Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Summer 2013 - 3rd Stop: Ulaanbaatar - The Beginning

New country!!! And even though we've only completed three days of our three week stay here, we could potentially have a new contender in the best country stakes! That prediction may be a little premature as we've actually experienced very little in our short time here, but from the little snippets we've seen, we may have something very special on our hands. Tomorrow, we leave for the main part of our Mongol adventure - a 17 day tour into the wild, journeying along the Mongolian steppes, trekking across the Gobi Desert, and all the while staying in traditional 'gers' with the local nomads (is that an oxymoron?).

Ulaanbaatar itself has been great (surprising really, considering our distaste for capital cities), but the main source of our enthusiasm so far came as soon as we crossed the border. Our first day in the country was spent almost entirely on the road for our 12 hour long bus ride down from Russia. And although it sounds like a chore, it was anything but. On the Mongolian side at least. It was ridiculous how the landscape instantly flipped into endless, green rolling hills, stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction. I'll cut short the descriptors for now as I'm sure I'll need every one I can get over the next 17 days. I don't want to waste them all on our bus ride in!

But how about that for your run-of-the-mill, roadside piss stop!?

So, as for Ulaanbaatar - to sum it up in one word, I'd say... surprising. For a country with a population of less than 3 million, a lot of whom still live the nomadic lifestyle, I wasn't expecting UB to be anything special at all. But to give it credit, it can stand tall over the majority of capital cities we've visited during our time in Asia, both in terms of tradition and modernity.

I'll keep this entry quite brief because, as I mentioned, we've only had three days here - one on the road, and the other two were half spent preparing for our big, big excursion. We did get up to a few things though in our free time. The above picture is from Sukhbaatar Square, the centre point of the city and as you can see, we caught it at a great time. The Naadam festival - the major celebration in the Mongol calendar - is starting in a few days time, so all of the city's youngsters were out in force, donning their traditional costumes and practicing their dance routines.

We'll be out in the back of beyonds during the Naadam celebrations, which will be extra special as we'll be able to experience a much smaller and more intimate festival where the locals will be competing in the three traditional Mongol sports - archery, horse racing and wrestling. That's something I really can't wait to see!

And if Sukhbaatar Square couldn't get any more awesome, at the far end (I forgot to mention there's a big statue of Genghis Khan on a throne at the top end) there's a big dinosaur exhibit! Apparently, Mongolia has a huge history of dinosaur findings and at the moment they have the skeleton of a Tarbosaurus Baatar (a relation of the Tyrannosaurus Rex) on show, just until they finish building their own dinosaur museum. It of course brought back memories of the last dinosaur museum we went to in Savannakhet, Laos which was laughably shit. At least now we finally got to see a real dinosaur!

                 Savannakhet "dinosaur museum"                       UB actual dinosaur museum

In other Mongol news, I know I joked about it in the last entry, but we actually have been trying the local food quite a bit while in town. It's hard to go wrong though seemingly with Mongolian food, their national dish seems to be... lots of meat! Admittedly, one of the evenings we did pay a visit to an Irish pub but we've been very restrained while in town. We've seen at least five of them already in the city and that's without even looking.

I think it's a great name too, a nice blend of Irish and Mongol ways of life - "That Genghis now, he was a grand Khan. Ah ya, some man for one Khan!".

We also paid a visit to Gandan Khiid Monastery, twice actually, since it was pretty cloudy the first time around, and it's right in the city centre anyway. And we never realised that you had to buy a ticket to get in! Twice!

There were some amount of pigeons too in the area, and you could buy seed to feed them. It was nice and relaxing in a way, listening to all of the cooing, until every so often they'd erupt in a hurricane of dust and feathers. Not fun if you're caught in the middle of it...

And here's where we made our latest video diary, so have a look:


That's about it for Ulaanbaatar, for now at least. We'll be back here for another two days at the end of our tour, and we've still left ourselves plenty to see in and around the city.

Now, I've been very on the ball so far this summer, keeping up to date with the blog at regular intervals, but I'm afraid this is where I drift off, as electricity will be hard to come by on the road and I'm not sure the Gobi is fitted with wifi... I'll have a lot of catching up to do, so please be patient and we'll be back soon! :)

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Summer 2013 - 2nd Stop: Ulan-Ude

Well, Ulan-Ude is lovely! A really nice town, small enough to walk around quite easily, but still plenty to catch your eye; beautiful buildings, big open areas and they've even got a Subway! What's not to love!? Another interesting thing about the place is the diversity of the population. For example, in Irkutsk, everyone looked very... well, Russian! I know that probably sounds like a stupid thing to say, but it's strange for a city that's certainly Asian in terms of geography, over 4,000 km from Moscow, to be filled with your typical blonde hair, blue eyed, Aryan race. In Ulan-Ude however, it's definitely more of a cultural melting pot with a large portion, even possibly a majority, of ethnic Mongols. I don't know if it's because of this reason, or because it's a lot smaller than Irkutsk, but there just seemed to be a much lighter atmosphere around Ulan-Ude. Anyway, in conclusion, it's lovely!

So, continuing on from where I last left off...

We were up extra early the next morning as we had to catch a minibus to UU and, as it was quite hard to find any information online, we wanted to make sure we were at the station in plenty of time, just to be ahead of the game. Although, our early start was undone right away as we got on the wrong bus to the station - disaster! We had no idea where we were and so had to continue on until the bus had finished its route, wait for it loop back around, and then ask the driver (who was very helpful despite any English) which stop would leave us closest to our goal. So, off we got and plodded along in the direction of the station.

On the way, we passed a tourist office and decided to pop in to make sure we were on the right track, only to find that it didn't matter what direction we were headed as the bus to Ulan-Ude leaves from the train station, not the bus station (obviously...!). So, we had to jump on a tram to take us to the other side of the city, in the hopes that we hadn't missed the last bus - and we hadn't! Our early start hadn't been in vain after all.

When we arrived, all of the bus signs were in Russian, so we just had to look out for a minibus with a *4 symbol* *hyphen* *3 symbol* combination (and hope there weren't any other towns similarly phrased). And we found one! Off to Ulan-Ude finally!

It took us close to 7 and a half hours to get there in the end, although, over an hour of that was probably spent on needless toilet breaks in the middle of nowhere. Having said that, we did stop off at a nice lookout point over Lake Baikal. It was good to see it again now that we had a bit of sunshine to better enjoy the view.

We arrived at Ulan-Ude train station that evening, greeted by pouring rain. I had walking directions to our hostel but it's never much fun searching around a strange city, soaked to the skin and dragging your luggage behind you, so we found a taxi. And after initially being quoted 500 Roubles, we brought out the good cop / bad cop routine once more, and haggled him down to 200. (Poor negotiating from the driver though, I must say - we were standing in the rain, clearly not knowing where we were going - not exactly the strongest position to bargain from)

At the hostel, we got settled and waited for the rain to die down, but we still got to have a general wander before sunset. And that's another point to note, and the same goes for Irkutsk - it doesn't get dark here until at least half 10 every night! It's great!

As it's quite a small town, and as we had over two full days here, we could afford to relax and take our time - so no Russian around! We also had the pleasure of experiencing Ulan-Ude's unique international claim to fame. Last year, if you remember, we saw the world's biggest wooden spoon in Miyajima, and of course we thought nothing could ever top that. But then came Ulan-Ude with, ladies and gentlemen, the world's biggest... Lenin head!

He certainly changed a lot after leaving The Beatles...

Apart from the above, there aren't a whole lot of other major sights in town. Across the road from Lenin's Head, there's the opera house and a lovely fountain, and then down at the other end of the main street (named Lenin St.), there's Odigitrievsky Cathedral, which is very pretty and similar in style to some of the typical Russian churches that we had seen in Irkutsk.

That evening, we went out to sample some Russian cuisine. We always make a big effort to be adventurous wherever we go as it really helps you to understand the local culture. In fact, we found a lovely, quaint little restaurant on Lenin Street to experience some unique Siberian delicacies...

Lol, jk! We went to an Irish pub, which was creatively named, "Irish Pub"!

And it didn't disappoint! Not so much the food which was only so-so, but the menu, that was clearly put together by someone who only had the faintest grasp of Irish culture. Dishes included the "Generous Leprechaun", the "Belfast Mystery" (which sounds more like a homemade car bomb), the Gaelic this, the Celtic that etc. etc., which all bore no relation to the actual dish.

But far and away the best they had to offer - from the streets of Mayfield to the tables of Ulan-Ude...

I don't even understand the concept of 'garlic toast and peanuts' as a meal, never mind its relevance to Roy Keane!

On our final day, we wandered further afield and got a bus to Rinpoche Bagsha Datsan, a Buddhist monastery about a 15 minute bus ride from the city centre, which is situated on top of a hill with a great view over the surrounding area. Unfortunately, there was major construction work going on while we were there which kinda killed the 'meditative Buddhist vibe' of the place, and also meant that the view was littered with JCBs and bags of cement. We still had a laugh though!

And also made a video diary there:

The next morning, in fact, tomorrow morning (I'm actually writing this in real time for once!) we'll be ending our short but very enjoyable stay in Russia, to hop on a 12 hour bus to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia - a new country, and undoubtedly a new adventure! 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Summer 2013 - 1st Stop: Irkutsk

And we're back for another summer of fun and frolics across Asia! Where does the time go? It feels like only yesterday that I finished my last blog entry... 

Our first stop this time around is the city of Irkutsk in southern Russia. We've come to the stage in our travels where we've been to pretty much every country in our immediate vicinity, therefore we've had to broaden our search a bit this summer, and so we headed north, and kept heading north til we reached the frozen tundras of Siberia! 

I guess it's a lot less snowy in the summer...

We flew from HK to Russia (we just asked for the Edward Snowden special) on the afternoon of July 1st with Korean Air; our first, but hopefully not last time flying with them. They were far and away the best airline we've travelled with in our time in Asia - great food, lots of leg room and the whole entertainment package too. It was a better set-up than what you'd get for an intercontinental journey, even though we were only taking a pair of 4 hour flights. Major love for Korean Air.

Need I say anymore?

We touched down just after midnight, marking a new country for me, but sadly, not for Aisling. In terms of places visited, Irkutsk is just another pin in the map, but if you want to go by country, that one little footstep on Russian soil means that my total land area covered just increased 100 fold!

Seriously though, how big is Russia! 

I meant that rhetorically, but do you know how big Russia is? Bigger than frickin' Pluto! That's right, it's bigger than a (former) planet!

My previous image of Russia was Moscow, St Petersburg... and then the rest was just an icy Siberian wasteland. So imagine my surprise when Irkutsk turned out to be a normal functioning city! And quite a beautiful one too. It's also the first place we've been to on our Asian travels where we can actually blend in with the locals! People actually spoke to us in Russian thinking we were from here. That sure as hell didn't happen in Japan or Vietnam!

On our first day here, we just walked around to several different sights, most of which were just pretty buildings - the nicest of all being Our Lady of Kazan Church, which is probably one of the nicest buildings you'll see anywhere.

It's not the biggest city so you can walk around and see everything you want in a day. There are several nice churches here, including the Raising of the Cross Church and the Epiphany Cathedral; as well as having a selection of modern structures, classical European architecture and an array of old wooden buildings that look like they've been lifted right out of the wild west!

We only really had a day and a half in the city itself, with another half-day spent in the small town of Listvyanka, an hour away on the shores of Lake Baikal - the deepest lake in the world. On the morning of our visit, it was absolutely freezing (well, by our pampered HK standards. For Siberia it was probably quite warm), so we didn't test the waters ourselves to see how deep it really was. We just spent a few hours walking around the town before returning to Irkutsk for the evening.

Here's the first video diary of the summer, from stay in Irkutsk:


And staying in Russia, next up will be the town of Ulan-Ude, so stay tuned for that!