Asia | Mongolia – Left Russia, leaving Mongolia
Nora, I knew this would fucking happen, and even forwarned all yo’ asses about this in the first entry. Basically, I’ve got nearly three fucking weeks of catching up to do on this diary, so expect a less comprehensive entry this time (hey, that may not be such a bad thing…).
In a nutshell, everything has gone unbelievably smoothly since my departure from Moscow. I ended up catching the train to Yaketerinburg with these two Dutch people (interesting story, they met on a website for travellers, and decided to go travelling together, but I won’t go into details of all that nonsense here). Yaketerinburg was about a day and a half on the Trans Siberian away from Moscow, whereas the two Dutchies were heading on to Lake Baikal, five days away from the capital, one of the major stops on the Trans Sib route (or ROWT, as we Americans and bald-headed Brightonians say), and my planned stop after Yaketerinburg. We have a wicked train ride, lots of banter, learning Russian card games from the restaurant staff, a bit of pooze, good fun. And then I hit Yaketerinburg.
THE FRIENDLY SIDE OF RUSSIA
After St Petersburg (which was awesomely beautiful), and Moscow (which wasn’t, but was still awesome), and having a taste of what I believe to be not such a friendly local people, heading away from the two major cities of Russia was a breath of fresh fucking air. Everyone was really friendly, and helpful (yes, I was surprised). People stop to help you on the street, people in banks were willing to help you, and, believe it or not, some people were even smiling on the street (I saw at LEAST two of these rarities). Apart from the receptionist at the hotel I found as I got off the train, but that’s not an interesting story.
Yaketerinburg was a nice chilled out little city, more in the style of a large town in Blighty. I walked around for ages, went to two travel agents who told me it wasnae possible to go either cross country skiing or do dog-sledding, and was about two minutes from not having any money whatsoever til the next day due to bankage situations, but I kinda realised not much was happening. So I knew there was a Trans Sib train that night, and bought a ticket for it. It’s really weird, the train time system in Russia. All the international train stations operate on Moscow time, and have the time in Moscow on the clcoks in the stations, and you buy tickets based on that. And the same goes for the trains. So local time may be 5 in the afternoon and it’s getting dark outside, yet the time is midday! Slightly bizarre…
Anyway, the train ride is four days to Irkutsk, from where you can get to Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, containing over one-fifth of all the world’s fresh water, more than all the American Great Lakes combined. And one of Russia’s top tourist sites (although not touristy, if yaknaaaa’amean). I get on the train at midnight, and there are three civilised adults on board. We exchange pleasantries, have a cup of tea, then everyone goes to bed. Next day, they all get off, and two guys get on board in my four-bed berth. One of them is about 35, fought in the Afghan war, fucking muscly but quite small, many scars, and with a seriously loud and frequent habit of snorting his snot. The other guy is about 25, a little weedy, and thinks he’s a bit of a comedian. They come in, and they’reboth friendly enough, but speak absolutely no English whatsoever. After going to the end of the carriage for a smoke (you can’t smoke in the carriages, but at the end of each carriage is a little area for shmokin; note that Afghanman smokes these things called Belamours, which (a) go out if you don’t have at least one pull every 2.6 seconds, (b) have no filter but instead have this long, roachlike thing, and (c) fill the whole area with a ridiculously large plume of smoke every time he exhales), the first bottle of vodka of the day comes out. Note that it’s about 10am Moscow time, or 1pm local time. I abstain the first round (I hit the beers, which is a bad move, cos downing vodka is quality unless you mix it with beer, in which case you get pissed as a caaaaant), and the bottle is gone in half an hour. The cards come out (and don’t actually get put away for two and a half days) and we play this game called durag, which is genius. Next stop, two more bottles of vodka get bought, and this other guy passes our berth and asks to join. This guy is two berths down with his wife, mother and kid, and seems fairly chilled and friendly. We down the first bottle and play cards, all the time snacking on pig fat (literally, and I’m talking not even a morsel of fucking meat on this baby). Another guy, a young guy on his way to start his military service and who speaks a modicum of English, joins, and the next bottle is drunk (and the next pig eaten). And then things go a bit mad. We’re out having a smoke, when the policewoman on guard on the train comes in and starts laying in to my roommates basically saying that two Frenchies had been on the last train and had gotten robbed of all their money, and that if anything happened to me, she had their passport numbers and would sort them aaaaat. It’s then I realise that this guy may not be such a good guy after all (genius, Omar, genius).
An hour later, and at the next stop, more vodka is bought, and everyone is stocking up on dried fish. Back on the train, we’re all cunted, and we’re having another smoke, when Familyman decides to have a massive go at me, basically saying that he wants to kick my head in cos I’ve got money and he hasn’t, and that he’s got a family, blahblahblah… niiiiice. I stay out, for obvious reasons. More stops and vodka ensue. At one stpo, I pass by the provodnitsa’s (the woman who’s kind of like the steward for our carriage) berth, and she calls me in. She closes the door and locks it, and basically starts to tell me I should change carriage cos the two guys are dodgy! Lord… I’m pissed, I refuse, she tells me to keep my money, passport and camera on my body when I sleep, and not to drink any more vodka with them. More cards and vodka later, and the Afghanman is making (hilarious) jokes about how he’s going to do some bad shit to me at night, and everyone cries laughing. And then it’s the end of the night. We all wake up the next day, lots of snorting ensues from Afghanman, and within one hour, the first bottle of vodka is bought. And we pretty much repeat the first day all over. Apart from the fact that I get accosted by a berth of four guys who want me to drink with them. Really funny guys, again no English, butbasically they were taking the train to Irkutsk, flying from there to Vladivostock, right on the eastern coast of Russia next to Japan, and were going to buy cars for cheap and on the dodge, laod them onto some trucks, and drive the fucking trucks seven days back to their hometown where they would sell the cars for loadsamoney. And they were the dirtiest, most perverted fuckers I’d met since leaving Blighty, so I felt at home. One guy even gave me a Miss Krasnoyarsk poster containing all the contestants for the 16-18 year-old girl model competition. Which was niiiiiiiice. I tell you what, it was fucking brilliant fun, the best train ride of my life, man.
Right, moving on shwiftly, I land in Irkutsk, walk out of the station and over the bridge into town, when I see the two Dutchies heading over the bridge towards me. We have the typical “My Gwaaaaaad, what a coINcidence…” conversations, and it turns out that fuckall is happening in Irkutsk and that they’re on the way to get a ticket to Lake Baikal. After walking with them a while, I figure it’d be fun to go with them, do we all head off to the Lake for a few days.
THE BAIKAL LAKE
Lake Baikal is absolutely lovely. We shack up in a room together in a school dorm, and just chill out lots, walk around, get pissed with the locals (state the bleedin obvious, maaaaan), and just take it easy. Not much happened. The only interesting experience was the banya (shower). I hadn’t taken a shower since Yaketrinburg (no showers on the train, not me being an Arab, like), and thus was caked with five days of dirt by the time I got off the train. Unfortunately, there are no showers in houses or hotels anywhere outside of the big cities. People instead go to the local town banya. After not finding the thing for two days, and having not had a shower for nigh-on seven days, I managed to get some coal worker to open up the banya in the school by the lake, and had THE shower of my life while he shovelled coal next door.
We finally leave and head back to Irkutsk to get the next train out to Mongolia (there’s a train that night, and we’re nearly done in terms of visa-time). I figure on carrying on with these guys for two reasons. Firstly, it’s good fun and pretty relaxed. Secondly, the girl is absolutely quality and hilarious. So we buy tickets out of Russia to Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, two days away on the Trans Sib.
This country is absolutely fucking awesome. Ulan Bator is a nicely chilled, slightly Westernising capital with some laaaaavly temples and the friendliest people I have ever fucking come across. And that applies to the whole country. I’ll give you an example anon (that one’s for you, Rrrrrreeeeeech).
We book into a hostel and hang around UB (fucking expat-speak) for three or four days, and then book a jeep trip for some days (we haven’t decided how long) to somewhere (we, errrr, haven’t decided where we’re going). We have a vague idea that we’re doing a four day circular trip into the mountains, to the old capital Kharkorum (Kublai Khan’s hometown, for all you Samuel Coleridge and Frankie Goes to Hollywood fans), and back to UB via the Gobi. But we’ve also kinda got our hearts set on this stunning-sounding lake which would add three days to our trip. Either way, after a chilled few days of, urm, chilling hout, with one notable incident being my offering a pissed policeman in a restaurant my leftovers and him hitting the roof to the extent that two waiters held him back while the restaurant owner ushered us quietly out, and another interesting episode being us going to what Lonely Planet recommended as THE hotspot of Ulan Bator, and I quote “This jazz club is the hottest place in town”, and which turned out to be a fucking brothel (no pun intended) with live music (literally… I’m talking every woman in there was a prostitute… well done LP!), we hit Mongolia-proper on a nice, crisp, -20 degrees centigrade of a Thursday morning.
OUTER MONGOLIA IN A LITERAL STYLEE
This must have been one of the most awesome things I have ever done in my life. We basically spent five days travelling across some of the most fucking amazing landscapes (mountains, frozen lakes, desert, sand dunes, rivers, you fucking name it), with some of the most beautiful skies with the most ridiculously large spectrum of colours I have ever seen ( at one point I counted at least ten distinctly differnt colours from land to sky). And all the time you are totally by yourself. One car passes maybe every ten minutes, or even less, so you can see absolute nothingness in all directions, just small groups or often large herds of either sheep or cows or wild horses or camels. Fucking quality, I tell ya.
We basically spent most of the time driving round, stopping every now and then to walk around or piss in the snow, but the evenings were well-special as well. We spent the nights with the local fmailies in these round tents called gers. And everyone was outrageously friendly (after Russia, this seemed even more exaggerated, man). And here’s that example I promised you. We decide that we’re going to the lake on top of the mountain after all. We’re literally five km from there when the road (road? sorry, I should have said the car tracks that we were semi-tracing across the country) to the mountain is blocked off due to an avalanche the day before. So we try to go around the other side and get stuck in snow three times. Each time, we spend at least half an hour clearing the snow from under the jeep-van, and attempting again. Finally, we give up, and our driver (this hilarious motherfucker of a Mongolian geezer called Puje with the most outrageous collection of shite music every to be seen: The Best of Modern Talking (I spent my time imagining what the Worst Of would have been like), The Best of Smokie, The Best of the Bee Gees, MTV4, Korean Love Songs, etc. etc.) says that we would try and stay with one of the families in this little community of 7/8 gers that we can see in the distance. Right, take note, the first one we try say yes. We end up staying in their ger, sleeping on their beds while they sleep on the floor, they cook for us, they fuel the wood fire all night for us. Just ridiculous hospitality. And this is a family of fuck-knows how many people, living in a space no bigger than someone’s living room, with no electricity so they’re using candles, and no running water so they head down the lake every day to fill up. And they’re not an exception. They’re the fucking norm. And to top it off, two of the guys from the family took us to our lake the next day. Maaaan, I’m getting shivers down my spine just thinking about it…
Anyway, got back to UB late Monday night. It’s now Wednesday. I’m moving on to Beijing at 8am tomorrow. And I’m even more fucking excited about that than being here. Apart from anything else, it’ll be good to be able to properly communicate with people (I speak fluent Chinese, remember), and it’ll be slightly warmer than it is here (every time I go outside here the water in my nose freezes my nose hairs together, and sometimes my eyelids stick toegether from the same effect on my eyes; let me tell you: it’s goddamn cold here, despite my long johns and knee-length silk stockings (oooooo…. sexy…….)). I’ll try and be a little more regular (and I ain’t talking about my bowel movements). Have a good’un, people!