A Travellerspoint blog

June 2017

Something is in the air

Bayanzag via Saikhan Ovoo, Khujirt to Kharkhorin

semi-overcast 17 °C
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After nine days of traveling through Southern Mongolia, we had reached the half way point of our trip and started heading north again. We headed up a pass to cut through the mountain ridge and were rewarded with a nice view back towards the singing dune. Time to wave good bye.

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Passing through a valley we reached the northern side of the Gurvan Saikhan National Park and were driving along the mountains towards east. It was a beautiful landscape: the mountains on our right and flat lands on our left bordered by another mountain ridge in the distance.

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We could already see a difference vs. ten days earlier: the rolling steppe was much greener than before – probably to the big pleasure of the many herds of animals we passed. What looked like grass, were in fact often chives – easily noticeable by the nice aroma we got to smell every time we got out of the car. No wonder that we saw quite a couple of moves to the spring pastures.

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Unfortunately, today the Mongolian saying that seeing a move brings luck did not hold true. By the time we were ready to leave Bulgan after shopping, getting gas for the car and filling our water canister, Oogii and Amgaa had such an argument that they stopped talking to each other. We had no clue what it was about and given the tense atmosphere in the car, did not dare to ask.
Soon after that incident, we reached the flaming cliffs of Bayanzag. The landscape was spectacular and it was fun to hike around the area.

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But the area is known even more for its finds of dinosaur skeletons – the ones we had seen in the Dinosaur Museum in Ulaanbaatar. We did not find any bones, but we did find quite a lot of plants growing in the dry sand. There were signs of spring - even here in the desert!

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Max made an effort to find some dinosaur remains at our campground at the bottom of the cliffs. He was soon distracted by playing with his cars and consequently forgot about his mission. Sam did not forget about his mission though, to take nice pictures of our camp and the surrounding cliffs at sundown.

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While Oogii made excellent dinner for us, Amgaa had left to make some repairs on the car. His prediction of being back after an hour proved to be very wrong: five hours later when the sun had set already, he had still not arrived. Luckily, we had taken all our stuff for the night into our tent already. Oogii was not so lucky, so we had supplied her with surplus blankets and a sleeping pad such that she’d be able to sleep. Eventually, Amgaa arrived and Oogii was able to get her stuff after all.
We did not get any explanation for Amgaa’s absence and given that he still did not talk with Oogii, the atmosphere at breakfast was not too pleasant. We were hoping that things would improve again, but given our remote location, there was no choice anyhow.
Our first sightseeing stop of the day was in the biggest saxaul forest of Central Asia. What sounded very impressive, turned out to be not quite like the picture we had in our minds when there was talk about a forest. The saxaul trees are the only trees present in the Gobi and are prized by the nomads as excellent firewood comparable to coal. Even though the forest we visited was very old, we did not see any trees much higher than 2 meters. So in our books, we had visited an area of rather sparse bushland.

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Heading north, we passed enormous areas of a joint Mongolian / Korean project attempting to grow saxaul. The project is called the Green Wall and aims to alleviate desertification by planting saxaul on an area of 3000 hectares. While it sounds nice of the Korean government to support Mongolia, there is an expected side effect as well: Korea has a massive health issue with dust in the air and this project might help to decrease the amount of desert dust being blown from Mongolia to Korea.
What followed was a track that was probably the worst we’ve been on so far. In the area where the river Ongi disappears in the desert, large salt pans have formed. In early spring, it is still dry enough such that there is no big risk of getting stuck. Still, we were able to see many deep tracks that were proof of much more difficult conditions during the rainy summer season. The deep ruts in the track were sometimes very hard to see in advance. Amgaa was trying to detect all of them on time and break before we were hitting them. One time we were flying after all and our Furgon was suspended in the air with all wheels losing touch.

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In the early afternoon, we reached our destination for the day: the monastery of Ongi. We built up camp on the river banks, just downstream from the monastery. The spot was just great – super idyllic and peaceful. We praised the fact that we were traveling outside the major tourist season. Otherwise the place might not have been nearly as peaceful, considering the big tourist ger camp just next door. There would have been many more tourists around and all of their drivers would have parked along the river to give their vehicle a proper car wash – which is also what Amgaa did. After about three hours of work, our Furgon was shiny as new.

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Even though the ger camp was still closed for another month, for a small fee we were able to use their facilities. It felt great to have a proper shower again after a couple of days!
It was sad to visit the old monastery. It had been one of the major Buddhist monasteries of Mongolia – sometimes even compared with the Potala Palace in Lhasa. At times, up to 10,000 monks had been living here. As part of the communist activities in the 1930’s the monastery was destroyed – as most others in the country. Today, only a few ruins remain, and very few buildings have been reconstructed with a few monks trying to bring life to the place again.

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Sitting at a lookout, Sam and I got philosophical. After all, we were nearing the end of our travels: in four weeks, we’d be back at home with Sam’s family. On one hand, we’d certainly know of enough interesting places to go to fill at least another year of traveling. And we could easily go on for even longer than that. On the other hand, it also feels ok to go back home. After having been away for over a year, it also feels good to finally see friends and family again. And knowing that we’d be going home with the Trans-Siberian Railway – an idea we had already for ages – somehow sounded like a perfect end for our journey.

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Back at our camp, Oogii was already busy preparing our dinner. For me, it was time to get our laundry done. And the location next to the river was just perfect. Our clothes got cleaner than expected and it dried quickly on the grass in the sunshine.

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Once the sun was setting, Sam headed out to take some nice shots. He headed into the hills on the other side of the river. Once he successfully returned from his venture, he had not only made a couple of nice shots with his camera, but he had also found some nice crystals. By the time he was back, temperatures had fallen significantly and suddenly wading through the river was not nearly as tempting as it had been in the late afternoon.

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That evening we were not alone. Oogii and Amgaa’s boss Ure was in Ongi as well together with her client Tomm and a driver. They came over to have a beer and snacks together. Tomm was scouting Southern and Central Mongolia as a potential location to organize the 2018 GS Trophy, a BMW sponsored motorbike event with participants from all over the world. Sam was delighted and chatted the whole evening with Tomm. After all, it’s not too often that you meet someone who has participated in the Paris – Dakar motorbike race and can tell stories of his many adventures.

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The next morning, we simply enjoyed our relaxed breakfast. None of us was really keen to leave this lovely spot by the river and to exchange it for a day’s worth of driving. Eventually we managed to head off after all. All along we imagined how it would be, driving along these tracks on motorbikes instead of a Furgon.
We passed Saikhan-Ovoo, which translates to ‚the beautiful cairn ‘. We must have missed the cairn, but could not fail to notice the square kilometers of garbage on the Southern end of town. In our eyes the more appropriate name for the town should have rather focused on that. On the other hand, we did produce enough garbage ourselves on our journey and unfortunately in a country without a properly organized garbage system, it is hard to tell, where our garbage will end up – not matter how sure we’ve made that we dispose of it into official garbage containers.
Lunch was a bit earlier than usual. But as we headed into an area with heavy rain clouds, it was a good idea to eat while we’d be able to stay dry.
There was already a faint smell of rain in the air. A couple of kilometers after we headed off again, it started raining. At least we can now confidently say that we’ve experienced all kinds of weather in Mongolia – sun, sandstorm, rain and snow. Despite the weather, we briefly stopped at an ancient megalith, a so called deer (or raindeer) stone.

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The rainclouds created a very special light. And being able to sit in the car, it was actually quite pleasant. Probably it was not nearly as pleasant for the many herd animals outside. Most of them huddled together and were standing in the direction away from the wind. Only the yaks with their heavy wool seemed to be fairly unimpressed by the weather.

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We also came across lots of birds. There were cranes and geese who must have arrived recently form their winter habitats in Southern China and India. But also the local birds of prey were present – most notably an eagle who was busily eating while we watched.
Our original plan had been to stay in the valley before the spa town of Khurjit, known for its hot springs. Considering the rain storm we were in once we reached our designated camping spot, we kindly declined and all agreed that it would be a better option to stay in a yurt.

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We had a couple of errands to run in Khurjit. The town was the largest one we had been in for a while, but that is a relative statement. There were still calves feeding in the middle of main street. We soon realized that shopping was done quickly, but getting money from an ATM proved to be impossible. By the time we were done with everything, the weather was back to perfect again. There was only a slight breeze, the sun was out and there were only some few small clouds. There were no rain clouds to be seen anywhere around.

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So we changed back to the idea of camping in our tents after all. The idea was great, the execution awful. The unplanned camp so close to town sparked another disagreement of Oogii and Amgaa which resulted in Oogii getting out of the car.
Sam and I were pretty fed up with the disagreements. We asked Oogii to translate to Amgaa that we have had enough of the constant fights and that we expect both to work together. Eventually I asked for a phone and explained the situation to Ure, who we had met the day before. I asked her to explain our expectations to Amgaa.
Luckily it turned out that this was the only intervention required and that as of then, life continued normally. While it was not the warmest interaction between Oogii and Amgaa, they at least talked again. It would have been a pity having to go to the extreme of having to ask for another driver to take us for the remaining five days of our tour through Mongolia.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 18:03 Archived in Mongolia Tagged river monastery forest cliff dinosaur Comments (0)

Highlights of Central Mongolia

From Khurjit via Kharkhorin, Elsen Tasarkhai, Khustain Nuruu National Park to Ulaanbaatar

semi-overcast 13 °C
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We camped at a very nice place a couple of hundred meters away from town along a small stream. There were horses and sheep around and in the evening sunlight, the atmosphere was really nice. But at the same time, it was also super cold and we all headed into our tents very early.

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Overnight we had some frost, but as soon as the sun was out, it got pleasant and warm again. We had the perfect weather for today’s explorations. Our first stop was right outside Khurjit, where we passed a couple of burial mounds dating back to bronze age – round for women and square for men.

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Soon afterwards, we reached the Orkhon Valley and Karakorum, the capital of Genghis Khan’s empire in the 13th century, which grew to become history’s largest continuous empire – extending from the Chinese Sea all the way to what is now Belarus and Ukraine. Today the centerpiece of the area is Erdene Zuu Monastery, Mongolia’s first Buddhist center built in 1586. Together with a couple of other highlights of the Orkhon Valley it has been declared a World Heritage Site.

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While the communists destroyed part of the buildings in the 1930s - such as the big refectory hall - only four nice temples and the surrounding wall with its stupas remained. We were impressed by the intricate artwork, the elaborate tiles and the paintings.

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Just next door to the monastery is a Museum featuring the history of the former capital Mongolian Karakorum. Today, not much of this formerly huge town remains, as it was destroyed in the 14th century by Chinese Ming troops. We got the perfect overview of the history from stone age over bronze age and obviously its prime time under Dshinggis Khan and his successor Kublai Khan. We were impressed to see that back in those times, the town had an Islamic mosque, a Chinese Buddhist temple, a Mongolian Buddhist temple and a Christian church. Seemingly, the rulers were very open to other religions and the peaceful coexistence of different beliefs was no issue. Sometimes one would wish that today’s society would be as advanced all over the world as this.

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After that excursion into history, we did our shopping in present day Kharkhorin. We liked the tiny market place and enjoyed watching how the locals came into town. Up in the air, some big birds of prey circled the area and provided another exciting pastime for us. We also stopped at a gas station. As usual, the choice was limited to 80 octane, 92 octane and diesel. Seemingly all higher grades of gas are only available in Ulaanbaatar. Our Furgon is obviously used to his gas. Sam and I just started talking what this choice of gas would mean for a modern car or motorcycle that might be traveling to Mongolia. Admittedly, we are considering to come back one day – potentially driving all the way from home.

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For the night, we stayed along the Orkhon River. Even though it was just a slight ridge that separated the valley from town, we felt like in the middle of nowhere again. There were horses and cattle grazing along the banks of the river. And the river attracted a wide range of bird life that entertained us with an exciting air show. It was warm and pleasant weather with not a single cloud in the sky. Life is good.

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From the hill above our camp, we had an excellent overview and our Furgon with the tents blended perfectly into the otherwise wild landscape. It’s no wonder that the Orkhon valley is a favorite destination for people visiting Mongolia.

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But not only the landscape was fascinating. We also loved the wildlife and specifically the birds. While we stayed at our camp, there were up to six black kites (or were they other birds of prey?) circling above us. When noticing a bit of tough mutton meat which we had tossed away after dinner, they became interested and after a couple of attempts to grab them, everything was gone. It was a very special show and could have watched them forever.

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Once it got dark, we lit a small camp fire, sat there with our beers and enjoyed being in such wonderful surroundings. And luckily enough, everybody joined the fun and the troubles of the last couple of days seemed long forgotten.

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In the middle of the night the sudden noise of a rainshower woke us. We had not expected any rain after a wonderful day with perfect weather. The next morning turned out to be freezing cold. It was overcast and very windy. Only the birds seemed undisturbed by the weather. We saw black kites again, cranes and wild geese. We had our breakfast in the wind shadow of the Furgon and were happy once we were ready to head off.

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We had only a short drive ahead of us: we drove to the sand dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai. For all those people who do not want to take the drive to the Gobi desert, they offer a nice opportunity to see some dunes in central Mongolia. We had been to the Gobi, but considering how much we like deserts and sand and how much Max loves to play in the dunes, stopping here was our perfect plan.
At 13 °C and in a strong wind, we briefly discussed our overnight options and quickly concluded that a yurt would be by far more comfortable than our tents. We stopped at a nearby family of nomads and were lucky to hear that they still had a yurt available for us. And indeed: once again we marveled how comfortable it was in our stable and warm yurt. It was just perfect – perfectly invested 35,000 tugrik (about 13€).

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In the afternoon Sam and I headed out to the dunes despite the sandstorm. It was nice to be outside and we enjoyed having some time for ourselves (Max stayed in the yurt with Oogii playing Lego). After a day of sitting in the car and in the yurt, we had missed our fix of fresh air already. We got back just in time for dinner and for a nice colorful sunset.

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The next morning, all of us took a walk to the dunes – this time in sunny, calm weather. We felt very lucky that the weather was pleasant today. After all, we had arranged to take a horse ride in the morning and a neighbor of our family stopped by to pick us up.

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The three horses were not nearly as impressive in size as the camels had been a week earlier. In fact, Mongolian horses are smaller than many other breeds. Max got to ride together with the nomad on the leading horse. I followed on the white horse and Sam came last. It also felt very different riding a horse vs. a camel. We liked the trip we took through the dunes and back.

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As we got back around noon time, the wind had picked up again. That made the choice easy to just stay another night in our nice yurt. It also felt good being able to stay a second night in the same place and not having to pack our stuff.

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Before we got to leave the next day, our hosts invited us into their yurt. It was very clean and all things neatly arranged. They had pictures of their extended family on display and made an effort to make us feel at home. We were served milk tea and the lady prepared traditional buuz (meat filled dumplings) for us. Even though they are living a very simple life and only see their children on the weekends (as they are at school during the week), they seemed to really enjoy life. Husband and wife were constantly joking and making fun with each other. We enjoyed the atmosphere and the laughter even though we did not understand most of what was being said.

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In order to get at least an impression of the nearby mountains of Khongo Khan Uul, we took a detour the next morning. And lucky us that we decided to do so: already the lake at the east side of the dunes was worth the trip. As we got there, it lay there completely still, reflecting the dunes. What a great place! I’m sure it would be great to camp there on a calm day. But also the mountains and rocks we passed, did not fail to impress us. It seemed a bit like the Valley of the Gods minus the people.

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After more than 200 km of driving (which was quick thanks to a good asphalt road), we stopped for a quick lunch at a river. It was no big surprise that there were sheep and goats around and some birds of prey.

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In the next town, we attempted to refill our water at the communal well. Unfortunately, it was lunch break and we would have had to wait for more than an hour. So we headed on and soon reached Khustain Nuruu National Park. The park has been founded to preserve the Przewalski Horses in the wild. After having been extinct in the wild by 1970, the joint conservation efforts and breeding programs of zoos around the world allowed to reintroduce the animals in the wild.
By now roughly 300 horses live within the national park. While the rangers make sure to protect them, educate tourists to keep their distance and make sure that they are at a safe distance from regular horses (to avoid cross-breeding), the animals are really wild and on their own to support themselves even in the harshest of winters – even if that means that not all of them will survive.
When inquiring at the national park entrance, we were told that we were lucky to arrive so early in the season with hardly any tourists around. Consequently, the horses can still be found in easily accessible areas of the national park. In our case, it just took us a short drive when Amgaa spotted a herd of seven horses just on the other side of a small valley. It was great to watch them – a great sight and much different vs. seeing them in a zoo.

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A bit further on, we got a hint to take a short hike into a side valley. We did so and discovered another herd of 13 horses. Even though we were a couple of hundred meters away, the horses had immediately noticed our presence and one of them was constantly turned towards us – ready to warn the others in case of any perceived danger. We stayed away in order not to disturb them.

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But the national park is not only home to wild horses, but also to deer, marmots and a local kind of ground squirrels. We got to see all of them. While the deer were obviously most impressive in size, it was lots of fun to watch the fat marmots race across the steppe to reach their holes. Some of them did not even bother to head for their holes, but tried to hide behind some tiny shrubs – a funny sight, as they were still perfectly visible to us.

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Having seen so many animals, we were more than content that we had included a visit of Hustain National Park in our itinerary. We headed out of the park and camped in a valley that we knew already from a video we had seen several months ago: our last camp in Mongolia had been the first camp of our Swiss friends when they did their trip at the end of last year together with Oogii.
It was a very special place: a bit further up, there were several burial mounds from the bronze age. There were herds along the flanks of the hills surrounding us. At one stage, a rider on horseback passed our camp. We wondered where he had come from and where he was heading to. Even though there were a couple of winter camps of nomad families in the surrounding hills, it still seemed such remote a location that we could not help being amazed at this country and its people.
After dinner Sam and I headed on a walk to the hill next to our camp to see the sun go down. Even though the wind was fierce, we just enjoyed being outside and wanted to enjoy the beautiful landscape to the fullest. So we headed on to the small peak at the end of the valley. We only realized along the way, that it was further away than it had seemed. As we got closer we realized that the ‘goats’ we had seen on the other hill, were actually full-grown horses.

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The next day was dedicated to packing our stuff, making sure we do not forget anything that we had distributed all over the place in our Furgon. We had less than 100km to get into Ulaanbaatar and soon found ourselves back in the city – far away from the beauty of the steppe.
We truly enjoyed Mongolia and were sorry that this marked our last evening in the steppe. Mongolia left a very positive impression on us and we’re fairly sure that we’ll be back at some stage.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 18:24 Archived in Mongolia Tagged river sand wild horse monastery dunes Comments (0)

Preparing for a long train ride

Ulaanbaatar to Naushki

sunny 27 °C
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Once again, we stayed at the Zaya Guesthouse. It felt like coming home again. We were greeted heartily and had to tell the stories of how our trip went. After a quick lunch, we headed straight into the shower. It felt great having a warm shower again – pure luxury after many days of doing without.
We also ran some errands. Our laundry had to be done and we needed to get our mobile phone repaired again. It only took 30 mins and our phone was as good as new. We did not feel like going out for dinner and preferred doing our shopping and staying ‘at home’ that evening.
Also the next morning we were not very keen on doing much. We had a very relaxed late breakfast and worked on the blog. After all, the last weeks of having neither a network connection nor power for the laptop had left the blog jet-lagged by almost four weeks vs. real life.
At the guest house, there were lots of really interesting people and we enjoyed exchanging stories with them about their respective trips. There were Rob and Gay from Australia who were about to head off towards five days in Mongolia before hitting the Trans-Siberian Railway towards Moscow and then Western Europe. It was fun to compare the stops they will be making along the way with our plans.
Then there were Gaёtan and Paul from France. They had bought cheap Chinese motorbikes in Western Mongolia and had spent the last four weeks riding them back to Ulaanbaatar – with only partial motorbiking experience that is. They planned to stay in Mongolia for another month before heading via China to Japan. One of them would travel for one more year and the other one would go back home.
Then there were two Irish around – Gary and his cousin Mick who planned to drive through Western Mongolia via Kazakhstan to Kirghistan. One-eyed Gary has the goal of eventually traveling to all countries of the world. But he’s not doing it the easy way of just checking countries. In fact, he had driven a Toyota Landcruiser with trailer from Magadan to Ulaanbaatar – something that several people had predicted to him as being not doable. He had so many fun stories to tell. Well, let’s be realistic: in retrospect it’s fun to hear them. I’m pretty certain that I would not have wanted to be a part in any of them myself. Bears, helicopter rides with drunken Russian pilots, getting stuck with the Landcruiser in a swelling river, etc. are only for the real adventurous and as Sam knows, I would panic way too easily than to enjoy the moment. Check out ‚1eyeonthe world‘ if you’re interested to learn more about Gary.
The next day, we ventured out after all again. We had lunch at a nice Indian restaurant (we were sure to find some vegetarian options there), explored the playgrounds of UB again. It was visibly much greener than during first visit – what difference three weeks can make!
We noticed once more how many Toyota Prius and other hybrid / e-cars were crowding the streets of UB - it felt like more than half of all cars. As most of these cars probably came from Japan as used cars, they were right hand drives. So more than half of all cars in town actually had the driver sitting in the wrong seat. After all, Mongolia is driving on the right-hand side – just like Russia or Europe is.

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In the evening, we had a last agenda item on our list: we went to a performance of the Tumen Ekh ensemble. It was a great show, combining traditional Mongolian music instruments, singing (including throat-singing), dancing and contortionists. All artists were absolute professionals and it was a pure pleasure to see them perform.
To close out the end of our great experience in Mongolia, we stopped to the Great Khan Irish Pub on the way home. As Max was tired, we did not stay very late, but still enjoyed a night out.
The last day was focused all around getting prepared for our upcoming train journey: we got our tickets printed out and our stuff packed. Sam purchased an extendable window cleaner such that he’d be able to clean the windows of the train and we got some food to keep us fed during the first 24h leg of traveling on the train. Sam made sure that he had another bottle of concentrated seabuckthorn juice – the Mongolian national drink that he had learned to appreciate during our travels through the steppe.
We had also noticed that since the repair of our mobile phone, both cameras did not work properly anymore. We tried to get the issue fixed, but to our dismay ended up with even worse of an issue with the camera than before. What a pity! Even though it’s great that the mobile works again, we had really liked to use our camera for quick shots here and there and we had used the video functionality extensively. So unfortunately, for the remaining three weeks of our travels, we would need to do without.
We got taken to the train station by car and enjoyed sitting on the platform in the sun. Temperatures had climbed up to 30 °C in the last couple of days. It’s hard to believe that just a bit over a week ago we were facing a snowstorm.

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Eventually our train pulled into the station and we headed to car 2. Our conductor Irina collected our tickets and passports and allowed us in. We had tried our Mongolian skills by greeting her ‘sain uu’ (hello), but realized a moment later that the train was already staffed with Russian personnel. It was finally time to put our little Russian to work. ‘Здравствуйте (Zdravstvuyte)’ worked fine.

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It took us a couple of minutes to figure out how the beds work and how to store all of our stuff in the compartment. Once everything had its place, Sam headed out to do some window cleaning. I had picked up that recommendation in a guidebook about the Trans-Siberian Railway and had read it out lout to Sam in the intent of getting a laugh. Instead, Sam was honestly fascinated by the idea and wanted to make all efforts possible to ensure that he’d be able to get as spotless pictures as possible from inside the train.

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The train left the station exactly on schedule. It was a very strange feeling to pull out of the station and to start rolling. After all, we were on our way home now. A last stretch of less than three weeks in Russia and then we’d be back with our families. After more than a year on the road that was somehow hard to believe and what had felt very surreal up to then, suddenly became reality.
But at the same time, it was also fascinating to be on a Russian train. We did not take long to start exploring all features of the train – most notably the samovar (i.e. the hot water boiler). It was perfect to brew ourselves a cup of tea to go with the cake we had bought back in UB. And while we had our afternoon tea, we were able to see the landscape passing by our windows.

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As sitting became too boring, we were soon standing in the aisle of the train – together with the few other guests traveling in our car. Our neighbors were from Australia and Germany and we obviously could not hesitate to compare the stops they were planning to do along the way with our plans.
From the windows, nice views of the steppe were passing by. Usually the view was undisturbed on one side, but the other side was a bit blemished by the power lines that were running along the train tracks. At first the landscape resembled very much what we had seen during our trip through Central Mongolia.

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But as we headed north, eventually we noticed more and more trees growing along the way. At first, they were only close to the rivers we passed, but after a while also the hills started to show more and more growth of trees. To Sam’s big dismay, they were mainly birch trees. It did not take long to have him sneezing continuously.

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Around 10pm we reached the Mongolian border post. A fair number of officials passed through the train cars: quarantine, customs, security and finally immigration. They took our passports and about 30 minutes later we got them back – with an exit stamp for wonderful Mongolia. We’ll be back at some stage!
Once the train finally left the station, it took over half an hour to reach the Russian border town. This time the procedure repeated, just with people dressed in different uniforms and speaking Russian instead of Mongolian. We were a bit nervous, as Russia is pretty intimidating in regards to formalities.
And in fact: the immigration officer was not happy with our visa. She asked where we had gotten them and shook her head in frustration. It took us a while to figure out that the Russian embassy in Cambodia had stuck the visa into our passports upside down, such that the machine-readable part was on the inside fold of the passport. Consequently, the lady was not able to easily scan our visa, but had to tediously type everything in. But despite her frustration, eventually she got her stamp out and stamped us into Russia.
What a relief! Despite our happiness of officially having made it to Russia, we left the celebrations for the next day. At 1:30am in the morning we just wanted to get into bed and go to sleep. Good night / Споко́йной но́чи (Spokóynoy nóchi)!

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 19:34 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train dance music border preparation immigration Comments (0)

Exploring the world's deepest lake

In Russia – from Nauschki via Irkutsk to Listvjanka

semi-overcast 12 °C
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As soon as we had successfully completed the immigration formalities for Russia and had the impression that the procession of various officials had ended, Sam and I went to bed. We laid down on our comfortable mattresses, covered us with the fresh (and ironed!) linen provided and slept almost immediately. The soothing sound and gentle movement of the train was the perfect recipe for an excellent sleep.
When we woke up, we realized that the landscape had changed dramatically: from yesterday’s empty steppes of Mongolia, we suddenly found ourselves in the depths of Siberian taiga (or boreal forests) mainly consisting of birch and larch trees. I had not been aware that the world’s boreal forests make up for almost 30% of the world’s forested areas and are consequently the most important carbon storage – more than all rain forests and temperate forests combined. Here and there, we passed small settlements that looked very different from what we had seen in Mongolia. The only similarity were the high wooden fences and the colorful roofs.
Checking the mile posts vs. our handy ‘Trans-Siberian-Railway’ guidebook, we realized that we had covered already quite some ground in Russia. At km post 5504 (calculating from Moscow), we had just reached the Eastern shore of Lake Baikal. And indeed: once we opened the door of our apartment, we could see the waters of the lake. On the side of our compartment, there was much less to be seen. The odd settlement from time to time and only two larger towns, one of which featured a ski area.

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Unfortunately, not only the landscape had changed, but also the weather. It was cloudy and seemed to start raining any minute. We were freezing! When we used the 20 minutes stop in the town of Sljudjanka to get off the train, we realized that the 30 °C of yesterday had turned into merely 12 °C.

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We also experienced the Trans-Siberian time warp for the first time: the clock at the train station showed 7:45 (Moscow time), while in fact it was already 12:45 local time. To find an easy way to operate trains in such a vast country, all trains and train stations operate on Moscow time. It takes a bit of thinking when checking time tables, but after a while we got used to the system quite well.
As we left the station, we also left Lake Baikal and the train started winding its way up the hills of the Primorsky Mountains. We had a couple of nice views down towards the lake along the way. But as we headed into the hills, the vistas were reduced once again to forests, little streams and not much more.

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After 24 hours on the train and 1146 km, we arrived in Irkutsk. Our first impression was rather mixed: the weather was simply awful at rainy 9 °C, but the train station was beautiful. Unfortunately, the building’s nice architecture did not reflect on the attitude on the employees: when inquiring where to take the bus to Listvjanka at the shores of Lake Baikal, we were faces with shrugs and shaking heads. There seemed to be no effort whatsoever to help us along.
Suddenly we received unexpected help: a Chinese girl (which we learned was called Bella) got up and asked us if we were trying to get to Listvjanka. Seemingly, she had encountered exactly the same difficulties two days ago and had painfully found out the solution. She advised us to take the tram to the central market where the minibuses would be waiting. Excellent – what a great help!
The tram was full of people, but due to the fogged-up windows, we were not able to see anything. Fortunately enough, a couple of elderly Russian ladies helped us out and made it their mission to point out which stop we had to get off at and which way the minibuses were located.
We found the minibuses without any issues and were admitted on board. For 400 rubles (less than 7€) the driver took us on board and would take us to Listvjanka, which is a drive of over an hour / 70km.
Originally, we had planned to go to Olkhon Island. As we started planning the details a couple of days earlier, we learned that the drive there would have taken six hours and that it would have cost us 8500 rubles – due to the arrival of our train in the afternoon, we would have needed to take a private driver. We then concluded that Listvjanka would be a much better option for us – closer to Irkutsk and much less expensive.
After 15 minutes the minibus every seat in our minibus was filled and we left. Next to us was a nice guy, maybe 55 years old. Talking with him, we learned that his name was Rashoud and that he was a Tadzhik living in Uzbekistan speaking Farsi. Suddenly he hands us one of the three rings of bread he had bought as a present. It was excellent. But even better – we were amazed by that act of unexpected kindness! Between his little English skills and our almost non-existing Russian, we learned about his kids, his job and about the region. It was fun.
We arrived in Listvjanka, got a taxi and were taken directly to our hotel. We had a comfortable nice room with a view of the lake. It was grey and windy outside and we were hoping for a day with nicer weather to fully appreciate the view of a hopefully then calmer lake.
The next morning we had breakfast, when we noticed two Australians that looked familiar. They were Geoff and Jennifer, who had stayed in the same hostel in Ulaanbaatar. They were very sympathetic and we spent the whole morning chatting away with them. They have extensively traveled the world since 1972 and had stories to tell about countries we have not been to (so far).
When Max got hungry, we suddenly realized that it was already early afternoon and time for us to head out and explore the lake. Along the way, we passed a couple of nice old Siberian wooden houses.

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In a café at the lakeside we got good food. And we were surprised to see that the outside tables and chairs were all branded by Gösser Beer – a brewery that is located only 30 minutes away from Sam’s Austrian home town. We could not resist to buy two bottles for the evening.

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We also headed down to the lake. After all, there is a saying that dipping your hand into Lake Baikal’s water will give you an additional year of life. In the attempt of doing so, I even managed to get five years extra – as a managed to get my feet wet in the process. With the lake being unfrozen only for a few days, at 3 °C water temperature that was not really intended and admittedly not very pleasant. Still, real Russians prefer to go swimming in the lake which is supposed to guarantee you 25 additional years of life.
We rather preferred to head towards the hills and to do some hiking. The craziest taxi driver of our trip so far delivered us to the lower station of the chairlift, where we realized that due to the heavy wind, it was not operating.
So we decided to hike up to Cherskogo Stone. It was a very nice walk through a light forest. All over the place, there were spring flowers blooming. From the stone itself we had a nice view of the lake and its outlet, the Angara River. Around the stone and in the bushes and trees around it, there were lots of colorful strips of cloth. Some of them had something written on them, others not – a custom that we had noticed already in South Korea intending to wish for good luck.

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We hiked down directly to the Baikal Limnological Museum. We took a virtual submarine tour to the bottom of the lake at 1642m. The lake is not only the deepest freshwater lake in the world, but also the most voluminous – containing more water than all of the Great Lakes combined. The museum also hosts two freshwater seals called 'nerpas'. They are the only species of freshwater seals in the world and are endemic to Lake Baikal. It was funny to watch them racing through the water like cannonballs (yes, they seemed to be almost as wide as they were long).
A minibus took us back into town where we had dinner. Everyone had local food: I had omul, a local fish, Sam and Max had pelmeni (dumplings) with meat and cherry filling respectively. Food was excellent, but we were not able to enjoy it too much. We had discovered that on our hike we had managed to collect a fair number of ticks. Between us we had five bites and found another ten which were still crawling about in the intention of finding a nice spot to bite. This is not fun! In retrospect, it was probably not such a great idea to hike in the Siberian woods after all.
We walked home as the sun was setting over the lake. By then the wind had stopped and the water was very still. What a beautiful end of the day!

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Back at our hotel, we met again with Geoff and Jennifer and kept chatting away with them until late after midnight. Their wonderful stories from their travels kept us entertained and we could have continued forever. We also used the opportunity to try some local vodka, called ‘Baikal’. We were not too impressed and had to check out if it gets better after getting used to the taste. In my humble opinion, it rather got worse. But maybe I did not try enough.
The next day, we headed to the fish market and from there to the lake to watch the hovercrafts. A guy asked me (in Russian) to take a picture of him and his friends. I answered in English that I’d be happy to help, even though I did not speak Russian. He also spoke English and after I had taken a picture, invited me and Sam to come over and to have a vodka.

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It was 1pm, but why not. It turned out to be just the right decision: we joined them at the little rented hut along the lake and had an excellent afternoon. Our hosts (Serge, Denis, Sergey, Andrey, Ludmilla and more who’s names we don’t remember) turned out to be professors of law of various Russian universities and all of them spoke great English. And they were so kind and welcoming to us. The promised vodka turned out to be Chivas Regal whiskey and there was also a food. It was a fun afternoon.

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When they eventually left to see the Baikal Museum, we went back to the fish market to get some smoked fish. We then rented a little hut for our own and were sitting there leisurely, having our food and marveling about Russian hospitality. What a great country and wonderful people!

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 22:55 Archived in Russia Tagged train lake museum stone hike vodka hospitality Comments (0)

Crossing Eastern Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad

From Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk

sunny 27 °C
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After three nights at the shores of Lake Baikal, we took a minibus to Irkutsk. The name of the town sounded very familiar to us – after all both Sam and I had played the strategy board game ‘Risk’ since our childhood which features an area called ‘Irkutsk’. For many other people, it is probably better known as one of the centers of Siberian exile. By the end of the 19th century, almost every third inhabitant of Irkutsk was in exile and not allowed to ever leave Siberia again.

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We were not forced to stay in Irkutsk – rather the opposite: we intentionally wanted to spend some time in town to experience Eastern Siberian city life and to see some of its cultural heritage. After briefly stopping at our hostel to check in and to leave our belongings, we headed into town. The tram got us right to the Quarter 130, a lively pedestrian zone attracting tourists and locals alike. It was a tough choice of restaurants and we eventually settled on the terrace of a nice brewery for lunch.

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It was great weather and we could see the crowds passing by. Some of them were headed to the music festival at the southern end of the quarter. Others headed north towards the book festival. We enjoyed the music festival and listened for quite a while. The book festival turned out to be rather disappointing – after all we are very slow in reading Cyrillic letters and simply don’t understand enough Russian to make much sense of the books on display.

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We passed the statue of Lenin and crossed Karl Marx Street to reach the main park. From there it was just a five minutes’ walk to the main attractions. We passed the Polish Church, the Church of the Savior (which seems to be the oldest stone building in Eastern Siberia) and visited the Cathedral of the Epiphany across the road. As in all Orthodox churches, women were provided with scarves to cover their hair before entering the church. We were lucky to get there during a service. The choir was singing beautifully.

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Just below the church were the banks of the Angara river. This morning we had already passed it’s starting point at the outlet of Lake Baikal. It was a nice area for having a walk and we joined the locals before deciding that we had seen enough for today. We headed back to our hostel, made dinner in the nice kitchen and had a great night’s sleep.

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The next morning, we spent a bit of time at a nearby park before shouldering our backpacks and heading to the train station. We had booked train number 1 the ‘Rossiya’. We wanted to spend at least one of our segments on the Trans-Siberian-Railway enjoying the classic experience on this Vladivostok – Moscow service which runs every other day and takes 6 days and 4 hours for the 9289 km.
The train seemed to be a bit newer than the last one we had been on. To Max’ big delight, here was even a TV in every compartment. This time, we were not alone, but shared the compartment with Maksim, a 32-year-old engineer from Khabarovsk. Fortunately, he spoke English, so we were able to easily communicate with him.
But he was not our only acquaintance on the train: in the compartment, next to us we met Kat and Ed - a Welsh couple who spent the last couple of months biking from the Southern tip of India all the way to Kathmandu in Nepal. As always it proved to be a lot of fun to compare experiences. They had been blogging as well (their blog is doctorswithoutmotors.blogspot.uk.co in case you’re interested to learn more about their travels). Contrary to us, they were using couchsurfing throughout their travels. The way they explained the great hospitality they experienced along the way, they inspired us to try that one day as well as a means to getting even more contact to locals. But we were able to inspire them a bit as well, as they had not thought that traveling with a kid can be both easy and rewarding.
Back in our compartment, it did not take long for Sam and Maksim, to take out their respective bottles of vodka. Sam’s Baikal vodka did not stand a chance against Maksim’ Sand Crab vodka from Kamchatka.

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At the first longer stop in the station of Zima, we used the opportunity to get out and to stock up our beer supplies. We only realized after our purchase that Maksim’s beer recommendation was rice beer from China. On our own, we would probably never have tried it. We soon realized that despite our prejudices, it tasted very well. After an extensive dinner, lots of dried fish (which are eaten together with beer in Russia like we would eat chips) significant amounts of beer and vodka, we had a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, we had a quick breakfast on the train and then had to pack our stuff. At 8:07 we reached Krasnoyarsk, today’s destination. We waved good-bye to Maksim who was staying on the train until Novosibirsk and to Kat and Ed who will only get off far-away Moscow. Thanks to the clock at the railway station we realized that in Moscow it was still 4:07 in the morning and that consequently we had already crossed our first time zone on the train.

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Contrary to the majority of tourists along the trans-sib route, we had chosen to break our journey in Krasnoyarsk. The town itself is just a regular Siberian town, but its location certainly is special. It is located on the banks of the mighty Yenissei River. Its tributaries include the Angara River (the outlet of Lake Baikal) and reach all the way into Northern Mongolia. Together with them, it is forming Russia’s longest river system.
But that’s not what we came for: we stopped in Krasnoyarsk, as it offers not just the flat tundra that most of Siberia is known for. We wanted to spend a day in the Stolby Nature Reserve which offers great hikes in the hills and granite rocks.
It was only a short walk from the train station to our hostel. We had a bit of trouble finding it until we realized that its entrance was in the back of one of those ubiquitous apartment blocks. And once we got there, we came to realize that the lady in the hotel spoke only Russian and not a single bit of English. Even with pointing on the map and using some Russian words she was unable to tell us which buses or trams would get us where we wanted to go.

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So we headed out on our own and tried our luck by just taking one of the trams passing by our hostel. We were not lucky, as it turned the wrong direction already after the first stop. We got out and reluctantly decided to do our city tour by foot. From the massive statue of Lenin that seems to adorn every single Russian town, Gorkii Park was just across the street. Presumably, this is the favorite weekend outing for all locals with kids. But on a Monday afternoon, not too much was going on.

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We crossed the park to get to the banks of the Yenissei. It turned out to be a great decision, as we got to witness the step dance practice of a young ambitious ballet dancer. On the planks of the wooden deck, his steps were amplified like if he was playing a big instrument.

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Just before it started raining, we made our way into a local Russian version of Starbucks called ‘Traveller’s Coffee’. The cakes were just perfect, the drinks as well and the atmosphere was very nice – a perfect end for the day.

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And then there was one of those unexpected random acts of kindness: at the supermarket I had a full shopping cart and was about to pay a sizeable amount. Out of the blue, the lady next to me asked the cashier to swipe her customer card, which resulted in a 10% of my bill. What a nice surprise! Those are the instances when I wish to fluently speak a language instead of only being able to repeat Спасибо (Spasibo / Thank You) over and over.
The next day we were picked up at 9 am by our guide Anatoliy and headed to the nearby Stolby nature reserve. Already on our drive, he provided us with lots of information about the town, the river and the surroundings. Especially the stories around the closed town of Zheleznogorsk (which was formerly known as Krasnoyarsk-26) were fascinating. We had been aware that many towns in the former Soviet Union had been closed to foreigners. We only realized that such closed towns continue to exist even now.
Anatoliy showed us a hidden path up towards Takmak Rock – without his help we would definitively not have found it. It was a pleasant hike through a light larch and birch forest. Max was alternating between extremes: either he raced ahead or he dragged behind such that eventually Sam and Anatoliy resorted to carrying him part of the way. Once we had reached the top, we stopped for a break to eat our sandwiches and to enjoy the view.

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Following the break, we headed to another viewpoint before heading steep down and then up again. As we walked along, we not only got to see many more rock formations and many spring flowers, but also some insights into Russian leisure activities. We hiked along some ski slopes, saw the start of a steep mountain bike track and passed a couple of cabanas that can be rented for private festivities. And when Max started watching some men working, we learned a very true Russian saying that there are three things you can watch endlessly: running water, fire and other people working. How true!

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On our way down, we took the chairlift and then had a surprisingly good and cheap lunch at the buffet of the ski restaurant. A great finish for a perfect outing! Next time around, we’d definitively come back and do a tour with Anatoliy again – maybe during the Siberian winter at temperatures of below -30 °C. I’m sure it would be very different, but as much fun.

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After our busy day, we took it easy and did not do too much. Still, the atmosphere in our hostel was not too tempting and we rather went outside to have dinner vs. spending time in the communal kitchen with the guys there. The hostel seemed to be exclusively used by Russian working class men. In their uniform training outfits they just did not appeal to us as potential conversation partners. Who knows – potentially we would have had a great time with them. We’ll never know as we preferred the comfy atmosphere of a nice café in town.

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The next morning, I packed our stuff while Sam and Max went shopping. They had an ‘interesting’ experience when a 60-year old lady approached them and asked them if Sam would be willing to come up to her flat to help her fix an electrical appliance. Sam was not willing to and used our upcoming train as an excuse. That turned out to be a big mistake, as the lady (which spoke excellent German, as she used to be a German teacher) then imposed herself to get the shopping done more quickly such that Sam would not miss the train. I had a good laugh when hearing his account how he wanted to buy certain products. She then dismissed them as ‘too expensive’ and suggested alternatives at a lower price (and lower quality). Eventually Sam got quite frustrated – after all he wanted to shop for a hostess gift which was supposed to be high quality.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 12:29 Archived in Russia Tagged lenin beer park church train river rock hike vodka Comments (1)

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