Sunday 20 May 2018

Mongolia: A night with the nomads

Old ladies & ice cream - Ulaanbaatar
The Trans-Mongolian railway route follows the classic Trans-Siberian tracks from Moscow about halfway across the vast Siberian plains until reaching the Mongol-Buddhist enclave of Ulan-Ude, nestled beneath the lower shore of Lake Baikal. From here, the carriages sweep southward, abandoning the never-ending taiga landscapes of Siberia and transitioning to the green rolling hills of northern Mongolia.

We decided to take this option for our trip as it offers a wider variety of countries, cultures and countryside. Crossing the vague Europe/Asia border along the Ural Mountains, traversing the mind-bending expanses of forest in Russia, trekking through the barren, arid Gobi Desert occupying vast swathes of land around the China/Mongolia border, and stopping at three vastly different capital cities; Moscow, Ulaanbaatar and Beijing.

Mongolia was the country in which we had the least time to explore – a grand total of three days. Keen to make the most of this time, and finding Ulaanbaatar a bit suffocating (it recently took the un-prestigious title of most-polluted capital from the grasps of Beijing and Delhi) we jumped at the chance to join young Dutchman Diederik on a two-day tour into nearby Terelj National Park, including an overnight stay with a traditional nomadic family.
Turtle Rock

Our journey to join the family was a leisurely one as our driver battled high-speed, dust-flinging winds to show us a few of the main places of interest in Terelj park. This included the appropriately named Turtle Rock – a hulking lump of granite that looms over the side of the road and whose shape is uncannily reminiscent of a turtle – and another eponymously titled formation called Old Man Reading a Book – you can guess what that one looks like.

We also had time to snoop around the Buddhist meditation centre of Aryapala. A picturesque retreat snugly located on a spectacular rocky hillside and open to the prying eyes of day-trippers and the open minds of long-term students (we were firmly in the former category). Steep steps up to the temple are accompanied by a multitude of wooden boards each displaying a different Buddhist proverb. These veered wildly from deeply profound to deeply depressing to deeply nonsensical. The essence of the majority seemed to be: None of this means anything, you fool, but still be nice to other people. Which I suppose is as fine a motto to live by as any other. The awkward sense of ennui from the bleakest of the aphorisms we’d read on the way up was soon shifted when we met the temple's elderly caretaker. Dressed in a wide variety of jackets, his head inexplicably festooned with a
The Caretaker
Chicago Bulls baseball cap, he swiftly grabbed us by the elbow and enthusiastically jabbed his finger at a particular scene that made up one of many decorative paintings covering the building. We couldn’t quite see what he was pointing at and were more distracted by the way he was smiling slightly manically, growling like a dog and intermittently pointing at his genitals. As we swiftly approached the conclusion it was time to make a rapid exit... finally; realisation as to what he was trying to show us. One of the temple’s wooden roof planks was decorated with artistic depictions of hell and the fate that would meet anyone who ended up there. Along with people being sawed in half and skewered up the bum with hot pokers, was a small design that showed a pair of dogs biting off men’s genitals. Relieved that we had finally realised what was going on, we couldn’t help but laugh. As did the old man, before spanking us all on the bum one by one. I liked him.

It is quite funny...
With twilight slowly drawing in, our driver dropped left us with some locals to pile into an insufficiently-sized and over-aged hatchback for the final journey to our nomadic hosts. The car was woefully unsuitable for the terrain – juddering across practically non-existent mud tracks, clattering through oversized streams, spluttering up steep mountains before hurtling down the other side. I’ve no idea how the vehicle survived the journey – the dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree with every warning light blinking frantically – but somehow it did and I’ve no doubt it has made the same journey again many times since.

Off-roading in a hatchback

Nomadic Gers (yurts)
We were definitely off-the-beaten track by the time we reached the family’s dwelling – a trio of traditional Mongolian Gers (yurts) with a small stable attached and a low wooden fence running around the periphery of the property. There were no other signs of human life in all directions we looked, just striking tree-topped rocky hillsides sliding down to barren grasslands. Plenty of animals could be spotted though – the horses, cows, chickens and dog owned by the family and wandering herds of bleating sheep scattered across the hillsides. It was only when we climbed to the top of one of these hills that we could make out a couple of other small nomadic dwellings in the distance.

Spot our yurts (white spots on the right)
You could almost picture Genghis Khan uniting the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and launching his impressively successful campaign for world domination from these sturdy heartlands in the 13th Century. No doubt he was a brutal and genocidal conqueror, reducing the total world population by 11% as his armies wiped out up to 40 million people, but also a progressive ruler in many ways; practicing meritocracy and encouraging trade and religious tolerance in his empire. And quite an empire it was: Genghis conquered more than twice as much land as any other person previously or since, resulting in the largest contiguous empire in history. He is hugely revered by Mongolians up to this present day; they perceive him to be the founding father of their country.

Our host family comprised a friendly mother and father along with their impossibly cute one year old daughter. They spoke no English but welcomed us heartily with the standard Mongolian fare of warm sheep milk, hardened biscuits and mutton stew. The daughter provided the necessary human link between us all without the need for a common language – giggling, toddling around and most definitely playing up to the strange visitors. Heading to our Ger and turning in for the night, it had already been an incredible, eye-opening experience. Little did we know what the next day had in store….

Statue of Mongol warriors
Horses play a hugely important role in the lives of Mongolians, and have done for as long as the recorded history of the country. The equine population actually outnumbers that of the human. Like Wales and sheep. But way, way cooler. The national beverage is fermented mare’s milk and horses occasionally provide food too. Primarily, though, they are used for riding – sometimes in racing, but mostly as working animals for the nomads. Mongolian nomads are unquestionably among the best horsemen on the planet. Such skills played a vital part in the success of Genghis Khan and the international conquest of his ‘Mongol hordes’. The warrior archers were capable of incredible feats while riding; such as sliding down the side of their horse to shield themselves from enemy arrows, while simultaneously holding their bow under the horse's chin and returning fire, all at full gallop.

Considering this, we could hardly say no when our host dad offered us the chance to go riding in the morning. There was a little apprehension, as the tour agency had told us ‘don’t worry, the horses are quite small…. But also half-wild, so hold on tight’, which wasn’t exactly reassuring. These niggling concerns dissipated almost immediately once we set off into the wide open Mongolian plains. The landscapes took on a vast biblical scale. Everything seemed bigger than it should be. Bold, blue skies. Beaming sunshine. Bright green flat grasslands, strewn with intermittent pebbles, mobs of sheep, herds of wild horses. The world framed by rolling hillsides and clustered groves of pine trees. Perfection. Serene Nature. Horse pace increasing to a canter….. really sore balls.
(Remember that last point – we did feel a bit sorry for ourselves, but not for long)

Riding under giant skies
After nearly an hour, our guide halted the convoy at another small nomad dwelling. Half a dozen stocky, weather-beaten Mongolian men were at work in the horse paddock. At least 12 wild-looking stallions were in the pen with them; running around, bucking violently, as the locals attempted to lasso one. No one spoke any English, so we weren’t quite sure what was going on, but assumed the animals were being broken in for riding.

A horse was finally snagged, then led outside the gate into the open plains and subdued by the men. They tied
Bracing against the stallion
one of its forelegs to a backleg, causing the animal to fall over its own hooves and onto the ground where it was promptly sat on and held down. This was quite distressing to watch, but we trusted in the Mongolian’s knowledge and world-renowned love for their animals to believe that this was all part of the breaking-in process. The first indication that there might be something else going on came when a long knife was produced, along with a bucket of boiling water and a large silver plate. As one of the older men took the knife, cleaned it in the water, and crouched down behind the hind quarters of the prone animal, it finally dawned on us…. The stallion was about to be castrated.

A successful lassoing

Half-repulsed, half-fascinated, we half-watched as the knife was used to slice open the outer sack and each testicle was popped out and cut off in turn. Obviously, no anaesthetic was used and the technique is the same as it has been for centuries – a sharp knife, a swift operation, and the wound rinsed with mare’s milk which is believed to encourage healing. It might sound barbaric to our unaccustomed ears, but having witnessed it first hand, it was remarkable how quickly the whole process was over and how little pain and distress the horse seemed to go through. The worst part being once the horse was allowed to get back up and began to rub its upper legs together, looking confused as it searched for something that used to be there – ‘This doesn’t seem quite right’. No longer a stallion, now a gelding, his mane also clipped short (adding insult to injury!). Quite a sad sight watching him trot awkwardly off to unenthusiastically nibble at a small patch of grass.

Preparing to make the cut
Amazed by what we’d seen, but still totally unprepared for what we’d see next. Geraint nudged me and said, ‘What’s that guy eating?’. Turning around, a double-take or three, one of the younger men was eating the horse testicle raw. Blood smeared his hands and face. He caught my eye and my first idiot-tourist instinct was to raise my camera. He smiled and happily posed for the picture.

By the time we’d seen three horses go through the castration process and six testicles quickly consumed by different members of the tribe, our initial knee-jerk misgivings had faded away remarkably rapidly and it was truly fascinating to witness and feel a part of this ritual. It turned out that one of the younger lads could actually speak a bit of English and he explained it was an ancient belief that whoever ate the testicles of the horse was meant to acquire the strength of that stallion. To be fair, I would not have fancied my chances in a wrestle with any of the blokes there.

Reading this blog, the whole procedure may come across as barbarous and disgusting, and I can understand that. However, it really didn’t seem that way watching first-hand (once the initial shock had passed anyway!). We felt incredibly lucky to have been present at such an event. This most definitely wasn’t something put on for the benefit of the tourists. This was real life. A rare, sacred, family-led custom. Horse gelding only occurs once a group of colts reaches 2 or 3 years old, and the date of the ceremony is so important it may even be decided by a lama to ensure good fortune. We were incredibly fortuitous to have gone out riding with our host on this particular day, and to have crossed this tiny nomad dwelling in the immense plains of the national park. We were truly blessed to see those balls get chopped off and we couldn’t be happier about it. Not something any of us will forget in a hurry.

(See the last few photos below if you would like to see the castration process and ritual testicle eating...)

Old  and new clashes in Ulaanbaatar
Genghis statue in Ulaanbaatar

Temple in Ulaanbaatar

Monument in Ulaanbaatar thanking the Soviets for their protection in WWII

GIANT Genghis Khan statue just outside Ulaanbaatar

Aryapala Meditation Retreat

Climbing to Aryapala 
Looking down from Aryapala Meditation Retreat

Our nomadic home for the night

G & Diederik in one of the Gers

Host family

The main attraction! :)

Kids start riding young in Mongolia!

Looking out of the Ger

Herds roaming the National Park

Diederik introducing himself

The view outside our bedroom

Wild horses

Gee up!

Like real cowboys...

Like real cowboys...

Like real cowboys...


Driving through a duststorm

The natural surroundings of our nomad camp

Bringing one of the horses to ground...

Train trundling through the Gobi Desert

Sunday 13 May 2018

You’re going to Russia!!?

The title of this blog was invariably the response uttered, along with raised eyebrows and widened eyes, when telling friends back home that Geraint and I would soon be boarding the Trans-Siberian railway in Moscow.

Most people suggested that we were a bit mad to be heading to Russia considering the ‘current state of affairs’ between our two countries. I was told to be extra careful - it could be very dangerous if locals out there realised we were from the UK.

I wasn’t completely immune to these worries myself. Having closely studied the news and seen the increasing inflammatory rhetoric exchanged between No.10 and the Kremlin – economic sanctions levelled, diplomats expelled, more serious actions threatened. It would be naïve not to give a minute’s thought to the negative implications this may have on a trip that traversed pretty much the entire nation against which our country was currently engaged in a verbal war.

Having now completed the Russian leg of our trip I’d like to recount a little about how these preconceptions and worries compared to the reality.
St Basil's Cathedral

The first assumption that was quashed was the idea that Russian people are a bit, you know.... Severe. Dour. Grumpy. Bland. Grey. Basically, a land of Putin clones. Our first day in the country we headed to everyone’s initial port of call: The Kremlin and Red Square. Almost immediately, the lazy stereotypes were challenged. Bright, colourful clothing. Smiling, shiny, happy people – enjoying their famous national landmarks, bathed in beaming sunshine. There were plenty of foreigners, of course, but just as many domestic tourists, and you couldn’t really tell them apart. Sometimes it was obviously the Russians being the more extravagant and extrovert. In particular, a group of schoolchildren we crossed who were arranging themselves into a human pyramid and gurning into the camera for a photo in front of the 16th century St. Basil’s Cathedral – a wonderfully eccentric piece of technicolour architecture, topped with domes like swirled ice-cream.

Out for a pedal
Cliches continued to crumble as we spent the afternoon at the ‘All Russia Exhibition Centre’. Not an indoor attraction as the name suggests but a set of wide pedestrianised avenues and grand pavilions covering a 2km stretch and adorned with monuments, mansions, statues and huge archways illustrating the ambitions of socialist optimism through the ages. With it’s wide open spaces, this is a popular spot for couples and children to while away the afternoon – most of them adopting an unexpectedly wide range of pedal-powered transport to slalom through the crowds. Seemingly, a fun day out for all. Imagine that! Russians... Having fun!

We finished our day with a trip to Gorky Park, which was heaving with families enjoying the last of the long weekend’s sunshine. A DJ played loud dance music to the crowds. Children delighted in the flashing lights and lasers, bopping away at the front of the stage. Young rollerbladers challenged each-other to higher jumps and technical tricks in their self-constructed skate park where piles of rucksacks and lines of paper cups marked the boundaries.

If any niggling concerns about being in Russia still persisted after day one, they were firmly put to bed by the end of our second day in Moscow. We were lucky enough to be connected via a mutual friend to lifelong Muscovite, Natalia, who offered to show us some of her favourite parts of the city.

Natalia is an accomplished painter ( and as you might expect from an artistic tour guide, we were treated to a journey into the creative side of the city. This began with a slow saunter down Arbat Street – a 1km stretch closed to traffic and given over to all things artistic: Pastel-shaded buildings covered with colourful murals, self-portrait painters proffering their services, poets perched on soapboxes, buskers and jugglers performing to clustered crowds. The street really is a delight to wander down, with trinket shops and welcoming cafes lining the edges and a procession of cherry blossom trees in full bloom down the centre.

Geraint & Natalia on Arbat Street, Moscow
As a fine-artist herself, Natalia was duty-bound to take us to one of Moscow’s renowned art galleries. Her choice was the State Tretyakov Gallery – housing the country’s premier collection of ancient icons (religious works) and other pre-revolutionary Russian art. I am ordinarily a bit of a philistine when it comes to art galleries and would sooner look for alternative outdoor activities in any given city. However, having Natalia leading the way, providing detailed background on each of the painters and the subjects depicted in their work, really took the experience to another level and it became an utterly fascinating journey through Russia’s tumultuous history.

State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
It’s simply not possible to talk about the artistic merits of Moscow without mentioning the metro stations. Developed in the 1920s, this vast spider-web of tunnels criss-crosses the centre and out into the far reaches of the city. Vastly wide escalators trundle deep down to the cavernous platforms with 10x the space of the equivalent transport system in London – we never once encountered a crowded platform or a crammed carriage, even during rush hour, and never had to wait longer than a couple of minutes for a train to come along. Most impressive of all is the extraordinary décor – marble pillars, intricate frescoes, chandeliers, gilded edges – each station is an elegant and unique work of art.

Now, to rein ourselves in a little bit and acknowledge something that might just challenge my waxing lyrical about Russia: I’m fully aware that by no stretch of the imagination is Moscow representative of Russia as a whole. Much like London doesn’t give you a clear view of the entire UK. But even more so in a country that covers one eighth of the world’s landmass. Still, Moscow is a lot of people’s primary experience of Russia, and nobody who warned us off visiting the country added a caveat for the capital, so I believe there is still some merit in our experiences here.

The Trans-Siberian train leg of our journey – departing from Russia and trundling 6000km across the vastness of Siberia before dropping down into Mongolia – allowed us to interact with plenty of non-Muscovites too.

We initially shared our 4-bed compartment with an old couple from Yekaterinburg, Sergi & Olga, who were gracious, friendly and chatty (as chatty as you can be when you don’t share a common language). Later on, we bunked with two young-ish Russian lads, Sergi & Igor – proper Siberians with little to say and not bothered with much during the journey except eating the staple meal of cold KFC and boiled eggs, staring out the window and sleeping. However, it would be unfair to align their reserved character with surliness and unfriendliness. They were perfectly accommodating to sharing their space with us, happy to attempt to communicate when required, but otherwise not driven by unnecessary exchanges.

The highlight, though, would probably be our encounter Shuri – a gas-worker who asked to sit with us in the restaurant car. Already a bit half-cut and with another full can of beer in each hand, I was initially wary – especially when he dived straight in to ask where we were from. Our plan before the trip was to tell anyone who seemed a bit sketchy that we were from Wales and Spain, to avoid speaking the cursed name of England. Given the positive experiences so far, though, the truth was hesitatingly told…. Which caused, of course, absolutely no issues at all.

Shuri was interested to hear about our journey but more eager to tell us about the other parts of Siberia his work had taken him to over the years. It was fascinating to hear about his trips to far-flung outposts across Siberia in the line of his unforgiving work. He had journeyed as far east as Blagoveshchensk and even onto the outer reaches of Sakhalin Island, as well as up North to the remote, inhospitable realms near Nordvik, far above the Arctic Circle. Some unimaginably tough environments in which he plied his trade – have a quick look at a Russian map to really comprehend the remoteness. As he recounted these tales in pigeon English, smelling strongly of stale booze, looking tired and dishevelled, I began to feel sorry for him and his thankless, lonely, difficult life. Then he pulled out his phone and showed us a stream of family photos – smiling with his wife and two boys, his son winning national mountain-biking championships, himself at the peak of Mt Elbrus near the Georgian border, hunting and fishing trips with friends. I realised I hadn’t quite shifted the predilection to preconception that we are all unfortunately guilty of sometimes.

This blog has waffled on for quite a while now without really mentioning the logistics of the 8000km railway journey that has taken us from Moscow on the borders of Europe all the way to the Far East and Beijing. However, this is partly intentional as I have been more interested in the people than the places, but it would be remiss not to recount a little about the ins and outs of the journey.

The original Trans-Siberian Railway was a complete revolution when it first launched at the turn of the 20th Century – finally linking Moscow with the Eastern port town of Vladivostok more than 9000km away across the barren, often-frozen, rebellious and ungovernable wilds of Siberia. To give an idea of the distance involved; before the line was built it was quicker and safer for travellers to journey west from St. Peterburg across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and mainland USA to reach Vladivostok, rather than attempt the overland Siberian journey. The railway line, when functioning properly, cut this journey time to 10 days only!

Trans-Siberian train on the left, Trans-Mongolian train on the right
Nowadays, there are actually a number of different lines and routes you can take and we were technically on the Trans-Mongolian Railway – which runs about halfway to Vladivostok until it reaches Irkutsk (home to Lake Baikal – the biggest lake in the world, holding 1/5 of the world’s freshwater, and also one of the deepest and coldest!) where the train then veers South through Mongolia and into China.

Brief platform stop
In total, we covered about 8000km over seven days on the train. We broke up the journey slightly in Irkutsk and Ulan Bator (capital of Mongolia) but began with 4 straight nights on the go. The compartments are comfortable and you have a little bit of room to move around but it does still become a slightly surreal, disorientating experience, especially as the time zone changes 5 times between Moscow and Irkutsk. Some of the scenery is incredible as it varies between lush grasslands, vast desert, forests of pine trees, undulating hillsides and hulking mountainsides. However, these changes come very slowly and for much of the journey the window simply reveals endless flat stretches of taiga - swampy coniferous forest - breathtaking and slightly anxiety-inducing in it's sheer scale and remoteness. Rivers and minor roads occasionally appear and meander lazily alongside the train tracks for a while, before inevitably getting bored and disappearing into the wilderness as the locomotive trundles relentlessly on.

Standard train food
To prevent going completely stir-crazy, passengers adapt to a strange routine as they find a way to cope with life on the rails. The days are structured around mealtimes – breakfast bars and fruit in the morning, making rolls for lunch, then the standard instant noodles in hot water for dinner. People quickly develop a knack of confidently staggering up and down the corridors to use the facilities (toilets only, mind, no showers) and everyone becomes strangely proficient at the subtle hip-swinging movements that allow two people to dance past each other in the narrow gangway. Mini station stops every few hours also create milestones in the journey as the entire trainload disembarks, creaking gingerly off the train, stretching and blinking in the light, grateful for the opportunity for fresh air and a little exercise. Sleeping, reading, writing, music, cards and conversation consume the rest of the available time. There is a great feeling of euphoria on reaching your destination, yet tinged with disappointment as there is plenty of satisfaction to be found in the routine and camaraderie developed alongside your fellow train inmates.

There's one final concluding caveat I would like to address in this fairly glowing account of our time in Russia. We most definitely only had very limited experience of the country – through visits to Moscow, Irkutsk and the long train journeys in between. It would be very blinkered not to acknowledge the actions of Putin and his government with the recent assassination attempt in Salisbury, plus previous ‘misdemeanours’ including the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, strong evidence of international election tampering, the war in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea. However, I am approaching this purely from a personal perspective; my own experience in the country as a tourist and the people we directly interacted with. As mentioned at the beginning, people assumed we would be unsafe due to what they’d been hearing on the news about Russia. It is useful to remember that there may be some bias and agenda in the reporting we are exposed to at home and you can’t tar the public with the same brush as the politicians. I think it is most effective to flip this around and ask questions of yourself. Given the current volatile diplomatic relations between Russia and the UK, would you randomly attack a Russian in the street? I would guess not. Would you assume they are unsafe in our country? Nope. It is really just the same situation vice versa out here and I can’t recommend enough jumping on a train to traverse this incredibly vast, complicated and enthralling part of the world.

Lenin Statue

Space Monument

Stalinist Architecture

The imposing Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow

Typical Russian dishes 

State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Soviet Sculpture Park, Moscow
Soviet Sculpture Park, Moscow

Arbat Street, Moscow

Red Square
Natalia and the lads...

Ready to depart...

Nighttime platform stop...

Restocking coal
Platform shop

Selling smoked fish on the platform

Restaurant car socialising

Passing time on the train

Passing time at the border

The lads at Lake Baikal
Made it! :)

Moscow Metro

Typical Trans-Sib scenery

Siberian snow

Trans-Mongolian train leaving the station in Omsk, Russia

Ice flows on Lake Baikal