Bogie Woogie

Everyone get up in time and we’re treated to a breakfast buffet likely consisting of everything that’s left in the stores since the Mongols close up shop tomorrow. A bus ride later we’re on the train to Beijing. The view is anything but inspiring; desert and the odd shantytown every now and then. After catching up on lost sleep we head for the lunch cart which seems like it was plucked right out of the Transsiberian golden age and hooked onto our train. The service though is below even Russian standards the heat is turned up to eleven, so we’re left there waiting half an hour in the sweltering heat for our orders to be taken and another half hour for our food to arrive (which is, to be fair, very good).

The afternoon passes much in the same manner. We reach the Mongolian border at sixish and move on without much fuzz. At the Chinese border it’s time to change the undercarriage though since China has a different track width. Why they don’t have adjustable bogies is beyond me, but the process is really cool so I don’t really mind. =P

The carts are wheeled into an assembly hall with several hydraulic lifts in it. Then the carts are separated and hoisted 1.5 meters up into the air, leaving the bogies on the track. Then the new bogies are rolled in all at the same time, pushing the old ones out of the way. The train is then lowered again and put back together. The whole process takes about 45 minutes, the other 3 hours we’re stuck here is spent moving the train back and forth.

Afterwards we get an entire hour to indulge in the taxfree border shop on the station. I go nuts over the pistachios and buy an entire kilo for 35 yuan (~40 sek), 60 cl beer for 3 yuan, some chips, what I hope is dried mango and some other assorted goodies. At the register there’s a girl packing all the stuff and a guy just standing about doing next to nothing. Neither of them are using the cash register and when done packing the girl just quotes me the total. I realize that she’s been summing it all up in her head, and consequently remembers what every item in the store costs since there are no price tags, impressive! A bit less impressive is the guy next to her whos’ job seems to be to accept payment and give us change. He doesn’t even get the amount of change right…

The station itself is kind of fun as they play classical music in large loudspeakers. Imagine our delight when we suddenly realize that they’re playing a classical rendition of “Punschen kommer” (I’m probably showing my ignorance here not knowing that “Punschen kommer” is a classical piece to begin with or something). We pull out of the the station at 1 am and are scheduled to reach Beijing around 14.30 tomorrow.

Galloping hard on the plains

Our last day on the steppe is even better than the previous. Clear blue skies, hardly any wind and about 10°C. Following breakfast we get to see the ger being built, quite interesting, but not in a way worth writing about. A cute kid running around sporting a new breed of mullet stole the show though. He had short stubble all over except for two long pigtails.

Then we’re free until lunch to I read a bit in the sun until just before lunch when we all gather for a group picture. After lunch it’s time for our second stint on horseback, this time for three hours instead of just one. I get a different horse this time, and boy is there a difference! I hardly have to kick at all for him to set off like a rocket. So me, Johnny and Andreas set off like Zeb in the opening of the Macahans over the steppe, it’s unbelievable fun!

The tour is a bit is a bit on the slow side with many stops. Mainly because Batu has to dart back and forth between the two groups. After two hours or so we reach the monastery that was our goal and we climb up to catch the view (it’s situated halfway up the mountainside). The walking party beat us by by a good 45 minutes though. It’s a great view of the whole valley that we rode through to get there.

From up there we discover that we missed a really cool suspension bridge on the way up so we make sure to walk it on the way down. It’s a bit scarier than it needs to be since many of the planks are in an advanced state of disintegration…

On the way home we split up and get our own guide so that we won’t have to wait for Batu so much. He’s the silent type and only communicates through an occasional wave. We keep a rather brisk pace and get to take an alternate, shorter, route back as well, so I get my fill of both galloping and scenery.

Back at camp Batu says he’s impressed with us since tourists normally don’t handle horses that well. I guess the Pink Caravan isn’t your average bunch of tourists though…

We proceed with some cold hanging in the afternoon sun, eating chips and having some beer. After a while the rest door neighbor comes home with his herd of Yaks and we head over for a photo-op.

I was surprised over how small they are, almost like a large Berner Sennen. There are some awesomely cute calves in a pen nearby as well (the grown ups are roaming free). Another surprise is that they’re virtually odorless! I couldn’t discern even the slightest hint of smell from any of them, weird!

While we’re oogling the Yaks the owner and his wife step out of their ger with a milking bucket. They proceed to get one of the calves out and it sprints over to its mommy and starts drinking. After a while the calf is pulled away and they start milking. Interesting process really. The milking gets old real soon though and we head back to catch dinner.

Since it’s both ours and the Mongols last day on the steppe there is a bonfire after dinner. We take turns with the Mongols singing songs, they treat us to a couple of Mongol ones and we respond in kind. There are a couple of Japanese there as well and they sing what I think is their national anthem. Matilda brought her guitar and brings out cheers and marriage proposals from the Mongols (too bad she’s taken already). The camp owner announces that he’ll keep the dining ger open until midnight if we want to sit there and sing, probably forgetting that we’re supposed to leave at 5 am the following morning. Andreas also entertain with his uncanny ability to remember every song text ever written. The Mongols seem especially taken with ABBA.

As the bonfire die down we head back to camp. Everyone is eager to run off to bed but me, Peter and Jacob decide to take some more long exposure pictures before calling it a night.

Lazy ass horse!

Morning brings a clouded sky but by the time we’re done with breakfast, a piece of blue sky is peering through. It’s rather windy though so we put on lots of clothes for the horseback ride scheduled at 10.

I opt for the faster group and get assigned a horse. The stirrups are really high up so I sit like a frog but don’’ pay it much mind. When we start riding I have a really hard time getting my horsie to do what I want, it seems like every chance he gets he starts walking and I have to kick him in the sides again. Both me and Sanna seem to have gotten slowpokes and we lag behind considerably. Batu rides back to get us (at this point we’re mingled entirely with the slow group), and after a lot of maneuvering we finally manage to break out.

We keep straggling though since even getting the horse into a trot is a constant struggle. The parts of the tour when we do get them to trot (I never managed to get mine to gallop) are great though and I hope I get a less lethargic horse for tomorrows, longer, ride. I think the short stirrups might have something to do with it as well, since when I tried to kick with my heels it was mostly my calves hitting the horse which I don’t think he minded that much. They also made it difficult standing up in the saddle, which seemed like one of the tricks for getting them to pick up speed.

During the ride all the clouds disappeared, leaving an unreal blue sky stretching from horizon to horizon. Coming back into camp we learn that the planned ger-raising is postponed until tomorrow due to too much wind, resulting in the whole afternoon being free. So after a delicious lunch, me, Jacob and Peter go back up to our hangout cliff to read, write and just relax.

Up top we spy some mountain goats down below and Jacob heads down again to get some pictures. They jump around on vertical cliffs like mountain goats do most and are really entertaining to watch.

After a good 40 minutes or so it gets a bit windy and we decide to switch to another spot, so we walk some more and find a really cozy spot atop the mountain north of camp. There we sit down and read and write some more until I’m done with yesterday’s account in the journal.

Back down in camp we get a serious craving for chips and buy a Pringles clone (tomato flavored) in the dining ger. Then we find Elin and Sanna sitting by their ger drinking some beer and catching some sun. The only thing missing are our chips and we fetch some beer left over from the railroad and join them. Soon almost everyone has joined up and we sit there enjoying life until the sun goes down.

At dinner I get to spend some time to know Renee, Inger and Ann a bit better which was fun. We also split a bottle of Chingis vodka and things go downhill from there. We end up in Johnny and Matilda’s ger, singing once more. I even attempt some improvised harmonizing with Matilda. Being tipsy really helps with the “don’t mind if I’m off-key” part and we pull off a few really nice harmonies. I also speak a bit with Batu at dinner to get some tips about Mongolian music (the guy also works as a DJ at Mongolian radio), he tells me that the Mongolian music scene doesn’t have any metal bands worth mentioning, but lots of crappy HipHop. If he is to recommend anything it would be the folk rock band Altan Urag who incorporate traditional elements such as throat singing into their music. Sounds like something I definitely will have to check out!

Into the wild

Monday morning after an unimpressive breakfast at the otherwise nice hotel we hop on the bus to go out into the national park. Barely out of town the gravel road starts and we are forced to drive at a leisurely 30 km/h. After a while it’s paved once more and we can go faster again. Curious to see just how fast I lean over to look at the speedometer only to realize that it’s broken…

We make a stop at one of those towers/rock piles you might have seen in Tintin. Batu explains that you’re supposed to throw three rocks onto the pile and then walk three times around it in a clockwise fashion and you’ll get rich. You should also tie a blue ribbon to the pole in the middle to please the gods.

There’s also a guy with a hunting eagle there that you get to hold on your hand for 2000 tgr (15 sek). It’s really a bigass bird, weighing in somewhere at 2-3 kg. We’re almost at the park at this point and we cross a rickety bridge over Mongolias longest river into the park.

Driving deeper into the park we pass no less than three golf courses. It’s kind of hard to tell it’s a golf course though since the only green thing about it is the actual green, the rest is as brown as the rest of the landscape. Apparently there are several semi-luxurious hotels in the park, which I guess explains the excellent 3G coverage throughout the park.

We reach camp Mirage at about 11 am and I share a ger with Jacob, Peter and Andreas. Apparently ger and yurta are the same thing, except that yurta is Russian and Mongols aren’t too fond of Russians anymore.

Seeing as there is a good hour until lunch is served we immediately go about climbing one of the nearby mountains. Sitting up top provides a great view and we decide to climb another peak. The weather by the way, is excellent, about 8°C, tiny clouds and very little wind. Couldn’t have asked for better!

Lunch is served in a very large ger, easily seating 50 people. Imagine our delight when we realize that lunch is a four course meal. It’s also delicious btw, those Mongolians sure can cook. Camp is really out in the sticks even if it doesn’t sound like it, but there are still real toilets and even hot water so that you can shower (not very long though). You can buy beer and snacks in the large ger as well. But in spite of all these modern amenities you still get the wilderness feeling. It truly is a grand place to be!

After lunch we make a short excursion to turtle rock. It’s a large rock formation that really looks like a turtle, not terribly exciting but fun nonetheless. Afterwards we get to meet a real Mongolian nomad family. They live in a ger all year round and move to and fro on the steppe with the seasons. During the summer they don’t have any means to store meat, and as a result are practically vegetarians. Wintertime they live off the herd. Batu tells us that eight years ago 75% of all Mongolians were nomads, today it’s down to 45%. He blames television for glorifying city life, sending nomads into the city with a skill set largely useless in the city. The sad fact is that many of them end up as homeless pickpockets.

We also get to sample some traditional Mongolian nomad cuisine. First up is fermented horse milk, tastes like apple cider vinegar with a hint of dairy at the end. It also has about a 3% alcohol content, hence the popular name “horse beer”. Next is dried curd that tastes more or less like really old cheese with a hint of dried yoghurt. Finally there’s some sort of dried cream that you put on a piece of bread. It tastes like cream really and is quite good.

After the nomads we get the rest of the day “off” and immediately go climbing again. We go for the highest one, west of camp, but it proves a bit too hard to get to the very top. Andreas and Rickard get up with a helping hand from me and get a few aerial shots of camp and surroundings.

On the way down we split up and me, Peter and Jacob find this fabulous lookout spot where we just sit down and play the “silent game” for half an hour. Sitting there we see a couple of ravens playing and everything is just bliss, definitely the best cold hang so far.

Going down I finally find what I’ve been looking for all day: an untouched patch of snow, just large enough to make a snow angel! The fact that it’s on a 45° slope presents a problem, but I manage to make a half-decent snow angel. In September. In Mongolia. Life is good.

Back at camp it’s dinner, and this time it’s only three courses, scandalous! It’s a traditional Mongolian dish with homemade pasta, strips of beef and various vegetables. Dessert is a water melon no larger than an orange! After dessert we hook up with Sanna and Elin to go out stargazing. But first we play around with Jacob’s camera setting it to long exposure and drawing stuff with flashlights (just like Dali did). We get a bunch of really cool pictures and resolve to do some more tomorrow.

Then we head up the hill a bit to get away from the lights in camp. Light pollution is so low here that you can see the entire Milky Way! It’s really hard to pick out constellations since you see so many more stars than usual. They’re also all turned about compared to home, making it a bit trickier. We just lie down on our backs and play the silent again, counting shooting stars. This is how it always should be.


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.