And then we leave Russia. So the second leg of the trans-Siberian Express was not quite first class, rather 'kupe' class, four beds in a small compartment, on a single carriage that crosses the boarder from Russia to Mongolia. But it was almost empty, we had the compartment to ourselves after the always-smiling Mongolian man who had a ticket for our compartment changed to another. Other than him, a couple of other Mongolians and a few Russians we were alone on this carriage. And I'd been told it was frequently booked up for weeks in advance...
I tell a lie. We also shared the carriage with several westerners. A couple from the UK who talked incessantly about house prices and their rusty Vauxhall Astra they sold before commencing their trip. Yawn. I had no interest in being drawn into their mundane conversation. I made sure our compartment door was locked as they droned on in the corridor to an American couple.
The American Bible Man
As we neared the border a tall American wearing smart clothes knocked on our compartment door. He entered. Before he had started speaking we could feel the aura of 'bible belt' around him. 'Bet he's a missionary' I would've said to Lindsey if he had got out of earshot. Like the English couple he liked to drone on. He found himself in a dilemma; he'd had some cash wired to him from the states but didn't have the paperwork for it. And now he was leaving Russia with more cash than he entered with and declared on his customs slip. So could I please hold on to $100 for him whilst we crossed the border? Why don't you just blag it I asked, stick the note in your sock or something. But no, he was too honest, God would disapprove of such dishonesty (arrr, so I was right, a born again... no, a Baptist missionary...). so I crossed the border with the Baptist's $100 bill.
When our American friend returned to collect his money, I was minded to return his request for me to return it with a puzzled look. "Eh?" I would say, "$100? Don’t know what you are talking about mate". But then I thought better of it. I guessed that US bible sorts don't get that kind of humour.
Swedes on tour
I forgot to mention the Swedes. Four Swedes in the compartment next to ours on tour to Japan and the World Cup. Two noteworthy aspects about them to mention. Firstly, one of them had the worlds worst teeth. I mean this man had serious dental problems. He drew attention to his mouth with a wicked blonde handlebar moustache. And when he grinned his upper teeth were hanging from a gum that was like sticky black liquorice. And another Swede had the world’s worst snore. Positively the loudest snore imaginable. A roaring rumble on the ‘in breath’ followed by a high pitched wine on the ‘out breath’. And this was loud, even on a moving train with its clickity clack it penetrated the compartment wall and was of sufficient volume to make both Lindsey and myself laugh out loud. And then have difficulty in falling asleep. The noise of the train is almost hypnotic, the snore is an evil form of torture. ‘Will you please shut up’!!
Whenever you walk out through customs in an airport, into the arrivals hall, there are always people holding up signs with people’s names on. Taxi drivers, chauffeurs waiting to collect people on business. I've never had the luxury of having someone like that to pick me up. Until Ulaan Bataar railway station. As we descended from the train steps there was a woman holding a card with our names on. We felt kind of important! I'd emailed a guest house a few days earlier with the briefest of messages, 'we'll be in Ulaan Bataar in a couple of days' and here we were being met and taxied to the guest house. The woman spoke good English. We made small talk- she had spent time in London, "I am spending time in norf landan, Goulders Green. You know it?" "Yeah, but I try to avoid going that far north of the river. What is your name?" "Bob" she replied. Urrr, ummm, OK. That pretty much put an end to the conversation. She asked us our names, but it is hard talking to a woman who calls herself 'Bob'.
Four dollar a night you know
We stayed at the UB guesthouse that is run by a hyperactive Korean man. "My room very cheap you know." "I got good room for you you know. And you take tour with us. To Gobi. Our tour very cheap...."
It was a very nice room. The guesthouse was essentially a ground floor flat in a large block in the centre of the city. Several rooms had been turned into dormitories, with a lounge, kitchen and office. There were two bathrooms, but neither had permanent running hot water - hot water is centrally provided and the pipes were being changed. Instead there was an electric shower in one. For the double room we were taken upstairs, into a private flat and shown the room. Very nice. At four dollars a night we took it.
With the exception of our own padlock for our room in the flat, there were no keys. To enter the guesthouse you had to bang on the door, to get into the flat we had to bang on another door. And hope that someone would answer it. On one occasion we could not get into the flat after breakfast downstairs, but that was a minor inconvenience compared with the first night...
Multi-purpose Sealy bags
Of all the things that we travel with, after many trips to far-flung places I have found that one of the handiest items to have in your bag is a collection of resealable freezer bags. There use is infinite, from keeping money dry in the money belt (and boy does it get drenched from the sweat in hotter climates); keeping documents safe and together; holding washing powder and other such loose substances; the list is endless. And in our first night in Ulaan Bataar we added another use. Let me explain…
It was around three o-clock in the morning and Lindsey had awoken with a small problem. She tried not to think about it, hoping it would go away, but that made it worse. She couldn't fall asleep again, and the discomfort was growing. She tried everything to make it go away but to no avail. She needed to have a wee. 3:30 and it was intolerable, she was desperate to go, but didn't know where she could relive herself. Where was the toilet in this flat? Downstairs is locked up, and no one will be around at this time. What to do. She wakes me. 'Houston, we have a problem'. 'I'm desperate' grimaces Lindsey crossing her legs. We don’t have a problem, we have a crisis!
In our eagerness to take the room, we made one small error. We forget to enquire where the toilet was. We knew where the bathroom was in the guesthouse downstairs, but not in this private flat. And besides, at 3.30 there would be no one in the guesthouse up to open the door. What to do? Creep around this flat and hope we find the door to the toilet? But it could be any door, anywhere in this flat and in the dark...? Must be a plan B. We scour the room for suitable sized receptacles. A couple of vases, but nothing big enough, nothing fit for purpose. 'Hurry up, we've got to think of something before I wet myself!' And then I remember the sealy bags.
Lindsey goes through six stages.
- Refusal. I can't wee into that.
- Embarrassment. I can't wee into that. It's not right.
- Fear of the consequences. I can't wee into that. What will we do with it
- Infinite discomfort. I'm absolutely bursting
- The torrent
Hmmm, bit yellow Mrs. McNeill. Tad dehydrated, you need to drink more water. "more water and need to wee again like that? No thanks." and once again the resealable freezer bags save the day.
In search of Mongolian throat singing
One of the reasons for coming to Mongolia, (other than it being 'on the way') was to hear some Mongolian throat singing found in the west of the country, and also in Tuva. This is a form of singing that uses the throat, to produce noises that just shouldn't be made by the human body. Deep, resonating drones, with whistling overtones, an ethereal and magical music that we were determined to track down.
After a great deal of questioning and acting/ impersonating throat singing (generating much amusement and puzzlement) we were told of a venue where we could find the traditional music being performed.. We duly made our way there. But couldn't find it. 'Arr,' said a passer by who spoke reasonable English, 'you look for concert:. that building' he said pointing at a concrete hulk that would not look out of place on the South Bank in London. Ugly would be another word for it. We went in. No one was collecting tickets, but we were directed to the second floor, to the balcony.
Below us some sort of cultural event was underway. Must've been special coz the TV cameras were there. Ancient looking things, that looked remarkably similar to the Camera's I'd made out of match boxes and toilet roll, (with lots of sticky backed plastic) making a model of the Blue Peter studio as illustrated in the 1977 Blue Peter Annual.
It was a cabaret. Or was it a talent contest. Or was it an exposition of child entertainers? A bit of all probably. At the end of each act, which was as varied as singers crooning modern songs, traditional dance, and song, and musical instruments from ancient stringed instruments to children playing empty bottles. Child contortionists getting their bodies knotted up in ways that should've been anatomically impossible. And at the end of each act the audience starts clapping. But not in the spontaneous 'applause' in the west, rather a regimented 'clap'. And then another act and another. But no throat singing.
And then a group of ten young girls come onto the stage. My jaw drops. They are dressed in hot pants, skimpy sequined tops and ten-gallon hats. None of them in their teens and they are doing a dance routine , provocatively, suggestively thrusting their young bodies around small chairs. Tilting the hats to some crappy middle of the road American rock. Per-lease. And I'm feeling sad and annoyed. Bloody yanks and their cultural imperialism. Three short steps from Coca-Cola through MacDonalds and Britney Spears to this. And the act finishes to more clap-clap-clap-clap and I'm boiling with 'right-on' anger like the good Guardian reader that I am, fuming that these girls are being exploited by the American dream and why are they not performing traditional dance? When another troupe of young dancers come onto the stage and start doing the salsa. ho-la! Mongolian children doing the rumba. A most incongruous thing but sadly still no Mongolian Throat Singing….
Nags on speed
We return to Nissans guesthouse to pay for the tour we are about to take into the Mongolian countryside and there is an American sitting in the kitchen and we start talking to him, telling him about what we have just seen. And like so many Americans we meet, he is embarrassed by his culture and many of his fellow countrymen. He's an interesting character this one, over here for a month or so to ride the Steppe and find a teacher to instruct him in the ancient art of throat singing. Cool! And he's buying a couple of horses, one to ride and one as a pack mule, he's found the horses, about $100 each. But they will probably be a tad slow, so tomorrow he's off to the veterinary pharmacy to buy some steroids. 'To make 'em big and strong like we do back home.' And he's talking about getting hold of some PCP for the horses and I'm thinking he's going to be injecting Mongolian horses with Angel Dust and whoa! Gotta be bigger, and better than everyone elses. Typical American. (Sorry, there I go again, tarring all our trans-Atlantic brothers and sisters with the same brush. My apologies. I do know better!)