A Travellerspoint blog

Second day Russian experience

How to get back to Mongolia

So the previous night we had asked when the train went back to Ulaanbaatar. We had been told 5:00 pm and the train only went to Sukhbaataar (Mongolian immigration point). Since we had arrived there in the dark and the train windows were required to have the shades pulled before the stop,we had no idea what was there. So we went to sleep wondering what the new day would bring.

We awoke late of course and were still being guarded. We ate some of our groceries and stayed in the room. A little while later a female guard came to ask us if we wanted to go to the cafeteria. We declined. At about 2:30 we asked our guard if we could go to eat. He was a friendly young man with some very minimal English. He took us outside and we started walking down the road. And walking. And walking - in the heat - for about 15 minutes. He took us into a restaurant which was empty. We ordered a cheap meal and then walked back. It was time to pack and leave. Back into the big area again we could see a one car train with what we surmised from the lettering was Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar (both Mongolia and Russia use the Cyrillic alphabet). After more than an hour immigration began processing the train passengers. Our young Lieutenant had more papers for us to sign and resign (lots of errors so lots of resigning). He told us that the train would take us to Ulaanbaatar which surprised us. He then smiled and said, "you are free to leave. But you must pay fine or..... (we waited)... you will not be able to visit Russia in future" (does he think we will want to - really??). Now I must say that we had been told the night prior that our fine was 2000 rubles and payable within 60 days only via bank transfer which we were given the information for. Once escorted to the train and on board our passports were returned and then an argument broke out between immigration and the train hostess as she kept demanding our ticket. She relented after the immigration guy brought her more paperwork. We were sharing a lovely young Dutch couple's private berth (like our first one) as they were disembarking at Sukhbaataar anyway. Apparently the Lieutenant had asked everyone on the train who would share with 2 ladies from Canada and they were the only ones who had room and didn't mind. Our story circulated quickly so we had a lot of well wishes from Norwegians, Dutch and Danish passengers on the one car train.

When we arrived in Sukhbaataar we were processed back into Mongolia (luckily Canadians don't need a visa for Mongolia or we'd have been screwed). It was a one hour stop which stretched to two. Kellie was worried we would be kicked off the train here so she wanted to stay on. I went to find water and when I came back the train was closed up. Someone told me where Kellie was so we sat in the shade with our cold water. We had a lovely visit with a lawyer from Calcutta who was not surprised by our story. When we went back to the train the attendant invited us on and then followed us to the berth, nastily indicating we had to get off and buy a ticket and take another train. She was getting more worked up at our lack of understanding as we had agreed to go into the station and buy a ticket. Our lawyer friend stayed with us while she went to get her phone to translate. Her translation said buy ticket for sit on other car. Since it was only one car we were confused. She then typed 100,000 MNT stay here. We said we would pay that no problem as we had gotten more tugrhik out at the ATM. The lawyer laughed and said she was making 50$ and we had a first class berth now to Ulaanbaatar. Reverse bribery - is that extortion??

Posted by kelshell 20:07 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

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)

Train to Moscow - trip interrupted

"You have broken the law of the Russian Federation. You must come with us now!"

sunny 30 °C

Well we don't know how to tell you this but after all of our careful planning, we messed up on a little detail in a very big way. In order to get our Russian visa we needed an invitation from a person or business in Russia. We had difficulty getting this but finally found a way and got one from our Moscow hotel. We are booked there August 1-4th. We didn't even think of asking them to issue the invitation for July 28th as we were taking the train which crosses the border from Mongolia to Russia in the middle of the first night. 8 hours from Ulaanbaatar the train stops at Mongolian immigration. The immigration officer took one look at Kellie's passport with her visa for Russia and immediately said you have a problem. We both said "why?" and she said "your entry is for August 1st and today is the 28th of July." It dawned on us immediately what we hadn't accounted for. This stop for processing was over an hour so we were trying to figure out what to do. Once she came back on board with everyone's passports, Kellie asked her if we should get off the train. She said she had no idea what would happen at the Russian border (one hour later by train so we don't know which country governs the no man's land in between) but that we could try and see what happens. We now know we should have gotten off the train.

We tried to lie down for the hour long ride to the Russian border stop. Kellie had her pyjamas on as we had settled in for the four day trip. When the Russian immigration boarded the train, the lady who arrived at our berth barely looked at Kellie's passport before saying very sternly in heavily accented English, "You have a big problem. You have broken the law of the Russian Federation." She went on to say that this was very serious. She called over someone else who turned out to be the Lieutenant of the immigration station who was about 12 years old! He got on his cell phone and then she told us to pack. Then she talked to him again and said wait. This happened one more time. We were hoping they were going to waive the few days. But no! She said this has happened before for the exact same reason. We were asked to collect our belongings to come with them. By this time 3 more immigration officials had arrived and were standing in the doorway of our berth. Kellie asked if she could get dressed and they said yes but wouldn't let her close the door. After the woman intervened she was able to close the door. Within about 1 minute they were knocking on the door saying, "must faster!" Then again. We were trying to pack as well.

We were escorted into the station and told to sit. These people were all about 19-25 years old. We were kept sitting there for 2 hours with the occasional message of, "you must pay fine." They all kept coming on and off the train and in and out of the building and 3 different offices. Once they cleared the train (I kept telling Kellie they were going to let us back on and she said no they're not) the train pulled away and there we were. We were told to write in English on plain paper what our "translator" (original immigration lady) told us - addressed to the Lieutenant : "I do not speak Russian. I need a translator. I do not need a lawyer. I do not have financial hardship. Later when she read back this statement processed in Russian I said, "maybe we do need a lawyer" and she laughed and said "there is not one here so can't. "

After this all of the other officers were watching us while literally reams of paperwork were processed. They kept bringing paperwork out for us to sign. The whole time our translator was reading out in English what we were signing but who knows. During our long wait I had read a big board with Russian legislation on it poorly translated into English. It looked as if the fine could be between 2000 and 5000 rubles (about 40-100 dollars). Finally they took me into a separate room where a young cadet was taught how to take my fingerprints. Of course the older officer (who sort of appeared during all of this) was not very gentle and was explaining to the cadet the whole time as if no one else was in the room. The young Lieutenant was at a computer still processing paperwork. Kellie later told me that she asked where I was and was told that I was being fingerprinted. She then had her mugshot taken (yes front and both sides). After my fingerprints were done I had my mugshot taken and went back into the larger room. Kellie was then taken in for her fingerprints. By now it was about 3:30 a.m. I had asked a few times to use the bathroom but was told to wait until we were finished. The "translator/immigration lady" had told Kellie the bathroom cost 100 rubles. She then told us the "restroom" was 630 rubles. Kellie said, "I thought you said 100." Turns out they really meant a rest room like in a shitty airport lounge. We were led there and could use the included in the price bathroom. With a guard outside our door. And no passports. I don't think we would have gotten very far with our backpacks, day packs and 4 food bags (expected a long train ride remember!) anyway but we must have looked like a flight risk!

So, as Shelley has painted an accurate picture of our ordeal I thought I would add some additional thoughts. While recognizing that we did make a mistake regarding our entry date to Russia by 3 days, their response to this infraction was extreme in my view. Yes, it is Russia and I know I can hear Eli and Quinn saying "don't go to Russia all you will have is trouble." Boy were they right! Right from the train the Russian officials treated us like criminals and it wasn't just the processing of things that we associate with criminality (like mug shots and fingerprinting), but the overall attitude, tone used when speaking to us, and lack of respect. In addition to the late night, no sleep, and inability to use the bathroom, it was an odd feeling to be under guard. Shelley and I did have to pay for a room to rest in, which had 2 beds, but we could not leave this area and were diligently watched by our guard whenever we moved to go to the bathroom. By the time we settled in our beds, exhausted and not quite sure how we were going to be deported back to Mongolia, Shelley needed to take her pills and decided on swigging them back with the only liquid we had... vodka!!

Off to Moscow

Off to Moscow

Posted by kelshell 20:58 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Khoomei lesson

sunny 24 °C
View From Menopause to Mongolia on kelshell's travel map.

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
View From Menopause to Mongolia on kelshell's travel map.

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)

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