Tuesday, October 30, 2007

We were all a little bit jaded the next morning in part from the excesses of beer during the sauna and in part to the vodka that followed afterwards.

But, like brave troopers, we hopped on board our small bus and headed back, away from Lake Baikal towards Irkutsk where we would be staying for one more night before the longest train journey on the Trans Siberian Express.

Irkutsk has a fascinating history. It is the capital of Eastern Siberia and began to develop from a small farming community to a major city (around 1 million people) when it became home to those exiled after the failed Decemberist Revolutions of the 19th Century.

It would almost be fair to say it is a town built by women. The wives of those who were exciled had the option to remain in Moscow or St Petersburg in luxury but chose to follow their husbands across the country (mainly by carriage and sledge) to this bleak outpost. There they helped build this town into a centre for the arts and culture and supported their husbands even though, for the first few years they were barely able to see them let alone live together. The term “Decemberist Wife” is still used in Russia to show the loyalty of a person to their husband.

When we arrived in to Irkutsk, we had chance to visit one of the houses of the most famous of the exiled women, Maria Volkonskaya. While it can’t be said that the house was in anyway as grand as those we were to see later in St Petersburg, it did show the lengths to which they had gone to recreate a life for themselves so far away from the capital.

The Volkonskya’s also provided inspiration for regular visitor, Tolstoy for his meisterwork and instrument of torture on every schoolboy in British history, War & Peace.

Our young guide for this portion of the trip was Julia, a student at the local university. Her English was excellent and her presentation style distinctly Russian.

Where as Nemo in Mongolia had been funny, irreverent and wild, as was the way with most Mongolians, Julia was formal and driven by a fact laden script that she was going to get out even if we all lay down on the floor and started snoring. She pointed to every nook, cranny and artefact and gave us the background in minute detail. Given that we were all a little under the weather and one of us even had to disappear to throw up, I think we did a pretty good job of looking interested.

After the tour, we were deposited at our hotel and had our first encounter with Russian accommodation and with Russia proper.

For centuries, the people of Russia have had little or no individual freedom, during feudal serfdom and then under harsh Sovietism. They have compensated for this lack of influence by clinging to any little bit of power life might give them and making life miserable for anyone who might need them to perform the service to which they have been appointed.

They have also developed an ability to appear exasperated at anything and everything no matter how good or bad that thing may be. Purchasing anything in any store involves eye rolling, shrugging of shoulders and the distinct impression that YOU handing THEM money for the things THEY sell is an incredible inconvenience and about as welcome as a dose of the clap.

So it was with checking into our hotel. We had been warned that it could be a long process and so it was. There was much of the afore mentioned rolling of eyes, much shrugging of shoulders, a few looks of contempt before we finally got the keys to the rooms we had booked. If it wasn’t so constant, it could almost be funny

The rooms themselves were not particularly funny either. Our hotel was a typically Soviet one with each floor housing a bar and an attendant to make sure that no one brought guests to their room. Quite why you would have brought them to these tiny rooms with small shower cubicles, I am not sure and, quite what you would have got up to in the small single bed with its saggy mattress I am also at a loss to fathom.

Still, we were not in there for long before we headed out for a walk to discover Irkutsk.

Despite the “joys” of our Russian welcome, I have to admit that I enjoyed the city a great deal. It is growing apace at nearly one million people and with its galleries and university has a lot to offer the cultural visitor.

But, as ever, I was more interested in the food. All over Russia, but particularly in Siberia they are inordinately fond of a drink called Kvass. Basically, a beer made out of bread, it is sold by elderly women sitting by big tanks of the stuff on just about every street corner.

Of course, that involves the usual drawn out process of buying anything

ME: Kvas

HER: Kvas? As if she had never heard of it before in her entire life despite the fact she was sitting next to a large urn with the word written on it in large letters

ME: Kvas

HER: Ah, Kvas (rolls eyes and begrudgingly fills a small plastic beaker with Kvas)

ME: Thank you (handing over exact change)

HER: grumph, mumble, grumph (looks at exact change as if it was a £1million note) turns away with last look of withering contempt

Unfortunately, it is not worth the effort being horribly sweet and, well actually quite foul (rolls eyes and shrugs shoulders)

Irkutsk is also home to a rather splendid market with the indoor section housing permanent stalls selling bread, pastries (they just love their pastries) smoked fish, meats and vegetables and the outside section where local farmers come to sell whatever it is they have to sell from tubs of juicy looking berries to sweet, small potatoes and even unwanted puppies and kittens.

Then a long stroll around on what rapidly became a searingly hot day. There is plenty to see, the traditional wooden houses of the region, the statues to famous Russian heroes such as Yuri Gagarin and just the locals enjoying themselves in the afternoon Sun

I headed back to the hotel, fought my way passed the scary looking floor attendant and took a long shower in water that became increasingly brown as it trickled from the shower head in a flow that confirmed it was Russian

“what do you mean you want a shower? Yes, I know I am a shower head and this is a bathroom, but I am just standing here minding my own business and you come and expect a shower. I mean for God’s sake”

For all the fresh and interesting local produce, our supper that evening was hugely forgettable and I retired for an early night ready for the onslaught ahead.

We were about to head off on our longest journey of The Trans Siberian Railway adventure, the four days and nights from Irkutsk to Suzdal, about three hours away from Moscow.

We were not leaving the hotel until 3pm the next day, so, after breakfast, I checked my luggage (“what do you mean you want to check your luggage?.....etc…….etc) and went for a long walk around the river before returning to the hotel in time to collect my bags (“what bags, where?....etc etc”) and changing into my “train” gear.

Given my experiences on the last few train journeys where we, as a group, became progressively more ripe as the journey progressed, I was pretty determined that I was going to find some way to keep up even a token level of cleanliness even if I could not get near a shower.

So, I changed from my stylish, yet casually alluring street clothes to a pair of sweat pants and a baggy white t-shirt. I stocked up my hand luggage with enough clean shirts to last a few days and water and toiletries to give me a basic wash & brush up every morning. The rest went into “Big Red” ready to be stowed once we boarded.

The cabins on the train were small, but comfortable four birth affairs and, for better or for worse (better for me, worse for them) it turned out that I would be sharing the compartment with Amber, Karen and Annie, three of the women in my group.

I like to think it was the fumes as we pulled out of the station that made them turn green, but I think it was my reminder that I like to sleep “unburdened”

It may also have been the fact that I turned to them and said, in my best Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast mode “ don’t you worry your pretty little ‘eads, y’er Unccie Simes will look after you when you are asleep” Strangely, this did not seem to reassure them at all.

Each carriage had two bathrooms and two attendants who controlled them. Once the train begins to move, the carriage and all in it come under the sovereignty of these women.

To say they are scary would be the understatements of understatements. Ours were named Luda and OIga and I immediately, and rather unkindly as it turned out, christened them “Kong” and “ Mighty Joe Young” They were fearsome looking, with peroxide hair, bright red lipstick and gold teeth and they held total sway over our time on the train.

If they said we could leave the train at a stop, we could do so. If they said “niet” as they did when there was the tiniest drop of rain, then we scuttled back to our compartments like good little boys and girls.

For those who have done the journey more than once, like our guide Andrew who was an old hand, the game is to try and crack them. A smile can be bought with chocolate but it is a hard fought battle.

Another hard fought battle is eating well. There are the inevitable packets of mashed potatoes, snacks brought on to the train and snacks bought from the elderly ladies who rush up to greet the train the moment it pulls into any station, but it is, in truth a nutritionists worst nightmare and, by the end of the journey, you begin to feel a little high from all the additives and chemicals in all the rubbish you have been eating.

Perhaps the only saving grace were the small dumplings filled with cabbage and potatoes on sale at each stop. Hardly haute cuisine but often hot and certainly filling.

Life on a train journey for that long begins to settle into a regular rhythm pretty quickly. For me, each morning began with a rudimentary “shower” which involved precariously divesting myself of my sweatpants and shirt while not stepping on the filthy floor, sloshing myself over with tepid water from the tap and washing my extremities as best I could, brushing my teeth with bottled water (nearly always fizzy in Russia) and then dressing again with a clean shirt.

All a bit of a palava, but it did make me feel more human and set for a day of, well, doing nothing in particular.

And that is the great thing about this trip. You have no choice but to do nothing in particular for over eighty hours. The guide’s suggestion for this part of the trip is “stare out of the window and then stare out of the window some more” That’s a bit unfair as, although I found myself doing a lot of staring, I also finished a couple of books, learned a few new card games, played Scrabble appallingly badly for someone who used to be involved in publishing and generally chatted to my travelling companions as we tottered in and out of each others compartments.

There was the occasional trip to the dining car to drink beer in a different change of scenery and that was about it.

It is not the easiest few days I have spent, but I have to admit that it was one of the more enjoyable and, as we prepared to leave the train at Vladimir station, I was beginning to understand Andrew’s claim that people become institutionalised and just never want to get off.

A magical but unreal experience.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


It is a bloody big place your Mongolia. Your Outer bit, that is, which the Chinese and then latterly, the Russians controlled and abandoned.

Hence the fact that the next stage of the train journey was going to be a challenging 40 hour trek across two borders from Ulan Baatar, into Russia and to Irkutsk.

We were all incredibly depressed about leaving Mongolia. Although it has many challenges, it was a country whose spirit and energy proved a welcome relief after the challenges of China. UB is one of those cities on the trip that I already have marked down for a definite return.

On our last morning, Nemo took us on a tour of some of the re-established monasteries of the city to show us how the Mongolians had regrouped and begun to rebuild their city since the disappearance of the Russians.

But, we had to head on and, after a brief stop at the state department store to pick up a few snacks for the journey, we headed to the station and boarded the next stage of The Trans Mongolian Express.

The length of the journey is added to by the interminable border control systems of both the Mongolian and the Russian authorities.

Boarding the train at 6pm, the rest of the group and myself soon settled down to games of cards or scrabble, reading any one of the floating library of books we were circulating amongst ourselves or, inevitably drinking some of the local brews which involved both beer and vodka named after Mongolia’s most famous son.

I have to say, that at this point, I had actually become accustomed to train travel and began to actively enjoy the regular rumblings of wheel against track and the chug of the engine as it hauled us across the beautiful landscape. That is something I never thought I would say, but, God help me, I really did enjoy it.

I can’t claim to have enjoyed the special package of food that the attendants through in our direction at the beginning of the trip, but hey, it was a nice thought.

What I did not enjoy was the next morning as we clanged to a halt next at the Mongolian border where we would be sitting for the next five hours. For the first few hours we were not allowed to leave the train which was in a form of quarantine as the Mongolian customs people made sure no one was leaving with any national treasures. (I am not sure what those may be, but I am pretty sure then involved horse milk.) and to check the cases of the enormous numbers of people who travel this route taking goods from China to markets in Russia.

On top of which, because the train was stationary, the attendants also insisted on locking the toilets. You can imagine the consequences of lots of beer and vodka alongside some more benign liquids had on our bladders and we were stuck with no, shall we say, outlet.

People, apparently, have been known to fill plastic bags or even Pringle packets in desperation, but I could not bring myself to do that. Eventually, however, after nearly four kidney challenging hours, I realised I would have to do something or the whole of EAT MY GLOBE would end in disgrace in a puddle of filtered vodka.

So, I sneaked from my carriage away from the ever watchful eye of the frightening attendant and go to the small space between two carriages. Dropping my sweatpants and aiming in the gap that led to the track below I let rip, the flow began immediately and carried on and on and on until I thought I would have filled more Pringle packets than we possibly had between us. I let out a huge sigh of relief and, after couple of shakes, pulled up my drawers and headed back to my compartment.

As I came out of the carriage, the attendant was standing at the far end of the carriage watching me. Did she know what I had been up too? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I gave her a huge, unreturned smile and a big thumbs up and returned to my bed. What happens between the carriages, stays between the carriages.

When we finally began to move again, we headed for the Russian border and another long wait. At least this time we were able to get off the train, pay a few roubles and use the washing facilities. Hardly enough to make us sweet smelling, but it lowered the ripeness to a tolerable level.

Well, we were now in Russia and used our spare time to walk to the local settlement and buy some provisions, which of course, included some of the local Russian beer, Baltika which comes in categories from 3-10 getting progressively darker and more strong.

We also indulged in some of the rather odd snacks that the Russians love so much and which became a staple through the rest of our journey. Pot mashed potato. God they love this stuff. Freeze dried mash potato in a container to which they add other flavours including, bizarrely enough, croutons. Hot water came from samovars at the end of each carriage. They are pretty grim, but seemed to fit the context of the trip and I found myself eating them despite my misgivings on more than one occasion.

When we finally passed border control into Russia, the next day passed quite quickly in a blur of more card games, general chatting, eating any old crap that was being passed around and, lots and lots of much needed sleep. In fact, on recent parts of the trip as I am getting progressively more exhausted, I have dreams about the rest I had on this journey enforced by the fact there was bugger all else to do.

The next morning saw us arrive very early at the capital of Eastern Siberia, Irkutsk. This, however, was not going to be where we were going to lay our heads for the next night. We picked up our rucksacks and boarded a bus which whisked us off to the small town of Litvyanka, some seventy kilometres away from the station.

The rigours of the journey, the early start and the gentle motion of the bus made sure that, within about five minutes of getting on the bus, we were all sound asleep much to the consternation of a young woman called Julia who had been appointed our local guide and who was, in that very formal Russian way, giving us a lecture on the history of the area.

We awoke with a jump as the coach pulled to a halt on a road next to some unfriendly looking Soviet residence blocks. This is where we were going to be staying.

Intrepid, the company with whom I was staying, arrange for the small parties they guide, to spend at least one night on the edges of Lake Baikal with local housewives who rent out spare rooms in their apartments to make some extra cash. We were paired up and I headed off to meet Ludmilla who, rather bizarrely, seemed only to speak German. Never quite figured that one out.

She was immensely friendly, however and, after shower, we were soon sitting down to a cup of tea and some lovely home made biscuits. A bit of a change from the shudder of the train slopping powered mashed potatoes all over me.

Lake Baikal is the deepest fresh water lake in the world and contains nearly 20% of the worlds fresh water. It is incredibly clean and the water is pumped untreated from lake to home.

The afternoon saw tour of the small but engaging museum, some lunch at a local restaurant and a boat trip out on the lake (spot scary porno star moustache ever present in the pictures from this period). But, perhaps the highlight was a trip around the local market to sample some of the local smoked Omul and Sig. It was hot and straight from the smoker with oil dripping from it and then down our chins as we all helped ourselves to chunks of the subtle white flesh. I hate to say it, but it spoiled me for other smoked fish.

Supper was a simple but entirely delicious affair back at the home of Ludmilla (still speaking to me entirely in German) which involved a small fresh salad and a bowl of Pelimi, dumplings filled with beef and then served in a light broth. Nothing haute about it but it was filling and, after the crap we stuffed ourselves with on the train, tasted incredibly nourishing.

We were in Russia, so of course we had to go for Banya (Sauna) but this was no ordinary sauna, this was sauna, Russian style.

We traipsed a good mile or so down to the lake’s edge and ( boys firs, girls second) stripped down to our swimming trunks before clambering in to a small room which had been heated to nearly 90o by water thrown over hot coals. In a small bowl on the floor were birch twigs soaking to supple terror in some more hot water already to whip each other with.

After about fifteen minutes, we were all a nice shade of pink and, as the girls watched and took pictures, those of the male persuasion in the group flung ourselves off a narrow plank directly into the river which was, unsurprisingly, freezing. So cold, in fact, that I actually felt my gonads retreat in a sort of “quick lads, back into the torso” kind of way, by way of protection.

It actually got kind of good to use by now and, after forty five minutes of hot & cold action, we had to be forced to hand over to the ladies who, it has to be said, attacked the whole thing in a much more lacklustre fashion.

After the sauna, of course, another tradition, Vodka. Enough vodka to make our journey and first morning in Irkutsk a rather interesting one.

But, that’s for another time

Sunday, October 21, 2007


The history of Mongolia and its capital Ulan Batar, is one of subjugation and tyranny.

Since the time of Ghengis Khan (pronounced Chingis Hahn – btw) and the decline of the Mongol empire, this small country has been under the control of other nations. First the Chinese and latterly the Soviet Union.

As I have said in previous posts, I am not a historian, so if you want a lesson, go and use Google. However, the past history and , in particular, the recent past history, has had an enormous impact on what this country and UB itself is.

For nearly seventy years, Ulan Batar was a soviet outpost with all that entails, the economy was strictly Soviet socialism, religion observance was outlawed and all places of worship including century old monasteries, were destroyed or turned into municipal buildings.

In the early 90’s when The Soviet Union shattered into nations states, Mongolia was cut loose and left to fend for itself. With no recognisable source of income and no export market to the USSR, it quickly descended into poverty and would have descended into chaos but for one factor. The incredible resilience of the Mongolian people.

I can say, hand on heart, that I have yet to meet anyone quite like them brave, passionate, intensely proud of their country, intensely close to their families and inordinately hospitable.

Despite the fact that at least 60+% of the three million population of Mongolia lives the classic nomadic lifestyle, Ulan Batar (recently just topping the one million mark) sums up the state of the nation perfectly.

With no state funds to support infrastructure, the city’s pavements are crumbling and road surfaces almost non existent. Medical services are negligible and there is a great deal of poverty.

It is one of the ugliest cities I have ever seen and I understand why guide books describe it as a carbuncle on the face of the earth. The majority of the architecture is a legacy of its Soviet days and there are high levels of pollution.

In a remarkable contradiction to this tale of gloom, there is also an upside. Mongolia has a very stable education system and levels of literacy are high with a great many of the population speaking exceptional English (mainly because, without it, they have no chance of progressing in the world) The country has some of the most advanced communications networks in Asia and, because of foreign investment in the mining of Mongolia’s rich deposits of minerals, it has large ex pat communities from all over the world which, inevitably means equally large numbers of restaurants, cafes and bars to serve them.

By far the largest group are Germans and, whither go Germans, so go beer which also means that UB is stuffed to the rafters with pubs and bars primarily selling the local beer, Chingis, which comes in various forms all derived from German brewing techniques. In fact, the bar at The Chingis Brewery is a fully decked out German Beerkeller with all the Mongolian waitresses dressed in German gear which was slightly disconcerting for them and for me.

Food in UB is hardly of the delicate kind. It has more in common with that of its former Soviet overlords with smoked fish abounding along with stuffed pancakes called Kushur and I am not going to claim that meals there will be the memories that live the longest in my mind.

That being said, it is, with the exception of France, the only place that I have eaten horse.

For our first meal there, I ordered a horse rib. When it came it reminded me of the opening credits of The Flintstones when Fred gets a Bronto burger at the Drive-in and, when placed on the car, it tips it over because of its size. This was about the same size and I tucked into it with about the same gusto as Mr Flinstone. Quite gamey and a little bit stringy but not bad at all.

We only spent the one night in UB before heading out for the next part of the adventure. A trip which proved to be one of, if not the, highlight of the journey so far.

We set off pretty early in the morning to head out to the Mongolian countryside where we would be spending the next couple of days on a Ger camp sleeping in the tents that are the normal accommodation for the majority of Mongolia’s population.

Our guide, Nemo, had formerly been a urologist but, had not been paid in a number of years by the government who simply had no money and now was supplementing his income by showing groups like our own around his country.

His passion for his homeland was tangible and he took time to make a number of stops as we drove to the camp to show us things that we otherwise would have missed. A small pyre of stones, topped with flags around which you walk three times to make a blessing. Two men at the roadside with their eagles and, best of all, the encampment of a nomadic family with whom he was acquainted.

They gave us the opportunity to spend some time in their tent and to taste some of the food they made, primarily from horse milk.

Whenever I tell people that I went to Mongolia, they all say “did you taste the fermented yak’s milk?” This is one of those fallacies that seems to have become accepted by everyone (including me before I actually went there) but has no basis in truth.

The Mongolians certainly keep yaks, but only for their wool. They produce very little milk. Arag, the fermented drink so associated with the region, in fact comes from Horses’ milk.

Nemo showed us how it is produced, in a bag made from a cow’s stomach which holds nearly eighty litres of the stuff. About 10% is kept each time as a “master” and it is refilled each day with fresh milk which is then stirred vigorously with a paddle every time someone passes the bag. It reaches a strength of about 3% and remarkably, Nemo told us, Mongolians can drink easily drink as much as five litres a day.

We got to try some and I would love to say that I liked it. I really would, but I can’t. It was really a dreadful think which I would describe as being like white, musty smelling, horse piss.

The other products made from horse milk were equally challenging. A curd biscuit, a “vodka” distilled from a yoghurt and a hard cheese.

The only thing I did quite like was a cream with a skin that was similar to Clotted cream and made in much the same way by heating milk up in a pot over water.

After we left the camp, Nemo made another stop and suddenly and unexpectedly produced a set of golf clubs which led to the unexpected sight of a small group of westerners hitting a few golf balls in no particular direction across the Mongolian plains.

By now, we were almost at the camp and, when we arrived, I have to admit that it took my breath away. It was a small encampment, with about twenty ger tents which are often used by Mongolians from UB when they want to get away from the chaos of the city and return to a more idyllic existence. It certainly is idyllic and, after we settled in to our camp, I took the opportunity to go for a stroll.

The beauty of the surrounding countryside comes as a shock after the grime and decrepitude of UB. It is lush and green and incredibly peaceful. After China, it was a much needed slow down in pace.

The next twenty four hours passed very happily. People went riding. Not me mind you, I eat horses, I don’t ride them. People tried their hand at archery and people went for long hikes. It was good to be in out and about in the clean air and to have the opportunity to see the Mongolians doing things that have been part of their culture for centuries. Particularly riding.

They have a saying that “Mongolians are born in the saddle and die in the saddle” and it is true, they are incredibly at ease on horseback. The next morning, I awoke about 6am and headed out for a bit of a stroll. As I pottered around the camp, I saw two men on horseback out herding their cattle. They were going at full gallop, both standing up in the stirrups with their hands on their hips as if it was the most natural thing in the word and, to them, I guess it was.

When it came time to leave the camp, we all felt a little deflated. It was such a beautiful place to be and the quiet and calm so welcome that we were all loathe to lead it. However, we were heading back for one more night in UB before the beginning of the next stage of the journey.

The beginning of the Trans Mongolian/Trans Siberian Express which, after all, is what the trip was all about.