Mongolia to Irkutsk, Siberia
May 27, 2005
|The pictures of Beijing and The Wall are first up.
We've now joined our new group and headed off on the TransMongolian train from Beijing towards Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We started through the Gobi Desert during the first part of the train ride got to experience a sandstorm. Even though the train was traveling at a decent speed and every window and door was closed, the sand in the air was thick enough to make you choke. By the time we cleared the storm, everything was covered with sand. My hair felt like dusty straw. Nothing like sleeping in a sandbox.
The rules of the train are simple, when the train is nearing a station the toliets are closed and stay that way until you have cleared that station by 10 minutes. Seems simple doesn't it? The problem is they don't give you any schedule as to when that is going to happen so there is no ability to plan ahead. The border crossings really complicate things. The China to Mongolia border was actually very uneventful. We got off the train and hung around this lonely border town for about 2 hours in the cold until about 1:00 am when we got back on the train. The Mongolia to Russian border was a different story. We arrived on the train around 4:00 am which means the toliets are closed. They woke us up around 8:00 am for the visa and passport check. Luckily there was a toilet on the platform. We then crossed the border into Russia and they unhooked our car and let it sit there in the hot sun from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Unfortunately the toilet on the platform was the worst I've seen in the world. It was the longest 7-1/2 hours of my life.
As for our time in Mongolia, I loved it. We arrived in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, got on a bus and headed out to the Mongolian Steppe to stay in a traditional Ger for two nights. The weather is usually very cold and wet, but we lucked out and the sun was shining. We got to ride horses where Chinggis Khaan (Gengis for those of us raised in the US) spent time. It appears all Mongolian children are taught from the age of three to ride bareback before ever using a saddle or reins.
Everyone we met from Mongolia was very friendly and upbeat about their future. One of the local guides told us that he was grateful to the Russians for their formal education and their industry (despite the past repression), but "yahoo for captialism!!" They planned on life only getting better. We found the same enthusiasm in Vietnam and China.
On the second day in the camp they were actually putting one of the Gers together. It takes about an hour to put one up with about three locals. As we were standing there watching, our local guide informed Melissa very nonchalantly that she was the most beautiful American he had ever seen, but her glasses made her not as attractive. He told us that when he was very young his father had him drink the "eye of sheep" drink and since then he had perfect vision. His brothers and sisters had refused and they now had to wear glasses. He told her than when she got home she needed to get that "eye of sheep" concoction, drink it and then she would not have to wear those unattractive glasses anymore. Gotta love it, he was completely sincere that we could just go down the street to the local market and pick up that "eye of sheep" from the local doctor.
We finished our stay in Mongolia by spending the final night in Ulaanbaatar and site seeing at a local temple and war memorial. One of the strangest sites in the city was that cars could have the steering wheels on either side of the car. Everyone drives on the right side of the road, but the steering wheel can be on either side. It felt like we just brushed the surface of Mongolia because I am sure there is much more to see in this country. Now we are off to Siberia.
Russia, wow, what can I say, this country is like every stereotype you ever heard and much more. It is strange, but great all at the same time. I've already told you about our border crossing on the Mongolia part, but the train ride is something else. We are traveling from Outer Mongolia into Siberia and the transition is an eye opener. Along the way we pass buildings, homes, industrial sites that are either in complete disrepair or completely abandoned. It seems like everyone just got up one day and left, leaving everything behind for the harsh weather and the broken population of people to deal with.
No one smiles or shows any emotion at first. And the first answer to anything is "no", but sometimes with a little prodding you can get a warm smile. When we first entered Russia at the border, we had to wait for hours so Melissa and I walked to the local bank which actually was in a small wooden building that looked like a dark pub. It was packed with locals. Everyone just sits and stares without saying anything or smiling. Once we got our money we went next door to the store if you want to call it that. Everything is behind a counter and you have to ask for it. One local came in and asked for some chicken, the woman behind the counter went into the freezer and brought out a whole frozen chicken, threw it on the floor, a leg fell off, she picked up the leg and put it in a plastic bag and then handed it to the woman. The red meat was just sitting in pieces out in the open in a cardboard box. Hmm, makes you hungry doesn't it?
We spent a couple of days on the train and then arrived in beautiful Lake Baikal which holds 20% of the clean water in the world. Absolutely beautiful, a lot like Tahoe only larger. We did a homestay in one of the local residental apartments. We got up early in the morning to a fabulous home cooked breakfast and went for a walk in the hills. Melissa and I met this guy along the way who spoke no English whatsoever other than "Las Vegas" and some word pronouncation of "Hollywood". Very proud of himself. We played a game of "guess what I'm saying" and we surmised that he was from Uzbekistan and had sold his Mercedes about 7 months ago to buy an airline ticket in which to escape into Siberia. Good choice I thought to "escape" and end up in what is "known as" one of the most desolate parts of the world. I guess things are even worse where he came from.
I should mention one of the incidents we watched in Baikal. We were getting into our bus the day we arrived when a small car filled with four big guys drives up to the stores next to us. Out jumps the driver in gray fatigues with an machine gun on a sling around his shoulder. The next three guys jump out in all black with handguns in their waist bands. They are drinking some beers, laughing, smoking and just fooling around. No one seems to notice, so I ask the local guide who these guys are waiting to see his reaction. He has no reaction and casually tells me they are local security, "good system, works well". It appears on a daily basis these four guys pick up all the local cash from the stores and take it to the bank. "Good insurance". I guess they don't mind if their security drinks, drives and carries guns. Just a normal day in Russia!!! .
After our walk we headed off by bus to the lovely town of Irkutsk for two nights.
Irkutsk is a quiet little college town where every night all the young folks, dressed in bad 80's clothes, are out drinking on the streets. Every morning the streets are littered with empty and broken beer and liquor bottles. There is not much else to do since the sun doesn't really set until around 10:30 or 11:00 pm.
We are now headed off (in retrospect hee hee) for our three day exercusion on the TransSiberian Railroad. Should be interesting.