A Travellerspoint blog

20% of the world's fresh water


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large_5550_11661276729293.jpgThere was still ice on the less exposed portions of Lake Baikal.
We spent a night at Lake Baikal [Lake-Baikal-travel-guide-1313451] which contains 20% of the world's fresh water reserve. It harbours more endemic species of plants and animals than any other lake in the world. It is big and beautiful. We stayed at the little quiet mountain town of Listvyanka [Listvyanka-travel-guide-1323523] on the lakeside.

At Listvyanka we were first taken to our homestay up up a litter-strewn muddy street flanked by junkyards and beautiful Siberian wooden houses with intricately-dressed windows. We cringed. But all worked out well as we had a beautiful room (5 times the size of the one in Osaka) over looking the valley and lake.

Russia has a bit of catching up in terms of respect for the environment. Littering in the lake is bad in parts (but the water is still very clear). The freshwater seals in the aquarium-museum appeared over-fed ... they were nearly spherical!

Worst of all were the dancing bears in their cages ... rocking back and forth as they go mad from boredom (but Kim thinks they are just practicing their dance routines).

The weather in here was cold and crisp ... the sun played peek-a-boo with us through the clouds for parts of the day but it always turns fine. We were just in time to catch the last of the icy-slush in the lake.

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Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk


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large_5550_11661276628929.jpgAre we there yet?
We boarded the train that would take us from Mongolia into Russia. We had been booked on the "slow" train as the fast one didn't go on the day we wanted. I couldn't work out why the slow train was so much slower until ...

* we got to the Mongol exit point at Sukh Baatar at about 0400 ... and waited till 0900 for exit formalities to begin
* then about 1100 before we chugged forward for 20 minutes to Naushki on the Russian side
* then began our entry formalities
* then waited till 1620 before continuing our journey. Everything was like clock-work but with long stops.

Hence we sat at the border all day! About a third of the entire journey time! Toilets were locked and we had to resort to station toilets which were disgusting on the Russian side.large_5550_11661276657972.jpgOn the train in the four-bunk second class cabin. Cosy and friendly atmosphere.

Most interesting thing about the border crossing was the smuggling. Lots of people carry goods which they hide (eg. wear several layers of new shirts, stuff hidden in ceiling panels)

We were offered a pair of plastic sandals (worth $1 perhaps) to safe-keep for the crossing ... promptly retrieved after the crossing. I guess they must have had a big bag of them. And the conductors take a supporting role in hiding these goods for the passengers (for a fee presumably).

I think we mentioned that we booked 2nd class for this leg, ie. a cabin of 4 people. We shared this with Liz and Sarah, Australian and Canadian (respectively) who have just completed a couple of years teaching in Japan. Liz's Mum is from Kuching!

Had lots of fun with our companions - eating, chatting, drinking etc. The scenery changed from arid grassland to forests and lakes. We even saw a frozen lake as we approached Irkutsk.

This train didn't have a dining car so it was very much indoor picnics with cup noodles, bread, ham and cheese. Lots of tea. Very enjoyable actually.

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Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Town and country


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large_5550_11661277104336.jpgDowntown Ulaanbaatar's main square.
Please note that links to external sites were correct when this blog was written. However, they may no longer be valid.

Entry into Mongolia was a breeze except that it was about 1am. I had been worried about not having a visa ... officially

visa free for me but as always, one is at the mercy of the official who can sometimes be ignorant or corrupt.

We spent our first night in Mongolia in a ger [http://www.meridianmagazine.com/articles/images/4ger.jpg](or traditional nomadic tent) at the Terelj National Park 80km outside Ulaan Baatar. In the outdoors, it was hot when the sun was shining but cold otherwise. The nights were freezing but we had the family's daughter creep into our tent every few hours to stoke the fire .large_5550_11661277145350.jpgIt was graduation season. Many children dress up to have their photos taken with family. .. what a job, as there were quite a few tents for her to do ... she must have stayed up all night.

Mongolia is an odd blend of China and Russia. People, traditional buildings (eg. temples) and traditional dress, musical instruments appear Chinese. Most other buildings, being newer look Russian ... you'd be excused for thinking you're in Russia when standing in the main square [http://www.travelogues.net/Trans_Siberian/images/Ulaan_Baatar/executive_building.jpg].

The history is equally odd ... a case of out of the pot into the fire. They escaped Manchu-Chinese rule to become under Russian influence. An influence so strong that they abandoned their traditional writing script for Cyrillic. To compare Mongolia and Tibet .large_5550_11661277203684.jpgGers at Terelj National Park... Tibet appears more Tibetan than Mongolia is Mongolian.

Mongolia is cheap, like China ... I saw chewing gum being sold by the pellet out of a normal package. Our guide (for a few hours), called Alma, earns USD80 per month and cannot afford to buy her own apartment which may cost USD16,000 for a one-bedroom with kitchen. I thought she was Mongolian as she looked pretty Chinese, but was in fact Kazakh (Cossack), part of a small Muslim minority.

Like many undeveloped or developing countries, Mongolia imports used cars from Japan (and Korea). But they drive on the US/Europe side rather than the UK side. Which means they have RHD and LHD vehicles on the same road. Ignoring the safety aspects, I think this shouldn't be allowed ... they are competing with New Zealand for used cars from Japan, making it more expensive for us!

Ulaan Baatar is home to a few interesting museums including one with rebuilt skeletons of dinosaurs and pre-historic mammals.large_5550_11661277254888.jpgGers at Terelj National Park.Also had fossils and bones from things 100 million years old. We also attended a cultural evening where we were entertained with throat-singing ... where singing is done using deeply generated voices, ranging from guttral to high-pitched. The contortionists were amazing ... I think Cirque de Soleil should recruit from here rather than China so they can lower their ticket prices.

Ulaan Baatar is modernising ... the first American eating chain opened the day we arrived ... not Starbucks, Subway or McDonalds ... but a brand called "Mongolian BBQ". Like selling ice to eskimos. It has some catching up to do in many ways though ... the greatest hazard to us is the lost manhole covers on the side walks and in the middle of the roads. I've seen on TV before that streetkids live under the streets ... maybe they're technically sub-streetkids?

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Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Train from to Ulaanbaatar


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large_5550_11661276328142.jpgFirst class from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar. The door on the right opens into the shower shared with the next cabin.
We boarded our Chinese train to Ulaanbaatar ... a journey of 30 hours across 1356 km. Spotted the Great Wall outside Beijing but the scenery soon turned dusty brownish-green ... the steppes in dry weather and Gobi Desert. We had a nice 2-berth cabin with a shared shower with the next cabin ... but one toilet per carriage.

Our neighbours were mainly retireees and train-spotters (some were both but we are neither). Exception was our immediate neighbour who were honeymooners, hardly leaving their cabin! The highlight for train-spotters and us as well, was the bogey change at Erlian [Erlian-travel-guide-1310116] at the Chinese-Mongol border.

The bogey change is due to the two countries using different track width. A highly mechanised process ... the carriages are uncoupled and lifted slowly off the Chinese bogeys (don't even feel the lifting motion). The Mongol ones are slid under and the carriages are lowered back down. All this happens with the passengers on board but the toilets locked to ensure we do not ... er, soil the workers and the workshop floor.

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Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in China Comments (0)

Imperial Capital


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large_5550_11661276132430.jpgKim near the entrance to the Forbidden City.
From Osaka, we flew to Beijing [Beijing-travel-guide-208144] which we last visited in 1998. We repeated the Forbidden City to realise that on our previous guided day-tour we saw only a fraction of it. This time we covered the western side, which had many apartments ... that wore us out and we will have to visit the eastern side on our third visit next time!

New sights for us were the Drum Tower (we witnessed an ancient time-keeping ritual using large drums, revived for tourism) and the Lama Temple (Tibet minus altitude sickness).

Something more interesting was the Mousie Dung (excuse spelling) mausoleum ... we saw his body but the highlight was the loyal people buying plastic bouquets to put in front of him. The bouquets get collected at the close of the day to be re-sold the next! I wish I could find a business proposition like that!

In the last 7 years, Starbucks and McDonalds have invaded seemingly every corner. Starbucks here is more expensive than in Osaka or Auckland (so I still have never tried it). A cup of coffee there can cost more than twice a well-made copy-watch.

The weather in Beijing is bone-dry ... to the extent that one taxi driver used a half-gnawed pineapple as air-freshener by leaving it under the rear windscreen. In most places it would turn a sickly putrid alchoholy smell!

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Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in China Comments (0)

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