Archive for August, 2009

Clouded Out

August 8th, 2009 6:55 pm by Ray

Lake Baikal is an idyllic palette of wildflowers and butterflies in the sunshine in August. In the rain, it’s gray and muddy and the trails have treacherous footing in some places you very much want trails to be built to American National Park ADA standards.

The afternoon that we we posted last, we got onto train 005 from Ulaan Baatar to Moscow, bound for Irkutsk. There were, as always, a batch of interesting travelers in adjacent compartments: a writer for the Economist who is starting work on a book about the Amur River, a Swedish couple who were returning home after three years in Hong Kong and were having endless visa trouble, most of which seemed to come down to having the Russian Visa in a different passport than the one they were using. This is not specifically a problem Americans would have. In America when you run out of space in your passport, the Passport Office gives you extra pages. The Swedes seem to issue you a new passport and all the other ones stay valid, as far as Sweden is concerned. There was an issue of the expiration date. The moral is to make sure you have a passport that’s valid for 6 months after the last date you’ll be using your passport for anything.

Let’s see, what else, Nikita is the cutest Russian baby living in Ulaan Baatar and possibly the universe and his grandparents in Irkutsk will be thrilled to see him walking around and being curious about everything in the world. His mom is nice, too.

There is not a dining car on the Mongolian train when it leaves Ulaan Baatar! We ate only raisins and Mongolian dried cheese. The raisins were in a forged Sunmaid bag but they were OK. I hope I remembered to save the bag.

Siberia starts about 50 km north of Ulaan Baatar. Suddenly instead of grasslands, you are traveling through spindly birch forests (all forests are spindly out here, they haven’t done “old growth” since the Iron Age.) along the the Selenga River, which takes Mongolian pollution north to Lake Baikal. Then there are a couple of hundred of kilometers of Mongolia again but you know you are entering another country when at sundown the train parks for 6 hours without even the excuse of changing railroad gauges and Russians and Mongolians poke their heads in every hour and a half or so because they are looking for something more interesting than two oldish men and their Lonely Planet guidebooks to Russia and Mongolia.

The Swedes got into Russia, we noted the next morning.

One of the things that happens at midnight on the border is that a Russian dining car is hooked up. The relative liberty of the Trans-Siberian family of trains is new. A French man we met had been on it in 1987, and said that he was confined for the entire trip in a car holding only Europeans, and was not even permitted to get out at station stops. There were other cars holding only Mongolians and only Russians and only Chinese, and nobody could move about, not even to eat. You brought five days of food with you. Now it’s an ordinary train with a dining car that wants too much for too little, but what you really want to do, Anna (mother of the baby) informed us, is step onto the platform at Sludyanka and buy smoked fish, still warm, from the women selling them on the platform. The fish cost about $1 apiece and one and a half of them feed even travelers who have only eaten raisins and cheese for half a day.

In the afternoon, about 3:30, the train pulls into Irkutsk and you say your farewells to all the people whose email addresses you may or may not have put into your iPhone and the taxi gauntlet is ready to charge you triple to go to your hotel. Anna said a taxi should be 200 rubles and we paid 300 rubles which is only 50% more, it’s all you can hope for the first time you step off an international transport in a new country with a new language and a new alphabet.

The Victory Hotel seemed nice enough. The Internet connections are a little silly: with an Ethernet cable you connect via PPPoE; they somehow use the same architecture for Wi-Fi, which isn’t supported on the PowerBook and iPhone. They charge by the megabyte for the Internet which makes browsing inadvisable. You have no idea how much you’re downloading. We walked around town and bought fruit at the market and ate it all before we got back to the hotel.

I don’t know what has changed, but I never even think any more about the admonitions every traveler used to get about how poisonous everyone’s food and water is to Americans. We still use our water filter, but defeat entirely the purpose by eating food on cruise ships. Rural Mongolian mayonnaise and raw vegetable salads have had no effect on me so far, but I got pretty classically sick for a day from something I ate on the Costa Classica. It was the night of the chemically contaminated or perhaps just sour kiwi soup, but I don’t know that it was that.

We went to an “upscale” restaurant the night we arrived in Irkutsk, in a walking street about two blocks from the Hotel Victory.

I should correlate and list all the occasions I have been the only customer in a restaurant. It’s a funny feeling. You have to leave off the times when you are a tourist eating at 9 PM in Madrid and the crowd doesn’t gather until you leave. In Bombay in 1980 when the musician entertained only me; in the restaurant with actual stars as I recall in Santiago de Compostela in 2007, and in Perpignan on an election night a very nice lonely place, and here at Arbatski Dvorik in Irkutsk, why isn’t anybody here? We had a very nice mushroom assortment, including some that had been something like brined to a very unusual effect; we had Baikal whitefish and “juicy meat bits”.

In the morning, our guide and his driver arrived at the hotel. We supposed that we’d be issued backpacks to hold our share of everything, but the guide had an enormous backpack and asked us to carry only sleeping bags in addition to our personal items, which we did with our day packs. He carried all the food and tents and cooking equipment (and given our lameness, it was a good thing). We dropped off the luggage at the Hotel Zvezda, where we would be staying when we got back. They charged us 600 rubles for the service of putting our suitcases behind the desk for two days. Then the four of us drove three hours to Bolshoi Goloustnoye, a little village on Lake Baikal. The driver returned to Irkutsk and we began our walk.

Lake Baikal is beautiful — it’s deep like Lake Tahoe, but much, much larger: it holds about a fifth of the world’s freshwater, and is 670 km from one end to the other (we saw about 22 km of that, though we walked probably about 32 km). We walked, sometimes on the gravel beach along the shore, sometimes on a trail in the forest above. After ninety minutes or so, we discovered that this trip included breakfast, lunch, and dinner, each of which required building a fire, making soup and tea, and having lots of Russian snacks. (The best snacks were Pryanik, had the flavor of molasses, the consistency and sugar of pfeffernusse, and the shape of donuts.) Given our late start, we arrived at the first night’s camp around 9 pm, shortly before sunset.

Our guide Alex has an interesting life.  (Actually, he’s our substitute — Valery, who does this all the time had a larger trip to host.)  He spends most of his time these days as a newspaper photographer, and has taught English and French and chess in the years before.  Now he helps out guiding trips when needed.

We had supposed it might rain the first night, but it didn’t, and stayed merely cloudy during the entire walk of the second day. At one point we missed a spot on the trail where we were supposed to go straight up the hill, and instead continued to follow along the cliffs above the shore: this walking got harder and harder and eventually reached a sheer dropoff, and we had to go back. I’d noticed the little rocks indicating that the path we took wasn’t the trail, but it’s always a question when being led by a guide whether to follow him wherever, or to participate in the navigation. We eventually reached our second camp spot, which seemed to have been abandoned by someone else or just wasn’t used that night — there was a blue tarp over a little table next to a cooking pit. After all the tents got set up, it began to rain, a drizzle which didn’t stop all night long. We ran into some folks we’d met on the train to Ulaan Baatar who were spending a couple weeks at Lake Baikal improving the trails.

In the morning we had only a few km to walk to get to Bolshoi Koti, and got off to another questionable start. The trail-builders had gone to the village starting off on the beach. Our guide was sure we had to walk above, on the cliff. This walk had some extremely difficult spots, including walking across a landslide which had gotten even more washed out by the previous night’s rain. In this case, the guide didn’t know that the trail builders had just built a new staircase from the beach only days before. Oh well — next time. The village is quite cute, and there we caught a hovercraft which took us back to Irkutsk. (The guide also didn’t know where the dock was at Bolshoi Koty, but a guy in a Fish Colorado t-shirt did. He was studying Chinese in China and pretty cosmopolitan just generally for living in a village accessible only by boat in the summer. In the wintertime, the lake freezes and between February and April, you drive on the lake. But here we drift into Global Warming Speak: Baikal didn’t freeze last winter.)

On our arrival in Irkutsk we bought a map that is too large to carry and Alexander dropped his pack off at his mother-in-law’s apartment and guided us on microbus and macrobus back to the Hotel Zvezda.

Hotel Zvezda is a really nice hunter-themed hotel. It has somewhat more straightforward Internet service.

The restaurant is really good, but because there was a wedding in the main room, and a big birthday party in the bar, we had to sit out on the terrace, which was a little bit windy and cold. So we wore jackets. The food was awesome: fresh raw Baikal fish (“sig”) served freezing on a bed of ice cubes (with saran wrap on top of them to keep the fish dry); an incredibly tasty borscht which wasn’t as beety as it was meaty, with a nice layer of tasty fat on top; and a Manchurian deer steak so rich it tasted like the liver of any other animal, served with a mysterious red conserve which turned out to be tomatoes that had been processed somehow with tons of sugar. And tiramisu, Irkutsky style. The birthday and a wedding party provided in the usual number of people wandering over for photos and to find out why we had beards. My favorite is Alex, in his Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt.

And so to the train. After we post this we pack up all of our bags to put in Left Luggage at the train station, and wander around town until our train leaves this evening. Train schedules are all on Moscow Time and Lonely Planet doesn’t agree with local custom as to how far off from Irkutsk that is. We’ll get there early.

Infrastructurally Challenged: The Journey Is The Destination

August 3rd, 2009 8:17 pm by Dave

Mongolia is an enormous nation of only 3 million people, almost half of whom live in Ulaan Baatar. There have been many warnings of pickpockets but we haven’t seen any. The taxi ride from the train station was pretty classic third world — a few guys meeting you at the bottom of the train car steps following you around asking you where you’re going and naming many different prices. We offered 10 yuan, the Beijing flagfall rate, because we weren’t going very far (this would get you 5 km in Beijing), and this price appeared to be accepted. So when they wanted about 10 times that, the amount shown on the meter, we just dropped the 10-yuan bill and left.

The Khongor Guest House and Tours is a popular spot — $14 per night, $2 additional for a load of laundry (spun dry only), free internet (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t) and basic breakfast. They have several tours, half day, three day, eight day, or longer. Our four-day/three-night tour seemed to be among the shortest of other travelers we talked to. We booked a trip to the Kharkhorin monastery, a waterfall, a night with a nomadic family, and a national park featuring wild horses.

After about the first hour of travel outside the city, the pavement ended. We pulled off alongside where the continuation of the road was being constructed, and entered miles of randomly created dirt paths. I have no idea how the driver knew which one to take — presumably they mostly went to the same place, except the ones which didn’t; the main difference was what shape they were in. And they were all in pretty bad shape, though not too bad. It was fairly slow going. After awhile, we stopped for lunch, and the road started right back up after that. But by the time we got to the monastery, it was almost closing time, so we looked at the phallic rock monument and the turtle rock monument, and went to our guest house, where we had our own ger, a Mongolian yurt. This one had electricity and showers, and we could recharge everything.

Breakfast was a little disappointing: lunchmeat sandwiches, and additional bread and jam. The sandwiches were served with individually wrapped slices of American cheese, which caused Ray to ask the tour guide/assistant/interpreter if it were possible to have real food. This being her first year in the job, she took his complaint a little too personally or something and when he went back to apologize she was crying. But every breakfast and dinner after that was delicious Mongolian food which she clearly spent quite awhile making herself. (Lunches were Mongolian food at road houses.) So we gave a good tip at the end. One doesn’t want to be an unmitigated awful tourist.

Mongolians apparently ate only sheep and dirt until nearby cultures performed interventions. As nomads, they did not do agriculture. They don’t even do chickens. The Chinese are credited with introducing wheat and noodles and later rice, and now sell them fruit and vegetables to some extent. The Americans, naturally, have offered up plastic wrapped cheese-like substances, and sugar.

Our Mongolian meals were therefore structured around these ingredients. There were big disks of flat bread wrapping ground lamb, somewhere between a piroshki and a paratha; there were soups with lamb and carrots and potatoes (the Mongolians indicate their respect for the occasion by adding fat); there were lamb wontons in soup; there is milk tea, which is not nearly as salty as the Tibetan variety; there are sheep wontons served in the milk tea as soup; or lamb in rice, or lamb wontons in rice; there is yak milk; there is wonderful yogurt and the milk of every animal at hand, there are pancakes served with a butter-like substance which floats to the top of wide pans of milk in every yurt over a slow fire or else just sitting there; there is airag, a fermented mare’s milk which is quite variable depending on the mare and the culture but always tangy and good. You can also run through the whole menu starting with dried and reconstituted sheep and sheep fat, or beef, or goat.

There is another American contribution called “Mongolian Barbecue” but we didn’t try that. The most recent meal before this writing was sold at a restaurant which might have had Mongolian Barbecue in its repertoire but what they served was sheep potatoes and carrots in a kind of soup, with a traditional rock (and you thought that stone soup was a joke), along with shaved carrots and cabbage salad which was cole slaw in concept and came from the Russians. The Russians have also contributed vodka but Mongolian drunks have a reputation and the situation is best avoided by staying in your yurt after dark.

In the morning, we toured the monastery. Shortly after arriving, we heard conch shells being blown, calling the monks to prayer. There were little seats along the walls for tourists to watch the monks chant, a chant which went continuously for about ninety minutes. Monks would come and go, but the chant went on, like the wedding band in Romania. The monk by the door was about 15 and looked at the legs of all the women tourists who weren’t dressed properly for a temple; but Mongolia’s Buddhist tradition was broken abruptly in 1937 when the Communists burned all but a couple of the temples and executed the top ranked 18,000 lamas. They are only just now getting back into the swing of religious practice.

(The Communists don’t seem to have made as much effort to uproot the shamanist traditions, maybe because the shamans didn’t own all the land like the lamas did. There are piles of rocks called Ovoos all over Mongolia, decorated with blue ribbons and random objects. Like Antonio Gil shrines but with Blue instead of Red. Anyway, there’s a little red. There’s whatever you want there to be, because if you are at an ovoo you walk around it three times clockwise and add something to the pile. This reminds me of geocaching, of which Skot Croshere once said. “It’s not littering if you post the results on” But it also is rather like what penguins do, contributing rocks to a nest as a means of courtship. There are so many creatures doing so many things on this planet that it’s hard to be unique even if you’re indigenous.)

There were several temple buildings with Buddha statues and drawings like we’d seen in Darjeeling and China and Japan, though it seemed to me like there was a much greater emphasis on drawings of the “not-gentle gods”, always the most interesting anyway. Many of the images were quilted fabric with exquisite detail.

The next leg was the trip to the waterfall, which though only 100 km away, was entirely unpaved, again on a network of unmarked dirt paths that amazed the passenger that the driver knew which one to take. The waterfall itself, once we got there, was not particularly dramatic or high or wide, but the scenery we drove through along the way was often stunning. It was a popular destination — there were probably a hundred or so gers in several guest-house groups in the waterfall area. An older Mongolian gentleman approached us and announced he’d be giving a concert of several Mongolian instruments, some singing and throat-singing, and a couple young contortionists. It was quite enjoyable (except an out-of-tune Santa Lucia) and we bought a CD from him. (But how would we know if the others were out of tune? Mongolian music does seem to be structured around a more accessible scale than Chinese music.)

The following day was a long drive: three hours back from the waterfall to Kharkorin, and then another three hours on the road to the nomadic family, the wife of which naturally was the cousin of the driver. She lived there with her brother, and her husband and two kids. Whenever tourists came by, they’d squeeze into one ger, the one with the solar-powered television which works until about 10 pm. The TV was bought for one sheep — they have a herd of about 500 sheep and goats. The next morning we watched them slaughter a goat, in a distinctly different way than Ray’s friend in Fort Collins (pistol to the brain) or the Touregs in Niger (slitting the throat). These guys slit the abdomen, and reached in and squeezed the heart until it stopped beating. Then they separated the skin, and only then started scooping stuff out. The entire process didn’t require hanging up the goat, and it used almost no water, but I’m sure Jews and Muslims and USDA would find things not to approve of.

The goat was split in a couple of parts and hung up inside the yurt to dry. We had miles to go, and so took off before noon to do a drive-by of the horse rescue project underway in Hustai National Park. Przewalski’s horse, or Takhi as it is called by people who can’t pronounce Polish names (the Mongolians have zero grounds to complain about strings of consonants in any language or sneeze) is an indigenous wild horse of the steppes which went extinct in the 1960’s except for a few thousand bred in zoos around the world. Shortly afterwards, a group in the Netherlands began efforts to reintroduce them, which came to fruition in the 1990’s and there are now 200 or more individuals living in Mongolia. They are distinct animal from domestic horses, having two extra chromosomes, in the Mongoloid fashion.

We returned to Ulaan Bataar, found that our onward train tickets had indeed been delivered, but found that the guest house where we’d reserved the final night was full due to delayed flights. It took awhile, owing to various translation difficulties, to figure out that they offered us a super-deluxe apartment nearby to stay in instead, and that’s where we are now, typing this for some time soon when we can connect to the Internet and let you all know what we’ve been up to.

Back to Beijing, Onto the Train

August 3rd, 2009 8:14 pm by Dave

The most interesting 100 or so people on the ship got off in Kobe to spend a few more days or a week or a month touring Japan. During the planning phase of this trip, we learned costs a thousand bucks at least to fly to China from Kobe, so we stayed with the other 900 folks back to the port. We took another 800-yuan taxi ride to Beijing, this time with a third passenger, a former resident of Key West who moved to Phuket and set up a horse rescue organization.

Harmony Hotel in Beijing was delightfully close to the train station, but was otherwise fairly stupid. It’s the first hotel we’ve seen in China without Internet in the rooms, despite what their web presence promises, and their business center charged $10/hour or so. (I found an Internet emporium around the corner which charged $1.50 for their “VIP rooms”.) And while friendly to train travelers, it’s not so friendly that you can have the included breakfast there if your train happens to leave at 7:45 — breakfast doesn’t start until 7. Maybe we can knock it down a notch or two on Trip Advisor.

First Class on the Trans-Siberian Railway is quite something. That was what China Train Tickets had been able to get for us. You get a cabin which sleeps two people, with wood-grained plastic walls. There’s a shower/sink room between each pair of cabins, and a chair opposite the berths. It is possible we’re booked thus all the way, except for the Tuva connections. Lunch and dinner were included in China, but were like prison food and for the same economic reason, a budget too low to afford even frozen Denny’s portion-controlled portions, (as were used on the Costa Classica), but labor which is virtually free and available to stir fry the cheapest ingredients available — a plate of cabbage, a couple meatballs in bouillon and cornstarch, and potatoes. It’s mostly an opportunity to sell drinks. Once the train arrives at the Chinese border, it goes into this shed where all the cars are separated, each car is lifted up about two feet so gradually you can’t even tell it’s happening, and the Chinese-gauge wheels are whisked away and the Mongolian/Russian-gauge wheels are whisked into place, and the cars are lowered back onto them. This process takes about three hours (including the leaving-China customs formalities).

Then there’s another ninety minutes spent entering Mongolia. These days, all border crossings include filling out a form where you say which symptoms of swine flu you have, and they take your temperature in some quick noninvasive way. I appear to have picked up a minor cold near the end of the cruise (I really should have used the hand sanitizers every time) and get very nervous each time. Of course, I don’t say I have a runny nose, sore throat and cough, because I fear being whisked away from our tight schedule into some quarantine motel for a week or so, where I might actually be exposed to the real thing. And my temperature, while slightly high, apparently hasn’t been so high to upset the algorithm behind the instant read thermometer. I’m feeling much better now, in the coughing-up-stuff phase. Hopefully entering Russia tomorrow night will be just as easy.

At some point in China, all the mountains disappeared, and the countryside got pretty flat and treeless. It continued all the way through Mongolia to Ulaan Bataar (the new way they spell Ulan Bator). First it was Gobi-desert dry, and then there was short grass everywhere. Short because the entire country is covered with herds of goats and sheep and cows and yaks which graze every acre. I have no idea where the trees went. Maybe it was some historic deforestation like Easter Island. The Chinese dining car had disappeared and been replaced by a festively-decorated Mongolian car that sold me an $8 American breakfast.