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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)

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)

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