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Published: September 24th 2017
What a difference a train makes. We had previously read books and checked out web sites that indicated the Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar train was by far the worst. Compartment windows that actually open and attendants that speak reasonable English and know the meaning of ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’. Oh! And they appreciate that a smile is not a crime punishable by ten years hard labour.
We settled in to our compartment, a four-berth standard class (but with windows that open!!). The carriage was similar to the Moscow-Yekaterinburg 1st
class carriage. Green velvet upholstery. The only difference is that we did not have our own mains socket. These were situated in the corridor – three sockets between up to thirty-six passengers. Also, there was no restaurant carriage on board, hence why it was imperative to buy supplies prior to this leg of the journey. Like the previous train, the toilets were locked whilst in a station.
Another train was standing at the adjacent platform. The train started moving.
‘They’re moving and the doors are still open!’ exclaimed Roisin.
‘They’re not moving, we are!’, I replied
it’s def..oh yeah! There are still people getting on.’ How we all laughed. In a sort of Russian laugh…inwardly!!
The journey was pretty uneventful but generally this is how I imagined the trains to run like; quite a rhythmic rocking motion unlike the previous trains that jolted every now and then and would scare the beejeebus out of you!!
We stopped at a town called Zagustai. People were getting off. I headed for the carriage door, camera in hand, when an arm came out of nowhere and blocked my path.
‘For smoking only!’ the Provodnitsa said in a very strong Russian accent that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a Michael Caine as Harry Palmer movie. Now there’s a first. A train that has stops built in to its schedule so smokers can have a fag! (for my American readers this is UK slang for cigarette!!)
We have concluded that Russians (or at least the ones we have met) have to do everything in a specific order. Elena, from our group (now on her way to Vladivostok with husband Alex) asked Helen, our tour guide, as we approached the city of Irkutsk: ‘<em
style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">What is the population of Irkutsk?’ Helen replied in no uncertain terms ‘I will come on to that in a moment!!’ In a similar vein, the Provodnitsa knocked on our compartment and entered with a tray of breakfast items to sell.
‘When we get to the border…’, started Roisin but she was cut off in mid-sentence.
‘Not now. I am busy. Later’ Everything has to be done in a specific order. There is no evidence of flexibility. However, to give the carriage attendant her due, she did return forty minutes or so later: ‘Now what did you want to ask?’
The trip to Mongolia was a further two nights on board. However, as the journey time was 21:00 Monday to 05:45 Wednesday, it really wasn’t as long as it sounds as we only had one full day on board.
We arrived at the Russian border town of Naushki at 07:51 Moscow time. The check was very officious. First immigration boarded and passports were handed over. Next the customs came on board and stamped and took our declaration. The Border Police followed and checked under the bed??! Customs reappeared and
we had to open our baggage. Whilst all the officials were milling around, the sniffer dogs were being led up and down the carriage. The whole process took four hours. After the train had been cleared it chugged down the track for thirty-seven kilometres before stopping at the Mongolian border town. The scheduled stop was two hours and seventeen minutes. We were not allowed of the train until we had been cleared and our visas correctly stamped. When we finally got the green light, we noticed there was no platform. The train had stopped on the second track from the nearest platform. This meant the step down onto the track as practically two feet and more of a jump!! Many people disembarked once word got out that there was free wifi in the main hall.
The toilets were manned by an old lady who demanded 200 tughriks for a pee (6p). We were told by the carriage assistant the those who got off the train had to wait on the platform and the train will be shunted to the appropriate track. However, another train that had just arrived seemed to be hogging the track. Looking up, Roisin noticed that
there didn’t seem to be anyone left from our train. The people seemed to all be local indigenous types! Roisin, Annamie and I decided to head back to the train as it was due to depart in fifteen minutes. The platforms are not like those in the UK and are less than a foot drop to the track. Nevertheless, it was still quite unnerving to walk out on to the track and around the stationary train and seek out our train in the pitch black as by this time darkness had well and truly fallen. We managed to grapple back up to the carriage and fifteen minutes later the train departed for Ulaanbaatar. If we had taken the advice of the Provodnitsa, we’d be for certain up the proverbial creek without a paddle!! (but at least we’d have wi-fi!!)
Alex, our guide for the next two days met us on the platform in Ulaanbaatar. Born and bred in the capital, Alex is not his real name but although Mongolia use the same Cyrillic alphabet as Russia the pronunciation is quite different and very difficult for foreigners to manage. This includes his real name so several years ago he chose
the name Alex for simplicity. We noticed that Tobias was chatting to a local in German. Go Russia had arranged a tour guide for him who spoke his native language. Later, Tobias confessed to the group that he would have quite happily stayed with our group and he was disappointed that he never got the choice.
Our first stop was for breakfast, at a small inconspicuous coffee shop, down a narrow side street on the ground floor of a rather shabby and grey five story apartment block. The rendering was falling off the external walls and the maintenance of this building had been neglected. However, the inside of the coffee shop was bright and clean. Some money had obviously been spent on this business. As we entered we were shown to a long table that had already been set with sweet waffles and bread with each place having a side plate of cheese, jam, and salami. Minutes later we were brought freshly prepared egg and toast. This was washed down with some red juice and coffee or tea. A pleasant surprise and we felt this had set us up for the day as something tells me we’re in for
Roisin testing the bed.
Since I have kept 'going on' about not seeing Lenin's Tomb, Roisin decided to re-enact what I would have seen!!
a packed few days of activities.
It took just over an hour to arrive at the Ger Camp. A Ger, or Yurt, is a large, round semi-permanent tent with vertical walls and conical roof. The struts and frame is usually made from Pine for its light weight yet durability. Once outside the city we noticed many Mongolian settlements that contained a number of Gers as well as small wooden buildings proving that although we are off to a Ger camp that has been designed for tourists, the ger is still a very practical dwelling across Mongolia. The other observation is that there didn’t seem to be many trees. All the mountains and hills that surround the valley in which Ulaanbaatar was founded, were void of vegetation as they swept down to meet the horizon.
We stopped on top of a ridge overlooking the entrance to Terelj National Park. Alex wanted to show us a shaman mound. This was a heap of rock and stones atop of which was a cross full of coloured ribbons. The tradition is to walk around the mound three times. Each time you must throw a small rock or pebble on to the ever
expanding heap. This is said to bring you fulfilment and prosperity on your travels. There are five colour ribbons tied to the cross: blue – sky; red – fire; yellow – sun; green – the Earth; white = the Earth Mother.
A few kilometres further on we encountered a herd of Yaks grazing in a field. I wondered how long…’Yakity Yak’ Les was the first to say it!!!
There are over 200 Ger camps in Terelj national park. The location of the camp we were taken to was absolutely stunning. The surrounding hills of granite had been eroded over the millennia to give the vista a unique feel that could be compared to nowhere else on this planet. The Gers were neatly laid out in rows, each built on a concrete base and with a number to the right side of the door. The camp had a communal shower and bathroom block and also a central restaurant.
After checking in we were presented with a buffet lunch. One thing for sure on this trip, the food has been of excellent quality and excellent value for money.
Lunch over, we all boarded the bus to
A wolf pelt for sale at the local store
This is a way of life for Mongolians. Wolves will kill one sheep for food and then kill the rest of the flock for fun. These animals are culled in order to save livelihoods. It seems a shame to go to waste!!
head out to a nearby Buddhist monastery. But first we had to go via the obligatory souvenir shop. There were some very interesting items here from Mongol daggers and swords, to Mongolian wrestling hats through to hand carved chess sets and even furs. Whether you are for or against killing animals for their fur, here it is a way of life. Furs are required to survive the harsh winters and have been used for thousands of years. Animals are not killed so some rich stockbroker’s wife can feed her vanity. Wolves for example, are treated as vermin as they will kill a sheep for food but then tear the rest of the flock apart for the sheer hell of it!!
I heard Alex talking about a nearby rock formation: ‘What’s that rock called, Alex’, I asked.
‘Turtle rock’, he replied. It was quite obvious when you think about it!! (see photo)
We arrived at the car park to the monastery. From there it was a twenty-minute walk up a gradual slope. On the first part of the walk there are placards lining the path with one hundred quotations from the teachings of Buddha. The path led to
a statue devoted to Bobhicharyavatara (known to his mates as Bob!!) painted on the plinth below is a portrait of ‘the Elder White’. Known as the White Grandpa, he is the protector deity of the nature that oversees the Mother Earth. He will protect anyone who worships him and guards them from any maladies that are caused by other fierce land deities!
In a small housing next to this statue awaited our destiny. This was in the guise of a rotating drum that we all took turns to gently spin. An arrow at the top of the drum stopped at a random number that were painted on the ceiling of this housing. The number corresponded to more teachings of Buddha and the next set of placards further up the hill. As there were only seven quotations per placard, some of the group had further to walk than others. My number stopped at twenty six but Roisin’s ‘lucky number’ was one hundred and twenty!! When we finally found Roisin’s quotation that once the true meaning is found, would bring her peace and tranquillity throughout this life and the next, it read: ‘The teaching of vimalkirti also says, what
is bondage for the Bodhisattvas and what is liberation? Upholding a life in the cycle of existence devoid of skilful means is bondage for Bodhisattvas but to lead a life in the cycle of existence with skilful means is liberation.’
‘Now grasshopper. Once you have learnt the true meaning of the teaching of vimakirti…can you let us know ‘cause I haven’t got a bloody clue!!
To get to the temple you had to cross a rope bridge. This is where we said goodbye to Roisin and two others who decided they were enlightened enough and headed back down. I persevered and during my crossing of this rope bring chanted my own mantra: ‘Don’t look down! Don’t look down! Don’t look down!’
The final leg of our journey of enlightenment was to climb one hundred and nineteen steps to the entrance to the temple. Half way up we encountered a Mongolian wedding on a photo shoot. Apparently, it is tradition in Mongolia to take the wedding photos at least two weeks before the ceremony. It is also traditional for the groom to select five best men and the bride five bridesmaids as this number
is considered very lucky to bring peace and harmony to the marriage. They didn’t seem at all perturbed that all these Westerners were gawping and taking photos. I think they enjoyed the attention.
The temple was what I expected. A very colourful interior and was decorated with numerous images of Buddha. In the centre, front of the temple was a bell and incense bowl. The gentle ring of the bell serves to focus a follower's attention, bringing it out of future worries or pulling it away from past concerns whilst the burning of incense represents one of the primary gifts that Buddhists offer during prayer.
Our next visit was to meet a typical Mongolian family who live in a Ger. We were greeted by the mother and small son. We were invited to sit while the mother offered us all the traditional drink of fermented horse milk. The taste was sour but not unpleasant although I refused a second bowl. if Tescos ever stock their shelves with this (we’re out of Europe now so you never know!!) I may put it on the shopping list. There were other various delicacies but I was still full after the tasty
Alex explained a few of the items on display. The father is a horse breeder and enters some into competitions. There were several pennants on display at the rear of the ger and each one had a number of medals. The pennant represents a single horse and the number of medals represent the number of times the horse has been successful. All the horses are raced with the owners children as jockeys.
We were entertained for about half an hour before being given the opportunity to go horse riding for an hour or so. Les and Mary, Doris and Godfrey took the offer up whilst others took the bus back to camp, except myself who walked over the rise back to camp and Annamie who went off to photograph some cows!!
During tea, Alex asked if we wanted the ger stove lit about 9pm. As the temperature is due to fall to below freezing, the girls will re-enter your ger at 5am to relight the stove. We all agreed to this. We finished our beers, which incidentally cost £1.24 for 600ml although, despite the cheap beer, I can’t see Mongolia becoming a stag and hen party
haven anytime soon, and headed back to our ger to await the attendants to light the stove.
Wow! Within ten minutes the temperature inside the ger had risen from 15 degrees Celsius to 34 degrees which made for a very uncomfortable night. Just when the fire hand died down and I was starting to drift off to sleep, I was woken by the attendant re igniting the stove. Once again, the temperature soared. The time was only 03:30. Roisin had to leave our ger door open to allow some ventilation in to our tent. Not surprisingly ALL the gers along our row had the same issues as all doors were open. The temperature outside never even got close to minus hence why we turned our tent into a Finnish sauna!!
Our luggage was collected the following morning by an efficient team of assistants who could manage three wheelie cases at a time. They all worked as one team and all dressed in blue t-shirts. They were the ‘Minions’ of the ger camp. They even stood in a small group and waved us off whilst eagerly chatting amongst themselves as the bus departed, although I think that
may be something to do with forgetting to tip them!! This was an easy thing to do as our mind was on bigger things. Much bigger things…the Genghis Khan statue…to be continued
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