This ones long sorry! The day school
finished Robyn and I hopped an overnight train from Guangzhou to
Beijing, where we organized a Mongolian visa, spent a day hiking
a remote and completely untouristed part of the Great Wall and visited
Maos stiff in his mausoleum (conclusion: probably wax). One
of our last days in China saw a first - in Tiananmen Square we passed
a hobbling ancient woman who was being assisted in the painful task
of walking by a man on either side of her her feet were bound!
We took a series of trains from Beijing to Ulaan Batoor (aka UB,
capital of Mongolia), the last of which was an overnight ride on
the Trans-Siberian from the Mongolian Border to UB. UB is very similar
to all other mid sized ex-Soviet cities same big square buildings,
center plazas, etc
Our first day in town we visited the huge,
empty and cavernous Russian embassy where hidden cameras guided
us through the deserted compound by buzzing random doors until we
finally found a lone pasty white Russian who was trained to say
things like nyet, tomorrow and go
away. We opted to abandon our original plan of visiting Russia
by train and spend more time in both Mongolia and Europe
flying between the two.
When we first arrived we stayed in the most popular
backpackers guesthouse (first listing in Lonely Planet)
for $4 per person per night. Its the kind of guesthouse where
you are actually staying in peoples apartments and sometimes
the owners are living there too and sometimes not! We now call this
Guesthouse de Freakers. (Im trying to get a head
start on learning French, but I dont actually know any French
words, so instead Ive been trying to throw in a lot of las
and des wherever it looks like it might fit.) Everyone
in our apartment either had insane things happen to them or were
just plain strange themselves, heres the complete list of
people who were in our guesthouse:
1) Apartment Owner Day 1, 10:00pm -- Our 1st
night we elected to get a double room (instead of a dorm room),
so we could have some privacy. We came back to our room from some
local beer halls at around 10pm to discover the apartment owner
in our room watching TV. We expected her to leave, but instead she
sat enthralled with Mongolian soap operas for another hour while
we tried to sleep. The next night we moved to the dormitory since
extra cash didnt really buy extra privacy!
2) Singapore Man 1 -- Day 2 -- This guy has been in
UB for weeks and shows no signs of leaving. Never ventures
more than 50 yards from the apartment. Complains that UB is boring.
Bought a small dog that runs all over the apartment and plans to
smuggle it into China and then to Singapore.
3) Unknown 1 and 2 (couple) Two large individuals
arrive shortly after us on a huge motorcycle and smell incredibly
bad. We dont know where they are from because they never say
a word, even when you say hello. Unknown 1 snores like
a chain saw and keeps us up all night. They disappear before we
wake up the next morning.
4) British Man 1 Day 3, 03:00am British
Man 1 is pounding on the front door! BM 1 speaks so slowly that
you often find yourself suggesting possible words to complete his
sentences. (I got my
Since I wasnt asleep anyway due to unknown 1s snoring
I open the door and hes got a seat belt in one hand and a
ball of his own hair in the other hand! He speaks very quickly,
Ive been robbed! Hed been visiting his Russian
female friend in the Ger suburbs. While standing on
the street corner at 2am waiting for a cab to come home a car stopped
and 5 guys pulled him into the car by his long hair. They strapped
his feet together, robbed him (he thought they were going to rape
him) and dumped him on the ground in another part of the city. We
wonder about his friend's involvement in the incident???
5) Spanish Man 1 Day 3, 05:00am Ive
given up trying to sleep. Im reading in the kitchen when I
hear someone else fumbling with the lock. I open it up for surprised
Spanish Man 1 and go back to the kitchen. I look up a few minutes
later to see a very slutty looking Mongolian woman (probably a prostitute)
following Spanish Man 1 into the communal bathroom, where they stay
for half and hour.
6) Spanish Man 2 -- Day 3 -- Claims he
is from Spain but has the thickest Russian accent I have ever heard.
Tells a story about being ripped off by a corrupt Moscow cop while
in transit to Georgia with US$9000. (What we want to know is why
was he carrying $9000 in cash from Russia to Georgia anyway!?).
7) Canadian Woman 1- Day 3 12:00pm Relieved
to be rid of unknown 1 and 2 the chainsaw snorers we have a new
addition to our dorm, a large bag lady. Within minutes
of arrival she splays herself on her bed and sleeps fully clothed
with plastic bags all over her body, bed and floor that are filled
with all kind of crap. She snores like a chainsaw!
So, we escaped UB as fast as possible by hiring an
old Russian la Van complete with a driver, la cook, and de translator.
We shared the van with a French couple and Japanese man, all of
whom were excellent people. We did a 12 day loop through Northern
and Central Mongolia, mostly staying in rural gers (big round white
tents) but also staying in hotels and camping a couple nights.
Mongolia is probably the most preserved place weve
been. The people outside UB live almost identically to the way they
did hundreds of years ago. Almost everyone still lives in gers without
running water or electricity and they depend almost completely on
their livestock for all of their needs. Travel between the provincial
de capitals is mostly in packed Russian la Vans, but local travel
to closer places is usually done on motorcycles or by horse (usually
horse!). Many people still use carts with wooden wheels. Mongolia
is the only place weve been where its almost impossible
to get Coca Cola (outside of the capital)
Mongolia is stunningly beautiful. The landscape is
endless and almost completely uninterrupted. Periodically transversed
with large beautiful herds of horses, yaks, cows, sheep, and camels
(both domestic and wild); the only evidence of human habitation
is the occasional gers and herders. The population density is incredibly
low. There is an amazing amount of SPACE. The day sky is deep blue
and the night sky is devoid of light pollution the view of
the Milky Way is great! The people are also beautiful. Super friendly,
always generous and honest and often have huge smiles. Our driver
(who reminded us of our driver the year before in Tibet, so we decided
he was a reincarnation of Gunslinger) and cook, in particular,
had infectious and continuous smiles that rarely failed to put us
in a good mood.
There is nary a paved road or sign in the country.
It was nothing short of a miracle that our driver could regularly
choose the correct dirt track out of ten identical looking ones
between every two hills. Gunslinger is an amazing driver. He never
failed to fix our van, which broke down at least twice a day (often
with scotch tape!). He drove hard and fast when the road
was very bad or non-existent; when it smoothed out he slowed down,
rolled down the window and smoked cigarettes. The first couple days
I was continually sure we were going to tip over, but later got
used to driving at a 30 degree tilt over rough ground.
We typically drove all day between destinations and
spent a day or more when we arrived. We visited a couple of excellent
monasteries (Mongolia follows Tibetan Buddhism.) and climbed a volcano.
We stayed at two incredible lakes- one of them being Khovsgol Nuur.
Khovsgol Nuur is a huge lake that contains 2% of the worlds
fresh water. It is 30 miles from the border with Siberia and is
surrounded by thick Siberian forested mountains dotted with lush
meadows of flowers that we rode through on horseback and hiked through
on foot. La lake is crystal clear and is so far from Ulaan Baatar
(25 hour bus ride) that there are very few people there (great for
After 12 days we parted with our travel partners (who
were continuing to the Gobi) and took a local bus back to Ulaan
Baatar. The 8 hour bus ride took twice as long as intended
and got us in at 3am, when the only hotel open was the top hotel
in the city. (Note: At a $100 a night we were highly annoyed to
discover that the hot water was broken and the breakfast was terrible!).
The bus ride, however, was one of the highlights of our trip. We
shared our Russian mini-van with 12 Mongolians. After picking everyone
up at the central market, we then dropped everyone off at their
homes so they could pack! Two hours after getting into the van we
had finally finished dropping off and picking everyone up again
and we got on our way. As the night settled over the steppes and
the stars came out in force, someone broke out with a vodka bottle
and gave shots to everyone on the bus (including the women) out
of an (unused?) ashtray. Then the 4 men in the back seat started
singing beautiful songs in deep voices. Our guidebook said such
singing on public transport is common and often the songs are about
how beautiful the countryside is, which is certainly true. A woman
who spoke a bit of English leaned over to Robyn during one song
and said, This song about how beautiful Mongolian women is.
Stay in touch,
Keir and Robyn