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Bye, bye 2073 and welcome to 2074!

Pokhara

sunny 27 °C
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After our four days of trekking, we returned to Pokhara for a couple of relaxed days. We did not have too many specific plans on what to do and focused on taking it easy.
Already the first evening out we found an excellent restaurant fairly close to our hotel. Admittedly, the Happy Hour offer of a 600ml San Miguel beer with popcorn for 2,800 rupees (~2,5€) had lured us in and it turned out to be a very good place. The food was great and cheap, the location superb and we were sure to return a couple of times in the coming days.

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From our table next to the busy road, we had a great outlook on local life. There were the old men sitting along the road, the fruit and juice sellers in the street and the groups of (often similarly dressed) women heading along.

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The next day, we had a highlight coming up. Sam and I had a relaxing Ayurveda massage, while Max spent the time with Prakash. What a luxury to have a babysitter for Max!
In the afternoon, we explored the lakeside of Phewa Lake. With the upcoming Nepali New Year celebrations, many locals were in Pokhara. And seemingly many of them came from regions where less blond foreigners are around. We were asked several times to pose together for pictures – an opportunity that Sam took delightedly as well. We were probably at least as fascinated about our partners in the picture than they were about us.

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After a sunset beer in a lakeside bar, we headed out just in time to still take a couple of nice pictures.

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The next day, we headed out onto the lake. We rented a boat and paddled across the lake. From there it was a hot, but pleasant hike up the hill to the World Peace Stupa. We had a nice view down towards the lake and Pokhara, but had to imagine the impressive mountain backdrop that we knew from the postcards that were sold all over the place in Pokhara.

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We did not mind too much – after all we had seen a good bit of the mountains on our trek and had focused on getting some exercise vs. just a view.
On the way back, we could not resist to take a quick break at the small temple island in the lake. The place seemed to be the main attraction for all the Nepali locals who were in Pokhara and we were seemingly the only tourists there.

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After so much activity, we had deserved lunch in our favorite restaurant. And while I enjoyed some quiet time back in our hotel room, Sam and Max headed out to explore where the constant backdrop of music was coming from. They soon discovered, that it was a New Year’s festival that was going on the whole week. And even though they did not have enough money with them such that Max could have gone on any of the various rides, at least he found a group of kids to play cricket with.

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Nepal is celebrating their New Year in mid April – along with many other countries in Asia. Well, it seems that Nepali people love celebrations more than anyone else in the world. They claim to be the country with most public holidays (31) per year. Anyhow, they are very special indeed. After all, they are the only country in the world with a non-rectangular flag.
We had liked the bustling activity along the lakeside and headed there once more to take in the atmosphere at sunset.

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The next day was already New Year’s Eve and we headed out to celebrate. The festival was clearly geared towards the locals and only few other tourists were around. Max got to take some of the rides, which seemed to be at the standard of Europe some 50 years ago. Most amazing of all was the Ferris Wheel. It was driven by a series of belts that were connected to a tractor’s motor. The guy seemed to have lots of fun and accelerated to the point when the gondolas of the wheel were flying outwards by the centrifugal forces.

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There was also a stage with dances, music and official sounding speeches. It was fun to watch the people in the audience. But not being able to understand Nepali did put a damper on the excitement we felt when listening to the speeches.

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We rather explored the food section and were tempted by some of the many specialties on offer.

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Eventually we headed out of the festival area again and walked back along the lake. Max was kind enough to the first Nepali who asked and staged for a common picture. But then he felt he had done enough and declined all further requests.

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That evening the streets of Pokhara were full of people and life and everyone was in a very festive mood. And even though it was tempting to go out and be part of the fun, we still preferred to have a quieter evening. We packed our backpacks, did some reading. At midnight, we watched the fireworks that marked the start of the New Year 2074 and then retreated to bed.

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New Year’s Day marked our departure from Pokhara. We headed in a taxi towards the airport and took a small flight (a 30-seater propeller plane of Yeti Air) from Pokhara to Kathmandu. Due to the haze and the relatively low flight altitude of 11,000 ft, we got to see just a glimpse of the mountains.

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And having been in the Kathmandu valley before, we did not have any hopes to see any peaks in the coming five days. But we were looking forward to another couple of days with a nice mix of relaxing and exploring.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 07:33 Archived in Nepal Tagged sunset lake bar hike new_year Comments (0)

Last impressions of Nepal

Kathmandu

sunny 25 °C
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We were positively surprised when we realized that Kathmandu’s domestic terminal is much better organized vs. the international terminal. Within no time, we were in the good hands of Prakash and our driver Dhil to take us to our hotel in Kathmandu’s tourist enclave Thamel. The next positive surprise awaited us when we realized that the luxurious Moonlight Hotel had allocated their suite to us and we had a huge room for ourselves.
Too lazy and hungry to find an appealing restaurant on our own, we used TripAdvisor and were indeed very positive about the ‘Western Kitchen‘. Despite the name of the place, they also offered Nepali food and it tasted really well.
We spent the rest of New Year’s Day in our hotel. It had been a shock to see how much baggage we had acquired lately. The addition of the three new sleeping bags and sleeping pads made our pile of stuff look even more intimidating than ever before. And I was seriously worried that we’d not be able to stuff everything into our bags.
So it was time to sort out. And we had the perfect opportunity coming up: tomorrow we’d be visiting an orphanage and they might be able to use our stuff. By the end of the evening we had a big bag together containing not only a soccer ball, lots of toys and clothes. And we’d also be giving them Max’ car seat that he had been using since the start of our journey in the US. From now on, we will not need a seat anymore even though it had been very valuable up to now.
Before heading to the orphanage, we visited the Pashupatinath temple. It is a large temple complex dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva and the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu.

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Already the approach of the temple was fascinating: we passed a wedding, saw the colorful powders on sale in a shop and then arrived directly at the river where still today cremations take place. The dead bodies are put onto big stacks of wood and once the stack has burned down, the ashes are spread in the river.

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We were not the only tourists standing there fascinated by the scenes across the river. That might be the reason why exactly there so many sadhus were seated in photogenic poses. And indeed, many tourists were tempted for a small donation to take their picture or to pose together with them.

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The Nepali and Indian pilgrims to the temple head to the inner sanctum of the temple which is reserved for Hindus. We found enough other things to do. On the hill opposite of the main temple precinct, we had a nice view. We just had to make sure to keep our distance to the many monkeys around. Up there was a temple for Shiva’s first wife and a much quieter atmosphere than down in the main temple area.

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While we did catch a couple of pictures of sadhus and the salesmen along the road, there were other scenes we rather did not capture. The beggars along the street featuring prominently their leprosy were some of them. It was heart-breaking to see that people continue to suffer from illnesses that are curable and treatment is even provided by the WHO free of charge. So is it the social stigma that prevents people from seeking help, do they not know about available treatment options or is it too lucrative to earn money begging vs. otherwise not knowing how to earn any money? We did not find out the answers, but were shocked anyhow.

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It was great that after these sights, we headed directly to an orphanage where orphans and very poor children who cannot be supported by their parents are being taken care of. Weltweitwandern is one of the key sponsors of the project and offers anyone interested to go and have a look.
We were warmly welcomed by the leader of the orphanage Mary and by Sudama who is the head of Weltweitwandern’s local partner agency and president of the NGO supporting the orphanage. He personally checks how things are going every Saturday.

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When we were there, only very few kids were around. During the New Year’s vacation, most of them were home with either their families or visiting other families in villages. The orphanage makes a big effort to enable these visits such that the kids learn about ‘normal’ life outside the orphanage such that they get a chance to get socialized. Still, Max had lots of fun with the kids there playing soccer.

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We were excited to learn about the project and really liked the approach. As part of the tour of the facilities, we even learned that the Herrmann-Lietz-Stiftung is one of the key sponsors of the project, sending students of the Schloß Bieberstein boarding school there every year to help. Even though Bieberstein is not far from where we live and we even know some people working there, we had not known about that engagement. Once more we were pleasantly surprised to see how small the world is. And let’s see: maybe we’ll manage to host Sudama at our place on one of his next visits to the Fulda area. Or maybe we’ll start supporting one of the children of the facility once we’ll be back home.

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We stayed the whole afternoon and when we had to leave, it was a very warm good bye from Mary, Keshav and the kids. We waved back for a long time while walking through the fields back to our car.

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On the way back to the hotel, we once again got to ‘admire’ Nepali traffic and the awful condition of the roads. So many roads have been dug up as a result of a big drinking water project and have not been re-sealed for a couple of months. That results not only in offroad conditions on main roads, but also leads to dust all over the place. No wonder that many people are wearing a dust mask in Nepal. I clearly know that I’d never ever want to work for the Nepali traffic police. Only in retrospect, we realized how well organized and clean Phnom Penh had been in comparison.

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After so much exploration, we enjoyed a quiet evening at home and were happy that the next day, we’d only be starting our sightseeing in the afternoon. Today, Asook was our guide through Kathmandu’s old town. He was an amazing source of information about everything we saw, but also about general information such as people, customs and culture.
There’s one thing we might have noticed also without him mentioning it: as of today, it was forbidden to use the horn in Kathmandu. And indeed, it was much calmer in town and traffic noise was significantly down. Who would have thought that Nepali traffic would even work without people being able to use their horns?
Unfortunately, the Kathmandu Durbar Square has been significantly damaged in the 2015 earthquake and much of the damage is still visible to this day.

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Our first stop was at the temple of Kumari. Contrary to most other temples, this one is dedicated to a living goddess – a girl that is currently 7 years old. Once a ‘Kumari’ reaches puberty, a new Kumari will be selected. The 4-6-year old girl that twitches least when watching the ceremonial slaughtering of various animals will be selected to serve as Kumari. She will live in the temple under the supervision of a caretaker who will also serve as her teacher and her parents will only be allowed to visit during the day on weekends. Once more we concluded that Hinduism is a very strange concept to grasp for Westerners like us.
The temple of Hanuman, Asook provided lots of background in regards to the architecture, history and protagonists of the temple. Once again, we got to admire lots of wood carvings. And similarly to those we had seen earlier in Bhaktapur, some of these were once again very explicit. Even the statue of the monkey god Hanuman is covered with a red cloth to avoid him being offended by the carvings around him.

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As we passed some stalls with souvenirs, we got to a square full of pigeons. We also learned that the air moved by flying pigeons is able to cure arthritis which provides the sellers of corn on the respective square a very profitable selling argument. Not being bothered by that illness ourselves, we refrained from feeding the birds. Anyhow, we were a bit surprised to see how the birds are allowed to live in the old temples and consequently destroying some of it by their droppings.

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And as so often, the small scenes along the way were at least as impressive as the big sights.

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After our tour of the old town of Kathmandu, it was time to explore another one of the World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley: the Boudhanath Buddhist pagoda – the largest of its kind in Nepal. It is located in the Tibetan quarter of town – a result of many Tibetans fleeing their home country in the 50ties when China took over.
There were lots of people at the stupa and like them we walked around the stupa clockwise. Contrary to the many Hindu temples we had visited, once again we were struck by the quiet atmosphere which seemed much more pleasant and less hectic.

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We headed to the higher level and surrounded the stupa also there, before visiting an adjacent Buddhist monastery. We were impressed by the gigantic prayer wheels and the huge butter lamps. Alternatively to paying for butter lamps to be lit, some people preferred burning juniper incense.

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As a perfect ending for a great day of sightseeing, we had a Tibetan dinner at the Buddah Guest House. The food was great and we especially enjoyed the soup that was served in a heated soup tureen.

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The view of the stupa at sunset / night time from the restaurant was excellent. But also from down at the bottom, the atmosphere was great. With the stupa illuminated and literally thousands of butter lamps being lit underneath it, we were amazed. What a nice place to be and what a great end of our journey to Nepal.

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By the time we got home, it was quite late. And even though we had truly enjoyed the last two days of sightseeing, we were looking forward to two more days without any program.
After a very lazy day without doing too much of anything, I headed to breakfast with a very bad stomach feeling. After breakfast, I’d have to manage to pack all of our remaining stuff. And even though we had left significant amounts of stuff at the orphanage, it still felt like way too much.
I would not have needed to worry so much if I would have known that Davina (another Austrian guest of Weltweitwandern) would offer us the perfect solution. She’d be going to the airport with us that afternoon – destination Vienna. And as she was flying via Qatar, she was allowed to take 30kg of baggage. Thanks to her gracious offer, I was absolutely relieved. Davina took most of our unnecessary stuff, a total of 7kg. And I’m sure that in the next weeks we’ll not need any souvenirs, swimming gear, a fifth light sleeping bag and surplus clothes.
As a small sign of thanks, we invited Davina for lunch at ‘Fire and Ice’, a Kathmandu institution famous for its great pizza.
At the airport, we were quickly convinced that our initial assessment was wrong: the check in was organized very well and also the security controls and immigration were absolutely comparable to other airports we had been at. And in respect to gender equality we were surprised that Nepal seems to be much further developed than most countries: all form sheets offered three options for gender: male, female, other.
Our flight was on time and as Davina still had to wait for one more hour, it was time to say good bye to her – with a clear outlook of meeting again in a couple of weeks back in Austria.
But before that, we’ll be exploring another three countries and were looking forward to which adventures would be awaiting us in the last couple of weeks of our journey.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 12:07 Archived in Nepal Tagged monkeys football temple orphanage stupa baggage Comments (0)

On spring break

Seoul

sunny 22 °C
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An arrival time of 5:55 in the morning is never really pleasant. That is even more true when you have not really slept on the plane and when flying east. In other words: it felt rather like 3am in the morning when we headed towards Korean immigration. It was no problem to get our passports stamped and before too long we were in possession of all our belongings again.
We quickly found the airport train and headed towards ‘Digital Media City’ where we were picked up by the manager of our guest house in his Jaguar. Wow – that is a first!
The best news of the day was the fact that our room was already available for us. We were delighted to finally get some sleep and around noon time felt recovered enough to have a look around.
It was excellent weather. The sun was shining, the air was crisp and clear (no comparison to the humid and dusty air we had in Kathmandu) and the temperatures were very pleasant. It felt like a really nice day in European spring – with the obvious difference that people around us did not look European at all and that everything written was illegible to us. Even though we had gotten used to that already in Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal, it continued to intimidate us a bit not being able to figure out where e.g. a bus was going.

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But we were fortunate to get help in our first steps to use public transport: someone from the guesthouse took us to the convenience store to get bus tickets and showed us where to catch the bus to Hongik University.

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In this lively and young neighborhood we explored the pedestrian zones around there until we got hungry and headed for Korean BBQ. It was fun to observe how the food was prepared right in front of our eyes at the table. Eating itself turned out to be a bit of a challenge, as the food was significantly hotter than what we had realized. Still, it was a great experience and once we had gotten over the initial shock in regards to the pungency of flavor, we really liked it.

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After a bit of strolling, we headed home – but not before stopping at a confectionery to get some strawberry cake to take home.
What followed was a perfect evening: We used the Wii with big screen at the guesthouse and while watching Kung Fu Panda on a big TV once Max was in bed, we helped ourselves to the German Benediktiner beer that the guesthouse offered for free (just like soft drinks, round the clock breakfast, instant noodles, etc).

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Our visit of Seoul had been intended as a break from more serious sightseeing in Nepal and in Mongolia. It was the cheapest flight connection between the two countries and we felt like a stopover would do all of us good.
Even though we had no intention to systematically check out all of Seoul’s many sights, we figured that we might as well go to explore a bit. So after a very relaxed and late breakfast, we headed off by bus to Bukchon Village. This area of Seoul is nicely built on sloping hills and features many old traditional Korean houses, called ‘hanoks’. At a tiny eatery, we had soup. This time we were not quite so surprised as the day before to find out that it was almost too hot for our taste buds.

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Exploring the older parts of the village proved to be interesting. In the narrow streets, there were lots of tourists – like us – trying to get the perfect shot of the old houses with the Seoul skyline in the backdrop.

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But there were also lots of local Koreans there. Many of them were dressed in the traditional Korean attire, the ‘hanbok’. We had passed already lots of places that rented hanboks out by the hour and suddenly realized that this must be a very viable business.

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By the end of our tour, Max was so hungry and we were so helpless to come up with local non-spicy food options, that he simply got a portion of French fries at the local McDonalds. Sam and I got ourselves some dumplings called ‘bibigo’ that we prepared ourselves in the kitchen of our guesthouse.
Some Taiwanese guests of the guest house treated us to some excellent fruit: they let us share their crates of strawberries and oranges. Well, the ‘oranges’ were very special: the ‘hallabongs’ are a specialty of Jeju Island. And indeed: they were excellent!
After all of us had survived Nepal without getting a ‘Delhi belly’, Sam’s luck was fading and he spent a sleepless night. Luckily Max and I were not affected. While Sam finally managed to catch up some of his lost sleep on the next day, both of us had a nice day in the guest house. We played, read and did what we enjoyed most. And not very surprisingly: I had no chance to beat Max when playing various Wii games.
That day, the first floor of the guest house was filled with a group of 15-year-old boys who were celebrating a birthday. They had their moms with them who prepared food and did what 15-year-old's do: they played on their mobile phones, they used the computers in the guest house to play and the fought their fights. But no matter what they did: they were extremely loud. Not just as loud as what I would have expected of 15-year-old boys, but significantly louder than that. While this might not be surprising, I did wonder a bit that their moms did not intervene in any way. After all, there were a couple of other guests around as well.
Eventually our Taiwanese neighbor took the initiative to yell at them around 2am at the morning that it’s time to shut up and that others are trying to get some sleep. Talking with her in the morning, she said that such behavior seems to be acceptable in Korea – and she should know being married with a Korean husband for more than 10 years.
We slept very long the next morning – still living on Nepali time 3 ¼ hours behind Korea – but after our quiet day yesterday, headed out again today. Taking the train to Seoul Station was super easy. Contrary to the buses, the trains and subways are signposted and announced in English such that we understood where we have to go. Once more we agreed that Seoul features an excellent and affordable public transport system.
From the station, we walked to Namdaemun Gate, one of the old entry points of the enormous city wall dating back to the 14th century. We had a quick photo stop.

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From there we headed on to Namdaemun Market. We had street food – excellent steamed and fried dumplings. Standing there, we met some very friendly locals who even let us have a try of what they were eating.

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Along the previous city wall, we headed to Namsan Park. There were lots of locals enjoying that warm spring weekend hiking up the hill.

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At the photo view point, they admired the cherry blossoms and took lots of pictures of themselves and the beautiful view of the city. To note: Koreans do not say ‘cheese’ when trying to get a shot of smiling people, they say ‘kimchi’ (which is their version of hot marinated cabbage).

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Once we passed the upper station of the cable car, it got really crowded for the remaining couple of hundred meters to Seoul Tower. Many people seemed to be there to fix their love locks on the many fences foreseen for that purpose.

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We had walked enough for today and decided to take the cable car down the hill. From there it was just a short distance to the next subway station.

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In the bus from Hongik Station to our guest house, we met our Taiwanese neighbor again. She had spent another day shopping and we finally found out why she is spending most of her week in Korea shopping: seemingly Korean cosmetics are renown in Asia for their excellent quality and great value. We were not interested in any shopping efforts and rather concentrated our efforts on the good Korean food and treated ourselves to kimbap (a kind of sushi rolls), Soup and dumplings.
The next day, Sam took a tour to the demilitarized zone (DMZ), i.e. the area around the border line towards North Korea.

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He was reminded very much of the inner German border which over years had been setup in a very similar way. In today's Germany, not much of that remains, except some remaining watchtowers and a green band in which wildlife and rare plants thrive. Let’s see if this will happen to the Korean DMZ as well at some stage. For sure, the South Koreans are dreaming of a re-unification. The future will show how realistic that is - considering that China probably prefers having North Korea as a buffer towards the South.

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Just like the former German border line, the DMZ also serves as a refuge to rare wildlife and plants, but is fully active. There are mines, the watchtowers are manned and there is a very tense atmosphere – specifically nowadays that Mr. Trump is rattling against the North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Being in the border zone you can listen to loud propaganda played from both sides - trying to convince the respective other side of the benefits of the own system.

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There are even a couple of North Korean infiltration tunnels. One of them is open to the public and can be visited as part of the DMZ tour. Since the tunnels have been discovered, they have been blocked off. And supposedly there are now sensor systems in place to detect any further underground blasts. And there are some remains of the Korea War on display - such one of the last locomotives that moved freely between the two countries.

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In the tour bus, the same thing happened to Sam that happened since he had arrived in Korea: everyone deducted that being ‘Austrian’ means coming from ‘Australia’. But there were also lots of other misconceptions present: his neighbor in the bus suspected that Korea's main export products are rice and ginseng. Seemingly he had forgotten about Korean companies such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai Motors, Kia cars or the fact that Korean cargo ships dominate the world market.

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That’s probably one of the big frustrations for Koreans: living in the shadow of their better known neighbors China and Japan and despite being the 5th largest export economy of the world being virtually unnoticed internationally. Let’s see if Korea will be able to make use of the upcoming winter Olympics 2018 in PyeongChang to share some facts about it with the world.
When Sam was back in the afternoon, we took a hike up the hill behind our guest house. Surprisingly enough, we even managed to discover a small playground – the first one since we had arrived in Korea. The lack of playgrounds in Nepal had not surprised us at all, but considering what a well-developed country South Korea is, this came as an unexpected shock.
The trail around the top of the hill was very beautiful. There were nice flowers blooming all over the place and there were hardly any people around. It was an excellent escape from the bustling city around us which we truly enjoyed.

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Our last day of the break we had taken in South Korea, was not very exciting. We had to pack our stuff, had a late breakfast at the guest house, went shopping (thanks, to the staff of the guest house and to Google Translate for the excellent help – otherwise it would be much more difficult to get around without speaking and reading any Korean!) and ended up at Burger King.
In the late afternoon, the manager of the guest house drove us to the airport train in his personal BMW 7 series (which probably cost him more than our year of traveling as a family of three).
As we headed to the check in, we could not resist comparing Incheon airport with its counterpart in Munich. It was very clean, well laid out and perfectly organized. And indeed, in the most recent airport rankings it had ranked #3 just before Munich which landed on place 4.
Korean check in super correct: wants to see tickets out of Mongolia, does not want our sleeping pads next to the backpacks. Good flight.
We recapped that it had been five very pleasant days in Korea – a country that we’d be happy to return to one day (well, if it wasn’t for so many other places we’d still love to explore as well!).

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 10:54 Archived in South Korea Tagged park airport spring bbq orange dmz wii Comments (0)

Pleasant weather in the world’s coldest capital

Ulaanbaatar

sunny 19 °C
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It was a very bumpy approach into Ulaanbaatar and all of us were happy to have arrived. Passing through immigration was easy. In the baggage area we had to watch out a bit for the many Koreans seemingly running on autopilot, but with a bit of care we managed to avoid any direct hits.
In the arrivals hall, we were greeted by Oogii who we easily recognized by the Steppenfuchs sign. She will be our tour leader and translator in the next couple of weeks in Mongolia. Once we had passed on the best regards from our Swiss friends who had traveled with her through Mongolia last September, we headed to our Furgon, the sturdy Russian offroad vehicle (also known as UAZ-452) we’d be traveling in for the next couple of weeks.
It was already past midnight by the time we arrived at Zaya hostel. Luckily Oogii knew where it was. Arriving there alone in a taxi would have been a perfect recipe for disaster: we would never have been able to identify the featureless soviet style apartment block with a disco in the ground floor as the place to go. Once we arrived in the 3rd floor, everything was great. We had a nice room and the huge washroom was just on the other side of the floor.
The next morning, we had our breakfast in the company of the pleasant local owners of the hostel – two brothers who had spent a couple of years in Texas – and then headed out to explore the streets of Ulaanbaatar. It reportedly is the coldest capital city in the world, but even though it had been freezing when we arrived last night, it was very pleasant and warm on this sunny spring day.
In the nearby Peace Tower, we easily got some local money and then did our best to start spending it. Our first destination was the state department store. And while we had assumed it would be a glum dark soviet style store with little to offer, we were in for a big surprise: the light flooded building featured well-known brands galore – food, clothes, electronics, you name it. After we had unsuccessfully tried to buy a new computer mouse in Korea, this task proved to be extremely simple here: within less than five minutes we were the proud owners of a new HP mouse.
From the store, we walked another couple of hundred meters to a restaurant for lunch. I had picked the ‘Blanka Luna’, as it offered vegetarian and even vegan fare. As we were sure to be served more than enough meat in the next couple of weeks, that sounded just right. And indeed, the food was simply great.
As Max craved for some exercise, we picked a path back to the department store through the backyards of the apartment blocks. With not much of a detour, we passed three playgrounds, which all also featured fitness equipment. The playgrounds were relatively modern, clean and well maintained. Max was delighted – specifically after his rather disappointing experience in regards to playgrounds in South-Korea.

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We were standing in the sunshine and it was absolutely T-shirt temperature. We had followed the temperatures of Ulaanbaatar for the last couple of months and had been delighted when we saw that with our arrival the temperatures would be hiking up significantly from -11 to +2 °C per day a couple of days earlier to suddenly a pleasant -2 to +21 °C.
Before temperatures dropped in the evening, we were back at our cozy guest house, played Uno and Tantrix with some other guests and worked on our blog. There were two categories of guests at the hostel: those who did a short stopover along the Trans-Siberian Railroad on their way from Moscow to Bejing and those who were planning to explore Mongolia for an extended period of time.
As we have the luxury of being able to do both, we found lots of things to talk about with the other guests. While Yasemina from Slovenia told us about her experience in the train, Anne from Berlin recounted some tales from her trips to Mongolia.
Oogii picked us up the next morning and showed us some of the main sights in town. We started our tour at the Buddhist Gandan monastery. As we entered one of the buildings, we realized that there was just a ceremony going on at that stage. The monks were singing or reciting something and the younger monks accompanied them with the sound of conch horns, cymbals and drums. The people of faith participating in the ceremony all tried to get hold of a large blue shawl and in return passed on some donations in form of money towards the head monk.

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Once we had seen enough, we headed out and explored a bit further. We would not have recognized the wishing pole if Oogii would not have explained it to us. But that explained why there were so many people huddled around that one pole – hoping to get their wishes fulfilled.
A bit further, we entered a large building and were surprised to find inside it a 26m golden statue of a standing bodhisattva. When trying to turn some of the prayer mills inside, we realized how cold it was in the building. The metal seemed to be still at freezing temperatures. Once again, we realized how lucky we were having arrived just when real spring time temperatures were hitting town.

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Our next stop was at the newly built dinosaur museum, where some dinosaur skeletons from the many sites in the Southern Gobi Desert were on display. Not surprisingly, Max was much more fascinated by the dinosaurs vs. the temples.
From there it was just a very short drive to the main square, recently renamed after the infamous national hero Genghis Khan. The square is flanked by the parliament, the stock exchange, the main post office, the national theater and many more important buildings.

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But we were magically drawn towards the center of the square. There was some kind of tourism marketing event going on and on a small stage there were multiple groups presenting their skills: there was music, singing and dancing – a great introduction to local culture and dress. And at the same time a nice group of mostly local people standing around and watching what was going on.

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While Max loved to see the children dance, Sam and I were most impressed by a group of musicians playing the horsehead fiddle, and a Mongolian plucked zither. Either there is a Mongolian folk song that sounds a bit like Apocalyptica or they simply interpreted one of their pieces with traditional instruments.

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We could have stayed there for ages, as there were more and more groups arriving to present their skills. But eventually hunger took over and we walked a couple of blocks towards a restaurant called ‘BD’s Mongolian BBQ’. We had not been to such a fancy restaurant for quite a while. It was great fun to select various vegetables, meats and sauces and to then see them being prepared on an enormous hot plate by the chefs. They did not just grill our food, but they made a big show out of it with juggling their utensils and using a bit of fire for special effects. It was great fun and really good food!

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After so much food, we were happy to take a hike back to our place. Along the way, we could not resist to buy some classical German food at the supermarket. Getting stuff like Schokolinsen, Nutella or Apfelmus was just too tempting.
The next morning, we were picked up already for our big tour of Mongolia. Actually, due to the fact that we’re traveling very early in the season, we’ll be concentrating on the South with the Gobi Desert and a bit of the central highlands in the hopes of having reasonable temperatures.
We were looking forward to that trip very much. After all, we love nature and large empty spaces. And for sure, Mongolia should fit those criteria really well!

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 09:21 Archived in Mongolia Tagged square dance music monastery capital playground cold Comments (1)

No roadsigns in the steppe

From Ulaanbaatar to Tsagaan Suvraga

sunny 18 °C
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Our guide Oogii and our driver Amgaa (which is pronounced ‘Amra’) picked us up at our guesthouse and we headed south. We drove through many quarters full of typical soviet apartment blocks, but also through areas where the typical Mongolian gers / yurts dominated the scene.
As we reached the edges of town, it was clearly visible how quickly Ulaanbaatar is and has been growing: the town that had been laid out for 300,000 inhabitants, is now home for more than 1.3 million Mongols – almost half of its population. Consequently, there were lots of new developments and the vast steppe is converted into town.
And there’s no middle ground: the town seems to end abruptly and suddenly there’s only steppe and pretty much nothing else. Well, except here and there we saw a herd of animals. Already after the first couple of kilometers we had seen yaks, horses, sheep, goats and cattle.
As we crossed the hills surrounding Ulaanbaatar, we stopped at an ‘ovoo’ and surrounded it three times clockwise. According to Mongol traditions and shamanic beliefs, doing this and ideally also leaving with every turn a stone or donation on top of these artificial stone hills will guarantee a good journey. Let’s hope they are right…
When it was time for lunch, Amgaa just took a right turn into the steppe. He drove for a couple of hundred meters and parked the Furgon such that it blocked out the wind. We set up a table and chairs and had sandwiches and salad for lunch. It was great to have the van as protection from the wind, but we still rather ate quickly to avoid having our food covered in dust.

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Driving back onto the road over the steep shoulder was no problem at all with our Furgon. Unfortunately, it then started making strange noises and it took Amgaa a couple of attempts to repair it in order to eventually give up and just unhook the four-wheel drive. That avoided the noises, but also meant that at some stage he would need to get a spare part to get the 4WD properly fixed.
We were on the road again. But after a total of 160 km, we headed off the main road and it was time to bid good bye to the advantages of asphalt roads. Pretty much unrecognizable for a foreigner like us, Amgaa suddenly turned left to take the track towards the small hamlet of Deren. Even though the track seemed not to be used too often, the ride was surprisingly smooth. Along the way, we passed a small well with lots of sheep and goats around. It was a nice view and latest by then we realized that we had left UB far behind us.

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In the endless steppe, there was pretty much nothing. As far as we could see, there was not a single tree or bush. And so early in spring, the grass was just starting to grow showing just a hint of green on the otherwise brown / yellowish plains.
Once we had stopped in Deren to fill up on fuel, we headed south for another half an hour and then searched for a nice spot to stay overnight. We stopped in a slight depression out of sight of the track that we had come on. There was nothing around us, apart from a large herd of sheep and goats a couple of kilometers south of us.

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Still, our presence had been discovered quickly. After just 30 minutes a nomad stopped by on his small motorbike. He was keen to have some company and found out which kind of news we brought. He was very kind and even took Max on a quick tour on his motorbike.

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We learned from him, that this time of the year is very busy for the nomads with sheep having to be sheared and goats combed. He reported that prices for cashmere have gone up and he’s now getting 60,000 tögrög (i.e. 30 USD) for a kg, whereas a kg of sheep wool is only worth 500 tögrög. He was happy and seemed to be able to live well from that income.
Once he headed off, Oogii was able to continue cooking our dinner. We had a local version of fried noodles with vegetables and a bit of meat. And it tasted fabulous.
While she prepared dinner, we had already set up our tents, which was very easy. We had to only throw them and they were setup. A couple of tent pegs to attach them to the ground and to avoid that the wind is blowing them away and done.
As soon as the sun went down, the wind subsided and it got very still. But at the same time, it also got quite chilly and we were starting to put on more and more layers. It did not take long to realize that it was time to head into our tent and to go to sleep.

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We slept very well in our first night in the tent. The thick sleeping bags had been a good investment and none of us got cold at night. While we recapped how well we had slept during the night, we started realizing how quickly the sun had started to heat up our tent. It was time to get up and have breakfast. Muesli, fruit and Nutella – there were no wishes left open!
We had only a short drive of 50 km for today, but within that short distance, there was much to be seen. Our favorite sight was a nomad on his small motorcycle moving his herd of camels and horses to a new pasture. According to Mongol traditions, seeing a move means good luck.

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And indeed, shortly afterwards we got to see a herd of wild gazelles and a large steppe buzzard. And there were lots of small lizards around as well. It is very surprising how much life is supported by such a seemingly sparse land. Every once in a while we saw a yurt in the distance and sometimes stopped quickly to ask for directions. Somehow there was always someone around - a nomad on his motorbike or a kid herding some animals.

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At noon, we had reached our spot for the night. We camped in the ‘Ikh Gazaryn Chuluu’ national park which features big granite formations known to the locals as the ‘big earth mother stones’. We found a nice place, protected between the granite rocks and with a nice view out towards the wide valley.

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After lunch, we explored a bit and went for a hike. Scrambling up towards the highest spot in the area, we came across various birds, most notably a snowy owl and lots of proof of animal presence – dung, wool caught in thorny bushes and even horns.

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Back at camp, we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon. While Amgaa maintained the car, he had a nomad coming over in order have a chat. Max went scrambling – both with Sam and with Oogii. There were enough climbing opportunities around us.

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After excellent dinner, Sam headed off to take pictures of the sunset.

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We prepared for a camp fire and even had a ranger stopping by to have a chat – after all, we’re in a national park. And we really appreciated the local culture of people stopping by for a quick chat.

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The next morning, we decided to rather head South vs. East in an attempt to cut a couple of hundred kilometers from our rather busy tour program. During the 100km of tracks it took us to reach the district center in Mandalgovi, we encountered lots of camels, cattle and even gazelles. But our favorite were the herds of sheep – their tail wags so cutely when running away from us.

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For lunch, we had one of the Mongolian national foods: khuushuur, a kind of fried meat pie. But we also used the stop in town for doing some shopping for meat and eggs, to get our water supply replenished and to fill up the car. Then we were ready for another stretch of tarmac that should get us more quickly to our destination than a track. Considering the amount of holes in the tarmac requiring sudden breaking and swerving, we were not quite sure, if this was really faster.

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As we turned off the asphalt again, Max was delighted. He was allowed to help Amgaa drive for a couple of kilometers. Everyone had a lot of fun, but most importantly the two drivers. Still, for Max the driving was heavy work. With every bump in the road, he had to keep the steering wheel under control. It was heavy work – both physically and for his concentration.

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When we saw a big group of camels next to the road, we stopped and took some pictures. There were we in our Furgon and the camels. And apart from the tracks leading through that part of the Mongolian steppe, there was nothing.

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A bit later, we also saw some gazelles. Contrary to the camels, they are wild and do not belong to anyone. And they are extremely fast. Once we detected them at the horizon, they were already gone.

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After a while, the landscape around us changed and there were some red rocks appearing in the distance. A bit further, we stopped to explore a little cave system. Equipped with our headlights, we walked into the absolute darkness of an underground dry river. Luckily, there were no bats down there. Usually, I don’t mind bats in caves. But when the caves are so small like this one and there’s not even enough headspace to stand up straight, then this is different.

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It was just 15 minutes of driving to reach our next overnight spot. We stayed at the top of big white cliffs (‘Tsagaan Suvraga’) that had eroded at its bottom into a landscape that reminded us of the painted desert or the Badlands.

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We were a couple of hundred meters away from the parking lot. A good choice, after all this marked the first time that we encountered some other tourists. In total, there were maybe ten carloads of people coming and going at various times that evening and the next morning. Most of them were fairly quiet and just admired the landscape. It’s just the Koreans which were unmistakable. To the dismay of their driver, one of them even climbed the roof of his Furgon – a good opportunity for us to keep joking about with our driver Amgaa.

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While we admired the changing colors of the cliffs at sunset, he was working on fixing an issue with the right front wheel and just briefly stopped his efforts for dinner. We had the meat that Oogii had bought today and even though our palates are not really used to mutton, we liked it. It must have been after 10pm when he was finished with his repairs. We had settled into our tents already a lot earlier.

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We slept way too long to get to see the sunrise. By the time we were up, also the falcons and the raven were active and we got to see some great maneuvers with one group fighting off the other.
That morning, it was a good track we were driving on. As usual, we were amazed at the ease with which Amgaa decided which of the many turns to choose. We can call ourselves lucky to have a driver with such good orientation skills.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 00:05 Archived in Mongolia Tagged cliffs sheep camel nomads empty granite goats gazelle owl steppe herds Comments (1)

Changing plans

From Tsagaan Suvraga via Tsogttsetsii to Dalanzadgad

sunny 19 °C
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Riding through the Mongolian steppe, we passed the winter camp of a nomad family. They were very busy. In spring time, they are shearing their camels. It was interesting to see how they got the camels to lay down and how they cut the dense fur by hand. We were surprised how many kids in school age were around. The explanation was easy: due to the heavy workload in spring, there are two weeks of school vacation such that the kids can help at home. Usually, the kids would be in boarding school in the next town – as distances are mostly by far too much as to cover them on a daily base.

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We rode almost 100 km on nature tracks, Along the way, we passed several ovoos again and learned the quick way of asking for luck: instead of walking around it three times, three honks of the horn will do as well. And hopefully that guarantees not having an accident like one of the cars we came across in the steppe. What followed was a brief interlude of 30 km of excellent tarmac, after which we headed off onto another track. Unfortunately, that track turned out to be extremely worn and not suitable for fast traveling.

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All of us were relieved about the break we had at a small well. There were camels, cattle and two large herds of sheep and goats. The nomads were making sure that the two herd didn’t mix. Otherwise that would mean a lot of effort to separate them again into the two groups – distinguished by the color of their horns. It was lots of fun to watch the thirsty animals trying to get to the water.

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A bit further we stopped for lunch before the rattling on the bad track restarted. Eventually we reached the town of Tsogttsetsii where we got fuel and Amgaa had his tire exchanged at a small workshop.
We had covered already over 180km on partially bad tracks and were relieved that the remaining 160km would be on an asphalted toll-road. Well, we were wrong. After having driven for about 40 km on the asphalt road, we wished to go offroad onto a track. It turned out that the asphalt road was by far worse than anything we had driven on so far. A piece of acceptable asphalt was followed by large holes of more than 30cm depth that were distributed over the complete width of the road such that avoiding them was impossible. The road was absolutely destroyed by the countless trucks transporting coal, copper and gold from the mines either towards Ulaanbaatar or towards China.
After briefly assessing the situation and considering the fact that we’d need to come back on exactly that road again after having spent two days at a monastery, also dubbed ‘the world energy center’, we easily concluded that we were not keen on doing that at all. We’d rather skip that item on our tour program and spend more time at the others vs. having to endure a couple of hours of being shaken to the bones on that awful road.
Luckily, Oogii and Amgaa agreed to our proposal to head towards the center of the South-Gobi province, Dalanzadgad. As there were works going on to build a new train connection from the mines towards China, it turned out to be a bit difficult to find the turn off for the track towards the capital of the district of South-Gobi. And in the attempt of getting onto the right track, we suddenly found ourselves stuck in a river bed which seemed like a field of stones in soft sand. Even though our 4wd was still not operational, it took us just two attempts to get the Furgon unstuck and up outside of the river bed.
Soon afterwards, Amgaa had found the track towards Dalanzadgad and after a bit of driving we took a sharp right turn off the track for about a kilometer in order to find a secluded camping spot. We were protected in a small depression and had a nice view of the flats underneath us and the mountains behind. Camping in Mongolia is simply great!
And there’s one more thing that is great: seemingly there’s almost everywhere mobile reception. No matter in how remote areas we had been driving up to now, most of the time Oogii and Amgaa were able to make phone calls.

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Right next to our campsite, Max and Sam found some wildlife. A small lizard seemed to be frozen in place and even the rare Mongolian gerbil proved not to be fast enough for them to have a closer look. After everyone had a look, they released it again next to its burrow.

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It felt great to be at camp and not to be stuck in our Furgon any longer. Being in a great spot and not hearing any sound of human provenance anywhere around – that’s what we love. And as being outside in nature is the point of our travel in Mongolia and not necessarily checking one sight after the next, we felt great about our change in plans.

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The next morning, we had 130 km of track to cover in order to reach the town of Dalanzadgad – the center of the Southern Gobi district. The track was good, but we continued to be amazed at the ease with which Amgaa decided at the various forks in the road which one of the tracks to take. For us they looked all the same – none more pronounced than the other and both of them looking as if they were going roughly into the same direction.
Amgaa was driving without any GPS or even a detailed map of the area. His explanation was that driving these tracks in Mongolia requires you to have a GPS in your mind. He is able with his sense of direction, the sun and a couple of landmarks to easily find his way from A to B. And should he miss a marker such as a well, the winter camp of some nomads or a specific hill shape, we’d know that he has strayed and would go into the right direction to just get back onto his original course. Wow… We’d be lost, that’s for sure!

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We arrived in Dalanzadgad just in time for lunch and afterwards Amgaa dropped us at our hotel for the night. We had originally not foreseen to stay at any hotels during our tour, but Amgaa needed some time to get the 4wd of the Furgon fixed. He also wanted to investigate some other problems sorted, which might require getting spares delivered from Ulaanbaatar which could then only be fixed the next morning.
We were happy as well about this plot and did not mind having a place with a shower after a couple of nights of camping. The hotel Ongi Tov offered everything we needed: a clean and big bed and a bathroom, but in fact it was nothing special – well except if you’re in dire need of a toothbrush or condoms… In that case, you’d be thrilled about the excellent features of the hotel.
Exploring town in the intent of shopping at a supermarket proved to be dustier than expected. About 100m after leaving the hotel, we got caught in the middle of a small dust devil and the laboriously washed hair was dusty once again.
We soon located the supermarket and were surprised about the presence of military personnel from various countries. Seemingly an international conference was taking place in town during that week and we had been lucky to even still get a room in a hotel. A day later the town would have been cut off for tourism and we would have needed to make a large detour around it.
The remainder of the day we spent in our hotel room. Max was delighted to be allowed to watch some TV, while we enjoyed having power to recharge our electronic equipment and to use the wifi for uploading another article for the blog. The only bad news was that that evening also marked the death of our mobile phone. Let’s see if we’ll be able to get its black screen fixed in Ulaanbaatar. But for the next two weeks, we’d live without the pleasures of checking and marking our GPS position on the map, making videos and quick snapshots or simply using it to read eBooks or to let Max listen to audio stories. All of that is no disaster. After all, before this journey we had not even possessed a smartphone. Still, specifically for the long stretches of driving, we would now not be able to keep Max as easily entertained as we had imagined.
Amgaa picked us up the next day with his newly repaired Furgon. Thanks to a couple of spare parts he had especially delivered from Ulaanbaatar, the 4wd and a couple of other issues had now been fixed and we were ready to hit the road again.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 22:55 Archived in Mongolia Tagged well camping track camel dust asphalt steppe Comments (0)

Snowstorms in the desert

From Dalansadgad to Gurvan-Saikhan nuruu

all seasons in one day 8 °C
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We headed to a national park called ‚Gurvan-Saikhan Nuruu‘ (the three beautiful ridges) to see a beautiful canyon. After a couple of hundred meters of hiking into the deep cut valley, with lots of rock formations along the way that resembled various animals, we suddenly hit snow. By the time we reached the end of the canyon, we were walking on a thick layer of snow that reached from one side of the canyon to the other. And then there was a massive frozen waterfall - an amazing sight knowing that in fact we’re in the middle of the Gobi Desert. I must admit that I usually associate desert with heat, sand and lack of water – and in this case, none of those three elements proved to be true.

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For sure it was not hot. Rather the opposite: we were freezing not only due to the low temperatures, but more so because of the heavy wind. Faced by weather like that, we took a quick decision to discard the plan to camp that night and to rather check if we can find a ger / yurt to sleep in for the night.
And indeed, we were lucky: we found a great looking yurt for the night. Inside it was very comfortable and – thanks to the oven that was fired with camel dung – pleasantly warm. Fitted with four beds surrounding a low table, we had all that we needed for an enjoyable night. While we marveled at the nicely decorated construction elements of the yurt. It can be assembled of disassembled in just an hour if there are a couple of people helping together and the various parts can be easily transported even by a camel or horses – the perfect home for a family of nomads that is moving to three of four different pastures in the course of a year.
Outside it was so windy, that Max and Sam had perfect conditions to test the paper planes they’ve built. One of the two models they built, flew a couple of hundred meters! And it was not just windy, but also extremely cold, temperatures around freezing. Walking the distance from the outhouse back to our yurt against the wind proved to be quite a challenge and we were more than happy to have such a comfortable home for the night.

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The next morning did not bring any relief in regards to wind or temperatures. Rather the opposite: as we headed out of the ger camp, we found ourselves in the midst of a snowstorm in which the snow came towards us sideways.
Despite the awful weather, we wanted to explore today’s destination, the Lammergeier Canyon anyhow. All of us dressed with as many layers of clothing as we had and then we headed out. It was freezing. It did not help that most of the canyon floor was still covered by a thick layer of snow and ice, allowing the wind to chill down even further.

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We realized only after hiking into the canyon for quite a bit that coming back out was actually much worse: being cold already from the first part of the hike, now we had the wind in our face and soon felt that it was not just wind. It had picked up significant amounts of sand and we soon found ourselves spitting out the sand in regular intervals.

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All of us were more than relieved to finally make it back to the relative warmth of the car. And lucky us that we had the protection of the car: on our way back down towards the entrance gate, we got caught in a small sandstorm twisting its way up through the valley. We would not have wanted to be in that unprotected.
While the museum of the national park was not heated, it still felt extremely comfortable due to the absence of wind. We used a traditional Mongolian horoscope: by throwing four small bones, we got to count how many sheep, camels, horses and goats we rolled. Depending on the outcome, we were able to predict our future. It was fun, even though some of the predicted results left us puzzling what they actually meant. That was fun. But yes, we also toured the museum to see which animals and birds to look out for in the national park in the coming days.
Given the cold and the storm, it was not even a discussion if we should camp tonight. We all agreed that a ger would be a much better and warmer choice. So just outside the Lammergeier Canyon we headed to a small group of yurts and moved our stuff in for the night. Our plan was to have lunch and just to wait in the ger to see how the weather would develop.
Well, once again our plan did not work out: the owner of the ger was afraid to light the oven due to the heavy wind. And we were not able to light our gas stove, as somehow the gas bottle was leaking. Fortunately, we had a full thermos of hot water from this morning, which we were able to use for making hot instant soup. While we were eating, we repeatedly were afraid that the yurt would not resist the heavy wind and take off. The few times someone was opening the door, we were able to see the snow storm raging outside – with the snow coming sideways vs. from above. Eventually we realized, that the plan of staying in a yurt was not good enough for the storm we were facing.

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A couple of phone calls later, Amgaa identified a new option for us: he found a hotel room for us in the nearby town of Bayandalai. We were relieved: even if the hotel room was not heated, it would at least stand up to the wind and we’d be safe. Still, sitting in the heated car, none of us was keen to leave it and we used the excuse that Max had fallen asleep to sit there for another while until he woke up.
In the little hotel we also met another Austrian / German couple. It was fun chatting with them. They are traveling the world for six months and we had many similar experiences to chat about.
After dinner, the fierce wind finally stopped and gave Sam and Max a chance to head outside to the playground. I used the opportunity to have power available (as unfortunately the inverter we got to load our laptop via the car lighter did not work) to use the laptop and get some typing done. Even though we might not be having a possibility to upload any blog entries in the next couple of days, I still tried to stay somewhat up to date.

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The next morning we headed off towards the singing dune ‚Khongoryn els‘. The storm had stopped the night before and we had no problems on our 130km drive. Well, the track was fairly bad, but that just what you get when trying to travel the backroads of Mongolia.

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Shortly before we arrived, it starting snowing again. Amgaa found the right track without any issues such that we arrived in time for lunch at the nomads we’d be staying at for the next two nights. Uelzi and his family welcomed us in their own big yurt. As per local custom, we were offered milk tea and the snuffbox.
They had just arrived in their summer camp three days earlier, but the yurt was fully furnished and everything had his place as if it would have been there for ages. Even though we did not understand Mongolian, Oogii did an excellent job in translating what was going on for us. We learned that Uelzi’s nephew had hurt his elbow in a wrestling match with his cousin. We were able to provide him with some paracetamol and it did not take long that his face looked much more relaxed.
In the meantime, Uelzi’s wife prepared lunch for us. She cooked rice in black tea and then added dried camel meat. The soup tasted much better than expected. The only challenge was the chewy consistency of the meat that made it difficult to eat without the use of a sharp knife.

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Even though the snow storm had stopped while we were in the hosts’ yurt, it continued being very cold outside. So we spent the remainder of the day in our own yurt. We fired the oven and it got nice and cozy inside. The only notable exception was around sunset. The colors were so nice that not even the cold could keep us inside. Still, once enough photos were taken and the atmosphere absorbed, we all huddled around the oven again.

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To make sure we’re not running out of fuel for our oven, Sam and Max spent the next morning collecting camel dung. Once they had collected six big rice bags full of dung, they figured that it should be enough to last not only us until the next day.
Around lunch time, Uelzi took us on a ride with his camels. We were sitting comfortably between the two humps of the camel. That was also quite warm – contrary to the outside temperatures. The slow swinging movements of the camels took a bit of getting used to, but were very relaxing.

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To celebrate an already great day, Sam prepared Kaiserschmarrn for all of us. In retrospect eating that much Kaiserschmarrn was not a very smart idea. After all, we headed out towards the sand dunes that afternoon. And let me tell you: hiking up 200 meters of altitude on a steep sand dune is exhausting no matter what. But with a full stomach it is even more of a challenge.

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Sam had a short moment of shock when suddenly his camera was not taking any pictures. It took him a couple of minutes of shaking the camera in all directions and suddenly it worked again. It would have been a very unpleasant thought to also lose Sam’s camera just a few days after our mobile phone gave up on us. Not having any possibility at all to take pictures of the remainder of our trip to Mongolia would not have been good at all.

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It was warm enough such that we could head up the dune without shoes and just with our socks. But as we neared the top of the dune, we realized that we were not the only ones heading up there: we suddenly saw a cow up there at the top of the dune in the sand. By the time we got up to the top ourselves, it was gone. And due to the strong wind, there were no marks remaining to tell which way it had gone.

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On our way up, we were also treated to the spectacular ‘singing’ of the dunes. Actually, it was more of a humming sound, a bit similar to the noise of airplane turbines. The sound is created by the wind blowing the sand down the dunes. But we were suddenly creating it ourselves when heading up through the deep loose sand of dune. There was so much sand coming down as we moved upwards that we even felt the vibration of the sand and the associated sound. Very cool!
As the top of the dune we had a great view in all directions. Sam got a bit jealous when four motorbikers turned up and starting riding in the dunes. But the nice atmosphere at sunset compensated him.

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It was really nice in the dunes as the sun went down. But the colorful evening continued much longer and back at Uelzi’s place, Sam got some nice motives with the yurts and the camels in the last light.

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And with all the sand we had on us, we all enjoyed a bucket shower before going to bed.
We were sorry to leave the next morning, as we had truly enjoyed our stay with Uelzi and his family. And even though it had been pleasant to stay in yurts and hotels during the last couple of nights, we were looking forward to do some camping again. At least the weather forecast was favorable, so we were hoping that it would hold true.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 02:28 Archived in Mongolia Tagged snow desert canyon storm museum sand dune cold yurt Comments (0)

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
View Around the world 2016/17 on dreiumdiewelt's travel map.

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)

Bye, bye Asia – welcome Europe

From Krasnoyarsk to Yekaterinburg

semi-overcast 20 °C
View Around the world 2016/17 on dreiumdiewelt's travel map.

Eventually we headed to the railway station and boarded our train. In an attempt to save some money, I had booked train no. 69 instead of the faster trains no. 1 or no. 19. For the longest segment of our train journey of 2282 km to Yekaterinburg we’d therefore be spending 36 hours in the train instead of 30. The train was just as comfortable as train no. 1 had been. The only difference seemed to be that it lacked the TV screen which we did not miss.
As we left Krasnoyarsk we noticed its size (almost a million inhabitants), as the apartment blocks seemed to continue forever. Once we left the town itself, for the next 40 km we passed lots of datcha colonies – the second homes with garden that many Russian families own. With many people living in rather small apartments without their own garden, this is their place to get away from the city and to grow vegetables and to have a base for outdoor activities. It was a lot of fun observing how people were planting their plots. It was a fairly hot summer day and Sam was quite disappointed that he did not catch some of the beauties with his camera.

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A bit later, we crossed the border between Eastern and Western Siberia. Once more we realized that we were getting closer and closer to home and to the end of our journey.
We passed through a hilly area. In regular intervals, we crossed some rivers and here and there a small town. Along the tracks there were endless swamps. We were wondering if potentially some of the ground might still be frozen in May, but were not able to check that theory. If we would have passed through this region in summer, we would have probably been haunted by mosquitoes. We clearly preferred spring time, as this is an experience we would not have been keen on making. Sam was plagued a bit by his allergies and it certainly did not help that along the tracks there were mostly birch trees.

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Time passed quickly on the train. Between watching the landscape pass by, playing with Max and eating, we did not get bored. We checked the timetable closely and made sure to get out of the train at all longer stops. Seemingly everyone left the train for the 20-min break In Mariinsk. There were lots of hawkers on the platform trying to sell their goods to the passengers. We also stocked up our supplies with them and then enjoyed the sunshine and the fresh air.

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At every wagon, the conductor was standing and making sure that only people with a ticket enter the train. She only checked the tickets of those people joining the train - all other passengers of ‘her’ wagon she knew by sight. That way we felt also safe to leave our compartment alone during our platform outings. Anyhow, we always felt very safe and secure in the trains and the stations.
We had originally considered if we should buy 2nd or 3rd class tickets and decided to go for 2nd class on all segments. This way we have a compartment with a door and potentially one person joining us. In 3rd class there are 54 instead of 36 people per wagon and there are no compartment doors. We were happy about our choice to go with 2nd class, as it was comfortable and we had a space for ourselves. In 3rd class, we would have probably met more people and seen more local culture. Still, whenever we passed through a 3rd class wagon, we agreed that we were not too keen on spending much time there. Due to the heat, most men were only wearing shorts and there was a clearly noticeable smell of alcohol in the air.
Even though we had bought only three of the four berths in our compartment, we had been alone for the whole day. But as we did not know if someone might potentially join us at one of the upcoming stations, we tried not to spread our stuff everywhere.

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We slept very well and did not even notice the long stop the train made in Novosibirsk in the middle of the night. It is a bit complicated to tell at which time we woke up: it was 6 am (Moscow time / train time), 8 am (Yekaterinburg time / our destination), 9 am (local time at our current location in Omsk) and 10 am (Krasnoyarsk time / where we entered the train). Maybe we would have slept even longer, but the fourth berth in our compartment finally got occupied. Pasha, an artist from Yaroslavl joined us. He had had a couple of performances in Omsk and was now on his way home.
We spent the whole day on the train. With the help of our guidebook and the km markers along the tracks, we were able to follow all major landmarks and sights. As we approached the town of Ishin, we noticed that here was significant flooding. We were not able to find out the cause of the flooding and also Pasha did not know what had happened here.

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As usual, we cherished every opportunity to get out of the train. It was sunny, but fairly cold. That did not stop some other passengers to stand outside in shorts and t-shirts. We got chatting with two Australian ladies. We introduced them to kvass, the Russian beverage we had repeatedly seen and finally tried: it is made by fermenting bread and sold to consumers from large yellow barrels. It reminded us a bit of malt beer with a nice lemon flavor. While it has a slight content of alcohol, it is considered non-alcoholic by Russian standards and the standard summer drink for the whole family.

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In the evening at km post 2102 (or 3800km of train travel within Siberia) we eventually passed from Siberia into the Ural region. Thanks to the fact that now the days of Siberian exile and forced labor camps are over, we had found our stay very pleasant and felt sad to leave.
At 10pm local time we reached Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth largest town. We were picked up at the train station by Julia, the owner of the apartment we stayed that night. We enjoyed that luxury of being picked up and taken to her place. Even though it was still fairly light outside, we were already quite tired and happy not having to search for her place.

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Along the way to her very centrally located apartment, we passed many of the key sights and already got a first impression of the town. It was a perfect evening: there was not a single cloud in the sky and from our place on the 10th floor, we had a spectacular view of the town.
When we logged into the wifi at our place, we were stunned by a long WhatsApp from Elena. She’s a friend of Andrey and Angelica (who we had met a couple of weeks earlier in Cambodia) and lives in Yekaterinburg. Andrey had asked her if she’d like to meet us while we’d be there and she agreed. But more than that: she took off a day at work and had sent us a list of at least a dozen potential sightseeing opportunities for tomorrow. It sounded fabulous and we were looking forward to meet her.
We met Elena at 9am at our apartment. Even though we had not even seen a picture of her and she had only seen a picture of us at the pool, we immediately recognized each other. She was very sympathetic and we could not stop thanking her of taking a day off to meet people she never saw before. Our breakfast next door at Paul Bakery was a perfect start into the day. We used that opportunity to talk through the various options she had proposed to us and we decided to start with going in her Mini Cooper to the Asia – Europe Monument. The monument is located in the Ural Mountains some 40 km outside of the town center. Presumably the border of Asia and Europe is along the watershed. But the high Ural Mountains of our imagination turned out to be rather small rolling hills.

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In principle Europe and Asia are arguably on the single continent of Eurasia. As there is no real physical separation of the two, the borderline seems to be more of an artificial matter of definition. Still, we had lots of fun, standing at the monument with one foot in Asia and one in Europe. After 392 days of absence, we were officially back in Europe. And it was great being able to stand there at the exact border and to enjoy this event instead of just passing through by train.

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And as seen already a couple of times, here they were again: uncountable pieces of cloth tied to the trees, fences and everything around. What a beautiful custom!

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Elena had included into her list of potential sights also the local military museum. Sam did not hesitate and soon enough we found ourselves on the premises of UMMC’s Museum of Military Technology. In the large open-air exhibit, there were tanks, fighter jets, submarines, trains, artillery, amphibian vehicles and much more. To Sam’s surprise, there were also a couple of tanks from the USA on display, most notably the Sherman. A bit of research revealed that during World War II, the United States provided to the USSR with more than 7,000 tanks, 400,000 jeeps and 18,000 aircraft under a lend-lease program. Neither Sam nor I had ever heard of such a program and we were stunned about the incredible numbers.

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When we headed back into town, Elena suggested taking the metro for part of the way. It was a great idea: for one thing, we did not get stuck in traffic, but even more importantly we got to see the nicely decorated metro stations and the locals using it. For many years, the Yekaterinburg metro system held the official Guinness book entry for the smallest metro system in the world. But since a couple of extensions, they had to give up their record in return for a more efficient public transport system. The trip from ‘Kosmonautilor‘ to the ‘Geologicheskaya’ was indeed much quicker than if we had taken the car. As we emerged from the underground, we were greeted by the impressive circus building.

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A couple of minutes later, we felt like being in another world: Elena had suggested to have lunch at ‘Nigora’, an Uzbek restaurant. It was an excellent choice. The food was great and the atmosphere very friendly. With the Uzbek decorations and handicrafts, it seemed like we’d actually be there. And yes indeed: after that great lunch, we agreed that Uzbekistan is rightfully so on our list of places we want to visit someday.

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By the time we left the restaurant, we realized that we had perfect timing: we had obviously missed a massive rain shower, as there were puddles of rain all over the place. Max was happy to do some jumping. But the fun did not last for long: as the sun came out, the puddles dried up as quickly as they had appeared and we walked along the pleasant pedestrian zone of Yekaterinburg.

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We loved the town: everything was very clean, buildings were nicely renovated, there were lots of statues and monuments. Passing by the museum of illusions we were intrigued and had a look inside. We had no real idea of what was expecting us and soon found ourselves surrounded by fun wall filling pictures that invited us to stage as part of the scene. We had lots of fun.

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A bit further we passed a fountain just like the ones we had seen months earlier in St. Louis or Perth. Back then Max had not hesitated a minute to join other kids getting wet in the fountain, this time at about 20 °C it was simply too cold. Still, we considered ourselves very lucky with the weather: two days earlier the daily high in Yekaterinburg had been at 7 °C – while we had been sweating at 27 °C in Krasnoyarsk.

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We passed the dam of the Iset river, the beautiful Sevastyanov building and eventually reached the Church on the Blood. The church was built in the location where the last Russian tsar Nicolas II and his family had been killed in 1918. Even though the church is the highlight of many visitors of Yekaterinburg, we were already very saturated by everything we had seen so far. So we resorted to relaxing in a nearby café before heading back to our apartment.

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Wow – what a full day. We had so much fun discovering Elena’s beautiful home town. We enjoyed our time with Elena so much. And we’re still stunned by the Russian hospitality: taking a day off for an unknown family and to take them all over town that is very special. We are keeping our fingers crossed that one day we’ll be able to reciprocate and to host Elena (or Andrey and his family who got us in touch with her) at our place.

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By the time we reached our apartment, we realized that it was just an hour until Julia would pick us up to take us to our 10pm train. Time was flying and it had been such a fantastic day!
As we left the train station very late, there was not too much landscape to be seen anymore. We rather took our time to chat with Alexeyi who had booked the fourth bunk in our compartment. He is a super friendly lieutenant colonel working for the Russian army. He spoke a bit of English and so we found out that he had been stationed in Germany in the busy times of 1989.
While chatting with him, we realized how tired we were. We were sound asleep already before the train crossed the border into Europe. There was no doubt that we’d be having a good night’s sleep on the train to Kazan.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:05 Archived in Russia Tagged military train museum europe asia border tank ural Comments (0)

A -stan within Russia

Kazan und Nizhny Novgorod

semi-overcast 14 °C
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When we woke up on our train from Yekaterinburg to Kazan, we had already covered most of the way to our destination. We had left Asia behind and were now solidly in Europe. And we had covered two time zones along the way and consequently were only one time zone away from home. Admittedly, still being in Russia, it did not feel very different to us.
This impression was confirmed when we reached Kazan. Already at the train station we were greeted by announcements which were made not only in Russian, but also in Tartar. We were in the capital of Tartarstan – one of the 21 or 22 (depending if you count Crimea as Russian or Ukrainian) Autonomous Regions in Russia. Tartar is a Turkic language and most Tartars are Sunni Muslims. So while having reached Europe, we were now immersed in a culture that was significantly more different to home vs. all of Asian Russia we had been to so far.
Before checking out the culture, we had a more pressing need: the heavy rain clouds above the beautiful railway station indicated already that we did not have much time left if we wanted to reach our hostel dry. We headed off at a brisk pace to cover the ~800m to our hostel. We made it to the right building just in time, but were then facing a backyard with dozens of entries. Just barely before the rain started, we spotted the tiny sign next to the last entrance and made it in safely. Even though we were a bit early, the lady at the reception told us that our room was ready. Well, to be precise: she showed us her mobile phone and we were able to read that information from Google Translate.
As we were very hungry and had no intention of getting very wet, we headed to a café just across the street to get lunch. The typical Tartar food was great and the big jug of lemonade even better.
As it was pouring rain outside and quite cold, we resorted to not doing too much that day. Max was happy to have an excuse to play Lego, while Sam and I took turns on the laptop writing the blog and getting the pictures edited and uploaded. In the process, we also realized that something strange was going on with our latest blog entry. We had uploaded ‚No roadsigns in the steppe‘ just a couple of days earlier and it had already over 3000 page views – thanks to being featured on travellerspoint.
After such a lazy day, we did start the next morning full of energy. We had breakfast and headed through the pedestrian area along Baumann Street towards the Kremlin. The area of the Kremlin is huge. Within its walls, all key buildings of town can be found: there’s the presidential palace, the impressive Qol Sharif Mosque and the Russian-Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral. With the combination of elements of the Christian-orthodox and Islamic architecture, the Kazan Kremlin has been named a UNESCO world heritage site.

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The mosque was built from 1999 to 2005 and is a modern, light filled building. While we were there, it was the first full day of Ramadan and no worshipers were in the building. It would be intriguing to see the building at some stage during prayer time, as the mosque can hold up to 6000 people. The original mosque had been destroyed in the 16th century by Ivan the Terrible.

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The Tsar celebrated his victory over Tartastan by building new churches. One of them is the Annunciation Cathedral which survived the centuries until now. After having survived the Soviet time, it had been given back to the church and since been renovated.

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We were impressed seeing the monuments of the two key religions of the region standing side by side. How nice to see that both religions seem to get along here. And that’s also the impression we had all across town: everything felt laid back and very low-stress. In the restaurants there were women with hijab working next to others without and in the stores we noticed a couple of ‘halal’ signs. Nice.

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After lunch at a Chak Chak, we headed down Baumann Street. Just when Sam was commenting that there were hardly any tourists around, we suddenly recognized some known faces: there were Rob and Gay, the Australians who had stayed at the Zaya Hostel in Ulaanbaatar while we were there. What a coincidence. Just as we talked together, a group of Russian youngsters approached us, requesting to take a picture together. And of course, we agreed.

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They just came from the Museum of Soviet Life and confirmed that it was worth seeing. And that’s where we were headed anyhow. We truly enjoyed our experience at the museum. Contrary to classical museums, this was hands on, fun and very interactive. Visitors were able to try on all the costumes, glasses, wigs, toys etc. We had a fabulous time.

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After a break in a café, we shopped in a classical mom-and-pop store. Not having worked out in advance the full list of what exactly we need, made the experience rather stressful. The lady behind the counter was seemingly not used to people not knowing what they need. As other customers came in, we let them go first such that we had a bit more time to figure out what else we might need. We only realized when these customers were served, that many things on sale were not visible, but available upon request. Not being able to speak Russian, we rather stuck to everything we could see and point to. That’s when we realized that being used to browse in supermarkets and being able to physically see and inspect everything is a big luxury.

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We enjoyed a quiet dinner at home in our apartment. The night before, we had been the only guests in the three rooms and had the kitchen and bathroom for ourselves. Tonight, it was full house. In the room next to us, there were two moms: Natasha with her daughter Sasha (13) and Natasha with her son Timo (7). Within just a couple of minutes, they invited us to join them at the kitchen table. Luckily one of the Natashas spoke excellent English and all others did understand quite a lot. We all drank whisky-cola (that is the adults). Natasha’s amusing recommendation was not to use too much coke in the mix as it’s not very healthy.

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Once their whisky was gone, we realized that we should take up the offer to have some of their dinner as well. After all, alcohol consumption requires a base. After all, we were able to make sure that the reserves were replenished: with our supplies of vodka and beer we were able to continue the party. We had lots of fun and laughed a lot. We invited them to come to Germany and to visit us there. Unfortunately, one of the Natashas works for the Russian army as an accountant and consequently is not allowed to leave the country. What a pity! At midnight, we finally ran out of alcohol and went to bed. Once more, we had had a great evening – we love Russia and its people!
The next morning, we had a relaxed breakfast before having to pack our stuff and leave. Unfortunately, we were not able to stay longer in our room than 11am and our train was only leaving at 10pm that evening.
We walked below the Kremlin Hill to the Volga River. At the embankment, everything seemed to be ready for the Soccer World Championship in 2018 already now. The modern, clean, well-signposted (in both Russian and English) quarter with its many restaurants, bike rentals and miniature train was perfectly set up to receive masses of tourists. While practical and purpose built, it lacked all references to the local country and culture. A newly built area like this would not have looked much different in other parts of the world.

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As we walked back towards the center of town, it soon became obvious again in which country we are. The massive soviet style Agriculture Palace was impressive and had all the features to excite visitors like us. We were less impressed by the weather though. Heavy rain clouds had moved in and it started to drizzle. While a summer rain might have been pleasant, at an outside temperature of merely 12 °C, it was just awful.

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So we headed into a restaurant for lunch. It was an extended lunch until the afternoon – after all we did not have a room or home base to retreat to. Admittedly, it was not much fun trying to kill the hours. Eventually, we moved from the restaurant to a café, where we spent the remainder of the time until our taxi picked us up at 8:30 pm.
Our train left from another train station than the one we had arrived in. We were surprised that all of our bags were screened. That had not happened at a single train station so far. Once the train arrived, we were greeted by a very well organized conductor who even spoke excellent English. Once more we were surprised: contrary to the last times we boarded the train, she ignored the print outs of our boarding passes, but rather wanted to see our passports. We concluded that we’re obviously nearing Moscow and that the laid-back atmosphere of the outposts in Siberia is starting to be replaced efficiency and structure.
When planning our train journey, we had no clue how reliable trains would be. And as there are no direct connections from Kazan to St. Petersburg, we went for a safe alternative: we’d spend a full day in Nizhny Novgorod and be able to reach our connection even in case of a long delay. In retrospect, this was an unnecessary move: all trains had been perfectly on time so for. And having had already yesterday a day without a home base, doing this once more today, seemed less tempting than when we made the plan.
We shared our compartment in the night with Elgar who went to work from Kazan to Nizhniy. The conductor brought us three cups of tea. That was not really needed, as Max fell right asleep as soon as we had his bed set up. And we were not keen on drinking black tea right before going to sleep.
It was barely 7am when we reached Nizhny Novgorod and had to leave our train. On our way from the platform to the exit, we had to pass through the station building and had to get our baggage screened. That seemed unnecessary to us, but confirmed our theory that things were getting more and more strict as we neared Moscow.
We deposited our baggage at the station and headed for breakfast at the Макдоналдс just across the street (in case you’re not reading Cyrillic, you would have recognized the branding easily anyhow: we went to a McDonalds). After a relaxed breakfast, we took metro and headed into town to see the main sights. We walked along the main pedestrian zone of town downwards towards the Kremlin. It was cool Tuesday morning and the sun just came out sporadically, so there were not too many other people around.

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Once we reached the medieval fortress, we were able to see some similarities to the Kremlin in Kazan, but also some significant differences. Both Kremlins are built on hills next to the Volga river. They are dating back to medieval times and continue to contain the administrative centers of their respective towns / regions. But as Nizhny’s Kremlin is built on a very steep hill, its wall fortifications seem much more impressive. And there was a different focus on the inside: in Nizhny we were greeted by an exhibition of WWII tanks, vehicles, planes and artillery. And in addition, there were a couple of monuments and an eternal flame honoring fallen soldiers in WWII.

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Only one of the previously many churches of the Kremlin precinct remains to this day. Contrary to Kazan, there is obviously no Islamic heritage in Nizhny and consequently no mosque.

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We enjoyed the beautiful view from one of the platforms down to the Volga River. That’s also where we headed next. It was fun to observe the many river cruise ships pass by.

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From the Volga, we then walked up the impressive Chkalov Staircase with its almost 500 stairs. Up at the monument of Mr. Chkalov (who was the first man to fly directly from Europe to North America via the North Pole), we noticed many renovation and infrastructure works going on. Similar to what we had seen already in Ekaterinburg and Kazan, also Nizhny will be hosting the next soccer world cup. And we assume that some of the improvements are directly connected with this big upcoming event.

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By the time, we had completed our tour of the Kremlin, we had walked already for quite a while and for considerable distances. We deserved a good break and found it at a nice and comfortable café where we stayed for quite a while. Eventually, Max was ready to get some exercise again and we headed to a playground and then played Frisbee in a nearby park.

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We did not want to take a lot of chances and made sure to get to the train station well ahead of our departure time. That way, we had enough time left to buy some provisions (especially kvass and beer). Considering that roughly a quarter of Russian supermarkets seems to be dedicated to selling alcohol, it can take a while until we find a brand we like.

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It was easy to get our baggage out of storage and to go through the security checks. Our train had already pulled into the station and by showing our passports we were admitted to our compartment. This time, we shared with Feodor, who was going to St. Petersburg, just like us.

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Contrary to most other tourists on the Trans-Siberian Route, we had opted not to stop in Moscow. After all, both Sam and I had explored Moscow already a couple of years ago when Sam worked in Russia. We rather preferred to spend more time in St. Petersburg, where none of us had been so far.

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Our train did stop at some stage in the middle of the night in a Moscow train station. Admittedly, we missed it and slept profoundly. Anyhow, we would not have been too impressed anyhow: that night a major storm hit Moscow which even resulted in a couple of deaths. We were lucky that our train was not affected in any way by falling trees or other objects.
When we woke up the next morning, we had breakfast and got ready to leave our train as it was approaching St. Petersburg at around 10am in the morning.
In total, we had covered the whole distance from Ulaanbaatar to St. Petersburg by train – a total of 6895km, 116h 27 min and five time zones. Split into six legs, train travel was comfortable and a reliable, safe and convenient way of traveling. We truly enjoyed approaching our destination step wise and being able to make so many stops along the way. And in addition, we got to see the landscapes and small towns along the way as well.
Still, knowing that we had now finally reached the very last stop of our journey of more than a year did feel strange after all. Having approached it in intervals and rather slowly, made the process easier. But still, there was an element of sadness in knowing that before too long, this trip of a lifetime would be over.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 07:21 Archived in Russia Tagged rain kremlin mosque church train metro vodka islam volga Comments (1)

White nights of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

rain 12 °C
View Around the world 2016/17 on dreiumdiewelt's travel map.

Arriving in St. Petersburg on a grey morning at 12 °C and pouring rain was a bit of a damper. Even though our apartment was only 20 minutes walking distance away, we were rather put off by the thought of getting drenched.
We knew from our host Anton that an Uber to the apartment should cost around 100 rubles. So we were not keen on taking up the offers of the taxi drivers waiting in the station who tried to charge up to 2000 rubles. As we walked towards the exit of the building, the offers got lower, but admittedly we were only able to find a guy offering 400 rubles in the end. By that time, we were already at the end of the parking lot of the railway station and had gotten a good share of rain. In other words: despite knowing that we had a bad deal, we did not mind anymore.
At the apartment, our host Anton was already waiting for us. The ‘Zoe Suites’ were a super nice and luxurious three-bedroom apartment with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. For the first night, we’d be the only guests, so we had the place for ourselves.
Anton also shared with us that in St. Petersburg, there are only 60 sunny days per year, so that we should not bee too surprised about a rainy day like today. We couldn't resist to recommend to Anton to move to sunny Mongolia which features 300 days of sunshine. Given how far north we were, it was no wonder that temperatures were not very high either. St. Petersburg marks the northernmost point of our travels so far ever located almost as far north as Anchorage in Alaska.
It took us until the early afternoon to motivate ourselves to get out into the rain. Admittedly, we had been spoiled on our travels so far. Strolling along St. Petersburg’s main avenue Nevski Prospekt, we passed luxurious shops, important architectural highlights and many monuments. We also observed as one car hit another at an intersection. Both cars continued as if nothing had happened. We were rather astounded about that. A local next to us only shrugged and commented ‚normalnyi‘. Ok, that's also a way of looking at things...
The Nevski Prospekt was impressive and much bigger than what we would have imagined. But anyhow, even though we knew that St. Petersburg is Europe's second largest city after Moscow, it still surprised us by its sheer size. We walked along, passed the statue of Catherine the Great surrounded by her associates (aka lovers) and made it all the way to the Kazan Cathedral. By then we were soaked enough to give up our sightseeing effort and headed into a café.

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We had great plans for the evening: Anton brought his daughter Zoe over and she played with Max until both of them were long overdue to go to bed. I skipped the fun and went for an evening program of a different kind: I went to see a classical production of ‘Swan Lake’. Being in Russia meant that I also wanted to see Russian ballet. I had a great evening.
When I left the theater at almost half past ten, it was still light outside. Being so far up north means that the nights are really short in June and it hardly gets dark at all – the famous white nights of St. Petersburg. I felt extremely safe walking through the streets of St. Petersburg on my own. In fact, I was not alone - there were many people out and about on the way to and from restaurants, clubs and bars.
The next morning, we were greeted by the sun. We were delighted and headed out right away to take the metro. The St. Petersburg metro system is the deepest in the world and we realized that it took us quite a while to reach the ground level again. Similar to the Moscow, the stations are very beautiful - the so called workers' palaces.

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The metro took us to the Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg's citadel next to the Neva River.

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It was sunny, but extremely windy and rather cool. That did not stop the people from sunbathing at the beaches along the fortress walls next to the Neva River. Probably they had protection from the wind. We did not and almost got blown away as we crossed the Trinity Bridge over to the other side of the Neva River. The high wind was also the reason why we did not get to do a tour through the canals of St. Petersburg. The wind caused the water levels to raise and to make the smaller bridges in the center of town impassable.

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We continued our tour on foot. Via the Summer Garden we reached the Church of Savior on Spilled Blood. The church marks the spot where emperor Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded in 1881. The church looks a bit similar to St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Being a recognizable landmark, it was also the prime spot for the many TV crews to setup their camp such that they can report live from the St. Petersburg World Economic Forum which took place these days featuring Russia’s President Putin and important politicians from many countries.
The inside of the church was as beautiful as its outside. The interior walls are covered by 7500 square meters of intricate mosaics. Heading out of the church, we got to enjoy the church from the same angle as we had seen it a day earlier. What a difference! Yesterday it had looked nice in the grey rain. Today with the blue sky it looked spectacular.

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We had lunch in an excellent Georgian restaurant ‘Cha Cha’. Having relaxed there, we were motivated again to walk the remainder of the way home. We passed the Russian Museum, the Circus and other nice buildings along the way. With so many nice buildings, the city reminded us a bit of Vienna. And also the food reminded us of home: the strudel we bought in a bakery was meeting even the highest Austrian strudel standards.

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We spent the evening at home and took it easy after a busy day. The next morning, we woke up with a big surprise: after the beautiful day yesterday it was raining heavily again. The weather was purely awful. So we dropped our plan to visit Peterhof today. Lucky us that we had not bought tickets in advance. In this gruesome weather it would not have been any fun to explore the extensive gardens with the fountains.
Anton recommended that we rather visit the Yusupov Palace. Contrary to many other St. Petersburg sites, it is not quite as overrun by tourists as e.g. the Hermitage Museum. So that’s where we went. And indeed: the palace was beautiful and when we did our tour there were hardly any other people around. And once more it was the site of a murder: Rasputin had been assassinated in the basement of the palace in 1916.

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By the time we left the palace, it was still raining. We tried to catch the bus back towards the Nevski Prospekt. After searching for quite a while to find the bus station into the other direction, we gave up and started walking. Luckily, the rain eventually turned into a mere drizzle. We walked by the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and the Admiralty Building to reach the Hermitage Museum which includes the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors. On the Palace Square the rain finally stopped and even the sun was peeking out a bit.

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At a café, we relaxed a bit before taking the bus back to our place. We used the time to pack our bags – after all we’d be heading back home tomorrow.
A bit later, Anton and Zoe picked us up. We took their 30-year-old Mercedes Benz S Class to a park. We had to use a hole in the fence to get in. Officially, all park doors were closed due to a predicted storm. But considering that there was an event of the Economic Forum taking place right next to the park, we speculated if the park was maybe just closed for that reason.

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From the park, we headed on to the Smolny (or Resurrection) Cathedral. In the evening light, it was a beautiful sight. But as we were hungry, we did not spend much time and headed towards the Ukrainian restaurant where Anton had booked a table for us. Luckily, he had reserved, as the place was packed.

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It was a great last evening of our trip. We had great food and enjoyed Ukrainian music. It was fun to chat with Anton and his wife Nadia. We exchanged stories from our travels and laughed a lot. We confirmed once more, how friendly and pleasant Russians are – great hospitable people. Zoe even presented Max with a good-bye present: a typical Russian stuffed animal called ‘Cheburashka’, which can even speak a couple of sentences and sing the Cheburashka song. But also Sam and I requested a souvenir: we asked Anton and Nadia to write into our traveling guest book, which by now is almost full. What a great last night out – an absolute highlight.

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When we left the restaurant after midnight, there was still light on the horizon. Despite the lack of sleep, Anton did stop by at our apartment at seven in the morning to make sure that we made it well to our taxi to the airport. Let’s hope that one day he will come to visit us in Germany, such that we can reciprocate the great hospitality we enjoyed.
Within thirty minutes, we reached the St. Petersburg airport. It did not take long to check in our bags. But then, we encountered a couple of difficulties. At first, the guy at the customs desk asked us if we had any liquids in our checked bags. We truthfully answered that ‘yes’ there were not only toiletries, but also two small bottles of vodka in the bags. That caused him to make us wait at his desk for about ten minutes until he had received a message that our bags were ok and that we could proceed.
Immigration was worse still. We knew already that the Russian embassy in Cambodia had stuck our visa into our passports such that the machine-readable part was on the inside fold, i.e. the visa was not machine readable. While the immigration officer back at the Mongolian – Russian border had been only slightly frustrated by this issue, the lady at the airport made a huge deal out of it. It took her almost 15 minutes to clear the three of us such that we could get out of the country.
Fortunately, we got through the security checks without any further delay, as otherwise we would have probably missed our flight. For the first time in our 26 flights so far, we had to run to the gate in order to make it on time.
All that rush avoided any possibility to get melancholic about the fact that this is the absolute end of our trip around the world. Even though we knew it was our last flight and that we’d be at home with friends and family within just a few hours, it felt still very unreal and hard to believe.
We were able to see a bit of the landscape underneath us also from the plane. But maybe it would have been easier approaching the end of our travels more slowly by train. As we had learned in the last few weeks, there’s a different quality to traveling by train. But then we would not have arrived within 2 hours and 40 minutes, but we would have needed to spend at least 34 hours in at least four different trains.

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The immigration officer at Vienna Airport briefly checked our passports and waved us through. It’s so easy being an EU citizen arriving in another EU country – what an advantage over what we faced in many other countries. Despite the fact that it is not needed, we asked for stamps in our passport to mark our arrival back home. That way, it’s officially documented now that we have reached the European Union again after more than 13 months of having been away.
We are home…

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 20:57 Archived in Russia Tagged rain church palace river museum fortress wind cold Comments (0)

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