Saturday, 31 August 2013

Train, Taxi & Bus to Beijing

We had originally planned to ride the Trans-Siberian train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing but unfortunately we arrived into Mongolia in the middle of the busy tourist season, so instead we opted for the much more exciting alternative.

Boarding our Mongolian Rail “sleeper” train at 4:30pm from Ulaanbaatar station, we settled ourselves into our seats. We didn’t really know what to expect when we booked the overnight train. Perhaps it would be a cargo train and we would be sharing with cattle and chickens, or maybe it would be a series of forward facing benches like on British Rail. 

However, we were pleasantly surprised when our tickets directed us to an empty 4-bed private cabin. Obviously we were instantly hoping that maybe we would get lucky and have the entire cabin to ourselves, but as soon as we had put away our bags we were joined by a nice Spanish couple who were also traveling to Beijing. The cabin might not have been private, but it was certainly better than our initial worries of sharing with livestock.

We spent the hours between boarding and sunset sharing stories and laughing about our mad experiences in Mongolia over a bottle of Chinngis vodka. The beds were as comfy as could be expected, and a massive bargain for the price we paid for the tickets (US$20 each). Australia should definitely take a page out of Mongolia’s book here, and provide a similar service up the coast. Fantastic value.

After an impressively good nights sleep we woke up at 7am just 30 minutes before arriving in the border town of Zamiin-Uud. We departed and headed into the parking lot where we are instantly pounced on by a variety of taxi drivers who want to ensure our safe passage across the Chinese boarder. 

For reasons unknown to anyone the Mongolian-Chinese boarder cannot be crossed on foot, and instead has to be done in a car, and these taxi drivers are willing to assist us with this problem. 

Before long, and with the help of our frantic boarder taxi driver (I guess the quicker he can get us across the quicker he can pick up his next fare going the other way) we were in the Chinese town of Erenhot.

The difference between China and Mongolia was instantly recognizable. Zamiin-Uud was a dusty grey place with some tough broken roads. Erenhot had neat pavements with lush green grass verges, and beautifully tarmacked roads. It was like another world, and we had only gone 2km.

Once in Erenhot we were dropped off at the bus stop where we met up with some other “Ralliers” who were planning on heading to Beijing as well. However, with the next step of this trip being an overnight bus that departed at 3pm, we opted to kill some time with what would soon become a staple of our diet; dumplings.

Beef dumplings, pork dumplings, chicken dumplings, and veggie dumplings. All in fantastic steamed puffy dough mouthful pieces. It really is perfect tasty street food.

3pm was upon us pretty quickly and we bordered the coach and found our seats. Again, not knowing what to expect from a Chinese overnight bus, but we were impressed again to see that the “seats” were in fact horizontal bunk beds. Ergonomic, clean plastic frames and white sheets on each bed, this was going to be better than some hostels! Each bed faced the front of the bus, and fortunately Jess and I were able to get a bed parallel to one another. So again we got the Chinngis bottle out and toasted to Beijing.

One thing we did notice about China is that even in the nicest places the toilet basin has been replaced by the ceramic hole in the floor. We had a lot of time to practice our squatting skills during the Mongol Rally, but usually these were in the woods with no-one around for miles. Now we have to contend with Chinese bus stop holes, dirty piss-covered slippy ceramic floors with a small hole to aim for, not easy when you’ve had too much Mongolian vodka and limited sleep. All without the safety of a private cubicle. 

So when we stopped for a 30 minute dinner break at 7pm and discovered these shrines to the strong stomaches of the Chinese, we decided to look elsewhere. We ran down the road in search of a bar or restaurant that might offer us something slightly less nauseating. Fortunately we found some kind giggling girls opening up a strip club for a night of entertaining the locals. In exchange for a Tibetan beer and a picture with us, they let us use their amenities. I’m still not sure why Chinese people like taking a picture with the white sleepy-eyed tourists but they weren’t the last to do this.

Back on the bus, feeling relieved, lights were turned off at 9pm and we let the Chinngis and the gentle hum of the road drift us off to sleep. Waking up in Beijing we would have to battle our way through one of the biggest cities in the world, and find ourselves a hostel.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Genghis Khan and The Testicles

With our visas being processed, train tickets purchased, and Ulaanbaatar not quite living up to our expectations we decided to opted to get some things done that we had previously put off. Namely eating testicles.

It was an odd request to ask the operator of a local tour company, but we have obligations to our sponsors so there we were standing in front of the lovely Meg as she searched her extensive local knowledge for the best place to eat balls.

Finally she smiled and said, "Would horse testicle sausage be ok?" Not a question I'd ever thought I'd hear before, but we agreed that sounds just disgusting enough to work.

We were assured that there was a place we could get such culinary delights at one of the road side stalls just past the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue, which was another place we had enquired about seeing.

So the next day we picked up a group of five hungover but hilarious Australians and headed out with Meg to the Genghis Khan statue which sits about an hour east of Ulaanbaatar. Supposedly it is the centrepiece to a new tourist centre being developed, but currently the statue is the only part that has been completed.

On the way we passed more of the beautiful Mongolian countryside, which really helped us to forget about Ulaanbaatar and remember that Mongolia still has so much to offer us.

It wasn't long before we could see this colossus shiny souvenir coming over the hillside. Standing in the middle of a field, stands a whopping 40 meter/131 ft 3 inch tall, stainless steel statue of Chinggis Khaan on horseback. It is incredibly impressive from a distance. The contrasts of the shiny metallic against the clear blue skies and rich green hillside makes it worth the visit in itself. I've never seen anything like it. It was almost garish and tacky, but at the same time beautiful and impressive.

The statue was built in 2006, to mark the 800th anniversary of "Chinngis Khaan" uniting the Mongolian tribes as one nation which sounds like a good enough reason to celebrate the man as any. The site was chosen because it is a place where old Chinngis found a horse whip, which sounds to me like someone owned the site and was looking to increase its value by saying someone famous came through once.

I grew up in a town where a local hotel wasn't shy of telling people that one of the queen's relatives had once stayed at the hotel. However, cynical we are assured that finding a horse whip is a very special event that symbolises a lot of luck, especially for men.  I guess finding a horsewhip, was certainly luckier than not finding a horsewhip.

The only problem with the statue is that you are actually able to climb up through his legs, which if legend is correct was not an unfamiliar thing for women in the region, and then get to see all the detail of Mr Khan. This little process seems to cheapen it a little bit, and make the statue look as though it is going to come alive and fight Iron Man at any minute. Kind of taking away from just how impressive of a human being Genghis Khan really was.

Least terrifying warrior ever? 
The map we were shown in the museum underneath the statue shows the full extent of the Mongolian empire. Whilst most of it was conquered by Genghis' children and grandchildren, it was Genghis' blueprint for warfare, adapting and learning from new territories that made the Mongols such impressive conquerers.

The Mongolian's extensive empire spanned from Ukraine to Malaysia which means that for most of our entire "Our Long Drive Home" we are sitting on what was once Mongolian territory. Impressive stuff from a group of nomadic cattle farmers.

So after our museum visit and a little lesson in Mongolian archery, something they are very proud of doing, even shooting arrows from a horse at 180 degrees, and then headed off to this street market to get our testicles.

As we pulled up and got close all we could look at was this very fatty thick skinned red sausage sizzling on a homemade BBQ. A deal was a deal though and we ordered our testicle sausage, with a side of mare's milk.

Unfortunately for all those who wanted us to see us suffering our way through testicles, we have to say we actually enjoyed it. It was very oily and tasted a bit like beefy, chewy mackerel but all in all not bad. Videos will be uploaded when we get a better WIFI connection.

Mare's milk, on the other hand is fermented horse milk, and tastes fizzy watery stale yoghurt and was very hard to swallow, especially with testicles also in my mouth. Being fermented it is alcoholic, but at 2% it isn't going to get anyone buzzed so with it tasting the way it does I don't know why they bother.

A local guy sat down with us to enjoy the street food too, and in exchange for a laugh at our grimacing faces he exchanged stories about his life. He was a hunter who used eagles to hunt for food. He said he owned an eagle that had a wing span of nearly 3 meters in length, that he used to catch wolves!! However that wasn't the most insane story we heard, one of the local villagers we are told had an eagle that was so hungry one winter landed on the back of a horse and pecked the horses eyes out until it passed out and died! A Mongolian eagle killing a horse! Picture that for a second.

We bid out fair wells, headed off for some real food in a National Park with a local family. Stone baked mutton and veggies. This I have to say was one of the best meals we have had so far and the meat just peeled off the bone. It was so fatty and tender it tasted sensational.

We topped the day off with a few beers on a Mongolian hillside and listened to the music playing at a wedding on the other side of the valley. As the sun went down over the hills and headed back to our hostel, we felt lucky to have been able to have fallen back in love with Mongolia again ready for our train to China tomorrow.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Uneasy Ulaanbaatar

WARNING! We are going to sound like whinging Poms for this post, but you can't have the smooth without the rough so here goes for out real thoughts on Mongolia.

For ages I had wanted to visit Mongolia, the people had fascinated me and the landscape looked out of this world.  Unfortunately, so far most of my excitement since arriving into the country has disappeared and even left me feeling a little sour towards the place.

The first town we got to when we entered Mongolia we were kindly invited into this guys home where his wife fed us and we chatted, laughed about the rally and played games with his children. It was an incredible experience, and so generous but after that things just deteriorated.

Perhaps driving through Mongolia with some of the most tremendously challenging roads we had ever seen had got us down, but every town we had stopped in along the way you were greeted with glares, frowning, whispering.  You smile at them and get nothing back.  The only time someone might slightly acknowledge you is if you waved and smiled like a madman in almost a sarcastic approach to show them that you are harmless and friendly.

In the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, things only really get worse. It is of course just like most major cities; crazy drivers, busy sidewalks and over 1.3 million of the Mongolian population (50% of the overall population) fighting for space within the city limits. It really does go against our thoughts of this rural country where everyone lived in Gers on beautiful grassy plains. Ulaanbaatar is so congested the authorities have tried to impose a limit on who can drive in the cities on which days. Cars with rego plates beginning with even numbers drivers can only drive on certain days, odd numbers on the others, but of course that still doesn't work.

Obviously this urbanisation is a double edged sword, on one hand there are lots of new developments and some great restaurants and bars around. On the other hand, it is obvious that Mongolia is facing a growing problem with alcoholism.  Alcohol is so widely available and corner shops and supermarkets are lined with vodka bottles. In 2006 the World Health Organisation did a study and found that alcoholism affects 22% of men and 5 % of women.  This was seven years ago and only being here a week you can see that these figures have grown.

Most night we have gone out for dinner and drinks with fellow rally teams, and Mongolian men proceed to shout comments at us, push you over and then want to try and fight with you. We haven't gone one night where this hasn't happened. It certainly adds to an ill feeling you get with the city.

Now there is a lot of development going on in the city, and foreign investment seems to have really helped with a lot of projects going on everywhere. but you do wonder if the people with the development contracts are going to do the right job. Sidewalks are either poorly laid and crumbling or are dirt tracks with man hole covers missing, or metal poles sticking out of them so you really have to watch where you are stepping. There is so much dust and pollution in the air all the men splutter, cough and the spit on the floor some right at your feet, even right at your feet in bar's. Not good when you wear thongs most of the time.

If I'm honest, Ulaanbaatar has really tested my patients, and we obviously wanted to love the place. We also don't want to feel like we are whinging. So its good to know that when we meet up with the other ralliers/travellers and we find out that they feel the same. Some teams were saying how they have been conned out of money here too and many feel that maybe the Mongol Rally has even have tainted Mongolia.  Locals know that westerners will be travelling though their towns tired and vulnerable, and by being hospitable at night, they can ask for extortionate amounts of money from you in the morning and you will feel guilted into paying.

Obviously not every Mongolian is like this, we have met some fantastic and lovely Mongolians, and we will post again tomorrow about some of the better things, but unfortunately the taste that we will be leaving Mongolia with is not as sweet as we had initially hoped for.