I just changed hotels. (The first one was booked for me by the company who booked the train. It was a big, annoymous 4 star in not a very good location and I was only booked in for 3 nights). The new one was recommended by an English guy and is adorable!! It is a hostel (so at least half the price of the 4 star), it is in a hutong (one of the old residential districts of Beijing - all courtyards and alleyways), it's got loads of atmosphere, a kind, helpful, English speaking proprieter (sorry - no dictionary), good coffee, cheap beer AND FREE INTERNET!!! What could possibly be better!
Anyway, back to the blog and Ulan Baatar - all old news now, I'm a week behind...
I was met at 0615 on the freezing station by my lovely, English-speaking Mongolian guide, who went by the name of Ocean (short for Ocean of Knowledge - his Mongolian name. Mongolian parents are obviously not short on parental aspiration, maybe I should have given more care to the choice of my children's names, who knows where they might be now! Anyway, Ocean had his sights firmly set on a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge). I was then whisked off to a beautiful, wild, rugged, mountainous National Park (called Terejl) about an hour and a half away for a 2 night stay in a ger. A ger or yurt is a round tent, made of felt and is the traditional home of nomadic families. It was quite big and had 4 beds placed around the walls and a wood-burning stove in the middle It was unbelievably cold and snowy. Venturing out of the ger, (for the toilet and such like), I felt like Scott of the Antartic, without the blizzards (or penguins!). I was on my own in the ger (in fact I think I was the only person there at all, apart from staff, who do the food and supply the wood for the stove). I was, therefore, solely responsible for keeping the stove going. So, if not out, I would sit in my coat and keep the monster fed - it must have devoured several trees in the time that I was there. Staff came in during the night to top it up. which meant switching on a very dodgy electric light which then proceeded to turn itself on and off randomly all night. So I was looking very haggard by the end of the second night and thinking wistfully of springtime in Shanghai! I am not sure which is worse - the grossly over-heated hotels and train or life in the freezer
During my time there, Ocean took me to see a Meditation Temple on the side of a mountain, which involved (for me) and pretty strenuous climb but there were wonderful views and the temple was highly decorated and surrounded by prayer wheels. There seems to be a strong Tibetan influence in Mongolia. All very quiet, peaceful and remote.
The next day, with clear, blue skies and bright sunshine, we went on horseback to visit a nomadic family in their ger - which was considerably warmer than mine and really very snug and cozy. The intrepid matriach of the family lead the horse upon which I was precariously balanced over the rough and icy terrain between my ger and hers, not exactly wearing stillettoes, but certainly heels! When we got there we were offered some weak, milky and slightly salty tea and some rather tough cooked pastry - all rather strange but edible. The family were very friendly and welcoming and did not give one the feeling that one was intruding (which I had been quite concerned about). They also had an adorable 2 month old baby. Three generations lived in the ger and in a wooden hut that was close by. They had 20 horses, but I'm not sure how this enabled them to earn a living. After our return, Ocean and I had a go at archery in the snow, but it was too cold to get seriously involved with that. The food was good and loads of it, with a distinctively Chinese flavour - stir fries, steamed dumplings and delicioius soups made with little cubes of mutton and vegetables in a thickish, whiteish broth.
We returned to Ulan Baatar on the Wednesday morning, going via a gigantic statue of Chinggis (or Gengis) Khan which soars out of the surrounding Mongolian plain like a towering, silver, shimmering apparition on a vast, round plinth, inside which are conference centres, restaurants and shops. It dwarfs everything around it and is reputed to be the biggest statue of its kind in the world. It is an object of great pride and inspiration for the Mongolians, who have been sorely oppressed since the time of the great Chinggis - he is celebrated everywhere!
There then followed a frantic scramble to see the sights - monastaries, museums and shops - of U.B. before finishing the day with an amazing evening of traditional Mongolian singing, dancing, contortion and music. The Mongolians have a form of singing called 'throat singing', where their voices are made to sound like musical instruments. It is quite extraordinary, like nothing I've ever heard before and, I would imagine, very difficult to do.
Up at 6 again the next morning and with the temperature at -18C, headed off on the last leg to Beijing. This time I shared the compartment with a very nice German couple (who own a hotel near Munich and needed help with the English version of their menu!!) and a Korean/Norwegian guy. All spoke excellent English! Went to the very ornate restaurant car for lunch and met, of all people, Bob (the Canadian from St Petersburg!!), also the people I had been sharing with on the 2nd leg of the journey - it was all a bit like a family reunion of distant relatives! We spentmost of the day crossing the brown and featureless Gobi desert - THE place from my childhood which seemed to encapsulate the impossibly remote - 1000 km of emptiness and, for the first time in 3 weeks, snowlessness! I was pretty snowed-out by this time and starting to get pretty trained-out as well. There was another 6 hour drama at the Mongolian/hinese border, this time involving the changing of the 'boogies' - wheels(?) - on the train because the rail gauge in China is narrower, so this time we, at least had something to watch. The carriages are all seperated and each one is lifted up, using hydraulic lifts, with all of us on board, the old undercarrige is removed and replaced by the new one. The carriages or then lowered andwith much noise andshunting backwards and forwards, the carriages are reconnected and off we went.
We arrived on Beijing at about 2 last Friday afternoon and as I am nearly up to date, will sign off and continue later.