With Love From Russia... and Siberia!

Wednesday, September 29, 2004
Where to begin after almost a month in Russia?!?! Here are some highlights!

  1. The train ride to Siberia - discounting of course the endless hours of non-motion and never available toilet! This was the two day train ride where the provodnitsa smuggled jeans and blankets! All the Mongolians were "issued" two pairs of jeans and one blanket at the start of the journey. This doesn't seem like something worth reporting, but it was so funny - and so systematic! She had a clipboard noting who had what and as soon as the Russian border patrol people had left the train for good... she collected her goods and packaged them back up again. I'm not finished!!!! There was a secret compartment under the hallway carpet where she hid them all. Rob even helped her to store them there since the hiding place was directly in front of our cabin. The secret compartment was large enough to hide away two full grown adults!!
  2. Blending in. I know it sounds stange - but all of a sudden, you cross from Mongolia to Russia and you no longer stick out. In Asia you are ALWAYS the white or Western person.... but suddenly we took one more train and voila! Sometimes we are on the metro or walking down the street and someone asks us a question... they are surprised to realize we are not Russian. It's a nice change! And, it's funny to see people's reaction too.
  3. A visit to Lake Baikal, the largest and deepest lake in the world. It doesn't officially hold the record for the clearest lake in the world, but it certainly seems it! Looking into the water is actually strange it is so clear. Any realistic concept of figuring out depth is out of the question.
  4. Staying on Olhon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal. This place is remote even for Siberia! But, we found a guy named Sasha who spoke great English and he befriended us. We went fishing and for a jeep ride around the island. We stayed with Sasha's grandmother.
  5. Eating omul. Omul is a type of fish found in Baikal. No self-respecting Siberian calls it Lake Baikal, so neither will I, I will call it Baikal, just like them. They smoke the omul for a while at the market by the lake in Liskvyanka and then all the potential buyers stroll past examining each and every fish - most residents of nearby Irkutsk come here for a breath of nature. After a full circuit of fish examining they choose the fish they want... since we weren't really sure about the correct examining method we picked an old lady who looked really nice and smiled at us.
  6. The acrobatic flight in Novosibirsk. It took us two days to find this place and organize an actual flight, but it was worth it. Andrei, the onsite mechanic learned "Pilot English" and was so happy to have us turn up. He was great! In addition to a death-defying flight of amazing stunts in an old Russian plane he also gave us a great tour of tiny airport.
  7. MTV Russia is fantastic. It's the best programming I've seen since the China progaganda channel! It makes anything you see on American television (HBO or otherwise) seem tame. The videos are wild and the tunes aren't bad either. We bought an MP3 CD in the metro yesterday hoping to prolong our Russian music experience.
  8. Visting the Kremlin and Lenin's mauseleum.
  9. Visiting Anya in Moscow! Last time I came to Russia I met Anya through another Russian friend and I got to see her again this time. It's great to see a friend after so long without seeing anyone I know. Her and her boyfriend taught us how to play Russian pool! If you want to know how to play, here's a link, but good luck finding the gigantic table! http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Billiards
Russian Sterotypes and "Facts"

  1. So many Russian women seem to be SOOOO tall. And, they all wear skyscaper stillettos. How they manage to walk through the mud and cobblestones I'm not really sure, but wow, I could sure use a lesson or two.
  2. Babushka means grandmother. If someone is a grandmother, or of grandmother age she gets this title. It's a title of respect. After a week or so we realized that if someone calls a woman babushka - it's likely that it is NOT really her grandmother - it's a title!! In Russia, it's a hard earned one.
  3. Anything you have ever heard about Russian sterotypes... they are rarely true nowadays. Not only do they charge Western prices (or higher), they also dress the same as us, sometimes speak fluent English, and they also smile! Sometimes you do encounter the NYET person - someone who always says "NO" regardless of what you ask - but nowadays there is always someone who says "Da". And, it's likely they'll smile and try to help you. The most common stereotype about Russians that is true is in regards to their education. Most people we have met seem to not only have college educations, but they work as architects, economists, engineers, linguists or scientists... and the odd network marketer?!? No one seems to thing this is very extraordinary.
Anyway, about the tourism part... it's great! Especially St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is one of the best places to walk through a history book. Every place you go, every sight you see - there's history involved. Plus the city is filled with canals and beautiful buildings. It's such a perfect place to visit you can't believe you haven't been here before... oh, wait! I have been here before! Even when you have been here before, there's just too many things to see that you haven't the time - even on your fourth or fifth visit. Just make sure you get to the Hermitage on your first visit!

The only bad thing about Russia is the fact that I do not speak Russian. I have learned most of the alphabet (Cyryllic) and can prounce most things... but it is just not the same. Although, I did meet an old retired military guy who learned Spanish to speak with the Cuban army. Speaking with me on the bus that day was the most Spanish he had spoken for 20 years!!!

Of all the places I have been to, I would most like learn Russian and Portuguese. Whether or not either of these will ever happen I can only guess! I promise to keep you posted.

For now, Das Ve Danya! (Goodbye!)

Love, Alison

Gobi Desert Greetings!

Wednesday, September 1, 2004
From giant sand dunes almost a kilometer high to flaming red cliffs and grazing camels, there is a lot to see in the Gobi desert… you just have a few hundred kilometers before the scenery changes! On the first day we even got to drive through a dry canyon. We spent each night with local herdsman families… all of whom keep goats, sheep, camels and horses. Hundreds and hundreds of them! Those camels really stink and you especially notice the smell when the entire herd parks themselves outside the door to your ger.

There are so few people living in the Gobi desert (.3 per square kilometer to be exact) we only passed six vehicles in five days we were there. Four of those were full of tourists and the other two were locals that our driver knew. It’s good to have the tracks all to yourself though because every car leaves a dust storm their wake. The scenery in the desert was breathtaking. Everywhere you looked was a picture perfect postcard! Coincidentally, the airport in the Gobi was also the only place in the country we managed to find postcards.

Now that we are back in the capital and have taken a much deserved shower we are heading to the Natural History museum where they house all the dinosaur bones found out in the desert. Those bones not located in this museum can be seen in New York’s Natural History museum. It’s where the archeologist who discovered the pre-historic existence of Gobi dinosaurs went to work when his expeditions in Mongolia came to an end. Is it still called smuggling if it ends up in a museum?

Anyway, we hop on the train again tomorrow! After just a mere 38 hours the train will arrive in Siberia. From what we have heard, the train actually spends nine hours at the border between Mongolia and Russia!

Sain Bain uu from Mongolia!

I should have sent this email about a week ago, but I had no access to the internet....

After a seven day Mongolian tour in a Russian jeep, we are pooped! Outside the city limits and surrounding area there are no paved roads, only dirt tracks. You quickly learn that there are good dirt tracks and bad dirt tracks. Often times your head just bumps the top of the jeep and mostly the journey is more tiring than the actual arrival and activities! Anyway, it was well worth the trip. The Mongolian countryside and its people are extremely welcoming. But before I continue let me define a few Mongolian vocabulary words that will be pertinent to what happened on the trip:

GER: A large, round, white, felt tent used by the nomadic people of Mongolia. There is a hearth or a fire in the center of the tent with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. The hole is covered by animal skin when the fire is not burning and the sun is not shining. Most of the time there is no electricity but occasionally they have a satellite dish! A photo of a ger is attached.

AIRAG: Fermented mare’s milk. A fizzy, sour, mildly alcoholic beverage brewed by herdsmen. It is consumed in mass quantities and can be bought by the roadside anywhere in Mongolia, especially when a ger is in sight. I compare the taste to yoghurt past its due date, although others love it!

OVOO: A pyramid shaped collection of stones. Mongolians rarely drive past one without making offerings of vodka bottles, blue silk or small denominations of togrog (the local currency). Sometimes there’s an animal skull on the top of the pyramid or occasionally a pair of crutches. You always walk clockwise around these sacred sites. A photo of an ovoo is attached.

DISTILLED WATER: At first glance we thought the bottle was filled with boiled clean water. We thought they were being kind so we wouldn’t get sick from the regular tap water. In fact, they were being kind… they brought us Mongolian vodka! It’s made from the condensation created by boiling yak’s milk. Comparable to grain alcohol it is almost 100% pure alcohol.

BOODOG: The resulting meal when you roast an entire goat from the inside out by placing hot rocks inside the sealed, skinned carcass of the animal. From the outside you use a blowtorch to scorch off the hair and other stuff. It takes all day to cook and all night to eat! It is considered good luck to play “hot potato” with the hot rocks when they remove these greasy items from the goat’s innards when the cooking is complete. A photo of a boodog is attached.

Everything about our trip was fabulous. We recruited a Korean guy named Jae to join us in the jeep and he was just as fun as our driver. The driver didn’t speak any English, but he was extremely good at communicating with signals and facial expressions. By the end of the week we were having complete conversations in two different languages with very few misunderstandings!

We went to see the few sights that Mongolia has to offer – mainly the oldest monastery in the country as well as the nearby protecting penis. Yes, that’s right. Apparently, the locals believe that the local hillside is shaped like a vagina… so the penis protects the monks from temptation. I am just repeating what I heard!

The highlights of the adventure really were meeting all the local people who welcome you like a long, lost relative and seeing the countryside. And, just while driving you stumble across amazing things… the roadside ovoos and gers, and the marmots that dot the terrain and scurry away when you drive within earshot. We stopped to peer into their burrowed holes, but they refuse to come out ever again once they know you’re nearby. It’s also not unusual to see the occasional camel and despite the fact that our driver lives in the city, he knew how to bring the camel to its knees so we could hop on for a photo opportunity!

Roadside is also how the boodog began. Our driver stopped as we neared our destination for the day and we picked up a goat to roast. When we met the circus on the train they told us that we could not leave Mongolia without having this traditional barbeque, and so we did! If Mongolians had a Thanksgiving, this would be it. It took all day to prepare – from taking the hammer to the goat’s head to the slicing of the stomach when the meat was fully cooked, to the five liters of distilled water they served it with. I’m sorry to say that there were vegetarians staying in the next ger over from ours and they hardly ventured outside that day.

One day we saw a full double rainbow and on another there was a hailstorm! Whatever the weather, you always get to see the beautiful blue sky at some point during the day, and if you are lucky it will be during the sunset.

We arrived back to Ulaan Bataar last night expecting to spend a day or two in the nearby national park and book our train tickets to Russia… but the train was sold out for days and days! We have so much extra time here that we booked another jeep tour around the Gobi Desert. It really wasn’t in the plans, but the only other option is to sit around in the capital where there really is not much to do. So, we leave in the morning. Hopefully it will be just as fun as the first one! Supposedly the desert has much unchartered territory and archeologists are still finding new species of dinosaurs. I’ll be happy to just climb to the top of the sand dunes!

Love, Alison