April 19, 2007

Spring Time in the Gobi Dessert

Snowy GerULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA - I'm having a lot of trouble thinking of something to write here. It's funny 'cause the last 6 days will probably be among the most memorable of this entire trip. I'd never really dreamed of visiting Mongolia, it just sort of ended up along the path toward Europe.

In the last 6-days we drove 50 hours, none of it on anything that even resembled a road, through one of the most remote regions of the world. Effectively we did a giant loop through the most sparsely populated region of the most sparsely populated country on the planet.

We slept in gers (traditional felt yurts), we cooked and warmed ourselves with animal dung to fuel our fires (wood is in short supply), we ate nothing but noodles, mutton, camel, goat and maybe horse and drank milk from every one of those animals. At one point we even got drunk from a special bootleg they called 'Camel Vodka' - some kind of fermented camel milk - while performing an elaborate ritual to honour their hero, and the most famous Mongolian: Chinngis (Ghengis Khan).

We were whipped by sand storms and worried about heat exhaustion one moment, then bogged down in a metre of snow the next. We helped nomads milk their goats, rode camels and refueled in tiny forgotten specks of Soviet civilization littered with rusted out tanks, crumbling buildings and bleached animal skulls. For six days we didn't see another Westerner.

In other news, I survived my first ever attempted mugging last night. It's a classic story of two of us walking home from a pub and choosing a darkened, out-of-the-spotlight alley as a shortcut. Two guys approached us (there were two of us) from behind. I was on to them right away, their initial friendliness was transparent and to make a long story short, there was some threats - 'Give me your money' and 'I kill you, I kill you' type stuff. The main problem with the heist was that they were only pretending to brandish a knife. The lead crook was pretending to stab at us. After some feeble attempts at diplomacy, both parties resorted to grabbing, pushing and pulling until Fredrik (my trusty Swedish sidekick) and I broke free and fled into the main square for the protective hustle and bustle of the city. In the end we were left with some pounding hearts, a heavy dose of adrenalin and some stretched out, mis-shappen t-shirts.

I've just booked a train ticket to Siberia ($32 USD for a Hard-Sleeper, 2-days). Irkutsk to be exact...

April 12, 2007

Ulaanbataar - The Coldest Capital on The Planet

ULAANBATAAR, MONGOLIA - The oppressive pollution of China is fading away to a distant memory as I've really started to move again.

I've just rolled into, Ulaanbataar, the capital city of Mongolia via the Trans-Mongolian railway and already and have already experienced, snow, rain, and sunshine. As I speak the skies are blue and the mercury has risen high enough to be comfortable outside in a t-shirt. 4-seasons in a single day; actually 4 seasons in a couple hours.

People don't come to Mongolia for the cities - They are ugly and dirty - they come for the rugged wilderness that defines this place. Ulaanbataar really has a middle-of-nowhere feel to it.

We've put together a crowd of 5 intrepid travellers and are leaving tomorrow (with a car and driver) for a 6-day journey into the heart of the Gobi Dessert. Because it is spring here (the unpredictable season) I'm told to prepare for sand storms, snow storms and even intense heat and sun exposure. We will be bringing along extra water and blankets but will spend our time eating mutton, drinking fermented yaks milk and warming ourselves by 'cow-patty' fires (there is no wood).

For a more detailed description of what my rail ride has been like have a read here. It's similar to my experience except I shared a 4-berth cabin with other backpackers and maybe drank a little too much before crossing the Mongolian-Chinese border, which sprang up unexpectedly at 1am.

I should be back here in 6-days or so with some stories... I hope.