomfortable in such situations; I cannot sing, I do not know what to do to make a tune. Embarrassing as it was, I really had no choice but to opt out; GW was different. He had enjoyed an interesting and varied career but he had spent recent years singing with the Welsh National Opera. He had been waiting patiently all evening and this was his opportunity. I had never before sat right next to a fully trained operatic tenor when he opens up his lungs. It was unbelievably loud and, to me at least, incomprehensibly musical. GW sang Verdi, the Mongolians stared open mouthed and I felt the little hairs standing up on the back of my neck. Sitting in a tent in the middle of the steppe listening to a Welshman singing in Italian to a bunch of Mongolians is one of those events destined to be remembered.
Oggy and Shitter drink airacke
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

We slept well that night, even sleeping through the wolf attack which lead to the death of a sheep.

In the morning we made the long journey back to Ulan Bator, arriving in the middle of a power cut. On the odd occasions when traffic lights have been out at home, I have found that people slow down, negotiate their way through junctions, and often do so quicker than when the lights are working. Not so in Ulan Bator. Every driver pushed his way forward into any space available while simultaneously leaning on his horn. The result was a cacophonous gridlock.

We eventually made it to the offices of the travel company where we walked up five flights of stairs in the dark to use their toilet.

After a short break Oggy drove us north for a couple of hours, largely on proper roads, to a ‘the Elstei Tourist Ger Camp’ a sort of Mongolian ‘dude ranch.’ Straight after the real thing – probably the highlight of the whole trip – this was a serious anti-climax.

On a desolate grassy plateau were two dozen gers, pitched much closer together than on any real encampment. Their occupants were us, the W family, several other Europeans (mainly British) and a Japanese tour party. There was a toilet block with hot showers, which were welcome, and a brick built clubhouse where we gathered to eat our mutton. There was also a full bar (priced in US dollars) so the evenings were quite convivial.

The W family play the bones game  at the Elstei Ger Camp

I spent the late afternoon attempting to photograph hamsters. Their burrows surrounded the clubhouse and they kept on popping out having a potter around and then retreating. Whichever burrow I stationed myself beside, a hamster would appear elsewhere, wait as I gently repositioned myself and then, as soon as I raised my camera, disappear. My failure was total.

Later some of the waiters gave an exhibition of Mongolian wrestling. Wrestling is very popular and is considered the most important of the Three Manly Skills - horsemanship and archery being the others. There are no weight divisions or any limit to the ‘ring’. After saluting the crowd and their opponent the wrestlers grapple and the bout ends when any part of one the combatants, other than his foot, touches the ground. Though somewhat lightweight the waiters put on a good performance and there was clearly some rivalry between them.
Mongolian wrestling

The next day dawned cool and overcast. The main attraction was horse-riding, but as I am allergic to horses (and cats and dogs but not camels) I was not keen. Eventually I decided to have a go and dosed myself up with anti-histamine. Unfortunately I had spent too long dithering and the Japanese group had bagged all the horses. ‘Never mind,’ I said, ‘we’ll go this afternoon.’ At that point it started raining and continued solidly for the rest of the day and all night.

Elstei in the rain, the horses huddled in the middle distance
We never did go horse-riding, but I used the opportunity to finish Crime and Punishment which I had been struggling with all the way across Russia. I am not sure I enjoyed it, but I was glad I had managed to finish it. I have not felt the need to read any more Dostoyevsky.
Reading Dostoyevsky as the rain batters down
Elstei ger Camp, Mongolia

Next morning we returned to Ulan Bator, checked into an international class hotel and had most of the day to look at the city.

Back to Part 9
Across the Mongolian Steppe to Buurd Sum
On to Part 11

Friday, 27 July 2007

Across the Mongolian Steppe from Ulan Bator to Bürd Sum: Part 9 of the Tran-Siberian Railway

Back to Part 8 :
On to part 10;
We rolled into Ulan Bator in the early morning. The outskirts seemed more a ger encampment than a city and even in industrial areas tents sprouted on any available patch of ground, whether on the marginal land outside a factory or inside the fence of an electricity sub-station.

The outskirts of Ulan Bator

At the station we were greeted by a girl who introduced herself as Bayara and her driver as Oggy. This seemed to amuse Oggy immoderately. ‘It’s not his real name,’ she added, ‘but you wouldn’t be able to pronounce that.’ ‘Hello, Oggy,' we said and shook hands. This produced more laughter; I wondered what ‘Oggy’ might mean in Mongolian.

We visited a hotel for a shower and breakfast. The waitresses smiled, seemed pleased to see us and keen to help; we were clearly no longer in Russia.

After a brief tour of Ulan Bator (see Part 11) Oggy drove us south towards Ovorkhangai Aimag. Mongolia is divided into 21 aimags, or provinces, and Ovorkhangai is right in the middle of the country. It is three times the size of Wales but the population would fit in the Millennium Stadium - with only a little overspill. At 1.6 people per square km (c.f. Wales 140, Staffordshire 395 and Hong Kong 16,500) Ovorkhangai is more than averagely crowded by Mongolian standards. Our destination was Bürd Sum, one of the 19 sums into which Ovorkhangai is divided.

Although Bürd Sum is some 250 km from Ulan Bator, the dual carriageway ended before we had travelled fifty. From here on there was no road, but the route over the grassland is well used, the ruts covering an area up to 100 m wide. We could see a few other vehicles, recognising them by their clouds of dust. We travelled on in our own dust cloud following Oggy’s selected rut. Progress was slow as often smaller, more natural ruts crossed the path at right angles; some were quite deep and care was necessary to avoid damaging our minibus.

Across the steppe after the road ended

After a while we stopped for lunch by a Buddhist shrine on a small knoll. Our minibus, which had been clean when we left Ulan Bator, had largely disappeared below a layer of dust. From our elevated position we surveyed the featureless steppes sweeping off to the horizon in all directions. We could see one or two gers in the distance, several moving dust clouds swirling around other travellers and as great an expanse of emptiness as I have ever seen.

The minibus had been clean when we left Ulan Bator

Bayara provided us with cold buuz - mutton dumplings - which were not very appetizing, and a chocolate wafer. We could also have had a cup of tea, had she not left her thermos on its side allowing the contents to leak all over our luggage.

Lynne & Bayara take lunch by a Buddhist shrine on a small knoll

We continued jolting through the ruts, passing several gers, a few broken down wooden huts that might have been a village and several families of what I now believe to be demoiselle cranes strutting purposefully across the grass.

A Family of Demoiselle Cranes

At some point which only Oggy could recognise we swung left from the well-travelled route and made our way across virgin steppe. The grass looked as smooth as a golf course fairway, but the jolting of the minibus told us otherwise.

An hour later Oggy stopped in a shallow valley between two low green hills, got out and motioned us to do the same. We stood still and listened. For the first time in my life I found myself listening to complete silence. There was no traffic noise, no sound or sight of human activity, no wind, no birdsong, no buzzing insects, just absolute silence.

We continued down the valley and round the end of the hill into a small plain between a low mountain and an area of desert. A stream wound through the plain and there were a dozen or more gers dotted about, sometimes on their own sometimes in twos or even threes. Herds of sheep and goats grazed among the tents while cattle stood ruminatively in the stream. The Mongolians are often referred to as ‘nomads’, but more precisely they are transhumant, meaning they move with their herds every season. We were looking at a summer encampment, and there was no detail of the scene that would have been different had we arrived two hundred years ago. (On second thoughts, there is a blue plastic bucket standing outside the ger on the right!)

A small plain between a low mountain and an area of desert

Our vehicle seemed a noisy intrusion as we bumped across to the nearest ger and announced our presence. Traditionally Mongolians show hospitality to all travellers, all you have to do is ask. We had brought presents - soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes and other necessities available only in towns – but as Bayara, Oggy and the van had been supplied by a local travel company who make a business out of this, I presume some payment was involved. We were politely refused at the first ger - the woman’s husband was away and she was on her own – but she suggested we approached a ger some 200 metres away.

When I have spoken about this experience to school groups I have altered the name of our host. He was actually called Shitter, I made Bayara say it twice to be certain. We did not laugh.

Our Hosts, Shitter and Oyedoo with Oyedoo's mother
and four-year-old Ugana

Shitter and his wife Oyedoo invited us in. Lynne and Bayara joined Oyedoo on the right, while Oggy and I sat on the men’s side. The central portion between the upright supports - containing the stove and a large pile of dried dung to fuel it – was reserved for the Buddha.  Along both sides were colourful wall hangings and a bed doubling as a sofa. At the end a wooden chest of drawers stood next to a couple of cabinets, their glass top filled with knick-knacks and family photographs, mainly of Shitter in his army days. The supports held up a wooden ring about a metre in diameter through which passed the stove pipe and all the fresh air anyone could ever want. Hanging incongruously from the ring was a wooden cuckoo clock bearing the words ‘fairy castle’.

The women's side of the ger

Our hosts provided cheese and airacke, the traditional welcome to travellers. Airacke is mare’s milk which has been vigorously stirred and then allowed to ferment. It was brought in a bucket and served in soup bowls. It tasted like a mildly alcoholic milk shake. Etiquette demanded we take at least a mouthful, but we both found we rather liked it and finished our bowls. This turned out to be a mistake. The cheese was made from goats’ milk. The curd is cut into thin strips then placed on a metal tray and set out to dry on the sloping roof of the ger. It hardens and blackens so you are offered a bowl of what looks and feels like a pile of pot sherds. You pick one that is not too big and pop it in your mouth. For a while it seems that you are indeed sucking a piece of pottery, but in time it softens and gives up its flavour – a little like Parmesan, but much, much stronger.

The Buddha's space

We were invited to stay and duly handed over our gifts. The ger became ours for the next three nights. Oggy and Bayara took up residence in the small, plainer adjacent ger which was usually a storeroom and kitchen, and Shitter and Oyedoo moved in with Oyedoo’s parents, whose ger was some fifty metres away. Where their four children slept we have no idea, but they seemed happy enough.

An incongruous cuckoo clock

Introductions over and settling in completed we had time for a stroll before dinner. We made our way past the toilet – a hole in the ground partially surrounded by a metre high wind break – and on towards the desert.  Sand and scrub extended in waves as far as we could see. We did not venture far – getting lost in the desert would make us look stupid – but anyway the firm sand held our footprints and retracing our steps was easy. We almost trod on a small lizard, so beautifully camouflaged we only saw him when he moved.  A huge cricket with wings like a moth made off with a strange whirring sound.

A well camouflaged lizard

Back on the grassland there were many humps and burrows, the homes of hamsters, mice and marmosets. They are all cute, furry and much the same size, seven or eight centimetres long, but can be distinguished by their tails; marmosets are fluffy, mouse tails are ratty while hamster tails are absent.

We were hoping to eat with our hosts, but soon discovered that Bayara had brought all our food from Ulan Bator and was doing our cooking separately. We were disappointed, but understood that we would otherwise place a strain on our hosts’ meagre resources. We dined alone on a small table in ‘our’ ger. We ate mutton - a statement you can make twice a day, every day in Mongolia without fear of contradiction..

As we finished, we heard a motor vehicle disturbing the peace of our valley. Shitter wanted to send some sheep to market and a small pick-up had arrived to take them.

We played our parts as assistant shepherds, helping to keep the flock in a small area as Shitter dashed into the melee armed with his Mongolian lasso, a loop of rope on the end of a long stick. He wrestled his chosen animal over to the pick-up truck while we kept the rest together, then he dived in for his next victim.

When all was finished the flock carried on grazing as though nothing had happened. Sitting outside the ger beside them we became very aware of two particular sounds: the sound of sheepy teeth tugging at the short grass, and the sound of sheepy backsides venting excess gasses. All we could hear was chomp, chomp, trump, trump, chomp, trump, chomp, trump, chomp.

All we could hear was chomp, chomp, trump, trump....

Another vehicle arrived. Oyedoo’s brother, who lived with his wife in a ger some 200 hundred metres away, was returning home on his motorcycle, an ancient soviet built machine. He was, we learned, blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other as the result of a ‘drinking accident’ before he was married. Although generally a genial character we tried to avoid him when he was riding his motorbike – after all he had no way of avoiding us.

We paid a visit and were treated to tea and more cheese. Mongolian tea, which is also served in a soup plate, is very long on milk and very short on tea, but otherwise not unpleasant. In the gathering gloom it was easy to take a small piece of cheese and ‘lose’ it without causing offence. 

Oyedoo’s brother and his wife had been married for seven years and Lynne wondered how they met as the only gers within walking distance seemed to belong to the extended family. The year, we learned, is punctuated by festivals when Mongolians get together to indulge their passions for archery, wrestling and horse racing. Such gatherings also provide a good opportunity for young Mongolians to meet members of the opposite sex - or to indulge in heavy drinking and lose the sight in one eye.

We took the short walk home in darkness. Shitter owned a solar panel which was slung on top of the ger and operated a low energy bulb dangling beside the cuckoo clock. We had thus become the custodians of the only artificial light within a day’s walk. It had been a bright, sunny day and in the complete absence of light pollution we were looking forward to a spectacular display of stars. Unfortunately, as dusk fell the clouds had rolled in. We did not see a single star that night, or any other night we were in Mongolia.

The night was quiet, though not as silent as our earlier stop. I do not know how long I had been asleep when I was woken by a plaintive voice from the far side of the tent. The European digestive system, we were discovering, is unaccustomed to fermented mares’ milk.

Finding the toilet in the darkness might provide a challenge and Lynne did not want to go alone. We stepped out into the blackness. There was no moon and no stars, the only light in the valley came from our cheap torch. We walked off in what we thought was the right direction, sweeping the beam over the grass as we went. Navigation turned out to be no great problem and after an unpleasant but necessary interval we retraced our steps. About half way back my system decided it had tolerated the airacke long enough and we had to turn round and return to the hole in the ground.

Oyedoo's sister-in-law stirs next week's Airacke

I was just drifting off to sleep when the dogs started. Beginning with a single howl at the far end of the valley, the sound grew louder and louder and moved closer and closer as the canine choir took up the tune with a will. Every ger has a dog, whose main function is to guard the sheep. Wolves, Shitter had informed us, had recently been something of a nuisance.

Eventually an uneasy peace returned, at which point Lynne declared the necessity of returning to the toilet. Again we set out across the sward, this time followed by a small posse of growling dogs. Packs of dogs make me uneasy at the best of times, but the thought that we might also confront a prowling wolf was distinctly discouraging - still, needs must.

We made our way there and back unmolested and the rest of the night was passed in peaceful slumber. In the morning we opened the door and looked out on blue sky, green grass and peacefully grazing animals; a timeless scene of pastoral serenity that would lift the heart of even the most dedicated townie.

Back to Part 8 :
On to part 10:

Thursday, 26 July 2007

To Naushki and into Mongolia: Part 8 of the Trans-Siberian Railway

Back to Part 7: Ulan Ude (2)
Everyone knows that the Trans-Siberian Railway runs from Moscow to Vladivostok - except it doesn’t really. Once east of Lake Baikal we had transited Siberia and arrived in the Russian Far East. Vladivostok is certainly the terminus, but it is the Russian version of Hull - no one goes there unless they are going there, and for most people there is no reason to do that. We went to Ulan Baator and Beijing, instead.

The Vladivostok train arrived at Ulan Ude on time. The last two carriages had the word ‘Naushki’ in the window, and it was to one of these carriages that our tickets directed us.

I suspect our carriages were detached in the station, but I could not see. Wherever it happened, a short time later the main part of the train was continuing eastwards, while the last two carriages, coupled to a new engine, had turned south, following the River Selenga towards Mongolia.

Russian village beside the River Selenga

Rising in the Mongolian highlands and flowing northeast before turning north at the Russian border to reach Ulan Ude and eventually discharge into Lake Baikal, the 1000 km long Selenga must be one of the largest rivers that nobody’s ever heard of. It is a broad river, in this flat grassland sometimes very broad, and we followed its general direction for six hours to the border town of Naushki. It was a pleasant ride, sometimes beside the tree-lined river, sometimes cutting across the rolling grasslands. The few villages we saw clung to the river banks and were grey and wooden, much the same as all the other villages we had seen since Moscow, some 6000 km ago.

The very edge of Russia

At Naushki our provadnitza, a much more lively and intelligent individual than her colleague on the Irkutsk - Ulan Ude run, indicated that border formalities would begin in three hours. We could not sit on the train - the air-conditioning only works when it is moving – so we set out to investigate. Three hours in Naushki, we discovered, is 175 minutes longer anyone could possibly need.

According to Bryn Thomas’ ‘Trans-Siberian Handbook’ (carried, in various languages, by almost every trans-Siberian traveller) Naushki station offers a bank, a crowd of black market traders and toilets that ‘..would not win any hygiene awards.’ ‘Have your insect repellent handy’ he advises, ‘as the air can be thick with mosquitoes in the summer.’ Since the 2003 edition, the black market traders have been flushed away and the toilet block has been rebuilt. Sadly the large, clean almost fragrant toilet block is the beginning and the end of Naushki’s facilities.

We soon found ourselves, along with most of the inhabitants of our truncated train, sitting on the platform at the side of the toilet block – it was the only shade available. There were about fifty of us, almost all from Western Europe, though one older French-speaking couple turned out to be Canadians. The majority were in their early twenties, overwhelmingly students, but there were a few couples like us in their late fifties/early sixties. We were, I suppose, the same people, just a generation older.

The long wait exposed another of the wonders of Russian capitalism. Why, we wondered, had nobody thought it might be a good idea to set out some tables and chairs, even an umbrella or two? Every day, fifty or sixty people were marooned here for three hours, fifty or sixty relatively wealthy West Europeans; why not sell them tea or coffee, some cold beers and hot snacks? It was fine to banish the black marketeers, the makers of dishonest money, but why was nobody trying to make some honest money by providing a much-needed service?

After three long hours we were called back to the train. We sat in our hot compartment, filled in some customs declarations and waited some more. An official arrived, took a cursory glance at our passports and wrote our names in Cyrillic on the declarations. Cyrillic has no ‘W’ so it uses Ю, which is a sort of ‘yu’ sound. There is no equivalent of ‘H’ either, which accounts for the number of cinemas we saw showing a film concerning a certain ‘Gary Potter.’ After another wait a different official collected our declarations and passports, leaving the carriage with passports, all open at the visa page, stacked up his arm.

A long hot wait for our passports to be collected
It became increasingly hot so we were allowed out, under supervision. Having earlier sat beside the toilet block, we now squatted on the platform in the shade of the train. We heard the story of the Spanish students who were beaten up for showing insufficient respect to the head of Lenin in Ulan Ude. They had cuts and bruises and one impressive black eye, but were full of praise for the locals who came to their rescue and called an ambulance, and for the hospital that patched them up. They then had a conversation with some Dutch students, all of them speaking good English. We found this a little humbling as our Spanish is minimal and our Dutch non-existent.

We were herded back onto the train for the compartments to be searched. The smart, young border guard glanced at us, climbed up for a quick look in the luggage space, nodded and was gone. If we had been trying to smuggle a Mongolian black-marketeer over the border they would have found him, anything smaller would have remained undiscovered.

Passports were returned and, five and a half hours after we had arrived in Naushki, the train moved. We passed an air base with fighter jets hiding in oversized Nissen huts, the roofs covered with turf - camouflage which is not entirely effective from a train.

We reached the border and paused for twenty minutes in no man’s land between two barbed wire fences. Bryn Thomas advises travellers not to attempt to leave the train at this point. We wondered if the sandy strip between the wires was mined.

Then we moved on and soon arrived in Sukhbaatar, the Mongolian equivalent of Naushki.

The station has one platform and we pulled in some five or six tracks out from it. Passports were again collected and the provadnitza warned us our train would not leave for an hour, maybe two. Between us and the platform was a long goods train that looked as if it had not moved since the Russian revolution. Most of the younger travellers chose to squeeze under the nearest wagon. I looked at the space, considered my age and bulk and decided to walk round it. We had just reached the end of the train and crossed the track behind it when, without warning, it gave a jolt and set off. It seemed no more than good luck that no one was underneath it at the time.

Sukhbaatar may have been an even smaller settlement than Naushki, but the platform was much more lively, swarming with children, money changers and peddlers of water, pot noodles and anything else they thought they might be able to sell. Russia had been entirely European all the way to Irkutsk, and largely European thereafter. We were now clearly in Asia.

Hot and sweaty but in Mongolia at last,
on the platform, Sukhbaatar Station

It was hot and sweaty on the platform and there was nowhere to sit, so we decided to return to the train. As we set off a long train arrived and a party of soldiers marched out to greet it. The sergeant waved us back and deployed his men at intervals along both sides of the newly arrived train. Looking through the gaps, we realised our carriages had disappeared.

Mildly concerned we walked back along the platform. Everybody else was still milling about and it was inconceivable that our train could have gone with all the passports and left the people behind, so we relaxed.

Nothing much happened for another half an hour and we watched children playing on the tracks, right under the wheels of the train. We felt we ought to go and pull them away, telling them that trains can start without warning, but nobody else seemed the least concerned.

Rusian saftey notice - in Mongolia no one seemed to care

After a while others started to notice our missing train and there were several anxious faces. Then the two provadnitzas reappeared. Relieved faces turned towards them and they milked the moment for all it was worth, walking down the platform hand in hand and gathering their charges behind them like pied pipers.

They led us to the end of the Mongolian train to which, we discovered, our carriages had been coupled. We climbed aboard, our passports were returned and we moved off towards Ulan Baator. We had arrived at Naushki just after one and were now leaving Sukhbaator at 8.20. It had taken seven hours to cross the border, a border, at least in theory, separating two democracies. We must admit, though, that apart from the elongated waits, we were treated with courtesy and saw no signs of corruption. This border crossing is the stuff of legends, and if the stories are to be believed it was much tougher in the past. We had heard of a girl, attempting to leave Russia the day after her visa had expired, being sent back to Moscow to renew it before being permitted to leave, and of Mongolian border guards emptying cases and taking the train compartments apart. We had it easy.

All we saw of Mongolia before darkness fell was rolling grasslands dotted with the occasional ger. No roads, no towns, no industry, just a few nomadic dwellings.

A seven hour border crossing had perhaps not been the ideal way to celebrate our thirty second wedding anniversary.  We got out the food we had bought in Ulan Ude, gave the last of our roubles to the provadnitza in return for a couple of cans of beer, and improvised a celebratory meal of a sort.

Back to Part 7: Ulan Ude (2)

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Ulan Ude (2), Incompetence Among the Buryats: Part 7 of the Trans-Siberian Railway

(In which we demonstrate our lack of ability in making buuz, shooting arrows and playing the bones game.)

Back to Part 6: Ulan Ude (1)
Buddhists, Old Believers and an Enormous Head

In the morning we had a spare hour so we decided to buy some provisions for the next stage of our journey. According to the guide book there was a supermarket called ‘Sputnik’ in the same street as Svieta’s apartment block.  It was not where the map said it was, and after some searching we concluded there was no shop anywhere in the neighbourhood. We had just about given up when we saw a small sign high on a wall saying Спумник, - Spumnik rather than Sputnik, but suspiciously close.

Beneath the sign was a row of silvered windows. Wondering what might be behind them we walked to the end of the block. Round the corner we discovered a small door. It opened automatically and we stepped into a large, clean, well-stocked supermarket. With no indication on the outside as to what would be inside, we again found ourselves marvelling at the mysterious workings of Russian capitalism.

Shopping done, we met Svetlana, Andre’s wife, who was to take us to Atsagat, another datsan, this one some 50 km east of the city. She turned up not with the battered family Lada, but with a company four-by-four and a Buryat woman driver.
The outskirts of Ulan Ude
Ulan Ude stretched out in a ribbon development of army bases and factories, many of them derelict. Eventually we were in open country and made our way across the steppes to the datsan, which stands on a low rise above the village of Atsagat.

On a rise above the village of Atsagat

Although older than Ivolginsk, Atsagat was much smaller and even quieter – if that was possible. It was once a centre of learning and of Tibetan medicine, but now struggles on with only a handful of monks and students.

Atsagat Datsan

Once we had walked round Atsagat in the approved clockwise direction, looked into the various temples and wondered at the lifelike waxwork of the Dalai Lama, it was back into the car and a drive of some 10 km westwards to another of Russia’s endless supply of identical wooden villages.

Atsagat main temple - and our Buryat driver

We stopped outside a house distinguished by having a ger in the back yard. A ger is a large circular tent on a wooden frame, a Mongolian yurt. Inside the ger – in Part 9 and Part 10 we live in a real Mongolian ger, not a tourist ger, so I will leave further description until then - Lynne and Svetlana sat on the women’s (right hand) side and I sat on the left.

Lynne and Svetlana on the 'woman's side'

After a short wait a woman in full local dress brought us a yoghurt drink, salty rather than sweet, the sort we had drunk in Iran and would have been quite happy not to meet again. We ate bread and salad and were then offered a glass of something described as herbal and healthy. It was related to Benedictine or Chartreuse, but a little lighter in alcohol. Slowly it dawned on us that the woman was in fact our driver; she had slipped in the front door and changed while we were coming through the back and looking round the ger. It was, we learned, her house and her ger.

Next up was noodle soup, very pleasant if a bit salty, and that was followed by some buuz, Mongolian dumplings – or at least the kit to make them; pasta/pastry circles, chopped meat and herbs. We tried our best to wrap the first around the second, but the results were singularly unimpressive. When we had finished they were taken away to be cooked.

At this point we were invited to dress up in local costume. This is a situation we usually try to avoid; it so often morphs into an ‘aren’t foreigners funny little people’ sort of activity. However as there was no one to offend except the woman offering us the clothes, we had no option but to dress up. And very fetching we looked, too.

Not really Buryats
By the time we were back to normal, the dumplings had returned. Buuz are big butch dumplings stuffed with mutton. These had a pork based filling similar to Chinese jaoizi, but they had all the other buuz characteristics. Most had been properly made, our creations sat among them looking a little sad.

After lunch it was time for games. Riding, wrestling and archery are the traditional Mongolian sports but we had not seen a horse in the Buryat republic and in present company wrestling seemed inappropriate. We went outside for some archery. With blunt arrows and a target scarcely 5 metres away it was childishly safe – which was a good thing given our woeful shooting. I seemed to find my line quite easily, but length was another matter, some arrows soared over the target, heading for the next county, while others slammed into the turf barely beyond my toes.

This man is not Robin Hood

Having demonstrated we were as good at archery as buuz making we went inside for some jam and fritters and a cup of tea. I have been privileged to drink tea in many places and am constantly amazed at the variety of ways it can be presented. The British, of course, drink black tea with milk, sugar is optional. Americans (those that drink tea), Poles and Russians omit the milk. Iranians, stalwart tea drinkers, do the same but like to suck their tea through a sugar cube held between the teeth. Moroccans and Libyans like theirs sweet and with as much mint as tea. The Indians either dunk in a spoonful of masala or make their tea with condensed milk, pouring it repeatedly from one glass to another from a great height so that is served sweet and foaming. The Chinese are purists, permitting only leaves and water (though some of the leaves may be jasmine, chrysanthemum or rose). The Tibetans add yak butter, though Lynne and I, and most non-Tibetans, find the rancid cheesy flavour somewhat unpalatable. The Buryats, Mongolians and Kazakhs make a brew consisting largely of sweetened watery milk which may, at some time, have been shown a tea leaf. It is not unpleasant, but it is hardly tea.

We were joined by our host’s eight-year-old daughter for the ‘bones game’. Sheep’s ankle bones are roughly cuboid. Two ends are slightly rounded, so that when thrown they fall with one of four sides uppermost. These are sufficiently different to be recognisable and are called ‘camel’, ‘horse’, ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’. Thirty or so bones are thrown onto the table and the first player chooses a bone and attempts to flick it against another similarly orientated bone. If they succeed they take one of the bones and continue. If they fail it is the next player's turn. When all the bones have gone each player puts in as many bones as the player with the least, and play continues until somebody has no bones at all. That person is eliminated…and so on.

Camel, horse, sheep and goat from left to right (I think)

An impromptu international was arranged between the Buryat Republic and the Principality of Wales. Buryatia won easily, probably because they had played before.

Buryat bones team
If you have a shaman handy you can also use the bones to tell your fortune. Having no shaman we took our leave of the ger, though not our host as she was also our driver, and returned to Ulan Ude. We had a nap and woke not quite ready for dinner. The problem with allowing hospitable people to take control of your eating arrangements is that no one wants you to leave their table hungry. You end up with a choice of being rude or being stuffed. I would never be rude.

In fact, dinner was worth having, because along with the mashed potato and the obligatory dill salad, Svieta presented us with an omul. We had observed these fish in the aquarium in Listvyanka but were seeing them on a plate for the first time. Omul is a distant relative of the salmon, but Lynne thought it more like a firm fleshed haddock, albeit a fresh water haddock. It was excellent, not perhaps worth the five thousand mile journey on its own, but I would certainly eat it again if I spent any more time in the area.

In the evening we passed another hour in the pizza café, beer drinking and people watching rather than pizza eating. Young people were out in force parading up and down Lenin Street. Clothing tended to look cheap and again we noticed the fashion for ‘street walker chic’ which seems to be current all over Russia and indeed much of Eastern Europe.

This looks suspiciously like the same beer as yesterday

Russians outnumber Buryats two to one in their own capital, and that seemed to be reflected in the people we saw promenading. Although they live side by side, by and large Russians walked with Russians and Buryats with Buryats. There were a few mixed couples, but they were very much the exception not the rule. We tried to decide if Ulan Ude is a Buryat city with a lot of Russians or a Russian city with added Buryats. We were now further east than Singapore; Irkutsk had been unequivocally European, Ulan Ude was beginning to hint at being in Asia, but we were unconvinced we had got there yet.

Svieta’s apartment was close enough to the railway station to hear the announcements. During the night we were woken by what sounded like an argument between two station announcers conducted over the loudspeakers. We were up at 5, breakfasted on tea and pancakes, and at 6 o’clock Andre arrived to take us to the station for our journey to the border town of Naushki, gateway to Mongolia.

Back to Part 6: Ulan Ude (1)
Buddhists, Old Believers and an Enormous Head