A Travellerspoint blog

Mongolia

Arriving back in Ulaanbaataar

storm 31 °C

After having bribed the train hostess to stay on the train so we could make it back to Ulaanbaatar Shelley and I settled in for the night train ride back to the capital city UB, that we both thought we would never see again. Shelley woke up rested along with the many other passengers who passed our train cabin all commenting on how well they had slept. Despite being so tired from the previous night's ordeal, I had found myself not being able to sleep at all, all night. The "rhythmic lulling" of the train movement was perceived by me as a constant shaking, rattling and scraping of the metal tires across tracks. The sound seemed to me to be like the train rails were too small to accommodate the wheels, or the conductor had challenges staying within them. In addition to these movements and sounds, our train wagon was mostly populated by tourists from Holland, who were social and lovely people, but they also liked to party! The morning bags full of empties was also evidence of their previous night's festivities. As the train pulled into the UB station, I was not at all feeling tired, but was glad to be back in a city that Shelley and I had come to know. We had a plan to find a taxi and return to our hotel and hope they had a room for us. So, at 5:45 a.m. we haggled with a taxi driver, now knowing what the cost should be for our ride back to the hotel, having only taken this trip two days before, and hoped the hotel would take us in.

Arriving at the hotel (and yes of course the taxi driver after agreeing to our price, magically had no change, so we had to pay him what he originally wanted) we felt that we somehow had made it back home! We knew that it would be too early to check in to a room but thought they would be willing to hold our bags and backpacks while we sought refuge in a familiar cafe called Millie's. However, to our surprise the front lobby doors were locked and no one was at the front desk. Shelley and I plopped ourselves down on the front stoop of the hotel with our numerous bags surrounding us, waiting for the hotel to show some sign of life. An hour and a half later, one of men we recognized from our previous stay poked his head out of the door and looked over to us in surprise with a combined look of 'what the heck are you two doing back here and Ohh no what happened'. He quickly ran to our side and started scooping up our backpacks while we grabbed our groceries and other bags. Shelley started telling him bits and pieces of our Russian experience while knowing he wasn't quite understanding all of the details, but he definitely got the idea. This caring man (we don't know his name) promptly checked the register and found us a room. He didn't even care about the rules of check in times and escorted us to our new room where Shelley and I once again felt like we were home safe and sound. We were very grateful for this mans care and consideration. It came at just the right time and helped us feel that yes, things can work out after all.

Once settling in our room, we contemplated our next steps. Having been assured countless times by the Russian officials that we would be allowed back into Russia (ON AUGUST 1ST), and no alarms would sound as our passports and visas were once again scrutinized, we started sorting out the best way to return to Moscow... or did we want to bypass it all together! One small detail we had to consider in all of this, was that my son Eli, on my instructions, had mailed my driver's license to our hotel in Moscow. Yes, on day one of our adventure I realized I did not bring this, and I was scheduled to drive the car in Turkey. We both agreed that our Russian detainment had not really sullied our thoughts on seeing Moscow, so we decided to sort out the most reasonable and efficient way to get there, hoping that we would be able to get back on track with our itinerary. Despite being told by the Russian head honcho that our train tickets were still valid and could be used, we were pretty sure that ship had sailed (or that train had left the station!). We were correct and after checking with the man who organized the tickets, he informed us that our train tickets were no longer valid. He also told us that he couldn't get us new tickets first class for August 1st - sold out. We had resigned ourselves to paying for a flight anyway as the new train would have us arriving in Moscow too many days late. So after researching flights, including bypassing Russia and heading straight to Estonia, we found the prices online so high we went to a travel agency. These are plentiful (entire street blocks of them) and even though it was Sunday we got a flight via Irkutsk on August 2nd for half of what we had found online. With our tickets in hand we went to find an ice cube tray (haha) so we could have some of our duty free Baileys purchased for the train. Finding none we improvised back at the room. On to trying to book train tickets online for the Moscow to St. Petersburg leg. Spent way too long trying to do this and gave up. This was using 3 different sites all of which would not accept our email addresses so we couldn't proceed to checkout. Take our chances when we get there?

Posted by kelshell 09:34 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Khoomei lesson

sunny 24 °C
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Today is our last full day in UB (that's how most people refer to Ulaanbaatar). Shelley found throat singing lessons on google and since we were so impressed with this art form, which we heard during the cultural performance, we thought when in Mongolia do as Mongolians. So, we awaited pick up at the KFC (the bane of our existence for landmarks) by the tour operator. Upon meeting us, and yes laughing at our Kellie Shelley names we were off to our lessons, which ended up being private, with just us, the tour guide and the throat singing artist named Ataborgujin. The artist was a young man with a traditional Morin Khuur (similar to a cello, bit smaller containing two strings and is played with a bow) on his back, might have been wondering what have I got myself into! The tour guide seemed like a lovely man who spoke very good English but he did appear unsure of where to bring us for our lesson. He presented two options, one being in a tent that was erected on a city sidewalk , which was open for business like a small restaurant. The menu options included fermented horse milk, which is a common traditional drink in Mongolia, and horse meat. The second option was a room in a guest house. I was a bit uncomfortable thinking about attempting throat singing while people gathered around eating horse meat, so I asked ataborgujin where he preferred. He seemed unsure about the tent restaurant, despite our guide pushing this as the better option. In the end we headed off to the guest house, which was a bit rough but turned out to work just fine as a place for Shelley and I to belt out sounds from our diaphragm.

It turned out that our teacher was a teacher at the local music university who has been performing Khoomei for 7 years. We found out later that our guide's "regular guy" was unavailable so we really lucked out. Ataborgujin explained the history of throat singing as having originated in the West near the Altai mountains. It was originally began to mimic sounds in nature and he demonstrated a number of animal sounds. He then demonstrated the very different sounds representing water, mountains and the steppe (open plain). These sounds were each unique and we could clearly hear how they were representative of each area. He used his traditional instrument to give us the first four examples of Khoomei. His performance was stunning!

Our lesson started with breath exercises and the importance of diaphragmatic breathing. He took each of our fists and placed them against his lower abdomen to demonstrate how to hold and push the breath from low down. After a bit of practice we moved onto tongue placement behind the teeth with the tip of the tongue. When this lesson moved to using the middle of the tongue on the palate, Kellie explained how difficult this is for English language speakers. We also were invited to lay down across 3 chairs and lift our head and feet at the same time (exercise with singing lesson) to feel where the breath is pushed from. We both did this and and found that engaging the diaphragm with the added pressure created the sound more successfully. We were both able to replicate some sounds in a minimal way. This is truly an art form that is very difficult as the human body becomes the musical instrument. Ataborgujin just finished appearing in a Ted talk describing and performing Khoomei. Look for him on you tube! He thinks it will be broadcast within 2 weeks.

Before parting our tour guide took us to the original tent location to join them for fermented horse milk (it's okay ladies it won't make you sick, just go to the bathroom a lot, very cleansing) and horse meat (tastes like beef). Ataborgujin was going off to his music studio to beat box and we got an excellent demonstration of this as well.

Kellie, Bachi and Ataborgujin

Kellie, Bachi and Ataborgujin

Shelley, Bachi, Ataborgujin

Shelley, Bachi, Ataborgujin

Horse tent

Horse tent

Horse milk tent

Horse milk tent

https://youtu.be/m_dNF6AYEoA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbB5mq-bkXI

Posted by kelshell 08:29 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

In and around Ulaanbaatar

What we're doing in the city

sunny 30 °C
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We had to get out of our hostel on Saturday morning the 22nd as they were booked for that night. Since we woke up so late we were scurrying around trying to pack while looking for a hotel online. Luckily we'd had our laundry done and delivered. We got a cab to another hostel which we checked into for 2 nights. The room was about 8 feet wide by maybe 15 feet long. So we walked around the area asking about hotel prices and scored an awesome deal in a wonderful place for this week before our train to Russia. We got our cash back from the hostel for night two which excited us so we could move. We have been enjoying amazing meals (great vegetarian and Mediterranean), museums, shopping, cultural shows and throat singing lessons. On day 2 back in the city we were sitting blogging and both Kellie and I kept smelling a horse smell. We checked around the room and through our clothes but couldn't find the source of the smell. I sat down beside Kellie to look at something on the tablet and said,"Kellie it's you!" Kellie had a shirt on that she thought hadn't been worn on the tour. But no - it had! We really enjoyed a meal in a restaurant close by so we ate there twice. Same for lunch at a local vegetarian restaurant.

Kellie misstepped on the treacherously uneven pavement our second day back in the city and went down hard which frightened me. Thank goodness she was fine. I thought she'd landed on her cheekbone. We visited some local private art galleries and two national ones. Despite the fact that the National Museum of Modern Art was on a side street with no signage in English, we found it by going the long way around. And around. And around. Navigating in Ulaanbaatar is a challenge as the streets dead end frequently and don't always start again somewhere else. Everything is done by landmarks as we have mentioned before.

We saw an amazing cultural show one evening that was one and a half hours long and cost the equivalent of $13.00. The dancers, singers,orchestra, contortionist, throat singing and costumes truly astounded us in a beautiful theater reminiscent of those found on Broadway. No picture taking allowed though. The throat singing prompted us to look into it more and we decided to take a 3 hour lesson (stay tuned!). Our names are making people laugh when we say them together so we feel like a comedy show. Today's adventure after throat singing was trying 6 banks to get Russian rubles. Not only did the power go out in one while we were waiting, the bank that actually seemed like it might be able to sell us rubles only had one cashier who performed this function and we had to wait while she had her lunch break.

People keep warning us about watching our belongings and staying safe here. There was even a sign on the way to the meditation center in the Terelj National park warning of pickpockets. We have never felt unsafe here - naïveté or luck - who knows. We have been asked for money twice by children but otherwise...

Kellie pub dinner

Kellie pub dinner

Call button in restaurants

Call button in restaurants

Shelley pub dinner

Shelley pub dinner

Dinner not so great!

Dinner not so great!

Mongolian Grand Theatre of National Art

Mongolian Grand Theatre of National Art

Hotel breakfast

Hotel breakfast

Great meal x 2

Great meal x 2

Café machiatto

Café machiatto

Vegetarian meal

Vegetarian meal

Relief ancient Choigin temple

Relief ancient Choigin temple

Ancient Choigin temple

Ancient Choigin temple

Balcony seats

Balcony seats

Inside theatre

Inside theatre

Food

Food

Posted by kelshell 21:20 Archived in Mongolia Comments (1)

Addendum to day 5

Acrid cheese

sunny 31 °C
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Kellie and I keep thinking of things as we discuss the tour. One important thing we neglected to mention on day 5 was our introduction to horse milk cheese which we all thought were chunks of pound cake. After being invited into the family ger upon our arrival, we were given milk tea. Our hostess passed around a tin with what looked like chunks of pound cake. Given our knowledge of the Mongolian's love of sweets, this was a fair assumption to make. It wasn't until we touched it that we realized that it was like a chunk of Parmesan cheese! And already we could see the looks on the faces of those who chose before us as they bit into their pieces. Imagine a bag of salt and vinegar chips. You reach in and instead of a chip you pull out a chunk of the salt and vinegar flavoring. This was what we were eating! Looking around the ger we could see people trying to pawn off their cheese to their neighbor. What made this worse is that later our guide told us that the etiquette is to break off small chunks to eat when the tin is passed. We had no idea and felt terrible as we had probably just taken 6 months of the family's cheese supply! Luckily these are not wasteful people and Kellie noticed later that the family was cutting off the bitten ends of the cheese everyone left behind! Live and learn!

Posted by kelshell 10:04 Archived in Mongolia Comments (3)

Reflections

Things we didn't discuss

sunny 25 °C
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So there are a few things we would like to note:

  • livestock on public roads - Mongolian drivers honk at everything and we haven't quite figured out the why's and wherefores - but certainly necessary on highways and off road as cattle, horses, goats, antelope and camels cross at will
  • menus - what is shown is unlikely to be available!
  • use of English - even if you think you are being understood, it's unlikely that you are! Examples: I don't like smoking (they bring you an ashtray); we don't need water (they bring more water); can I try a taste (they bring you the entire thing and you've now purchased it);
  • walking in crosswalks is taking your life in your hands
  • people have such a national pride
  • people are genuinely trying to please or absolutely don't care at all
  • a Styrofoam cooler was in the back of our van for the Gobi tour but the lid kept bumping off; in it was meat - and no ice or cooling packs
  • it's a country of contradictions - modern and old; friendly and not friendly; wide open spaces or jam packed in the city
  • They love processed foods - there are stalls and markets every few feet selling junk food
  • seat belts - what are these? Babies sit on driver or passenger laps
  • call bells in restaurants - little discs on the table to summon server
  • Towels on the floor at every entranceway - easier to clean than mats
  • rows and rows of candy and chocolate in the shops and grocery stores
  • never bring your bill in a restaurant
  • countryside really smelled like animals - the scent was in the air
  • beauty shops and products as plentiful as junk food

Posted by kelshell 09:31 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

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