2nd October 2016, Beijing
Welcome back, English speaking friends. Sorry that we have been neglecting you for so long. Mongolia has kept us very busy, in a good way.
The train ride across the border from Russia to Mongolia was quite an adventure in itself. Strictly speaking, we left the Transsiberian Railway and got on the Transmongolian in Irkutsk. From there on, no third class was offered so we expected to share our compartment with Russian people. But surprise, surprise, the entire carriage was occupied only by foreigners, mainly Dutch and Belgian people. It was much more entertaining than anticipated.
Unfortunately, we passed Lake Baikal at night so we could not see it again. We reached the Russian/Mongolian border in the afternoon of the next day, and several bizarre things happened. First of all, some kind of prisoners‘ exchange seemed to be going on; the first carriage of the train had bars in front of the windows and a group of people were escorted out of the carriage by armed policemen at a station shortly before the border, and another group was being escorted onto the train at the last stop before the border. Secondly, we did not have a schedule since the one on the train was not correct so basically we didn’t have a clue where the train would stop and for how long. So when we reached the border town of Naushki and someone said we would stop for three hours, we got off of the train same as most other passengers and went outside the station to buy something. However, when we returned, the train was gone which gave us a mild heart attack to say the least. After some excrutiatingly long minutes of not knowing what to do, we finally saw the train returning from the depths of the station area where apparently the carriages were being rearranged. In the end, all carriages except ours were moved from the train and attached to another train going back to Irkutsk, including the prisoners‘ carriage. Our carriage alone remained standing next to the platform of an almost deserted station in the middle of nowhere, and we waited. And waited. And waited. The stewardesses had locked all our compartments when we had left so we couldn’t even go back inside and lie down. In the end, after two hours we could finally get back on the train and then all the border controls, passport, baggage, drugs, blablabla controls started which took at least another hour. Then, an engine was attached and our carriage alone made its lonely way across the border to Mongolia, its only passengers being European foreigners.
We reached Ulaanbaatar in the rain early next morning and whiled away about an hour at the station, waiting for daylight which in hindsight was a good idea since the traffic is crazy even if you see where you are going. Mongolians drive recklessly, honk all the time, and only reluctantly stop for red traffic lights. At first, we only stuck with locals to cross the streets.
Our hostel was very welcoming; they let us check in inspite of the early hour, upgraded our room at no extra cost since a double was free, and even let us have breakfast.
We set out to explore the city, planning to pick up our train tickets for the last leg to Beijing on the way. The first stop was probably UB’s single most interesting sight, a fairly large Buddhist monastery named Gandan where we could watch the monks‘ morning studies and chants. After that, we got soaked in the rain which had started again and after a late lunch decided to call it a day and made our way back to the hostel to dry our clothes and take a rest.
For the next four days, we had booked a horseback riding trek. The camp’s owner picked us up at the hostel and took us to the Stepperiders‘ camp about an hour south of UB where we spent the first day.
Life at the camp was very relaxed and easy-going. There was one other guest, a young Malaysian who already had a lot of travel experience in Central Asia, and two volunteers from Europe also stayed at the camp. One was an Irish theatre actor who hoped to improve his CV by being able to add horseback riding to it, and the other was a young woman from the Netherlands who took a break from her studies. And then of course, there was Mama, a giant black furball of a dog and the cuddliest and friendliest creature we have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
This afternoon, we went for a training ride of about two hours. The other three guests accompanied us, also Mama, and we were led by one of the horse masters of the camp, Boinaa, who would also be our guide for the trek. We got acquainted with the Mongolian horses that are small and sturdy, and with the local style of riding. The saddles are wooden which sounds more uncomfortable than it actually was (although Kathrin might disagree); the advantage of wooden saddles is their light weight and that you can feel much more of the horse’s movements through them. Also, there are very few commands. To make the horse move or move faster, one simply says “chu” and presses one’s heels into the horse’s flanks. To make it stop, say “hoosh”, sit back and pull the reins. By the end of the ride, we knew that our buttocks were not going to be our main problem during the following days but our knees instead since the stirrups are very short and one stand often, for trot and gallop as well as going downhill.
In the sunshine, it was very warm and pleasant but when we got back to camp and the sun set, it became pretty cold. We spent the evening sitting in the large community ger (ger is what they call a yurt here) wearing pretty much all the clothes we had brought and learning Mongolian poker from the others which was very entertaining, especially since Boinaa kept cheating. Later that night, Boinaa and Mac, the Irish lad, set out to look for wolves in a nearby national park (where we were supposed to go camping the following night…) and in the morning, they told us that they had seen and heard a pack of five and made a run for it, or rather a gallop.
While those two had been out wolve-hunting, we had slept very peacefully in our own little ger at camp, kept warm at least until the early hours of morning by a fire in an iron oven in the middle of our ger. We woke to the sound of rain which luckily subsided before we started on our trek.
Boinaa had caught the same horses from the herd for us that we had ridden yesterday, and our backpacks were transported by the cook in the car. Luckily, those two had decided that we would sleep in a stone ger in the Bogd Khan National Park that night since it was already too cold for camping. In my opinion that was also a far better option with regard to the wolves.
We rode for about four to five hours that afternoon, over many a mountain which the horses were far more keen on climbing than we would have been on foot. It was the downhill climbs they didn’t like and several times Boinaa had to come and lead them down the hill. But when we rode along open plain land, we could trot and gallop to our hearts‘ delight which was great fun. The land belongs to nobody, not the government, not any private individual and one may ride wherever one likes.
The horsed didn’t have names per se but every rider gave them nicknames. Boinaa had called his horse Angelina Jolie, maybe because of the dark brown color and the beautiful eyes? We named our horses Blondie (because of its blone mane) and Donnie Darko (dark colour, you guessed it) but we additionally called them Hungry Horse and Lazy Horse because Blondie would constantly eat while walking and Donnie Darko took a lot of motivation to get moving.
When we reached the national park after sunset, it had become very cold but our cook Tuusho, who had already arrived at the ger with our luggage, had made a welcoming fire and had already started to prepare dinner.
That night after dinner, we played poker with Boinaa and Tuusho and even Kathrin and I won a round each.
The next morning, everything outside our ger was covered in a thin layer of snow. After breakfast, we hiked to the ruins of Manzushir Monastery which lay scattered over the side of a mountain, and had a beautiful view over the valley beneath us. We saw our horses grazing far below but at that distance couldn’t see that Angelina Jolie had in the meantime freed herself from her bridle. When we got back down, we had to search it for at least 20 minutes before Boinaa could get the horses ready for the day’s trek.
As soon as we rode out of the forest of the park, an icy wind picked up and kept blowing for the rest of the day. The view, however, was magnificent.
We met Tuusho after some searching at the outskirts of a small town and had lunch in the pick-up. After that, we continued our ride but it got pretty exhausting (and painful) and we were glad to reach our destination for the night, the ger of a farmer’s family who Boinaa was friends with.
The farmer, his wife and their baby lived in the ger along with the farmer’s father and grandmother (if we understood correctly). The furniture consisted of the obligatory iron oven in the middle of the ger, a small table with plastic stools next to it, some rickety shelves and boxes and two beds. A lot of things were simply tucked between the roof beams of the ger and the awning, such as drying laundry, books, glasses, a cell phone,…
Our dinner was brought by Tuusho because apparently the family had already eaten. We were served milk tea which was not that delicious because it is not tea with milk but the tea leaves are brewed with hot milk directly, and we both don’t really like milk… We drank up, however, and even tried airag, which is fermented horse milk and sound a lot more disgusting than it actually turned out to be.
The camp had provided sleeping bags for us (two each) and we slept on the carpet of the ger. After midnight, the fire went out and it became incredibly cold. On the other hand, before we had gone to sleep, we had gone outside to see a myriad of stars in the sky, more than we had ever seen anywhere, even at Lake Baikal, including the Milky Way. It was stunning.
The next morning, we experienced some more family life. People came and went, Boinaa slaughtered a sheep which was expertly gutted by the grandmother on the floor in front of the oven, and the farmer’s wife showed us how to milk cows. I can now officially say that I have successfully milked a cow. Luckily, our breakfast was delivered by Tuusho and we left the family before the sheep was cooked. Hygiene was a bit of an issue here but then again, life in rural Mongolia is very hard, with little fresh water supplies and temperatures that go down to -40°C in the winter.
After two more hours and some crazy gallops we reached camp and were enthusiastically greeted by Mama. New guests had arrived but for us it was time to go say our goodbyes to Boinaa and Tuusho with a heavy heart and go back to UB.
The next day, we went to pick up our tickets for the last leg of our train ride and then wandered through the city to see the winter palace which was unfortunately closed, and a war memorial on top of a hill which was a lot further away than we had anticipated. The view was mediocre since the city lay under a cloud of smog and is not very beautiful anyway. On top of it all, we ended up walking the entire distance back to the hostel since we couldn’t figure out where the busses went.
It would have been enough for one day but we had actually been looking forward to visit Tumen-Ekh theatre where every night there is a performance of traditional Mongolian music and dance. We decided to take a taxi and asked the landlord to call us one but apparently none were available. He wrote the directions on a piece of paper for us and told us how to stop a car on the street. Any car. In UB, anyone can be an unofficial taxi driver, kind of like Uber, only that the Mongolians have had it forever. And what can we say, it worked perfectly. Since there were two of us, there was a little safety in numbers, and the landlord had written down the price for us so that we didn’t have to negotiate.
The performance was great, and afterwards we treated ourselves to a yummy meal at one of the many Korean restaurants.
On Thursday morning we left for our last leg of the now Transmongolian railway. Again, our carriage, and pretty much most of the train, was occupied by foreigners; we counted at least ten different nationalities in our carriage alone, and it was super interest. We even saw Sofian again, the French guy who we had met on the train from Berlin to Moscow.
Crossing the border took more than six hours, mainly because the wheels of the train had to be changed again.
Now we are in China, and it is completely different from Russia and Mongolia.
Yesterday was Chinese National Holiday, and pretty much the entire country is on vacation. Luckily, we had already booked our hostel well in advance, it is fully booked inspite of its large size. The location is great, 15 minutes on foot to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, in a traditional urban area with small houses and many little shops.
We spent yesterday walking around Tiananmen Square with our Chinese friend Mak who we had met at Lake Baikal. We were really lucky to have him; there were just so many people about that we would not have found our way around without him. It took us more than twenty minutes to get through the security check for the Square alone… We refrained from visiting the National Museum and the Forbidden City due to the sheer mass of people (maybe one million around the Square and the Forbidden City?) and visited a beautiful park behind it instead. From the top of a hill, we had a fantastic view of the Forbidden City, and afterwards, Mak treated us for lunch in a hot pot restaurant. The food was awesome, we had different kinds of meat, vegetables, mushrooms, seaweed and tofu until we just couldn’t eat anymore. It was a great experience. Thank you Mak!
Today, the Mongolian cold has finally caught up with us; we have been coughing and sneezing since yesterday and thus have declared today a lazy day where we just hung around the hostel and our only tour was to the supermarket two doors down to buy tea and hankies…