Joined June 2018 Message
  • Day21

    Tour Day 3

    July 15, 2018 in Mongolia ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    The third day of our tour was spent in the area by the camp we had reached the previous evening. We were to stay here until the following day and so managed to slow down a little and appreciate being in such an amazing place. Our encampment was on the wide plain of a valley, enclosed by high hills, broken by boulders and volcanic formations. The storm of the previous night had passed and the early morning mists clung to the hillsides. I am not, as a rule, an early riser but throughout this trip I have often been getting up soon after dawn. Apart from the fact that the light is so beautiful at this time of day the very early morning has the advantage of being child free.
    The day had been billed as focusing on horse-riding, and it was not long after rising that Lila was keen to get going. Much to her frustration the horses were unavailable until late morning. For myself I was happy to join with a group of our hosts and Baagii in the shade of a ger. Our amiable driver, having no duties that day, had taken the opportunity to make an early start with a couple of friends, a few beers and a couple of litres of fermented mare's milk. It seemed churlish to refuse an invitation to join them and I passed a very agreable hour swapping photos and watching a man prepare a marmot for the barbeque. Though I refused several rounds of beer, fearing that my travel insurance might baulk at covering a drunk novice horseman, there was no way I was going to turn down the fermented mare's milk. It's taste was no where near as challenging as I had expected. Perhaps because Maryjane has made our family so many different ferments over the years I found the taste quite pleasant. Helix too tried some and also enjoyed it.
    Our hosts and guide asked several times if Lila was going to be safe on horseback and it took some effort to explain that she is in fact the only competant rider among us. In the end it was agreed that Helix and I would be led whilst Lila would be allowed to ride freely. Most of the time Helix and I were led by ropes attached to the bridles by a single rider. This was pretty uncomfortable for horses and riders as we would be forever bumping in to each other . Sometimes two riders led us individually and sometimes at a gallop, a pace for which neither I nor my mount had much enthusiasm. Lila on the other hand was having a great time and impressing the locals with her skills.
    We rode a short distance to the Red Waterfall, a place of great significance to Mongolians, as evidenced by the many photos and paintings of it that we had seen in Ulaanbaatar. Personally I found it pretty enough but rather dwarfed by the grandeur of its surroundings. I felt embaressed at not being able to look more impressed, but Mongolia is a dry land and I think that a torrent has a deeper impact on the soul of its people than those used to an abundance of water. Elma seemed to expect more of a reaction than any of us was able to provide. We did not stay long and I was pleased to get away from the crowd at the waterside and back to the vast open spaces which for me are the true wonder of this land.
    On our return I realised that I had lost my camera somewhere during a gallop and before lunch tried to retrace our steps to find it. The camera itself was a cheap one but it still had many shots of Nadaam which I had yet to copy and would be sorry to lose. The idea proved hopeless as I soon realised that I had been paying more attention to not falling off the horse than our bearings. The camera was a small black lump on a vast field full of black stones. Fortunately Lila was eager to get back in the saddle and it was proposed that she and one of our hosts should ride out and look. A short while later the heroes returned triumphant, with my undamaged camera and with it my treasured images.
    Though after lunch most seemed happy to let the notion of further equestrianism slide Lila seemed quite clear that this had been far from the advertised full day's riding. Thus a further sortie was proposed and though we boys were both somewhat ambivalent we elected to join the experienced riders. In the end, though I cannot say I much enjoyed the ride itself, I was very glad to have gone. Firstly there was the scenery, more volcanic forms and and a gorge carved into an intricate filigree. Secondly the herds of yak and sheep being driven by our hosts as they went about their daily routine tied to two hapless tourists. Most of all though was the sight of my girl galloping freely here and there, in control of her mount and clearly trusted by the herders to go as she pleased. To her this confidence was nothing remarkable but to me, in this setting it was marvellous. Regretfully, after the loss from the previous ride I had decided to leave the camera behind. If I had known what I was to see I would have risked it. Perhaps it is for the best however, as in my mind Lila is imprinted wilder and more free than any photo could portray.
    What had been a wonderful day turned into an unpleasant night. Somewhere along the way Lila had picked up a stomach bug and spent several hours vomiting. Both Helix and I were also a little unwell for a couple of days, though not violently so. I suspect some yoghurt or aireg eaten in a ger we had visited on the way back from our last ride. Perhaps a bacillus to which the locals are completely habituated but which is too alien for our stomachs. Every cloud has a silver lining however and tending to my daughter excused me from having to watch the world cup final along with the only other two westerners in the camp, both Frenchmen.
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  • Day20

    Tour day 2

    July 14, 2018 in Mongolia ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    Most of the second day of our tour was taken up with driving. Mongolia has very little transport infrastructure, with metalled roads running only between the very few major towns. The rest of the network is made up of tracks which are less actual roads than traces of the more popular decisions of how to get from one bridge, ford or pass to the next. Often three or more tracks will lead to the same place and it is down to the foresight and experience of the driver to know which is likely to be passable by their particular vehicle
    Mongolia is the Land of the Toyota, this marque making up at least half of all cars we saw. Of these the Land Cruiser and Prius dominate and it was in the former that we travelled through beautiful and very bumpy landscape. One of course would not expect to see a Prius on these dirt tracks, which only goes to prove how expectations can be confounded. In fact there were a number of Prius, as well as other "town cars" , covered in dust and mud, extracting themselves from ruts and fording rivers at the most unlikely depths. Watching hybrids being driven through a river up to their exhaust pipes and then mount the bank, spraying mud all over the windows and white bodywork gave me a profound insight into how this nation of nomadic tribes conquered half the world. They remain completely dauntless.
    We spent hours driving through the most beautiful scenery; plains strewn with boulders, hills, valleys, rivers and streams. Yaks, cows and horses roamed free and everywhere gers. Though the life of the nomadic herder is without doubt hard I envy the lack of regulation, a Mongolian citizen has the right to pitch their ger wheresoever they please. Since the terrible weather of 2007 when around a third of the country's livestock was lost to famine this has led to enormous ger shanties in the capital, but when faced with the sight of those who remain it is difficult to temper romanticism.
    By late afternoon we were in the Orkhon valley, with a lightning storm coming in. Photos cannot do it justice, it was magnificent. The only downside being the inability to fully close the roof. We had the same problem the previous night and the sooner someone introduces flexible roof flashings to Mongolia the better.
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  • Day19

    Tour day 1

    July 13, 2018 in Mongolia ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    We met Uka the evening before we were to set off for our six days tour of the Mongolian countryside. She had responded to an advert for a tour guide which I had posted on a Facebook group many weeks before and had impressed me with her enthusiasm and responsiveness to all my questions. On messaging her to establish where we should meet she invited us to eat out. We ended up at a Mongolian grill, which is apparently a "thing". I have since read that it is possible to have a Mongolian grill in many major US cities. In practice they work very much like the Chinese all-you-can-eat buffets with which we are all familiar. One is offered a selection of cooked and raw foods, the latter of which are taken to a chef to be prepared in front of you and generally with a certain theatricality. The only major difference here was the number of mutton dishes on offer, including a whole sheep's head, and the fact that several selections are prepared simultaneously on a large hotplate using long knife like spatulas.
    I was a little disappointed to learn that Uka herself was not going to be available as our guide but was going to be entrusting us to someone else with whom she worked. Having met Gan however (see earlier posts), who if he had been more prompt in answering emails would probably have got our business I was still very happy that I had contracted with her company. Also present at the meal was Uka's boyfriend Baagii, who was to be our driver. He was a very friendly fellow with about as much English as we had Mongolian but we still managed to establish a good rapport, much aided by some pictures of our yurt. We all thoroughly enjoyed our meal and the company. The thing I most appreciated was the fact that I had not had to do anything. After nearly three weeks of being responsible for everything I could now sit back and let someone else deal with transport, food, activities and communication.
    The next morning we met up with Baagii, Uka and our guide Elma and set off for our first stop, the races. This was a big meet but more reminiscent of a county point to point in atmosphere. Here there is no limitation on space and the 20 km race has no need to repeat a circuit. From the finish line it was only possible to guess where the start might be and when the riders eventually appeared it took a quarter of an hour to see them all cross. We had found ourselves a good position by the rails and as word got round that the riders were approaching we were surrounded by many other spectators, several of them also on horseback. Four elaborately dressed riders carrying batons were waiting just before the finish line and as the first riders came in these rode alongside them and passed the batons to indicate their position, then riding off with them to where they would be awarded what we were told were quite lavish prizes, motorbikes, household goods and the like. The youth of the riders was striking, with most being evidently of primary school age. This is indeed the rule in Mongolian racing, with riders as young as six competing in high stakes competitions.
    One race was all we had time for and then it was back to the Land cruiser and another hour's drive before lunch. Just before our roadside diner we stopped off to circumambulate an ovoo. These are shamanic/animist shrines, ubiquitous throughout the Mongolian countryside, a pile of rocks, stones and items of personal significance with a central pole bedecked with ribbons. I was reminded of the cairns on top of mountains in the UK and indeed the practice of ovoo construction is very similar, with each visitor contributing their part by adding a little something in what our guide referred to as "the raising of the ovoo". To be sure, the Mongolian variant of this practice is more consciously ritualised than the British hiker's and Elma demonstrated the correct form, circling clockwise thrice and at each turn casting a stone on the pile. This was my first experience of the religious devotion which I was to discover ran deep in our guide, as she finished her raising with a whispered prayer, her hands pressed together. A striking feature in my experience never found on a cairn were the horses skulls, an honour afforded to the most meritorious beasts.
    Our mutton based repas had barely reached our stomachs before we were on the road again. We were on a schedule and time was of the essence. Our destination was what our guide referred to as the "mini-Gobi" but which is more properly called Elsen Tasarhai. This is part of the Great Mongolian Sand Dune a narrow band which stretches over 80km. Our aim was to reach an encampment nearby and install ourselves in a ger in time to take a camel ride to the dunes before sunset. On arrival we were introduced to our hosts and served tea and biscuits in a ger by the family matriarch. Whilst we drank our hosts chatted with Elma and Baagii and we were left to look around us at how a Mongolian nomad family arrange their affairs. Compared to our own 8 meter yurt all the gers we saw in use by nomads were small, between 5 and 6 metres in diameter. There is no formal separation of sleeping areas, with beds serving as sofas for general use as well as work areas for the preparation of food. The wood burning stove is in the middle, with the flue coming directly out of the crown, an arrangement which we were later to fins makes it impossible to effectively seal the roof against rain. I was particularly taken with the solar electrical system. The control, distribution and battery storage were all housed in the casing of a small chest freezer. This struck me as ideal as we have often missed having a freezer, having made do for years with the small compartment of a caravan fridge.
    After tea we were left to look around and amuse ourselves as we wished until the camels were ready. The area before the dunes is of course very sandy but far from arid, being covered in a large variety of small shrubs, grasses and flowers and cut through by streams. It is a popular spot and besides gers day campers pitch their modern weekend tents. Eventually the camels were prepared and we mounted. Being bactrian camels the saddle is mounted between the two humps and it is for this reason and their measured gait that camels are reputed to be more comfortable than horses. I am not entirely convinced of this, but probably it is down to my inexperience that I find both beasts equally uncomfortable. Though the camel riding had been one of the feature events of the tour I must admit to having found it a little perfunctory. The leader of our little caravan, a leathery ancient was more concerned that we should have good photographs than peace to enjoy the experience and much time was spent in artistic arrangements of camels and riders. Not for the last time I felt treated rather like another of the nomads' herd animals, a beast who must be tended to in a particular pattern in order to extract profit. It is of course to be expected, given the short periods of time, the turn-around of tourists and the lack of a common language. Still, it did make me appreciate all the more any genuine human connection. This was found after our ride, playing volleyball and basketball with some Mongolian tourist kids as the sun set over the distant dunes.
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  • Day17


    July 11, 2018 in Mongolia ⋅ ⛅ 10 °C

    Nadaam is a national holiday, celebrated throughout Mongolia. It is a festival of national identity which centres around the Three Games of Men; wrestling, archery and horse racing. This is slightly misleading however, as we saw quite as many female archers as male, the horses were ridden exclusively by children and there are four games rather than three.
    Having missed pretty much everything the previous day I was determined that we should see some events. We had already resigned ourselves to the idea that we would not get into the actual stadium during Nadaam. Tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies can only be bought in person the week before, through a tour agency as part of a package or else from touts at a mark-up. Around the stadium however there is a very festive scene with hundreds of ordinary Mongolians who also did not have tickets and were there for the free events and the general atmosphere. Apart from the ceremonies which by all accounts are very good, the only sport practiced in the main arena is wrestling. Mongolian wrestling is a little like Cumberland wrestling crossed with Sumo. The competitors are enormous, the ritual elements complex and the rules utterly arcane. We watched some of it on the television and it seemed to involve three or four referees for every bout, which only occasionally resulted in any definitive conclusion. Though I am sure it is all quite fascinating to the initiate,we all felt we could quite easily give this interminable dance of fat men a miss. What I was not prepared to miss was the archery and the knuckle-bone shooting. The latter mainly because I had absolutely no idea what it was. I had done my research of course, but Wikipedia, Google, YouTube etc. had left me really none the wiser. We were fortunate to be well in time to witness the final rounds of the competition and at least improve our understanding, even if the finer points continue to elude.
    We were to discover that knuckle-bones, or rather more accurately ankle bones, particularly of sheep, hold a fascination with Mongolians. We encountered four different games that can be played with them and perhaps there are more. This particular game is somewhat like skittles. A number of bones are placed in an ornate box with the open side facing a seated shooter some 5 meters distant. The shooter has a wooden runner, on which is placed a sort of counter. This counter is the projectile which must be flicked along the runner and knock down the ankle bones. The number of targets decreases as the game progresses and it seems that competitors are eliminated when they fail to hit. It appears to be a team game, though the precise mechanics of how this works escapes me. The two teams are seated, ranged between the shooters and the target, creating a shooting gallery. Once the shot has been made the projectile is returned to the shooter, being lobbed from hand to hand by his team mates, occasionally rubbed for good luck. All this is accompanied by a singing chant with ululations. As there were several matches being played concurrently the sound within the hall, or tent as it is euphemistically described, is cacophonous
    Feeling that we had got as much the measure of knuckle-bone shooting as was likely without expert guidance we headed for the archery field. Our programme advertised a "display of national archery". Given that we were visiting a nation who pride themselves on having once conquered half the world by dint of their skills with bow and horse this seemed unmissable. Indeed we were not the only ones who thought so. The archery field has an open fronted stadium at one end and bleacher seating at the sides. We installed ourselves half an hour in advance in the stadium and by the time the display started there was not even standing room. In fact the standing crowd made it rather difficult to see the event unless one also stood, thus blocking the view from those behind. Much calling and shouting at those in front ensued and in the end an intermittent view of the proceedings was possible.
    As this first event of the day was a display rather than a competition there were many preliminary announcements, a singing of one of the more catchy national anthems of the world and shuffling around of the crowd by the police. Proceedings commenced with a sole archer firing off a shot, whether it actually hit the target I cannot tell as the view was severely compromised by later comers standing at the railings. This was followed by riders in historical warrior garb racing onto the field in spectacular fashion and then shooting from their galloping horses at a boss. I am sorry to say that the skills of the Mongolian horse archer must rather have deteriorated in the last half millenia or so as very few shots found their target. In spite of this it was an impressive sight. The warriors returned from whence they had come and things came to a close. We returned once more to the field for some competitive archery later and once more the following day.
    Standard competitive archery in Mongolia involves a recurve bow shooting at a distance of 75 meters for men and 60 for women, at a row of blocks some 30 by 10 centimeters large, placed on the ground with the central blocks being painted red. Depending on the type and stage of competition there are between 4 and as many as thirty umpires impressively close to these targets, who will indicate to the archer and score keepers how the arrows have fallen by semaphore. A good strike is signalled by raising both arms and slowly gyrating whilst singing. It is all rather jolly, particularly in the later stages of the competition where the eliminated archers have now taken position around the target and are now acting as extra umpires.
    We returned to the archery field the next day for the final rounds of the competition , taking a more advantageous position in the bleachers along the side, which afforded an equally good view of both archer and target. For me this was the highlight of the Nadaam festival. All the competitors were dressed in the most beautiful individual interpretations of traditional dress and the level of skill was sometimes extraordinary, with women regularly outperforming their male colleagues. Most of all what I enjoyed was the feeling of witnessing a supportive community. Although I imagine that the caché of having won at the capital's Nadaam must be great I never felt that there was any ill-will or jealousy. Everybody seemed genuinely pleased for the more successful archers and by the time the last arrows were being fired a large crowd of those who had been eliminated had gathered around the targets gesturing towards the centre to help the arrows on their way and singing heartily when they found their mark, turning with their hands aloft.
    Where there is a festival there is fast food. By far the most popular food on offer at Nadaam is khuushur, minced mutton deep-fried in batter. It is surprisingly moreish, Helix and I consumed quite a few over the few days we were there and even Lila, a part time vegetarian had to admit that they weren't too bad. Is suspect that my final one might have been a little suspect however and my digestive system informed me in no uncertain terms that enough was as good as a feast.
    The first day's proceedings were rounded off with the postponed concert in Suhkbataar Square. Although I am a little ambivalent about Mongolia's obsession with its ancient history I was lead to think that their nostalgia industry was rather more impressive than their pop music. Even our own teeny-bopper was decidedly unmoved by the terribly derivative drivel. Still, we managed to have a little shimmy, much to the bewilderment of the locals who seem a very reserved bunch, almost totally resistant to exhortations by the bands to get up and boogie. Perhaps they found the music as dreadful as we did. When the band launched into the national anthem however everyone was back in their comfort zones and joined in with gusto. Similarly uninhibited was the firework display, choreographed to the theme "make everything go now".
    It was not only our dancing that evening which had drawn stares. Ever since arriving in Mongolia we have been asked to pose for photographs. It is Lila who seems the most fascinating but we have all been asked, both in Mongolia and China to pose with various people for their albums. The requests come from both the young and middle-aged and what might sound quite creepy is requested with such innocent smiles that there seems no reason to refuse. I have even been asked for a photo because I was eating kurshur, so odd must it have seemed to see a Westerner eating this food.
    As I mentioned, Nadaam is celebrated throughout Mongolia and many regions and communities hold competitions of the Three (Four) Games. Many people will tell you that the festival is best witnessed outside of the capital, where one can get closer to the action and there are no ticketed events. This may well be true, but with nearly half of the entire country's population living in the capital the city's Nadaam is a genuine example of how "real" Mongolians live.
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  • Day16

    The welcome ger

    July 10, 2018 in Mongolia ⋅ 🌧 14 °C

    Gan had informed us with great enthusiasm of the costume parade to be held on the main square at 10 a.m Although we failed to wake until gone 10, to a rainy day, we decided to head off anyway and try to see what we could see. As we approached the square we saw many uniformed men and women heading the other way. By the time we got there the event was over. It had, in any case, not been the display of traditional costume we had expected but rather, a military parade. We were told by a kind young lady, who we found out later worked for Tourist Information that the costume display was to be at 2. The rain was by now beginning to come down more heavily, so we headed back to the hostel.
    Between Suhkbataar Square and our hostel stands the State Department Store, a six-story building catering to tourists and the Mongolian middle class. Next to this, during the summer months is The Welcome Ger. For those not in the know, a ger is the name by which the Mongolians know a yurt. If you don't know what a yurt is then who are you and what are you doing reading my blog? This ger is around 9 or 10 metres in diameter and beautifully ornate. It is of fairly recent construction and had , we were told, taken four years to make. This is even longer than it took us to build our large yurt, though this was considerably more detailed in its finish. I guess however that it was not the craftsman's first attempt. The ger is presently owned by the city's Tourist Information department and staffed by enthusiastic students with good English. Damp as we were we tarried a good while here in the dry and decided to try some Mongolian tea. It turns out that they take their team with milk, a lot of milk. Mainly it's hot milk, with a little browning, and salt. This was the first of many "not sure if this is nice or nasty" moments in our culinary experiences.
    We returned to the hostel soaked to the skin and with our only shoes sodden. The enthusiasm for the costume parade that afternoon was low but by 3 the rain had stopped and with the promise of some Wellingtons for Lila we set out again. We got to the square to see that nothing was doing but found out that there was to be another parade, followed by a concert that evening. We returned to the Welcome Ger to ask where we might find a cheap pair of wellies. We strolled around the indoor market and bought some boots and just as we were heading back popped into an interesting looking shop. Here we found many lovely handmade items and bought a few things, including the lovely suede waistcoat that you can see Lila modelling in the photo, but not the fox fur hat.
    We had tarried too long however and by the time we got to the square again we saw a bunch of horsemen galloping off and the bandsmen marching towards their busses. By the time we had got up to the remains of the parade we were treated to the amusing sight of the bandsmen being dismissed, breaking ranks and running towards their busses, giggling and pushing like school kids in order to get the best seats. We went off again at this point to find something to eat before the concert. On our return we found an almost deserted square and some French tourists who informed us that the concert had been postponed until the following evening. It had been a funny day.
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  • Day15

    Coming into Ulaanbaatar

    July 9, 2018 in Mongolia ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    Due for arrival in Ulaanbaatar at 6.50 a.m. I woke at around 5 on the train to be greeted with the most magnificent view of the Northern Mongolian countryside. A vast open space bordered by hills with patches of early morning mist and a lone rider on horseback. It would have made the most wonderful photograph had the call of a more immediate nature not pulled me onward. By the time I had got to my camera the mists had lifted and we had left the rider far behind. The scenery continued to impress for miles, looking exactly as I had expected Mongolia to be. It was love at first sight.
    Mention should be made of our lovely travelling companion Anya. The second class carriages are all four berth affairs and we knew that the chances were that we would be spending many hours in close proximity to a complete stranger. Fortunately our luck was good and we were to be sharing with a delightful young Swedish woman who had decided, upon finishing her studies to pursue her mother's dream of travelling the Trans-Mongolian railroad. Anya was charmingly underprepared for the journey, having assumed that a credit card would be sufficient for her needs and thus carrying no cash. Luckily I still had a sufficient amount of roubles to accommodate a small loan when her blood sugar levels got the better of her pride. Like every Swede I have ever met she spoke impeccable English and, being a young lady, smelt a good deal better than me and the boy by journey's end in spite of the washing facilities previously mentioned. We could not have asked for a better comrade.
    We left Anya behind at the cash machine, where the angels of lone travellers caused her to run into the guide she had contacted in Sweden. Her guide was also kind enough to arrange a taxi to our hostel, where we greeted by the garrulous Gan and his wife. The early train had brought a fellow traveller and whilst the kids retired to our room she and I were regaled by Gan with what he regarded as a "lovely conversation " but what in fact was a lengthy monologue on his life story, interspersed with a few facts about Mongolia. It turned out, speaking to fellow inmates later that this first warm, if rather eccentric introduction, is standard and rather calculated. After the first day, and having learnt that we had already booked a tour of the countryside with another agency we heard little more from Gan for the rest of our stay. That is to say, we heard little more until it had finally sunk in that there was no further business to be gained. Gan has a poor memory, compounded I think by alcohol dependency. On asking for directions to a passable yet cheap restaurant for lunch Gan offered to accompany us across the road where he too ordered, talked, asked us again about our tour plans and then left, leaving us to pick up the bill. Not to worry, I told the children, this is probably some cultural thing and the amount is trifling. Probably the kindness would be repaid somehow. It never was and I doubt he remembered. We heard little from Gan again except to ask for a loan and whether he could come and drink beer in our room, out of sight of his long suffering wife. Occasionally he would forget that we weren't interested in taking a tour with him and ask again about our plans but it was clear by then that the friendliness was driven by commercial interests. On the upside, the hostel was decent for the price, with a young, international and interesting clientele and on the doorstep of the Gandan monestary, headquarters for Mongolian buddhism.
    In the afternoon we went to have a look at the monestary, a large complex of buildings serving as seminary and centre of worship for a population that since the fall of the communist government identifies in the majority as Buddhist. I say "worship" advisedly, as in my understanding of Buddhism, worship does not really figure as a practise. This was shown to be a rather academic understanding, as in practise Mongolian Buddhism, which is basically Tibetan yellow hat school, is as devout in its attachment to iconography and pantheon as Russian Orthodoxy. Indeed the proliferation of shops around the complex, selling various artifacts was strikingly reminiscent of what we had seen around the cathedrals of Kiev. The central feature of the complex is a temple which houses a 25 meter, 20 ton statue of the Avalokakiteshvara bodhisattva. Entirely covered in gold leaf it is hollow and houses tons of medicinal herbs, sutras , mantras and even a fully furnished yurt. It is a copy of the early 20th century original, rebuilt in the 90s after the first was destroyed by the communists. It is said that this embodiment of the principle of compassion was largely melted down to produce bullets.
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  • Day13

    Omsk, Russia

    July 7, 2018 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    Whether or not we were in Omsk on the particular day indicated on this blog I cannot say, it is all rather a blur. We left Moscow around midnight on the 4th for the epic five night train journey to Ulaanbaatar, 6,300km, traversing a large part of Siberia up to just past Lake Baikal and then down into Mongolia.
    The larger part of the journey is via the Trans-Siberian railway, an unbelievable feat of engineering completed in 1901 in only 10 years, linking Moscow with Vladivostock. Even today, looking out of the window in summer, nearly every mile staggers the mind with the complexity, scale and awfulness of the undertaking. The dense forests to be cut through, the mosquito blighted boglands, the rivers to be crossed. Bryn Thomas's Trans-Siberian Handbook was my guide throughout and I recommend it to anyone contemplating the voyage.
    The challenge of writing this part of the blog is to try to fix my impressions without the framework of a daily narrative. Time works very differently on the train. Certainly there are the diurnal cycles, but in the North at this time of year the nights are short and by journey's end one has traversed four time zones, whilst all the while the administration of the train keeps to Moscow time. By administration I mean the schedules which punctuate the otherwise limbo of the days. Firstly there is the schedule of the carriage attendants, Mr Thomas tells me that there are two basic varieties of these ladies, for ladies they all are; those for whom it is a summer job between studies and those for whom it is a career. Our ladies were most definitely of the latter type. For these you are a guest in their fiefdom and the customer is seldom right. Second of the schedules are the station stops. These are few, brief and often as many as five or six hours apart. We never had more than a quarter of an hour stop at any of the stations. Though longer times were scheduled later in the voyage we had been delayed one night and the driver was keen to press on to catch up. These stops are not only a chance to get off the train and decompress but also an opportunity to reprovision basic foodstuffs, and I do mean basic. Mr. Thomas had tantalised us with tales of itinerant sellers of fresh food on the platforms, some perhaps even selling their wares in the carriages. In fact there was nothing of the sort, only a series of small kiosks or, at the bigger stations, small shops all selling much the same selection of processed cheeses, bread, milk and noodles. In fairness our literary guide did warn that railroad retail trade was subject to changes in policy and we must have taken our journey during a period of the suppression of free trade. I was happy to find a pair of straw slippers at one stop however, as outdoor footwear is rather frowned upon on the train and I had left my rather too bulky crocs at home. These were a source of great amusement to our two attendants who, by the second day had me pegged as somebody who clearly needed looking after. Perhaps it was the fact that whilst trying various slippers out for size I took my eye off the train and having concluded business looked up with horror to see that the doors had closed and my fellow passengers had disappeared. Dragging myself to the protruding top step and hanging on to the door handle I banged furiously on the window. An attendant, looking almost as panicked as me hauled me in. You may be sure that I kept a very close eye on the train from that moment on.
    I am sure that it was not entirely due to my momentary lapse of attention that the attendants seemed particularly solicitous. These ladies are matriarchs and I know well enough that a certain slightly cheeky deference is the best way to get on. I know that other residents of our carriage were less than pleased with being bossed about and often treated as something of an inconvenience on a journey they had, after all, paid quite a considerable amount of money to make. General willing obedience and a slightly flourished bow when ceding priority of passage in the corridors paid dividends, with the occasional packet of coffee, a cup of hot water when the samovar was to be emptied and a personal invitation to their sanctum to sign the guest book. Even an indulgent smile was, I think more than many travellers recieved from these formidable ladies.
    Milk, bread, cheese and noodles are important items to restock. There is no refrigeration on the train and the restaurant car is expensive, but there is a coal fired samovar in each carriage, providing a permanent supply of boiling water. Keeping this going is one of the many duties of the attendants. Another slightly puzzling duty was the daily mopping of the carpets, a practise which left the floor slightly damp for a couple of hours and ingrain the dirt rather than remove it. Potential travellers will be nterested to hear about the washing and toilet facilities. As for washing, there is practically nothing bar a sink delivering a dribble of cold water via a peculiar mechanism requiring you to push up against the tap. To those requiring a regular full wash I wish the best of luck and counsel you to pack your own sink plug. The toilets themselves empty directly on to the track and are thus locked shut half an hour before and after every station stop. This practice can be quite uncomfortable as one is often woken by the train stopping and those whose bodies are programmed to make water almost directly on waking must cross their legs.
    For those who think that a four day train journey must be boring I say that you must be very well travelled to tire of the sights presented from the windows of the train. I can imagine that for people less enamoured of forests than I the first twenty-four hours could appear a little monotonous as one is rather hemmed in by a constant band of birch and pine. After this though the scene opens out and one is treated to a constantly shifting view of open pasture, forests, rivers, marshland and peasant villages. My imagination was in frequent wonder at how different "normal" life can be for the people of the world. For me all that was required was a journal, camera, sketch book and the conversation of my fellow travellers to feel perfectly well occupied.
    This application allows only six photos per post so I'll post some more further down the route, with no guarantee as to the accuracy of the location. I may even post some more words about the train journey if you're very lucky but I'm nearly two weeks behind now and would like to get up to date.
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  • Day10

    Moscow Day 2

    July 4, 2018 in Russia ⋅ 🌧 17 °C

    Having had a very late night and not having to catch the train until nearly midnight we elected to have a good lie-in followed by an easy morning. The check-out time for the hostel was midday but as is often the case, they were happy to let us leave our bags all day. A local delicatesssan provided us with lunch and after a chat with some of the young people of the hostel we headed out to do a little shopping. Both Lila and I had left our sunglasses at home and having had only a short time in any one place between journies we had not had a chance to do any laundry. I wanted to buy a fresh T-shirt as I was worried for my fellow travellers. I had noticed whilst exploring the area on Google Maps for likely places to eat that we were not far from a Decathlon. For my UK based readers who have not experienced the empire building of this French chain, it is a sports shop which sells all manner of practical goods for outdoorsy types. Mt family and many others I know are largely clothed from this establishment, as it provides decent quality at affordable prices (this blog is not sponsored, but is open to offers). I know they have been trading in the UK for some while now butwas a little surprised to see them in Moscow. We found it easily enough, a short walkfrom the hostel, in a shopping complex dedicated to French chain stores. Auchan and Leroy Merlin had oulets in the building, these being household names in France. Barring the absence of a very few items the stock was exactly the same as might be found in Auch, but many things were significantly cheaper. Much to my annoyance we found that the shirts and trousers we had bought at some significant expense especially for the journey were here at half the price.
    This marked the beginning of what was to become the most hurrumphing afternoon thus far.
    We headed for the metro and on to Red Square. The Moscow metro is very cheap by Western standards, being the equivalent of 50 Eurocents per trip, no matter where. This is the same for all public transort in Moscow as far as I could work out. Although I had managed to cope well with the ticket offices on the previous day, today was to be rather different. I thought I had succesfully bought a return tickets for the three of us and understood that there were three fares on each of the two tickets I had been issued, one for each direction. On reaching the gate it turned out that the first ticket had only 2 fares, on producing my receipt for the guard he waved us through, rather for an easy life than through mutual comprehension I think. We arrived at the center of Moscow in the drizzle and after several days of sight-seeing with rather aching feet. It is a magnificent area and it isimpossible not to be impressed but we had left it too late in the day to make the most of it and were feeling a little jaded. An emergency ice-cream in the rain gave us the strength to enter Red Square where the harumph-o-meter hit critical levels. Not only was the Lenin Mausoleum shut for works but FIFA had erected enormous marquees in the centre of the suare, ruining the ensemble with gaudy ephemera. My usual ambivalent tolerance of the "beautiful game" was being tried once more. We had arrived too late to enter St. Basil's and I had also to abandon my ideas of visiting the Bolshoi Theatre. We shall return to Moscow though I think the Bolshoi will be closed to visitors by then, but at least FIFA will be gone. We did manage to enter the Temple of Mammon which is GUM, where the toilets cost 200 roubles a pee and the windows display the trappings of the oligarchs. In fairness Lila and I were much taken with the dresses of Bosco which for their workmanship and beauty did not seem overpriced.
    Footsore, hungry and overwhelmed by a full week of intensive tourism and travel we set off back to the hostel for dinner and a few hours of relaxation before boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express. It was upon reaching the now crowded late-afternoon metro that the earlier muddle with the tickets came back to haunt us with a vengance. I had naively hoped that our earlier problems were due to my lack of understanding and that our remaining ticket would have three fares on it. Suspecting that this might!not in fact be the case I sent the children through the gates first, with instructions that if I should not be able to pass they should wait until had bought another ticket. Having indeed been stopped I joined a queue and reaching the front foolishly tried to explain, through production of my receipts and tickets, that I had been incorrectly credited. My well-travelled and world-wise readership will recognise this immediately as an idiotic course and one doomed to failure. Having too belatedly decided to cut my losses I now tried to explain to the lady that I should like to buy a single ticket and handed over the smallest denomination I had, a 500 rouble note. By this time I had completely befuddled the poor woman and she had great difficulty in understanding my request to now be a very simple one. By the time we had established my meaning through the use of a calculator we were both starting to lose what little patience we had started out with. This is where the trouble started. The cashier duly produced my 55 rouble ticket and asked me for the money. I indicated that I had already given her a 500 rouble note. She rather tetchily demonstrated that I had not. I am sorry to say that I may have joined in with the tetchiness in my rebuttle. Things from there, as they say, escalated quckly. I have no idea of precisely what she was shouting but I definitely got the gist, as it was well emphasised by the banging onto the counter of various objects. Feeling that this had gone too far for my delicate sensibilities and aware of the children waiting patiently for me the other side of the barrier I made placatory gestures and waved more money at her, in attempt to put all this ghastliness behind us. She however would have none of it. The ticket booth was closed and the long line of tourists and commuters behind me were directed to the end of one of the only other two long lines. I believe I must have been the most actively disliked Englishman in Moscow. Boris Johnson might well have felt some unknown psychic burden lift from him at that very moment. The lady refused all entreaties and headed for a telephone, made her call and stood staring at me with arms folded and a look of outrage. It was then that to my left I noticed, at the furthest booth, written in clear and bold type, "WE SPEAK ENGLISH". "Look before you leap" is not the least of the lessons to be gleaned from the sorry incident. There was no going back now though, some authority had been summoned, the other queue was long and slow, due largely to our stand-off and it was likely that I would be refused service there anyway. And so we waited, and waited, a policeman approached and to my relief passed by without interest. Half-remembered legends of the interminabiliity of Russian burocracy insinuated themselves into my mind. I left briefly to explain the situation to my weary offspring who had been told by some official that sitting down was forbidden. I returned and still we waited. After some long while a supervisor appeared, the situation was discussed and she sat down to count the day's takings. I tried once more to pay for an individual ticket but was abruptly and loudly told off. There was nothing to do but to stand and watch the counting of thousands upon thousands of roubles in all denominations as they were tallied with the receipts. The minutes passed and self-doubt welled within me. Had she in fact handed back the cash at some point in the confused discussion? Would I be ejected from the station for having accused this poor woman of negligence? As the count drew to a close the faces of the two ladies evidenced the fact that I had not been mistaken. There was no pleasure in seeing the poor woman's face , only a faint relief. She had wronged a tourist, shouted at him, detained his chidren, during the World Cup and worse, she had called her supervisor to witness and be drawn into the affair. The look was of bewilderment and horror. Fullsome apologies were offered by the supervisor, entreaties that I should forgive them both and understand that eveyone was very tired. I was certainly very happy to let the matter drop and all move on with our lives but was still a little peeved that after all this I was still expected to pay for my onward ticket.
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  • Day8


    July 2, 2018 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    The night train to Moscow was a much cleaner and more modern affair than that from Warsaw. It was also our first opportunity to share our compartment with a stranger. The train from Warsaw had been the only one in my reservations which had offered 3 person compartments, all the rest being for 4. Our partner for this journey was a later-middle-aged Russian lady with no English and a very little German. It turns out that in spite of many hours doing an online Russian course my few phrases are virtually incomprehensible to natives. Our friend soon expressed her desire to settle down for the night. Although Madame had reserved one of the top bunks she asked if Helix would swap with her, which of course he did. Top bunks are cheaper than bottom ones and clearly rather impractical for a lady of our friend's age and proportions. My cynical nature casued me to wonder if perhaps this was a regular tactic on her part, for who would refuse to swap their bottom berth with a grandmother?

    i am a late adopter as far as smart devices and those "app" things are concerned. My first experience with Uber was excellent but subsequent ones have proved less satisfactory. Leaving Kiev I asked for a pick up from the hostel but as far as I could tell from the map the driver was headed for a location a hundred yards away. We set out to find it but from the geolocaion it appeared to be in the middle of a wall rising to the next level of the city via a staircase. I assumed that this must be the way to go but when I got the notification that the driver had arrived he was nowhere to be seen, either at the top or bottom of the stairs. After much running here and there I found the car parked outside the hostel, with a rather grumpy driver telling me firmly to get in. It did not imporve his mood tolearn that my kids were a hundred yards away and up two flights of stairs. In the end both the driver and Lila seemed to be convinced this had all been my fault. Perhaps it had, I am frequently confused by the modern world. Much the same thing happened in Moscow but this time the driver specified a pick-up point which I was totally unable to locate in spite of upwards of 7 satellies tracking my every move (according to my tablet). We eventually found each other using the comfortably 20th century methos of text-messaging. I am not sure how much I shall be using Uber from now on.

    Much to the disbelief of nearly everyone we met in Moscow we were not there for the football. In fact when I srated booking accomodation back in January Iwas unaware it was even worldcup year and only realised because of the fact that beds were already selling out. Since then I have regarded the event as little more than an inconvenience. The hostel wechecked into was full of the youth of many nations, all there for the football who soon reminded me to stop being such a cantankerous old git and that many people enjoy football without necessarily being entirely devoid of wit. I went for a walk with Helix to look for options for dinner where we were regularly accosted by bar owners peddling their establidhments' large TV screens. I casually waved them all off, professing a complete lack of interest in football. An enthusiastic man serving at the supermarket counter was the one to start me re-examining my attitude, informing me that the match that evening happened to be Columbia vs; England.. Thinking that there was likely to be some sort of gathering place with giant screens and some kind of "atmosphere" I hit the internet and found that indeed there was and that our hostel was right by a stop on Line 1 of the Metro, which took us right there. It seemed foolish to turn down the opportunity.
    The "Fifa Fanzone" was quite a walk from the tube station but I had confused my12 and 24 hour clocks to get us there a full two hours early, so there was no danger of missing kick-off. We had planty of time to admire the Stoicism of the thousands of police and soldiers who had evidently been instructed to look as impassively deterring as possible as they stood in their positions ignoring the various colourful passers by. They well matched a large number of people sporting the Swiss flag and walking in the other direction, who seemed just as little inclined to gay abandon.
    The Fanzone was impressivley situated, the entrance overlooking a motorway which seemingly lead straight up to the far glealming domes of St. Basil's qnd chosen perhaps for the propect it afforded of Moscow as the thoroughly modern metropolis it surely is. Inside it was ablaze with the banners of Fifa and its corporatesponsors. The screens were indeed enormous and we were greated with the sound of a rather good Russan hip-hop band playing on the stage. In fact all the musical acts were pretty good and I managed to thoroughly ashame my daughterby getting my groove on.
    One of the gifts of middle age has been the freedom to no longer even have to pretend to care about sport. The spectacle of world-class athletes performoing amazing feats of strength and skill is always interesting of itself but although as a younger man I have foud it possible to work myself up into some reemblance of tribal feeling I have always beenaware that it was at base a pretence. When the players took the field I realised that I could no longer recognise a single name or face of the national side, so long had it been since I had followed the game, even vaguely. It is perhas true that to get the most out of a being a spectator it is necessary to favour one team over the other, so Idecided that on the basis of geographical accident of birth and a certain nostalgic idea of a shared culture I would invest what little desire I could muster into the idea of an English victory. The Columbians in the audience seemed to be much better at this than even the most entusiatic of the George cross brigade. My allegiance started to waiver even at the start towards the peoplefor whom the result seemed to matter the most. The first part of the game was enjoyable enough, with the english team seeming to have much the better of it. My sympathies started to turn after Mr. Kan was awarded his penalty, giving England the lead. Watching the replay it seemed to me the man deserved everything he got and had been goaing his opponent into an ill-considered action. I don't know what Fifa make of this sort of thing but I do not consider it very sporting and it is a dishonourable way to wina match qnd where there is no honour there can be no victory. The reaction from the England fans in the Fanzone was decidedly muted and I felt quite embaressed by the whole affair. After this I had my eye on Kane and must say that I do not like the way he plays. The whole thing started to get very scrappy after that and I found myself losing any interest I had in the outcome. The Colombian goal in the last minutes of injury time was well merited and it was nice to see their fans so happy. I was a little disappointed though as I had underdressed and was looking forward to the end of the game. We did not stay for extra time, penalties and all the rest as we were tired, cold, a little damp and football is really not all that interesting.
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  • Day8

    Kiev - Moscow

    July 2, 2018 in Ukraine ⋅ 🌧 13 °C

    We have been under persistant cloud cover since Warsaw but this was our first truly rainy day. Undaunted we set out to see some more of the sights of Kiev. Just up the hill from Independance Square is the cathedral of St. Sophia, impressive from the outside but breathtaking from the inside. Though not large by Western European standards the proportions give it a sense of grandure and every inch is painted in geometric patterns, depictions of kings and saints or scenes from the Bible. I wish I had a better architectural lexicon to explain the beauty of this building because photography is strictly forbidden and I would very much like to share the scene from the gallery, looking down at the immense ornate guilded rood screen and up the dome surrounded by saints and angels. The only picture we were allowed to take was of an art installation in a side room. 30,000 individually painted Easter eggs, forming the face of Christ. By the exit was a diorama showing Kiev in the 10th to 12th centuries. Formed of several walled enclaves man with magnificent buildings such as the one we were standing in, the whole being by a further wall it must have seemed a great wonder. Facing St. Sophia is the church of St. (To be filled). Like St. Sophia it is contained within a walled complex but whilst the first was had worshippers this was entirely focused on the faithful and as infidel interlopers we were not drawn to stay long. Many of the surrounding buildings accommodate church requisite shops selling everything from vestments to icons to incense. Like boulangeries in a French market town one wonder how a small area can support so many businesses selling exactly the same things.
    On the outside wall of the complex were pictures of those who had died in the protests of 2014, as in a similar, but more improvised scenenear the square flowers and candles had been lain. The striking difference with this imagery however, was the haloes surrounding the images alongside the particular soft, pastelly colouring associated with modern religious iconography. I wondered how mqny of these people would have objected to their co_option by the church. This, alongside the proximity of a government ministry building to the scene gave me an uncomfortable feeling. There are monuments to the fallen of that protest everywhere in central Kiev, some improvised but many clearly funded by church and government, both keen to claim the martyrs.
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