Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sweltering In Siberia

This says "Russia" in Russian. Reading Russian is a bit like cracking a secret code.
I was really excited when I first worked out that CTON meant STOP. I am glad I didn't drive. It would have taken me so long to decipher the road signs that I would have ended up in Vladivostock. There weren't many roads in Siberia though. Trains are the main form of transport. I'll tell you about them in the next couple of posts. Also about some of the great places I visited and the people I met in a journey of over 10,000 kilometres.

The Russian Odyssey

I had always wondered about Russia. For most of my life it was shown as a large blank space in the Philips World Atlas. Now that Russia is finally letting in independent travellers – even shoestring ones like me, I thought I should have a look around and give you an idea of what it is like. I can tell you now that it has 145 million people, at least twelve different ethnic groups and eleven time zones!

I’d always wanted to travel by Trans Siberian Rail too and thought Russia would be a nice cool place to spend a Northern summer. It wasn' t! Russia had its hottest summer ever recorded and it was 35oC from the moment I crossed the border until I left St. Petersburg, two and a half months later. In fact, severe fires were still burning in Volvograd only a month ago.

A great welcome to Siberia

My first stop after Ulaan Bataar was in Irkutkst,"The Paris of the East" where I was met by Max from the Hospitality Club. Just as well as he was one of the few people who spoke English. Even though it was very late in the day, he and his sister immediately whisked me off to Lake Baikal for a taste of smoked Olmi, a smaller relative of the salmon.

Snow still lay on the far mountains and it looked very picturesque and serene. It is the deepest Lake in the world and contains about one fifth of the world's fresh water (Lonely Planet). On the way Max told stories about the Lake. For instance, how the Angara River, the daughter of Lake Baikal, had fallen in love with the mighty Yenisey and had run away to join him. Or the story about how the rock in the middle of the lake was used to to test prospective brides. If they could stay on it overnight, they were thought to make good wives. If not, they were considered likely to stray and that the marriage would be doomed.

Evening near Lake Baikal

Max had to work the next day so he left girlfriend Natasha to show me around town. Although Irkutsk has quite a lot of industry and plenty of soviet- style apartments, the city centre and the area around the river have retained their charm with many older wooden houses, golden domed churches, grand merchant houses and public buildings. It was a perfect day, with lilacs in bloom everywhere and lovers sprawled on the grass in the park or walking hand in hand by the river. Russians are a romantic lot, much more demonstrative in public than most Westerners.

There were yummy bakeries and coffee shops as well. The coffee shop we visited was also a flower shop and the iced coffees were delicious. The next day was just as beautiful, so we fed squirrels in a nature reserve near the city and wandered along by the river. All very idyllic until we were terrorised by a large and savage dog that was thankfully attached to one of the houses.

River Views

The day after wasn't so great. The weather was nice enough- too hot in fact, but we spent most of it and half the next day complying with Russia's fairly complex registration requirements which were to cause problems from time to time. Some hotels wouldn't do it all, preferring to avoid foreigners altogether, rather than deal with the mind -boggling paperwork. Others simply charged more or insisted on a very expensive overnight fee. I certainly vowed I wouldn't put friends through it again - queueing first in one department then another, then at the photocopy shop. After that came a stop at the post office to pay the fee, then back again with the receipt. Even then it wasn't over. Max had to take time off work the next day to prove his identity as the householder. The only option was to keep moving and to stay no more than three days.(This applies to private householders - it is a bit easier in hotels).

Fine buildings, lots of shade trees, many of them lilacs, make Irkutsk the 'Paris of the East' and a lovely place to be in Spring.Bureaucracy aside, Russians are romantics!

Feeding the last squirrel

Not wishing to make an even bigger nuisance of myself, I took a trip to Olkon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal.

It is sacred to both the Buddhists and the traditional shamanistic worshippers. The colourful strips of cloth on trees and stumps reminded me of Mongolia. This is not surprising given that the Buriyati who live in this area are descended from the Mongols. Rather than join Chinggis Khaan in his battles, they fled to the forests of Siberia where they still live a simple life based mainly on raising cows which supply almost all their needs, even alcohol, though the recipe is a family secret!.

Place of Magic and Mystery
- Olkon Island

Spent that night in Nikita's, a hostel owned by a former Table Tennis Champ. It is made up of all different little buildings that collectively have a lot of charm. Would have liked to haved stayed longer, but it was at this point that I discovered that my Lonely Planet was four years out of date and many prices had almost doubled.

Ger at Nikita's

One of the buildings at Nikita's showing the traditional carving which I was to see often in Siberia

Home for one night only

Did enjoy my midnight banya though and the breakfast of millet porridge.
All around a building boom was in progress so I took lots of pictures of the traditional wooden houses seguing into the landscape because I fear that the next time I come, they will all have disappeared.........

Building Boom

New Neighbours

.....along with little places like this

"This says Grand Hotel Europa Hotel, 5 stars."

Then, after a long trip back to Irkutsk and a lot of help from Natasha and also her long -suffering Mum, Vera, I finally caught the night train to Krasnoyarsk.

Thanks for all your help team!

PS: Sorry about all the messed up fonts. Started this on several different computers and am now totally lost.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Places in the Heart - Mongolia Revisited

Its hard to explain the allure of Mongolia to those who haven't been there. Sometimes it's even a mystery to those who have. The landscape can be monotonous, even desolate and its largest city is lately remembered more for the efficiency of its pickpockets and the zealousness of its immigration officials than for the splendour of its architecture or the charm of its streetscapes.Yet those who have been here often come back again and again.

The fleet is newer

The pollution seems worse

For those coming from densely packed European cities, the USA and Japan, those wide open spaces and endless unfenced horizons are impossible to forget. Nor will I forget Katje's face as she tells me about her time in the countryside helping poor herders with their animals. Katje is German. Her face is fresh and tanned and her blue eyes shine ."I have never been so dirty in my life!" she says proudly.

There is still that exotic combination of the ancient and modern

The Temple of Heavenly Sophistication is in a most unlikely setting

Tourist numbers are up this year. Many are international volunteers combining an element of adventure travel with making some kind of contribution to the country. Though there do seem to be more people sleeping on the street and street crime seems to have increased (Mongolia was also hard hit by the global recession as well as the ZUD- see previous post') there are far fewer child beggars than four years ago, presumably thanks to the efforts of aid agencies and such volunteers.

It was not uncommon to have people coming into the hostel bearded and smelling like camels after three weeks in the country or a few days of trekking or travelling by train. Who would have thought it so liberating! And the thrill of that first hot shower - assuming the hostel had hot water that day -and the subsequent transformation were wonders to behold.

It does make you appreciate things we normally take for granted. Many assumptions are challenged every day. Like not being allowed to flush toilet paper down the toilet, or finding that the only facilities at a country hotel consist of a long drop two doors away with two planks to stand on or having to pee by the roadside with all the other passengers with not even a bush or a tree to hide behind. Privacy is simply not a concept in Mongolia. Up to ten of us sleep in an ordinary -sized bedroom at the hostel.
Nor does anyone wear seatbelts or helmets and it's still OK to smoke in restaurants. On the other hand the rules are strict about not wearing shoes inside and attention to cleanliness of the interior of the house is meticulous- even the carpets are washed by hand every day -and the hospitality is generous.
The hostels are busy this summer.

Sometimes it's about meeting new challenges and overcoming your own inhibitions. Helle from Denmark, mature and refined, shows me photos of breakfast in the ger camp where she worked- a stewpot with animal heads and entrails. "Absolutely nothing is wasted" she says, though she was obviously shocked at first. Vegetarians don't stand a chance.

Mongolia is so immediate that it forces you to leave the past behind and forget yourself for a while.
I have a theory that it evokes ancient folk memories of former lives as hunters and herders - a harsher but simpler life, less dependent on the mood swings of the global economy and much more tangible. You measure your progress not by possessions, but by the health of the herd, the state of the grass. If things aren't looking good, you move on. But maybe I am romanticising a life that is basically hard, often short and probably not very stimulating. Otherwise why would one third of the population choose to live in the city?

A Lifestyle under Threat?

Chaotic as it is, Ulaan Bataar stands at the crossroads between the East and the West, the North and the South. You meet people from all over the world, heading to Russia, to Beijing, to Korea, Japan or South East Asia, or going back 'home' wherever that might be. There's a mixture of ancient shamanistic and Buddhist beliefs beside modern shrines dedicated to the almighty Dollar or maybe the Yuan. Despite frustrations like 'Mongolian Time' -very like Island Time in Vanuatu -and disappointments like having my wallet stolen and being fined- The unexpected kindness of people in the hostel as well as complete strangers still endears the place to me.

For example, when I was returning from immigration in the rain, a very kind man offered me me a lift. Since every car is potentially a taxi in Mongolia, I declined at first, as I only had the bus fare left after just being fined around $250. He insisted on taking me anyway- it's about 10 Kilometres from town - and tried to give me money as well inviting me to stay at his home.

Bulgan and her family came into my life when I was asking for directions to the railway booking office. She insisted on taking me herself and we enjoyed a couple of wonderful days together along with some great meals provided by her brother.

Bulgan, her brother Arunbold and a friend take me to the station

When Saggi the hostel manager/ Mother, found out that I had had my wallet stolen, she insisted on not charging me for the next three days. On the night before I left she also put on a fabulous farewell dinner for all the hostellers and gave me some lovely slippers to take with me. My fellow hostellers were really kind too, sharing food and drink as well as being great company. Many of them will remain friends long after we leave Mongolia.

The people who make it all happen - making dumplings for our farewell dinner

Friends at the Hostel partaking of a little light refreshment

Many thanks Pascal and Saggi!

It was lovely meeting you all!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Zud- A natural disaster or a portent of climate change?

The first wildflowers are out in Mongolia but....

The magnificent wild horses looked thin and threadbare this year when I dropped into Mongolia on the way north. At first I thought it was simply a natural consequence of coming a little earlier than I did last time, but it seems that things are far worse than that.
A Zud occurs when there has been a drought followed by a particularly harsh winter. This year it was so severe that more than 17% of the national herd died. The Gobi is littered with dead animals and many herders have lost their livelihood, swelling the ranks of the unemployed in the capital, Ulaan Bataar.

Blue Prayer flags adorn a tree near the spring sacred to Chinggis Khan. Usually a source of the sweetest water it is now little more than a mud puddle

Pessimists see these phenomena as a harbinger of climate change which could permanently threaten the nomadic pastoral life which has sustained Mongolia's diverse tribes for thousands of years. Like many countries in middle latitudes, greater extremes of climate are predicted, along with expansion of the Gobi desert, rather than simply a few degrees of warming which would perhaps not be entirely unwelcome in a country which regularly experiences temperatures in the -40 range.
However, when this is accompanied by already high variability in a country with only 1% of its land suitable for agriculture ( any further change in weather patterns can only be seen as a disaster. Indeed, in some quarters it is thought that Mongolia is already manifesting signs of climate change, not just seasonal variation.

A minor dust storm gathers around Dadal near the birthplace of Chinggis Khan.

While aid now flows from the UN for victims of the latest disaster, the question remains as to whether this is a temporary event or an early manifestation of climate change.