Permanent Vacasian

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

Third month. Third country.

November 7, 2008
by Stuart
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The outskirts of UB after a night of snow.

The outskirts of UB after a night of snow.

After a 30-hour train ride we arrived this afternoon in Beijing, officially completing the Trans-Mongolian part of our trip. Last night at the border we watched them change the boogies – wheels – on the train cars. Russia and Mongolia have the same width tracks, but China has a smaller gage. After you leave Mongolia, the train goes into this warehouse where each car is lifted about eight feet in the air, the old boogies are slid out and the new ones are slid in. The process is so smooth you don’t feel a thing – Tina didn’t even know it had been done. You have to watch this process from the train car since they won’t let you out (there are guards at each end of the car). Plus customs still has your passport so you don’t want to be going anywhere.

Hey! That's our train!

Hey! That's our train!

We we started and were we ended.

We we started and were we ended.

Sunset in the Gobi.

Sunset in the Gobi.

The subway in Beijing is in Chinese and English and the streets are also in Roman characters which made it easy to find our hostel. However, the hostel seems to have been swallowed up by a hotel. The guidebook says the hostel is across a nice courtyard from a hotel. But the courtyard has a sign saying the hostel is in the hotel. It’s still only $10 a night and about a 15 min walk to Tienanmen Square, but it doesn’t have that social atmosphere that a hostel does. And it has squat toilets.

The new boogies being slid into place.

The new boogies being slid into place.

So far Beijing seems really cool. It’s a big city but it feels tame and kinda chill – like Portland, OR. There are as many people on bikes as cars, and lots of side streets that are cobblestone with little markets. And contrary to Russia and Mongolia, every restaurant looks so good! We passed a place that serves “Assuredly Mixed Vegetables”, which is good because when I order that at home I’m a bit incredulous as to the quality of mixing.

China is gonna be awesome.

Terelj

November 5, 2008
by Tina
1 Comment
1,872 views

After debating a while as to whether or not to leave Mongolia early for Beijing on the Sunday train, on account of my arm, we decided to stay another week in Mongolia and take another trip out to Terelj national park. The park is about 80k north of UB, and we signed up for a three day/two night trip. On the morning of our departure it was snowing – even UB looks pretty under a blanket of snow – and we drove out of the city in the peaceful early morning before the street became jam packed with loud, erratic traffic.

Hills and snow

Frozen river.

Trees

Tina and trees.

 The park was a lot more touristy than the other places we had been with lots of tourist ger camps and even a golf resort, but we again stayed with a family in their extra ger. We learned while visiting the Mongolian History Museum that a prosperous family has all 5 national animals of Mongolia, sheep, goats, cows, horses and camels. This was a very prosperous family as they has all 5, and while visiting them in their family ger, we also noticed that they had a TV, satellite dish, computer, microwave and washing machine. We were hence surprised when we wer shown to our ger and it was in pretty bad condition. We got pretty good at sousing out the quality of a ger upon arrival after spending 12 nights in them. This one had holes in the sides and was very drafty. We knew that we’d be in for a cold night.

The family ger

The family ger - complete with broken motorcycle and satellite dish.

Hills and Valley

Looking back towards our ger camp.

We got a fire going and relaxed in the ger until after lunch and decided to brave to cold and go for a walk. After we got a couple feet away the kid who had been taking care of yelled out, “horse?”. Two hours of horse riding a day was included in out trip so we decided to go for it (broken arm and all). The kid saddled up a couple horses, lots of yelling ensued between family members and we finally took off for our ride with the 16 year old son of the family. We got off to somewhat of a rough start with the kid changing his mind as to which direction we should go and him getting frustrated with me because I couldn’t control my horse very well. Mongolian horses are semi-wild and therefore don’t always abide when you pull on the reigns and you end up going in a lot of circles.

Powering through

Powering through.

Goat

Goat

We explored the hills of the park, beautifully blanketed in snow and started to enjoy or ride once we were able to control our horses a bit and trekked along at a nice pace until my horse decided it would stop for a bite to eat. Down the horses head went for a piece of grass and then down I went right over its head, onto the ground, landing right on my broken arm. Lucky for me Mongolia horses are short and the fall was not hard. I was pretty shaken up, and the horse got spooked and charged Stuart’s horse. The kid was amazing adept at calming the horse down. He tightened the saddle (thats the last time they let the 1o year old do that job) and had me climb back on the horse after assuring me that it was in fact a ‘good horse’.

Our ger

Our ger. It sleeps four.

Sheep

Sheep

We finished finished our ride around sunset and took our frozen toes back to the ger to warm up and enjoy another “Mongolian” flavored dinner. The night was freezing cold as predicted, but we powered through.

You should see the other guy

You should see the other guy.

The next morning we were joined in our ger by another couple who we promptly filled in on ger living, us being experts and all by now. Stuart and I passed on the horse riding. I didn’t think that my arm could take it anymore. The weather being a lot more enjoyable, we decided to go on a couple hikes and check out the cool rock formations and forests of the park.

The other guy

The other guy.

We walked until sunset, which was awesome.

Sunset

Sunset

Ulaanbaatar

November 5, 2008
by Stuart
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A Chinggis Khaan statue garding the Parliament House at Sukhbaatar Square.

A Chinggis Khaan statue garding the Parliament House at Sukhbaatar Square.

We spent most of the time in Ulaanbaatar (UB) seeing the National Museum of Mongilan History, the Museum of Natural History and the entertaining International Intellectual Museum. The Intellectual Museum was filled with thousands of puzzels of all kinds. You have to go on a tour so the guide can explain everything to you and show you how smart he is by solving all the puzzels after giving you about 30 seconds to try it. Some puzzels were so complicated there were prizes if you can solve them within a time limit. The hardest one takes 56,831 moves and you get like $100,000 if you can figure it out in an hour I think. We also visited the Gandan Khind monastery which is one of Mongolia’s main attractions.

Stuffed animals in the Gobi room at the Museum

Stuffed animals in the Gobi room at the Museum of Natural History

Since we missed the KGB museum in Moscow, I wanted to hit up the Museum of the General Intellegence Agency. I know the Mongolian spy world doesn’t sound like it actually exists, but that’s what made it interesting to me. The first time we tried, no one answered the door. People I talked to at the Agency said just said “no”. But after our trip to Terelj, we stopped by again and someone was there. He didn’t speak English, and nothing in the museum was in English, so it was a short visit. They did have a few machine guns that were cool.

All you need is Mongolia.

All you need is Mongolia.

There is a huge black market here that we went to a few times for trip supplies. This was the biggest market I’ve seen. And it was organized by products – there was a shoe section, an auto parts section, furniture, clothes, candy, housewares and even wooden crates with puppies in them. And jars jammed with live turtles swimming in yellow water.

There were a few places where new buildings were being built right next to really old buildings.

There were a few places where new buildings are being built right next to really old buildings. This seems to be symbolic of what is happening in UB and the rest of Asia as well.

We also looked for anything to eat that wasn’t Mongolian food. We found a great vegetarian place that we hit up for lunch – twice. We’re also going back to an Indian resturaunt tonight that was pretty good. Towards the end of our time in Russia, I discoverd the steamed dumplings with meat – usually mutton and pork – filled with meat juice. You eat them by biting them, sucking the juice out, then eating them. So good. In Mongolia they are called buuz. I got some here but they weren’t as good because there was no pork. And maybe after our Gobi trip, I’m muttoned out.

Yummy vegetarian food.

Yummy vegetarian food.

It’s not that UB isn’t a cool city, it’s ok. Part of it might be because the traffic is so bad it makes you not want to leave your hostel. Pedestrians do not get any rights here. I have seen old ladies in the middle of four lanes of traffic with cars going by her full speed and honking. She was just standing there shaking. One car hit Tina’s backside as we were crossing the road. It’s so bad they have police at big interections directing people to follow the lights. Like, the lights aren’t enough – they also need police to remind you that red means stop.

The Migjid Janraisig Sum temple at the Gandan Khind monastery.

The Migjid Janraisig Sum temple at the Gandan Khind monastery. We saw several brides here – kinda like we saw at big tourist attractions in Russia.

Buddah

The temple had a 26m tall statue, made of copper with a gilt gold covering. Inside was 27 tons of medicinal herbs, 334 sutras, two million mantras and an entire ger’s furniture.

Dr. Doolittle

November 5, 2008
by Tina
2 Comments
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My slip on the ice at the White Lake afforded me the opportunity to seek medical care here in Mongolia.  I had to wait  5 days until we returned to “UB” before visiting a doctor.  The guidebook warned that the “biggest risk to your health in Mongolia may be the hospitals” which are “abysmal and best avoided”.  It advised that the only reliable option for health care was the SOS International Clinic were one could see a Western doctor albeit at Western prices.  So Stuart and I headed out to the clinic the morning after we returned from our trip.  I was hoping to have some x-rays to confirm my suspicion that I did in fact break my arm and to get some advice as to how long I could expect it to heal, and if was possible to continue my travels.

The clinic had one Mongolian doctor, and one ‘Western’ doctor.  Not knowing what medical training was like in Mongolia, I opted for the Western doctor.  The doctor, Dr. Peter, turned out to be a Bulgarian (what are the medical training standards in Bulgaria, I wonder?).  Upon describing my accident to Dr. Peter he laughed at me and then asked why In the world I  decided to come to Mongolia.  I told him it was pretty and he told me that he was trying to get out of there as soon as possible and that it was the worst place he’s ever been and that Iraq was a better place to be. Okay…. but could he diagnose what was wrong with my arm?  He felt around a bit (didn’t even ask me to remove my long sleeve shirt) and sent me for an x-ray.

I was close to tears at this point, longing for the friendly, interactive treatment I am used to at home.  Thankfully the Mongolian woman who took my x-rays was very nice and made me feel much better about my experience there (maybe I should have checked my prejudices at the door and opted for the Mongolian doctor – it would have also saved me $100).  She took some x-rays and then sent me back to the waiting room whilst Dr. Peter took a look.

While waiting for Dr. Peter to do his magic we had the pleasure of overhearing an American woman,  who had apparently recently arrived in Mongolia to work as a teacher, talking to the front desk staff.  She apparently was really offended by one of the forms she was asked to fill out, a Medical Information Release form, which gave her the option of allowing the clinic to release her information to her employers, insurance company or another hospitals.  I filed out the form too, I just didn’t check to box allowing them to give out information to my employer (not that I have one to give information to anyway).   She went on and on about how in “America you NEVER give out medical information” and that if they were “going to provide services to Americans, they need to do things the way Americans do things”.

The poor women behind the counter just smiled and took the abuse as the woman got more and more indignant and berated these poor women.  Stuart and I sunk down in our chairs and cursed her under our breath for upholding those American stereotypes we’ve been trying so hard to get away from.  I chuckled when I thought about the service she would get from Dr. Peter (In AMERICA the doctor does not laugh at the patient in her face).

Soon after my x-rays were dropped off (at least things here were fast) Dr. Peter pointed to me, called me the wrong name and beckoned me back to his office. He showed me my x-rays and pointed out the fracture.  Then he filled me in on what my treatment options were.  I asked a lot of questions, but had a hard time following.  I’m pretty sure he said something about my hand dying and falling off.  At the end of our ‘discussion’ we (i.e. he) decided that I should wear a sling and keep my arm immobile for a while.  He called a nurse in to help with the sling, who apparently moved too slow for him because he cursed her and all Mongolians as she came though the door.  The poor nurse looked like she had to put up with a lot from Dr. Peter.  He asked me again in front of the her why on earth I came to Mongolia and I told him that the country was really beautiful and the nurse added what I was about to say, that the people were really nice.  Dr. Peter scoffed.  He was nice enough to give the nurse a ‘present’ after she helped tie the sling, an extra safety pin, she said she would ‘keep it forever’.  Maybe Dr. Peter was all bark and no bite after all.  He asked me to come back in a week so that we could discuss ‘rehabilitation’  At $200 a pop, I don’t think so!

13 Days of Awesomeness, Part 2

November 5, 2008
by Stuart
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When we would arrive at a family’s get camp, the family would come out and greet us, show us to the ger, help us unload the van, bring us some hot water for tea and then start the fire. Each ger has these iron stoves with a pipe going out the top of the ger to let the smoke out. It also creates a draft in the stove that fans the fire. I’m also convinced these stoves let out a ton of heat making them inefficient.

Different locations had different types of fuel – in the Gobi, where there are no trees – we used dung. In case you were wondering, camel dung burns the best. And it doesn’t smell as bad as you think. One place was so cold we went out hunting for the families stash of dung. We found it under a tarp behind a shed and loaded up a bag to last us until we went to sleep.

The whole gang: Tina, Richard, Tom and Arnika.

The whole gang: Tina, Richard, Tom and Arnika.

Now, I’ve done a bit of camping in my life, and each trip has required at least one fire to be lit. And I am usually successful. In Mongolia, I am not. I tried every morning, and sometimes in the evening, to start the fire but it never worked. I’d get the wood staked up with tinder at the bottom – just like how one starts a fire in the woods – but nothing would catch.

Usually our driver, Ganaa, or someone from the host family would come in, push me out of the way, and get to work. They would laugh at my set up and jam a bunch more wood into the stove and somehow get it going. Towards the end I developed the theory that they all have vodka breath. When the Mongolians blow on the fire, you hear the sound of a flamethrower and all the wood seems to burst into flames at once. My wintery-fresh Colgate breath must have had a chilling effect.

The morning after our first stop on the way to the Great White Lake, our drivers took some time to fix the vans. When Ganaa had a problem shifting into first gear, we asked what was going on. We did most of the communicating with him by just saying or asking “good”. He held his hands like he was holding something and shook it up and down violently and said “Too much Gobi”. So he rebuilt the entire gear box. By himself.

Ganaa doing whatever it takes to get the van started.

Ganaa doing whatever it takes to get the van started.

If you have ever wondered what men do out in the wilds of Mongolia it’s this – fix cars. Other then leaning over the stoves starting fires, they spend a lot of time leaning over engines fixing them. At almost every remote ger camp, there was a gang of men fixing a car. And by “fix” I mean gerry-riging – usually with tape, rags, or some other impromptu solution. When the Apollo mission was in trouble, they should have called in some Mongolians to fix it.

As he was working on the van, we walked into town, got some snacks and hung out at a container market. A container market is just a little market where all the stalls are containers – like you would see on the back of a semi-truck. I still have yet to figure out how these vendors get all the stuff that they do -toothpaste, tools, socks, watches, sheepskins, jeans, pipe cleaners – you name it. I live in the consumer center of the world and have no clue how to become a seller of anything. But some lady in the middle of the Mongolian desert is selling my kind of deodorant out the back of a container sitting in dirt. Awesome.

We arrived at the next stop pretty late at night. I’d like to point out that this camp had the longest walk to the toilet. It took about five minutes. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but when it’s about zero outside, six inches of snow on the ground, pitch black and you gotta go, it’s pretty dang far.

Most ger camps consist of a ger for the family – these days they are equipped with solar panels and maybe a satellite dish and tv (fanciers gers had dvd players) – and then a couple gers for visitors. Each camp also had a pit toilet. Some were nicer then others. One only had a two foot wall around it, so everyone could see you until you squatted. The smell of the toilets wasn’t so bad, which we attributed to the weather – everything was frozen.

Waterfall

Not-much-water-falling Waterfall

We walked the next morning over to a waterfall nearby – which was also frozen except for a little trickle – so we amused ourselves by throwing rocks because they made cool noises skidding across the ice. We went for a horse ride across some fields, had lunch, then drove to Tovkhon Khiid, a neat mountainside monastery on the way to the next stop. We hiked up the hill – about an hour’s walk – and toured the monastery. The buildings themselves weren’t too impressive, but the view was killer. And the monk kid was kinda funny.

Getting the horses ready.

Getting the horses ready.

On the way to the stop that night in Khorkhorm – Mongoliga’s original capital, we stopped at a ger to pick up some people who’s car had broken down. Turns out we had met these people in Ulan Ude at the monastery a couple weeks before. They were Buddhists from London making a tour to different monasteries in Asia. They even gave some public lectures in Ulanbaatar (UB). We were invited into the ger for tea and socializing before packing up the Buddhists’ stuff and heading out.

View from the Monastery.

View from Tovkhon Khiid. Monk included.

The next morning the other group headed back to UB while we continued on. Khorkhorm has a main monastery which we toured in the morning. I even got to go into a temple filled with monks doing their prayers. They were all chanting different things and sometimes came together in a very sing-song kinda way. After the monastery we dove to the next stop – Tserleg – and ended up staying at Ganaa’s house. We met his wife and kid. She made us some yak pastries for lunch. Oh man were these good! While Ganaa had some family time, we walked to another market and got the family some chocolate and candy. On the way back we stopped by an english cafe and got some brownies and chocolate pastries for later.

Lunch at the sacred tree, Zuun Salaa Mod.

Lunch at the sacred tree, Zuun Salaa Mod.

After a late start the next morning we drove to the Great White Lake, stopping by sacred tree for lunch. Along the way we got some yak’s cream from these kids on the side of the road – who also sold us the mare’s milk in recycled plastic bottles – and started eating it right out of the bag. Yes, bag. The cream is made by boiling the milk and letting it cool forming this circular block of cream. Later that night we would end up going through all the food we had, seeing what went best with the cream. It was awesome on a Kit-Kat but even better when spread on a shortbread biscuit then topped with jam. Once we discovered that, we ate several packs of biscuits and almost the entire bag of cream.

When we arrived in the evening we walked out on the lake, which was frozen until the middle, to watch the sunset. Tina started sliding around on the ice for fun and eventually fell – fracturing her elbow. The sun was setting anyway so we heading inside for dinner and to warm up and get Tina comfortable with some ice for her arm.

The Great While Lake taken by our ger camp.

The Great While Lake taken by our ger camp.

The next morning I went for a walk around part of the lake. The host family had some cool dogs who walked with me the whole time, and when some other dog came towards me, or a stray cow, they barked and kept me safe.

Yaks drinking from the lake.

Yaks drinking from the lake.

Even thought it was freezing, it was beautiful. I held this guys horse while he led his yak herd to the lake to drink. While they were drinking I walked out on the lake to take some pictures. He came out to talk to me. We tried a few subjects but just ended up giggling at the awkwardness of the conversation. Mongolians love seeing photos of themselves, so he looked at the photos I’d taken. He didn’t seem too impressed which made me feel bad. I felt like saying, well, at least I don’t work with yaks all day. But that actually sounds kinda cool. Mongolian: 2. Stuart: 0. See if I ever hold his horse again.

The plan for the afternoon was to ride horses to a volcano crater. We were told to be ready at two, but of course it was about five before Ganaa came back from errands, and when pressed about the horses said, “Horses? No.” Apparently, no one knew where the horses where. Instead he drove us to the crater and we hiked up for a great view of the sunset and surrounding countryside.

Rock formation onto of the crater.

Rock formation onto of the crater.

We were informed the next day that Ganaa wanted to change the plans because of a river that may or may not be frozen over enough to cross. He wanted to go back to UB on the main roads. Turns out that this new plan took us back to his house. That was fine with us: more yak pastries! On the way we passed a Chinese survey crew scoping out something for the highway. Our driver said “Chinese” then made a face of disgust. Then motioned that he wanted to punch them in the eye. Then giggled.

Ganaa and his family.

Ganaa and his family.

Ganaa’s wife joined us for the trip back to UB. We stopped that night at a place called the “Small Gobi”. It was a desert with little dunes handy incase you couldn’t make it down to the Gobi proper. The host there was really funny. He would come into our ger about every 10 minutes to see if we were ok. After he lit the fire, he stood up and patted himself on the back and bowed for us. The next morning as I was walking around, he wanted to try on my glasses. He put them on, took them off, put them back on, looked around. Nodded with approval, then gave them back to me.

Our host showing off his photo jacket.

Our host showing off his photo jacket.

During the final leg of the trip, we stopped at a roadside cafe for lunch a couple hours away from UB. I had a hankering for some buuz – meat stuffed dumplings that are steamed and filled with juice. Even though it was on the menu, they didn’t have anyway. So got some dumpling soup and Tina and Arnika (also a vegetarian) split some salads. The soup was ok, but at that point I was tired of Mongolian food, so I ate everything but the fat (in some dishes, they cook chunks of mean and chunks of fat). I felt weird about not finishing my food – like it was a sign that even after 13 days in the country, I hadn’t really let go and experienced Mongolia. But then I noticed that the driver – who ordered the same soup as I did – ate all the fat, but didn’t touch the potatoes.

Our last time in a ger together.

Our last time in a ger together.