Saturday, September 25, 2004

Welcome To China


It's 31 and a half hours here from Ulan Bator on the train, quite a few of which were spent fannying around at the border. The first station into China was oddly playing very grand music over the loudspeaker and was decked out in heaps of bright red fairy lights. I would have got out to ask if I there were any dodgems or a helter skelter, but the stern looking soldiers patrolling up and down outside put me right off. A few yards further on and the train went straight into a shed. Now, stop me if this gets a bit too trainspottery, but the old Soviet Union and Mongolia use a different gauge to the rest of the world, so when you cross the border the train has to get lifted up so the bogies can be narrowed. This job was done by a far-too-large Communist workforce of men with baskets on their heads, although none of them seemed to be doing too much apart from arbitrarily pressing buttons and walking up and down. Eventually they decided to let us into the country which was a relief, I didn't much fancy spending the rest of my holiday stuck in the Gobi Desert.

Beijing is much more built up than I expected it to be. There are a lot of huge buildings in the centre, hotels, banks and the like. I suspect the difference between those with money and those many more people without is very wide here. But in the city centre at least there's no sign of the poverty, just big cars and lots of cash.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Bloody Germans

Ulan Bator

The Germans in the hostel are really getting on my nerves. They sit around all day, moaning about how ill they are, whingeing about how they just simply can't go to Thailand or Vietnam anymore because there are too many tourists, and debating which pirated DVD they want to watch. Only to complain even more when it skips halfway through and they miss 20 minutes of the movie. Last night when I came in one of them had produced some kind of musical instrument and they were all sat round singing some mind-numbingly awful German songs. For ages.

They have the nerve to moan about the buildings here as well. Admittedly this city looks rubbish, but that's hardly the point, it's pretty lively and there's lots going on and lots to do. And besides, I sense a certain pot/kettle situation undermining their constant whingeing. I've been to Germany, and all the cities there look like Middlesbrough. On a bad day. In the rain. And without anything so interesting as that swivel bridge thing. I really can't understand why they've come all this way just to act like this, surely they can just sit around and moan in Baden Baden or wherever it is they're from. And at least then they wouldn't be annoying me.

The German series of Survivor was filmed at Lake Baikal and so there were loads of them in Irkutsk too, taking up all the hotel space and generally flouncing round town, Teutonic arrogance flowing from every pore. Up to now Australians have easily been top of my most-hated travellers list, but now our German friends have quite literally barged in front of them. It's enough to drive a man to (cheap) drink.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Get Your Hair Cut

Ulan Bator

Yesterday and today I went to the National History Museum and then the Natural History Museum. I found the former more interesting, I never realised the Mongol Empire stretched quite that far. The highlight was a photocopy of a letter from the Khan to the Pope informing him he was now a Mongol subject. The arrogance of it! I certainly wouldn't have messed with them.

Got my hair cut this afternoon, the first time I've paid for one in about ten years. I'd like to say that in the confusion I ended up with it dyed bright red or in several ponytails, but the guy just gave me a plain old short back and sides. A very attractive young Mongolian girl signalled whether I wanted it washed and I let her, if only because that's as close to a sexual thrill as I'm going to get on this holiday. She managed to get water all over one side of me but I didn't mind too much. Maybe I'll go back again tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


Ulan Bator

Saw the first evidence of the great man last night as I went for a pint of Genghis beer in the Genghis jazz club. After that moved on to a restaurant where I got a bowl of soup (mutton, naturally) a plate of steak with onions, potatoes and veg and another beer all for five dollars. That's less than three pounds. Feeling very satisfied I went back to my perfectly good two-quid-a-night hostel (breakfast included) and tried to work out how long I could make my budget last by staying here. I've probably got enough just to hang around indefinitely, although given my inability to ride, hunt or milk anything I don't think I'd be an attractive proposition on the labour market.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Anyone Want A Shower?

Ulan Bator

The train down here was full of Mongolians bringing all sorts of stuff over the border. There were boxes of cigarettes and various bits of hardware easier to come by in Russia, but the big surprise was when a guy started rooting around in the space over the corridor and brought out dozens and dozens of shower heads. If you ever feel like setting up a business it's clear exporting bathroom equipment to Mongolia is a pretty good bet.

Just went to see the palace of the last Mongolian King which looks much as it did when he died in 1924. Like the rest of this city seems to be it's a bit scruffy round the edges, not very touristy and quite charming. I've seen more than a few grand things in the last few weeks but even I was impressed by the silk embroidered artwork. The King's own fireproof gold jacket was best of all though, I only wonder how he made the discovery that it wouldn't burn.

I think I'm going to like it here, although there's still no sign of Genghis. Where can he be?

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Meat And Potatoes

Ulan Ude

To celebrate Rayne's birthday (21 again, eh?) and my last night in Russia I decided to treat myself to a meal in a restaurant. I went to one of the better hotels in town (ie. not the one I stayed at), pushed through all the teenagers waiting for the disco to start and sat down at a table. The menu was all in Cyrillic so I just picked a couple of things at random reasoning that whatever I chose it was likely to feature meat and potatoes. Sure enough I got meat and noodle soup followed by pork and potatoes. Russian food gets slagged off and it certainly isn't fancy but I've found it to be very solid and hearty. I think I'll take to eating borscht when I get back home.

Ulan Ude has the world's largest sculpted head. It's of Lenin and dominates the main square in a very sinister way. You never go far in Russia without being reminded of Lenin - every city's main street is named after him and there are statues all over the place. No mention whatsoever of Stalin though, he's been airbrushed out. But then he did kill tens of millions of people so I suppose it's hardly surprising.

And so four weeks after crossing the border at dead of night from Latvia I'm going to leave at dead of night into Mongolia. I've enjoyed it, found the places to be fascinating and the people friendly. It won't be the last visit I make to this great country. But for now next stop is Ulan Bator.