Archive for August, 2007

A final day of Yurtastic fun in Mongolia

  • Date and Time: Early morning, 30th August 2007
  • Location: Bed 16, Carriage 1, sitting in the Russian border of Naushki. Carriage swarming with Russian officials.
  • About 5 hours since the train pulled in just a few metres down the track on the Mongolian side, we’re still going through immigration procedures. Our passports have been taken by the scary Russian officials. We’d better behave ourselves from here on or there’ll be trouble…


    My final day in the Mongolian outback

    Our final full day spent with the family of herdsmen was a relaxed affair. After a late breakfast (I don’t think I need to tell you what that consisted of) we piled into GI Jim’s Toyota and headed off across the grassland, not following any particular track. I had no idea where we were heading, but reaching the peak of the hill, I guessed it must be something to do with that unusual collection of buildings in the middle of the valley that had just revealed itself to us.

    Sure enough, it was. The remains of an ancient (10th century?) Mongolian town that was of significant archaeological importance, as demonstrated by the plaques on the wall commemorating generous donations by some Japanese NGO that helped pay for the upkeep of the neighbouring museum that housed all sorts of ancient tools, pots and so forth.

    Me in the museum, with special guest ‘blur effect’

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    Me with ye ancienty bird’s claw up my nose

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    Hurrah for ancient cities

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    After a brief stroll around the grounds, it was back in the car, and off in a different direction from that from which we had come. The daughter of the family started making swimming motions – I guessed we were off to some river to get washed up.

    I was almost right. In fact it was a huge lake that seemed to be very popular with local herdsmen as a place to wash their cows, goats …and cars. The water was a filthy sheep-shit green, but this didn’t stop the entire family from washing their hair (with Pantene Pro-V) in it. Both father and GI Jim went for a swim, but having had my toes nipped more than once by these little prawn things, I decided not to go in beyond my knees, and contented myself with sitting on the shore watching the children chuck water at one another.

    The lake, looking surprising blue considering it was full of poo

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    Hair washing

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    Sheep washing

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    After a while, GI Jim decided to give the car a wash – the long journey along the dirt roads had not treated the paintwork kindly. To save him having to cart water to and from the lakeside, he did the sensible thing: reversed the car into the lake!

    Car washing

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    Back at the yurt, the family were preparing our final supper. It was to be a great feast, and there was immense excitement as the huge metal bowl containing the main course was set down before us.

    I took one look, and felt sick. In front of me was what had to be the remains of the goat slaughtered the day before – the fresh head had been given to the dog to play with, whilst the skin lay stretched out on the roof to dry. A huge great bowl of bones to be knawed at …what should I do? Tell them that actually, I was vegetarian and whilst a bit of chicken was OK this kind of caveman thing was a bit beyond me? Ask the daughter if she had any Pringles left? Pretend I was really sick?

    The head of our supper

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    Dead goat anyone?

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    When the bottle of clearly very special black vodka was brought out of the back of the cupboard to accompany the meal, I realised that this was serious business, and I simply could not afford to risk offending them by not partaking in the meal. Thankfully, the lights were low, and so i couldn’t really see the bones in too much detail. I told myself that this was some vegan alternative, after all, these days you could get some astonishingly realistic soya-based fake meat dishes. I carefully selected a small specimen, and slowly began to gnaw. At this rate, I could make it last at least half an hour, and by that time the meal might be over.

    Whilst the rest of the family dived in and created an impressively fleshless skeleton in the middle of the table, I hung back in the shadows, taking all the carrots and potatoes that I could find from amongst the mountain of gristle. Now and again I was offered another bone. I gestured that I still had some meat left on the one in my hand, and was left in peace.

    In this way, I managed to get through the ordeal without too much of poor Billy passing my lips. By the end of the meal, the group’s attention was well and truly on the bottle of vodka, which had mysteriously become two bottles, both of which were rapidly being relieved of their contents. Despite my 6 shots in fairly rapid succession, I was happy to find that I didn’t really feel drunk. I was eating plenty of bread to try and soak up the alcohol – whether that had any real effect or not I don’t know, but the placebo effect alone was enough.

    I then made the mistake of asking to take a group photo – well, that was it! They clearly weren’t used to having a camera to hand, thus the photo session went on and on – in fact it wasn’t finished until after every single possible combination of people had posed and been captured on memory stick.

    I’ll spare you the entire show. Here’s just a couple.

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    Pepe and the gang

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    Whilst the herdsman’s family had gradually been warming to me ever since we arrived, it was only really on that final evening that the conversation and laughter really flowed between us. The language barrier was finally overcome; there was much back-slapping and taking the piss out of one another. Finally, I was presented with gifts of a huge great bag of dried curd pieces (which sits untouched on the table next to me!) and some little wooden dolls, which I assume must be traditional Mongolian toys. In return, I gave them the only thing I had with me (apart from dirty clothes and a bag of electronics) – a pot noodle that I’d bought at a station in China! They seemed quite grateful, and no doubt will be filling it with hot milk some time in the near future.

    Moo Moo milking

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    And with that, my final day in the yurt came to an end. Aside from the incident with the sudden cessation of my constipation when stuck up a hill with no toilet paper, it had been a very relaxing day. I slept very well that night, thinking back on how lucky I was that everything had worked out as it had, with virtually no planning on my part. Yes, there had been times when I’d thought that I was going to be left in the middle of nowhere, my belongings stolen thanks to an incredibly well thought out plan which began with an old man falling off a platform on the sight of my penguin, but those times were very few and far between. Once again, I had been the recipient of incredible generosity: when was the last time you were invited to go on holiday with a family you happened to meet on a train the day before, none of whom spoke your language?

    Slicing curd to dry in the sun

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    The kindness continued once we were back in Ulaanbaatar. Following a pretty horrendous 8-hour trip back along the dirt tracks (which saw me throw up the remains of the goat from the night before in addition to quite a lot of milk…), I was invited in to the family home. Within 30 seconds I had one laptop and two cameras plugged into the mains, and a few minutes later was in the shower, washing away the smell of cow shit. Using their dial-up connection I made a quick check of my emails, and posted the three blog entries that I’d prepared before my departure earlier thin the week. It all worked out wonderfully!

    One of the thousands of birds of prey – shame about the flare from the sun

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    Three hours later, feeling thoroughly refreshed, I was given a lift to the station in their company car, and guided to the platform from which this train departed. What did I give in return for this hospitality? I provided the family with photographic memories, about 500 images (resized so as to prevent them selling them!) of their time in the outback. The mother had wanted her photo taken at almost every opportunity – a benefit of this was that she always wanted to take my photo in return, thus I now have quite a few pictures of me comparing my nose with those of Mongolian horses.

    By special request for The Daily Mumble..!

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    All in all, Mongolia was spectacular – I loved it. The image of those endless miles of grassland with nothing but the occasional yurt or the shadow of a herd of goats to interrupt the scene will be etched in my memory for good. I look forward to going back there with *Twinkle*. Think I’ll take a packet of Kellogg’s All Bran next time.

    Crazy goat

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    We are now being subjected to immigration procedures proper (after 5 hours sitting here, following 5 hours on the other side) – they’re not done yet. It reminds me of my brief stop at Moscow International Airport a few years back, there too were the huge blonde Russian women who took no crap and barked orders at us. Our passports were taken a couple of hours ago; we’re now waiting for customs to go through all our belongings whilst they’re processed. I can hear the woman working her way down the carriage, giving the neighbours shit, making the kiddies cry. It seems they’re pretty strict about the amount of luggage you have; this would explain why a couple of hours ago a Mongolian guy came to ask myself and Adrian if one of us would take a package across the border for him. We pointed out that doing so would be incredibly stupid, as we didn’t know what was in the box. “It’s just camel’s wool” he insisted. I could just imagine myself trying to explain to customs what I was doing with a box of camel’s wool, and why there was a package of washing-up powder in the bottom of the box… A similar thing had happened on the ferry (I may have already mentioned this); a Chinese girl asked if I’d take her laptop computer for her so she didn’t have to pay duty. I remember thinking that I’d need the computer to be taken apart so I could examine the innards before I agreed to help out.

    Anyway, I’m gonna leave it here for now. The to-ing and fro-ing of this train as it goes up and down the border post tracks for no apparent reason is doing me nut in. I reckon the drivers are bored, just passing the time.

    Da svidanya! (Goodbye!)


    p.s. A few more photos from my time in the outback… Remember, lots more in my photo albums. Click on any image to be taken there.

    The son of the family I went with

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    This is how dusty the roads were!

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    Public toilets, Mongolian style (literally just a hole in the wooden floor of these doorless huts

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    Young monks

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    Horses at sunset

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    Where’s my train gone?!

  • Date and Time: Early morning, early Autumn
  • Location: Bed 16, Carriage 1, Approximately 12 hours into a 40-hour journey from the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar to the Russian city of Yakutsk.
  • There is something mightily odd going on here! I’ve just woken up and stepped outside to have a look at this station where our 10-carriage train has been for several hours. I know we’ve been here several hours because at about 4.30am I was woken by some loud clanging noises and the jerk of the carriage, as if an engine had just shunted into us. I checked the time, looked out of the window and just saw the usual collection of non-descript station buildings seen at many of the quieter stops along this route. I then fell back to sleep.

    15 minutes ago I was woken again, this time by the rays of a beautiful golden sunrise, shining through the wafer-thin carriage curtains. Looking out of the window I see we are in the same place; the only change is that now there is a gathering of dogs, some 3-legged having been involved in arguments with trains, waiting to be thrown scraps of food. I;m thinking they are the ones abandoned at the border by owners ignorant of rules regarding the importing of animals. I also see a few people clutching towels heading off to the station building; I guess there must be a bathroom there. Needing a morning wee myself (and preferring to avoid the cesspit that is the on-board loo as much as possible), I get up and step off the train. Concerned that it might leave without me I glance along the platform to check that all the other carriage doors are still open. But they’re not – because there are no other carriage doors!

    Shunted off and forgotten for good?

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    The rest of the train has vanished! All that is left is our carriage, and one other! No engines, nothing! What is going on here? We seem to have been abandoned in the middle of some isolated freight yard! Did the engines get too tired and leave us behind? We were the last two carriages after all. Or did the coupling break without the driver noticing, him continuing to Russia with 8 carriages, oblivious of the fact that he has left a fifth of his sleeping passengers behind?!

    I suppose there’s not much we can do but wait. The matron doesn’t seem all that concerned; she’s just standing at the end of the carriage, cigarette in one hand, coal shovel in the other, feeding her mini boiler for our morning tea.

    Myself and my carriage companions – two Mongolian Russians, and Andrew the Ozzie, have debated what might be the reason behind our abandonment. All we can think of is that our carriages were the only ones with printed images of foxes with pants in their mouths on the curtains.

    No need to worry too much yet though, according to the Russian timetable on the wall we’re not due to leave here for another 3 hours… At least I think it’s three hours. Time zones make it somewhat confusing. Apparently, Russian trains run on Moscow time, which is 5 hours behind the time in the section of Russia to the north of us. But hang on, we’re still in Mongolia right, so does that mean we go by Mongolian time? To make matters even more confusing, as soon as we do cross the border time actually goes forward, not backwards as it should when travelling West. Thus, as of a bit later today, I’ll be back on Tokyo time despite a week on the road travelling north-west through the Tokyo-time-minus-an-hour time zone!

    And I thought just dealing with a different alphabet was going to be tricky – now I have to start using a clock that goes backwards!

    Tarra for now.

    The moon. Not a bad shot for a normal camera me thinks.

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    Speechless for three days in Mongolia

  • Date and Time: Early evening, early Autumn
  • Location: Tradition Mongolian Yurt, somewhere in middle of Mongolia, 7 hours drive West of Ulaanbaatar
  • Feeling: Dairyed out, but happy.
  • Ulaanbaatar

    It’s nearing the end of Day 3 of our Yurt adventure. I wasn’t expecting us to still be here, the arrangement having been that we’d be returning home either late last night or early this morning. Initially, upon discovering that we wouldn’t be heading back into town today I was a wee bit peeved as the decision had been made without any consultation. I had the (literal) recharging of multiple batteries planned, and the washing of socks. As it is now, I’ll only get into town a couple of hours before my next (30 hour) train ride begins. Still, I’ve come to accept this new reality now, and I am happy to remain at peace here in the countryside.

    ‘Countryside’ seems a somewhat inappropriate label for the grasslands of Mongolia. It suggests that somewhere there is a ‘town-side’ – yet Ulaanbaatar is (comparatively speaking) so miniscule that it doesn’t really deserve a ‘side’ to itself, and the countryside so large that, well, it IS the Country.

    Herdsman on the plain

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    I can’t really come to terms with just how much space there is. I mean, it just goes on, and on. It belongs to no-one. This family of herdsman has been in this spot for three months – soon they will move on to fresh grazing land, as they do every few months. I asked the English-speaking daughter if they have always lived here, if they have always lived like this. No, when she was born they lived in the south, but yes, her family have always lived in yurts, moving from place to place with their livestock. She herself was now at university, and just came back to the family ‘home’ to help over the summer. Thus her ability to speak English, although somewhat mysteriously after that first night she has not said a word to me. The cynic in me says that after she’d managed to get me to hand over the money for my stay (I’d been told to give it to someone else and thus had not paid up) she no longer needed to be nice to me. However, the ego in me says that she was scolded by her husband for flirting with the Englishman. Whatever the reason, it initially threw me, but now I appreciate that it’s her issue, not mine.

    The girl in question with her brothers, holding Pepe

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    This has of course meant that I have not been able to talk to anyone for three days now, aside from making Mongolian-sounding acknowledgements and so forth. For the first day I even had trouble using my phrasebook, as I was unsure what language the family was using. It shouldn’t have been Mongolian as they were allegedly Chinese, yet they spoke Mongolian with our guide and the herdsmen. It wasn’t any Chinese I’d heard before either… I was stumped, until finally I managed to establish the fact that coming from Inner Mongolia (which is now a part of China) they were speaking a mixture of the two languages, but that they were happier reading Chinese than the Cyrillic script.

    Yours Truly, and the parents (and a baby herdsman)

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    Joseph and the kids

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    My first full day got off to a mixed start. It wasn’t quite as unpleasant as the one in Beijing where the first thing I did was electrocute myself by unplugging my mac in a careless manner, but it came close. Initially it was OK, well, more than OK – a beautiful sunrise that enabled me to get some great shots of rucking goats. They were very funny, sounding like human’s impersonating goats with their calls to one another. There was one Billy in particular whose persistence I admired. He followed this female for ages, making sneezing sounds to seduce her, and then when she stopped walking, he’d raise his front right leg in a kind of begging action, and let out a gentle “Please?” type beeh. It was very sweet to watch, and I admired his gentlemanly approach.

    The gentleman goat

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    The lads fight over the ladies

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    Anyhow, it was what followed this that was unpleasant: the digging out of live maggots from sheep’s bums. At first, I didn’t realise that these huge great wounds (some big enough to get a small fist in) were the result of a maggot’s feast – but they were. The herdsmen /women would grab a hold of the affected sheep, sit on them and then start to dig the maggots out with any stick small enough to suffice. They then washed the wounds out, and filled them with some kind of powder. Astonishingly, once pinned down the sheep put up little resistance, although you could see just how happy they were when it was all over as leaving the holding pen they jumped for joy.

    De-maggoting a sheep

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    Jumping for Joy

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    Following that, I went to watch the cows being milked, and then the horses. Yep, horses. They didn’t give much milk, and weren’t half as co-operative as the cows or goats, and always had to have their foals right next to them when being drained.

    Breakfast, for a change, was milk, a mountain of dried curd, huge great slappings of butter and cream balanced on the end of little breadsticks, and more milk. By this time my stomach really was really complaining, and I had to go for a stroll to take my mind off the pain. Up the local hill I went, the vast grasslands stretching out before me in all directions. Down by the little zig-zag river in the shallow valley below the four yurts stood huddled together, smoke rising from the cow-pat fuelled stoves that sat in the centre of each one, boiling huge great bowls of milk for hours on end, resulting in a great thick pancakes of cream floating on the surface. Behind the yurts horses grazed, some tethered, some penned in, the remainder free to roam but reluctant to stray far from their friends. And beyond them, in the distance, a cloud of dust moved across the landscape – the goats were being herded to fresh pastures the other side of the valley.

    Dust rises from a herd of goats

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    I felt better after my little stroll, and decided to give horse-riding a go. I’ve only ever ridden a horse once before, and on that occasion it became tangled in barbed wire and (naturally) extremely agitated. Still, out here, apart from the pens used to hold the animals in prior to milking, there’s nothing in the way of fences. Just vast stretches of open land ready to be conquered by the pounding of hooves of a galloping horse.

    Or, in my case, the incredibly slow clip-clop of the hooves of a horse that doesn’t speak English and thus doesn’t understand the words, “Go on horsey, good horsey, forward horsey”. “Horsey, can we go a bit faster? They’re all laughing at me”. The horse seemed in no mood for speed that day however, and so I just went round in circles for a while. It was fun though – watch out for me jockeying in next years’ derby.

    Where’s the “Go forwards” button on this thing?

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    The horse refuses to move out of frame as the parents have their photo taken

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    Naturally, after all that excitement, and a heavy lunch consisting of copious amounts of dairy products and goat broth (I tried not to look too closely at the pieces of meat after an initial glance – I could make out little veins and other yukky things), I was absolutely shattered, and so settled down to sleep in the cool of the dark yurt. I’ve not felt that relaxed in a very long time; several hours passed, with me oblivious to the comings and goings of the herdsmen as they played around with various barrels of milk at different stages of transmogrification.

    As the sun neared the Western horizon, so it was time for the evening milking. Once the goats had been rounded up, a particularly amiable character was chosen to be victim of my udder abuse, as I tried in vein to get a drop from the swollen animal. It seems I just didn’t have the knack. Thus, after five minutes the somewhat agitated animal was taken off me, and I was given the job of keeping the post-milked goats near the holding pen whilst the remainder were dealt with. Initially this was easy – 10 goats weren’t all that much of a handful and I was easily able to keep them exactly where I wanted them to be. However, one-by-one the number increased, until 30 minutes later I was struggling to keep the gaggly gang of 50 together. Some were determined to explore the long grass off to the east, whilst others were steadfast in their mission to explore a particularly green patch of land the west. The biggest problem though was Blacky and Whitey – a naughty mother and daughter pair who insisted on not sticking with the crowd and doing their own thing. I later learnt that these two were notorious trouble-makers, and were often tethered for the day so as not to gander off to Europe as seemed to be their plan.

    Trying to milk a goat

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    Sitting on the fence

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    Cowboy Joseph with the two naughty goats

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    By 8pm it was getting dark, and I was feeling sleepy. It seemed my body had well and truly surrendered to the rhythm of the outback, and after an evening meal of, er, milky stuff, I was only too happy to hit the carpet.

    A Mongolian evening sky

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    Live from the Yurt

  • Date and Time: Early morning, early Autumn
  • Location: Tradition Mongolian Yurt, somewhere in middle of Mongolia, 7 hours drive West of Ulaanbaatar
  • Feeling: Peaceful, despite sore bum
  • It’s extraordinary what a powerful influence one’s surroundings have upon one’s rhythm. It’s only been 36 hours since we arrived at the collection of 4 yurts that is home to this family of herdsmen, but already my body feels it is only right that I rise with the sun, retire at about 8pm soon after the sun sets. I recall trying to get into this rhythm in Tokyo, but my body was vocal in its complaints from the start. Even after a week of forced early mornings I was no closer to waking up of my own accord before 9am, yet here, my eyes opened just before the sunrise, and I was wide awake within seconds.

    Rucking goats at sunrise

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    If anyone had told me the story of how I’d end up here, I’m not sure I’d have believed them. On the Trans-Mongolian train I’d have a brief conversation with a Japanese-speaking Mongolian of Chinese origin; she would invite me to join her family when they went to stay 300km west of Ulaanbaatar in the Mongolian outback. I already knew her parents, as her father had fallen off the station platform when trying to stroke my pet penguin. She would tell me to meet her the following morning at the gates of Mongolia’s most important monastery. I would turn up at the appointed time, where I would wait for almost an hour, engaged in conversation with a peak-capped Mongolian chap in his 70s, who, with the aid of my Phrasebook tells me time and time again that he is the highest lord in the entire land.

    The monastery located in central Ulaanbaatar

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    Eventually, my new friend – who’s name is so long I can’t even remember – arrives at the gate. I am expecting a 4×4 or a high-wheel base van, the kind of which are seen outside all Mongolian tour company offices, but no, behind her is a Toyota XEV Vintage – a low-slung four door family saloon. Assuming that our route will not be along the kind of dirt tracks I saw from the train, I think no more of it and get in the passenger seat, next to the well-built chap dressed in camouflage gear and sporting a pair of wrap-around shades, just as he had been yesterday when he met the family at the station. In the back, her mother, father, younger sister and a little dog are sitting. I was just about to ask where her younger brother (age 10?) was going to sit, when he climbed on my lap. I shouldn’t be too surprised, you rarely see a car that isn’t full to bursting. But what about her, my friend?

    The driver, GI Jim

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    “Oh, I can’t come, I have to work” she tells me. Er, right. So that leaves me with your family and this army guy, none of whom I know anything about, and none of whom speak English (or Japanese). I try not to feel put out by this, maybe it was some kind of oversight on her part, you know, not to tell me. Everything will be OK, I tell myself, looking forward to a couple of days of relative silence on my part. I guess it will kind of suit the environment.

    Miki the dog

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    The seven of us set off. After 200 metres or so we stop outside a fruit and veg market. Men carrying impossibly tall stacks of boxes – fruit from China – on their backs pour our of the front door, dodge traffic on the four-land highway out front and plonk them down on the opposite kerb next to waiting taxis. There are so many vehicles loading and unloading fruit that one gets the impression that the entire Mongolian economy is centred around fruit distribution. Out of the corner of my eye I see a vehicle that makes me look twice – a genuine Japanese “Kuro Neko” van, belonging to Japan’s most widely used courier company. It’s paintwork has been left exactly as when it was when it retired from service, but there’s no smartly-dressed baseball capped driver running down the road with a parcel of fresh fish; instead there’s a group of scruffy old men, sitting in the back surrounded by boxes of peaches and bananas.

    Our already fully-loaded car is packed further with a great sack of cabbagaes, a box of plums and 12 litres of water; bursting at the seams we drive a bit further out of town, fill up with gas and oil, stop at a little roadside shrine to offer vodka to the Gods in order that we may be looked after during our epic trip West, and then hit the highway.

    Shrine stop

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    I’m glad to see the back of Ulaanbaatar. Just as the guide book said, it’s a filthy city. It sits in a shallow valley surrounded on all sides by mini-mountains that serve to retain the blanket of pollution that rises from the factories to the south-west of the centre. It’s another of those places, like the places in China I visited, where one doesn’t really want to breath. I think back to the Mongolia I saw from the train, and can scarcely believe it’s the same country. From the train, that looked so big, so empty, so clean.

    However, it seems that with so much apparent space (I think the country has a population of only 2 million, half of whom live in the capital) there is little concern for the environment – if there’s so much of it, why bother protect it? The effect of this attitude is pollution both in the city, and the few tows that exist elsewhere. The Ulaanbaatar yurt hostel that I stayed in on my first night in Mongolia was situated in the heart of what I would describe as a ‘yurt slum’. Filthy streets, a river that was more rubbish than water, and the stench of general crap. Thankfully, the yurt hostel had been built on top of a hill, and the yurts were pitched on the roof of the main building, lifting them above the stink below.

    The Yurt Slum

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    Perhaps my concern for the environment clouds my judgement when it comes to summing up a city. I can’t really get beyond the pollution to appreciate any other aspect.

    So yes, you can imagine how glad I was when we reached the end of the city. I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going – all my Japanese-speaking friend had said was that it was 300km to the west. And it is, but the journey that followed made it feel like it was a lot further. The thing was, the road was still under construction. It had been completed for the most part – a long straight bed of gravel that cut through the grassland like a knife, but every 500 metres or so there was a gap where a bridge across a little stream was to go, thus making the entire road useless. Instead, what we had to deal with was 300km of off-roading, in that family saloon. Initially I guessed that this was just a temporary thing, that we’d soon reach the end of the roadworks – but no. It went on, and on, and on. For 300km. We were driving for 9 hours in the end. Occasionally we’d spot a stretch of the highway that was without gaps all the way to the horizon – it looked beautiful. However, being under construction there was no entry ramp, so we’d climb the embankment, scraping the underside of the car on the gravel as we went over the top. Then GI Jim would floor it, and we’d bomb down the road, 90, 100, 110kmph, loving this opportunity to go faster than a drunken snail. In less than a minute we’d reach that horizon, and seconds later, without fail, we’d find ourselves facing a break in the road: time to return to one of the many dirt tracks that zig-zagged a course parallel to the road-to-be. Sometimes we were lucky and found a fairly shallow embankment to exit down, but more than once we ended up having to turn around and retrace our steps looking for some section where the road elevation wasn’t all that great. Then there was that time when we got well and truly stuck whilst trying to negotiate a particularly risky way off. First, the sound of stone on metal, then the tyres spinning. We get out, and push GI Jim over the rocks and out of the mud. Behind us, a brand new Land Rover waits for us to clear the way, and then effortlessly continues on its journey, the embankment being nothing more than a minor blip in the road surface to its great big tyres and superb suspension. I try to tell myself it’s more fun doing it the hard way.

    A section of the dirt road

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    A section of the road we wished we could drive on

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    300km of off-roading near their end

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    The landscape was similar to that that I’d seen from the train – endless grassland, without division of any kind. Only this time it wasn’t so flat. There were frequent gentle hills (covered in pot-holes where dirt roads traversed over them I hasten to add), and in the distance mini-mountains. We often passed herds of cattle, horses, sheep, and usually not far beyond them a little collection of yurts. Other than these (and the road on which we were driving), signs of human life were seldom indeed – in 300km we only passed two small towns.

    A herd of goats cross the plain

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    There were a few other vehicles that caught my eye. One was a Citroen 2CV – I really thought that the mirage ahead was getting creative when I saw this, but no, it was a real French 2CV, and according to the sticker on the side, had been taking part in the Trans-Mongolian rally. Knowing how hard it was to not shoot the suspension to bits in a fairly modern Toyota, I marvelled that that little Dolly was still in one piece!

    Another that struck me was a motorbike, Well, it wasn’t the motorbike itself – that was like any other you’d see on any Western road – it was the passengers. Two farmers …and a goat! Absolute classic. Heaven knows how they managed to stay on on those roads.

    The final vehicle to make one question the sanity of the driver was the lorry with a car balanced precariously in top of its second trailer. It was tied on with bailer-twine wrapped around the back wheels…!

    How to get a low-wheel-base car across Mongolia – give it a lift!

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    I don’t know why, but it didn’t seem like it took most of the day to get here. Time wasn’t really a factor, it just took as long as it took. As I mentioned before, the only times that mean anything cannot be described by fixed numbers; they change every day with the rising and setting of the sun.

    We were met by the herdsman and his family, who turned out to be related to GI Jim. A meal was set out before us: dried curd pieces, miniature sticks of bread, a huge dish of butter and cream, a bowl of partially fermented sour milk, all washed down with (you guessed it), milk.

    Food that was going to be making an appearance at every mealtime for the next three days…

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    The dairy theme has continued ever since, and is the only cause of discomfort for me. I’m not a great fan of dairy produce, and when in Tokyo hardly consumed any save for a bit of milk in my irregular mugs of coffee. My stomach is not all that happy with this 3-meals-a-day dairy overdose, and I’ve become pretty constipated. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, and is infinitely preferable to diarrhoea. Why? The toilet is that patch of ground just over there, behind that bank of tall grasses.

    Our yurt

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    Our Yurt – in situ

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    I long to drink some water, but there’s little of it around. I’m not too keen on drinking the dirty river water, as drunk by the herdsman’s family. Their immune systems may be able to deal with it, but I’m not sure mine would. I’ll stick with the constipation thanks.

    We were all in bed pretty early that first night, and I, following an hour or so of Kafka on the Shore, slept very soundly on my own mattress-shaped carpet.

    It was a good first day, great to be out in the vast, tranquil countryside. Free of the noise, stress and dirt of the city. I reckon all Japanese people should be sent here for a 3 week holiday every year to help them remember that life is more than just jobs and shopping.

    Down by the riverside

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    Yurt and horses at sunset

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    Endless miles of stars

    VITAL STATISTICS

    Date & Time: 25th August 2007, 10:10am

    Location: Train carriage next to remote village in central Mongolia, 1500km from Beijing.

    Feeling very happy. The train has stopped at some remote village – by ‘village’ I mean a group of 6 little widely-spaced homesteads, each consisting of a tin-roofed bungalow with up to three yurts behind it, and a large satellite dish. I guess that’s so they can connect to the Tesco website to order their weekly groceries.

    I slept well under my Mongolian rug. This, despite the most incredible snoring you have ever heard. It really was incredible, Harold and Barry sounding like they had entire orchestras up their noses. The sound of the train trundling along was incredible soothing though – it hasn’t once gone over about 50mph, but that’s just fine, somehow it fits in with the landscape. An awe-inspiring landscape. Vast, endless stretches of grassland. With not a tree in sight the dusty green is only occasionally interrupted by the appearance of a bunch of grazing horses or an isolated yurt. There’s absolutely no agriculture, it’s far too dry. In fact, rivers don’t feature at all, not even in a dried-up form. I don’t think they’ve ever been here.

    I did actually wake up once or twice last night when the train jolted into action after a brief stop: looking out of the window I saw an awesome sight. Such a huge empty landscape, illuminated by the light of the stars – the stars! They were just beautiful. I have so missed them having lived in cities for so long. Out there, there is nothing to mask their beauty.

    The sun rises casting a long shadow beside the train

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    Horse on the plain

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    Very hairy horses on the plain

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    This morning Harold and Barry played a few rounds of Mahjong, and then began a nectarine-peeling competition using the box of thirty or so fruits that I bought last night for a pound, and my penknife. There was much laughter as I failed miserably in every attempt to peel a nectarine in one – I blame the movement of the train. They’ve also invited me to stay with them at our destination, a very kind offer that I have turned down due to my booking at the yurt hostel(!).

    Barry shows us how it’s done

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    A little while ago I was standing in the corridor, camera lens sticking out the window, when I girl in her early twenties approached me and starting talking in Mongolian. I told her that I didn’t understand – did she speak English? No. How about Japanese? I asked, in Japanese, not expecting any intelligible response. On hearing this her face broke into a huge smile, and she replied, in good Japanese, “Yes, I do!”.

    It turns out that she’s here with her parents, who in fact I met last night at the Mongolian border town station when her husband, distracted by Pepe the penguin, fell 2 foot off the platform. He was ok, just shaken, and once he’d recovered we had a good sign-language conversation about penguins.

    So anyhow, Wurentaogesi (am yet to get the pronunciation right) and I continued to chat, talking about our plans. I told her that I was thinking of going to some place near the capital to ride a horse and things, but that I wasn’t sure exactly where this was. As it happens though, she’s taking her parents to just such a place owned by a friend of hers, 300km East of Ulaanbaatar, and at only £8.50 (transport, meals and horse included) it’s a bargain – would I like to join them? Sounds like a plan to me!

    Looking at my schedule, I’m a couple of days behind but this doesn’t really matter, I can still make it to Moscow on time. In fact, the less time I spend in Moscow the better I think, it sounds bloomin expensive!

    As the train nears Ulaanbaatar so the number of yurt-centred homesteads increase. A fairly well-used dirt track has appeared by the railway line too – and with more than half an hour until we reach our destination people are already starting to carry their luggage to the vesitible area! After that show at Chinese customs I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised!

    The train approaches Ulaanbaatar

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    Tatta for now!