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.

Kazan You See Me?

September 29, 2008
by Stuart

The kremlin viewed from the bridge over the Kazanka River.

The kremlin viewed from the bridge over the Kazanka River.

We just spent four days in Kazan – which was about three to many. You can easily see the main sights in one day but since we needed to relax somewhere for a bit – and wait for space on the train – we decided to make Kazan a rest stop. The train from Nizhny Novgorod dropped us off at 6am. It was around 42 degrees.

To get to the hostel, we had to take a bus from the train station then follow cryptic directions like “From that bus stop you have to pass the road, walk aside 3 high houses, then go between them, and you will find a small marketplace.” We actually had to cross the road, walk by a few stores, then turn left down a old road, then make about four more turns to get to the marketplace. The only way we found the hostel was because some people saw us walking around with suitcases and guidebooks and figured we weren’t from around here and offered to help. The first person passed us on to someone else who lived in the same building as the hostel. She led us back through a park, and dirt path and opened a fence leading us to the right apartment complex. It was Soviet housing at it’s finest.

The hostel turned out to be some rooms in someone’s apartment. Now, I give the girl mad props for starting a hostel – she wanted more people to visit Kazan and knew that lots of travelers look to stay in hostels. She also likes talking with travelers because they are interesting. But I think there might also be a vicarious reason for this – an overnight train to Moscow is the longest trip she has ever taken. Anyway, the place was a mess. The kind of place where you take a shower then want to take a shower somewhere else to get clean from that last shower. But we stayed. It’s funny what you’ll put up with for internet access in your room.

SS Peter & Paul Cathedral

SS Peter & Paul Cathedral

I love all the little cars over here.

Kazan turned out to be a pretty big city – we could see all the apartment complexes around the outskirts of town during our bus rides from the hostel to the city and back. But even on Friday and Saturday nights the promenade downtown was vacant. We did see lots of people at the mall and the market, but when we were just wandering the streets… no one.

Tinas favorite restaurant.

Tina's favorite restaurant.

People saw us, however, and couldn’t stop staring. Everywhere we went people watched us. We went to a pizza place and while we ate the people behind the counter just sat there watching us. I would stare back at them until they turned away. One woman was looking our reflection in the mirror behind the counter!

Maybe because no tourists come here, they find us “interesting” or suspect. When we would go into a store someone would holler and then either the security guard or another employee would come near us and follow us around. We went to a small grocery store by the hostel every night and it was the same thing. People hollered and the guard came over to watch us.

An asle from the Central Market.

An aisle from the Central Market.

Dried fruit. We didnt try any - some vendors had birds playing in the fruit.

Dried fruit. We didn't try any - some vendors had birds playing in the fruit.

This of course provided hours of fun. They would watch me much more then Tina so when we entered the store we would split up. I would walk across the store and wait for the person watching me to walk over. Then I would smile at them and proceed to walk back across the store. After doing this a few more times and they got an annoyed look, I’d go find Tina and we’d buy our stuff and leave. Sometimes the person watching us would walk us out. This is really ironic because something like 1 in 10 Russians have a record, so we should be the least of their worries.

National Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan

National Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan

When we would go into different sections in the museum, the guards would talk and then someone was assigned to follow me. One person watched me for most of the second floor. It was really quite so I could hear her foot steps. And when she had lost me she would speed up, and when she found me, she would slow down pretend like she was just looking at something. So I would get lost on purpose, or walk back and forth between different parts until what seemed like a manager yelled at me from across two sections! Um, buy the way, this cat-and-mouse game was the only interesting thing in the museum.

The Annunciation Cathedral inside the kremlin.

The Annunciation Cathedral inside the kremlin.

Main drag of the kremlin; Syuyumbike Tower on the right.

Main drag of the kremlin; Syuyumbike Tower on the right.

The Kul Sharif Mosque in the kremlin.

The Kul Sharif Mosque in the kremlin.

Tonight we take the train – on which we cross the Ural Mountains officially entering Siberia and the Asian side of Russia – for a couple days to Novosibrisk. We have some instant noodles (each car has hot water) and lots of snacks for food. Most stations have vendors on the platforms selling all kinds of goodies. But depending on the length of stop, you might not have enough time to get stuff, so it’s best to come prepared.

Tina and Stuart also viewed from the bridge over the Kazanka River.

Tina and Stuart also viewed from the bridge over the Kazanka River.