Our family

Last day in Mongolia

Back from the Ger camp today. Rainy cold morning.

We went to the Lotus Orphanage to see the children today. It was beautiful. We walked in the all of these little kids started waving at us, and ran up to play. I got to lift them in the air and whirl them around, once the first child saw that they all started to crowd around and pull on my air for a whirl. One cute two year old girl kept on going up and saying hello to people, and carrying out child-sized stools for us to sit on, placing them just behind us, then giving us her toys.

We also visited the Russian war memorial, with icy biting wind and a view over Ulaan Baatar and its powerplants. Oddly enough, our room in Ulaan Baator on the first night had European powerpoints, but our room tonight in the same hotel had Australian powerpoints.


A glorious day in Mongolia

Mmm... a glorious night's sleep, the most comfortable since Moscow. The Ger is devine. I think it will take a while for me to get use to sleeping by myself again when I get back, not to have anyone to talk to as I drift off to sleep.

Most people went for a walk this morning to a monastery, but it is two hours of hill climbing, and with my twisted knee from two days ago I decided not to risk it. Instead I climbed up to the rocks on the ridge of the valley and sat with John, Niamh and Karen, just enjoying the scenery and watching the kite fly above us. Nemo brought out his five month old daughter, so I got to hold her. She was so cute, but he told me off for saying so - in Mongolian you are meant to say the opposite to children. So I said she was the most hideous monstrosity I had ever seen, and Nemo beemed. She had long hair, because Mongolians believe a child's spirit is in their hair until they are three years old, when they can safely cut it. And this is coming from Nemo, a trained urologist. While they are Buddhist, there is obviously a strong shamanist component in their beliefs.

In the afternoon clouds came in, and it lightly rained on and off. We went horse-riding on the small wiry Mongolian horses. My horse responded quite well to direction but wasn't overly keen on speed :) It was so much fun, and the hills were glorious when half draped in mist. We rode to Turtle Rock and the monastery, then back to the camp.

How beautiful to sleep to the patter of rain on a Ger roof.


Ulaan Baatar

I am writing this entry from a Ger camp, in Terelji National Park. The last two days have been fantastic, it has been a real Mongolian experience.

Yesterday I woke up early (everyone else was feeling manky from the party, especially Jodie, who threw up during the night) so I went for a walk around Ulaan Baatar. Most of the building were quite old, and falling apart, largely built in a Soviet style, except with the circular Mongolian flavour. After meeting up with Luke we walked to Sukhabaator Square, the centre of Ulaan Baatar, which is surrounded by the main cultural and political buildings. In the centre is a statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the nationalist who gained Soviet help to achieve independence from the Chinese in 1921, and is still considered the cultural hero, after only Chingis Khan. The Square contains Sukhbaatar's mausoleum, but this is closed at the moment since his face fell off.

In the afternoon we went to Gandantegchenling Monastery, and I learnt about Mongolia's Buddhist history. The complex contained many small temples and prayer wheels. We saw the library, with over a million sutras in Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit, also some 16th century surgical instruments. Funnily enough the monks in there were playing pool on the computer. We also saw Dedanpovran, which was built for a visit by the 13th Dali Lama in 1904. The most impressive was Migjed Janraisig, a temple for Janraisig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (a bodhisattva is a soul who has reached enlightenment but has still chosen to continue reincarnation in order to help others, if I remember my buddhism correctly). It contains an enormous statue in the middle, made of copper and gold and precious stones. I thought it was the largest statue I have ever seen (it is 26.5 metres), but the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok is actually larger, this one just looks so big because it is standing. The original was destroyed by the Soviets in 1938, melted down for bullets in Leningrad. The current statue was only reproduced in 1996. It is hollow and filled with scripture. I walked around the statue, and spun all the prayer wheels in a clockwise direction. Of course prayer is no more than inner thought, but I thought it would be respectful for me to take the opportunity for my own thoughts. If gods did exist, I could never worship one which required worship for reward. I could however respect one which rewarded service to humanity.

This monastery is the only one to survive the Soviet times, out of the 900 Mongolian monasteries.

After the disintegration of the Mongol empire in the 1400s, missionaries from Tibet converted Mongolia to Buddhism, and Mongolia became the centre of Yellow Buddhism. We went to Bogd Khaan Winter Palace, where the Mongolian kings lived (it was built between 1893 and 1903). I hadn't realised that the Mongolian king was a reincarnated Buddhist king, with each new king being a two year old child found as the reincarnation of the previous king, like the Dali Lama. The new king was always found in China, as Mongolia was a puppet state of China until the final king Jebtzun Danbq Hutaht VIII. There were many tapestries of the Buddhist gods, I thought it was interesting that the Protection King of the North had a magical white rat that always spat out precious stones.

In the evening we went to a Mongolian cultural show. The traditional Mongolian costume and dances were very Thai, which surprised me - I had picked it to be a fusion of Russian and Chinese, but I guess that since both Mongolian and Thai culture have a common foundation in Tibetan culture it makes sense. There was throat singing, which was amazing, and showed the shamanist edge to the otherwise Buddhist culture. You could never believe the sounds they were able to make. I have heard throat singing before, with Jodie in Montreal, where the Inuit play it as a game. Two girls press their noses together and throat sing until one of them laughs, the other person wins. So they throat sing while rolling their eyes at each other and pulling faces. This was more serious, accompanied by the Morin Huur (an instrument which was introduced to Europe and evolved into the violin). The other really impressive part was the contortionist, which is traditional Mongolian. The girl was did it was simply amazing, able to completely fold her body over in every direction and support her entire body with her teeth.

Afterwards we went to Modern Nomads, a cafe that employs homeless teenagers and teaches them skills, giving the profits to their support. It was a great place, but difficult to find traditional Mongolian vegetarian food, as many dishes contained sheep spine meat or horse meet. I had mushroom soup and Chingis beer.

Before bed I tried writing up my diary, but the entire internet cafe blacked out 50 minutes later, so I lost everything.

Terelj National Park

Today we left Ulaan Baatar to drive out to the Ger camp in Terelji. We drove through the most beautiful landscape - green pastures and rocky outcrops, with gers and horse herds wandering. We stopped to ride Bactrian camels and drink airag (fermented mare's milk, it wasn't too bad, just like warm sour yoghurt, the Mongolian drink it nearly exclusively from children, drinking up to ten litres a day). We passed a Shaman's rock, walking around it clockwise three times, adding a stone to the pile on each rotation to make our wish come true. Vultures circled by overhead on thermal currents.

The Ger camp itself is in the most gorgeous valley, it is times like these that I am glad I am a photographer more than a writer, to capture the essence in a picture rather than to fail through words. The valley rings with the song of circadas and crickets, there are marmots throughout the camp and kites fly overhead. A heard of yaks wandered in at one point, horses later on. The weather is amazing, all sun, green grass and trees, blue sky.

Angela and I went for a walk around the camp, then we had dinner and all went to play billiards and "donkey" table tennis - a game Katherine's family made up for Christmas, and that everyone enjoyed. Playing it after a couple of beers and rounds, John and Troy (who were both excellent) careened off and slammed into walls a few times. Karen was very competitive and gave me the evil eye when I managed to give her a nasty shot.

Nemo, our guide, told us a Mongolian joke. A guy goes to the urologist and gets an x-ray. The doctor comes out and says "You are very lucky, you have three testicles". The next day the guy is sitting next to his friend and says "Between us we have five testicles". The friend looks surprised and says, "You only have one?"

I am in a Ger with Angela (who has food poisoning) and Monica. It is beautiful and ornate, with our oven in the middle (lighted for the cold night ahead), and the beds around the edge. It is made with canvas on the outside, a layer of felt, and then green silk on the inside. The supports are all carved and painted yellow, orange and red and rays of the sun.


Trans-Mongolian railway

We just rolled up to a stop for thirty minutes and a ten year old boy ran up to our carriage and showed us an empty water bottle and gestured to us to throw down our empty bottles. After a day and a half on the train we had a few, then he lifted up his shirt and rubbed his belly. No child should ever have to be hungry. We threw him all our food left, which consisted of a bunch of chocolate and chips and an apple and an orange. He stuffed them all in straight away, blew kisses and gave us thumbs up, then danced around a bit.

So... what has happened in the last two days? Leaving Itkursk for the trans-Mongolian is a rough trip, with all the bends and bridges and tunnels. Descending from the rift there is a lot of downhill rail, which we took at breakneck speed during the night. I kept on having falling dreams (such as a lift cable snapping) due to the sensation, but by and large it was pleasant.

The train stations we passed through had the usual Russian announcements given loudspeaker military style, but for some reason they also kept on playing a tune like an ice-cream van, vaguely similar to "we wish you a merry Christmas". Combined with the obscure clicks, whistles and grinding of addition and subtraction of carriages, it made for a sleepless night.

No problem, because today was the most boring of the trip. We didn't even travel much, because we had a five hour wait at the Russian customs, followed by a 20 minute ride past an electric fence, two tanks and a machine gun tower, then a three hour wait at Mongolian customs. This was made tough by the rule of no toilets being open while the train is stopped.

Karen was left behind on the platform for ten minutes, but managed to get back, which was very funny. She told us about the history of Mongolia, starting with Chingis, then to the breakdown of the Mongolian empire, Chinese rule, Soviet rule, and the current democratically elected Communist government.

I spent almost the entire day in bed. Just thinking, and reading Pushkin's Talkes of Belkin and other prose writing.

As we rolled through Mongolia we came to green verdant pastures, filled with horses and gers (40% of Mongolians are still nomadic) until a storm rolled in and I watched lightning and listened to the thunder roll over the Mongolian steppe. Sunset was magnificent.


Suntanned in Siberia

Our arrival in Irkutsk. We had a brief tour of the town, which is filled with old Siberian style buildings. It has a lot of Universities and Museums, being the cultural and educational centre of eastern Siberia. We then drove to Listvianka by the shores of Lake Baikal. We passed through more beautiful taiga (which means "green sea"), and were told about the local wildlife. The local name for brown bear means "tsar of the taiga", but what I found most amusing was that the local name for the wolf means "doctor of the taiga", because they kill the sick and injured. Siberia means "sleeping earth" in the local tartar language.

Lake Baikal is a rift lake caused by the pulling apart of the Eurasian plate 26 million years ago. It is the world deepest lake, being 9km down to bedrock, although there are kilometres of sediment such that the deepest point is 1.6km down. This is deep enough that it holds 20% of the world's water, as much as all the great lakes of North America combined, even though it is much smaller in surface area, being 640km by 100km.

In the evening of our first day in Listvianka we had dinner at Rita's house (John, Luke and I are staying in a homestay), delicious mushrooms.

Our second day in Listvianka was simply glorious. The taiga couldn't have been greener, nor the water or sky bluer. Barely a cloud in the sky, and mid-twenties temperatures. It felt like a tropical island rather than Siberia. In the morning we went to the Baikal Ecological Museum, which was quite interesting. Lake Baikal has every odd weather. Because of the depth of the lake, the 12 degree surface water has to cool to 3.6 degrees and sink to the bottom, and the entire 1.6km of water cycle in this way, before the surface can freeze. This means that the lake doesn't freeze until the end of January, nearly at the end of Winter. The same occurs in thawing, which occurs in mid-May, towards the end of Spring. This creates a very powerful microclimate.

Lake Baikal also has fascinating ecology. There are 3500 species, of which 80% are endemic. The Golomyanka, also called the oil fish, is a twenty centimetre gray scaleless fish, made up of 30-35% oil (enriched with vitamin A). It is unique in the ability to live at the bottom of the lake during the day, and rises to the surface at night, a change of 160 atmospheres each direction, enough to crush steel. It gives birth to 2000 live young at a time (the female normally dies in the process), and its biomass is twice that of any other fish in the lake.

The water of Lake Baikal is exceptionally pure, about the same as distilled water in mineral content (my hair was so soft after washing in it). It is so clean because of nine endemic sponges and a one millimetre crab called the epischurn. This tiny crab fills the lake, and strips down all organic matter. If any body is left in the lake for three days only bones are left (after two weeks the bones are gone because the hypotonic water dissolves the salts). Someone asked the lady if you could put the crabs into polluted water elsewhere to clean it up. She answered, "Niet, they do not want to go anywhere, they like it here".

I also saw Nerpas at the Museum. Nerpas are the smallest seal in the world, and the only fresh water seal, endemic to Lake Baikal. They give birth in Spring (when the lake is frozen) and make a snow cubby for their young, keeping the breathing holes open with their large claws. There are 80 000 to 120 000 in the lake. Two years ago a mother and pup were injured in a fishing accident, the museum took them in and cared for them, they now live there. The pup was gorgeous, swimming up and down to see us, until the mother slowly swam in, so fat she looked spherical (it was just because she pulled herself into her body for warmth, when she swam she elongated), and chastised the pup for seeking attention. We watched the mother scratch the pup's belly, to her obvious enjoyment. It was so cute.

I bought a small statue of the Spirit of Baikal made from the local rock (it is only found here). I rarely buy souvenirs, but if you put vodka on the belly of the spirit and make a wish it comes true, and if you leave it at home when you travel you will return, so it seemed only prudent ;)

In the afternoon we went on a cruise on the lake, and soaked up the warm Siberian sun. It could have easily have been around the Greek islands. Afterwards we had a traditional Russian banya. We all went into a sauna, waited until we could take no more heat, then whipped each other with wet birch leaves, before running out and jumping into the icy waters of Lake Baikal. Legend has it that dipping your hands in the water gives you an extra year of life, your feet an extra five years, and jumping in like we did an extra twenty five years. It certainly removed the last vestiges of grime from the trans-Siberian.

That night after dinner everyone went up to the hill to watch sunset over the Lake.

Today we drove back to Itkutsk. We went past Shaman rock. The legend (Shamanism is still very strong in Siberia) is that Baikal's daughter, Angara (the only river to run out of the lake) tried to run off with her love and Baikal threw a stone to stop her, which is Shaman's rock. They used to leave criminals on this rock overnight to test their guilt - if they survived they were innocent (they always died). Also the same to test wives to see if they were unfaithful.

Just outside Irkutsk we visited the wooden architectural museum, with wooden buildings from all over Siberia from different times. It was really quite interesting. The buildings are different from Russia in that the windows are tiny and high up (so that snow drifts don't blow in during winter). The doorways are quite short so you have to bow to enter the room - in front of the entrance is an icon, so entering involves bowing to the icon.

In Irkutsk I wandered around the city, looking at the old wooden buildings. Irkutsk was built in 1652 as a Cossack garrison to control the Buryats. After the Decembrists uprising (mid 1800s if I remember correctly), the rebels were exiled here, but allowed to take their money, so it became quite a rich city. It was the centre of the White Russians from 1917 until they were defeated in 1920. I walked up Karl Marx street and saw statues of Marx and Lenin, before hopping on the trans-Mongolian train.



Last night was the final on the train for awhile. I get to shower soon!

In the afternoon yesterday we played the trans-Siberian olympics. Our team was myself, John, Troy, Jodie and Niamh. The first round was trivial pursuit, which we narrowly lost. I am no good at trivia, I tell myself that they ask the wrong questions. I did get ambergris though (whale vomit used in perfume). The next round was leap-frog down the train, which John and Jodie won for us (they beat Luke and Angela). The third round was matryoshka doll unpacking and repacking, I took that round because I said I was used to fiddly dissections fast, and we won that over Kate. The fourth round was most crazy hairstyle, we managed to stick a dozen plastic forks, a few matryoshka dolls and a watch in Niamh's hair to beat Monica. The fifth round was gargling happy birthday, which Troy won over Sinead. The final round was Russian trivia, which was excellent for us, as it was bits about history, tsars, 1812, stories about statues etc, just the things that I like to note down.

As the afternoon wore on we passed through still more heavily industrial Siberian towns and more verdant taiga. A few more stops. It is noticeable that the Russians wear less and less clothes as the trip goes on (they treat the railway in the way we treat a beach weekend).

The lady next door (celebrating her 40th) came and bothered us drunk again. Well, I don't mind, although it is odd since she doesn't even speak English, but it was a bit much and everyone evacuated and I was trapped with her. She was quite forward, it became really uncomfortable until John rescued me. We all had a celebratory vodka for getting rid of her.

This morning we are getting off the train. We have come 5185km from Moscow to Irkutsk.


A brief history of the trans-Siberian

The railway was initiated by Alexander III in 1891. It consists of the western Siberian track (built from 1892-96 from Moscow to Novosibirsk), the central Siberian track (built in 1893-98 to Irkutsk, with three 1km bridges through the mountains and valleys), and the Circumbaikal track. The Circumbaikal track was the hardest to build, from 1901-04 for the short track around Lake Baikal with its steep cliffs. It required 33 tunnels and 100 bridges, and two icebreakers to carry the trains across the Lake while the Circumbaikal was being built. From here, the track becomes the Transbaikal track (built in 1895-1900) to Ulan Ude. Once we get here, we split off on the 2080km trans-Mongolian track (built in bits and pieces, finished in 1956), while the trans-Manchurian and trans-Siberian tracks also split off. The first train to make the trans-Siberian trip was in 1900 (which used the ice-breakers to cross Lake Baikal) or 1916 for a train-only journey. Our trip from Moscow to Beijing will be a total of 7857km. From Prague to Moscow, Luke and I are travelling about 10 000km by train.



Day four on the train. Day two we passed through the Ural mountains, officially crossing from Europe to Asia. We got to hop off twice for twenty minutes, where I ran around saying 'be-ez me-asa, niet me-asa", trying to find vegetarian food. I had a pastry with egg, potato and coriander.

Second stop had only dried fish.

One the second night we had our Chapka party. We all dressed up in bad Russian hats we had bought, and drank huge amounts of vodka. All the Russians on the train started laughing at us, especially when we filled the corridor for a photo, or went to the restaurant cart.

We kept on teasing Luke for calling the Urals one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world (we didn't even notice crossing them) and for talking about the grand Volga. Managed to get away from drunk Russian firemen with some difficulty.

Woke up on day three to the da-de da-dut of the train. Spent almost the entire day semi-asleep in bed, just dreaming.

We passed through Omsk, the closest I will ever get to Kazakhstan, and also the place where Dostoevsky was exiled.

Small party, the Russian lady in the cabin next door had her 40th birthday party and wanted everyone to join in. Even the provinista's crammed into the small cabin.

Day four. Deep into Siberia now. May not be able to sleep without the motion and clicking tomorrow night. More steppe. More taiga.


On the trans-Siberian railroad...

I woke up yesterday morning at 10am, so dehydrated that desiccated is a better description. I skipped the Saturday souvenir market to write emails and buy bread, cheese and vodka for the trans-Siberian railway.

On the railroad. In my sleeper cabin is Angela (a paramedic from Canberra), John and Luke. I lay on my bed perfectly relaxed, listening to the click of the railroad and feeling the gentle swaying. Afer dinner we broke out the vodka and had a party in the cabin - Karen and the Irish girls joined usLuke and John posed for photos for us, and we all had lots of fun.

A good night's sleep, and no need to wake up and do anything. I basked in a warm glow for a few hours, and meandered around the train. I have days with nothing much to do, and no guilt for not doing even those few activities that are available. Haven't even read much yet.


Disco bowling in Moscow

What a day! In the morning we visited the Kremlin. The Moscow Kremlin (so archetypically Russian that it is known as The Kremlin) was founded by Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is an enormous complex surrounded by 2.25km of walls (not the original 1360s white limestone walls but Ivan the Great's 1475 walls), with dozens of churches, cathedrals, museums, and major political buildings inside, spanning all eras of Russian history.

The highlights (for me) were a pile of 800 cannons captured from Napoleon in 1812 at Borodino, the golden domed Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles, the Archangel Cathedral, with exquisite 1500's paintings and the tombs of all tsars from 1320-1690 (except Boris Godvnor), the tsars cannon (called the peaceful cannon, it has never been fired but was wheeled out to scare the Mongols in the 1200s with its 1m diameter), and Ivan the Great's bell tower. Next to the bell tower is Tsar-kolokol, a 202 tonne bell (the largest in the world) cast for Empress Anna Ivanovna (the one Luke likes) in 1730. Just after it was finished the workshop caught fire and the bell was doused with water, cracking it. I touched the 70 tonne piece that fell off for luck.

The Annunciation Cathedral was interesting because it had a porch built onto it for Ivan the Terrible to sit in, because he wasn't allowed to enter after he defied the Church to take a fourth wife.

When Napoleon took the Kremlin in 1812 he planted explosives in all the buildings before he evacuated, luckily Cossacks rode in and cut the fuses, so most buildings are original.

We also saw the amazing Armoury, with the staggering treasures accumulated by the tsars. Too many to mention, but my favourites were the tsar's Faberge eggs, the chalice of Yuri Longarm, a chain mail suit made up of 120 000 rings, each engraved with "God is with us", and the many ambassadors gifts. The silverware from 14th century England is important, because it is unique, as Oliver Cromwell melted down al the British silverware to mint coins after he executed the British kings and turned Britain into a republic (incidentally, this incident caused a cessation in trade between Russia and England, as the tsars did not approve of republics). I saw the Olympic dinner set, 120 pieces given from Napoleon to Alexander at Tilsbet in the 1807 peace treaty. One quirky item was a triple goblet, given to people as a practical joke. If they tried to drink it fast, they it spilt over themself and everyone laughed. If they knew the trick and sipped the interconnected chalices slowly everyone applauded.

Another quirky item was the double throne of Peter and Ivan, crowned as kings together as boys. Peter had a secret booth installed in the throne for an advisor to tell him what to say, giving him the reputation of being wise at age 10. Although, it was not in the end a false reputation, as Peter became Peter the Great, the wisest tsar, a skilled bootmaker, craftsman and shipwright in addition to being the first tsar to lead the army, conquering new territory and founding St Petersburg.

 After lunch Luke, John and I caught the metro to Kolomenskoye. It is world heritage listed, but most buildings were under repair, so it wasn't too impressive. We went to a cafe for coffee, beers and vodka and chatted about US politics. We met the Irish girls for dinner (borscht) and went bowling, which included half a dozen beers and a fair few vodka shots. Bowling was disco style too, which was very exciting. The Russian couple next to us accidently bowled a ball into our alley, and to make up for it Dimitri and Olya bought us a bottle of champagne, a flask of vodka, and four pizzas. Olya started bowling all of our shots (only gutter balls, she was wasted), and Monica started ballroom dancing with Dimitri. When Monica passed out I carried her to her room with Niamh and held a bucket for her to throw up in.


The Moscow Metro

Today Karen told me an amusing urban legend. Stalin was meeting with the city planners trying to fix the transportation issues. The metro system was excellent for getting in or out of Moscow, but took a long time to go from one outer spot to another. The city planners racked their brains, and couldn't fix the problem. Finally Stalin stood up, put his coffee cup down on the map, and said it was a problem for tomorrow. The next day they came back, lifted the coffee cup off the map and saw that it made a brown circle line around the city centre. The city planners applauded Stalin and built the brown circle line.