A Travellerspoint blog

A Brief Stopover in Jakarta


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14 July 2017
Jakarta, Indonesia
Country 73

I had an early morning layover in Kuala Lumpur, which gave me enough time to grab a bite to each for breakfast before heading to the gate for my final flight to Jakarta. I slept on the short flight and we arrived into Jakarta in the late afternoon.

I had arranged to stay at a hotel at the airport since my time in Jakarta was limited: it was affordable, convenient, and there was a bus into the city that ran quite frequently (and it was cheap!). I wandered through the terminal, trying to figure out how to reach my hotel, which was in a different terminal. A guy came up to offer help, but in reality he was trying to sell me a taxi ride: he claimed the terminal was 4km away with no easy way to get there. I declined his help and found the free terminal shuttle that took me where I needed to go.

The hotel was nice, but very simple: I had a room with a bathroom and a TV, but no window. It was fine for my basic needs and I was glad of the privacy after sharing a room during my travels over the past few months. I spent the afternoon relaxing in my room and unwinding after the long night of travel; I watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on TV and had dinner at an A&W fast food place at the airport.

The terminal had dozens of fast food places scattered along the outside; many of them were local places, with a few Western/American places included as well. I’d not been to an A&W for over 15 years and I wanted a root beer float; in that, I was not disappointed. I went to bed and slept quite well that night, thankful for the air-conditioning in the hotel.

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15 July 2017
Jakarta, Indonesia

I decided to sleep in the morning – something I’ve not had the luxury of doing for quite some time. I’ve been regularly going to sleep around 01:00 most nights, so the early morning alarms were starting to wear on me.

I went out to the airport terminal to catch the bus into the city center. The terminal was rather chaotic, but thankfully two workers were kind enough to help me locate the bus. They had me wait with them and, as the bus was approaching, they flagged it down to stop for me; I was very grateful for their help.

The bus took roughly 40 minutes to reach the Gambir train station, located in the heart of Jakarta. The ride into the city highlighted the extreme income differences and poverty that was present throughout the city: slums and shanty towns were located right next to newly built high-rises.

I set off to walk about the city and explore some; there was not much in the way of tourist attractions in Jakarta, but that didn’t deter me from going out to see the city itself. The Gambir station is located right next to the National Monument park, which was entirely fenced off. I evidently took the wrong rout to reach the entrance as I had to walk almost all the way around before I found a gate that was open.

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The National Monument was a large obelisk erected in the center of a massive, open square. Surrounding the square were various smaller monuments and statues, along with large parks. I did a full circuit around the park area, taking it all in.

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I then walked over to a Starbucks to cool off and do some reading. It was a very hot and muggy day, so finding somewhere with AC was essential! I started reading a book called “The Wars for Asia” that covered the various wars happening throughout Asia from 1911 to 1949 (primarily between Japan and China).

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I eventually made my way back to the Gambir station to catch the bus back to my hotel. It was a slower paced and relaxing day of seeing Jakarta, but still very enjoyable.

16 July 2017
Jakarta, Indonesia

I again took the bus into the city this morning to spend a few hours exploring other areas. My flight to Singapore wasn’t until 20:00, so I had the entire day to kill. The hotel was kind enough to store my luggage for me, which was a massive help.

Arriving back into Gambir station, I walked in the opposite direction of where I’d gone the day before. I had spotted a large church and a mosque in that direction from the bus and thought I would go find them. The streets in Jakarta (and indeed, in all of SE Asia) are not pedestrian friendly: there are few crosswalks and when there are some, the drivers (especially on motorbikes) rarely pay any attention to them. Crossing the street is an exciting, though sometimes dangerous, endeavor.

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I made it over to the Catholic church, which was across the street from the mosque. Traffic in the area was horrendous and it was quite crowded with people owing to the fact that it was a Sunday. I stopped to snap a few photos from the outside before continuing on through the city.

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I again stopped to have some coffee and get some reading done once it became hotter in the afternoon. After spending a little bit of time cooling off and relaxing, it was time to catch the bus back to the airport so I could make my flight to Singapore. Overall, I thought Jakarta was only so-so: it was a large city without a lot of unique character or things to see/do. I was ready to move on.

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My flight got me into Singapore shortly after 23:00; I had already arranged to have the airport shuttle take me to my hostel in town, which made everything much easier once I arrived. I was quite tired and I didn’t want to spend time figuring a lot of things out.

When I arrived at the hostel, the front desk was closed, but they had provided me the access code for the front door and left an envelope with all of the information I would need. The hostel was very nice, very clean, and modern. I was in a 10-bed dormitory, which thankfully had good AC! Each bed had two large lockers assigned to it, so I was able to fit in my backpack and my larger suitcase as well. I locked everything away and crawled into bed, exhausted.

Posted by Glichez 09:45 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Naadam Fesitval: "It's Fortunate That We're Here for This"


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9 July 2017
Karakorum, Mongolia

Another long day in the vans awaited us today as we continued to make our way back to Ulaanbaatar. Our destination today was the ancient capital city of Karakorum. Once again, I was in the van with Mary, along with David, Pamela, Amy and Diana; we had Sansar as our driver.

We stopped at a small roadside restaurant for lunch, where the food was decent. By this point we were all fed up with the “mystery gray meat” that had followed us throughout the trip. Today’s meat was somewhat better and had flavoring.

We spent the majority of the day driving and our van pulled into the ger camp in the late afternoon. We sat around waiting for the other two vans and Namuun to arrive, but after nearly 30 minutes, we had seen nothing of them. Pamela noticed that Namuun had tried calling her several times and, when Pamela called her back, Nimuun was pissed off that she’d not answered (rather ironic considering that Namuun hadn’t answered her phone when Pamela was sick one night at the camel camp…). We weren’t supposed to be at the ger camp at all: we were supposed to be at the Erdene Zuu monastery (which is where she and the other two vans were). When we finally reached the monastery complex, the others had been waiting for nearly an hour!

The monastery complex quickly captivated me and the afternoon’s chaos was soon forgotten. Much of the complex had been destroyed during the communist purge in the 1930s, but a few of the Buddhist temples managed to survive. The complex was surrounded by a large, white wall and the majority of the area was an open field.

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In the three main temples, photos were only permitted with an extra fee, which I didn’t pay for. The temples contained massive statues of the Buddha: past, present, and future; as well as various depictions of the other gods and monks. We had museum guides with us in each of the temples who gave us in-depth descriptions of everything we saw.

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Next to this preserved area was a functioning part of the monastery which allowed photos to be taken. It was small, but quite fun to walk around. Inside were a few monks doing their prayer chants.

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In the large courtyard of the complex was an unassuming, small blue building that was the oldest surviving temple there.

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We left the monastery and drove a short way over to another museum, which focused on the history of Mongolia. We again had a guide with us who took us throughout the entire museum and explained a lot of Mongolian history, which I found fascinating. Most of the group didn’t participate as the museum provided free WiFi (our first Internet access in over a week!). The last room of the museum contained artifacts from a recently discovered burial tomb, which Alexandra and I both found absolutely amazing.

When we returned to the ger camp, we gathered for dinner and spent the evening relaxing. There was a collective feeling of relief as we realized that it was out last night in the gers. They had been a fun and unique way to stay around Mongolia, but a real hotel room was quite welcome by this point.

10 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

We had an early start today so we could reach Ulaanbaatar in the early afternoon: we left the ger camp by 06:00. I volunteered to ride in the gas chamber van; Alexandra sat next to me and Jeanette (from Switzerland) was also with us. The ride was long and hard, over a lot of bumpy roads. As we got closer to town, Jeanette began to get restless and unhappy; she wanted to take breaks. Once we reached Ulaanbaatar, the traffic was horrendous, but Jeanette kept trying to ask the driver questions; he spoke no English and I finally snapped at her to stop bothering him so he could drive (we were all worried that we’d end up in a crash).

Our new hotel in the city was closer to the city center and was visually much better, but the amenities were not as good as the first hotel. After checking in, the group went out for lunch at an Indian restaurant nearby. After lunch we had the rest of the day free, so I spent the afternoon getting caught up on work.

That evening, most of us went over to a bar across the street from the hotel to have some drinks and grab some food. The bar was rather nice and had a good vibe. Madeline, Kristy, Mary and I were the first to arrive.

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Later in the evening, my boss called via WhatsApp and I stepped away to take it, not realizing what was coming: the company wanted me to return to the United States right away to “fix” the problems in the department over the next four to six months. I said I would have to think about it, which seemed to shock my boss; he apparently wanted an answer right away, which I couldn’t even fathom. This news was devastating as it would ruin all of my well-planned upcoming travels.

I returned to the bar and shared the shitty news with the group, who were kind and sympathetic. Needless to say, I decided to drink a lot that night.

11 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Naadam Festival Day #1

Today was the big day: the opening ceremony of the Naadam Festival!

We drove over to the festival grounds shortly after breakfast, arriving around 09:30. The festival area was large and spread out, with numerous food stalls and stands selling various trinkets and souvenirs. Near the entrance was a covered area where groups of men were playing the traditional Mongolian knuckles game; they were making quite a bit of noise as they cheered their teammates on.

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We made our way over to the stadium where the opening ceremony would take place. Nimuun gave us our tickets and we had just over an hour to wander the grounds before the ceremony began. Mary, Madeline, Kristy, David and I did a loop around the stadium so we could take a look at the various stalls that had been setup.

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Several people were selling temporary tattoos, which they would then apply for you; we all decided to get one. Kristy and David got the Mongolian flag on her cheek; Mary got the flag in the shape of Mongolia on her arm; I got the national symbol on my neck. In postings on Facebook and Instagram, I pretended that the tattoo was real…

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Returning to the stadium, we made our way to our seats. The group’s tickets were not all together: we were scattered around the same section though. The rows were VERY narrow, leaving no space for anyone to walk by (we had to stand on our seats each time someone needed through).

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The ceremony itself began at 11:00 and lasted for just under two hours; each ceremony covers the history of Mongolia, but how it is depicted changes each year. This year began with some horse riders parading through the field before

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Then, some evil spirits showed up to give battle to the Mongolians. There was a battle of sorts before a hero rode in on his horse and fought off them off.

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Up next, it was time to fight off the Romans. A large group of Roman soldiers marches onto the field and the ensuing battle was massive and very fun to watch. The archers would run at the soldiers, who used their shields to protect themselves and launch the archers into the air. Eventually though, the Mongolians got the upper hand and defeated the Romans.

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The remaining show was a dazzling display of Mongolian culture as the groups of people would dance and sing around the field. Large floats would drive around the perimeter of the field as well. At the end, there was a long parade of different Mongolian groups. In all, it was an exciting and eventful start to the Naadam Festival!

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We hurriedly left the stadium so we could have lunch before the archery began at 13:30. Nimuun took us to one of the food stalls where we had traditional Mongolian dumplings, which were deep fried. They were actually quite tasty – far better than I had anticipated. They were flat and filled with a thing layer of meat.

After eating, we packed into the archery stadium, which was rather small and people were crowding around everywhere, standing in the aisles, etc. There were no assigned seats and people could simply come and go as they pleased (the only events with actual tickets were the wrestling and opening ceremony).

There was a quick show put on before the archery itself began: men in masks danced around the field before two warriors rode in on horseback. We weren’t quite sure what it was all supposed to represent, but it was visually quite interesting to watch.

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The archery itself was not as exciting as I had anticipated. The archery I had watched at the Rio Olympics in 2016 was great fun, but the Naadam archery lacked some of the tension. The archers stood in a long line and fired their arrows toward the targets; several archers would go at the same time and there was a lack of tension in the air. Nevertheless, it was still fun to watch first the men and then the women.

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Kristy and I soon got up and decided to go for another walk around the festival area – but first, we stopped to get some gelato, which was refreshingly cool as the temperature was quite high during the day. As we were walking about, we stumbled upon a food stall that had evidently caught fire: debris was everywhere, the authorities had it blocked off.

We eventually walked over to the knuckles arena where we met back up with the rest of the group. We were free to come and go as we pleased during the day, but Nimuun was organizing the bus to take people back to the hotel at 16:00; nearly everyone was there to catch the bus after such a long day at the festival.

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After a quick refresher at the hotel, we all went back across the street to the same bar from the night before; we had only a couple of drinks before we decided to head out to dinner. Mary had found a vegetarian restaurant nearby, but it was closed during the festival, so we settled on the restaurant next door (coincidentally, the same place Nimuun had booked for the group’s farewell dinner the following night!).

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After dinner, a few of us (Alexandra, Diana, Mary, Kristy, Michael and I) walked over to Genghis Khan Square, where a stage had been erected and a DJ had playing music. Throughout the nights of the festival, people could come to the square and party. The crowd wasn’t very big at this point, but it was still early in the evening (around 20:30). After hanging around for a few minutes, Alexandra, Michael and I walked back to the hotel to get some rest.

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12 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Naadam Festival Day #2

The second day of the Naadam Festival – and the final day of the Mongolia tour!

We were up and on the bus early this morning, leaving the hotel by 06:30 and having a packed breakfast on the bus (the breakfast was a sandwich, which I did not eat as it was rather soggy). We had a long drive out of town to reach the finish line of the horse race; the closer to the event area, the worse traffic became.

The crowd was enormous, with massive parking lots full of cars; stalls setup selling food, toys, souvenirs; people riding horses all over the place. It was pure chaos – and it was fun navigating our way through it all! A long row of small bleachers had been setup along the finish line where people could sit; directly in front of the bleachers was a line of police who kept a close watch on the crowd.

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We had a very long wait once we arrived: the race was due to finish around 09:30 (or so Nimuun claimed), but that time came and went with no sign of the riders. I was sitting next to Alexandra and we spent the time chatting quite a bit, which was really nice. As the stands began to fill up, we decided to stand and wait at the barrier so our view wouldn’t be blocked by others coming in.

As we waited, helicopters flew by overhead and several parachutists jumped out, carrying various flags beneath them. It was an unexpected treat to watch them as they glided down and landed near the finish line. At the same time, a group of horse riders were riding up and down in front of the stands doing tricks as the rode by: they would start galloping and then slide off their saddles and get into death-defying positions as they held on to their moving horses!

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Finally, a couple hours later, we spotted the horses galloping towards us on the horizon! The cars driving alongside them were turning up a lot of dust as well. The young jockeys (mostly boys, but also a few girls, from ages 7 and up) were amazing to watch as they rode their horses, with the crowd loudly cheering each one of them on, regardless of what place in the race they were in.

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Once the race was over, we walked back to bus and began the very long drive back to town. The drive itself was compounded by the fact that everyone was leaving the horse racing grounds at the same time, so the drive took us several hours (during which I thankfully napped).

Arriving back into town, we were dropped off back at the Naadam Festival grounds. The afternoon’s plan centered around watching the wrestling, which is the primary sport in Mongolia. The wrestling was held in the same stadium as the opening ceremony. We had barely enough time to grab a quick lunch (the same dumplings from the previous day) before it was time to head into the stadium.

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Photo credit: Diana Berrent - Diana Berrent Photography

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Alexandra, Diana, and me
Photo credit: Diana Berrent - Diana Berrent Photography

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It took some time for the wrestling to begin in earnest. Before the match began there was a long ceremony that included singing, along with the wrestlers doing the Eagle Dance on the field. The afternoon round began with the Round 5 (out of a total of 9 rounds) and one of the wrestlers from our camp was going to be wrestling! Each wrestler must win the previous round to advance.

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All of the wrestling matches began at the same time and the wrestlers competed until their opponent was defeated, which could take some time. After each wrestler won, he would do a lap around a ceremonial banner in the center of the field and do the Eagle Dance. The banner was watched over constantly by an honor guard that was changed on the hour (the changing ceremony was small, but the guards would goose-step on and off of the field).

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At the end of each round, there was a long break and some awards were handed out to the winners of the other sports, such as the ankle bone games, archery, and horse racing. Between Round 5 and Round 6, one wrestler who had lost in Round 5 began to contest the results. He walked around on the field, trying to get the crowd to cheer for him in an effort to reverse the judges’ decision. At one point, it appeared that the decision had been reversed, which angered many in the crowd; people around us began to throw their bottles of water or soda onto the field. Ultimately, the decision was not reversed, but it took quite a long time for the wrestler to finally leave the field and allow the competition to continue.

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After Round 6 we waited a long time for Round 7 to begin, but the awards ceremony for the horse racing was seemingly endless. Nimuun had made dinner reservations for us that evening at 19:30, so we had to give up waiting so we could make it to dinner on time. We later learned that our wrestler was eliminated in Round 7.

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The farewell dinner was quite nice. Our small group all sat together (Mary, Kristy, Madeline, David, Alexandra, and me); it was nice to get to spend the final evening all together. We had one of the waiters that a group photo of the entire group as well.

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Once dinner was over, several of us (Mary, Kristy, Madeline, David, Alexandra, Pamela, Aimee, Diana and me) decided to go to a nearby rooftop bar for a few final drinks. Aimee had been talking to a local guy, who she’d met at the archery camp, and he joined us as well. We spent a couple of hours sitting around, drinking, chatting; the bar had a live band performing cover songs and the view from the top overlooking the city was stunning.

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It was sad to have to say goodbye to everyone; the tour had flown by and I’d made some great new friends (which is one of the best parts about traveling the world). I eventually crawl into bed that night shortly before 01:00.

13 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

My final day in Mongolia began quite early as David was up around 03:30 to catch his ride to the airport. I’d asked him to wake me when he left so I could say goodbye, which he did and I was happy to be able to wish him well.

In the morning, I met up with a local Mongolian guy that I had been chatting with (via an app) for several days; he’d been out in the desert with friends for the past few days, but he’d taken an overnight train back to the city. His English was very good; even though he thought it was terrible, I could understand everything he said. He’s a teacher in the city and he explained a lot about the various foreign teaching programs that send educators to Mongolia, primarily from the US, Canada and the UK. We hung out for a little while, until it was time for me to go meet up with Mary, Kristy and Diana for lunch. I was sad to have to say goodbye to him: it was clear that it wasn’t easy for him to be gay, living in Mongolia; I felt sad for him.

Mary, Kristy, Diana and I were the only people left in the city this afternoon as everyone else had caught early flights (or they weren’t part of our smaller group). Diana and I planned to walk to the Pyongyang Restaurant, a North Korean place in the city, but she wasn’t feeling well, so I made a quick walk over. It was interesting, but nothing special (aside from the fact that it was North Korean – Tong Il!).

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The four of us met up at the vegetarian place that Mary had found (the one that was closed a few days earlier). It was highly rated and very popular with foreigners. I ordered French Toast, something I had mentioned only days before as having been craving. I was not disappointed: the French Toast was to die for; everyone tried a bite and agreed that it was surprisingly good. It was great getting to spend one final meal together. I was especially going to miss Mary – my van buddy! I really felt a strong connection with her throughout the trip; she brought such a positive, energetic, spontaneous, and fun vibe to the group.

After lunch it was time for the final goodbyes. Diana and I headed back to the hotel together as we were going to share the shuttle ride to the airport. We were each flying through Beijing, but on flights 30 minutes apart. My layover was six hours, but Diana’s was a brutal all-night layover; we made plans to meet up in the Beijing airport so we could have dinner.

Arriving in Beijing, I made my way to the passport control as I needed to reclaim my bag and recheck-in for my next flight (I’d booked two one-way tickets: Mongolia to China and then China to Indonesia). Thankfully, China provided a 72-hour visa-free entry, which was quick and easy to get processed. Once I was through baggage claim, my return to Hell… China... began.

I was quickly reminded why I disliked the country so much: the people were rude and obnoxious. I was trying to get into an elevator, but people got on and stood right at the front, refusing to move back and make room for others. No one there knows how to queue to save their lives. I walked right over to my check-in counter and waited a few hours for it to finally open. I had to change terminals, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to meet up with Diana as planned, which was disappointing (I sent her a message on Facebook to let her know). While I was waiting, a massive storm came through, with pouring rain and an amazing amount of lightning – I loved it!!

The storm only delayed my flight a little bit. Once I was on board, I fell fast asleep…

Posted by Glichez 07:13 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Auto-Erotic Asphyxiation in the Great WC


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Before I begin this entry, a huge thank you to Mary Penticoff for providing the title for this blog entry. She was the best companion on the long, bumpy, dusty, gas-filled days driving through the Gobi!

3 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Today began our week-long trek out to the Gobi Desert. We left our large tour bus behind and switched to three Soviet-era vans that could hold six people each (plus the driver). The vans were built for off-road driving as there were very few, if any, paved roads where we would be going. We all referred to the vans as motorized refrigerators.

Mary, Kristy, Madeline, David and me all climbed into one van, with Nimuun joining us as well. Diana also joined us. The van itself was the best of the three, with leopard-print seat covers and quilted padding along the sides and roof; it was also the only van with seat-belts.

Our drive lasted roughly five hours, heading south from Ulaanbaatar. The roads were quite bumpy and our driver, Sansar, drove the fastest of all the vans; there were many times where we were thrown around in the back as we bounced over the rocky, dirt roads. It was an exciting and fun ride.

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We arrived at our destination, Baga Gazriin Chuluu, in the early afternoon. This was a rocky area with many large outcroppings that we could climb and walk around on. There was a small cave nearby where two monks hid during the Great Purge in the 1930s (though they were soon discovered and executed).

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The sky in this area was a brilliant and vibrant blue; the clouds in the sky were absolutely perfect. It truly embodied the notion of Mongolia being the Land of Never Ending Sky.

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We then drove over to the ruins of the monastery where the monks had been living and working. It wasn’t a traditional monastery, but a place where the learned monks would translate documents from Tibetan into Mongolian. All that remains now are some old walls with trees growing throughout the area.

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We returned to our new ger camp for the evening.

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4 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Another long day in the vans as we drove another six hours or so. We were forced to change up the vans and seating arrangement, though thankfully I was sharing the new van with Mary. The new van was the oldest of the three (it often had trouble getting started) and the driver spoke almost no English, but he had a great personality and would sing along to the Mongolian music he played. The van was far bumpier than the first one, but it added to the excitement of the ride. Mary was able to curl on the seat next to me to sleep during much of the ride and I managed to sneak in a nap as well.

We arrived at the ger camp, where we stopped to drop off our things and then have lunch. Climbing back into our vans, we drove on to our sightseeing stop for the day: Tsagaan Suvarga. This was a beautiful cliff that seemed to rise out of the middle of the desert; the cliff faces were a brilliant shade of yellow. We first drove to the top of the cliffs which afforded some amazing views over the Mongolian landscape. Each day I was blown away by the beauty of this country: even though we were in the desert and the landscape variety was limited, it was still beautiful.

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David had an American flag scarf that his American girlfriend had given him and, as it was the Fourth of July, we Americans stopped for some photos with it atop the cliffs.

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Driving down to the base of the cliffs, we were given 30 minutes to walk around and explore. I joined Alexandra as we strolled along the base of the cliffs; Mary had sprinted on ahead of everyone, like a true hiker. We climbed up and down the various hills and were continuously amazed by the cliffs; their yellow color was so vibrant, especially with the stunningly blue skies.

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That night at the ger camp passed as all the others had done: dinner and drinks. I spent some time reading and getting caught up on this blog (which I was woefully behind on). As I sat outside my ger enjoying the cool evening air, Mary came and showed me a fantastic app on her phone that identified the stars and planets in the night sky. We regaled one another with funny stories about using “bush toilets” on previous trips. As she described it, we were in the “Great WC” of the world – meaning, everywhere we looked was a WC (water closet – toilet).

5 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

An early start today as we left camp by 07:00 so we could fit in enough time at our sights today. I was the first to the vans this morning and managed to get the five of us (Mary, Madeline, Kristy, David, and me) all into the same van that I’d been in the day before. We’d hope to ride in the same van every day and I think Nimuun didn’t mind letting us be together (we’d have more fun together than separated).

The day was cloudy and rather cold, but the van’s windows were held open by old electrical wire, so the cold air was rushing in as we drove along, making us all quite chilly. We managed to untie the wires and close the windows to warm up, while Madeline and Kristy huddled together under one of the sleeping bags in the back.

What we didn’t realize was that the windows provided much needed fresh air and ventilation for the van; the engine was between the driver and passenger seats, with a hatch inside the van providing access to it and two vents shooting heat from the engine into the van itself. Soon the van began to small of exhaust fumes and we had to open the windows up again. Mary slyly commented that the experience gave new meaning to auto-erotic asphyxiation, which gave us all a hearty laugh.

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We arrived at the Vulture Canyon and enjoyed a picnic lunch, which I was delighted to find out was tsiu van. After eating, the group set off for our two-hour hike through the canyon. I spent the first half of the hike walking with Susan and talking US politics (a recurring topic of the tour group). We crossed and re-crossed a small creek numerous times as we hiked along the path, deeper and deeper into the canyon itself. The mountains surrounding us were jagged and rocky; each turn brought a new and breathtaking view.

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We reached the top of a small waterfall, which is where the path ended. Some people climbed down the waterfall while the rest of us relaxed before turning around to head back. The weather had warmed up and the sun had finally come out. Once we were back at the vans, we drove off to our new ger camp.

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This ger camp was quite modern and was definitely tied for the nicest one so far (along with the first ger camp). The gers were clean, with power outlets, tables; the restaurant was large and cool; they even offered massages (which Diana was quite excited about!). There were two nice gazebos providing some shelter from the sun; I sat in one and did some reading, enjoying the cool breeze.

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Dinner was early that evening so we could head out to the Flaming Cliffs for sunset. The cliffs themselves were discovered in the 1920s by an American archaeologist who had also discovered the first dinosaur eggs nearby. We first drove to the top of the cliffs, where we spent around 45 minutes hiking around them.

The views were the best that we’ve had thus far on the trip: the cliffs rose out of the middle of the desert and were a bright red color. Hiking around the cliffs allowed us to look out over the desert for miles and miles. A storm was brewing in the distance, which we had to outrun on our way back to camp (though we still had plenty of time to enjoy the cliffs). I spent the time walking around the Pamela as we carefully trod the gravel pathways.

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On our way back to camp, we stopped further away from the cliffs as the sun started to go down. The red in the cliffs was so vibrant and stunning, one could easily understand where the name “Flaming Cliffs” came from. As we raced back to camp, we were able to watch the awesome sunset from the van. The sky was aflame with reds, oranges, and blues. All of us in the van simply sat and stared at the sky during the drive.

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Returning to camp, I spent the evening in the ger working on the blog. While I was sitting in my ger talking to Ron, who was sharing the ger with David and me, our driver from that day randomly walked into our ger. Ron and I were caught off guard and we couldn’t communicate with him as he spoke no English. He smiled, said hello and looked around; we thought he might be drunk and confused about which get he was sleeping in that night. He eventually left. A little bit later, when Ron left to have a shower, the driver came back into the ger! He motioned me sleeping, which I took to ask if I was going to bed. He came around to where I was working on my blog to see what I was doing, then said “Facebook?” and I nodded yes, that I had Facebook and this would get posted there when I had WiFi. He wanted to connect on Facebook, so I had him write his name down so I could find him once we were back to WiFi. He sat there for a minute or two before getting up to leave. It was a strange interaction.

6 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

This morning our small group (Mary, Kristy, Madeline, David, and me) all managed to get placed in Sansar’s van – the one we had ridden in on our first day with the vans. It was by far the most comfortable of the vans and we were excited to have it once again. We had another long and very bumpy drive through the Gobi region to reach the sand dunes today.

We arrived to our ger camp in the early afternoon and were very happy with the camp: it was the most modern of the camps thus far. All of our gers had ensuite bathrooms, which was the main highlight. The camp had only opened two days prior to our arrival, so everything was very clean and new. There were some small issues here and there that needed fixing, but overall it was quite nice. The lunch was rather disappointing for me though: tuna salad as a starter, followed by mushroom soup – two foods that I greatly disliked. The main dish was good though: rice with meat.

It was extremely hot this day and we spent a few hours at the ger camp after lunch, waiting for the day to cool off a bit, before heading over to the sand dunes. The dunes were massive and stretched for over 150km; they were nestled at the base of a string of mountains and looked as though a dump truck had simply dropped the sand there.

Arriving at the dunes, we were given roughly two hours to walk around and attempt to climb to the top (if we wanted). Nimuun said the record for climbing to the top of the largest dune was 45 minutes and we all bet that Mary could best that record. She took off her sandals and headed up the dune. We all eagerly watcher her climbing and she managed to reach the top within 25 minutes!

The sand on the dunes was scorching and most of us couldn’t walk barefoot on the sand. A small group of us climbed up to a small ridge at the base of the large dune to snap some photos. The countryside and the dunes themselves were so beautiful and breathtaking.

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I decided to climb up a little higher and set off on my own. I’d set a goal for myself and just kept climbing higher and higher. David set off to follow me and together we set off in an effort to reach the top of the dune. I had to call it off soon after that, as the dune became steeper and I was unable to really dig my feet into the sand; my fear of heights kicked in (just like it did in Namibia).

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I met up with Kristy further down the dune and we crossed over to another ridge and walked back over to the vans, where we congratulated Mary on her achievement.

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Back at the ger camp, we sat around playing cards after dinner. I taught our small group how to play Cabo and everyone seemed to enjoy it (we played it for several hours). I finally crawled into bed around midnight.

7 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Last night, both Pamela and Alexandra got quite ill and apparently Nimuun couldn’t be reached during the night. We found out that she hadn’t even stayed in the camp that night: she’d left to arrange our camel rights for today and ended up staying at the camel ger camp. It later came out that she had been drinking a lot of vodka with the family during the night. When she returned to camp, she expressed very little concern over the two who were sick and told many lies to help cover up what happened.

When we all met up to leave for the camel rides, Nimuun was in a very poor mood and was downright rude to everyone – it was a stark different to her usually bubbly and friendly persona. She even commented that it was a free day and that she didn’t need to be happy. We were all unhappy with her attitude.

At the camel ger, we were split into two groups as there were only seven camels available; I was in the second group with Mary, Kristy, Amy, Madeline, and Carmen. David was in the first group and we asked Nimuun if he could switch, but she wouldn’t allow it. We waited at the ger camp while the first group went out, sitting around in a gazebo chatting during the 90-minute wait.

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Photo credit: Kristy Carstairs

I was less than enthusiastic about the camel ride. All of the camels had two humps and were walked along a path, single-file, with the guide pulling the reins of the lead camel. I was put on the lead camel and thankfully didn’t fall off when the camel stood up. We were each given the rope holding the camel behind us; it was our job not to drop the rope as they kept the camels in line. They didn’t have a proper saddle on the camel and within minutes I was getting sore and uncomfortable.

We walked for roughly 45 minutes over to the base of the sand dunes, where we stopped for a quick round of pictures before heading back. By this point my ass and thighs were very sore and I was eager to get off the damn camel. When we were nearly at the camp, we ran into another group of camel riders. The guides stopped and, for reasons unknown, switched around some of the camels. My camel got tired of standing and decided to sit down unexpectedly. It was startling, but I didn’t call off (huzzah!).

When we arrived back to the camel ger camp, my camel refused to sit down so I could dismount. It took two of the guides some time to get the camel to finally sit. When I got off, my legs were a little wobbly, but I was glad the ride was over. The collective opinion was that the ride was just so-so: not what any of us had expected and overall somewhat dull.

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We had the rest of the day to relax at the ger camp. I spent my time reading mostly; I wanted to finish my current book so I could find and start a book about Vietnam before I go there later this year.

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8 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Today was our longest drive in the vans yet and Nimuun once again designated which one we would be sitting in. Mary and I were again in the same van, along with David, Susan and Diana. We were the gas chamber van again, which I didn’t mind. It wasn’t the most comfortable van, but I didn’t hate it the way the others did. We were pleased to hear that Alexandra and Pamela were feeling much better this morning after a day of rest and recovery. Mary was not feeling well though; she spent much of the day curled up in the van sleeping.

We stopped for a short break in a small village where there were some mini-markets. I bought some snacks, but had to throw away the majority of them: the Coke was very hot and undrinkable; the Twix bars had melted to the point that the chocolate tasted funky; and the second ice cream I bought was definitely not vanilla (I’m not sure what it was, but it was salty and tasted awful).

We drove for another hour or so before stopping atop a small hill for a picnic lunch. This was, for me, the worst meal of the trip so far. It was basically a repeat of the meal we’d had at the wrestling camp, but the meat did not look appetizing whatsoever (it was what we’d come to fondly call “mysterious gray meat” and was still on the bone). I ate the tomatoes and one of the potatoes before I gave up.

Back in the van, I ate some of the Pringles that I had left over from a prior shopping trip. Mary then pulled out some Oreos and a jar of creamy peanut butter and offered them to me. We’d been talking of the peanut butter and Oreo treat for days and I was so happy to finally get to try it. Amazing. Absolutely amazing! I had several of the Oreos and put a generous amount of peanut butter on each one. Best snack of the trip.

Our ger camp, like most of them, was in the middle of nowhere, but we were all overjoyed to finally arrive and get out of the vans. The drive had been roughly eight hours and was the dustiest day yet; a thick layer of sand and dust coated everything. The bathrooms at this ger camp where the best of the entire trip: clean and ultra-modern.

Many of us met up on a large covered patio next to the restaurant to have drinks and play cards. Over the next several hours, we played round after round of Cabo and drank beer. It was a much needed way to relax and unwind after the long day.

After dinner we took a short hike over to the ruins of a monastery, which had been destroyed during the Great Purge in the 1930s. The crumbling remains of walls could be seen all around and over a few small buildings still stood. We were given time to hike around and take pictures. The sun was setting and the moon was huge on the horizon.

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Once we reached camp, I took a shower to wash off all of the sand and then crawled into bed.

Posted by Glichez 07:54 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Ulaanbaatar and the Naadam Training Camps


View World Tour 2017-2018 on Glichez's travel map.

28 June 2017
Vladivostok, Russia – Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Big travel day for me today: off to Mongolia!

My exposure to anything Mongolian thus far has been confined to a rather funny bit from South Park. I was anxious to arrive and experience the country!

I was up early so I could check-out and get back to the train station: there was a train leaving at 09:01 for the airport (the airport trains run infrequently and this was the best option for my flight later in the afternoon). The train itself was rather crowded and took about 50-minutes to reach the airport; the airport station was right next to the terminal, which was fantastic.

I had several hours to waste at the airport, so I spent the time watching Mad Men and then grabbing a bite to eat. I stopped at a tiny food stall and had a delicious schawarma for lunch, which was surprisingly good. Check-in was easy and getting back through passport control was the easiest time I’ve had yet in Russia.

I was flying Korean Air from Vladivostok to Seoul, and then from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar. The flight to Seoul literally flew all the way around North Korea, which I found rather amusing. The flight, while lasting about two hours, provided in-flight entertainment and a meal! The meal was shockingly fish, which I had never seen served on an airplane before; I was grateful that it didn’t make the entire place smell.

My layover in Seoul was just under three hours, providing enough time to grab a bite for dinner. The airport was massive and ultra-modern. There was a live orchestral quartet playing music in the airport; they played a melody from “La La Land” which I quite enjoyed.

For dinner, I ate Taco Bell. Yes, the Seoul airport has Taco Bell. I immediately sent a text to Penswe in Scotland, who loves Taco Bell (which he’s not had in nearly four years now). I was like a kid in a candy store: I had no idea what to order – I wanted it all! After eating, I swung by Starbucks to get a coffee and then relaxed at the gate until it was time to board.

The flight to Mongolia was slightly longer, but had much better in-flight movies (I spent the time watching “Rogue One”). Another meal was served on this flight, but this time we were given a choice between pork and beef; I went with pork and enjoyed the meal.

The flight landed around 21:30; getting through passport control was a breeze (made even more so given that I was among the first to get in line!). After getting my bag, I easily found the driver sent by the tour company to pick me up. We had to wait for one other person before leaving. The other person was a woman named Madeline; she’s 26 and from Boise, ID. We spent the entire drive to the hotel chatting and getting to know one another.

The hotel was very nice and the staff all spoke quite good English. Each floor had a small sitting area with a filtered water machine; the water was deliciously cold and was most welcome. I spent the rest of the evening relaxing in the room, working, and watching Mad Men.

29 June 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Country 72

I slept in this morning and went down to breakfast rather late, where I met up with Madeline again, along with two other women who were on the tour as well: Mary (from Idaho), Kristy (from Sydney, Australia). We all decided to do some exploring of the city and to get some shopping done.

After breakfast, we met up and first stopped to get some money changed at a nearby bank. Our first (and primary) sight of the day was the main city square. On one side of the square was a building with a massive statue of Genghis Khan, which was guarded by two soldiers. A large statue of horsemen was placed in the center of the square.

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We then walked through the city and over to the State Department Store, where we did some grocery shopping and stopped for a coffee. I was hoping to find a small day pack, but was unable to find anything in any of the stores that we stopped in.

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Turning back, Kristy and I decided to stop in at the National Museum of Mongolia, while the other two went back to the hotel to rest (they were the most jetlagged of the group). The museum covered the entire history of Mongolia, starting from ancient times running through the Mongol Empire to the communist times to the present day. One of the most enjoyable rooms contained dozens of traditional Mongolian costumes.

By this point it was around 15:00 and we were both quite hungry, so we stopped at a restaurant nearby called Broadway. We split a pizza and some spring rolls, along with a couple local beers. We spent a couple of hours just chatting, getting to know one another; it was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

That evening the entire tour group met up for our orientation meeting: there were 16 people on the tour, each one of us single travelers (though there were two friends traveling together). Our tour guide was named Namuun; she was incredibly nice, funny, spoke great English; I was excited to have her as the guide. The rest of the tour was made up as follows:

Mary (USA)
Madeline (USA)
Kristy (Australia)
Susan (USA)
Diana (USA)
Carmen (USA/Mexico)
David (Australia)
Ron (Australia)
Bill (Australia)
Paul (Australia)
Jaqueline (Switzerland)
Michael (Sweden)
Alexandra (UK)
Amy (UK)
Pamela (Singapore)

I was surprised by the group demographics: the majority of the people were older (50s+) and there was a wide range of nationalities, as well as socio-economic backgrounds. By strange coincidence, the group that I’d spent the day with (Mary, Madeline, and Kristy) were the ones closest to me in age (along with David). David turned out to be my roommate that night in the hotel. He’s a really friendly and outgoing guy – and incredibly tall, dwarfing everyone else he comes across!

There were some... oddities in the group, most notably Bill and Michael. Michael spoke broken English and was rather quiet. Bill was... well, just very strange. He was a dentist and we quickly discovered that he liked to drink. A lot. He'd carry around a bottle of vodka to every meal. He was usually quiet, always appearing disheveled and appearing uncomfortable or confused all the time.

We were all shocked and somewhat angry to find out that we did not need sleeping bags for the tour, despite the trip description and dossier repeatedly stating that a sleeping bad was required for one of the nights. I had bought one when I was in Edinburgh and lugged it around for the past four months; I was less than pleased to get this news.

We all went out to eat at a Mongolian restaurant, where I ordered a local dish called TSIU VAN: a noodle-based dish with meat and vegetables. It was, beyond a doubt, the best local cuisine that I’ve had on my travels thus far. My meal was delicious and I devoured every single bite. We made it an early night so we could get going early the next morning.

30 June 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

We set off from the hotel at 08:30 for our first destination: the wrestling training camp.

This tour focused on the Naadam Festival, which is an annual sporting competition in Mongolia at the county, state, and national levels. There are three events: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. The first three days of this tour focused on introducing us to each of these events, allowing us to visit various training camps and meeting some of the competitors.

The wrestling is, without a doubt, the most popular of the sports in Mongolia, with the various champions becoming national heroes. The men wear traditional costume, consisted of a vest, leather boots, and small briefs. They compete in rounds, with those making through five, seven, and the final round winning various titles: elephant, lion, and champion.

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We were met by another guide, a man named Timur, who spoke impeccable English, though we quickly discovered that he was a functioning alcoholic and drunk most of the time. He spent some time explaining the wrestling to us as we watched a large group of wrestlers practicing in a large field. There were dozens of them sparring with one another; one of the most interesting features was that the men were of all different shapes and sizes; they were tall, short, lean, muscular, and large. Anyone could compete, regardless of body size/type.

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Timur was wearing a t-shirt that read “Cherry Creek Apartments” above the word “Denver” which I was shocked to see! I asked where he got the shirt and explained that I used to live near to Cherry Creek; his wife had bought the shirt (it was evidently donated and sent over to Mongolia).

While walking around and snapping photos, two wrestlers noticed me and motioned to me to take their picture. They happily posed for the picture and took great pleasure in looking at the picture on my camera. It was a fun little interaction with them.

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After spending some time watching them, the trainers organized a small competition for us, which was an incredible treat (our guides kept mentioning how unexpected and unusual this was). We were the only tourists to be visiting the camp, so our visit may have been an equal treat for them. The wrestlers perform what is known as the Eagle Dance before each round: they run down the field, then stop, extend their arms and ever so slightly wave them like bird wings. There is a gracefulness to the performance that we all found fascinating.

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The completion was great to watch: it was a preview of what awaited us at the end of the trip at the national Naadam competition. We all decided to contribute some money (a couple of dollars each) to a prize for the top three winners. We each picked one or two wrestlers to cheer for and the ultimate winner was the favorite.

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Once the competition concluded, the wrestlers went off to shower and freshen up, while we hung around and chatted with one another until it was time for lunch. We were going to eat with the wrestlers and eat a traditional meal with them – again, a rare and unique treat that most tourists didn’t get to enjoy.

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Lunch was a “hot pot” of sorts: the meal was cooked all in one large pot and contained lamb, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots. We were all served very hefty portions; the meat was rather fatty, which we learned the wrestlers preferred. There was a small gazebo nearby where we all sat around eating a drinking.

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Once the meal was over, we were able to spend a lot of time just hanging out with the wrestlers. The trainer came over to the gazebo and randomly started giving me a shoulder massage; it was quite relaxing and he had such strong hands that it really relaxed the muscles. He noticed my tattoos and hag quite a laugh about them (no idea why).

Most of the wrestlers spoke little to no English, so Timur served as the interpreter. The coach’s son spoke very good English and had spent some time studying in the USA. He was a wrestler as well and definitely one of the cutest of them. One wrestler became quite smitten with Amy as she has blonde hair and blue eyes – a rare sight in Mongolia. He was flirting heavily with her, wanting to exchange Facebook information, and eventually put his arms around her (in a good natured way). We were joking that we’d be marrying off everyone in the group by the end of the tour.

Vodka was pulled out later on and we had several shots of vodka, which is apparently a tradition in Mongolia. It was a special treat for the wrestlers, who are usually not allowed alcohol during the month training leading up to Naadam (they’re also not allowed to spend time with their families or have sex!).

There was a Frenchman with the wrestlers: he was working on his master’s degree and was studying the diets of the Mongolian wrestlers (along with Japanese sumo wrestlers). He was a very nice guy who spoke passable English; he and I spent several minutes chatting before it was time for us to leave.

We all agreed that the time spent with the wrestlers was an incredible experience: we were given such uninhibited access to their camp, spent hours getting to know them and become friendly with them. This was a treat that one couldn’t find on almost any other tour.

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We drove over to our ger camp for the evening. A ger camp is a traditional Mongolian camp with buildings similar to yurts;. They are simple housing: several small beds are placed around the perimeter with a wood-burning stove in the middle and a ventilation opening at the top. This camp was quite modern and the gers were large and comfortable. I was roomed with David again. After settling in, we all gathered to have a beer before dinner.

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1 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

We left around the same time this morning to drive several hours over to the horse racing camp. As with the wrestling camp, it was is in the middle of nowhere, but the scenery was amazing. The camp was rather small, with just one ger for the family. Nearby was a pen for the horses and another area where the horses were kept tied up during the day.

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Timur met us at the camp and explained about the horse racing. The horses are Mongolia horses, which are not as easily tamed as the horses we have in the West. The trainers have a rigorous training method for getting the horses ready for the long-distance races. The horses eating a drinking is strictly controlled, to a point where we thought that the animals looked somewhat unhealthy. Children are the jockeys, starting as young as four years old!

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There wasn’t much going on in the camp itself, but a short race was being organized nearby, so we set off to watch it before having lunch. On the way over, we made a quick stop at a gigantic metal statue of Genghis Khan atop a horse. One could climb to the horse’s head, but we didn’t have the time for us to do that.

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When we arrived at the racing area, we found a ceremony of sorts going on which we went to watch (the shamans were doing a ceremony to ask for more rain as the country is currently going through a drought). Nearby was a large, beautiful shrine.

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We waited around for a long time for the race to start; one of the boys from our training camp was participating in the race. The jockeys began to parade their horses around in a circle while they sang a song, before finally heading out to the starting point (which was quite some distance away). We climbed into our van and drove out to around the halfway point, where we stopped and waited for the horses to start running by us.

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When the first horses appeared on the horizon heading towards us, we all climbed back into the van; by this point several horses had gone by and we set off in hot pursuit. The ‘road’ was a rough and bumpy dirt path that we were speeding down in order to follow the horses. Several men were chasing behind the horses on motorbikes, encouraging them along; while other horses were visibly worn out and gently walking along. Racing along with the horses was exciting and exhilarating, bouncing around everywhere on the bus and cheering from the windows.

We missed seeing the winner run past the finish line, but we all rushed out of the bus once we reached that point and caught some great photos of the other racers finishing.

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After the race was finished, we returned to the training camp for lunch, where the owners had prepared a massive meal for us: dish after dish of food was produced from within the ger and all of it was tasty. We were all impressed with the meal and ate hearty and well.

That evening’s ger camp was nestled in the mountains of a national park, by far the most picturesque setting for a ger camp that we’d yet seen. The camp itself was… subpar. Several people found live mice in their gers, both when we arrived and throughout the night. Our ger never saw any mice, but one person on the tour had a mouse run across her face during the night!. The bathrooms had a communal shower, which was awkward. Soon after we had settled in, a large tour bus of Koreans arrived.

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Kristy, Madeline and I walked up a small hill nearby to take some pictures of the surrounding mountains. They were jagged and rocky, but amazingly beautiful. Climbing back down to camp, we went to the restaurant where we split a few beers and hung out until it was time for dinner.

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2 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Today we set off for the final Naadam training camp: the archery center. The training center was rather close to the horse camp, just on the other side of the large Genghis Khan statue. The facility was also part of an aviation business that had several gyrocopters. The owner of the place was a fascinating man who had researched traditional Mongolian bow making (an art that had been lost for hundreds of years); he was now slowly starting to make them in the old traditional way, with animal horns and sinew (though the process was very expensive).

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We ordered our lunch, which would be at the restaurant at the facility, before heading to the large field where the archers were busy practicing. Their targets were not the traditional targets one associates with archery, but were small cylindrical shapes made of camel hide placed on the ground at the other end of the field; the aim was to knock the targets over. There were two archers dressed in the traditional Mongolian costume; it was amazing to watch them practice their art. The day was very windy and they were aiming into the wind, but many of them were still able to hit their targets.

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Lunch was tasty: I again ordered tsui van and it was every bit as good as the one I had on the first night. Once we were all done with lunch, we said goodbye to the archers and drove back to Ulaanbaatar, to the hotel we had stayed at the first two nights in town.

We arrived in town later than expected and had little time to do any sightseeing or shopping before it was time to head out to our evening activity: a cultural performance. The performance was at a small theater that was absolutely packed with people, mostly Korean tourists; the room had to air conditioning, so it was stiflingly hot. I ended up in the very back row, where the ‘seats’ were narrow benches that were impossible to sit on, so I stood during the hour-long performance.

The show itself was rather impressive, for what it was. I’m not a huge fan of the cultural shows themselves; they’re usually somewhat cheesy and done just for the tourists; this was no different. The performers all wore various traditional costumes, played various Mongolian instruments and sang many folk songs, including a talented throat singer; they also did some folk dances. The most amazing segment was the performance by the two female contortionists. The final segment was a ‘mask dance’ where the performers all worse large, elaborate and amazing masks during a short dance.

After the performance, we walked over to a restaurant for dinner. I had a lamb kebab that I rather enjoyed (though it was a bit spicy for my taste). Timur joined us for dinner and wanted to go out for drinks with us after we ate, but we all declined and walked back to the hotel. As we were walking along the streets, Mary got a burst of energy and started to run up and down the sidewalk: she would run from where we were to the end of the block and back, over and over; at one point she took her sandals off and ran barefoot.

Posted by Glichez 04:37 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Trans-Siberian Railroad, part II


View World Tour 2017-2018 on Glichez's travel map.

20 June 2017
Lake Baikal, Russia – Irkutsk, Russia

I didn’t have to checkout from my hotel until noon today, so I spent the morning enjoying the lake one last time and taking a final walk around. It was a very relaxing and easy-going morning; I enjoyed Baikal and wished that I had been able to explore more of the area, but I was ready to move on from Listvyanka.

I caught the bus back to Irkustk shortly after noon and we were back in town around 14:00. The bus dropped us off near to the bus station and it was a roughly 20-minute walk from there to my hotel in the city. Unfortunately, as I was walking to the hotel, my bag tipped over and one of the wheels got bent, preventing it from rolling properly; then, somehow, it rolled through a small bit of tar (which I didn’t even notice until later), which caused the wheel to stick even more. After checking into my hotel, I did my best to repair the wheel, but there was nothing I could do – I needed to get myself a new bag. Needless to say, I was upset at this prospect.

My hotel was located near a large square next to the river, so I went out for a walk to forget about my luggage issues. The weather was much hotter than it was at Lake Baikal – I felt as though I was baking in the heat; the temperature reached over 30 °C! I stopped for an ice cream as I walked around the square.

I then walked further into town where a shopping mall was located and also where the only luggage store was that I could find via Google. The walk took about 40 minutes and I was hot and tired by the time I reached the mall. I found the luggage store and was pleased that they had a large selection of bags; one of the ladies there spoke some English and helped me out quite a bit. I decided not to buy a bag just yet as I wanted to give fixing my current bag one last try.

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Finally, I stopped in a local coffee shop, Castro Coffee, to grab something cold to drink and to do some reading. I ordered a milkshake, but what I was given was not a milkshake by Western standards: it was a sweet drink, but without ice cream in it, so it was basically just a milk drink. Nevertheless, it was tasty and I enjoyed it; unfortunately, the place didn’t have AC and it was too hot to sit inside to get any reading done, so I soon walked back to my hotel to relax for the rest of the evening.

21 June 2017
Irkutsk, Russia

Today I finally accepted that my suitcase was beyond repair and that I needed to buy a new one; it was the cost of the new suitcase that was the difficult part to cope with: I didn’t want a cheap bag that would fall apart on me, but I didn’t want to buy an expensive one either.

Putting that issue aside at the start of the day, I had breakfast at the hotel, which was the best breakfast that I’ve yet had on this trip. Most of the food was the generic breakfast food one gets at any hotel, but the dish that I had multiple servings of was a vegetable rice; there was something about it that really ‘hit the spot’ and I devoured it.

With a full stomach and energy for the hot day ahead, I set off to see Irkutsk! The city had an interesting history of having exiles from Moscow or St Petersburg society sent to live there (exiled in Siberia), especially the Decembrists from the revolt in December 1825. The aristocracy who were exiled to Siberia/Irkutsk soon set about fashioning the city to mirror their former lives as best as possible. As such, many elegant buildings were built and many still stand (though in quite a dilapidated condition nowadays). Some of the most interesting buildings were the older wooden ones that looked to be abandoned.

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I passed through a quaint square with a pool and fountains (the Soviets loved to install fountains in the city squares!); on one side of the square was a very Soviet-style governmental building, complete with a hammer and sickle on top. This square led into the pedestrian and shopping areas of the old city center, which I found to be rather nice to explore.

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I walked through many of the small shopping centers, hoping to find more luggage stores with cheaper prices; those that I did find had cheap quality bags for sale, so I moved on. Outside of one shopping center was a monument to the Internationale: a large mural on the side of a building with a statue of Lenin to one side.

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I walked down to a different part of the riverfront where there was a nice park, full of trees and flowers. In a large square was a large statue of Tsar Alexander III (father of Nicholas II). During the Soviet times, the statue was removed, but it was restored in the early 2000s.

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Irkutsk (12)

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I decided to spend some time walking through the park, enjoying the views of the river and I stumbled upon a large bust of Yuri Gagarin (the first human in space) surrounded by a bed of flowers! It was a random place to find a monument to him.

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Needing to escape from the heat (and to get some desperately needed water), I walked back to the shopping mall. I bought a water at the grocery store and cooled off before reluctantly heading back to the luggage store to buy a new suitcase. Once that was done, I took it back to my hotel and was glad to see that everything from my old bag fit into the new one – just barely!

I began to develop a headache during this, which I attributed to the heat and not having enough water during my walk through the city. Nonetheless, I was determined to do some last bit of sightseeing. I returned to the large square outside of my hotel to properly explore it. There was an eternal flame in memory of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and some monument to Lenin (I wasn’t sure what it was for, but I never need an excuse to snap a photo of a Lenin!).

I walked back over to the riverfront area, where there was a massive statue and a small, but pretty, Russian Orthodox church nearby. By this point my headache had become severe and I needed to get back to the hotel. I spent the rest of the evening there, reading and working.

22 June 2017
Trans-Siberian Railroad

The last – and longest – leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad journey began today! This journey would last for just over 69 hours…

I got up early and checked out of my hotel by 06:00; the hotel had attendants on each floor and they handled the check-out process, making it simple and easy. I considered taking the tram over to the railway station, but decided to walk instead; the morning was cool and pleasant; plus the station was only about a 30-minute walk away.

The train station was packed and I had some time to kill before my train was due to depart at 07:47, so I settled in to do some reading. As the departure time neared, I noticed the departures board had a display showing “01:00” next to my train; I correctly assumed this meant the train was delayed by an hour. Eventually the train did arrive and I lugged my bags onto the train one last time.

I found my cabin occupied by two young guys; happily, I had the bottom bunk again and I asked one of the guys if he would mind moving his grocery bags so I could store my luggage. The other guy in the cart exclaimed “You speak English!” and a sense of relief washed over me as I heard his British accent! This section of the Trans-Siberian has the fewest Westerners on it, so to find a fellow English speaker here was quite a treat!

We immediately began chatting and getting to know one another, both happy to have someone to talk with during the next three days. His name was James, he was 22 and he was from England; he too was traveling around the world on his own. We spent the first several hours of that day’s journey chatting. James had done almost the same itinerary that I had done through Russia, though with less time in most of the cities and without stopping in Nizhny Novgorod. I was really impressed with his knowledge of Russian history – he stopped in Yekaterinburg for the same reasons I did: to see the Church on the Blood!

One other bit of random good news: both James and I were staying at the same hostel in Vladivostok!

Our other cabin-mate was Russian and friendly enough, though he spoke no English, but tried to communicate to us in Russian. I felt bad for him because the journey was quite dull for him with no one to talk to (he was in the same position that both James and I had been on our respective trains up to that point: unable to communicate with those in our cabins).

That evening, James and I both had the standard cup of noodles for dinner (oh joy…), but as an after dinner treat, James brought out his vodka stash. Technically drinking one’s own alcohol was forbidden on the train, so James had mixed one bottle into a bottle of Pepsi; it was this vodka Pepsi that we began to drink first. Once that was gone, he got out a fresh bottle of vodka and some Sprite; this vodka was soon gone as well. We decided to try visiting the restaurant car, but it was closed by the time we got there (to be fair, it was near midnight at this point). With nothing else to do, we decided to head to bed for the night.

23 June 2017
Trans-Siberian Railroad

In the early morning a large group of French tourists boarded the train and one of their group was put in our cabin. They were quite noisy when they got on board, waking all of us up, so we all slept in quite late that morning.

Both James and I spent a considerable part of the day reading. I had finished Petersburg the day before, so I started in on some simple, easy book: Thrawn (yep, that’s right, a Star Wars novel… but it was mindless entertainment, just what was needed). I read nearly 40% of the book that day. James nearly finished his book that day as well.

That night we took advantage of a long stop in some random city to get out, stretch and get some fresh air. Once the train began rolling again, we headed to the restaurant car to grab some drinks. The French tourists were finishing their dinner, so we were sat near the front of the car.

I started off with a Russian beer while James had a vodka coke. Thus began our evening of fun… and getting scammed…

We asked the waitress the price of the vodka cokes (they weren’t on the menu), she indicated that they were 100 rubles each, so I switched over to those as well. We were then moved to a different table once the French group was gone, where we ordered some snacks (peanuts and crab-flavored chips). We sat around chatting as we drank a few more drinks; it was a fantastic time. The waitress came around for us to pay and we paid our portions of the bill (roughly 1,500 rubles each – the snacks plus 5 drinks or so each).

By this point the car was practically empty, except for a pair of girls and a group of younger guys. Also at this point the evening begins to get somewhat… hazy…

What I recall is that we encourage our waitress to have a glass of wine and she brought over an opened bottle to pour herself a glass. Then we moved over to have a drink with the two girls. They spoke broken English, but we could communicate well enough. Randomly, the waitress showed up with a plate of fruit slices (apples and oranges), though neither of us remembered ordering it. I began to drink the wine and James had another vodka Coke. Eventually we called it a night and stumbled back to our cabin for bed.

24 June 2017
Trans-Siberian Railroad

I awoke this morning not hungover, but not entirely feeling great; a half-hangover of sorts. I drank quite a bit of water and ate a small snack, which helped. I passed the time watching Mad Men on my phone. During the early morning hours, the French group had departed, leaving the train much quieter for us this last day.

When I got up to use the bathroom, I discovered a large stack of rubles in my pocket, which had definitely not been there the night before; all I had left after paying the bill for the drinks was a 5,000 ruble note and four 100 ruble notes. Now all I had was 4,000 rubles in various denominations; clearly I had spent an additional 1,400 rubles by the end of the night.

When James woke up late in the afternoon, we laughed about the night before and remarked on how much fun it was. He was concerned about how much he had spent as well; he’d use his brand new credit card for the first time and, since no receipts were provided, wasn’t sure how much the damage was. We figured it couldn’t be more than $40 or $50 – maximum!

Our last day on the train was spent chatting for a while and also watching TV shows on our phones. It was a quieter day as we were both in recovery mode.

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It was hard to believe that the train journey was coming to a close. This three-day journey, while the longest of the trip, seemed to fly by – due in large part to having someone chat with during the day. We kept remarking how lucky we both were to have been placed in the same cabin.

25 June 2017
Vladivostok, Russia

Neither James or I slept well during this last night on the train; we had to be up early at 06:00 for our early morning arrival (somehow the train had made up the nearly 2-hour delay and was now running on time). Around 04:00 our Russian cabin-mate got off the train and from then on, I was wide awake.

We arrived in Vladivostok just before 07:00; since it was far too early for check-in at our hostel, we walked to what we thought was the train station (but turned out to be the ferry terminal) to see if there was any food to be had. Everything we’d found online in the city was closed until 09:00 or 10:00, which didn’t provide any help to us.

We spent an hour in the ferry terminal before heading to a nearby Burger King, which thankfully opened at 08:00. We were both so hungry and devoured our meals there, which helped to pass more time as we sat around chatting. It was amazing how quickly and well we’d got on with one another over the past few days. I was glad that we were at the same hostel and we made plans to explore the city together.

The hostel itself was surprisingly quite nice: it had wood-log paneling all around and felt like a mountain cabin; the common area was very large as well. We were shown to one room, which was small and cramped, but luckily all of the beds were taken, so we were moved to a larger room. I spent the next several hours freshening up and getting some work done while James rested in the room.

Later that afternoon, a Russian guy from Moscow started to chat with us at the hotel and made some suggestions on what to go and see in the city; as James and I were preparing to leave, the Russian basically invited himself along with us. I wasn’t against having him join us, but I soon grew weary of his company. James and I wanted to do sightseeing, but the Russian guy (whose name I forget) was clearly bored and impatient to get to the beach/boardwalk area.

Our primary destination for the afternoon was the Eagle’s Nest, which is a lookout over the water and the entire city. One can walk there, but the Russian insisted that we take the funicular up to the top. We walked over to the funicular only to find that we’d walked to the top of it, thus defeating the entire purpose. The Eagle’s Nest was a short climb up some stairs from there. I was surprised by how run down and shabby the Eagle’s Nest was, especially as it is a major sight within Vladivostok: stairs, fences, sidewalks all were in various states of disrepair. The views, however, were spectacular and well worth the journey.

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Vladivostok is quite similar to San Francisco – indeed, Nikita Khrushchev made the comparison back in the 1970s. To emulate the US city, the Russians built two large modern bridges that resemble the Golden Gate Bridge; the bridge in the middle of the city is aptly named the Golden Horn Bridge.

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Making our way back down from the Eagle’s Nest, we set about finding a way to walk across the Golden Horn Bridge; James was quite keen to do so, but I was rather uneasy due to the height, but I’d have faced up to my fear and done it. Unfortunately, the bridge is closed to pedestrians and we weren’t able to cross it!

We then headed down to the waterfront to walk along Golden Horn Bay. There was a nice promenade for pedestrians to walk around and it was full of people; food stands were located sporadically around and we eventually stopped to get a quick bite to eat. The food stand served corn dogs, something James had never had, so we decided to order those, but they were out of them; James went with a regular hot dog and I decided to wait for dinner as nothing else looked enticing.

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We turned around and headed back towards the city center and eventually made out way to the C-56 submarine, which was located next to the Great Patriotic War Memorial (complete with an eternal flame). The entire memorial area was very nice, as all memorials to the war are throughout Russia.

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The submarine was on land and we were able to go aboard and explore: the first half of the sub was a museum (all in Russian) and the second half were a series of the preserved rooms in the submarine itself. It was a quick visit, but very interesting.

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One thing that James and I discovered during our time hanging out is that we both like to make random – and sometimes obscure – references to movies or TV shows, such as South Park or Family Guy; we could easily figure out what the other was referring to, which made it even funnier. I was reminded quite a bit of my friend Kevin in Scotland; he and I do the exact same thing. James could simply say (in a dark and sinister voice): “Do it!” and I knew he was quoting Palpatine from “Revenge of the Sith” right away! He also got my South Park reference when I would sing “You’re the best around… nothing’s going to ever keep you down!” and he replied “I thought this was America!” Good times, good times…

Sportivnaya Harbor was our final destination; to get there we walked through a large public square with a memorial to the Russian Civil War (1917-1922). It was particularly interesting to see this memorial here as Vladivostok was occupied by foreign supporters of the White Army (the anti-Bolsheviks): the Japanese, the Czech Legion, the Americans and the British.

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Sportivnaya Harbor itself is a large and very busy promenade along the waterfront, full of restaurants, shops, and various entertainment stalls (including air-rifle games). We strolled along the walkway and stopped at a small restaurant where we enjoyed some drinks on the patio: James and I each had some ciders while our Russian companion had beer.

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Soon it was time for dinner and the Russian kept pushing that we eat at the restaurant; the place was reasonably priced and the food looked good, so we did. We each had pork BBQ with lavash bread. The meat was very good and tasty, but the bread was rather dry (the lavash bread I had in Armenia was vastly superior to this bread).

The sun was setting by the time we left to head back to the hostel. We tried to stop in a local bar on our way, but there were no other customers in the place (it was 21:30 and people didn’t usually show up until 23:00), so we left. We decided to grab some drinks from a local store, drink back at the hostel and then return to the local bar as it looked like a great place to drink. James picked out a cheap bottle of vodka at the store, but the Russian kept insisting that he buy a better bottle; James stuck by his choice, which seemed to annoy the guy.

Back at the hostel, James and the Russian mixed up some drinks and I decided to skip it for now. James wanted to do some video chats with people back home, so I hung out in the common room on my computer getting some work done. It was getting quite late and James and I were both exhausted, so we decided to call it a night without returning to the local bar.

26 June 2017
Vladivostok, Russia

Today was James’ last day in Russia before he flew off to Beijing and we’d planned to head out to Russky Island, which was located across Golden Horn Harbor. Our hostel had provided information on taking the bus there, which would take roughly an hour each way; we both were quite keen to take the ferry over to the island and get to see the area from the water in the process.

Our plans from the night before had us getting up and leaving by 09:00 – and our Russian friend had again invited himself along. However, we all slept in quite late and we didn’t get going until nearly noon! I had woken up earlier, but I got distracted with Mad Men and video chatting with my sister, Jack and Jane; when I noticed the time was 11:00, I went and woke James up. We hurriedly got ready and planned to grab the first ferry available. The Russian guy seemed less enthusiastic about it and still needed 20 minutes to get ready, so James and I left to grab food nearby.

Our breakfast/lunch was Burger King again: it was close, fast, and cheap. James had checked his credit card balance this morning and found that he’d been charged nearly 90 GBP on the train! There was absolutely no conceivable way that we spent that much on the train and he was understandably concerned and angry about it; he contacted his credit card company to investigate the charge. I picked up the bill for lunch: a small gesture, but I felt I owed it to him since he could very well have been charged for items that were mine.

As we finished eating, we both admitted that we weren’t terribly interested in having the Russian guy join us again today; we both wanted to head down to the ferry terminal and get to the island. To help ease our consciences, we said we’d contact the hostel to tell him what time to meet us at the ferry, but then we realized we didn’t remember his name, so that gesture would have been useless.

We arrived back at the ferry terminal and went to the ticket office, but the prices we were shown were astronomical! It turned out that the lady was showing us prices for the long-distance ferries to South Korea and that there was no ferry to Russky Island from that terminal; the ferries left from a smaller dock just up the road.

Upon arrival at that dock, we discovered that there were no ferries running to Russky Island at all, which was intensely disappointing. It was nearing 14:00, which meant we didn’t have enough time to take the bus out to the island. There was a boat trip around the harbor that was departing soon and we were told that it would go around Russky Island. Deciding that it was the next best option, we decided to take the boat trip. I paid for our tickets in a continuing gesture of thanks/repayment/help; James reluctantly let me, but insisted that this was the last of it. We both laughed and I agreed.

The boat was a small vessel and we were the only English-speakers on board; we were joined by a Chinese tour group. Their Russian guide discovered that we spoke English and came over to talk to us. He was friendly, but very talkative; he kept telling us about getting to see Limp Bizkit in concert in Vladivostok and getting to meet the band. He then kept insisting that we meet up and go out that night; James and I were clearly not too keen on it, but we told him that we’d contact him via WhatsApp (but we never did).

The boat tour itself was… disappointing. We had been misinformed on the route the boat would take: it went across the harbor and got near the island, but then promptly turned around, heading to the bridge before returning to port. There was no sailing around the island, nor did we see the lighthouse that was mentioned by the cashier as well. On the plus side, seeing the city from the water was nice: there were quite a few cargo docks and cargo ships just sitting in the bay. The entire trip lasted roughly an hour.

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Once we were finished, we decided to try walking out to the lighthouse, which was roughly a 90-minute walk away; we may not have the time to reach it, but the walk through the city would be nice. The route took us south through the city, into some neighborhoods and areas that tourists would normally not venture. It was a fun and interesting way to see more of the city.

We stopped at a local supermarket to grab some drinks; James doesn’t drink beer (he prefers ciders); they didn’t have a cider, but he found a fruit beer that was passable; I grabbed a German beer for myself. We drank our beers as we continued to stroll through the city.

We eventually ended up at a nice park/square area that afforded some amazing views over the harbor, out to Russky Island. We spent quite a bit of time sitting on a park bench, admiring the views, and chatting. There was a cat wandering about in the grass, who was clearly trying to hunt something; we were mesmerized by the cat and waited anxiously for it to pounce; when it did, it didn’t catch anything.

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Around 18:00 we decided to head back into town so we could grab dinner before James had to head to the airport (his flight was at 00:30 that evening). Given the late time, I suggested that we grab a bus back into the city; luckily enough, one came by within minutes and we got on. Busses in Vladivostok cost 21 RUB no matter where you get on or get off, so it was a cheap way to get back into town. The ride took 15 minutes, whereas the walk would have taken over an hour.

For dinner, we opted to go to a café that we had noticed on our way into town the first day. It was a nice little restaurant and we were able to use my Google Translate app to decipher the menu. We both ordered a steak topped with an egg and sauce, with a side of potatoes. As a starter, we ordered katchapuri – the Georgian dish that I’d fallen in love with and James quite enjoyed it as well. We spent the next few hours having a couple drinks, eating, and chatting. It was one of the most enjoyable meals that I’ve had so far on my trip: good food and good company.

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We both agreed that, though the day didn’t go as planned, it ended up being a very enjoyable one.

By this point it was 21:30, so we went back to the hostel so James could collect his things and call a taxi. When we reached the hostel, the Russian guy silently glared at us, but said nothing (thank god). James and left his bag with mine all day and so we spent a few minutes bumming around the hostel before he had to go. James had picked up a small journal on his travels and was now having people he met write little blurbs in it: each person would have a page to write whatever they wanted. He gave me the journal and I filled up the entire page: thanking him for all the amazing memories, saying how much fun I’d had hanging out with him.

Finally, it was time for him to leave and I found myself getting quite sad that our time together was at an end. Making friends is one of the best parts about traveling the world, but saying goodbye to them never gets any easier. I went outside with him to wait for the car, which (sadly) pulled up right as we got to the street. We said our goodbyes, promised to stay in touch, and gave one another a hug goodbye. I stayed there until his taxi was driving off and then headed back into the hostel.

James truly made the last leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and my time in Vladivostok very memorable. I’m quite glad to have met him on the train and that we got on so well together. Hopefully our paths will cross again sometime: there’s a slim chance we could see one another in Southeast Asia, but odds are it’ll take a trip to the UK or to the States for us to meet up (both options will happen at some point too).

27 June 2017
Vladivostok, Russia

My last full day in Russia! Seeing as I had seen the major highlights of the city with James already, I focused today on getting some last-minute things taken care of before heading off to Mongolia.

My top priority was getting a haircut. I had not had a proper haircut since Edinburgh, though I’d been buzzing the sides and back of my hair regularly myself; now I needed the longer top part trimmed down. I found a well-reviewed place called Chop-Chop nearby and decided to give them a try.

On the way over to Chop-Chop, I stopped by the statue of Lenin across the street from the train station. James and I had stopped there the day before, but the sun was not in the best position for pictures, so I wanted to try and get some in the morning. I’m a sucker for a good Lenin statue!

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Chop-Chop was a very nice barbershop, staffed entirely by men and they spoke passable English – more than enough for me to explain how I wanted my haircut. The guys asked where I was from, thinking that perhaps I was from Denmark; they seemed surprised when I said I was American. My barber seemed nervous at first to trim the hair on the sides and back of my neck so short, but I assured him that it was ok. After washing my hair, he began to buzz it and he paid meticulous attention to everything; in the States, the buzzing part takes minutes, but this guy spent over 20 minutes doing it. He quickly figured out how I like to style my hair and I couldn’t have been happier with my haircut!

I also needed to print out some passport photos for my visa-on-arrival for several countries in Southeast Asia; I’d found what I thought were photo printing shops via Google, but it didn’t pan out (I’m planning to get the photos printed in Singapore). Instead, I walked back over to Sportivnaya Harbor and then into the city center.

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There was one last sight that I did want to see: Nikolai’s Victory Arch. It was a small, but beautiful arch located right next to the submarine that I had visited with James earlier (it was a shame that we didn’t visit the arch together).

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I then walked over to yet another memorial statue for the Great Patriotic War before heading to a coffee shop to relax and do some reading. I eventually made it back to the hostel to pack my bags and prepare for departure in the morning.

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It was hard to believe that my five-week journey through Russia was coming to a close. I had spent 36 days in Russia and traveled from one coast to the other, seeing everything from Tsarist splendor to Soviet cold-hearted architecture; the train had been a Bucket List item for me. I had spent the most time in Russia out of any other country on this trip (and there’s no upcoming country that will come close to this length). I look forward to my next visit to Mother Russia.

Nostrovya, Comrade!

На здоровье, Товарищ!

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

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