Quickie from Mongolia


Blogging from mobile on shaky WiFi so just a short one.

In Ulaanbaatar at the hotel, shaved and showered for the first time in a week. Tomorrow we head out on the steppes for three nights and then it’s onward to Beijing. Tonight though it’s Mongolian throat singing followed by some Mongolian barbecue. Had some delicious horse fillet earlier today btw, exceptionally tasty after a week of living on Pirogues!

Ulaanbaatar


Arriving Ulaanbaatar we are met by our guide-to-be Batu. He speaks excellent English and informs us that due to the blizzard all roads out of town are closed. So the program is tweaked right then and there so that we spend the first instead of the last day in Ulaanbaatar of our allotted time in Mongolia.

First on the agenda is a tour of the city and we go to the war monument on the outskirts of town. It’s situated on top of a great hill and provides a nice view of the capital. It’s super windy and really cold up top but nice nonetheless.

Next up is a temple, the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, where a bunch of lamas (not llamas Tommie, the monk kind…) are sitting, mumbling incoherently. Suddenly one of them gets a phone call and does his best to answer discreetly.

Talking with Batu outside the temple reveals that Lamaism is big business in Mongolia. People go and buy prayers in a little shop nearby and take them to the monks, who then recite them (ordinary people either don’t think that the gods can hear them or just can’t be bothered and rather just buy salvation). Batu is quite critical of the Lamaism, since the Lamas are usually really well off, driving Escalades, sporting heavy golden jewelry and the latest cell phones. They are also allowed to marry and have children. Sounds like a rather sweet gig to me…

There is another building at the temple, housing a huge (26.5 m) four-armed golden idol of the god Migjid Janraisig. Inside you’re only allowed to walk clockwise and along the walls are 1001 25 cm high, “helper deities”, that assist the larger one, who is a god of compassion.

Then we’re taken to a cashmere outlet shop where they have fabulous hats, socks, gloves, sweaters and the like. Given that it’s freezing outside and very few of us were smart enough to bring gloves, we shop like there’s no tomorrow.

Then finally back to the hotel for the first shower and shave in seven days. Freshened up me, Jacob, Linda, Rickard, Renee, Anders and Peter head out to find a meal. Walking in traffic in Ulaanbaatar is really hazardous, they don’t drive as fast as in Moscow but that’s probably mainly because the roads are in too bad a condition to allow it. They drive very erratically though and view the lanes and stop lines as mere suggestions. That, coupled with the fact that many manhole covers are simply missing makes it interesting to be a pedestrian.

We find a nice-looking place after just a few blocks (our hotel is right in the middle of town, just across from the Chinese embassy) and sit down. It looks promising since there are quite a few Mongols in there as well. Observation: Mongols are HOT! Especially the women, but also the men are really good looking and smile almost all the time. Talk about a contrast to Russia where even Mats had to work hard in order to get a smile from people.

Half of us, me included order the horse fillet and the others order dumplings in different shapes. The horse fillet is incredible and the dumplings are great as well. It’s a nice change of pace that not all the dumplings are deep fried like the Russian pirogues, some are actually made in the oven. The meal cost a staggering $7 apiece (including beer) and then we’re even given a lousy exchange rate of a 1000 tögrög to a dollar instead of the 1400 you’d get at a bank. Almost everywhere in Mongolia you can pay with dollars, but they might be short on change. Most often they just round down to the nearest thousand and then divide by 1000 for the price in dollars.

After lunch we go to the museum of natural history to look at dino bones (they’ve found quite a few out in the desert lately). The exhibition is so-so but it’s always fun to see some ancient bones and stuffed animals.

Walking back to the hotel me, Jacob and Peter take a detour after seeing a little “Supermarket” sign. We go into what looks like an ordinary apartment building and find ourselves in a second-hand computer shop. There are more computer parts than you can shake a stick at: motherboards, old chassis, printers, hard drives, scanners, you name it. That doesn’t seem like the supermarket though and after some additional searching we find it in the cellar, next to a restaurant. The steps in the stairwell leading down are leaning every-which way, are of uneven height and length, making for an interesting descent. We buy some local vodka, some candy, a coke and go about our way again.

Another thing about Mongolian streets is that there is generally really poor runoff. So after the heavy snowfall there are plenty of large puddles to circumnavigate. Couple that with the prevalence of holes and you have the result that you have to treat every puddle as a potentially five feet-deep hole.

We see another shop on the way home and decide to go inside (shops in Ulaanbaatar generally just have signs with text on them, making it kind of hard to tell what they’re selling). It happens to be a book store and we browse a bit before moving on.

Back at the hotel we have about an hour to relax before heading out again to see a traditional Mongolian show, followed by some Mongolian barbecue buffet. The show is really great (and a steal at $9, I would gladly have paid three times as much) featuring traditional music with lots of funny-looking instruments, throat singing, acrobatics, dancing and theater.

Then off to the barbecue, for those of you not familiar with Mongolian style barbecue it works like this: you get a plate which you fill with all the stuff you want from a buffet of raw food (cabbage, onion, peppers, lamb, pork and so on). Then you get a cup of sauce and proceed to the giant cooking table where a bunch of cooks fry everything up for you and pour the sauce over at the end. These guys were wielding sword-like things which they used to turn the food and to do fancy tricks with, such as lining up seven pieces of pineapple on it (while it’s still lying on the table) and then hitting the handle so that they all fly up in the air and land on your plate.

It’s not just the process that’s excellent though, the food is delicious and seven helpings later I’m experiencing Tommie-levels of fullness.

On the, incredibly poorly lit, way home we stop at a pub to have a couple of drinks for good measure.

All things considered I’m surprised at how much I liked Ulaanbaatar, my sister, who visited it last year called it “the ugliest city she’d ever seen” and others agreed that it wasn’t far off. The city seem to have shaped up just during the latest year though because there were several really nice apartment complexes (even by Swedish standards) being built. The main downside are the super crappy roads. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I like the people so much (especially after spending a week being abused by grumpy Russians and equally grumpy Chinese train hosts) but I kind of like Ulaanbaatar.

Snow!


We’re up at the crack of dawn to look at lake Baikal but instead we’re greeted by an early fall blizzard. The bent birch trees look lovely with yellow leaves still attached and about an inch of snow on top.

A good few hours later the lake finally makes its appearance, nothing too spectacular though, looks more or less like the sea. Other than that the morning goes by in a stupor since everyone is still sleepy from waking up so early. The hilly landscape from yesterday now flattens out and the snow is disappearing. We start seeing cows and horses and the temperature is now down to about 5°C, it’s obvious we’re closing in on Mongolia.

We make only one stop today. But it’s a long one. We get there at 1830 and are more or less stuck until 00.30. It’s the border to Mongolia and first the Russians go through the train top to bottom, complementing our choice of vodka (Starya Vodka). The Mongolians do the same and all the while the toilets are locked down…

Tomorrow is up bright and early again to disembark in Ulaanbaatar, then immediately out on the steppes. Hopefully there’s time to buy all the things I forgot to pack, like pantaloons, mittens and a hat…

Life on the railroad


Kimberly, getting up at an ungodly hour reports seeing snow outside. I begin to fret Mongolia a bit since I forgot to pack my long johns. Hopefully there’s it won’t be as cold in Mongolia or that we have a chance to buy some before heading out on the steppes.

The day goes by at a leisurely pace and we play the card game I brought: Alibi saknas (Alibi Missing) which is well liked by everyone! We also play a language card game by Fredrik Lindström that was kindof repetitive. Elin beat me at the finish line this time, she’s smart that gal, but I’ll get her next time…

There are a few more, but shorter, stops this day at one of them I must’ve misread timetable because me and a couple of Americans were almost left behind as the train left early. A word of advice, check if there’s a coal cart on the platform filling up coal for the samovars before going off to buy something at a station. If there isn’t, then the stop is likely no more than 2-3 minutes.

Didn’t find any pirogues today so I settled for a, surprisingly tasty, bucket of noodles. In the evening we went to the dining cart though and I had some Shish Kebab, really good but they were out of vodka (!) Imagine that, out of vodka on the Transsiberian railway… That, coupled with the fact that people are running out of the booze they bought in Moscow and that we’re supposed to get up early tomorrow to see lake Baikal made for a rather mellow evening.

Settling in


I’m in Beijing now and have uploaded some pictures to flickr, check them out! http://www.flickr.com/photos/10185333@N07/sets/72157622214837583/

I’m unable to reach my blog though, I guess it’s that damn Chinese firewall so I’m posting via email. This means that the formatting might well be wonky.

One day on the train is much like the next, the scenery is much like Sweden except for when you pass a village or town where the misery is everywhere. Trash everywhere and all the buildings seem to stay up by sheer luck. They seem to like bright colors though and it’s not uncommon to see a shack on the verge of falling over with a nearly fresh coat of turquoise paint.

Me and my bunkmates Mats, Håkan and Kimberly decide to try out the Borstj in the dining cart and it turned out to be really good even though the piece of chicken swimming around in it still had its backbone attached.

I also built a version 2.0 of my speakers, this time using beer cans and with a much better result. I christened it Baltica Sound System (Baltica being the beer brand in question).

I’ve resigned to the grizzled look since shaving carries with it a serious risk of pulling a Van Gogh on this perpetually moving train (the few stops we make are never longer than 25 minutes and then they lock the bathroom anyway since poo is dropped right out on the tracks).

Lunch stop in Barabinsk (the Cossack dance-off was really in Ekaterinenburg, my bad) brings lots of pirogue-ladies and I buy a piece of bread from one carrying a tray of what looks like smoked Roach (Mört). Biting into it I quickly realized my mistake, the bread must’ve been made out of ground up Roach and tasted just as vile as you’d think. The pirogues were good though; one with onion, cabbage, potatoes, carrots and the other with mashed potatoes and spring onions.

In the evening me, Mats, Kimberly and Håkan once again went to the dining cart and this time we ordered some blinis with smetana (sourcream), beer and vodka. When you order vodka in Russia, you don’t get the usual 4 cl shot, you get enough for three or four shots each. Mats was yet again pining for the old Russian pearl Padmaskovnye Vetjera (Midnight in Moscow) I had sung it a couple of times before but this time it was for the entire dining cart. With each new shot another request was made and I ended up singing most of the classics.

By this time word had really gotten out to the rest of my fellow travelers that I’m a Red Army choirboy and people kept requesting that I’d sing (I wasn’t all that hard to persuade either =P). I was more than a little drunk at this point but managed to stay on key, as far as I can tell at least. Btw, if this sounds like a long drunken revelry, it’s because it more or less is. It’s also the most fun I’ve had in years!

The evening wound down (at about 4 am local time. But the train is still on Moscow time (12 am) for some reason so so are we) singing along with Matilda yet again.

Moving into Asia


After a good nights sleep we awake to a scenery of birch trees. The train makes two-three stops a day to fill up on water and coal for the samovars. Roaming the stations are various men and women selling smoked fish, pirogues, sausages, juice, beer, vodka yoghurt etc. The pirogues generally cost about 20 rubles a piece (5 sek), are really tasty and are an adventure to bite into since you never know what kind of filling you get. Egg and potatoes seem common, so are coal and carrots.

Much of the day is spent wandering back and forth between the coupes getting to know one another better. We had some geography quiz game where I dominated (well Elin and I tied actually in the final). I also made a couple of speakers out of my headphones and a couple of plastic cups much to the amazement of my fellow travelers. The fidelity wasn’t too good though since turning it up to eleven distorted both treble and bass horribly. =/

During the stop in Barabinsk me and Rickard have a Cossack dance-off on the platform. It ended like you would expect with both of us pulling tendons… (Rickard won btw) The rest of the evening was spent drinking vodka and eating Cornichons, singing with Matilda and me quizzing Petter and Elina about life as nuclear sanitation techs. We also had a minor celebration upon going through the Ural mountains and entering Asia.

Mastering the Cold Hang


The breakfast was something extraordinary, babushkas frying eggs and pancakes, different slurries, sausages, an entire table filled with assorted sweets et.c. And to top it all off a little lady is sitting at a keyboard belting out tunes such as “Popcorn” and Vivaldi’s Spring (allegro). There are also some awesome “boobie buns” filled with some sort of fungus.

Following breakfast a few of us (me, Mats, Håkan and Kimberly) hooked up to go see the Art Muzeum park where they supposedly put all the old communist era statues. There weren’t as many statues as I’d hoped, but still plenty to go around. We bought entry tickets from a golden-toothed lady in a tiny shack and went spelunking.

At one point we asked an old lady if there were any statues of Gagarin around. She said there weren’t and went on to dive us an earful of history, such as why Ivan the Great is depicted at the helm of a ship. Apparently he went to Holland as a youngster to study ship building and then brought back that knowledge to Russia so that they could build a fleet (for some reason they didn’t have one prior to that).

When the lady finally let us go we sat down to have a beer and some ice cream in the sun (if I haven’t mentioned it earlier, we have fantastic weather, 20 something degrees and sunny), before walking back to the Red Square for some Russian style kebab (also cheap, about a 100 rubles (25 sek)). I missed out on Lenin since half of us had already seen him, not that I mind that much though, I’m having great fun anyways! =P

We also went to see another one of the Metro stations, where they’ve put chandeliers in the ceiling. Pretty, but I liked the one with the 80 statues better. Then back to the hotel to get ready for the transit to the railroad station. Arriving there we had to wait for an hour for the train, fending off pickpockets as best as we could.

Excitement was high when we finally boarded and the Russian champagne was brought out (denting the ceiling in two of the coupes). Much revelry ensued and Matilda broke out the guitar (man, that girl can sing!), heaps of fun!

The standard of the train is comparable to an old SJ train really. Our cart hosts keeps the samovars with hot water (by burning coal, old school…) for cups of soup, coffee and tea. The beds are surprisingly comfy as well, a bit on the hard side perhaps, but I don’t mind that. Even Peter at 193 cm thought they were nice.

To Russia with Love…


We awoke to the generous scenery of the Russian countryside on Monday morning. The hockey ladies were already up so there was a sizable queue to the loo. The landscape gradually transformed into concrete, signaling our impending arrival to Moscow. We are greeted by our, very Russian-looking guide, Alexandra and immediately whisked off on a tour since we couldn’t check in to the hotel until later in the afternoon.

We get to see the usual suspects; the Kremlin, Duma, Metro and Red Square before it’s time for GUM. GUM is a large department store built right at the Red Square, supposedly to celebrate the fact that the Red Square used to be a place of commerce in the olden days. I have a hard time seeing the connection though as GUM is the kind of expensive where they don’t bother putting out price tags. Fiercely beautiful place though, very elegant with marble everywhere, just oozing class. We had a surprising breakfast at GUM, both in terms of price and taste, a measly 150 rub (~37 sek) for a mincemeat-filled blini with smetana and a side order of salad and apricot juice. Very tasty indeed!

Some more touring of the Vassily Cathedral (the onion domes, you know) and some additional bussing to see something other than the city center. Observation: They park and drive worse than Italians over here, there’s nary a corner where there isn’t a car parked halfway up on the sidewalk. Sometimes so far up that you can’t even walk past them on the inside. We even saw people parked on the highway onramp!

The tour went on to a lookup spot just by the Moscow university (one of the magnificent seven) and we were treated with a view of the old Olympic stadium as well as a ton of souvenir hawkers. Afterwards it was finally time to go to the hotel, a 2000 room behemoth located at Partizanskaya metro station. I got to bunk with one of the veteran travelers, Kimberly and we kicked back a while in the room with the Captain (Morgan, that is) and some Coke before heading out for some evening sightseeing.

We hopped off a bit before our destination since that particular station was supposed to be one of the of the more beautiful ones. It sure was, those Russians sure know how to build Metro stations! It’s filled with 80 bronze statues depicting Russian life in different ways. We then decided to walk to the Red Square from there, which turned out to be a mistake… For some reason you can hardly find even one Russian who speaks any English at all, it’s like they’re not even trying! And when we got them to point on a map where we were and where we were supposed to go they pointed the wrong way half of the time…

Anyways, a brisk walk later we hooked up with the rest of the guys just on time to go and get a bite to eat. Afterwards we went back to the hotel to hang out in the bar, playing pool (I rocked their socks!) and talk.

Lazy Sunday


Arriving in Helsinki we are herded to the train station by tram were we get our instructions for the day. We basically have the day to ourselves as long as we’re back at five. So I hook up with a couple of seasoned travellers I knew from the night before.

We started walking around town semi-aimlessly looking for a tour bus. But seeing as it was Sunday almost all shops were closed except for the most touristy ones and all the tour buses we found were regular covered ones (we wanted a topless one). So we wandered down to the harbor instead and found a tourboat just taking off. So we hopped on an went by Sveaborg fortification and a few other sights, but mostly just enjoyed the fabulous weather up top of on the boat.

Back in the harbor we perused the wares that were hawked at the small market but found nothing of value, so we grabbed some fish at one of the stands instead. The rest of the afternoon was mostly spent people-watching. Observation: There is something deeply disturbing about hearing a jet-black raggaman speaking finnish. Observation 2: There sure is a lot of foreign people in Helsinki, I would have thought there would be almost only Finns (which are dead easy to pick out of a crowd btw).

Getting on the train we found ourselves in the same cart as the Russian women’s hockey team. And let me tell you, there were some mean lookin’ ladies among them. Especially on girl who was about as wide as a barn door over the shoulders and almost had to walk sideways through the corridor. It was really nice spending the evening shooting the shit, drinking Baltica and watching the girls gigglingly running to and fro, getting hot water from the samovar for noodles, tea and whatnot. We also got an earful of Russian pop music (as well as off-key singalong by the girls).

Sorry, no pictures until Beijing, I put the USB-cord in the wrong bag.

Liftoff!


Up bright and early after another night och Tommies Hardstyle/Hardcore sessions to catch some hotel brekkie before leaving for the coast. A sort of last get/together with the guys before leaving I guess. I had a rendez-vous set up with my old friend Mathias to kill the two hour I had to spare in Stockholm before the boat left. We nerded off pretty heavily at a café in Gamla Stan, talking about Erlang, Nine Fingers, killer robots and other wonderful things.

Arriving at the terminal I found the average age to be a bit higher than I’d expected, maybe somewhere around 40-45? Seems like a likable bunch of people though, so I’m sure we’ll have fun. We also seem to have been clumped together with the “Transsiberian to Japan”-trip, so all in all we’re some 34 people. Those of us going to North Korea are only 10 or so though. I’m not sure why I expected a younger crowd, but I guess it makes sense since it’s kindof an expensive trip and also probably not among the first you’d pick out from the Pink Caravan selection.

We board the boat after receiving the hideous Pink Caravan apparel and get settled in our cabins. Then we head up to the bar for a quick introductory drink before the initial trip briefing. During the briefing we get a rundown on what will happen as far as Beijing. We also get to present ourselves, and it sure is a diverse bunch, ranging from a chemist, a nuclear plant technician, a salmon smoker to a couple of mechanics. I seem to be the only computer geek though, I hope they won’t hold that against me =P

I also noticed that I’d definitely made the right choice in bringing the backpack instead of the regular bag, since almost everyone are sporting backpacks. We also got a couple of tips that I wished they’d put in the info papers beforehand, such as bringing old clothes that you just wear for the first part of the trip and then leave in Mongolia to buy new ones in Beijing.

After the briefing we over to the Tax-Free where I finally scored some sweet, delicious Leijona Tervalakritsi. I also happened upon Tervalakritsi shot, happy times indeed! =D Then on to the evening buffet which was surprisingly good, maybe not worth the 35 eur price tag but hey, I’m on vacation… The evening concluded back at the bar where we did some more aquainting.

Tomorrow it’s Helsinki from about 8.30 until fiveish in the afternoon when we board the night train to Moscow.

Btw, comment in whichever language you feel comfortable with, be it Swedish, Esperanto or Newspeak. I write in English because I think it’s fun and it’s less of a hassle with all the swedish letters.