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Trans-Mongolian Adventure part 3: Olkhon Island and Mongolia

June 3, 2013

I’ve been forced to retreat back to the hotel here in Ulaan Baator as the pollution from the exhaust fumes of all the cars clogging up the ironically named Peace Avenue has sent my hayfever haywire. It’s a world away from the peace and tranquillity of Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal and even the vast empty spaces of the Mongolian countryside where I have just returned from. More about that later though.

Olkhon Island: (No) Whiskey in the jar-0

My Olkhon Island adventure started somewhat stressfully. I set off to get the once-a-day minibus from Irkutsk but due to my own lack of directional sense and miscommunication, I ended up walking round the chaotic market area for about an hour looking for the damn thing and not finding it.

I returned to the hostel angry, tired and a little upset, and sulked for a good few hours.

It turned out though that missing that bus and having to get one the next day wasn’t such a bad thing as my fellow passengers on this bus, Cameron from America and Paul, Françoise and Laurence from France, became my friends and drinking pals for the next few days.

We arrived at Nikita’s Homestead, legendary in these parts, after a long,

Shaman's Rock

Shaman’s Rock

cramped bus ride. I was expecting it to be a Russian version of a Pontins Holiday Camp. Sadly, it didn’t have the bluecoats and the bingo, but it did have log cabins, a communal canteen, a banya and a path leading to the lakeside. The first glimpse of the lake was enchanting. Down the path and beyond the low gate I could see an expanse of whiteness – the lake was still frozen in parts. It made me quicken my pace and hold my breath as I opened the gate and walked onto that strange winterscape – it wasn’t cold, but there before me was a true Arctic scene – miles and miles of frozen water and beyond them some DSC_2188snow-covered mountains. To the right, along the coast, was the much-photographed Shaman’s Rock and this looked even more majestic than it did in the pictures in the Trans-Siberian Handbook. And beyond the rock was a beach, golden sand clashing with the white icy water, like something out of a science fiction film. This landscape was so alien to me, to anything you’d ever see in England, that it was one of those moments when I really felt like that’s what I came travelling for.

Later that evening me and Cameron gate-crashed a camp fire on the frozen DSC_2233beach and joined a load of other travellers, sipping neat vodka and having the inevitable conversations about which way we were going on the rail tracks.

The next day we were supposed to go a tour of the north of the island, but it was raining when I woke up and chucking it down by lunchtime. There was nothing for it but to hunt down some booze and get drunk. I could feel a cold coming on, so really wanted a shot of whisky, but this being one of the more remote parts of vodka-loving Russia, whiskey seemed impossible to come by, despite us trudging around the muddy Khuzir village, going to each off licence and asking (well Paul and Cameron asking, who spoke much better Russian than me). So vodka and beer it was then. Dinner that night in the canteen was, for me, just a vague memory of some disgusting lentil-type dish, and later than night, though sobered a little, I managed to burn my hand in the banya. I should have known vodka and very hot saunas do not mix.

DSC_2279The next day the skies were clearer, though my head not so, but the excursion to the north of the island went ahead anyway. I was glad I wasn’t too hungover because to get there in the ancient Russian van we were all squashed into involved traversing some seriously bumpy dirt tracks. Like bumpy in the sense that at some points the van was at a forty five degree angle and I was contemplating adopting the brace position. The north of the island was cool though – Olkhon Island is situated closer to the south end of the lake and from the north tip the lake looks like one giant, still ocean, for you can’t see the shore so far does it extend north. We didn’t see any of the rare nerpa seals sadly, but the views were stunning.

I was so sad to leave Olkhon he next day but I had a night train to Ulan Ude to catch, and after a night staying in a hostel that was more like a students’ house (think filthy kitchen, people having sex in the dorms), I was planning to get a bus to Ulaan Baator. I got to Ulan Ude though to find the conventional bus had sold out, but was informed there was another, ‘DIY’ way to get to Mongolia, which involved getting a minibus to the Russian border town, hitching a ride over the border then getting some form of transport to UB the other side. There were a group of old Finnish men doing the same thing, and although I knew they weren’t going to be the most compatible travel companions I decided to tag along with them.

Everlasting nothingness...

Everlasting nothingness…

Getting to the border town, Kyakhta, was easy enough, but when I went through passport control the stern-looking Russian official scrutinised my entry stamp and looked at me repeatedly with narrowed eyes. It was badly smudged, but that wasn’t my fault, however, I got the impression the Russian official thought I had faked it and that I was possibly a spy. She asked me to stand aside and I was convinced I was going to feel a tap on the shoulder and then get dragged into some interrogation room but she put aside her suspicions and eventually let me through. Being hauled off for interrogation however might have been more preferable to the next part of the journey. This involved sitting on the back seat of a 4×4 with three of the old Finnish guys, so cramped I could barely breathe, for the five hours it took to get through the monotonous Mongolian grassland and reach Ulaan Baator. By the end, I was in such a bad mood I could barely be civil to these annoying old codgers and on first impression Ulaan Baator seemed like a dirty, chaotic, ugly hell-hole.

Mongolia:  Gon’ end up a big ol’ pile of them bones

I still think Ulaan Baator is a dirty, chaotic hell-hole and to make matters DSC_2307worse, the second day I was there, it rained, a lot, and then the rain turned to freezing sleet. Me, Pavel, a Czech political science lecturer, and LiHuang, a Chinese girl, left for our four-day excursion to Central Mongolia the next day and the countryside around the city was covered in a white blanket of snow. After going several miles through the wilderness, the snow stopped abruptly and we were back onto dry grassland, and later, desert. Not quite the Gobi, but the Mini-Gobi, a small patch of desert framed by photogenic mountains. To add to DSC_2343the desert effect, we were here to ride camels. I had never encountered a camel this close up before, and the first thing that struck me was how heavy they breathe and how peaceful they look. My shaggy camel seemed happy to trudge along behind our camel leader, though Pavel’s camel seemed to want to get in the front of the train, and kept pushing mine out of the way, still it was cool to get this close to these strange beasts. We were staying in our first ger that night… all these Mongolian tours offer ‘accommodation with a local family’. Well, it’s more like the ‘local family’ has an extra that they rent out to tourists, as we were deposited in ours, and left there with nothing to do.

DSC_2324

These long hours of boredom in the evenings would prevale for the next two nights. I was even driven to writing poetry at one point, but all I could come up with was the rather harsh opening line:

“Empty vodka bottles and blank horizons are all your hills offer.”

This wasn’t quite accurate, the hills were to offer much more. On the way to what transpired to be a very disappointing waterfall, we stopped to look at a graveyard, in the middle of nowhere. As I walked up to the headstones I noticed something round and white lying in the grass. My first thought was, improbably, dinosaur eggs, but upon investigating these white forms I discovered that they were actually two human skulls. I was initially horrified, but after looking at them awhile both Pavel and I mused on taking one home, but we weren’t sure if we’d get them through customs. It would be a pretty unique souvenir, no? There was another that didn’t look quite-skeletonised yet near one of the gravestones. God knows how they’d ‘escaped’ from the graves and where the rest of the bones were. Probably best not to know.

Anyway, we left the skulls and continued on our way to the next ger and the DSC_0025disappointing waterfall. Aside form the skulls, I hadn’t really been that impressed with Mongolia until the last day. We stopped for lunch and were given not only a pint glass of tea but I also was served egg and chips, OK it came with some Russian type salad and Chinese style rice, but the tea and the egg and chips were straight from Northern England. Then we visited the Erdene Zuu Monastery, a large complex that survived the communist era when many other monasteries were destroyed. It was interesting learning about all the different deities that were displayed on murals or silk paintings. My favourites were to two skeletons who looked like they were rock’n’roll dancing and are said to protect against thieves.

It seemed like another night of boredom in the ger was to follow, especially as it was raining, but the ger owner suggested taking a walk up the hill, so when the rain held off, that’s what I did. I was so sick of taking pictures of the empty landscapes I didn’t even bother take my camera, but as I walked up that hill alone, ascending over the vast plain which dwarfed the large monastery complex, it felt kind of God-like, being the only person looking over all that. Then I reached the top… I approached what I thought was a regular pile of Buddhist votive stones, but then saw that actually, this pile also featured about fifteen horses’ skulls. With the grey clouds behind it, it looked so voodoo I had to take a picture. I ran down the hill, which in itself was quite liberating, having nothing at all but rough ground to watch out for, grabbed my camera and

Voodoo rock'n'roll

Voodoo rock’n’roll

alerted my tour mates of my discovery. Pavel and I trekked back up the hill and as we reached the top, it started raining again, just spitting at first, so we decided to walk further to where there was another shine. By the time we approached this shine, it was raining heavily, and the shrine looked pretty unimpressive, just a regular pole covered in prayer ribbons, however, there was stones set out in a weird formation and, on rounding the front of the thing, we found a line of more horses skulls. Just at that moment, I also noticed the amazing sunset that was happening behind the mountain beyond. Although it was raining and now blowing a gale as well, the whole plain below us was drenched in a golden light. Within minutes, behind us, a rainbow began to form which would eventually form a perfect arch. It was the most awesome weather I had ever seen and standing by this spooky shrine, it felt apocalyptic. Only in Mongolia, which it’s endless supply of skulls and vast empty spaces could you really have this experience, so, odd as it was, that kind of made the trip for me.

The next day we returned to Ulaan Baator and I was grateful to go to the vegetarian Stupa Café and have a lovely meal of daal, vegetable, rice and raita. The food on the tour had been pretty miserable, but one thing I’ll say for Ulaan Baator is it has a good selection of vegetarian restaurants – three within spitting distance of the UB Guesthouse where I was staying (a great hostel).

To be, or not to be...

To be, or not to be…

The next day I’m off the China, land of no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, but I’ll be glad to get out of Ulaan Baator though the ‘land of the skulls’ has been a weird trip indeed.

Oh yes, and upon returning from my Mongolian adventure, I discovered I had been famous in France for a day as my interview with Jennifer Lesieur was published in Metro France – how cool is that?

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