Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Riding the Trans-Siberian Railway

Over the last couple of weeks I've travelled more than 6000 kilometers by rail, crossing 5 time zones. Some would call it an epic journey through the world's biggest country, on the world's longest continuous railway track (although to be fair, I did not ride the entire length of it by any means).

Interestingly, for most people the journey itself seems to be the point of it all. Most travellers get on the train at Moscow (or earlier) and continue on straight through to Beijing or Vladivostok, a 7 to 10 day journey, though some stop at Irkutsk or Ulan Bataar briefly. I hear from them that the joys of rail travel -- attempting to converse with the Russians on the train, sharing your food, playing chess -- are what make the trip worth it. Perhaps these people are rail enthusiasts, as this was not the case for me. In fact, I found Russians on the train to be summarily unfriendly, the journey itself to be hot and relatively boring. For me, riding the train in one shot all the way to Moscow would have been an utter waste of time. The joy, however, lay in the stops along the way.

Siberia, I was somewhat surprised to find out, is not a snowy wasteland. In fact, it is characterized by taiga - a dense conifer forest - and in the summer can reach incredibly high temperatures. Much of it is uninhabited, although several indigenous peoples still make their home there, and of course the population soared when the government got the bright idea to send convicts (many of whom worked on the railway) and political exiles there, and later populated the area through forced migration.

I entered Russia by way of Ulan Ude, capital of Buryatia, a region dominated by Mongol people, not surprisingly, given its proximity to the border. Ulan Ude was your typical communist-looking town, with sprawling avenues and boxy buildings, its biggest claim to fame being the world's biggest Lenin head (seriously) in the main square.

From here I went to Irkutsk, a charming city in itself, where I ended up staying with a family and being shown utmost hospitality by them and their kids, who insisted not just on taking me grocery shopping but on helping me pick out each item that I bought. Never have I been so self-conscious about my pot noodles! Siberian homes are usually either log cabin style or ornately carved wooden houses (for the richer people), and many of the latter can be seen in Irkutsk, often belonging to political exiles such as the Decembrists. It's a great city to get a feeling for Siberian style and history.

I used Irkutsk as the jumping off point for Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the world's deepest lake, reaching an incredible 1637 meters at its deepest point, and containing one fifth of the world's unfrozen fresh water. Expecting just another big lake, I was amazed at how beautiful the scenery was, with soaring cliffs and jagged rocks rising out of a perfect light-blue surface that went on forever. This was also, however, the site of my first real "Russian experience."

I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Russians are famous for their love of alcohol. The guidebook claims that when Russians offer you alcohol, it's almost impossible to refuse, and once you've started, there is no stopping. Hard to imagine till you've tried it...

I stayed in a little guesthouse that was very basic (i.e. no plumbing), rather than in the big resort on the island. The first thing I noticed was that the house's cat had very short ears - which I later found out was because in the Siberian winter they freeze and break off! As luck would have it, Sergei, a stock broker from Moscow, was also staying there to celebrate his 33rd birthday. For some reason I didn't understand, he came all by himself, so he decided that everyone staying in the guesthouse would be his guests at the birthday party, whether we liked it or not. I arrived one afternoon and was met with a bottle of cognac, which luckily was almost empty, as he and his new friend Sasha had been drinking since 3am, so there were only(!) 3 shots left for me. There was then a break till 10pm, when a big table was set with many local goodies, and shots of vodka were distributed all around. All in all there were 4 bottles of vodka for about 10 people. And the toasting began.

Since I am female, I was off the hook for taking my vodka a whole shot at a time, but if I didn't drink fast enough, I'd get urged on by those around me. In the end, the old Buryat woman who owned the guesthouse decided that she was my "buryatka mama" and wouldn't stop kissing me and putting her cheek out for me to kiss her. And then there was Sasha, who was the author (as he wouldn't stop telling us) of what, as far as I could deduce, was a new-age, philosophical, self-help book that made reference to everything from New York City to Al Capone. (Olkhon Island is considered an important center of Shamanic energy, so it attracts all sorts of characters). One of Sasha's key tenets was that if you stand on one leg with your eyes closed for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other leg, you achieve the "Golden Middle"... of course he insisted that I try this after I don't know how many shots of vodka, and actually I think I did pretty well (though honestly I don't remember very clearly...). And then, after Sasha kissed me on the cheek, too - "for good luck" - we all went out to a local disco. A French couple who were with me the entire time both protected me from Sergei and can attest to the fact that nothing inappropriate happened... Amazingly I wasn't hung over the next day... though I did still feel a little drunk. Not something I'd want to do very often, but now I can say I've experienced the real Russia!! (Oh, and I do have a copy of one of Sasha's books for anyone who reads Russian and is curious...)

After Irkutsk things calmed down a little bit. I spent a few nights on trains, visiting the large cities of Krasnoyarsk and Yekaterinburg. The latter is in the Ural Mountains and is a source of many precious minerals, which were on display at a funny little museum where I ended up getting a private tour. Then I went to visit the ice cave at Kungur. The cave is unique because the cave formations (stalactites, etc) are made of ice, rather than stone. In the first bit of the cave they were pretty spectacular, but unfortunately I think it would be better visited in winter. On the way out of here, though, I met some incredibly nice and helpful people, including one guy who seemed sad that I hadn't bought any souvenirs and gave me a little wooden sculpture of a dolphin who is, I believe, drinking a cocktail.

Another overnight train put me in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Kazan is known as the "Istanbul of Russia," a place where Europe meets Asia, and this turned out to be true in many ways. Mosques mingle with onion-domed churches, and the architecture seems somehow to have escaped the ugly influence of communism.

Russia is actually a mishmash of various semi-autonomous republics and many ethnic groups, as a result of centuries of expansion, migration and invasion. These republics have had varying degrees of autonomy depending on who was in charge of Russia at the time. One of the most interesting things about travelling across the country has been to see how the faces change. At first it was a lot of Mongolian-looking faces mixed with some blondes, and then it became more blonde, and then an interesting mix of Muslim/Turkish looking, as the Tatars are a Turkic people. The Tatars even have their own president, laws, and language, which is on all the street signs above the Russian, and they are campaigning to change to a Latin, rather than Cyrillic, alphabet.

Actually Russia has surprised me in many ways. I think what I expected was a fairly developed country of unfriendly and pushy people (thanks to my experience at the consulate and reports from other travellers), and a relatively barren landscape all the way across Siberia. In fact what I have found is that Russian people (importantly excluding all those who work in train stations or in the service industry, who are, as the Lonely Planet accurately puts it, "obstructive goblins" at best) are incredibly kind, friendly and hospitable, and that there is no single face or ethnic look that can sum up a Russian (though love of vodka does seem to be a universal trait!). Of course there is a predominance of tiny, blond, European-looking people (and the women do live up to their reputation - in fact, if anyone knows how you tell an actual prostitute from a regular Russian woman, I'd be interested to know...), but there is also an incredible mix of Mongolian, Turkish, indigenous and otherwise. And interestingly, in many ways the country is quite advanced, though it is still mired in ridiculous bureaucracy left over from the communist days, and I've been amazed at how many people in their early 20s I've met who don't even know how to use the internet!

So Russia has actually been an incredibly fascinating and enjoyable place to visit so far. Rather difficult with only the tiny smattering of Russian I've got, but definitely a place I'd like to return to after I study the language a bit. I have seen only two other tourists in the past week or so, and it's been at times unbelievably frustrating but also remarkably rewarding. My rail journey is not over by any means, however, and the last leg of my trip takes me to the more famous and touristed parts of the country. I'll be back with one last report in a couple of weeks...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mongolia: Land of the Blue Sky

What do you think of when you think of Mongolia? Prior to coming here, I had a vague notion of it as a place at the end of the earth, but not much more. I knew it was the home of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, but I had no idea what to expect. And although it is definitely a country that requires some work and a lot of patience to get into, it turns out to be well worth the effort.

So a little primer on Mongolia. It is the most sparsely populated country on earth, with just 1.4 people per square kilometer (compare to 200 to 300 per square km in most European countries), and a 13 to 1 horse to human ratio. Around 50% of the population is nomadic, living in mobile gers (yurts) and using herding as their primary means of sustenance. Most of the land in the country is simply unowned, meaning that you can wander around and camp almost anywhere you please. The country is so far inland that its climate is not affected by the ocean, so the seasonal differences are dramatic (Ulaan Bataar is the world's coldest capital, in fact), and from personal experience I can tell you that the thunder and lightning storms are worthy of a Hollywood movie.

All this means that travelling here is quite an adventure, as there are less than 2000 km of paved road in the entire country, so your average speed as you bump and jolt through mud in an ancient Soviet van is around 30 km/hour (18 mph). So it takes a while to get anywhere. On the other hand, Mongolian hospitality is legendary, and you can literally just walk up to any ger and you will be served milk tea and either dairy products in some form or homemade noodle soup, and they will inevitably let you camp next door and take advantage of their guard dogs. I think the weirdest thing I ate while here was airag, a type of local, homemade beer, made from fermented camel milk. It was surprisingly not disgusting - sort of like home brewed beer mixed with milk.

Of course most people start with a visit to the Gobi Desert, which I did too. The Gobi is actually quite varied, with quite a bit of grassy grazing land, some dried out areas that resemble deserts at home, huge sand dunes, and a red desert where many dinosaur fossils have been found. There's even a canyon that has a glacier all year round, despite the summer heat. Of course my most lasting memory will be when we left in a rush during a sandstorm at the dunes because our driver had drunk half a bottle of vodka and then realized we were short on time, and as we flew through the desert in the dark, the back of the van opened, my backpack fell out, and by the time we realized it, my camping mat had flown away in the strong winds. After we got the doors closed again, the driver was so drunk he almost flipped the van over, and then we camped (without my mat) on the most uncomfortable ground I've ever slept on because he literally couldn't drive anymore, and all the while he was laughing hysterically and grabbing people inappropriately... Our Japanese companion, who seemed a lot younger than she actually was, told us it was too much adventure and she wanted her mother.

After the Gobi we headed through the ancient capital of Kharakhorum to central Mongolia for some horse trekking around lovely lakes. In this area yaks were a much more important part of the herd animals, and most of the dairy products we ate came from fresh yak milk. There was also a preponderance of marmots, which you see running across the road all over Mongolia (and which Mongolians hunt and eat). Cute, but they actually carry the bubonic plague. I didn't even know that was still a problem, but apparently every year there are several cases of it here. I knew when I saw "marmot plague" in the list of important health terms in the phrasebook that I was in a different kind of place!

We then headed up north into the Darkhad Depression, where we attended the Nadaam celebration in a tiny town called Renchinlkhumbe. Nadaam is the biggest celebration of the Mongolian year, where competitions are held in the "three manly sports": horse racing, wrestling, and archery. Although the archery was pathetic, the other two were impressive to see. Horses are raced by young boys (aged 5-12), riding with no saddle, stirrups or shoes, and whooping wildly. Some of the horses inevitably arrive sans rider at the finish line. The wrestlers are even funnier, wearing red and blue outfits with speedo-type bottoms and open-fronted tops. Before they wrestle they have to do an eagle dance, in which they flap around like birds and pray to the gods. There are no height or weight classes, so sometimes the matches are quite uneven, and mostly they consist of grabbing on to each other's clothing and pulling with all their might. Much butt-patting is involved. It was definitely amazing to see the spectators, many of whom were watching on horseback. Actually this part of Mongolia reminded me of the American "wild west"... it really seemed like how we picture those times, except with Asian faces and Mongolian traditional dress.

So this was the highlight of the time in Mongolia. We followed that with a few days riding horses around Hovsgol Lake, and then back to Ulaan Bataar to clean up (only three showers in three and a half weeks!!) and get ready for the next leg of the journey. Though I did get a chance before leaving UB to see a concert of khoomei, or throat singing. I'd always wanted to hear it, and it's quite amazing. You hear the men singing in an impossibly low, throaty bass, and then at the same time they have this eerie, high-pitched whistle that I couldn't produce even if I wanted to. This kind of singing also exists in a region of Russia, but it is typical to Mongolia.

So all in all, Mongolia was an amazing country. Beautiful landscapes, wonderful, hospitable people, and endless opportunities for adventure make it a place I definitely want to return to. However, I also learned that it's near impossible for a solo traveller here, due to the nonexistence of public transportation, so it's best to come with a friend (or three) who have the same goals and limitations as you do. Otherwise you have to piece together a group from whoever happens to be in Ulaan Bataar, and then you never know what you'll get.

As always, there's much more to tell, but now I should go get my papers in order for tomorrow's bus ride to Siberia...

Adventure map for 2009...