Trip to the Gobi Desert – Part Three – Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes and a local Nadaam Festival

Well, waking up near the sand dunes was pretty special.  Stefan and Sebastien like to do a workout every day, and I thought it would be a great idea to join them.  I had already done a couple of workouts with them, but the one by the sand dunes on this particular morning – wow, what a backdrop.   We ran there and back which was 3km without the workout on top! That and the morning sun coming up, I must have sweated half a stone off! (If only it was that easy!

Nice face Stefan!

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Trip to the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Part Two – bad tents, a refreshing river, and the results of crazy driving in the desert!

(Firstly I apologise for the annoyingly mis-sized pictures, and maybe some wonky text too, but WordPress is not playing tonight, and I think I’m even lucky to get any of this post up with the internet connection I have at the moment! Still, hope you enjoy 🙂 ) Continue reading Trip to the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Part Two – bad tents, a refreshing river, and the results of crazy driving in the desert!

Trip to the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Part One – beautiful horses and the sacred mountain Zorgol Khairkhan

There were six of us on this trip, in two separate Russian mini vans.  This was a good job because a lot of the next 6 days were to be spent in these vans traversing bumpy, sometimes, rollercoaster-like dirt tracks.  The drivers?  They only know one speed…..I expect you can guess which one that is!  If you’re still a little unsure, check out Gobi Desert Part Two (to follow) to see the results of such speed!

In the group were Stefan (UK), Sebastien, Cecile, Thomas and Djena, all French, and all speaking fantastic English. 

Not far out of the city appeared the start of the countryside and the Mongolia I had come to see.  We started to see gers (or yurts as I used to know them) dotted about the countryside.  On the first day we drove for about eight hours through a lush green landscape and some beautiful mountain scenery.

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Sebastien getting comfy!

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Traffic…

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We stopped off for lunch and had some camel milk tea, not bad actually!

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A right character in the cafe

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Along the way we also stopped at a sacred mountain of Mongolia, so sacred that the guide could not say the name of the mountain while we were next to it, for fear of bad luck.  It was called Zorgol Khairkhan, no one is even allowed to walk up the mountain.  At the foot is a large pool of water, filled with nearly a hundred horses all bathing in the hot midday sun.  Inquisitive creatures they were, quite often staring into the lens of the camera, posing for their beauty shots!

Zorgol Khairkhan

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Specially for the horse lovers!

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In the evening we arrive in a little village, and all six of us stayed in a ger next to a Mongolian family.  It wasn’t quite the nomadic experience we may have expected, as we had no interaction with the family, but nonetheless it was a comfortable bed and a good night’s sleep.

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Stefan

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Cecile

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Trans-Siberian Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

So, after spending a good couple of days catching up on my blogging in Irkutsk, once again it was time to head off into the unknown.  As I left my Russian home stay, I wondered what the next episode in my adventure would be…

On ariving at the station I had no clue where to go for my train to Mongolia, so I thought,as you would, to ask one of the staff.  I went up to one counter and showed my ticket to the rather grumpy looking lady there, and she just scowled at me and waved me on.  Thanks, I thought!

I did find two guards who were a little more help than this, despite them not being able to speak English they at least tried to help me.  One even used his phone using Google translate and I managed to establish that I needed to wait at a gate for my train.  I found a huge metal gate where a couple of people were standing, so decided to wait here, it looked the most promising anyhow.  A few more gathered so it was looking more like it was my train.  The gates opened and everyone rushed through, heading for the platform.  I followed and made my way through the station, and headed towards carriage number 8, I knew this much from my ticket.  I stood there a couple of minutes, and then asked a couple there, well when I say asked, I mean showed them my ticket, pointed at the train, as if asking if this was the right train, they seemed to agree it was, so I decided to wait there.  Then, it suddenly dawned on me, I had my small bag, but not my big rucksack, OH MY GOD MY BAG! I’VE LEFT MY BAG! Realising I had left my bag I took flight and literally sprinted back towards the gate where I had been standing, in my head thinking, that’s it, that’s my bag gone, what am I going to do?!

To my surprise and absolute relief, there it was, still stood there, waiting patiently for me to return to collect it!  I seriously didn’t think I’d see it there, and my heart was in my mouth!  Panic over.

Luckily after this minor bit of drama, the train was indeed the correct one, and I boarded.  As I was sorting my cabin out, I saw Hans walk by, an American I’d met on the minibus on the way back from Olkhon Island.  In my cabin was a young Mongolian girl called Oyuko, then a couple of Irish guys turned up who were also in the cabin, Dermot and JP.  They were on their way to a wedding in Fiji, and decided to make the trip via Tran Siberian, what an awesome way to do it! 

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We had quite a laugh over the next couple of days along with Hans who joined us, a few beers and a few games of shithead passed the time quite nicely.  Also, due to this being the train that crossed the border, we had a good five hours in a little village in Russia, where we took a walk up the hill and took a few pics.

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A Russian cemetery where all the gravestones have photos on them

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The one carriage going to Mongolia

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Ah look it’s the little people!

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JP’s look of determination as he doesn’t want to be shithead for the tenth time!

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The scenery had also started to change from pine trees to more open land, rolling countryside, lakes with mountainous backdrops.

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The scruffy dog selection

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And a street cow too!

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Olkhon Island Trip

When I was arranging this three night trip to Olkhon Island all those months ago when I was back home, it was the one I was most excited about.  Well, it didn’t disappoint!  I booked my minibus taxi in the town, and they came to pick me up on the Saturday morning.  There was only one guy in the van when it picked me up, Trevor from England.  We then went on to pick up a further group of people, along with all their huge rucksacks, but we managed to squeeze them in.  Packed in like sardines, to our dismay we stopped at another hostel, with two further guys and all their gear!  It was a crazy squash but we did it, and we’d certainly be getting to know each other very well over our 6 hour journey!  Fourteen people and all their gear were packed into this what I think was probably a 12 seat minibus! (The driver certainly didn’t like to hang around either!  Although his speedo was broken so I’m not quite sure exactly how fast he was going, but he was overtaking everything in sight!)

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At the ferry point

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My first find at the place we had booked to stay!

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Nikita’s Homestead was where I had booked my 3 nights, and at first I was worried because nearly all of the minivan guys I’d got to know over the last 6 hours were staying at another place, and I had enjoyed their company (I got in the bubble!) and I was worried I’d made the wrong choice, and so I very nearly changed my mind at the last minute, but I thought no, Nikita’s is where I wanted to stay all those months ago I’m going to stick with it.  I needn’t have worried one bit though, Nikita’s was lovely, a group of beautiful wooden buildings with guests from all over the world.

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After checking in, I met a Swiss girl Silja, who had literally just arrived before me.  We were sharing the same room, and got on so well that in fact we spent the whole of the next three days together!

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The atmosphere at Nikita’s was fantastic, everyone was so friendly, the staff very helpful, and the food was plentiful with good tasty choices.  I was also in my element, the place was heaving with cats and dogs!  I particularly took a shine to the little white kitten…..could have popped him in my rucksack!

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On the first evening Silja and I went to the on site French Bistro, and drank some very welcome glasses of hot mulled wine.  Bliss.

On the Sunday we booked to go on s tour to the Northern cape of the island.  It was an extremely bumpy ride, as there are no roads on the island, only dirt tracks.  At least they were generous with the seating numbers in this one!

A few pics from the tour of the island

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A funny little bit of driftwood with a face!

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Cow on the beach!

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People here tie little bits of material to the trees as shamanic offerings

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They also leave coins and cigarettes as offerings

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Seals on the rocks

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Our driver made us a lovely fish soup for lunch

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Apparently if you throw stones at the big rock you will get a husband (or wife, whichever your preference!)

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I am quite ashamed at this blatantly obvious ‘girl throw’!

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You even get to choose the kids!
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Bit of a better throw!

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Back at Nikita’s, I find another friend….

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Cat selfie!

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On the Monday Silja and I went to a cooking class with a lovely lady called Marsha. She taught us how to make varenikki. We made dough which was similar to pasta, and the filling, although I was a little unsure at first on hearing what it would be, cabbage and egg….was actually delicious!

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In the afternoon we went on a two hour horse riding trek. It was lovely trotting through the woods, over the hills and along the dirt tracks on the island, taking in the views around us. The guy that took us was a bit miserable and just disappeared at the end without saying a word! Oh well, we enjoyed it even if he didn’t!

A few more pictures from out and as bout on the island, and the views from the hill on the last night.

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The room we shared

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This is by far my favourite bit of the trip so far. I would love to come back to Olkhon Island in the winter, when the lake freezes with ice 1-3 metres thick! Apparently it freezes so clear though, that it doesn’t even look like it’s frozen! Brave are those who drive across it, especially as apparently you can hear the ice cracking and creaking as you drive across it. Even though this is normal and is pretty safe, I would be terrified!

My home stay and a wander in Irkutsk

Well, I managed not to turn up drunk at my home stay!  I was greeted by my host Tamara, who had made a nice meal for me. 

Tamara in her kitchen where I had many a pile of pancakes, plates of pasta and meats, and slice after slice of homemade apple pie!  Suffice to say, the belly has taken a hit this week and I need to get back in trim.  A week back at work would have done it, a little far away though from South Wonston!

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I spent a day wandering in Irkutsk, there are some truly beautiful old buildings, really old and run down, but I love buildings like this, they ooze character, more so than the main centre which is predominantly new buildings which have been made to look old, not quite the same!

A few pics from my wanderings

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Monument to the seals!

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A selection of pictures along the Trans-Siberian way…

So, the rest of the train journey was pretty good. On the last day I was invited to join some Belgian guys in the bar at lunch time, so I obliged, just to be polite of course!  Anyhow, I had informed one of them that I had yet to have a vodka shot in the land of vodka, even though I’d been in the country over a week!  Well, this had to change…Joe, one of the Belgians had been shown one way to drink vodka shots by a Russian guy earlier on in the trip, so, after we were brought our 100g of vodka, he poured it into two glasses and then added the magic ingredient – pepper! And lots of it too!  He gave it a stir, then let it settle slightly, then boom! Down in one!  (Carefully leaving most of the settled pepper in the glass).

Give it a few seconds then wow, I could feel my shoulders burning from this stuff!  Surprisingly, it wasn’t unpleasant, although my initial face may say otherwise!

I was pleased I got to have some vodka finally, hey I know I like the stuff but it wouldn’t have been the same having it on my own.  Two was enough though as later that evening I was meeting my home stay host in Irkutsk, could hardly turn up drunk!

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This one must be where the heat hit…..!

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With one of the provodnistas!

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And a beer to wash it down with!

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More pics from the journey

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The building with a mouth!

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Starting the epic journey that is the Trans Siberian…

I am now sat on my first proper Trans-Siberian train, not quite as nice as the St Petersburg to Moscow one, but not bad either.  It feels good to be doing this trip, it’s been so full on I haven’t really had chance to sit down and think about it!

I am loving the fact that the huge language barrier brings about constant surprises, be them good or bad!  I am unsure how the meals work on this train, but I believe I get one per day included, be that breakfast, lunch or dinner.  Anyhow I have just been brought in some noodle soup that I wasn’t expecting.  I’m not that hungry but I won’t pass up the opportunity to eat, who knows, the next surprise may be that I don’t get any dinner!  Everything is unsure in the world of ‘not having a clue what’s going on!’. I do love a food surprise too, pick something, bite into it, and find out that way what it is that you’ve picked! 

In my cabin is Ludima.  She speaks as much English as I do Russian, however I have established she is a doctor, and my job in Russian is ‘patyana’, that’s if my ‘charades version’ translated as it was meant to……! Her colleagues are in the next cabin, and one of them has brought us both in coffees and chocolate, and knows a handful of English words.  I was slightly bemused when he kept calling me their ghost…..until I realised he meant guest!  And, as I write he now brought us in ice cream, this is after also offering me beer and Pepsi cola! He says ‘Welcome, Russia’ a lot!

Ludima started spraying her face with a mysterious vapour, and to my bemused look she passed the pink contraption over to me and started to spray the vapour on to my face, let’s hope the vapour is something pretty innocent!  Must be as she’s spraying her own face with it!  Turned out it’s just water, a freshener I guess.

The lady at my hostel in St Petersburg said that on the Trans Siberian train I would see trees, trees…..trees…..and more trees.  You know what, I could look at these trees all day 🙂   Which is a good job as that is exactly what I’ll be doing for the next 3 days in fact!

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Further out into the countryside, there are many wooden houses with tin roofs, and I can’t help but wonder how difficult it must be for them in the harsh Siberian winters….

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Lots of great grafitti along the buildings that run alongside the railway

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Well, I’d got used to Ludima being in my cabin and her friend popping in, but early in the evening they’d obviously reached their destination and they left the train.  Another travel bubble burst.  Although it turned out I had the cabin to myself for the night – result!  So it was just me, my music, and a couple of beers for the night.  Happy days.

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Next morning I tried to get breakfast from the restaurant car, only to be told, as I understood from the body language, hand gestures, and tone, that there was no more breakfast.  Oh well, least I have muesli bars and a huge bar of chocolate.  I bought a tiny carton of apple juice for £1.60, so perhaps it was just as well I didn’t get breakfast there.

I now have a new girl in my cabin.  I don’t know her name but boy do her feet smell!  Stronger than the packet of TUC biscuits I had in my possession.  Let’s hope this one won’t be a stayer either!

A few hours later….

Luckily she was not a stayer!

One more girl came and went, and another came last night and has been here all day, and it’s looking like maybe for another night too, but you never know.  I am fully in my Trans Siberian bubble, and this again, could burst at any moment.  But, when one bubble bursts, another, different bubble is created.  I have spent my time on the train mainly: sleeping, reading, blogging, eating, drinking beer and listening to music, and contemplating.  It’s all been a pretty good experience so far.  Even the carriage assistant is used to my ‘one beer please’ and ‘hello’, and ‘thank you’.  Pretty much my limit.  Oh, and I can say black cat, Ludima taught me that, although haven’t found use for that one yet.

My cabin to myself

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Now, going back to my earlier comment about how I love food surprises?  Well, that’s because I’d never had a bad food surprise…..this morning a carriage attendant selling what looked like some kind of pastry or croissant passed by our cabin.  I called him back and pointed at one of the food items, as I was a little hungry for breakfast.

Deep fried cabbage donut anyone?

No, me neither.  I must admit the cabbage innards themselves weren’t too bad, so I ate these from the centre.  But the stodgy deep fried sickly surround…..?!  This one goes down as a bad food surprise!

Follow me as I head off around the world!