Thursday, September 21, 2006


15th - 26th September

Our train carriage to Ulaanbaatar was full of tourists and a couple of Mongolians. On leaving the Russian border Zhenia orchestrated a Vodka toast that included everybody on the carriage (about 30 people) to celebrate our Russian exit.

We shared a compartment with Namsurem, a Mongolian woman who spoke Russian. Zhenia and her chatted and laughed so much on the train that she invited us out to a Dance & Song Concert where we finally got to hear the throat-singing we missed in Tuva!! Here's Namsurem and her 3 year old grandson, Temujin.
N.B. This is typical Zhenia and one of the reasons she makes such a great travel companion.

Earlier in the day we had got chatting to two Aussie girls, Mez and Emma, who were looking for people to fill their jeep to go out to central Mongolia for a 3 day horse riding trek. So, bright and early the next morning, an olive green Russian jeep with French-beret and leather vest wearing driver named Bairraa were waiting for us to set off. The 7 hour ride to the ancient capital, Kharkhorin, consisted entirely of unpaved dust roads, valium for motion sickness and autumn colors and landscape to boast about (if you were sober).
We crashed at a family ger (a large white felt tent used by nomadic Mongolians for shelter) for the night, which was comfortably equipped with electricity(powered by solar energy), a table with 6 chairs and a wood burning over for heat and cooking. Sleep was sweet. (see below for example)

The next morning we drove to the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia called Erdene Zuu Khiid (Hundred Treasures). Built in 1586, it had between 60-100 temples, about 300 gers were set up inside the walls and up to 1,000 monks were in residence. Unfortunately, Stalin destroyed most of it but it is slowly being rebuilt.

We stopped for lunch overlooking the valley we were to head into. The skull of a horse ornates an ovoo, a pyramid-shaped collection of stones (wood or other offerings) placed on top of a hill or mountain pass in a shamanistic traditional offering to the gods.

Waterfall of Orkhon Khürkhree in the Övörkhanga Aimag region. We stayed the night here in another Ger before setting off by horse back to Naiman Nuur (Eight Lakes Region).

We each rented a horse and were guided by Tommur and his grandson. Here, Zhenia’s horse takes a drink before riding off for 65 km into complete wilderness.Never have we been surrounded by such an abundance of shit (yak, horse and cow) that we absolutely had to bring back the special photographic tribute to the SHIT (remember Sevilla and the Sahara?). It is so abundant here that locals use it for fuel instead of wood burning in ovens.
After a painful but exhilarating horse ride that took 8hrs we finally arrived at the nearest of the lakes. Here's our Ger at sunrise the next morning - very frosty.

.....and one of the very aggressive Yaks...

That day Zhenia decided to give her bum a rest so Tom went out with Tommur our Aussie friends to see the other lakes. Tom poses near the largest of the eight lakes. Tom and Tommur bonded while collecting pine cones for their nuts.

Our horses rest by a lake...Our guide, Tommur, takes a break and a cigarette...

While Tom was away Zhenia made friends with Tommur’s grandchildren. She made them a Wendy house for them out of an old bed frame. The girl is 4 and the boy is 5.

Later that night, after wondering what the awful stink was in our Ger we discovered several dried out sheep carcasses under our beds. Everything smelt of mutton, our clothes, beds, even our money. That night the party began. Out came their mp3/dvd player (powered by a car battery) and on came Madonna, Black Eyed Peas, even Goddamn Craig David. Zhenia got the dancing started (of course). And while we shared our Vodka with our hosts they pulled out Yak Vodka (distilled fermented Yak milk), a clear liquid that tasted like, milk - pretty grim. We did enough shots with Tommur for him to do a special buggy-down Mongolian style for us with the ubiquitous cigarette hanging from his mouth.

In the morning (as if she didn’t have enough yak vodka and fun the night before), Zhenia decided to take a stab at yak riding. This picture was taken about 10 seconds before Tom slapped the Yaks behind to make Zhenia go flying.

Tom got really into his "cowboy" role and all the girls started calling him a man's man. He did however impress Tommur when he managed to stay in his saddle when the horse nearly fell flat on it's face while cantering cross country.

Back on the road on day 5 of our trip, we were all beginning to suspect Bairraa, our driver, of hustling us, the dodgy bastard. After the absolutely the last straw, we asked him to drive us back to Ulaanbaatar.

On our ride back, we spotted a community of vultures resting and double-hump camels getting ready for a trek.

The few days we had left in Mongolia were spent living it up in the city, eating great Korean food and drinking Mongolian pilsner in an English pub. China here we come....

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Olkhon Island - Ольхон

8th -12th September

Our bus driver wore a somber look at the Irkutsk bus station as we left to Olkhon Island. The day was gloomy and the autumn wind seemed to creep closer and closer. As we began to approach Lake Baikal 6 hours later, the body of water we would need to cross in order to get to our destination, he began to perk up with the rest of the local travelers.

As we crossed the lake by ferry and began driving to Khuzir, the main village on the island, we began to ask around in the bus for accommodation. A 40-something guy with crystal-blue eyes named Sasha offered us his house. All seemed to fall into place. What follows can only be described as a destined meeting and the best darn time anyone can ever want.

On the way to the island, we had began to chat with other travelers on the bus: Monica, an Austrian teacher living in Irkutsk teaching German, in love with the region of Lake Baikal and fluent in Russian, with an authoritative German accent; Agneshka, a Polish teacher living in Irkutsk teaching Polish; Matteias, a German violin maker living in Milano; and lastly, Cranmore and Anna, a Bristol couple who are on the road to Australia for a friends wedding. After a few laughs, all agreed to set our bags and bums at Sasha’s place and see what will come.

Once we arrived at Sasha’s, we met his mother Tamara, a hardworking village local with large stranglers hands and a larger than life hospitality. She heated the stove in our rooms, warmed up our backside and we toasted with vodka and slept like babies that night.

Sasha offered to give us a tour the next day in his olive Russian military ambulance jeep refurbished with faux marble vinyl and plenty of cheap carpet. While we bumpily drove to our first destination, Sasha began to give us a sense of Olkhon Island and its residents, an ethnic mix of Russians, native-Siberians, and Buryats living mostly harmonious. Many locals are Christian Orthodox but with an eastern blend of Shamanistic Buddhism. The island is considered sacred and spirit-filled and there is a great amount of energy in its waters and soil.

Zhenia at the "Three Brothers" above Cape Khoboy.

A blooming wild flower over looking Cape Khoboy. Tom and Zhenia on the purplish sandy beach on the shore of Maloe More on the western side of the island.Tom plays hide and seek.

We drove by plenty of horses that roam freely on the island.

Cows watch the sunset. The cows roam around freely in the street and often block shop doorways and force cars off the dirt track.
That night Sasha and his friend, Igor invited us for a little drink and some laughs. Here Sasha, Zhenia and Igor discuss the pros of having a mistress and a wife. This apparently is totally kosher in Russia.
Tom and Cranmore sit in the cab of Igor's luxury truck. Very drunk on Tamara's home made hooch. We both later drank even more with another friend of Sasha's, Sergey, who was a spy for the north vietnamese during the war. He made us arm wrestle him (we lost of course) and he made stabbing motions with his (large) knife everytime he mentioned americans. I don't think I've ever been so happy to be English.
The beautiful weather of Baba Leta (literally translated as Grandmother's Summer or two warm weeks in September) allowed Sasha to show us his favorite beach spot on the island, coincidently where he brings his mistress on their 'excursions'.
A view the from above.
Tom, the brave soul, was the first one to get into the waters. You can tell by his face just how cold it really was. Zhenia bravely tackles Lake baikal near naked.
Lake Baikal is known to be so clean that one can put a cup and drink it straight without worry (which we did). Here, cows stop for a water break.

Olkon Island is known for it's delicious and tender Omul fish. Fisherman are known to catch and sell Olkhon Omul all over Siberia and Russia. Since we were in the presence of a great fisherman, Sasha wanted to show us his net-catching tactics of fishing. Here, Tom, Matteias and Cranmore smile on the waters of Lake Baikal.
Cranmore and Tom are rowing, not posing. Sasha waits for the right moment to drop the net into the water.
The fishing team is quiet while Sasha carefully picks the net out of the water not to lose our catch.
At the end of the fishing trip, we proudly cooked our catch on the campfire and ate it proudly.
On the ferry back to Irkutsk, with a smile worth every penny.

Irkutsk - Иркутск

6th - 7th September

Irkutsk, located smack in the middle of Siberia
, is agreed by most to be a refreshing stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway only in the fact that the city is friendlier and more accommodating for backpackers with a budget. We stayed at the Irkutsk Downtown Hostel and were so excited about the full stacked kitchen with the decently sharpened knife that Zhenia cooked up a storm for the ENTIRE hostel, which included 11 travelers, Luidmila, the on-duty staff member, and her 19 year old son. Similar celebrations followed the next night but this time with Olga, one of our favorite hostel staffers EVER!

This picture was taken while Zhenia (after a few beers) held Olga to the security camera downstairs while Tom snapped the image on the screen upstairs at the hostel.

We took a break from camera snapping here so this is the only picture we have from our days in Irkutsk!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Guidebook on Riding the Trans-Siberian Railway

So you've got your ticket and you're on the train. Get changed into your "train clothes". This is what you'll be wearing night and day until you get to your destination. To better blend in and be comfortable, consider purchasing the following:

1. One track suit (matching bottom and top is not necessary).

2. One pair of sandals, any variety will do as long as they are not thongs, you must be able to wear them with socks. If you are feeling especially daring then wear a pair of furry slippers (preferably in some neon shade).

3. Socks are one of the most important items. Be creative and definitely think style over substance.

4. Forget about bringing a rucksack, you're travelling by train not hiking. No self respecting Russian has one and this is the main item that'll make you stick out like the odd foreigner that you are. One medium (over filled) sports bag is key. A plastic bag is all you need for a day bag and all your food items while on the train.

5. Earplugs are absolutely essential since there is bound to be hours of snoring at unimaginable volumes and drunks attempting to sober up with more vodka after falling out of the top bunk.

Be especially nice to the train attendant(s) who work on each carriage. These are usually ladies with crazy color/shape hairdos and are late fashion bloomers. They can make your train journey pleasant or miserable since they wake you up and serve you coffee at the break of dawn before your arrival.

The restaurant car (if you're lucky enough to have one) often only stocks cucumbers and vodka so bring as much ramen as your stomach will handle since hot water is constantly available from the carriage samovar and it's free; a dozen boiled eggs; fresh tomatoes and cucumbers; loads of bread and one long sausage stinking of garlic. Bring plenty of drinking water.

While on the train, you will no doubt be forced to seriously compromise your hygiene including dental so be prepared to stay clean using creative methods or just stay dirty. There are no showers, only a small sink and a metal toilet and it's cleanliness depends on the fastidiousness of your attendant. Usually, the bathroom nearest the attendant's berth is the cleanest because that's the one she has to use. My advice is to get smelly and blend in with the locals but if you really need to get clean bring a bit of hose to attach to the tap to makeshift a shower.

When sharing a compartment, it is our recommendation to share lunch or snacks to your bunk-mates. The whole affair usually ends with a bottle of vodka and a hangover in the morning.

Since the railway is long and the view doesn’t change much, it is wise to bring some entertainment: music player, books, cards, puzzles (our newest obsession has become SU DOKO), and games.

Depending on your budget, 2nd class (4 beds with a door) and 3rd class (4 beds and 2 side beds without door - privacy is unheard of in this class), is fine for the independent traveler. For comfort and easy access to a table, buy lower bed bunks. Unless you are 5’5, you must get used to sleeping in the most unorthodox positions.

The train is a social place so don’t feel shy or inappropriate at starting conversation with a total stranger. Knowledge of the Russian language is not always necessary, in fact, the less you know the more friendly people are likely to be.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Kyzyl - Кызыл

1st – 4th September

Kyzyl, capital of Tuva. WE MADE IT!!!
Well, actually, not yet because before Kyzyl we had to take a shared taxi from Abakan, a truly breath taking 5 hour drive at break neck speed.
Beautiful rolling landscape, wooden villages, Siberian cowboys herding cattle…..then it rained. A lot. This guy got really wet.
Then we climbed up through the Ergaki Mountains and it snowed. At this point we wished we had at least a warm hat.
Once settled in Hotel Kyzyl, a dubious establishment (perhaps of ill repute?), we took to our beds for some well earned rest. Here’s the view from our hotel room once the clouds cleared. The building in the foreground is the National Drama Theatre, eagles perched here between hunting sessions.
On our first full day we went in search of throat-singing and stamps for postcards. Incredibly, the main post office here does not stock stamps and, believe me, Zhenia asked everybody working there and created more than a little fuss!

Rebuffed but not defeated we decided to see if we could fulfill our other quest. Our first stop was the theatre but the heavy wooden doors were firmly shut and certainly nobody was home. Our next option was the Cultural Centre, maybe we could stumble across Kongar, the famous Tuvan featured in Genghis Blues? Teaching a khöömii class? No. The caretaker answered “Nyet” to every one of Zhenia’s enquiries and the place looked abandoned.

At this point we were sorely disillusioned and took to wandering the streets with our ears vainly straining for any other worldly sounds that might be emanating from a Tuvan throat. What did we find? Another post office that sold stamps (only boring Russian ones we’re afraid) in very small denominations but beggars can’t be choosers.

So celebrating our minor victory we took a tour of Kyzyl’s other sights….here’s Zhenia standing by the Centre of Asia….
Here’s a close up of the mountains that surround the city…
A statue of a martyr commemorating the repression of the Tuvan people…
We’d arrived at probably the worst time, three weeks after the major festival, the kids are starting school, everybody’s busy preparing for winter, we realized that our chances of seeing some throat-singing were slim to none and that we’d just have to come back some other time.

We still had some jolly good fun…our last afternoon was spent on a peddle boat in the mosquito infested park.