26 September 2007

Out of the steppes

Alright...I give up. I delayed publishing this post because I sorely wanted it to be accompanied by pictures. But, the fact is, not only have we taken—between us—about 1200 pictures (I'm not making that up. Don't worry...we won't subject you to all of them. Unless you're our parents. Then, prepare yourselves...), but we've spent many a frustrating hour with internet connectivity in China. Certain websites are suspiciously always "temporarily unavailable." The BBC is one of them; Wikipedia suffers the same fate. Unfortunately, Flickr, where our pictures are hosted, seems to be subject to these vagaries and is therefore causing us myriad problems.

Of course, it could also be the slow computers and twitchy internet access we have in our backwater hostel in one of Beijing's hutongs. Literally outside our window, currently, is one of those drunken parties that flirts with (but so far hasn't descended into) violence.

But enough grousing. We made it out of the steppes in one piece, and, as I said, thoroughly, madly, unabashedly in love with a new country.

Since our last post, we've spent 144 hours on trains and buses, covering 7,972 kilometers. We've met people crazier than us (eg: Bish and John, bicycling around the world in two years, and documenting their beard growth as they do it), made friends with a veterinarian who splits her time between Irkutsk and Ulaan Baatar, where she works as a quality control coordinator for a rendering plant, assuring that the kolbasa imported into Russia is of good Russian quality, learned a plethora of new games (including one that's played with the remnant ankle bones of a slaughtered goat...more on that later), eaten fathomless amounts of Nutella, sausage, and ramen (but not all together...usually), and sampled more than a few Russian vodkas (thanks, mostly, to Andrew and Kim, another set of hard-core backpackers from the UK).

The Trans-Siberian has changed significantly in the last nine years. In 1998, there were four tourists on the entire train. In 2007, there were four whole carriages of tourists. Sadly, many of the Russians, Mongolians, and Chinese traders who formed the backbone of the rail line's customer base have been priced out of anything but worst-class. This leaves the train and its dour provodnitsas at the mercy of drunken Westerners. No wonder they try to charge for hot water.

The railway itself is a massive feat of Soviet (and now Russian) engineering. As proof, there is a marker every hundred meters. Along its entire length. As of 2002, the whole of the Russian portion of the line (Moscow to Vladivostok) has been electrified, making for faster and more energy-efficient trains. The rails in China have also been changed to concrete, minimizing the railway's deforesting impact. And Mongolia...well, they have a bit to go.

But! Mongolia is an ineffably amazing country. Really, drop your plans for Tofino and head out to Mongolia next chance you get. I can't speak highly enough about that country, its people, or the experiences we had in our seven days there. It's impossible to describe Mongolia without descending into cliche, so here goes.

Some highlights of the last couple of weeks:

1. Horseback riding on the Mongolian steppes. (Behold! Cliches!) There is absolutely nothing like riding on the back of a powerful, galloping animal across wide-open, wind-swept steppes with nothing but mountain, grass, and the occasional ger anywhere in your sight. This wasn't your typical tourist-rides-a-horse thing (where the horses walk, bored, nose to derriere). No...these horses gallop. And fast. Fast enough that the grasshoppers accidentally divebomb your face in an attempt to get out of the way.
The thing about Mongolia is that, by dint of the fact that life in the desert and steppes isn't easy, everything is communal. As we approached our camp at the end of our day of riding, a flock of someone else's sheep had found its way there too. So, atop these galloping horses, we herded them back to where they were supposed to be. It wasn't like a movie. It may as well have been one.

2. Gers. Yes, it was seven degrees below zero at night in the desert. And yes, we were sleeping in circular, felt-lined tents, getting up every two hours to try (unsuccessfully) to keep the fire going. But, honestly, the gers are much more comfortable than most hostels we've stayed in. And provided you don't move, you stay pretty warm. Until 3:00 am. Then it's just a fight till the sun comes up. And this, they kept reminding us, was just the start of fall.

3. Mongolian. The language. What a strange one that one is. Masculine and feminine vowels? (really...who gives their vowels genders? And consonants change the way they're pronounced depending on the gender of the vowel before which they sit; but, to confuse you more, the vowels themselves don't necessarily always sound different).
Or, an aspirated L? (every L sounds like it's preceded by a very soft T, with air escaping out of the sides of your tongue. So, it's Utlaan Baatar).
And then there are the four vowels that span the spectrum between O an U. I still couldn't hear the difference, despite pestering many a Mongolian.

4. Food. This includes fermented mare's milk, and more mutton than you can imagine, but it's amazingly good. We happened to be at the ger of a nomad family when it came time for them to milk their mares (not hard to time that one; they do it every two hours) and kill a goat. That was a gruesome sight—two blows with a hammer through its skull stunned it, after which the guy killing it stuck his hand into its chest and, somehow, did the deed. It took two hours, start to finish, to kill, skin, disembowel, wash, and cook the goat. I'd show pictures, but...

5. Hospitality. There wasn't a single time we walked into a ger that we weren't offered something to eat or drink. This did mean medium-rare goat liver wrapped in omentum and grilled on the open fire after its owner was slaughtered, but nothing that we needed ever went unmet. This also meant playing the ankle-bone game with someone you'd never met before, sharing only a few words in common, and bonding over a bar of dark Russian chocolate.

6. Lake Baikal. Yes, it's not in Mongolia, but in the world's largest fresh-water lake, the water is drinkable without adverse side-effects (at least, none so far). And it's bitingly cold. That doesn't stop the Siberians—or us two crazy Americans—from jumping in it.

I could go on, but with that, I've probably already rambled too much. We're off to Xi'an in three hours. We'll post the pictures as soon as we can get them up.

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