Sunday, October 30, 2005

Throwing stones in the Gobi

On the third morning of our 8-day trip to the Gobi desert, our van was struck by two flat tyres in fifteen minutes. Once the second tyre blew we realised how lucky we were that our driver was also a crack mechanic - unperturbed, he sat down to patch up the hole with a piece of inner tube. To pass the time I persuaded my Dutch travelling mate, Jochem, to take me on in a stone throwing contest. I had already goaded him with taunts about Ian Thorpe's superiority over 'Peter van Yoogen Boogen', and was convinced that I was a shoe-in. But in the end our best efforts to throw rocks as far as we could were swallowed up by the immense space of the Gobi. The distances our stones travelled were barely a blip in this vast land. There was a horizon in every direction, and nothing in between except the hard, stony ground of the desert. Throughout the rest of the trip the landscape went through subtle variations, but it was this emptiness, and the quiet, that stayed with me.

The Gobi is one of the least populated places on earth, averaging just 0.5 persons per square kilometre. Outside of small town centres, we would drive all day and be lucky to see five other cars on the road. Every now and then we would come across settlements of gers. These circular felt tents (also known as 'yurts' in the West) are the homes of about half the Mongolian population, and almost everybody in the Gobi. They are remarkably effective in keeping out the fierce desert winds, and are easily transportable which is ideal for the many Mongolians whose lives involve moving regularly (amazingly, a quarter of the population is truly nomadic and another quarter is semi-nomadic). We met a tour group which suggested that we would be "craving corners" after our eight days in the Gobi, but that wasn't exactly true. My group, compromising E, Jochem, Canadian Ashley (fellow survivor of 'the golden shower incident'), and Korean Jin Young, enjoyed our nights in the gers, gathering around the stove to warm ourselves up and putting off the inevitable dash to the outhouse through the chilling midnight wind.

There were, however, two things that I did crave throughout the trip. The first was paved roads. There are no roads in the Gobi - you simply drive along the tyre tracks left by the cars before you. The terrain is appallingly uneven - in the back of the van we were like Lotto balls, randomly thrown in every direction and unable to predict which direction our heads, arms or bums would be thrown next. It was almost as if we were the subject of a week-long advertisement for a new 4WD. On the few occasions that we came across a paved road in the towns, council workers were digging holes in them and it seemed within the realms of possibility that they were busy bringing them up to 'Mongolian standard'.

I also craved decent food. Mutton is the staple - although to describe it as such is slightly misleading because it implies the availability of food of the non-staple variety. Westerners tend to be offered one of two main dishes. The first is a type of flour noodle mixed in with pieces of mutton, mutton fat, and perhaps some potatoes and carrots. The second is like the first, but with hot water added to give it the texture of a soup. Eight days of such fare does test one's penchant for cultural experience, but the alternatives were unquestionably less appetising. Locals happily snack on bones holding nothing but mutton fat - the Western practice of trimming meat of its fat seems very peculiar to Mongolians. And we read that the most common dish in the Gobi remains mutton meat, bones, organs and skull all tossed together in a bucket, from which you choose your favoured part of the body. It probably doesn't need to be pointed out that Mongolians living in the Gobi are not spoiled for choice when it comes to food - vegetables other than potatoes, carrots and onions, for example, are hard to come across and in any case rarely feature in Mongolian meals. This limited diet may not score highly in terms of the five food groups but it appears to provide everything the locals need. Nonetheless, it is something that outsiders commonly find difficult to stomach.

Diet is just one example of the vast differences between my way of life in Canberra, Australia and those of the many people who make their homes in the Gobi. But the long reach of global corporations ensures there are some surprising similarities. Whether you're in the Gobi or downtown Sydney, you can travel to your nearest market and pick up a Snickers and a Coke. This, perhaps, wasn't such a shock. But one of the most startling sights in the Gobi is the occasional ger boasting its own satellite dish. Electricity and televisions seemed quite rare in the desert, let alone the capacity for satellite TV. It was strange to think that just as we Australians were catching up on 24-hour news coverage at home, BBC and CNN were beaming the same pictures into ger settlements in one of the least populated places on earth.

Perhaps too many photos of the Gobi - but we think they're worth it

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Strangers on the train - or, The American who mistook my bed for a toilet

The greatest variable on the Trans-Siberian trip is your travelling companions. Spending 40 hours in a confined space can be trying with best friends, let alone complete strangers. E and I have experienced a mix, from the heartening to the bizarre and slightly disturbing. Of the people we have met on the train, three groups stand out: the warm Siberians; the Russians bearing vodka; and the American who mistook my bed for a toilet.

The most enjoyable leg of our trip so far was the 19 hours we spent travelling 3rd class (platskartny) from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk. Travelling platskartny was a bit of an experiment. It is described in our guidebook as a "rolling dorm": 54 beds crammed into a carriage and very little privacy or opportunity for escape. The beds are shorter and thinner, the bathrooms stronger on the nose, and vast amounts of luggage are strewn throughout the carriage. The advantage is that there is little opportunity to crawl into your shell, and you almost certainly end up communicating with the people around you. We shared a space with two mild mannered Russian men from northern Siberia. After several attempts to engage them in conversation by offering up various treats from our snack bag, our chocolate chip biscuits finally proved the ice breaker and we spent an afternoon learning about each other's very different lives.

Alexander was from Norilsk, Zepitkhan from Dudinka. Alexander explained that the first snow had just fallen and that it would continue for the next nine months. We eagerly asked for more details on winter, and they obliged: -40C days, two metres of snow and 45 days of complete darkness each year. I naively asked if they ate lots of soup to keep warm, and they laughed and pointed at a bottle of vodka on the table. We asked about their jobs (computer programmer and lawyer) and their interests (home theatre and cars). They were very interested in our lifestyle in Australia, down to the number of bedrooms in our home and the size of our television screen. We showed them some photos of family and friends and the Australian landscape, and Zepitkhan took a particular interest in the marital status of my younger sister J and began asking questions about obtaining Australian citizenship. The remarkable thing about this afternoon of conversation was that we did not share one word of common language - the key to it all was a Russian-English/English-Russian dictionary which was passed back and forth. As the train approached our destination Alexander reached into his suitcase and pulled out a jar of Siberian honey and offered it to us as a gift. We reached into ours and gave both of them koala keyrings and Sydney Harbour Bridge pins. Zepitkhan then scrambled up onto his bed and rustled in his bag for a few minutes before producing a video advertising tourism in his home town, and a cured fish. The fish sat there on the table staring back at us and he explained that it was a staple for the indigenous people in his region, who fish for it by cutting a hole in the ice and throwing a line into the icy waters. It was chewy and salty and somewhat of an acquired taste, but we munched on it until the train pulled into the station and the time came to reach into the phrasebook for 'It was nice to meet you' and 'Goodbye'.

On the 34 hour trip from Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk we shared our four berth compartment with a Russian soldier, Alexander, and a self-described '911 man', Victor. On the second night they offered Edwina and me some of their beer and, somewhat tentatively, I pulled out of my backpack a half litre bottle of Moscovskaya vodka (which is of mid-range quality and cost me all of $6). I was a little apprehensive because I had heard that nights spent drinking vodka with Russians can be endless and that it is very difficult to refuse a drink. As I poured out 50ml shots (the Russian standard, although many establishments serve 100ml quantities), another soldier, Andre, joined us. Alexander instructed me to make a toast, so I said something about new friends and we threw back our first drink. Soon after I was encouraged to refill the glasses, and when my bottle was finished Alexander produced his own. In between shots we ate small snacks - bread, salami, lemon - designed to soak up the alcohol. Again without a common language, we learned a little about each other. Alexander, for instance, had been posted to Khabarovsk in the far East and was leaving behind a wife and young son. And all three of them were into cars, and somehow even without a word of English they managed to figure out that Edwina knew more about cars than me, which was the cause of much amusement. Unfortunately, it all came to an abrupt end. One of the last things I remember clearly is Victor pointing to a page in my phrasebook which sets out how to say "I'm going to be sick". He was referring to Alexander, who had suddenly gone green and began to throw up on himself. But it was only the next morning that we worked out that it wasn't the vodka - it was the chicken, which they had provided and which had been sitting on the table with the other snacks. I was the only other person who had eaten it, and it wasn't long before the sudden, violent illness fell upon me. The rest of the night was a bit of a blackout, although E remembers it quite vividly as she tried to put me to bed and work out what was the matter. As an epilogue to this night, I was nursed back to health by a combination of E's care and the home remedies of the host of our Krasnoyarsk homestay. A babushka in her sixties, Galina insisted I drink her chicken soup and Siberian thin jelly, and the day after I was back on my feet.

We boarded our Irktusk to Ulaan Baatar leg to discover that our carriage was full of Westerners - foreigners had been put together to streamline the Russia-Mongolia border crossing. We packed away our phrasebook and dictionary, started chatting to the Canadian and American sharing our compartment, and sat back to enjoy what we thought would be one our easier legs. We were wrong. The American, K, stayed up longer than us, drinking beer and vodka with the people in the adjacent compartment. I woke up briefly when K came to bed, for he was very drunk and the provodnitsa was insisting on strapping him into his top bunk. I put it out of my mind and went back to sleep. A short while later, I awoke to the feeling of a warm liquid drizzling onto my back. I was disoriented at first, not sure whether it was all part of a dream, but sat up and saw K perched in a sitting position on his top bunk. Then E cried out as something warm drizzled onto her, and in the ensuing confusion we pushed K out into the corridor and into the bathroom. It was at that point that I recalled that, earlier in the evening, K had been telling us about a Mongolian man who, before going to sleep on the top bunk of his train, intentionally urinated on his wife in the bunk below. K had apparently decided to test out this local practice for himself.

We were furious, but it was a full train and there was nowhere for us to go. We got changed and threw our soiled bedding into the corridor. We bought new sheets and climbed back into bed, but there was little sleep to be had and I lay awake most of the night expecting another warm projectile to come my way. In the morning K apologised, but it was of the charm-soaked sort, full of phrases like "If there's anything I can do" and "If you want to shout at me, I understand". We had a full day and a night left on the train, and I planned to spend most of it far away from him. But then we reached the Russia-Mongolia border and we were instructed to stay in our compartments until immigration and customs checks had been completed (it is often quipped that it is harder to get out of Russia than into it). E, K, the Canadian and me sat in the compartment, waiting for the Russian officials to visit. The train had come to a complete stop, so the air circulation had been shut off. After two hours the smell of stale urine hung heavily in the air. After four hours I began to nuzzle my nose into my deoderised armpit, desperately seeking some relief. And still we waited for the immigration and customs officials. After five hours we were cleared and we proceed to the other side of the border, where we sat for another three hours. Thankfully the Mongolian officials were more efficient and after the formalities were completed we were allowed onto the platform for some fresh air. The train eventually got moving again, and I sat in the corridor for as long as I could before retiring to bed, where I spent a second night watching K.

We knew almost immediately that the incident would make for a good story, but there is little joy in the retelling. We worry now that we will approach each subsequent train journey with a suspicion of our travelling companions, half-expecting to be woken in the night by one of their less savoury personality quirks. And for K it is probably more serious, with a realisation that he has a problem with alcohol. We have one more leg of our Trans-Siberian journey left, and we have our fingers crossed that it will be of the sort that brings honey and fish, rather than dirty sheets and bad memories.

Loads of photos are now up, including pics of Krasnoyarsk, magical Lake Baikal and the train

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Alain de Botton on staring out train windows

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at time requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places. Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to so; the task can be as paralyzing as having to tell a joke or mimic an accent on demand. Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks -- charged with listening to music, for example, or following a line of trees. The music or the view distracts for a time that nervous, censorious, practical part of the mind which is inclined to shut down when it notices something difficult emerging in consciousness, and which runs scared of memories, longings and introspective or original ideas, preferring instead the administrative and the impersonal.

--Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Riding the big grand-daddy to Beijing

The Trans-Siberian railway is the big grand-daddy of train trips. The train from Moscow to Beijing covers 7621 kilometres and takes six days. If you continue straight through to Vladivostok that's an extra couple of thousand kilometres. As a guidebook points out, once you've done the Trans-Siberian every other train trip is "once around the block with Thomas the Tank Engine". This trip has loomed large in my imagination for years, and it was a huge thrill to find myself on the platform at Kursk station in Moscow, waiting to board the first leg of my Trans-Siberian adventure.

The Trans-Siberian proper is the Number 2 train (the 'Rossiya') from Moscow to Vladivostok. Few Westerners take this route because of Vladivostok's remote locale and the difficulty of moving on from there. E and I are taking the more travelled route, 'the Trans-Mongolian', which passes through Mongolia and terminates in Beijing. Having said that, these are working trains and the likelihood of us bumping into other foreigners on the train is quite small. On our 34 hour trip from Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk (our current location) we met three other tourists, but the rest of the carraige was a motley crue of babushkas, Russian soliders on their way to postings and Russian families moving house. The train attracts a wide variety of people simply because it is the cheapest and most efficient form of transport in Russia.

The story of the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway is as monumental as the mythology that has since been built around it. It took 25 years for the first line of track to be built, with it being completed finally in 1916 at a cost of 1000 million rubles. Most of it was built by men wielding nothing more than wooden shovels. The workers, most of them far from home, endured long, cold winters as well as summers that brought outbreaks of plague, cholera and other diseases. But this first line of track was built on the cheap, and there were frequent delays and derailments. Sometimes the train went so slowly that passengers got out to pick flowers and walked along beside it. Following the Revolution, Lenin remarked that "When the trains stop, that will be the end", and the trains continued to run through the Civil War. Later the Soviet Union undertook the repair of the Trans-Siberian line, a huge project which was largely built on the backs of prisoners in labour camps.

The modern traveller, however, need not concern themselves with the suffering behind this remarkable engineering feat. Three legs in, E and I agree: it is a tremendously comfortable ride. In 2nd class, there are four berths in each compartment and nine compartments in each carriage. The provodnitsa (conductor) is the lord of the manor. She (they are invariably women) decides when the toilets are open, when the carriage gets cleaned, and oversees provision of the samovar of boiling water at the end of the carriage. She can also decide to deprive passengers of these things - it is best to stay on the provodnitsa's good side. All except one of our provodnitsas so far have been lovely and extremely hard-working - although we have small Australian-themed gifts in our backpacks should the need arise to sweet talk a surly conductor.

Time passes pleasantly on the train. After we store our bags away and sort out our bedding, we make ourselves a cup of tea and gaze out the window at the landscape. This may take up two or three hours of our time, depending on the mood. Then we might reach for a book (E, Solzhenitsyn and me, far less highbrow, Robert Harris's thriller 'Archangel') and read till we're hungry. Then it's time for lunch. We might spend a bit more time over our black bread and salami because we know that we have nothing important or pressing to do for the next day or even next two days. The landscape seems to reflect this mood back at us. There are spots of striking beauty, particularly at this time of year when some trees are ablaze in the reds, oranges and yellows of autumn, but for the most part we are gazing out at clusters of yellow trees or vast stretches of grassland (the steppes). This goes on for hours. The landscape is in no hurry to change, to do anything new or different, and neither are we.

The train passes through dozens of towns, giving us the opportunity to get little snapshot glimpses into their histories. We passed through the village where the world's first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, perished in a plane crash; our guidebook warned off stopping in another town for its history of stockpiling dangerous chemicals; and we stopped off in Yekaterinburg, site of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family and home town of Boris Yeltsin. Being on the train has helped me appreciate just how immense this country is, how many stories there are, and how little I can hope to comprehend on a 30-day visa. But, as I had hoped, it is a thrill to see the country unfold before me on this magnificent train as it rolls on gently towards Beijing.

A few more shots from the train