Thanks to Mongolia, we might become a camping family. Keep in mind, this is coming from someone born and bred in the most urban of environments - New York City. Never have I ever been remotely tempted to “rough it” in the wild. No amount of roasted marshmallows or even smores was worth a night out in the woods. During our travels we have slept on trains, planes and boats, in everything from a storage hut to a shaman's home, several times on floors but never in a tent.
That all changed in Mongolia, which might beat Bolivia's claim to the country with the least developed infrastructure for tourists. Hotels as Westerners would recognize them are thin on the ground outside of the capital city. Even if you find a concrete structure with multiple rooms advertised as such, the pillows are filled with pebbles and the shower is a thin drizzle of cold water. The few Ger camps set up for tourists that we stayed at are admirably authentic in retaining the hard as rocks, thin mattresses and pit toilets of the nomad herders. One camp had a very picturesque location right by a creek and, even better, a supremely friendly little girl who despite a complete language barrier immediately initiated a game of tag with the girls. Unfortunately as the evening wore on all the various guides and drivers drifted together into the Ger next to us for an all night, vodka fueled sing along. After that I decided we were better off camping.
Fortunately, Mongolia is the ideal place to camp. The entire population is nomadic, so there is never any question of being able to set up tents whenever and wherever you like. The water is so pure you can refill your water bottles from the streams and creeks as you cross them and you can take your pick of parking spots - lakeside, cliffside, next to sacred ovoos, sometimes just being a single speck in the vast open steppes. The only time we were in a less than scenic spot was when we stopped on the edge of a mining town. Tuya insisted that instead of camping on the soft grass, we hunker down in the construction zone between a family’s Ger and the house they were in the process of building. This was because the workers in the mine get so drunk they are known to drive manically in circles chasing after each other, so camping anywhere in the open was dangerous. Fortunately that night must not have been payday and we heard nothing.
I admit it, I have succumbed to camping’s charm. Our pop open tents are a snap to set up and with mats and blankets we are cosy and warm. My favorite moment of the day was been waking up and zipping open the front flap. Usually it is just to see the glorious vista but you never know what will be out there. We have woken up surrounded by cows, camels and horses, their guardian having nonchalantly wandered over to investigate, bringing his entire herd with him. They look at us, we look at them. Once we emerged in the midst of a herd of tiny goats all but climbing on top of the tents in their search for something to nibble on. Another time two giant hairy Yaks were having a difference of opinion just steps from our door.
The night we camped up on a hill I woke up to find Miriam and Leontine tumbled into a heap, barely contained by the bottom edge of the tent but still sleeping peacefully. When we were in the desert I could poke my head out the opening and look at a sky filled with the brightest, closest stars I had ever seen. The most dramatic setting was definitely the edge of the flaming Cliffs. There I insisted everybody pee before bed and zip up tightly to prevent sleep walking!
These are the cliffs where the very first Dinosaur eggs were found. No one even knew dinosaurs laid eggs till the American archeologist Roy Chapman Andrews got lost on the Mongolian Steppes and stumbled across an entire fossilized nest. Chapman’s swashbuckling persona, by the way, was the inspiration for Indiana Jones. He eventually made his way back to make stunning discoveries of complete dinosaur skeletons some of whom were named after him. The surprising thing you find when you actually walk these cliffs is they are not hard stone, more like gigantic sand castles barely held together by their own weight. A good monsoon would wash them all away. I had a huge desire to grab a spoon and just start digging.
Occasionally we did stay in Gers with nomad families which had its own charms, mostly centered around animals. No matter how thin the mattresses, inevitably there are baby goats or lambs or maybe an adorably frisky puppy. The best however were the chubby cheeked human babies. The Chinese call Gers “Mongolian dumplings” because they are small and round. Eminently practical and movable they have changed little since the days of Chinggis Khan, though these days they are likely to be transported from the winter pastures to the summer ones folded up in the back of a truck rather then by horseback. Tho plain, they are cosy with rugs hanging on the wall. Small painted chests are the only furniture besides the beds which serve as sofas during the day. One side is designated male which is where the horse saddles and paraphernalia are stashed and the other side is female, holding the stove and kitchen equipment.
Each and every time you enter a Ger you are welcomed with a bowl of salted milky tea and a plate of hard cheese. It almost makes sense that there would be no hotels outside of the biggest towns since if you need a bed for the night you can just hunker down with any family you run into. Unfailingly polite, they are remarkably unconcerned with us as visitors. After the initial “where are you from?” they ask where we drove from and where we are going but more in a “how are the roads” kind of way rather than any real curiosity about where we are originally from. After ten minutes everyone drifts back to daily life, the mom to preparing cheese or yogurt, the dad to branding goats and sheep, the kids to whatever they were doing before we stopped by. These are hardworking people who are completely unfazed by complete strangers stopping by for a meal or a night’s rest. Wandering strangers are par for the course.
We generally do not take them up on their hospitality, preferring just to visit and then go off to our tents. We do occasionally take advantage of their out house - not the most glamorous of WCs but at least there is a door versus the open vista of the steppes. Grotty enough during the day it is slightly terrifying at night, first to find it in the pitch blackness, then to balance on the two wobbly boards above the drop. Maybe they move so often because the latrine gets too stinky rather than because the goats have eaten all the grass?
Sometimes in life, reality teeters into unreality. Most of the Gobi desert is just vague, unfertile scrub land but we finally arrive at vast heaps of sand. They look like a long line of whipped cream separating green grass from blue sky. The beige waves cresting over the Mongolian steppes looks almost totally fake. In this age of green screens and photo shop it was difficult to believe we were really, actually present in front of such an iconic scene. On camels, no less.
Once we get climbing however, reality bites back. David Evan, a typical teenage boy, tests his mettle by taking the hard way, scrambling and scrabbling straight up the mountain of windswept sand. The rest of us try to find a gentler route but zig zagging is really the only alternative and not a whole lot better. About half way up I decide I’ve climbed enough sand dunes in my life time and sit down to enjoy the view. Vincent and the girls keep heading up after David Evan who has completely disappeared.
After a bit, envisioning sandvalances, we yell and call to him but the dips and valleys of the soft peaks smother our voices and we hear no response. Swearing profusely, Vincent struggles upward till finally we hear a yell and see a tiny green speck racing down the hill towards us. He made it to the top and is on his way back. Thank god, now we can all leave. The girls and I whoop and holler as we run down the sand, first because it’s fun, then faster, because our feet are burning up. We had left our sandals, at the bottom, so far away, too far to make it in one go. By the end I am carrying one girl ten feet, dropping her in a huddle and returning for the other, repeat ad infinitum. Vincent, also barefoot, is too far behind to help but we finally make it to the shoes. And the camels.
Why the camels, those “ships of the desert”, couldn’t have carried us over the dunes is an unexplained mystery. I have no idea what the Mongolian herders think of western tourists flirting with heart attacks and sun stroke stumbling around on their mammoth sand dunes but they have clearly decided that is not worth risking their animals. So the deal is, the camels bring you to the hills and take you back but right when the going gets tough, you are on your own.
This of course is the famous Bactrian, two humped camel, the one that looks like a Dr. Seus concoction rather than the sleeker and much more common, one humped Dromedary camel. If you had a pillow to put behind your back (which we did not) they would be as comfortable as an armchair. These softer, smaller beasts were far less intimidating than their taller, crankier Indian cousins. They were definitely much fuzzier and furrier than any camel we rode in India and seemed positively sweet as opposed to always vaguely annoyed. They are so comfy in fact, I could envision months and months of travel transporting my valuable spices along the ancient silk road. On the other hand, a 4 wheel drive is pretty comfy too so it’s a transportation toss up (not).
One of the many astonishing things about this corner of the world is the sheer scale of the countryside. On no day did we drive less than 6 hours to get from place to place with very little in between. This was, remember, taking it easy, purposely stretching out what would normally be a one day trip into two. Mongolians think nothing of driving 18 hours at a clip. And what are they driving on? Outside of the three or four big cities there are no roads in Mongolia, just tire tracks scratched across the steppes.
Our driver does not like following another car and on the rare occasions we meet up with another car he inevitably speeds up to pass, at one time barely avoiding a massive ditch hidden by the bus he was trying to overtake. Generally speaking, however, there are so few cars this is, fortunately, not really an issue.
GPS is the bane of Tuya’s existence since tourists keep google mapping where they want to go and can’t understand that the drivers know there are no Straight Lines in Mongolia. Often they have to drive miles out of the way to go around hills or avoid ravines. The ground itself is both rocky and muddy so the slightest rainfall slows even 4WD jeeps to a crawl.
Whenever two vehicles meet, both drivers immediately confer over road conditions. This was particularly important for us since the rains had just begun and they could wreck havoc.”How is back where you came from?” “very deep mud, stay to the east, it is less washed out” or “pretty good but don’t try and ford the river, it is already too high”, etc. Of course, new tracks detouring around obstacles would criss cross with the old tracks and even seasoned drivers were constantly faced with figuring out new routes. You could think you were taking a detour around a herd of camels and end up driving up to someone's winter Ger
So a lot of the discussions were frankly asking where we were and how to get to where we were going. On both driver’s sides. A couple of days into our trek, Tuya pulled out a very detailed geographic map with lots little squiggly lines. When I asked what they were she said, "those are roads". Roads? Permanent roads? No, she explained, they were just suggestions of where roads used to be or were likely to be, more like clues to a road map than an actual functioning road map. Lest you think I am exaggerating - this photo is not an example of off roading, this was an actual road. A road so well used and so ordinary it was one of the larger lines on the map!
In Mongolia it is considered it very bad luck to ask “how long till we get there?” You get there when you get there. This did not matter so much to us. We had plenty of time and carrying our own food and tents we were not that much different from the nomads and herders bedding down where ever they found themselves at night. But I can’t imagine the tourist industry getting much more developed if tour agents cannot guarantee their clients that they will be delivered to some sort of rest spot and/or meal at the end of each day.
Today is our first official day of Trekking and it is not going well. Once Tuya and the driver finally show up after a bit of a delay, the first thing she says is “You have too much luggage. Can you leave some of it behind”? With a lot of last second decisions we jettison two full suitcases. But even so, the van is already stuffed to the gills.
At least we don’t have to worry about the kids having no seat belts - they are safe as eggs in a baskets snuggled in between all the pillows and blankets. When they tell us that we need to stop at a market to pick up supplies I seriously wonder where they could fit but the driver assures us we will be able to tie things onto the roof once we leave the city.
The market is a higgidly piggidly mess of recycled bits and bobs twirling away over mud soaked paths. It reminds me strongly of the black market scene of the Hunger Games with the same grey, drizzly atmosphere. After an eternity of discussion over of the merits of one rain tarp versus another, purchases are made and we are on the road.However, we then need to go to another market to load up on water. And then to another stop for fuel. And so on.
It is at this point, 5 hours past the point of our supposed departure time, that I wonder aloud if some of the supplies might have been gotten earlier, say, yesterday perhaps, and Tuya takes offence. It does not look good. What was I thinking? We will be squished together for the next 21 days! To make up the lost time, we drive and drive and drive till well after sunset. Our first night of camping means figuring out how to unpack, set up our tents and cook dinner in complete darkness before we can collapse into sleep. All of us are hungry, cranky and tired. Not to mention cold.
BUT, it gets better. We get better and better at packing till we not only have only leg room but all the essential bits right at hand while everything else is neatly stacked on top of the car. We so good at setting up tents it only takes 6 minutes from stopping to sleep ready. And most importantly we do all get along. Tuya learns that we do NOT want 8 hour drives and the driver gets used to Vincent taping him on the shoulder to stop every 20 minutes so he can line up a photo. We learn all about them and their families. We camp in amazing spots - on the endless steppes but also besides lakes and perched on the edge of cliffs, and we discover we like camping. Especially waking up in the morning to yaks and camels and cows milling about our tents. Not to mention goats.
After the nightmarish hassle of getting here. We decided Vincent and David Evan needed an extra day in UB to recuperate. Though mostly spent catching up on sleep, we did take them to a brief visit the last Bogd Kahn’s Winter Palace. Ironically, though Mongolia has spent the twentieth century tossed between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China - two governments dedicated to abolishing both religion and monarchies - its first independent leader was a revered Buddhist king. Kublai Khan decreed in the 11th century that his people would follow Tibetan Buddhism, and ever since then its ruler, like the Dalai Lama, was considered one of the three Living Buddhas. Little known fact - it was a Mongol Khan who bestowed upon a Tibetan monk in the 16th century the title of Dalai Lama thus creating the line which has continued to today's 14th Dalai Lama.
Sadly he may be the last of all three lines. When the Bogd Khan died in 1924 the, by now sovietized government declared an end to Mahayana Buddhism and refused to allow another Priest King, so the line died out. Technically there is a Panchen Lama of China but since he was selected not by religious leaders but rather by government officials his legitimacy is in doubt. Which leaves only the Dali Lama, now in exile from Tibet as the last recognized reincarnation of Buddha. Sadly, the atheist government of Mongolia went on to destroy all but a handful of the once 750 monasteries and killed 18,000 lamas. Today the Khan's once magnificent Winter Palace stands forlornly at the edge of town, overgrown with weeds and looking a bit woebegone.
Among the exhibits of his (and his wife's) throne and bedchamber are historical bits like Mongolia's Declaration of Independence from China in 1911. One rather surprising discovery was an entire room filled with stuffed wild animals. Some of them came from his personal zoo, others were gifts. I don't know why but I found this somewhat unexpected, not to say, disconcerting for a Holy Being, and a Buddhist to boot.
The second day we met up with our guide, Tuya, who was going to be taking us around the country. She is a charming, ambitious young woman who, along with her husband moved from working as a translator in a mining company to starting her own business as a tour guide. She will prove to be endlessly patient with us, responding to almost every request with a firm “possible, yes, is possible.” Since we have a spare day, as a special treat she offers to teach us Mongolian archery.
Each year in July, Mongolia holds its national competition of Nadaam, showcasing the three “Manly Sports” of horse racing, wrestling and archery. A mongolian foltktale tells of a woman who once slipped into the wrestling competition and humiliated the men by beating them all roundly. After that they changed the wrestling outfit to an openfronted vest (basically just two sleeves held together in the back) in order to ensure THAT wouldn’t happen again. Women are allowed to compete in archery however and the horses are ridden by children as young as five. Teenagers are considered too big and bulky for these open field, long distance races.
So, wrong sex for wrestling, too old for racing we found archery to be just right. We took a bus to the actual field used for Naadam where, despite the drizzle, we are kitted out with bows and arrows and speed coached through the complex Mongolian scoring system. I don’t pay much attention to this part since anything beyond “aim for the target” is clearly not going to be important for me.
I can barely pull the string on the normal, non competition bow - no high tech carbon steel or super light weight frames here. I can’t begin to imagine how they did it, shooting while at a full gallop, but this was the weapon the nomads used to conquer two thirds of the known world. Besides the usual, they liked to shoot flaming ones and, for fun, arrows that whistled and howled, just to terrify their enemies.
Considering the bow is bigger than they are, the girls do quite well. David Evan is the one who turns out to be a natural and Tuya quickly graduates him to a much heavier bow like the ones used in competition. I prefer to think that he is a gifted athlete but his pose and costume sure look a lot like the hit man in the TV show Arrow.
Vincent is a photographer and he travels a lot. He has been to India, South Africa, Prague, Argentina and Europe too many times to count for shoots. He is also Irish and thus endowed with a god given ability to charm the pants off people. Ergo, when he shows up to catch a plane he is almost always upgraded to business class or at the very least allowed to fly with three times the luggage limit. His biggest coup was flying to France despite showing up at the airport without his passport. Even pre 9/11, that required smooth talking.
So it was with a certain amount of shock to find out that my husband and son had been turned away at the airport when they tried to join us in Mongolia. Apparently Irish people require a visa - moreover, it is something the country is strict about. Worse, in order to get a visa, someone in Mongolia has to actually invite you to visit. Who knew!?
I could say, maybe someone who traveled as much as he did would google Mongolian visa requirements more than ten minutes before arriving at the airport. He could say, you organized the Chinese and Russian visas, why didn’t you get the Mongolian ones? Well, I would answer, Americans don’t need visas to enter that country and after 15 years of marriage I forgot he wasn’t American. Mind you, never once in all the countries we visited last year did we come across one that had separate visa requirements for each of us. Sometimes the fees were different, but there were no countries that required a visa for him and not for me or vice versa.
In any event, the question now became - how MUCH did he want to fly to Mongolia? He was just coming off of four transatlantic flights for work, not to mention driving 4 hours in each direction to pick up David Evan from camp. One would think he would jump at the chance to skip a 14 hour flight and go home for a well deserved nap. David Evan certainly wouldn’t mind an extra day of being reunited with his beloved electronics. But no, he immediately decided he could reschedule their flights to the next day thinking he could quickly pick up the missing visa and still make the flight out that evening.
He had only about 12 hours to get together all his documents before the embassy opened in the morning. Mongolia, naturally, asks the standard requirements - passport, greencard, photos, proof of onward travel and cash for the visa fee so Vincent needed to get an official photo taken and stop at the bank for a certified check before the embassy opened at 9 am. But Mongolia also has a couple extra requirements, namely a letter of invitation or “LOI”, plus a letter from your employer stating what you are doing while in that country and finally a detailed description of where you will be while in said country. The guide organizing our trek across the Gobi sent over a day by day itinerary and his agent wrote up an employment letter which left only the LOI. Fortunately with the time difference, Mongolia was just waking up while NY was going to sleep so the kids and I headed out.
We had met a Danish couple on the train into Mongolia who had mentioned their hostel had helped them secure their visas so we decided to start there. We rustled the manager out of breakfast and explained our predicament. Normally, he told us, they only write up letters for people staying with them but never underestimate the power of a ten year old. One look at the girls’ woebegone faces and he whipped up an extremely official looking document complete with stamps and signatures. So, armed with letters, documents, photos and fees, Vincent showed up at the embassy only to find - nothing. The consulate official responsible for visas was away until Aug 1. All the papers for visas were locked in his safe so even if anyone wanted to, it was impossible to hand out a visa in his absence.
It was at this point that I suggested to Vincent that he just pack it in and take the three days to rest up from his non stop traveling before embarking on a month long trek around the Mongolian countryside. But no, by the time I said this he was already in a taxi heading for Laquardia to catch a flight to the embassy located in Washington DC. Once there he jumped into a taxi and raced like the wind only to arrive and twiddle his thumbs waiting for someone, anyone, to return from lunch. Ten minutes after they officially opened, he had his visa and was back in a taxi on the way to Dulles airport. But, as he was looking up flights, he realized he had missed his return flight to NYC and the only other option was to fly out of Regan airport, ironically only ten minutes from the embassy but now thirty minutes in the opposite direction. He just made the plane and then had to sit fuming while it was delayed at the gate.
In the mean time, he had left frantic directions for my oldest daughter to look after David Evan who was at the hotel, without a phone, completely oblivious to his father's whirling dervish imitation. She however was deep in the basement at work digging through old records, cut off from all comunication. Fortunately, she returned to her desk and phone in time to drop everything, pick up David Evan and head to the airport.
Arriving on Laquardia, Vincent tore thru the airport and swept past the sixty people standing at the taxi stand shouting "my son is all alone at JFK!" And arrived, by dint of his Bagladeshi driver swerving madly through rush hour, at JFK, swooped up David Evan and made it to the checkin counter exactly two minutes before they closed the flight at 6 pm. They made it through check in, security and reached the plane just as they called for final boarding.
Which meant that after a simple 8 hour flight to Moscow, an 8 hour layover there and a final 4 hour flight to Ulan Baatar, they arrived. And were much appreciated.
One of the great things about traveling with kids is that you quite often get to see local attractions that most tourists don’t bother with. When we were in Russia, we spent one whole day visiting the Divo Ostrov amusement park just outside of St. Petersburg. While bumper cars may not be as “must see” on the guidebook trail as, say, the Hermitage, from my ten year old daughters’ point of view there was no comparison.
Besides just having a fun day, we also learned a bit about the local culture. I had been marveling at Russian women’s ability to stride along in 4 inch heels but was really amazed when I saw they don't even take them off when chasing their toddlers through the park. That is serious commitment to fashion. Clearly my trekking sandals were completely declasse. Mostly though I was just grateful that my girls had each other so I was exempt from the truly scary rides like the mile high swings. To the complete despair of my kids I now find even Ferris wheels too edgy. Fortunately, they are in that sweet spot where they are old enough to go on the rides themselves but young enough to still want me to watch them.
So after that Best Day Ever at Divo Ostrov it was a complete no brainer to add the Ulan Baatar amusement park to our international list. Taking a leisurely walk from our hotel down to the edge of town we passed by acres of the scruffy, unmowed and neglected “Children’s Park” where clearly no children had frolicked in many a year. Despite the entrance sign saying the park opened at 10 am, there were no signs of movement at noon. However we and about two other families were free to wander about while they leisurely started winding up the rides. If this was what it was like in high season, how many tickets could they be selling during the subzero winter season?
Have you ever been in an amusement park while they are still testing out the equipment? It is a fifty/fifty whether you are more relieved they are actually checking them or horrified that they are clearly held together with duct tape and sealing wax. Fortunately for my peace of mind, both the big, big roller coaster and the giant Ferris wheel seemed to be permanently out of commission. That left only about 3 or 4 creaky rides that were above toddler age. Even that was confusing because - at one ticket per ride - we had to figure out which ride we wanted to go on, return to the central ticket kiosk and ascertain from the long list of mongolian script which ride we were buying a ticket for. Each ride had a different price and there were no helpful pictures to tell which was which! We finally just decided to point to the more expensive tickets and hope for the best which seemed to work.
Wandering around the nearly empty park with weeds pushing up between the cracks with the occasional ride whining in the background was an eerie experience. I’m not sure not having to wait in line was compensation enough. Though it was bright daylight, it still had the spooky feel of a soon to be horror movie.
All became sunshine and light though when we got to the artificial lake with the huge swan boats. Naturally, every amusement park, even nearly defunct ones in Outer Mongolia, needs to come equipped with a Disney castle.
We made it to Mongolia despite almost being left behind by our train at the border. Our one train car with the dozen or so foreign travelers crossing the border was unclipped from the rest of the train and left waiting for four hours before it was finally pulled across the track into Mongolia.
Since Russian officials only spent about ten minutes scouring the compartments for contraband, presumably the other three hours and fifty minutes were spent perusing our passports. Who knows? It certainly was a throwback to arcane, ask no questions soviet type officialdom.
Once we arrived at the new station, we jumped off to scavenge for a cold drink. As soon as we reached the platform, however, a new train pulled in cutting us off from ours. As we stood watching we could just see the top our train pulling away behind the new one. Needless to say, the girls were ever so slightly frantic. I was just relieved that a) I had my wallet with me (though no passports) and b) at the last second Leontine had decided to hop off with us. I could handle all of us being stranded in Mongolia together but not having to chase down one distraught daughter. Happily the train was just chugging off to latch onto a bunch of new compartments and after a tension filled half hour came surging back into view again. We never did find any snacks worth being marooned for (nor a single English speaking person). Safely back on the train we enjoyed our last night of rockaby baby sleep before pulling into Ulan Baatar at 6 am.
Now we had to wait for Vincent and David Evan to join us. My son had insisted on his annual month at camp, this being non-negotiable. My husband was juggling back to back photo shoots in India, Connecticut and England whilst we were traversing Russia. He had laid down the law with his agents and forbade any bookings for August, so now we just had to wait for him to return from Europe, pick up David Evan and fly to meet us.
In the meantime, we prepped for our trek across the Mongolian countryside. We had stumbled across one of the only three laundries available in UB and so for $8 we washed every article of clothing in our bags. Then we hunted for various essential elements like sleeping mats, wet wipes and tissue packs. We still had the precious jar of peanut butter we had picked up in Russia but we stopped at a supermarket and added Nutella, crackers, cookies and various snacks. The night before we left we would return for bags of Asian pears, plums and oranges; precious fruit that we would not see again till we returned to UB.
While we waited for the boys, the girls and I pretty much sussed out everything there was to do in the Capital of Mongolia. UB is a fairly small town by international standards but it does contain half the entire population of Mongolia who still tend to live in Gers so it spreads outwards for miles as hundreds of small, round tentlike buildings sprawl over the surrounding hills. Most of the tourist stuff, with a few exceptions, is contained within a fairly compact circle around Sukabatar square.
The National History museum with its dinosaurs caught by a sandstorm and thus frozen forever in the midst of fighting, was unfortunately closed for renovation. Fortunately there was a temporary exhibit right in the middle of Sukabatar Square displaying a gigantic Tyrannosaur Bataar, cousin to the T-Rex. This particular skeleton had been dug up in the Gobi Desert and by some nefarious means transported to the USA where it was subsequently put up for auction. The Mongolian government caught wind and launched a full scale effort to have the dinosaur returned. The exhibit lovingly details the entire lawsuit which marks the first time Mongolia managed to repatriate stolen fossils.
The National Museum in UB is an excellent museum with a fascinating collection of traditional dress. Did you know that highborn Mongolian women always had a cluster of beautifully shaped silver instruments hanging from their belts? Far from simply decorative, this kept their tongue scraper, ear cleaner, tweezers and other toiletry items close at hand. The museum also has a very clear and helpful map showing how the Mongol empire stretched from Poland to Korea and down through China to the bottom of Vietnam, encompassing the whole of the Middle East up to Turkey. The thing we Westerners never learned in school was that while the Golden Horde may have sacked Rome and left no grand monuments behind, for virtually the entire Middle Ages the path of commerce and trade was maintained and safeguarded by the khan's troops. Not only were merchants freely able to travel the entire span of East to West but all religions were protected. Though they themselves believed in Shamanism, the Mongol rulers allowed Christianity, Buddhism and Islam to flourish where they wished. So, aside from all the sacking and pillaging, the mongols were one of the most tolerant and progressive world regimes ever, something not generally hinted at in the history books! It also changes something when you realize one of the most flourishing Chinese dynasties was actually the one established by Kublai Khan, Ghengis Kahn’s grandson - who was the first to establish Beijing as his capital. In fact of all the Chinese dynasties, only one - the Ming - were ethnically Han Chinese rulers. Most of the rest of China’s long and dramatic history, they were ruled by outsiders like the Mongols and the Manchurians.
At the other extreme, the tiny, ramshackle museum of Political Persecution may be small but it is very moving. This was the actual home of P. Genden - the prime minister of Mongolia during Josef Stalin’s time of terror. Mongolia was the second country after Russia to declare itself communist and was closely allied to that country but largely left to its own devices till the 1930s when Japan began menacing Russia by marching up though Manchuria. Stalin became convinced Mongolian elements were helping them and demanded a purge of all intellectuals, religious leaders and any other “counter-revolutionaries”. When Genden refused, he was brought to Moscow and executed, while a more pliable candidate took his place. Genden's daughter, who was only a toddler when her father was taken away, turned their house into a museum honoring the 27,000 people who were subsequently killed despite her father’s brave attempt to stop the bloodbath. In her father’s office you can see happy family photos of him posing with her and her mother before he was taken away and executed.
Stalin wiped out nearly the entire cast of lamas and monks existing in Mongolia and destroyed virtually all the monasteries across the country. Dozens of skulls with bullet holes in them are gathered together in grim remembrance of this crime. Besides museums, however, we mostly explored UB's restaurants, trying to decide where we would take the boys to celebrate their arrival. Since we knew that once we left UB we would be entirely reliant on the national mania for mutton we tried as many other cuisines as we could including vegetarian, Korean, Japanese and French options, stuffing as much salad as we possibly could into ourselves. The Huns may have conquered the known world but they didn't do it on a balanced diet. They believe in meat with a side of meat. Mongolia is so awash in beef, mutton, goat and horse meat that even chicken is not considered worth eating, making it the one country we have ever been in that you could not find a reliable fried chicken dish.
The one Mongolian restaurant we did go to was an all you can eat BBQ. This proved to be rather like a night at Hibachi where you pass the bowl of ingredients you have collected to a chef who dumps them on a giant grill with great flourishes and twirls of his three feet long turning tongs. We finally decided on Veranda, an Italian restaurant with scrumptious pasta and comfy couches overlooking the gently curving roofs of an ancient monastery.
The best thing we did while waiting was to see the Tumen Ehk cultural show. Maybe because it is a bit off the beaten path, in a neglected and overgrown park, the show had only a dozen or so visitors. But the performers, who outnumbered the audience three to one, never faltered in their enthusiasm or professionalism. There was Tsam Mask dancing, traditional singing, dancing and instruments, all very exotic and colorful. And how many “Cultural” shows do you know that include contortionists?
We liked it so much that when the boys finally arrived we took them to a similar show by the Moon Song troupe on Seoul Avenue. The costumes were better at Tumen Ehk but the Moon Song show had a psychedelic modern take on a traditional shamanist dance that was definitely worth seeing. Either show however is a great way to see the traditional Mongolian throat singing which allows them to sing two different notes at the same time. To me this sounds more like a low thrumming noise while an insect chirps but it is impressive. They can apparently inhabit both deep, deep bass and high, only dogs can hear falsetto in the space of a breath. Personally I prefer this to the high keening of Chinese opera but it is an acquired taste.
After three days though, rested, washed and well fed, we were looking forward to the boys' arrival so we could set off on our big adventure - trekking around the Mongolian countryside, sleeping with nomads and riding camels!
We are ready to leave. Really ready. In just a little over a week we will be on the plane to Estonia, our first plane trip in over 10 months. Its like a heroin addict jonesing for a fix. Mind you, I have to acknowledge that we are a lot softer this time out. Soft beds, hot showers and walk in closets have made this past year very comfortable. I really appreciate the eight pillows on my bed! We are also not going to be eating as well as last year - Russian food doesn’t have a patch on Asian street noodles and let’s not even start on the Mongolian diet. So I am trying to temper the wild “let’s go!” with a dose of “it’s not all going to be glorious.”
On the other hand, we are traveling with carry on bags as opposed to the full sized rollies we left with last year. In fact, the girls’ bags are technically backpacks for school but the kind with wheels. So we should be much lighter and nimbler. The emails we are getting from guides in Mongolia recommending bringing sleeping bags and foam pads are not even being considered - either they provide what is needed or we just pick them up there (we will be bringing one blow up pillow each, we are not animals).
Russia’s itinerary is pretty much set, Mongolia’s not at all, China has been chopped off to only 4 days so basically down to eating peking duck and seeing the Great Wall. Our first stop is Estonia and I haven’t planned anything for that since we are going to be with a great friend who, we assume, knows her way around her native country. Our last stops are England and Ireland and between family and well loved museums, we generally know our way around what we want to do in each place. I am trying to ignore the fact that I will not be able to either speak or read the language in 4 out of the 6 countries we visit. Not to mention that neither Russia nor China has much of a reputation for being particularly welcoming to the independent tourist and while Mongolians are apparently supremely friendly, they have practically no travel infrastructure at all. It will be fine!
One brand new twist to this trip will be couch surfing. Russia is eye bleedingly expensive, especially compared to all the super cheapie places we were going through last year. On the advice of another traveler I looked into this system whereby you stay at locals’ own apartments for free. The general idea is: you are staying with people who for one reason or other hope to one day be in a position to ask you to host them so it is one large round of pay it forward. Primarily inhabited by very enthusiastic 20 somethings, they seem to be people willing to share their spaces with complete strangers just for the fun of it and there is nothing they like more than meeting people from out of town. While Leontine’s reaction to this philosophy was to remind me how I told her not to speak to strangers on the internet, there is a lot of communication and feedback among the various hosts so I feel fairly confident with the ones I’ve picked, or rather asked, to stay with. I do think it is funny that I am doing this first before my 19 year old daughter who prefers the hostel route.
She, btw, is traveling on her first solo trip this summer. She is going to spend one month in Italy, basing her itinerary primarily on the foods she wants to taste. Basically, she is sourcing her grocery list with the odd stop in a church or museum. I am so proud of her and absolutely confident she will find her way around and keep us enraptured with her travel stories. But I will miss her travel companionship.
So, onward and upwards.
We have tickets, we are going! Three huge countries - Russia, Mongolia and China. If only. Naturally, it has gotten a tad more complicated (spiraled out of control). First, we have a friend from Estonia, a good friend, She happens to be going back to her home country to show off her new baby. Her home town, Tallinn, is only four hours by train from St. Petersburg. It's right next door! So, why not? How could we pass up this opportunity to be shown around Estonia by a proud native?
Just as I was about to click on the buy button for tickets, my hubby casually mentions, oh by the way, the Dixon family reunion is happening in Ireland just after we arrive back in the states. Ah, ok, let's think about this. Back to Kayak.com and rework the multicity tickets. It is absolutely ridiculous to fly back from Asia to USA and then turn around and leave for Europe so....we are now going straight from Beijing to London. There we will spend some time with my family before jetting off to Ireland to meet up with the giant Dixon clan.
So, in a nutshell, here is the plan - Estonia, Russia (including Siberia), Mongolia, China, England and Ireland in just over two months. How did this happen? Emmm, what happened to one month, one country? It's just that that they are each right next to each other, how can we not keep going in a single straight line from Eastern Europe to Asia? Yes, I realize the England/Ireland bit is at the end instead of in the beginning, but doesn't it make a beautiful (almost) straight line? Completely logical, no?
Ah, it will not be so bad, since we will basically be following the tried and true Trans Mongolian route, jumping on and off the train as we see fit. The train routes are so extensive and omnipresent that even though it will be high season I don't think we will have any trouble getting tickets. All the Moscow-Beijing tickets will be sold out but the little hops in between on the less fancy trains will still be available.
And that, my friends, might fall under the heading of "wishful thinking". We will find out!
You know when I found out that I was going to have twins, instead of being overwhelmed, I just thought "well, I've had a girl and I've had a boy. What else is there to do but have twins." I never like to do the same thing twice. If I know how to do something then I have to up the ante.
So, having spent a little over a year traveling around Asia and South America, what to do, where to go next? Of course! The one country that still legally requires an invitation to enter, is millions of miles wide and we can't even read the signs. I am speaking of course, of Russia.
But if we are going to Russia, why not do the whole Transiberian thing and train down through Mongolia to China? I mean, it's right there! And its not like any more people speak english in those countries! So it is set. We are going to spend mid June to mid August meandering from Russia to Mongolia to China.
I am not completely phased by the complete inability to communicate, let alone but, ok, yes, it is a little daunting not to be able to translate a menus or a street sign. So when I saw our local mainline school night was offering a beginning Russian class I signed up hoping I could teach myself to decipher the cyrillic code. This should help not only in Russia but also in Mongolia which uses the same alphabet. Mandarin? Forget about it. I'm just assuming that since we will be mostly in or near Beijing, we will find enough english speakers to give us a break.
So now to the planning stages. I've bought the guidebooks and have roughed out the direction we want to go - from west to east. We want to end up in China because then, maybe, my son will deign to join us after he has had his mandatory, not to be tampered with stint in his beloved summer camp. This means I will be traveling through Russia and Mongolia with just the girls. Possibly just the youngest since my oldest daughter may be holding down a summer job. My only chance of convincing the dear boy to travel with us is to tempt him with Chinese food which he loves. Russian borscht would definitely not do the trick. Anyway it will be nice to end with a bang on the Great Wall.
OK, baby steps, have to start researching plane tickets, visa requirements for Russia and China and maybe, try to find someone out there who has had a good experience buying train tickets on the ground as they went around instead of in advance. All aboard!