Posts Tagged ‘Mongolia’

Beijing, meeting of west and far east

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Tian'anmen

I arrived in Beijing on Friday. I am staying here with my Norwegian friend Thorbjørn, who works for FunCom here in Beijing, but I arrived a couple of days before I had planned, so I spent two nights at the Happy Dragon Hostel in the centre of Beijing. I got off the train, walked out of the train station, and went to the Hostel with some other travellers who had arranged to be picked up by the hostel. I shared a  room with Michael from Ireland, and on Friday we went to Tian’anmen square together. On Saturday we explored the Forbidden city together, and on Sunday we went on a trip with other travellers from the hostel to Great Walla part of the Great Wall that they call “The Secret Wall” because it has not been rebuilt, organized and touristified! It was absolutely stunningly beautiful, and on the entire 3 hour hike, we saw only 1 other person, far off on a hillside! On that trip was also Siri from Bryne, near Stavanger where I’ve lived the  past 10 years… She’s studying International Relations in Australia, currently on exchange to China, visiting Beijing for the weekend.

Temple of Heaven ParkI spent parts of yesterday doing laundry, and then went to the Temple of Heaven park. It was quite awesome, with locals playing hackeysack, practicing their instruments, singing, playing cards or checkers, flying kites, or just strollling in the park. It got dark while we were there (me and Peter from Chicago), and when we were leaving we saw some weird lights in the sky that we had to explore. They turned out to be kites, with coloured lights along the string, and on the kites themselves!

Today I’ve contacted travel agencies and hostels in Tibet, because you need an organized tour to get a Tibetan Travel Permit. Tomorrow I’m meeting Peter again, and we’re going to the Summer Palace. I still don’t know where I’ll be spending Christmas, but chances are it will be in Xi’an, the city where the famous terracotta warriors are located.

On request, I’ll recount my first cultural blunder. Technically, it was when I accidentally bumped into a Mongolian guy’s feet under the table, and failed to immediately stand up and shake his hands to show I meant no harm, but that wasn’t really serious…
On my last night in Ulan Bator, I was invited to dinner with my host, the Satanist-Neo-Nazi, and his friends, and that was where my first SERIOUS blunder was made. My host was the only one there who spoke any English worth mentioning, and he was off in the bathroom. I was discussing the ridiculously small and worthless bills in Mongolia, the smallest of which is 1 tugrug, wort 1/167 of a Norwegian Krone… We seemed to agree that it wasn’t worth anything, but it was hard to understand each other. To illustrate the uselessness of a bill that won’t even buy you a tiny piece of candy, and was more useful as toiletpaper or kindling, I set fire to it, and doused it in the ash tray. I should of course have known better, even though it costs more to print the bill than it is actually worth… Conversation stopped short, the Mongolians looked shocked and angry, and luckily my host came back. He looked a bit confused, and when he saw the other Mongolians pointing to the half burnt bill in the ash tray, he got a really strict look on his face. It turns out that all Mongolian money has pictures of heroes of the people, and together with the fact that it also has the Mongolian national symbol on it, burning a Mongolian bill can be compared to burning a flag in another country! I made profuse and sincere excuses for about five minutes, while my host kept expounding how insulting what I had done was to him and his friends, and that even though everybody agreed that it wasn’t worth anything, it was still a symbol of Mongolian national pride. Luckily I was forgiven, and we could keep enjoying ourselves. Lesson learnt: Think twice before using fire as part of a body language conversation…

Gobi

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

Monastery museum of Choijin LamaThe past few days I’ve explored UB at a rather leisurely pace. I reunited with Michiel and Rick from Holland. We met in a CS meeting in Irkutsk, and had a day trip to Lake Baikal together the next day. When I left for UB, they stayed on for another day in Irkutsk, and then went to Ulan Ude before they too continued on to UB. Michiel is a Buddhist, and is  staying in Mongolia for a month, to do volunteer work. He’s working at a soup kitchen, helping set up a play with local orphans and street kids, and making a short promotional video for the buddhist centre he works at.

In UB, I’ve been to the National Museum of Mongolian history, and the Mongolian Museum of Natural History, which among other things has a quite good collection of dinosaur bones. An old man I met at a restaurant took me to an art workshop funded by the state, where many of the great artists of Mongolia do their work. His son is an artist there, and he showed me how he worked, and I got to look in an album with pictures of his work. I assume he must be rather well known, because I recognized quite a few of his pieces from various places around Ulan Bator!
Gandantegchinlen KhiidI’ve also been to the Monastery Museum of Choijin Lama, the Winter palace of Bogd Khan, and to the Zaisan Memorial, a Soviet phallus of a monument in honour of unnamed soldiers in various wars. On Sunday I got up early, and went to Gandan Khiid, and witnessed the morning ceremonies of the Buddhist monks there. It was a pretty fascinationg affair, with the monks chanting different texts at different pitches, and all of it mixing together into a cacaphony which was sometimes emphasized by frantic blowing in horns, ringing of bells and banging on drums. Some of the layity also took part in the ceremonies, by holding some of the religious objects used in various rituals.

On Sunday afternoon, I met with a Norwegian couple and their three kids. The couple have lived in UB since 1994, and the kids grew up there. They work for a Norwegian mission, with local economic development. A few weeks ago, the Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon was on an official visit to Mongolia, and he also paid a visit to one of their projects. We had a burger at the State Department Store, and then we went to worship service at the international interdenominational fellowship in UB. There were Christians from all 5 continents, and I got to talk to quite a few of the people there. Not all of them were foreigners, though; quite a few were Christian Mongolians who were interested in improving their English. For those who didn’t understand something from the sermon, or just wanted to talk about it, there was a small gathering after the service, where people could ask questions about everything from “what does that word mean” to deeper religious questions. It was nice to be part of a fellowship off Christians, where I even understood all that went on!

My host after I came back from the Ger camp, an outspoken and kind satanist-neo-nazi-metal-head (!) who calls himself Degi, spoke very little English, and frequently used what little he knew to proclaim things like “I hate jews,” “I hate all black people,” “kill all the Christians and burn all their churches” and similar outrageous statements. It was difficult to understand where all the hatred came from, and we had trouble connecting. One night, however, he told me about his mother, who died from stomach cancer last year. He told me that he always sided with evil, because it made him feel brave, and not fear death. He didn’t know, or couldn’t explain why, but he said that Satan lives in his heart, and makes him do it…
Last night was my last night in UB, and we were talking about everything and nothing. Suddenly he tells me that he wants to be rid of Satan’s power because he can feel him destroying him on the inside, but he was worried that Satan would retaliate if he denounced him! We talked about it for a while, and it turned out that he’d been given a new testament at the Christian hospits where his mother had spent the last of her life. She was there, because nobody else would take in a dying woman. He’d read the whole thing twice, and wanted to know whether Jesus could protect him from Satan, if he stopped being Satan’s servant. I told him that the battle was already won, that Jesus defeated the power of Satan when he rose from the dead. He was still apprehensive, but he wants to talk to someone who can help him understand more about what he’s facing. He was very sceptical of Mongolian Christians, because he’d met with a lot of judgmentalism and greed, but I promised to put him in contact with the pastor of the church I went to on Sunday. When I said that I’d pray for him if he wanted me to, he thanked me, and then didn’t want to talk about it anymore, because he thought he might start crying… To those of my readers who believe, I ask that you pray for Degi and what he’s going through.

This morning (Thursday Dec 11) I got up at 6, and I went with Degi to the restaurant where he works, in the Narantuul Hotel. There he made me a big English breakfast before I had to head to the train station.
Press secretary of the President                               As I write this, I am sitting in the restaurant car of the train, watching the sun set over the Gobi desert. There is so much I’ve left out from the last days, like the joint Dutch/Norwegian vegetarian cooking experiment, the night in a seedy Mongolian karaoke pub, the drunk secretary of the president’s press corps who tried his darndest to get me wasted and gave me an autographed copy of his recently published collection of nomad poetry, meeting with Tsolmon, Leonid (the hitchhiker)’s web-friend, my first real blunder when it comes to crashing cultures, but if I keep writing, I guess nobody will have the stamina to read it, so this’ll have to be it for now. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be in Beijing, where I’ll try to get this posted.

Thanks for your comments! To those still wondering how to post a comment, just press the number at the top left, under the date of the entry.

-40 degrees

Friday, December 5th, 2008

GerDo you know what forty degrees below freezing feels like? It means your lips freeze together when you close your mouth, your eyes and nose start watering, which again means you have ice forming in your nostrils and the corners of your eyes before you know it. In other words: you don’t go outside in -40 degrees unless you really have to!

I arrived in the ger / yurt some 70 kilometers outside of Ulan Bator the day before yesterday, a little after noon. We spent some time looking for the place, but when we found a lonely rider we asked him, and he pointed the way for us. The taxi had to leave the road, and head out onto the steppe itself for the last kilometer or so. As we were driving a rather normal Hyundai, and not an all-terrain-vehicle, that meant
taking it REAL easy, but I think the driver was used to it, so it was OK.

When we entered, the taxi driver, my friend Degi and I were seated on the three only chairs in the yurt, and served hot tea with milk before anyone introduced themselves. When we finished our tea, I gave my gifts, a bottle of vodka Gerfor the man of the house, and a big bag of caramels for the women and children, and THEN we introduced ourselves. After a glass of vodka, I could also introduce myself to the lady of the house. The yurt was the home of a couple in their early sixties, with two of their sons, a ten year old nephew, their sons’ wives, and two babies. The youngest one was only a month old, and named Amgaa after my host in Ulan Bator!

The man of the house, Pimba, kept serving me vodka. A lot of vodka. My friend Degi said that refusing a drink on the first night of a friendship would be a very bad thing, but that he would make sure I was OK. I kept as low a pace as I could. The end of that night, I cannot remember. I woke up the next morning, in my sleeping bag, crammed in among all the others on the floor. There were two beds in the yurt, in which slept the young mothers with their babies.  I felt rather bad in the early hours of the morning, to my hosts’ great amusement… They were very understanding, however, and after a couple of hours on one of the beds, I was back to my old self. The temperature however, had dropped drastically during the night, unusually cold for this time of year, apparently. I didn’t see a thermometer anywhere, but they said somewhere around forty degrees below zero…

Degi was supposed to be going back in the taxi that morning, while I was staying another day, and then hitchhiking back. The taxi wouldn’t start, however, and the driver and the men of the family were trying all day to warm it up, heat the battery, recharge with the help of a solar panel, but nothing worked. It was almost getting dark again by the time the taxi finally started. I had spent the day mostly inside, because as I described earlier, forty below is just too cold… I did however ride around a bit on the family’s horse, and took some pictures. By the end of the day, I was having trouble keeping warm, though, and with the temperature that low, getting a ride to town the next day was going to be difficult. I therefore ended up saying goodbye that night, instead of waiting till the next morning. Pimba insisted that he and his wife (whose name I can’t even vaguely pronounce, much less spell) were my new Mongolian parents, and there was a farewell with lots of hugs.

I had a great time, and only regret I had to give in to the cold. My only excuse is that there is a limited amount of clothes one can bring when travelling, and one of Pimba’s coats were bigger and heavier than all of my luggage together, made of the skins of several whole sheep…

Back here in UB, I’ve stayed the night at Degi’s, and we’re going to a death metal concert tonight. Degi is a self proclaimed satanist neo-nazi pagan death metaller who speaks very poor English. We’re still trying to get along, even though he doesn’t speak enough English to understand what I’m talking about when I try to ask him how he gets those things to fit together…

Ulan Baatar, the world’s ugliest capital?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

BaikalI met my Dutch friends, and we went to Listvyanka village by lake Baikal, about an hour from Irkutsk. It was definately a huge lake, and I took some cool pictures (that I still can’t upload, as the computers in this internet cafe don’t have accessible USB). My first priority was to find a dive centre, and lo and behold, even on our way into the village, we saw people in scuba outfit on the shore just next to the road! After a nice lakeside lunch, we trotted over to the dive centre.

I contacted a dive centre in Irkutsk a while back, www.baikalex.com, through the contact box they have on their page, and via email. They never answered, but I called them when I got to Irkutsk. They said they were fully booked, and that I should have contacted them via their web page… They suggested I just go out and have a looksee at Listvyanka village, so there I was. For a while, I actually thought I was going to get to dive! It then turned out that there HADindeed been a free spot in their previous dive, a couple of hours earlier, but the next free spot was in the middle of next week… (just about when I’m posting this) 🙁

Pribaikalsk Nature ReserveInstead of diving, we went for a hike in the pribaikalsk national park, which turned out to be an, if not equal then at least decent, substitute. We went up one of the valleys from the lakeside, between quaint old wooden houses, on frozen creeks, through snow that was about ankle deep, and up steep hills. We were originally planning to head over to the next valley, and then go back to the village from there, but we instead decided to get up to the top of the hill, and thus followed the ridge when we got to the highest point of the pass. The two Dutch guys were beside themselves, which is maybe not so surprising, seeing as they both live four meters BELOW sea level… The view from the top was gorgeous, and at least lessened my disappointment at not having gotten in that dive.

When I got back to Irkutsk, I had to take a taxi to my host’s place in the suburbs, pack my stuff, and then back to town to catch the train. Anastasia saw me off, and offered to help me getting supplies and everything before I got on the train.

The train from Irkutsk to Ulan Baatar was the most expensive so far, because they didn’t have third class, which is what I’ve used so far. The only carriage that was crossing the Russian/Mongolian border was second class. In third, the “compartments” aren’t really compartments, because they don’t have doors or walls. Second class was a whole different deal. The third class carriages look like they’re from the early seventies, but the carriage I was in from Irkutsk was brand spankin’ new! Each compartment had a tv and you could get either the onboard radio or the tv sound from minijack outlets above the beds. Each bed had a reading light, the windows were clean so you could see out, you could open them to get fresh air, the provodnitsa spoke English, the toilets smelled of soap instead of piss, all in all it was a whole different world! Still, the biggest change was being able to have proper conversations with the other travellers. I shared my four berth compartment with a couple from New Zealand, two compartments over was a father and daughter from Holland, who both were fluent in English, and a few of the other passengers also spoke English!

The train was a really slow one, however, and apparently I missed some of the most impressive scenery in Russia, going through tunnels and across bridges along the southern bank of Lake Baikal, since we passed it in the night.

We got to the border about 1pm the next day, and then found out that passport control wouldn’t come till 4pm. We went out and looked around a little, but it was a tiny village, so there wasn’t much to do. I spent my last few rubles buying some more credit for my Russian sim card, and used it to send some messages to my friends in Irkutsk. Then we waited. Around three thirty we got some customs forms to fill out in duplicates. At five to four a guy came into our compartment, looked at our passports, took the customs forms, stamped them, gave one back, and left again. A while later, another guy came in, got our passports, and trotted off with them. After more waiting, first one, then two more people searched our compartment. I couldn’t say what they were looking for, because they didn’t even touch our luggage… About seven hours after we first came to the border, we started moving again… Ten minutes later we were at the ACTUAL border, and twenty minutes after that, we got to the first Mongolian station. There, we had to write immigration documents and more customs documents, and of course the Mongolians had to take our passports. I don’t really know how long the whole border crossing ordeal took, but it must have been over ten hours… 😛

The next morning, we were woken up at 5:30am, about forty minutes outside of Ulan Baatar. The plan was to borrow a phone and write my host in UB an sms with my arrival details as soon as we entered Mongolia, but I fell asleep before I thought of asking anyone, so I obviously wasn’t met at the station. There were several hostels that had pick-up-service however, so I hitched a ride to a hostel, had breakfast, borrowed a phone, and sent an sms. Fifteen minutes later my host picked me up from the hostel, and we went to his place. He went to work, and I spent the day relaxing, catching up on international news on BBC World, and fell asleep in the middle of an airplane disaster show on Discovery. It was unspeakably nice to get a proper shower and a shave, which I hadn’t had since Ekaterinburg. (I had shaved, but my host in Irkutsk didn’t have a shower, only a communal washroom)

Today I’ve been walking around UB. It just might be the ugliest capital in the world… 😉 There are, however, some pearls buried in the massive concrete soviet heritage pig sty. My host runs a restaurant a few minutes walk from the city centre, and on my way from the restaurant to the Sukhbaatar Square, I found a small, run-down buddhist monastery, that wasn’t even among the few sights listed in my Lonely Planet guide! It was quite cool, with it’s prayer wheels,  huge communal Gers and locals going around offering their prayers! There is a bigger, more beautiful monastery in UB too, which I’ll visit later. I finally feel like I have time to do what I want, with two weeks here!

I also went to a large park that was marked on my map, but it turned out to be more like the ghost of a park… I don’t think it was supposed to be open to the public, because all the entrances were welded closed, except the one I reached first, and even that one was deserted. I was the only person in there, which was both nice and really eerie at the same time… There was a broken fountain with no water, a big, empty, dusty bowl where a pond was marked on my map, lined with broken statues of exotic aquatic animals. Further over were the skeleton of an old rollercoaster and a rusty ferris wheel that looked ready to collapse. The walk paths had almost no paving left on them, and dry, brown undergrowth was sticking up through the snow everywhere. I was really far from the place I’d gotten in, and all the other entrances were welded shut, so I ended up squeezing through a hole in the fence, in order to get out of the park on the right side…

My cs host has friends that are nomads, and live in a yurt out in the countryside. He’s arranged for me to go there tomorrow! I will be staying and working with the family there until Friday. Then I head back to UB, because I’ve been invited to a concert with Mongolia’s first (and only) death metal band! Can you say clash of cultures, anyone?