3 – Irkutsk and Mongolia

Lunchtime at Baikal (9/9/11)

The grey weather clung on as I and a Swedish couple met our guide at Irkutsk station, but it was gone by the time we stopped our bus at a nearby hotel to pick up four Aussies: Sarah, Rebecca, Sarah, and Matt. They were full of chat and stories as we headed for Listvyanka, perhaps too much of a trek for the poor bus, which struggled on some hills.

Our lodging place (apart from the Swedes) is a log-built chalet in a valley looking south to the lake itself. My own bedroom has the most amazing view from the balcony, where I’m writing this now, but I was more interested in a shower at the time. Once I was clean and shaved again, the five of us trekked down the length of the village in search of food, finally finding a place that served plov/pilaf right at the end. Trekking right back again, past souvenir sellers, stuffed and skinned bears, and seal shows, we had just enough energy to fall into bed. Well, I tried to stay up and sort out my photos, but I was in dire need of sleep by the end.

We headed out come the evening to Hotel Mayak, the biggest and fanciest establishment nearby, where we had a serious dinner and beer or cocktails, together with some handy free wifi. I had some tasty Omul fish, but there were a hell of a lot of bones in it. After that and some discussion of what to do the next day, we returned to our beds nice and early, though I stayed up long enough to enjoy the moonlight vista over the lake and type up some of my travel notes.

I could have slept forever, but I needed some breakfast, and I eventually dragged myself to the shower and downstairs for an odd but ultimately filling mix of eggs, bread, ham, biscuits, and orange slices. Oh, and milky tea too. The one problem with the morning was that my guts, which had held up relatively well on the train, were not in the best shape now. So when Matt and Sarah and I headed down to town to sort out an afternoon tour, I felt I had to beg off. Too much caution? Maybe.

So here I am back at the chalet. T-shirts and socks drying in the sun. I still plan to head back down to the lake and try a quick dip. It must be done. Food first though, and a hope that everything downstairs holds together. Maybe a few emails as well, if I can manage it. I don’t mind the chance to rest, but I don’t plan to do nothing.

The Irkutsk Bierhaus (10/9/11)

Time enough to stroll in the sun down to Podlemore, where I had a big mug of lemon tea and an odd meringue-ish pie, noting the stroll in Runkeeper. Not so on the return trip, where I dropped into Hotel Mayak and uploaded some Vampire Cities work while having a Coke. Then, ambling in the sun, I checked out what lay to the north (the end of the road) and scouted out some bathing spots.

Yep, the time had come. I returned to the chalet, divested myself of my valuables, and put my trunks on under my jeans. Back at the beach, I got a “You’re one of those crazy people, aren’t you?” look from a passing Chinese lady as I undressed, but there was no time to pause and consider. It was actually no more cold than the Irish Sea, and it was a lot clearer (I should have worn my goggles). Still, I only stayed in long enough to dip my head—the stony floor of the lake is a pain. Photos exist, but self-taken they’re only circumstantial evidence.

Back at the chalet I ran into the returned Matt and Sarahs and, after changing and grabbing my wallet, I joined them at the beachside market for mystery skewer meat, pilaf, bread, and beer. We had some company on the beach—first a very female dog begging food and later Holger, a 67-year-old German making his own solo trek from St. Petersburg to Tibet. As the night got colder, we retreated to a bar opposite the hotel for more beer until, by dark, we headed home.

The night was uneasy, partly due to my guts, which gave up the ghost and the beer. When I did sleep, it was to odd dreams—helping two refugees in an ‘80s action comedy, only to find that they were members of a Russian superpowered terrorist cell, brainwashed and led by a telepath and telekinetic of frightening power, who threatened to drown New York. Not sure where that was going.

Morning brought breakfast, bathroom, and packing, not in that order always, then farewells and an early bus to Irkutsk. A logn trip around town took us over the Angara dam and saw me dropped at the riverwalk. A stroll in the sun brought me face to face with the Alexander III monument (a bit of a tit but responsible for the Trans-Siberian), in front of which a 24-hour martial arts marathon was ongoing.

Next door was the Regional Museum, which has an interesting ground floor based on the work of the Victorian-era Explorers Society and their magnificent beards. The upper floor, covering the Soviet and modern eras, is less interesting but has some fun items. After that, food was required, and the chosen eatery was the Bierhaus on ul Kalda Marksa, which is a bit of a tourist trap but does have some nice beef stroganoff.

Somewhere North of Mongolia (11/9/11)

Irkutsk baking under the sun actually doesn’t have a massive amount for the casual visitor. I roamed around the northern curve of the river, which was in the process of being beautified, dodging half-hearted barriers asI viewed churches and weddings. The fact, though, was that the sun and my own dehydration were tiring me out, so I returned to the southern boardwalk, where the martial artists were still at it, and began the trek back to the train station, across the high bridge.

By the time I got there, I’d had enough of walking, even though my train was five hours off. I looked at the upstairs lounge, balked at the cost, and sat downstairs for a while before deciding I needed some comfort. The price, happily, had dropped in the interim, and I made the brief acquaintance of a couple of young Americans, who had just spent a couple of years in Japan and gave me some pointers on Sakaiminato and general etiquette.

After that, I just sat and conducted a bit of online and offline spring cleaning, grimacing at England’s World Cup rugby luck. Tired and not sure how soon we’d be boarding, I quit the lounge when the day was over, grabbed my rucksack and kept an eye on the board while munching M&Ms for energy.

When we boarded at last, I found myself sharing another 4-berth cabin with two genial Icelanders, Bjarni and Halldor, and tour guide Olesya, whose charge were very amused at her sharing space with three eligible-looking men. A night of laughter, beer, vodka, and chocolate ensued, in the company of both my bunkmates and Olesya’s rowdy group. Eventually though, everyone faded as the train passed Sludyanka at the southern tip of Lake Baikal.

The night passed relentlessly but not badly—it was a rattly train and we were cramped for space due to sharing our cabin with a lot of watermelons and grapes. I remember having an unusually vivid and detailed dream but my memory of it had faded by the time the sun came up over rolling hills and grassland—the northern fringes of the Mongolian steppe? Beyond queueing for the bathroom, which would be shut during the potentially lengthy border crossing, and overpaying for tea while munching on breakfast, there wasn’t much to do but once more watch the scenery pass by.

Somewhere in Mongolia (11/9/11)

One of those odd days, disconnected from the normal functioning of the world by isolation and the slow-grinding wheels of Russia-Mongolia customs. The flat valleys and distant hills of Russia slowly gave way to rolling, rocky peaks nearby as we closed in on the Mongolian border. After one short break in the middle of nowhere, we came to a grinding halt when we finally reached the border. Ejected from the train to explore a mostly empty customs station and the stalls behind it, we engaged in a modicum of money changing but mostly just sat around and waited.

Eventually we were sent back to our carriage, now separated from any vestige of a train, where our passports were at last taken for inspection and stamping. Nothing to do then but sit, wait, take a siesta, or, in my case, watch the latest episode of Doctor Who, which I’d downloaded the evening before in Irkutsk. Even once our passports came back, there was nothing to do but wait.

That age having passed, we followed the line of an electrified fence into Mongolia, catching our first glimpses of gers and horses as we did. At Mongolian customs, the earlier process was reversed:  our passports were taken and stamped fairly swiftly, after which we were ejected from our solo carriage to roam a desolate-seeming station plagued by mosquitos at sunset. Another train drew in, and as we dodged the money changers, who offered a better rate than at the Russian side, our carriage was sneakily attached to the end of the longer train.

We’d arrived at sunset and left in darkness, sharing food and drink as we sorted out our schedules for the next morning. It would be an early start, which probably meant little sleep, as the booze was still plentiful. Still, not a bad way to begin in Mongolia.

A Ger, Terejli Park (12/9/11)

From one of those days in which not a hell of a lot happened, to one of those morning in which almost every moment was full. It’s good to have a guide.

We were woken at 5am local time, having gained an hour crossing the Mongolian border. Darkness outside and chaos inside as everyone tried to visit the bathroom and finish off their packing. We were rather well rested, as the boys and I had slept earlier than Olesya, who was run ragged by her superannuated Vodka Trainers. Still, once we were ready there was some rest, as the train didn’t pull in to Ulan Bataar until 6.10am. There, in the pre-dawn light, I was snaffled by my guide for the day, Davaa, who was ready to whisk me off to a waiting Mercedes.

The dawn ride out of Ulan Bataar’s industrial eclecticism, along roads where driving was a freeform art, was incredible, as the countryside slowly lit up under the dawning gold of the sun. The city faded out, then in, then out again as we headed to Terejli. Mongolia’s a ragged, messy, and sometimes filthy country, but it’s still breathtakingly beautiful, and the park is the epitome of that, with weathered, altered rock forms looming over valleys that sweep hither and thither.

I was put into my ger tent at 7.30am and decided not to stay there, instead climbing to the top of the nearest hill and enjoying the view before descending to struggle with a recalcitrant shower (futilely) and get a cup of tea. I was then chauffeured out to Turtle Rock, where Davaa and I scrambled up to a hidden cave in the Turtle’s neck, where yet more magnificent views were to be had. Admittedly, a large road was being run through the valley, but it’s not my place to complain.

Off from Turtle Rock and down the road again, past the Chinggis Khan Country Club, to a real nomad’s ger, complete with solar-powered fridge. Fed dried curds, cheese, biscuits, and cream, I had a chance to chat, through translation, before we moved off, back to the ger camp for lunch—carrot salad, beef, and noodles, along with meat dumplings with rice and potato. Simple and filling.

After that, some archery with a Mongolian bow, which saw me raise some nice bruises and miss the target repeatedly. A game of anklebones with Davaa saw me survive certain doom several times over before being defeated, just in time to head downslope for an appointment with an unnamed pony, who was determined to amble on the way out, save when he was spooked by a yak. The way back saw a lot more sprinting, or rather trotting and even cantering, which my backside survived well enough on the Russian saddle.

Though it was cloudier than it had been for the previous few days, it was no more than a little chilly. Still, I had a few hours to kill, so I returned to my ger (canvas outside, silk inside, and felt and wool in the middle), where I was alone again in a room fit for six. Time to write, read, and rest, and then be ready for dinner.

Oh, and dreams. Another that slipped away—me as a blue-faced chorus singer for a famous tenor. Not sure of any more details from that one.

The Kharan Hotel, Ulaanbaatar (13/9/11)

Sitting in my hotel watching Bloomberg. Western civilisation seems not to have collapsed yet, but Europe is not looking happy. There’s time yet for everything to fall over before I get home. Being stranded in Japan or the U.S. might not be so bad. Vladivostok not so much.

Mongolia wouldn’t be so bad either. The Terjli Park had given me some of the outstanding moments of the holiday so far. The remainder of last night was quiet enough—more anklebones, this time with a group of excitable Norwegians, then dinner and a chat with Davaa—all made in the Mongolian way of throwing as many veg on with the meat as possible.

A mostly clear night was ruined in terms of stargazing by one of the brightest, clearest full moons I’ve ever seen. I hung around to watch as the chill deepened, but eventually I retreated into my ger, wrote a few mails, struggled with an audio problem on my laptop, then settled in for an early night, warmed by a wood fire.

Next morning, after a night of two detailed dreams that have sadly slipped out of mind, I woke early. Up before dawn and up the hill to watch the sunrise and, as a bonus, the more-or-less simultaneous moonset. Stunning in every way, and after racing the sun downhill, I got to enjoy a second sunrise. Then I enjoyed another hour of sleep even more.

After breakfast, packing, and trying on a traditional Mongolian outfit, under a clear blue sky, it was time to leave. We passed camels on the way and spent a while chatting with a boy looking after a black vulture and a golden eagle. Eventually though, we reached the clutter and dust of Ulaanbaatar and I was deposited in the Kharaa Hotel, where I enjoyed a backstreet view of dusty car parks and old sheds.

On my way into town, I stopped at a cafe for lunch of rosemary beef for about a fiver, and used some wifi to catch up with some of the world. After that, I sidled past Sukhbaatar Square to drop in on the Natural History Museum, a stuffed animals collection enlivened by Gobi dinosaurs and Przewalski horses but tattered at the edges. Still decent value at around €2.

I went in search of an ATM and found it in the Central Mall of high-class shops, then turned right back, passing Chinggis and his kin in the square to visit the National Museum, much shinier and better presented, with fine exhibits on the Xiongnu, Genghis, and Mongolia’s history. Thus refreshed in my mind, I headed for the hotel and my bags, stopping at the State Department Store to examine the oddly familiar experience of shopping there, while picking up some needed nail clippers.

Plans for for tonight involve finding the Great Khaan Irish Pub. Plans for tomorrow involve Gandan Khid, the Winter Palace, and shopping before departure.

Ulaanbaatar Railway Station (14/9/11)

Walking to the Gran Khaan Irish Pub after dark was something of an adventure, the pub itself less so. Pints of Chinggis beer, light and dark, and shifting to a seat near the bar didn’t help me put away the overly ambitious Mongolian dumpling feast I ordered. Nor did the band playing Coldplay or the general lack of Irishness in the pub, apart from the universal Guinness tap.

Still, altitude helped the two pints have more of an effect than usual and the walk back to the hotel was thankfully straightforward. Once there, I managed to sleep in the face of a party next door, which was broken up around midnight. I did dream strangely though: of running into D_____ in New York and agreeing to go to lunch. She had red in her hair and was growing it out. We went to a store, where a baby threw up strawberries over my shopping cart. While I cleaned up, she went ahead of me, but when I got outside, she was gone.

I was up early for a shower and a trip to the Gandan Khid monastery, a dusty collection of buildings, some plain and some beautiful. The morning services weren’t improved by one of those car alarms that changes its tone every few seconds, but the highlight is the 26.5m gilded copper statue of Buddha that dominates the main temple. In there, I ran into the Norwegians, and on my way out, I ran into the Icelanders. Weird.

After picking up my bags and checking out, I set out to walk to the train station, which proved less troublesome than locating luggage storage. The walk down by the train tracks sometimes took me into odd places, but it had one big payoff in the form of a seemingly abandoned train museum with some beautiful locomotives.

I eventually made it to the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan, which proved to be a run-down and dusty site, the faded temple exteriors hiding some beautiful Buddhist art. The palace itself was the same, a drab exterior concealing some of the wealth of Mongolia’s last king, including his rather fine stuffed animal collection.

Memory took me back towards town, but it took my iPhone, rather than my guidebook, to lead me to lunch at the Veranda, where I wolfed down a pizza. After that, the next door Choijin Lama monastery museum offered more Buddhist art in faded buildings, some of which put the deities in rather compromising positions. No photos, sadly.

I headed to the post office to fire off the first of my postcards, then to the Eresbank cafe for some black tea with lemon (the sugar was a mistake). At this stage, the sun was dropping in the east, so I headed towards the train station again, stopping only at department stores, both low market (for food—very full) and high (bought nothing, mostly empty).

In the breezy evening, the dust kicked up by pedestrians on the unpaved sidewalks made me thirsty, but I made it to the train station first, to sit and write for a while, then to pick up my bags.

Suhkbaatar Station (15/9/11)

Hours to wait here yet, I presume—they haven’t even collected passports yet, so no harm in a quick report. The 263 train was on time, with no Europeans or Americans in sight. I ended up rooming briefly with a man named Tsooj, who’s on his way to Khabarovsk and is part of some sort of security force. Then with another guy, part of his group, who spoke less English and didn’t offer his name. Plus one guy who joined us during the journey.

There was just time to glimpse the waning moon before I sought sleep, and it came in bits and fragments, much like the dreams, of things like the most disgusting joke in the world. When I got up, it was past 7.30am, which meant we’d been here two hours and had three to go, by the schedule. Still, at least I managed to sleep some of it out.

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