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Day 20: Mongolia

May 7th, 2011 2 comments

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If I had to describe Mongolia, I’d have to say it is untethered, unplanned, and yet adheres to traditions that have passed through generations of families. The nomadic lifestyle is apparent in the city of Ulaanbaatar as well as in the countryside. The countryside is beautiful but, where people congregate, it gets chaotic. One tourist I ran into described the capital perfectly as “not in harmony”. “Bara bara” as my taiko sensei would say.

There were many tourists. I can’t even begin to explain how Ulaanbaatar has become the hub for Europeans traveling by land to southeast Asia and for all other tourists to use Ulaanbaatar as a hub for taking 3-30 day tours through the rest of Mongolia. I met Dutch people, Americans, Malaysians, French, Finns, Germans, and some Mongolians. The train leaving Ulaanbaatar was probably 80% foreigners.

I walked the streets alone at night on a Saturday night to try and experience the night life and instead of going where there were people, I was drawn to the quiet of the train museum several kilometers away from the drunken reveling that was going on in the streets of Ulaanbaatar. I later found out that the sale of alcohol is forbidden everywhere on the 1st of every month to try and create at least one dry day. I’ve never seen so many drunks take their frustration and anger out into the streets. I saw a few sloppy attempts at fights. I saw two men embracing each other publicly only to be yelled at by a passerby (it turns out that being gay is very dangerous in Ulaanbaatar). There were pubs, karaoke, and clubs everywhere. I was ready to leave town after a day.

Thankfully, Mongolia is not just Ulaanbaatar. The peace and open land in the countryside more than made up for the chaos of Ulaanbaatar. I took a tour with my friend Jan, from Hong Kong, an American who has lived in Japan for 10 years, a Dutch man, and my couchsurf host as tour guide. The driver, Ogie, had an awesome Russian van that I even got to drive for a short period (probably much to the horror of the other tourists). And, yes, I experienced galloping a Mongolian horse across open land.

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View the full picture set on my flickr page.

The tour was toward central Mongolia, to the original (brief) capital of the Mongol Empire. Along the way, we circled an ovoo clockwise 3 times for safe travels and offered rocks to the pile. We stopped by the Hustai Nature Reserve to picnic in the view of some wild horses. We spent the night at a small ger belonging to a buddhist family in the Khongo Khan mountains. Altaa, our host, spoke no English but graced us with warm fires at night and early morning and then wore a traditional outfit for our pictures.

We shared many stories during the many hours on the road together.

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Oddly enough, when it was time to leave Mongolia, it started snowing again. I seem to leave with snow.

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Day 15: Crossing into Mongolia

April 30th, 2011 11 comments

Yesterday was surreal – like something out of those dramas that my housemate used to tell me about. I’m glad I’m not sleeping in an over-turned bus. Read on…

I’m not used to eating breakfast as soon as I get up and I’m definitely not used to the heavy breakfasts that my Ulan Ude hosts like to eat. Even though I would have a long travel day ahead, at 05:30, I couldn’t bring myself to have any of the spaghetti and meat sauce (liver, actually). I had a piece of bread and jam and tea, I think. It was early, I don’t remember well.

06:30 Got on wrong bus at the bus stop in Ulan Ude. Some passenger introduced himself as Edward and said, in English, that I was on a bus going to the mountains and that I probably wanted the next bus going to Ulaan Baator. (No one checked my ticket when I got on the bus and it was much warmer inside than standing on the curb outside so I had gone in the bus.)

07:30 Correct bus for Ulaan Baator departs

08:30 See sprinkles of snow outside

09:00 There is black ice on the road, bus slows

09:30-11:00 Snow storm develops, can’t see much outside the windows. At some point, we stopped at a pee area which is when I realized how much snow there was.

11:13 Pick up 2 new passengers at some stop in the middle of the snow storm. One of them is pretty loud.

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11:15-11:30 We’re at the Russia-Mongolia border. Step 1: Russian female border officer enters bus and checks each passport.

11:30-12:05 Step 2: Russian customs – we have to take our bags off the bus into a building where they take them through an x-ray and check our passports again. One of the new passengers (the loud one) passes out slowly. She’s fighting her friend and doesn’t want to leave the line, even as she slumps to the ground. My EMT training kicks in as I help carry her to some chairs. She has a slow but strong pulse and is breathing fine. She is not responsive. People around keep saying epilepsy but I’m sure it’s not. One of the Netherlands backpackers comments that there are 8 people standing around her watching but no one knows what to do. By this point, I’m already standing back as she seems to be in a drug-induced (or possibly diabetic) stupor. Someone has called an ambulance.

12:10 We’re back on the bus with our bags put back underneath in the luggage compartment and we cross the border. The new passengers are back on the bus too. I guess the loud one regained consciousness. Some man (passenger) hands me his phone and tells me (in Mongolian) to talk to the person on the other end. It turns out this is my Mongolian couchsurf host’s, Meg’s, dad! How interesting. He is taking this bus to visit his grand-daughter (Meg’s daughter) who has been ill for days.

12:15 Step 3: Mongolian female border officer enters bus and checks each passport

12:20 Step 4: A Mongolian male soldier enters bus and hands out immigration forms to be filled out for Mongolia

12:22-13:00 Step 5: Mongolian customs and immigration – we have to take our bags off the bus again and through Mongolian customs. I realize that most Mongolians don’t form queues so I hold my spot better and stop letting people cut. It’s like being in my grade school lunch line again. I’m sent away by the customs official to fill out some form I can’t read only to go back to find he’s been replaced by someone else. Meg’s father and the bus driver helped me fill out the form and now it’s stamped and in my passport. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it.

13:10 Our bags are back in the luggage compartment and we’re back on the bus. Three men enter the bus holding wads of cash. My seatmate explains that they’re exchanging Tugriks (Mongolian currency). I get some. I’m told by some Mongolians around me that it is a good deal (they also exchange money).

13:20 We’re back off the bus (again). This time it’s lunch break. The storm is pretty fierce by this point so I’m happy not being on the road. The restaurant is called “A HOT TAN Restaurant” or something like that. I eat a light lunch of salad olivieh (like potato salad) and pick out the meat. We’re informed there is a 2 hour delay because the roads are closed. I take the opportunity to talk more to some people from the bus who speak a little English (or are willing to try speaking with me). I find out that Tsyrma, a Buryat living in Ulan Ude has to catch a plan to Tokyo early the next morning to go home (her husband is Japanese). I walk around and ask the bus driver, who is talking to Meg’s father, how much longer and he motions 4 fingers in the air. I think Tsyrma is going to flip. I talk in length with another lady, Syren-Dulma, who speaks Buryat, Russian, French, and English. She studied language in school and is an English teach in a small Buryat village in the Tunka Valley. I start interviewing her about what she likes about her Buryat hometown but we get cut off because we’re told the bus is leaving.

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17:22 We’re back on the bus but without the 2 late-entry passengers. I saw them enter the restaurant but had lost track of them during our stay there. There were some people who were drinking and playing cards in the restaurant and they insist on taking over the back row of the bus. I move down 2 rows. I have a better window seat now. I see lots of birds outside. I think I’ve seen more birds on this road trip than in all my road trips ever, combined. I also see cattle, camels, and horsemen.

18:20 We crawling through the snow and we get stuck. The bus driver puts on his gloves, hat, and boots and gets the shovel. Meg’s father and another 2 men on the bus also go outside.

18:41 We’re finally clear of that patch after almost slipping into the ditch off the side of the road (if I could see the road). We clap for the driver and his helpers.

19:59 We’re traveling at about 10km/hr I think. At least it’s warm. We get stuck again. There are other cars also stuck. Lots of people are outside pushing cars around in the ice. Our helpers on the bus help everyone else because if they don’t move, we don’t move.

20:09 We’re unstuck and moving

20:29 We’re stuck. A couple of the women have also gone out to help. There are only 2 shovels. I hope the bus doesn’t slide into anyone standing outside as it grinds over ice.

21:26 We’re unstuck but moving very slowly. It’s getting dark and there is a line of cars stopped ahead.

21:49 I think we’re going to spend the night on the bus. Tsyrma has managed to get a hold of some airline information and finds that her flight is also delayed. She is biting her nails. One of the passengers takes his luggage off the bus and jumps into a car that has stopped for him on the road. I have no idea who anyone is.

22:01 We’re stuck for the 3rd time and the boys and Meg’s father are out shoveling. Actually, he is directing and they’re shoveling. He’s got that big boss air about him and he’s taking care of business.

22:09 They’re getting good at this because we’re unstuck

22:19 The bus driver pulls off into a town, which I later find out is Darkan. We’ve traveled around 385 km (240 miles) in about 14 hours. We’re only about half-way to Ulaan Baator. All roads to Ulaan Baator are closed and there is state emergency. There is one train leaving for Ulaan Baator just after midnight which is to arrive at 06:10 in the morning in Ulaan Baator. The bus driver takes us to the train station and waits with our luggage while we all get tickets. He’s still in good spirits, amazingly. Meg’s father takes charge and groups 8 of us together, assigning people to watch over the bags while he and another woman fight to keep their spot in the throngs of people crowding around the 2 ticket counters. It has to be more than luck that my couchsurf host’s father was on this bus and making sure I got a seat and a way to Meg’s house.

23:31 We’re on the train, all split up into whatever seats were available. Though I’m not sure it matters because in my little compartment area there were 12.5 people (one child) in a 4-bunk compartment. There were people sleeping in the top luggage shelves all over the place. Meg’s father comes around and checks on me.

00:00ish The train departs Darkhan. I close my eyes, sitting up, and hum a mantra (thanks LR).

06:11 The train arrives in Ulaan Baator

06:30 Meg has sent a driver to pick me up. Meg’s father is going to go eat and probably stay with another family member. The driver gives me the keys to Meg’s apartment and shows me where things are. Meg is still in the hospital with her daughter. What an amazing host to take such good care of me when I haven’t even met her. I’m hopeful for the rest of this Mongolia trip.

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Mongolia

April 30th, 2011 Comments off

Meg on Mongolia:

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