Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

We’re In Mongolia!

October 15, 2008
by Stuart

After an overnight train from Ulan-Ude we arrived in Ulanbaatar – the capital of Mongolia – this morning. On the ride down, the tourist-to-local ratio was opposite from every other train ride we’ve had – the car was full of tourists, mainly European, and only a couple Russians. It was nice to hang out in the corridor and talk shop and hear other traveler’s experiences. However, it felt like we where tourists, which isn’t something we have felt that often.

We got on the train in Ulan-Ude and rode for about five hours until we reached the Russia/Mongolia border. Once we got to the border, all the cars were uncoupled from ours and we were told that at 4pm customs and security would board so we should be in our compartments. This gave use about three hours to explore the little town.

We hopped off the train and walked towards what looked like an exit from the platform. Tina then pulled me around and we saw some armed guards walking about six prisoners – on a chain – to a train car. They got near the car then the guards made the prisoners get down on their knees. Then they uncuffed them one at a time and put them on the train. We noticed that the car had only a couple windows at one end with bars over them. The guards then got about seven prisoners off the train, cuffed them, then marched them to the paddy wagon. Then they got out SEVEN MORE prisoners from the wagon, and marched them to the train! As they were passing us (Tina, me, and maybe 10 other travelers standing there) one prisoners yelled “Hello, Americans”! Tina and I walked around town a bit then went back to hang out in the train.

Not soon afterwards, a Mongolian woman and her friend boarded and sat in our compartment. They stayed with us until we got to the Mongolian boarder, then they got off and got on a local train. The woman and I walked to a market to get some water and food. Turns out she was a Russian teacher at a college in Ulanbaatar. Once back in the train, the two women started talking in Mongolian. It didn’t sound like Russian and was way more throaty.

So, at 4pm, the customs officials boarded the train and got our passports, made us get out of our compartment as they “searched” them, collected our customs papers, then left to process everything. We had to wait about 30 minutes until we got our passports back and were cleared through customs. At this point it had been almost five hours of just sitting at the platform – with no other cars coupled to ours, and no other trains at the station.

Once the train finally started moving, we looked out the window and saw Russian solders riding on the ends of the car – making sure no on hopped off. Then we passed a big electric fence and the guards hopped off. After about 30 seconds of no-mans-land, we passed another fence and some Mongolian solders hopped on the back of the train until we got to the Mongolian customs station. Once there, the solders walked around the train and people came with more customs forms and collected our passports. This process took another couple hours or so making the entire border crossing a 10 hour experience.


October 15, 2008
by Stuart

After being convinced by the hostel owner in Irkust that Ulan-Ude was worth seeing, we booked the only hostel in the town. We arrived to the train station in mid-afternoon and went to the service center to get our ticket to Mongolia. Apparently you can’t buy that ticket until the day before you want to leave – the booking agents, even though they work for the train, don’t know how many seats are available. Someone told us that they keep the seats open for people coming from Moscow because they spend the most money.

So, after being stood up by the hostel pickup service, we hopped in a cab and went to the hostel. After traveling for over a month, this was our first time in a cab. Not bad. What was bad, was that “in the town” turned out to be a town outside the town, down the road from another town.

We drove way out of the city into this little community of wood houses, with fenced in gardens, dirt roads with more cows then street names. The driver finally found the house and we got out and was welcomed by a cow across the street mooing. I secretly hoped he might be what was for dinner… this place did seem like the outback and all.

The next day we went out to the Ethnographic Museum – a open-air museum dedicated to Siberian architecture and history. It also had a little zoo with things like brown bears, tigers, reindeer and wild boars. This zoo was terrible. The bears keep slipping around in their own waste while trying to get parts of apples that people were throwing at them. And the tiger had a face that said, dude, I’ll give you 1000 Rubles if you let me at that elk across the way. There was also an crossbow range and mini-gocarts near the shamanism tents.

The next day we got our Mongolian tickets the grabbed some cabbage pies for lunch and headed out to a monistairy that was the center of Siberian Buddisam. It was about 20 miles out of town in a grassy field and had a few temples and some monks. The guidebook said to walk clockwise around the area, always keeping your right shoulder towards the main temple. We loved how peaceful it was until a family showed up and a woman on her cell phone tossed some money at the prayer wheel and gave it a whirl. We also saw monks walking with their shoulders pointing where every they wanted.

The next morning a taxi picked us up – along with another couple who was on our train, and in the same hostel in Ulaanbaatar – at 5:20am to take us to the train station on time. We were sad to say goodbye to Russia.

Siberian Paradise

October 15, 2008
by Tina

We arrived in Irkutsk in the dark of night – it was only about 7:30pm, but the sun sets early and rises late in Siberia. Irkutsk was more of what I expected from a Siberian city – until this point Siberia hasn’t felt all that “Siberian”. It’s a good sized town, but has a lot of quaint wood houses and not as many massive soviet apartment blocks found in other cities. There wasn’t much to do there – it was going to be our staging point for Mongolia. But a Kiwi girl from our hostel urged us to take a trip to Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal. She thought it was one of the most beautiful places that she has been, and she asserted that as a native of New Zealand, we should take her word for it. We are glad that we did.

The island was absolutely beautiful. We’ll worth the bumpy seven hour ride (in a crowded minibus, a ferry, then the last hour in the minibus again) to get to the town of Khuzhir, the main settlement on the Island. Khuzhir’s population is about 1,000 people and plenty of friendly cows and dogs. Both the cows and dogs roam free on the Island during the day and return home at night – with the cows mooing in the street until the owner let them in. We were never without a a friendly dog companion or two as we walked around town. We stayed at a place called “Fisherman’s Guesthouse” which was… wait for it… at a fisherman’s house! It was a cute little place and the wife – I’m assuming she was the fisherman’s wife – cooked homemade meals for us. And yes, most meals had some form of fish. There was also good soup, eggs, yummy potatoes and mutton (I didn’t have any). It was some of the best food we’ve had in Russia.

We took a Jeep tour our first day and hiked around on the second day immensely enjoyed being out of the city and taking in the island’s many breathtaking views. Olkhon was mainly rolling grassland prairies and dwarf-pine forests. Across the lake to the north we could see snow-capped peaks. It reminded us in some ways of the Marin Headlands at home.

We returned to Irkutsk after 4 days and then departed for Ulan Ude via train. This was a ‘short’ 8 hour ride and for a change of pace we ended up in third class (okay, because we couldn’t figure out how to ask for the seats we wanted). In third class there are six beds to a ‘compartment’ instead of the four in second class that we were accustomed to, and the compartments are open, so the train car is basically like a long barracks.

It was a day train, so since we weren’t sleeping it didn’t matter much to us and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable train rides yet. A older Russia man, who we gather is named Shasa, quickly befriend Stuart. He tried to talk to us, but the only thing he knew how to say in English was “I love you”. He was in love with Stuart. The only other English words our train friends seem to recognize were “American”, “Bush” “Schwarzenegger”, and “Obama”. The first two words did not go over well, but “Schwarzenegger”, and “Obama” seem to be pretty popular.

At one of the stops along the way we notice women on the platform selling plastic bags of whole fish. When Shasa plopped down a fish and a cup of beer in front of us, Stuart and I got really nervous. I slowly sipped the beer (it was 11am) so as not to be rude, careful not to empty the cup and invite another round and we tried tiny bit of the fish. To our surprise it was smoked and tasted really good! When the train pulled into our station and we made our way off all of our new friends came with us, carrying our bags and posing for a picture before we went on our way.

From Kazan to Irkutsk

October 5, 2008
by Stuart

We have spent most of the past week on the train. The frist leg – from Kazan to Novosibrick – was 36 hours, and the second – from Novosibrisk to Irkutsk – took 32 hours. They were both pretty different experiences. The first leg was two nights and a day, and the second was two days and a night. The first was more social, the second smelled better. One note for travelers: always book the bottom berths on an overnight train. The people on the bottom seem to run the cabin – plus they get control of the table.

Our cabinmates for the first leg were what seemed to be a middle-age man and his father. They were alwasy aware of our needs – to turn on/off the light, to use the table, and they even let us know how much time we had at each stop to get off the train (speaking no English, they would write the number down for us). And when we got to Novosibrisk, they made sure we got off ok and knew how to get out of the station. The only downside was the son smelled really bad. We could smell when he came into the cabin or rolled over in bed and put his arms above his head. Good thing people don’t hug goodbye over here…

We were only in Novosibrisk for a day and a half. We just walked around the city a bit and relaxed in the hotel – there wasn’t much to do anyway. We went out to eat lunch at a place near the hotel that had an English menu – but ironically, no one could read English! Usually the English menus are the Russian menus with the English translations under the Russian – so when ordering you would point to the English and they would write down the Russian. But since this was a completley different menu, and didn’t correspond to the Russian menu at all, it was useless. That fiasco was made up by having a great mexican dinner that night! We were doubious because the past few mexican places weren’t so great but this place was awesome. When the salsa and chips came to the table actually looking like salsa and chips from home, we knew it was gonna be a geat meal.

Our cabinmates (an older married couple) for the next leg weren’t as friendly but still helpful. Well, the only real issue was they didn’t seem to enjoy sharing the table that much, so we had to make lunches in our beds – that and the wife snored like nobody’s business. Oh well. They did carry Tina’s bag off the train when we got to Irkutsk. But what they lacked for in hospitality, they made up for by not stinking.