Posts Tagged ‘Bus’

A Mongolian Life

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

I waved goodbye to Matt at Chinggis Khaan International Airport and made my way to the taxi stand downstairs. I was on my own in the middle of Asia in a large, dusty city where my camera had already been stolen and where my friend had been pelted by a chunk of sidewalk. It was a bit nerve-wracking to me. I wasn’t sure how I would do on my own! My confidence returned, however, after wrangling a 5,000 togrok trip back to the city from some taxi drivers who had claimed it was impossible to get me back to the city for anything less than 20,000… then about 5 minutes later, 10,000.

So, for 9 days from August 18-27 I was on my own in the central-Asian nation of Mongolia. I didn’t have a lot of money (I limited myself to $10 a day, $6 of which went for lodging each night I was in Ulaanbataar, leaving 4 for entertainment, travel, and food). I spent some of my timing working on this site cleaning things up and uploading photos. I spent some of it (the daylight hours at least) walking the streets of the city seeing what I could see, from large markets to street-side DVD stands. Ger Restaurants on the sidewalks to road works projects. The city was bustling and I was just another citizen. Unfortunately for me, I was a citizen who looked like a tourist and couldn’t speak the local language. So, that limited my interaction with the real citizens of Ulaanbataar to what we could communicate with sign-language, my extremely limited Russian, and their broken (but better than my Mongolian) English.

It was a relaxed time schedule-wise for me, but a bit stressful as I tried to learn the ropes of a new city by myself. Most evenings I would hole up in the hostel’s public area to avoid the less savory citizens of the city. This gave me the opportunity to meet the people who were staying in the hostel. Most people stayed just one or two nights at the hostel, but some were there for longer. An Irish fellow getting over a bad intestinal parasite infestation was there for three nights. He had bicycled by himself from Beijing to Ulaanbataar and was going to take a horse-ride to the Gobi and western Mongolia eventually getting back on his bike and heading for Russia. He had been delayed a week, however, by his unfortunate illness.

Two Israeli men and a British girl stayed for a night, they were on their way to the Gobi to explore it for two days. Three French men were planning a walking trip to Western Mongolia. Two girls waiting for their plane flights out, one from France and one from the US, were at the end of their Asia trip which had taken them to several cities in Eastern China, the Gobi, and eventually Ulaanbataar. One girl was at the end of a year-long term working at a school for underprivileged children from the ger district—an area with about the population of the city proper people with nomads who are in and out throughout the year and live in their gers—which surrounds Ulaanbataar. It was an interesting place to be and made the evenings less lonely. I was even invited to join two French students who were traveling by horse around the Gobi for two weeks and had an extra horse leaving me to only pay the daily expenses, unfortunately I was leaving well before they would have returned so I had to turn them down.

I spent three days and two nights in the wilderness camping by myself and finishing out the supplies in a little town called Gachuurt, to the northeast of Ulaanbataar. It cost me almost 20,000 togrok for the taxi out there, but I found it was worth it to save the $6 a night for the hostel. It was a calming time and not altogether bad to be by myself somewhere I felt completely comfortable. Making the half-hour trip to pump fresh water, scouring the parched hillsides for sticks to make a fire and clearing a rock-free tent-site for myself made for good exercise and a great way to pass the time. When a goat-herd passed my little camp with a flock of 75-100 as I was reading my Bible, a nod and a smile told me that I was welcome there.

When I got back to the city, I was a bit disappointed to be back in the dirtiness of the city. I had discovered over the trip that cities always feel dirtier than the countryside. I have yet to find a city where I would be comfortable eating a grape dropped on the sidewalk, even if I washed it off. But in the countryside, a grape dropped on the dirt would be brushed off and eaten without a second thought. I walked back to Gachuurt and caught the 500 togrok bus to Ulaanabataar.

The last 4 days in the city were uneventful for the most part. I talked to the hostellers, watched a movie about a Mongolian nomad during Soviet days. Apparently the Soviet government had attempted to control all meat production which up to that point had been the purview of individual nomadic families. In order to do this, they offered buyouts to the farmers and gave them palotes (small apartments in large concrete buildings). At about the same time (coincidentally?) the government also released news of a plague which would ravage the flocks of the nomadic farmers and required that the animals be burned to prevent the spread of the disease.

It was a sad movie, but interesting in its (delectably accurate) depiction of the history of Mongolia during Soviet control. The movie was shown at a small coffee shop called Café Amsterdam and was attended by about 20 Dutch people and a group of about 30 mixed French, Yankees, Mongolians, and other peoples.

By the time it came to leave Ulaanbataar, I was ready to leave. It’s not that Mongolia struck me as an unpleasant place, or that I didn’t enjoy my time there, I was just done with the city and ready to be traveling again.

At 10 AM the Mongolian segment of my trip ended with the departure of my no-frills trip on Air China from Chinggis Khaan International Airport to Beijing International. Since 5:30 that morning, I had been getting ready, walking toward the airport, and, when the time was right, getting a 10,000 togrok taxi ride to the airport, and waiting after customs. My trip in Asia was coming to a close, but I still had almost a week before the true end of my trip.

Clueless American Tourists Leave Omsk

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The next morning we had a late start and were beginning to feel pressed for time before our train left at 1216. With twenty minutes left, we were a little unsure as to the distance after I proposed we try a more direct route than that which we followed two days before. With only 26 roubles to our name, even a taxi was questionable. The clock at fifteen until our only TSR train left the station, I found an ATM and we tried to hail a cab. A few minutes dragged by until we wedged ourselves into the back of a yellow van and asked for the вагзал or train station. The ride wasn’t long but I doubt we would have been able to walk it in time. The driver accepted my 20 roubles and we hurried inside the station with a minute to spare. We didn’t even check the train but boarded the first one we encountered. Barely settled, we pulled out of the station with the consolation that it was 1216 on the dot; it had to be the right train.

We shared this two-night trip with a congenial older woman and an always-smiling middle-aged man. The woman took it upon herself to explain much about the train to the clueless American tourists. Unfortunately, she did so very quickly in Russian. Between reading and sleeping, I was able to learn that I could not plug Dan’s laptop into the two power outlets when we were stopped or when we were moving, for that matter. They were for cell phones, only. I also learned why the smiling man was smiling; he was traveling to Irkutsk to visit his girlfriend. Before night fell, he presented the train’s blankets to Dan and I, smiling. At least one clueless American tourist was thankful during the chilliest night in a while on this trip.

It didn’t help, however, that I had the bunk against the end of the car, next to the doorway to the bathroom and area between cars where many people smoke. That door happened to be one of those that people feel required to slam as hard as they can. All day and all night, people loudly passed. My bunk also had a footboard which prevented me from a comfortable sleeping position. I have always preferred to sleep in a K-shape but the bunk only allowed something like a ƙ-shape. With my feet planted on the board, I couldn’t even lie flat without tilting my head to the side. My mattress kept sliding nearly off the bunk as I tried to find a comfortable position in my sleep. My smiling friend, sleeping below me, was always ready to assist the clueless American tourist in repositioning my mattress.

During the evening we played a version of Charades with the smiling man. It took a few minutes, but we identified his occupation of air traffic controller based on his sketch. Dan’s web developing and my design occupations were easier to guess. He also bought us a “souvenir” at one stop, a steamed pine cone or шишка. He demonstrated how to peel back the segments to reveal delicious seeds or оген. I wonder if I could do that with the millions of pine cones at home. This morning both he and the woman wished us hearty goodbyes as we arrived in Irkutsk about 1030 local time (5 hours ahead of Moscow time). We thanked them and I wanted to wish him well with his girlfriend, but as a clueless American tourist I didn’t know how. If I had to guess, I would say he’s still smiling.

Registering with the Police

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Our second day in Astana (31/07) was also the last day of July. We looked back on our more than three months of travel and realised how long we had been gone. This feeling of a bit of homesickness was enhanced by the fact that we didn’t really know what we were doing in Astana.

Our first task, however, on this Friday was to get our visas registered before the government had any reason to have problems with us. We found a booth in front of the train station which looked official and had the word bureau on it in Russian. We went to the booth, tried to inform the lady inside, who did not look official, of our needs and were told to wait a few minutes (another Russian phrase I had learned, between Matt and I we had a good dozen words and phrases!). We waited and soon a lady came and hurried is out of the booth, onto a bus (60KT per person, not bad) and we drove downtown.

We got out in the middle of the new old city (the Soviet-looking part) and walked a block to what proclaimed itself in small English letters to be the Migration Office of Kazakhstan Police. This is what we had been looking for! Inside, our friend sat us down and gave our passports to a police officer. That police officer directed her to another room, where she disappeared for a few minutes and came back, rather agitated. Apparently the Migration Office could not register our passports because we were tourists, not actually migrants, at least that’s how we understood it. Our guide then took us down the street and we walked a bit looking for, from what we could understand, a tourist agency where they could register our visas.

Apparently, and to our great surprise, we were expected to have an arrangement with a tourist agency when we requested our visas (hence the confusion and concern of the border guard) and that agency would then register us upon our arrival in Kazakhstan. We had not heard any such thing before applying for our visas and therefore were at a bit of a loss when we heard this. We did eventually find a tourist agency and someone who spoke excellent English. She explained the situation to us but told us she couldn’t register us. She did, however, point us to an agency that could. We made our way there with our guide (we had decided at this point to offer her 1000KT for her selfless assistance). At that agency we handed over our visas and 6000KT, got an official receipt, and left, thanked our guide and offered her the 1000KT Matt and I had agreed on.

She refused the money, but not because she was too kind, but because she claimed we had somehow agreed to pay 10000KT for our visas, 6000 of which was to go to the travel agency and 4000 was to go to her. We understood that it would have taken significantly longer than the half-hour it did take to figure out for ourselves how to register our visas, but we were quite convinced that it was not worth a full nights hotel cost for half an hour especially since we had agreed to no such arrangement. She was not happy and claimed that she would take the receipt (which I had firmly placed in my wallet) and return it to the agency (something the agency told her it would not allow). We finally got her to accept 2000KT, and, as we parted ways, felt a bit bad about the situation.

We wandered the city again, bought some delicious street-food for cheap, and stopped in at a little restaurant for 90KT chai. We relaxed there for quite a while, strolled the riverside watching the ferry boats make there way up and down the river, and made our way back to the hotel. On the way back, we found a little internet cafe and stopped in for an hour mostly so Matt could print off his airplane itinerary for his departure from Ulan Bataar in just a few weeks. Then, we returned to the hotel, bought another night, cooked up some food in our now-empty room, read a bit, and went to sleep.

The next day (Saturday, 01/08) I got up, exchanged some more money, and went to a gostinitsa (hotel) we had noticed just off the square in front of the train station. It was only 3000KT a night for a two-person room! And it included a shower! The only catch was that the cheap price for for only 12 hours so we would have to do something with our four heavy bags. I went to the train station, discovered the left-luggage office was only 300KT per bag for 24 hours, and we had a deal. 400KT less and we had showers and a place to wash our clothes.

That day, we again wandered the city, enjoyed some 80KT Chai (we were finding the cheap places), found a bit of free street-wifi, and learned more Russian. Matt went to use the internet again before we checked into the hotel and met an interesting Canadian fellow named James who had been doing a very similar thing to us, except he started six months earlier in China and travelled through Southeast and South Asia before making his way up to Kazakhstan. He was traveling with his brother until his brother found a job in Almaty just a few days before. James was leaving from Astana on the 5th, the day after we were, heading home to south-central Alberta via southern Ontario. He had just arrived in Astana and Matt and he decided we should meet up the next day at the odd statue of the wolf with the kid on its back, so we could swap stories.

In the meantime, I had been accosted by a very nice completely soused man who attempted to inform me of his need for more vodka. He did so in Russian however and, except for the words vodka, magazin (a small shop), and Guri (his name) I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. That is until a 14-year-old chain-smoking boy showed up who, though unable to speak English, was quite good at explaining things in a way which the pissed-as-a-newt Guri was not. I talked with them both for about an hour and a half learning a lot about their life and about Russian. My vocabulary surely doubled.

After Matt came back, I finally convinced Guri that I wasn’t going to buy any vodka or even schnapps for him, and bid goodbye and thank you to the boy. Matt and I made our way back to the hotel that evening, checked in around 2230 and were informed that we had the room until 1030 the next morning. We stocked the refrigerator with a drink we couldn’t identify which Matt thought was milk (tan it was called… neither of us enjoyed it) and some real milk (moloko, another Russian word). The next morning we had Müesli and oatmeal with 3.2% milk straight from the bag. Like being back at home.