Letter from Mongolia
We've just spent the last four days travelling from China on the Trans-Siberian line and staying in a Ger camp in the Gobi desert. The train is pretty rough and ready - they lock the toilet (which empties straight onto the tracks) 30 minutes before each station stop, which meant over 4 hours without loos at the China/Mongolia border, delayed mainly because they have to change the train's bogies, things on the wheels, so it can fit on the different-width Mongolian/Russian rails.
I also got to see wicker hardhats on the Chinese border, not very safe looking. You also get woken up by the train attendants all the time and have to guard your stuff from thieves. We had extra delays in China when the police came on board after some hawkers got through, so they had to search the rooms and ceiling compartments again.
Mongolia is awesome. Our first stop was Shaysand, capital of the Gobi province where we arrived around 5am. It looked like something straight out of the Star Wars' Tatooine scenes, all sandy buildings, wind swept streets and many, many stray dogs. We, along with a Scots woman and an Irish guy got met at the station and driven out to our base camp in the desert, sort of a tourist set-up where you stay in gers, Mongolian tent/house thingys. From there we drove out to a camel breeders and rode camels around, visiting a 'forest' consisting of shrubs and scrub grass, and a series of sand dunes.
The camels were cool, much easier than horses but just as painful to ride. And when they spit, they really have a range on them. They're very skittish so you have to avoid cameras and cars spooking them, and they're really noisy, always bellowing and grunting to each other. They crap a hell of a lot too.We camped out that night, entertaining ourselves with our torches. I lent/gave our guide a spare torch I had and he spent about an hour alternating between mock signalling with it and singing (very good) snippets of Mongolian opera. We were told about the Gobi dangers, wolves, foxes and (rarely) bears, and I woke up at 3.30am to hear something moving around outside and (I thought) rustling the tent to get in. I expected to have to fight off a fox looking for food at any time, but it turned out it was a combination of wind and a horse that had turned up in the night. A little embarrassing, but there weren't any witnesses.
Seriously though, wolves seemed a real threat. They live out in the 'forest' we visited and weren't timid about attacking things, including tearing the throats out of camels. The camel herding family had recently lost a female camel probably to wolves or something similar. Apparently they lie prone and the camel doesn't spot them. As it walks over it, it leaps up and rips out the camel's throat. We were told to use fire or shine torches in the eyes of wolves if we met them, since they're afraid of fire.
The next day we visited a monastery restored after being destroyed in 1937 by the Communist government, with Soviet NKVD help. There's two main religious branches, the yellow and the red, both buddhist. Yellow can't marry or eat/kill animals, while the red didn't seem to have any restrictions. Surprisingly, the yellow branch seemed the stronger, at least where we were. The visit was fine, except a big group of 36 Taiwanese tourists had descended, bullying the kids into posing for photos and being pretty obnoxious.
After that we cameled, except for Dan who wussed over due to a sore butt and rode in the Russian jeep - no power steering, suspension could be better but pretty cool anyway - over to a petrified forest then a lama cave where buddhist priests came to fast and meditate. For initiation you needed to spend 108 days in a cave, 58 without food. The original guy and his disciple did it, but most of the others died. Two tried to quit mid-fast and were killed by the others, their bodies still inside a cave nearby.
After lunch we visited dinosaur fossils, bones and eggs. I spotted a previously unknown set of spine vetebrae, so I was pretty happy. I needed credibility with our camel guide, as he'd been making fun of my camel riding stylings and unfavourably comparing me to Susan's skills. She was definitely his favourite. Cindi opted out at this point to, so only Susan and I continued back to the Ger camp by camel, having perhaps the slowest ever camel race to end it off. I lost, despite my camel's apparent past race victories. Then the Tiwanese descended, making lewd suggestions and posing with two Belgian backpackers also there and going for a brief camel ride.
We set up tents and camped out near the family for our last night out, surrounded by goats, sheep, horses, dogs and camels (which we all milked - heaps easier than milking cows) before returning to the more touristy Ger base camp. The Gobi desert is unlike anywhere I've ever been before, you can clearly hear dogs barking 10 to 20 kilometers away. Nothing breaks the view of the horizon in any direction, and there's nothing there but sand, rocks, occasional scrubby grass, lizards and bones - apart from the 'dinosaurs' we saw a fox and a horse or wild ass as well as loads of unidentifiable ones. The clouds stretch out like little sky continents and the sunsets are really wonderful. I can't do any justice to how great it all looked.
The camel herders we stayed near where pretty friendly, and we tried the traditional tea and a rice-pudding-like breakfast of rice and milk. Both were good and they dressed and lived surprisingly traditionally, sleeping outside, churning up the milky buttery food, milking and herding the camels, goats and sheep, etc. A lot of the time they just didn't seem to have anything to do and the kids looked pretty bored.
On the other side, European hip hop of the likes of Ace of Bass was really popular, as was burning around on the desert in Russian jeeps and vans. It wasn't all quaint tradition. We spent the last day pretty boringly hanging round the base camp, then caught the train to Ulan Batar. Narumbord, our guide, was a really nice guy, really zealous in his job, unlike his slack counterpart the Scot and Irish guy had. He ignored them a lot of the time to hang out with his girlfriend at the base camp.
We had acouple of museum tours before getting on the train, and saw a necklace carved out of human skulls the Dalai Lama had gifted to Mongolia's most senior lama (forgot his name, but a real Renaissance man - scholar, actor, psychologist, doctor (using healing rocks too), priest and skilled with a variant of the ninja star. Not a man to mess with) and weapons used in the revolution of the 20s - homemade flintlocks at least a century obsolete.We hit Ulan Batar today after a night's train journey. Each cabin sleeps four people and has limited luggage space and we were pretty annoyed to find that dodgy mates of the train conductor had filled every available luggage space in our cabin with shoes and stuff to sell in Ulan Batar. We got some of it shifted eventually though, enough that we didn't have to sleep on our packs.
So now we're at a hotel, with beds and showers and proper toilets - Cindi was unlucky enough to get a dodgy belly when we were out on the steppe, where the bathroom extends in every direction with no convenient trees or shrubs to hide behind. Night was the preferred time, though Dan hastily aborted a visit after the camp's dogs went after him growling and barking while he squatted in the darkness. No such adventures for me, however. Tomorrow evening we leave for Russia and probably the most dodgy section security-wise. We also have a 12 hour stop at the border to look forward to, but this time thankfully there's a pay toilet on the Mongolian side we can use. I just hope I have enough tugruks to shell out for it.