Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Ghengis Khan-Khan: How we hitchhiked and slept in a stranger's tent house all without dying!

The first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey was an overnight train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. The train was clean and modern (we even had a power outlet in our room!) and the top bunks never filled up so we had the whole cabin to ourselves. The only exhausting part of the journey was the extremely long stop at the border. China's tracks are a different gauge than those of Mongolia, so we didn't get to sleep until around 2 am after waiting for the wheels to change (in addition to the usual tedious immigration procedures).
trans-siberian cabin

Arriving in Ulaanbaatar, our initial impression was that it was freezing. We had only long underwear and sweatshirts for warmth because we weren't expecting 36*F temperatures in September, but apparently that's the norm. The city basically has one main road that everything interesting is either on or next to, so traffic on this road is some of the slowest moving I've ever seen.

Mongolia is famously unfriendly to vegetarians, but vegetarian restaurants have become surprisingly trendy in the capital city. There were five Loving Huts alone!

On our second day, we decided to head to Gorki-Terelj National park, just a two hour bus ride from Ulaanbaatar. We hadn't realized the public bus would be filled to the brim for most of the journey, and Greg spent the whole ride leaning on an armrest. The description of the park we got online told us that there are tourist ger (Mongolian nomadic tent house) camps leading up to the town of Terelj. What we didn't realize was that our bus went the opposite direction, starting in Terelj and going through the park before heading back to the city. So basically we missed our stop. Alarmed, we decided to get off at what we thought might be a tourist camp. It was not. This was where we started to panic, remembering that there's only one bus a day.

It was just moments later that we noticed somebody else, a Mongolian woman in a traditional outfit, had also exited the bus. She must have observed our panicked looks because she quickly waved us over to follow her. We descend a hill and go through some trees before arriving at her family compound, all the while shooting each other looks of "what the heck are we doing?" Our Mongolian is as good as her English, which is to say we have no way of communicating. We pass a small house and some horses before arriving at a ger. She shoos out two people who I think are her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend before waving us in and pointing at the beds. We shrug and hand her some cash for her hospitality.
ger interior

As we get settled in our toasty little tent and figure out how to load the stove, we marvel at how weird this whole situation is. Then there's a knock at the door. The daughter is there.

"日本語わかりますか?”("Do you understand Japanese?") she asks.
Without much thinking I reply in the affirmative. She explains that she forgot her mirror and we invite her in. It isn't until she leaves that we realize how much weirder this whole situation just got. Not only does this girl in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia speak Japanese, but she happened to find probably the only two white people for several thousand miles who also know Japanese. How in the world did she know to ask?

It soon got dark and there wasn't much to do. Luckily we brought entertainment. Yes, we watched Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure on my laptop in a ger in Mongolia. Because, y'know, like, Ghengis Khan's in it so it was, like, totally relevant.
our ger

The next day we thanked our host and hiked back up to the road to catch the bus back to town. Greg became fast friends with some of the local dogs along the way. Our bus passed through some gorgeous rock and tree filled sections of the park, but unfortunately we couldn't get any pictures.
Surrealistic rocks in Terelj NP Mongolia
Thanks to the internet, it's ok that I didn't get any photos of my own!

Back in town, we checked into a hostel. We had a personal guided tour through the intellectual museum, which was basically just one wacky guy's display of puzzles he's made and various toys he has collected. When it was time to head back to the train station we decided we didn't want to walk because we had built up a huge collection of food in preparation for several days on the Trans-Siberian railway. There seemed to be no taxis, but one of the hostel employees explained that if you stick your hand out someone will give you a ride. It worked! Surprisingly quickly, too. Two women pulled over and we told them "train station" and then they spent the remainder of the ride completely ignoring our presence. We gave them our leftover Mongolian money we hadn't been able to convert to rubles, and they seemed more than pleased with the amount even though it was less than five dollars.
mongolian hills

Now I'm typing this on the train to Moscow, which will involve four long, shower-less nights of traveling and eating instant noodles. It's the low season, so most people on the train seem to be Mongolian merchants who get out at each stop to sell cheap track suits to immense hordes of Russian shoppers who apparently gather at the stations just to shop.

Competition for the few working power outlets in here is fierce, so I don't think I can keep a daily log of our cabin fever. I'll just type what a think will happen after my battery dies:

Andrea's Log, Day 5: The weather is nice. I have made a necklace out of Greg's intestines.

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