Archive for the ‘Mongolia’ Category

Cities

1st November 2010 by Helen

It’s been interesting (to me at least) to see how some of the cities we have seen have differed and reflected their countries.  This is just one of my ramblings of comparison.  We’ve not set out to visit cities, in fact, in a Land Rover Defender set up for overlanding and camping, cities have been more of an inconveniences.  Nonetheless, they have provided some interesting (I think) comparisons.  If you don’t agree, please ignore what follows.

Almaty is no longer the capital of Kazakhstan, since the creation and development of the of Astana.  Yet Almaty is still a huge draw for many visitors.  It still retains the feel of being the capital, is a modern and bustling city, with rich and poor alike.  Like most Western cities little of the rural lives of the country are reflected here.  Perhaps the only reminders that Almaty is in Kazakhstan come in the frequent power cuts and daily water cuts throghout much of the city.  Whatever outsiders think of the long term rule of the president there is no doubt that many people, young and old, are very supportive of him and the way he has brought Kazakhstan through the difficulties of separation from the USSR and into the modern world.

Ulaanbaatar was sprawling and very cosmopolitan, in complete contrast to the rest of the country.  Although some people were living in gers, mainly on the outskirts of the city, Mongolian culture and history did not predominate.  It could have been any Westernised city anywhere.  A plethora of Irish pubs suggest a large ex-pat community, and indeed many Western faces could be seen in the city, far more than mere tourism would suggest.  Perhaps more than the other cities we have seen, here we saw the extremes of poverty and wealth that often charactrise cities around the world.

In Russian cities it would be impossible to forget which country you are in.  They all have at least a Lenin Street, or a Lenin Square, and a statue of Lenin.  However, of all the Russian cities we visited it was Vladivostok that stood out as the most individual.  The importance of the Naval history in this port city was everywhere, from the museum WWII submarine, to the countless statues of naval heroes and lists of honoured naval serving men.  Water dominates this city, the sea is visible from almost everywhere.  Yet here too, the old history of the country is clearly evident in the traditional wooden houses still in occupation in the sprawling suburbs.  The docks, the railway station and the bus station nestle side by side, overlooked by the statue of Lenin.  And it’s here that the Trans Siberian railway ends, having taken all but a week to travel from the capital city of Moscow.  Despite this tourism is not pandered to and it’s hard to find somewhere even to buy a postcard.

2010 11 01 - 6 - signposts in anchorage (4) - Copy

It's a long way home from downtown Anchorage

2010 11 01 - 10 - cook monument in anchorage - views across the bay (9)

Captain Cook's view across the bay - the one he never saw because he never actually landed here!!

Anchorage has been another contrast.  Today we walked ‘downtown’, following a walking tour suggested in the Frommer’s guidebook. Downtown is very touristy, much like central London, bristling with ‘souvenir & craft’, ‘craft & Native art’, and ‘Native art & souvenir’ shops.  Whilst we both enjoy Native art, the commercialism manages to cheapen it and we were disappointed.   Tourism is evident elsewhere too, in the supermarkets and other stores, with Alaska hats, books on Native history, Alaskan wildlife and scenery.  With the white topped mountains looming over the city, and it reported that wild animals frequently stray into the city, they can perhaps be forgiven for the unabashed promotion of the glories of this the 49th US State.  Statues to Captain Cook, looking out over the magnificent bay, and Eisenhower, along with some of the public art such as the bronze Blue Whale and the Tlingit totem poles, are a welcome change from the more touristy representations of Alaska.  Anchorage is a young city, beginning, according to the guidebook, as a tent camp for the workers building the Alaska Railroad in 1915.  Hardly surprising then, that to us the architecture of the city gives it a kind of dated 60’s feel – big modern buildings in the often characterless style of the 60’s.  A few traditional wooden buildings have been preserved but they are few in number.  But it’s clean, tidy and well maintained.  And easy to navigate, laid out as it is in the traditional American grid system.  Anchorage even postdates the time when Alaska was bought from Russia in 1868 for 2 cents an acre, although I’m sure $7.2 million seemed like a lot of money at the time.  The Russians have kicked themselves ever since the Klondike gold rush, and the discovery of other minerals and oil!

Ah well, wonder what the next city will bring?

A day at the border

14th September 2010 by Helen

Tuesday 14th September

A boring day spent at the Mongolian / Russian border

Come morning I awoke from a lovely night’s slumber.  Paul is bleary eyed from sleeplessness, the wind only having apparently abated while the rain beat down.  He says that the protector in him won’t let him sleep deeply if he fears the tent may be weather damaged.  After a breakfast of apples we headed off for the border again.

Today’s border crossing was both easy and tedious.  The easy bit was the absence of any hostility or antagonism from the various border guards and customs officials.  One ‘charge’ of 100 roubles to process a form might have been seen as a bribe but the exchange rate suggests this was only a little over £2.00 and so not something we baulked at too much.

The tedious bit was that the whole process took eight hours.  Our longest border crossing yet!!

Having parked so close to the border we had arrived easily at 10.00 am on the Mongolian side.  There were a few cars and small trucks already there but significantly nobody seemed to be moving.  Occasionally a car or a truck might be called through, however not necessarily in order of arrival.  There were lots of people walking around, and we were pestered quite a bit by money touts trying to get us to buy Roubles from them.  We didn’t want any Roubles as we already have about £60 which is enough to last us until we get to the next main town and an ATM where we will undoubtedly get a better rate.  Several dogs were also running around, stopping beside cars to sit and watch the occupants.  Sometimes they were successful in persuading the car occupants to pass on some crumbs or tastier morsels in this way.  We donated two biscuits, one to a young female dog who looked as though she had not long had a litter and another to an older dog on the grounds that most people fall for the puppy appeal.  A much younger puppy was running around drinking water from the puddles and playing, not yet having learned either the art of or need for begging. 

Finally we were called forward and we drove through the first set of gates.  Our passports were checked and we joined another queue.  And so it went on, first through passport control and customs on the Mongolian side and then through passport control and customs on the Russian side.

No doubt some of today’s delays were because it is only possible to exit Mongolia at the same rate as cars are processed entering Russia as there is in effect no no-man’s land.  With only about 20 metres separating the two border controls this has to be the narrowest no-man’s land we have seen so far, and in complete contrast to the Russian/Mongolian border in the west which at about 25km is probably the longest we have encountered.

But eventually we were through and once again we were driving through Russian countryside.   We later work out it has taken about 8 hours to get through.  Unfortunately neither of us has a working watch any more and all certainty about time has gone.  The battery on my watch died a few weeks ago, whilst Paul dropped his in the shower at the Oasis and he proved the ‘virtually’ element of his virtually indestructible watch!!

The scenery is so different here in Russia.  So quickly we have left the barrenness of Mongolia and are now surrounded by trees and small forests that line the road.  The signs of autumn are much stronger now, there are trees of gold amongst the green, while smaller bushes and shrubs of bronze line the roads we travel.

Although the sky is grey and overcast in the distance there is a small patch of blue sky through which the sunset is beginning to be visible.  As we turn a corner the hills ahead of us are bathed in a deep rich redness, reflecting the setting sun.

Although we are heading for Ulan-Ude where we need to stop for a couple of days to register our visas, we are planning first to visit the enormous Lake Baikal, to honour a commitment we made while we were in Astrakhan to take some photos and email them to someone we met who helped us.  We have entered Russia on the A165 but plan to cut west across between the A165 and the M55 (which runs alongside a part of Lake Baikal), following some of the secondary and minor roads on the map.  But it’s a long drive and eventually as the darkness is enveloping us more we finally pull over to camp for the night.  It’s cold but not windy or raining and for that we are grateful.  Paul at least is hoping to sleep better tonight than last night.

Campsite – Gusinoye Ozero

Distance travelled – 132 km

Windy night at the border

13th September 2010 by Helen

Monday 13th September

We hit the road again, bypassing Darhan, pausing at Suhbaatar for a quick bit of checking emails on the internet and something to eat in a café.  There are some phrases on the menu we think we recognise but spaghetti is not available.  We have long ceased to be surprised by the fact that most of the items on a menu are not available.  We opt for Ragu instead.  We think we know what to expect.  We think wrong.  Boiled rack of mutton served with rice and a side salad of grated carrot and lettuce, three slices of cucumber and a slice of tomato.  Here the young man who served us took pity on our non-Mongolian inability to tackle a meal without a knife (having noticed Paul trying to use his teaspoon as a makeshift knife) and provided us with the normally missing implement.  In the meantime I had tucked in to sucking the meat straight off the bones Mongolian style, although my Englishness did have me removing some of the fat first.  Soon enough my plated looked like it had been hoovered by a vulture, with just a couple of lumps of fat and a few bones left.  Paul’s plate looked like it had hardly been touched by comparison!!  It’s why he jokes about me never going hungry.

stringing the bow at the bow and arrow factory in Mongolia - just before the border with Russia

stringing the bow at the bow and arrow factory in Mongolia - just before the border with Russia

After leaving Darhan the scenery begins to change as a few trees line the roadside, many showing the signs of autumn.  We stop off at the bow and arrow factory, marked as a place of interest on our map.  It is nothing like we expect.  There are no signs to follow to find the factory which turns out to be in what to us looks like a near derelict building.  We are led through an open door and along a corridor to find a workshop at the back of the building.  In the workshop there are two pieces of machinery, a lathe and a grinding stone for shaping the bone from which the bows are made.  Bone, tendons, snakeskin – everything used to make the bows is from nature.  Two men are sitting at a table finishing the bows by hand.   A large picture on the wall demonstrates the pride there is in this country in their heritage.  The most elaborate bow costs $500, a plainer one $250.  They have their own website.

When we reach the border town of Altanbulag, we finish off the remains of our Mongolian cash by picking up a few groceries in a shop there before reaching the border itself.  Although only 5.30 pm we found the border was closed for the night and so we camped just outside town.

Whilst the day had been sunny and warm, by night time the wind had got up.  Parked on a bit of high ground meant putting the tent up was a battle to be undertaken before finally getting into bed.

I listened as the sound of the wind whistling through the roofrack set the tune, while the flapping of the tent straps and flaps added their own irregular drumbeat.  I allowed the sounds to be absorbed into my subconscious, feeling at the same time the vibrations caused by the wind buffeting the car.  Within seconds I was in blissful sleep.

Campsite – Altanbulag

Distance travelled – 162 km