26 Mar 2013

Kathmandu: An assault on the senses

Evidently not many of the millions of tourist dollars that pour into Nepal every year get spent on infrastructure.  The airport is chaotic, the roads are potholed, and littered with sleeping cows and the city itself is a filthy, low-rise sprawl.  Electricity cables hang like bunting between the buildings and rickshaws, taxis, mopeds and pedestrians all vie for space on the narrow streets – pavements are non-existant.  And then, of course, there are the power cuts – on average hotels and shops are without mains electricity for about 10 hours a day - invariably at the most inconvenient times.

19 Mar 2013

Mongolian Nomads: Ger-to-Ger: Our last few families

Broke bright and frosty.  Over breakfast of hard biscuits and milk tea our host asked whether we had a car or ox-cart at home.  We answer “car” and show him a photo of TONKA (landcruiser pickup) – he likes that.  Then he asks if we own cows? “no”, horses? “no”, ahh, then you have sheep!

Josi is then assigned the task of milking the cow.  This is exclusively a women’s job in Mongolia and a first for Josi.  It says a lot about what animals have to endure in this part of the world, that the poor creature didn’t even twitch an eyelash as Josi’s icy and amateur fingers moved tentatively over its udders.  This was evidently not an enjoyable experience for either Josi or the cow, and after a few feeble squirts had hit the pale, it was time for more expert involvement.  Mrs Zorigt set to work and jets of rich steaming milk flowed seamlessly one after the other.  This was then taken straight into the ger, boiled over the fire and made into tea, which was stored in a large thermos.  Meanwhile, Josi continued with women’s work – tidying and cleaning the ger, mixing cow food, collecting firewood and feeding the calves.  John, on the other hand was assigned the lowliest task of collecting cow dung from the animal pen, which is dried and used as fuel when wood isn’t available.  These glistened with frost and had to be chipped off the ground with a shovel, although every so often a fresh one would catch John out and add some variety to an otherwise monotonous task.  To add insult to injury, Mr Zorigt called John “chi”, which is a low form address similar to “boy”.

15 Mar 2013

Mongolian Nomads: Ger-to-Ger: Our first few families

We had found Ger-to-Ger in our guidebook, they described themselves as providing “'Social Enterprise' comprised nomadic travel routes, rural cultural home-stay programs that aim to expand greater community based and managed cultural GeoTourism initiatives” and we felt that was exactly what we were after.  We were excited to be booked in to a 6 day, 6 night stay with nomadic families and en-route to finding out what this way of life was like and what we could learn from it.  We were placed on the bus towards Terelj National Park, where we were told we would need to take the bus, then change to a micro-bus and at UB-2 stop in Terelj Park our first family would be waiting.  So, armed with the key phrases we had learnt in the “lesson” the day before with Ger-to-Ger, we headed East from Ulaanbaatar.

11 Mar 2013

Ulaanbaatar: A modern gateway to an ancient way of life

Touching down at Ulaanbaatar airport was not the way we had planned to arrive, but it did at least give a bird’s eye view of the vast mountainous plateau that extends all the way South from Ulaanbaatar to the Gobi Desert on the Chinese border.  Officially the coldest capital in the world, Ulaanbaatar was surprisingly mild as we weaved through gridlock traffic to the centre.  This congestion was also unexpected as another pub quiz fact is that Mongolia has the lowest population density in the world.  But as far as Ulaanbaatar is concerned, that is a misleading statistic – almost half of the country’s 2.6m population is located in the capital, which also hogs the lion’s share of the measly 1,500km of tarmac that has so far been laid nationwide.

6 Mar 2013

An unexpected change of plan!!

After a leisurely morning in Listvyanka, a chance perusal of our passports by Josi at 5pm revealed an alarming discovery.  We had been diligent about planning our entry dates into each country based on the start dates of our visas, although a technicality was to catch us out with our departure.  Our Russian visas had been issued for only 28 days instead of the usual 30 (due to the short February month), and our visa expiry was now 7 hours away!  The countdown until we became fugitives had begun…

A quick Google search of the consequences of overstaying our visas gave us no encouragement, listing heavy fines, indefinite detention, relocation to Moscow for exit visa processing and/or imprisonment all listed as possible outcomes. Ten minutes later we were in a taxi, heading for Irkutsk Airport, with no idea whether any flights were leaving that day or where they would be going.  But nonetheless hopeful to somehow jump the border from there.

5 Mar 2013

Josi's Top Tips: Russia

These were our top 10 things in Russia (in no particular order) – obviously, they are not the top 10 things to do in Russia necessarily and perhaps they just came at the right time in our journey for us to appreciate them, but nonetheless, these were our top 10:
  1. Lake Baikal – awe-inspiring
  2. Irkutsk – an interesting city – architecturally and culturally
  3. Seeing the great expanses of landscape & datcha’s from the train
  4. Trying all classes of carriage in the Trans-Siberian railway & meeting people – pleasant & “interesting” – our favourites being Mr. Fredricksen & the ex-Vladvostok prison inmate!
  5. Romanov Memorial in Yekaterinburg
  6. Nizhny Novgorod – great atmosphere & people
  7. Getting to grips with the culture & history of such a vast country
  8. Russian Banya with our host Nikolai from Baikal Dream
  9. Trying all the food & the Russian vodka
  10. Getting out of the country on time!!


Things we walked past: Russia

We wanted to capture some things we walked past on our travels through Russia that didn’t fit a particular blog but gives an indication of some random things that you could expect to see.

Things we noted:

  • Everything is measured and paid for by the gram, from an ice-cream in a cone to a main meal in a restaurant.
  • In a restaurant, vodka is cheaper than water, skol!
  • Music & radio is pumped out into the streets – so you have no choice whether you want to have peace on the streets or not!
  • Russian’s drink loads of tea…apparently over 80% of Russians drink tea daily.  We certainly increased our tea consumption while we were there.
  • Russian’s make great bread – we tried lots of different styles on our travels and they were all tasty.
  • Many shops, supermarkets and restaurants are hidden away and hard to find.  We were told this is because many people opened businesses in their flats or apartment blocks post-communism. 
  • Cars are number one, pedestrians are left to fend for themselves on multi-lane roads (apart from in Moscow where there are underground tunnels!)

Lake Baikal: Awe-inspiring & terrifying!

Lake Baikal is one of the natural wonders of the world, and its statistics are mind-boggling.  It is the oldest lake in the world, and also the largest, at least in terms of volume.  It contains a staggering 23,615 cubic kilometres of water, and just a few miles out from shore drops to a depth of a mile.  It also straddles three fault lines, the movement of which has resulted in its immense depth.  It contains a vast amount of marine life, 75% of which is found nowhere else on the planet.  It is aptly named the Blue Eye of Siberia and glitters for 400 miles from North to South in the summer, but in early March it is covered in a crust of ice nearly 2 metres thick. From Listvyanka it stretches vast and white, eastwards for 40 miles until it abruptly ends at the foot of an impressive mountain range.