Saturday, January 26, 2008
The Green Book
Sunday, November 04, 2007
30 months on
Saturday, October 15, 2005
Monday, August 15, 2005
So firstly Irkutsk. It was a miracle we got out of there before being overtaken with the urge to slash our wrists. The main pastime during the day is drinking in the streets and, for the girls, dressing like ladies of the night. The main pastime during the night is, er, the same. In between this everyone finds time to smoke and be rude to tourists - and probably eachother, for that matter. Things hadn't got off to a great start when I had a disagreement with the local rep over how much money he was getting. Still, we won that contest so it could have been worse. Then the hotel was, quite frankly, pony. And this was all before the sightseeing we had to do.......which last approximately 40 minutes. Not because we cut it short, but because that was how long the sum total of the sights - a crooked house, a closed church and a polluted river. Not all disaster though, as we found somewhere that did very good Borsch, and were then entertained by a brass brand. Still, I was comforting myself with the fact that we still had Lake Baikal and a home stay to look forward to.
Lake Baikal - the largest lake on earth, holding 23,000km cubed of water (that's one fifth of world's freshwater, fact fans) which is more than all of America's great lakes put together. It's 636km long, which is the distance between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The water's so clear you can see 40 yards through it. And 80% of it's flora and fauna isn't found anywhere else in the world. It was just a shame that the village we stayed in doubled up as a municipal tip. As for the home stay, well, the less said about that the better. I see why Siberians drink a lot of Vodka.
Into Irkutsk; with three dice
We were leaving Mongolia in the late afternoon, and the first expected excitement for this leg of the trip was crossing the border into Russia. When applying for visas for Russia one has to stipulate the date of entry. This should, of course, be quite straightforward but owing to the fact that I'd calculated that we would be approaching the border somewhere around midnight, it was with a little trepidation that we pulled out of Ulan Baator. And the word 'calculate' shouldn't be taken lightly either - my estimation was based on 'reversing' an eastbound timetable, translating the Moscow time departure time into local time, allowing for crossing a couple of time zones en route, and finally adding a bit extra on to allow for getting from the last town on the timetable to the border itself. Simple really. Anyway, the upshot of all that was that I'd decided we'd be entering Russia after midnight.
As it turned out I needn't have worried as the border crossing took a matter of ten hours to negotiate. We did indeed approach it close to midnight, but we spent two hours getting through the Mongolian border post. Then we had a nice six hour stretch sitting marooned in no-man's land, so by the time we actually crossed through the Russian border post it was comfortably the next morning. And all through this time you're not allowed to leave the carriage and, rather less than conveniently, the toilets are locked. Now for us who had planned ahead and stopped taking fluids on some eight hours in advance, this wasn't too much of a problem. Though it was for two Australians who were having a hernia trying to keep their legs crossed. Shame. And it was all too much for Val too, who's writing to the European Court of Human Rights about it, or something.
So after such excitement the rest of the journey was fairly low key. A few games of cribbage with Guy the 'railway enthusiast', the trading of wine for cheese with the other train spotters, and Michael introducing me to the world of Sudoku. Little did I know that this was the craze sweeping the nation back home. And after attempting a couple, I can safely say I'll be leaving that bandwagon to Wylie and co.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
So, after spending all our togrogs (actually, still got 15 left in anyone fancies them) we headed to the station ready for the next stage in our train ride. We waited by the carriage and watched to see who would be joining us. We heard her before we saw her. A loud booming voice was coming our way singing a song you may have heard in a nightmare Brownie/Scout camp scenario which went: (complete with marching steps) ÂI had a good home till I left, left, left. My mother told me to write, write, writeÂ (imitating this in William's vicinity will cause immediate dread ). The marching stopped as she announced her arrival at her appointed carriage Â ours. (And soon to be in the compartment next door.)
The carriage was much the same Â boiler at one end, crackly mattresses and a small square of material which was allegedly a towel. Will was onto Tea Duty before we had even left the station and breaking into our emergency snack supplies within the hour (a salmon snack-pack and Ritz biscuits).
There was a lot of hustle and bustle in the carriage. Mongolian and Russian people were squirrelling away all sorts of packages of assorted shapes and sizes, into ceiling compartments and trap doors in the floor (very 'Allo 'Allo). One bare chested chap, wearing rather dazzling colourful trousers, seemed to be discussing smuggling options with our Providnista (carriage attendant) as she revealed another hiding place.
As the border approached we watched the bare chested man don as many layers of shirts and jackets as he possibly could in an effort to carry this particular contraband into Russia.
The Mongolian Providnista came to our cabin and by using sbizarrezare role play which involved her stroking her upper lip and pointing to a wedding band we decided she wanted us to smuggle her husband over the border.
The man in question did indeed sit in our cabin while we crossed the border. He explained that he wasn't able to purchase a ticket from Mongolia, but would be able to once we crossed the border into Russia when people got off the train, which he did. For this we got special attention from our Providnista and I even got a chocolate (usually reserved for bribing officials!) Â Will was rather put out .
The officials searched the carriage but didn't seem too interested by the hidden goods, or the man in many jackets.
We arrived in Irkutsk, me in my fleece, Will in his T shirt, and were greeted by bright, warm sunshine (and an excessively over-priced transfer). But where were the furry hats? "This is May, Luce."
Friday, June 24, 2005
Well we got away on time, having eventually located the right train. It had been standing in the platform for ages while we were hopelessly wandering around the Beijing station waiting for it to mirculously jump out of nowhere and announce its presence. Anyway, once safely on board, (needless to say) the first thing we did was work out what our neighbours were about. It seemed that the only people in our carriage were fellow tourists, suggesting that all the locals were slumming it down in the cheap seats. On one side we had the original odd couple (a monk and a brummie) and on the other we had 'The Train Spotters'. Well, they weren't really but that's what they became known as, though I don't think there was any need for Luce to inform them of this. But more of all that later.
Once safely settled into the first leg of the journey (Beijing to Ulan Baatar; 30 hours) it was down to backgammon and cribbage, with predicatable result I might like to add. (I'm not playing anymore...). In between such excitement, we checked out what nosebag was on offer. Contrary to popular opinion, it was actually quite reasonable - although this may have been more due to its relative merits when compared to a pot noodle rather than it achieving any sort of culinary excellence (and the rice worked out at 6 pence a throw so the budget-keeping accountant was happy). But we made the most of it, especially as we'd been warned that Mongolia's cuisine wouldn't be winning any awards, and that the Russian restaurant car might be a more interesting experience..........
It would seem that the other big talking point about this whole train thing is... does anyone know what time it is? And believe it or not it was true - no one did seem to know what time it was. This is rooted in the fact that trains run on Moscow time, as do the timetables, though this may/may not apply if you are on a Chinese or Mongolian train (still not sure which ours was); added to this was a general misconception of how far in front of GMT is Beijing, and Ulan Baatar, and whether they have a shift for summer time. Not that anyone really cared, (not that this stopped my dearest spending hours trying to work it out) and the reality was we were having more trouble keeping track of which day it was, let alone such niceties as to which particular hour it was.
Anyway, no trans-continent trip would feel complete without some fun at a border crossing. And getting into Mongolian was no exception. On having our passports examined, it seemed that Ms Customs Official had no intention of returning them to us. And a stern looking lady she was too, all boots, suit and make up - Herr Flick would have loved it. Anyway, I decided that it was a good idea not to let the passports out of our view, so followed them off the train.
I interject here to tell my view of events... I sat by the window awaiting Will's reappearance - my eyes trained on a door across the platform I thought he had gone through... which he hadn't. After a while, THE TRAIN STARTED TO MOVE. Cue: slight anxiety. "My husband" I cried to the Mongolian carriage attendant (who knew only four words of English), but she just waved me away in an unconcerned manner, so I decided perhaps I should be unconcerned too. Then the train gathered speed and the panic started to creep in. I sweated for a little longer, then I ventured down to the 'trainspotter's cabin' and asked if they thought we were on our way. "Well, if you fancy heading back to China we are" came the reply, and "I believe we've just gone to pick up the restaurant car." (and how would they know that if they weren't of the train-knowledgeable-club I should like to know?) When I had started breathing again I thanked them and scuttled back to my cabin feeling a bit silly. How was I supposed to know we were going backwards?! I remained at my vigil at the window, with no sign of Will from the door across the platform. Then Will saunters into our cabin looking terribly relaxed - typical.
This meant that I got to hang around the customs hall while watching all these dolled up broads complete all their paperwork. It really was a sight to behold. But enough of such fantasies; eventually Helga summoned me to the desk. Apparently our visas hadn't been stamped on issue. "You should have checked!" Ah yes, because I should have known....... Anyway, the stamp was duly issued, and we were on our way. Well, other than the 2 hours it took to change the wheels on the train to fit Mongolia's gauge.
(If you'd made it this far, well done. Keep going, not far now.)
The rest of the trip to UB (as us trendy travellers have to call it, apparently) was quiet and uneventful, and we were soon off the train to fight it out with the local touts. For some reason that I still haven't fathomed, I'd decided that it would be a good idea not to book anywhere for our one night stop here, and rely on being offered a room on arrival. And I'm pleased to say we hooked up with a nice gentleman called Galaa ('countryside boy' turned city slicker), who fixed us up with some apartment for a bluey. It even had clean sheets.
As for Ulan Baatar itself, there's not exactly much to do, but it was interesting enough to walk around for an afternoon, and visit its only shop. We even got to visit one of it's fine restaurants. The fact that it had mutton on the menu was of no surprise; but the fact that 'chewing gum' featured on the dessert menu, er, was.
After these urban highlights, we enlisted Galaa to take us for a tour around the local countryside. And as the surrounding countryside is predominantly desert dotted with gers, there's not much to report.