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Archive for the ‘Mongolia’ Category

One More Word

In China, Mongolia, Mystery Trip, Russia on October 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm

“Gratitude” is the word that has come to mind most often on this trip.  I’ve been to China, Mongolia, and Russia, and each country has given me sights, adventures, and gracious locals to help navigate the trip.  It has reminded me that people are generally kind and generous, it just takes leaving your comfort zone to find them sometimes.  So next time you see someone in your hometown who looks a little lost or wayward, take a few minutes to encourage them through something small like a smile or something bigger like a minute of your time to help them out.  Trust me, you will be a big shiny angel in someone’s memory for the rest of their life.

Grateful thanks goes to:

China – Tina, Joe, and Lily for showing me the Great Wall in their own style, and taking the time and money to treat me to fresh fruits and local restaurants.

Mongolia – Rob and Marlene for spending an entire afternoon catching up after 20 years, feeding us dinner and ice cream cut with a knife, and sharing their thoughts and experiences in the country.

Russia – Tarana and Shura for an unforgettable trip on the Transsiberian; Anya at the Baikaler Hostel for exceptional service, you’re bound for great things!; the entire staff (but especially Nadia) at Mir Hostel in St. Petersburg for making everything here comfortable, easy, and cozy; Grafin Restaurant for two of the best evenings and meals EVER in any city I’ve been to.

Special hip hip hoorays to:

Andres – Beijing would have been a little dull but your company and awesome conversation ended up being the nicest way to start the trip.  I’d travel with you anywhere, anytime.

Doris – a travel buddy who turned out to be one of the best decisions on this adventure.  Your unique insights, sense of humour and laidback style were exactly what I needed.  So glad we’re still smiling and still friends at the end of it!

My mom – for giving me an appreciation of Russian history and for encouraging me (read “financing”) to check out St. Petersburg.  She may be slow to come on board but once she does she’s my biggest cheerleader.

My shoes! – for holding my feet up for countless miles of walking and hiking.  Really, I can’t believe I’m still standing.

Thanks also to everyone who dropped notes along the way, the international adventure is always sweet but thoughts from home are sweeter!

That’s all from this side of the water.  With love from Russia (and China and Mongolia).

Russian 101

In Mongolia, Russia on September 27, 2012 at 11:50 am

I decided we’d be in big trouble if one of us didn’t learn a bit of Russian, so on our flight from Irkutsk to Moscow today I learned the Cyrillic alphabet.  Good thing as no one really speaks English here, very few street signs have English translations, and while the metro stops are listed in both Russian and English on the maps, nothing inside the station tells you where you are if you can’t read their alphabet.  Fortunately there are a lot of English, Arabic, French, and other languages’ words which the Russians picked up, so if you can figure the words out phonetically, you’ll find yourself reading something you’re familiar with.

It took awhile to sort ourselves out from the airport to the hostel, not because of the language barrier, but because no one seemed to know where our street is.  It’s an odd side street that points off a main street like a spoke and I guess locals don’t come here unless they live here.  I asked one nice looking business guy if he knew this street, he said ‘nyet’, and then proceeded to look it up on his phone.  Couldn’t find it, and as we said ‘nyet problehm’ and walked away, we noticed him accosting people on the street to ask if they knew where it was.  He finally found a young woman who pointed it out to him and he victoriously waved at us and then the street with a big smile on his face.  See?  Once again nice people are in abundance on this planet.

When we finally found the hostel and got to our room, we discovered we would be sharing it with a young Armenian woman and many other Russians.  More on that situation in another post.  This girl started telling me about mannerisms here and said everytime Westerners say “Excuse me” in Russian (‘izviniste’ in case you’re wondering), Russians think they’re dealing with a crazy person.  Those niceties are non-existent here and you should replace, “Excuse me, could you please pass me that book”, with “Give it to me”.  I’m all for it, I love the directness of that approach and that you waste much less time trying to be all polite and P.C.  She also said we should stop saying “please” and “thank you” so much because it’s stupid.  I asked her when I should use “Excuse me.”  She looked at me for awhile before saying (read this with a deep Russian accent), “I know the state of your mentalization and I know you’re not crazy, but you should not use that.  Ever.”  As for my ‘mentalization’ I could give her the numbers of a few of my friends who might challenge her on that statement.

Hopefully my Russian vocabulary will grow over the next week and a half, it would be nice to acquire some words in a new language, and now that I know the alphabet, I can also go back to Mongolia, the Ukraine, Khazakhstan, etc.  One lesson learned now, a whole world opened for later.  спокойной ночи.

Train, Part II

In Mongolia, Mystery Trip, Russia on September 25, 2012 at 3:28 am

Mongolian crossing time – 3 1/2 hours
Russian crossing time – 1 1/2 hours

and still no bathroom, aaaaaaaaagh!  However, things got good funny fast after the last entry.  The Russian ladies turned out to be Azerbaijani mother and daughter and they are awesome.  They quickly became annoyed with our crazy Mongolian lady and managed to eject her from our cabin.  Now we’re all best friends, sharing meals, listening to Jay Z, watching Gossip Girl in Russian, and teaching each other our languages.

I guess the Russians are not as tolerant of the Mongolian traders and it looks like our crazy lady got busted.  The whole group was kicked out of our car back to last class which could be punishment enough.

We finally cleared all border controls and thanks to the pocket change of rubles my dad gave me we were able to FINALLY use the platform bathroom.  It truly felt like saving the world.  Thanks, Dad!!!

Overall the whole journey by train will take about 36 hours to our next stop where we’ll stay for 2 days.  And judging by the drop in temperature my sweater will finally come in handy.

Train, Part I

In Mongolia, Mystery Trip, Russia on September 24, 2012 at 4:19 pm

We are on the Transsiberian train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk, Siberia.  When we boarded the train last night there was a group of Mongolians who looked like they were moving house – they each had about ten bags and formed a bucket brigade to haul everything in.  Luckily we had a 4-person berth to ourselves the first night and spent it quietly and uneventfully.  The next morning around 6:30 we pulled up to the Mongolian border and the engine and all other cars detached and left our Russian car alone on the track.  The bathrooms were locked off so we disembarked and used the facilities on the platform before getting back on for customs and border inspection.  For the record, the female Mongolian guard was hot, she was wearing knee-high leather boots and a beautifully tailored suit.  She makes Canadian guards look dumpy.

As we waited for inspection, the Mongolians picked up yet more bags from the platform and moved into everyone’s cabin.  They took over ours, hanging up jackets and shoving spangled boots into spare cracks.  It turns out that they get goods for cheap from Mongolia, haul them into Russia where partners wait to grab the bags and then sell them on the platforms while the Mongolians travel back home to pick up the next batch.  We’re all supposed to declare the number of bags in our possession but of course they don’t want to declare theirs as they’ll have to pay border taxes.  Obviously the border inspection is a joke as the guards searched our cabin and no one was charged for anything.  Everyone knows how this works and they turn a blind eye to all of it.

In the meantime, two Russian ladies also joined our cabin and the Mongolian lady set up shop.  As I write this they are haggling over thick socks.  The Russians said no to the ugly sweaters and even to the black leg warmer boots covered in sparkles.  I do believe this next part of the journey will be far livelier than the last which means I have to decide between being annoyed or putting on my curiosity cap and being amused.  If the border officials would give me back my passport I could get off the train and run to the bathroom which I am dying to use.  Until I can relieve myself of this pressing burden I shall be annoyed, but am confident that visiting the toilet will allow me to put my happy pants back on and maybe buy a pair of socks.

Mongolia Album

In Mongolia, Mystery Trip on September 24, 2012 at 5:04 am

Not the most common tourist destination but a wonderful country nonetheless.  My favourite parts of it were hearing how the locals have adjusted to the influx of mining companies and the commerce they’ve brought with them.  The craziest change is definitely the traffic – endless construction, road closures, and a driving culture powered by pride and competition.  If you’re going anywhere by car, pack your patience.  You won’t be getting there fast.

Mongolian Traffic

In Mongolia, Mystery Trip on September 23, 2012 at 9:52 pm

The traffic congestion in Ulaanbaatar can be attributed to two things:  1. poor construction planning, and 2. new drivers.  Construction envelopes the entire city and no one gives any thought to managing the traffic implications of closing a road.  The result is multiple road closures with one-way alley routes that were originally built solely for pedestrian use.  Up until ten years ago people were still getting around by horse and there were very few cars.  With the arrival of the mining companies the automobile has increased exponentially with poor infrastructure lagging far behind.  And this leads to the second problem, a very ‘young’ driving population.

Most of the Mongolian drivers have been on the road for only two years and a large percentage would have purchased their licenses.  Defensive driving is non-existent and this turns everything into a competition with no knowledge of how to navigate traffic jams.  Traffic lights are necessary because without them cars grind to a halt in utter confusion, so you can imagine what road closures would do to their already discombobulated minds.

Arrogance and pride also play into the general chaos.  Because everyone has to win no one can lose.  If two cars approach each other from opposite directions in an alleyway, they will get stuck for up to five minutes while they stare each other down, scowling at the other to give in first.  It’s stupid and yet the learning curve seems to be rather flat.  One wonders how long they’ll tolerate this behaviour before they change their ways.  Until then, if you need to get somewhere in the city make sure to add at least 30-40 to your estimated trip time.  Happy travels!