Train ride to China

We got up early and joined the numerous people from our hostel who were leaving for Beijing. At the station we were pleased to find we had quite a jolly Chinese guard on our train, but not one that made strange noises. We shared a compartment with Harriet, a very friendly English girl who has travelled the trans-Siberian railway directly from Moscow, after making a few stops by train in Europe. She has recently finished her PhD in neuroscience, and this is her last big holiday before her viva oral defence and starting work in London. The carriage is almost entirely English speakers – it seems like everyone has booked their trip through Real Russia. Amongst the other passengers, there were four Irish girls on a 7 week trip and a retired English man, John, who is off on a holiday without his wife for a couple of months. He will end up in Australia, before heading home at the beginning of December. He said his wife doesn’t like holidays where there is no fluffy dressing gown at the end of the day! He was a great character, really talkative and we had some good conversations. During the daylight hours, we passed through much of the scenery familiar to us from our Mongolian expedition, including a few vistas of Bactrian camels in the desert. It was a perfect way to leave a country that has so far been the highlight of our trip.

As night closed in, we reached the border crossings. This was nowhere near as much of a drag as I had expected, after the Russia/Mongolia crossing. The Mongolian part was swift, they didn’t seem so bothered now we were leaving the country and the Chinese side was very efficient. We didn’t have quite as many forms to fill in – there was no form this time quizzing us about symptoms of Ebola virus infection. We had got paranoid about our antelope antler kite handle being an illegal animal part, and had removed it and left it on a platform at the last Mongolian station; I think we needn’t have bothered though! As trains head into China, the bogeys need to be changed as the gauge of the tracks is different. So around 11pm-12am, we stopped in a workshop area and the carriages were removed one by one (with us inside) and hoisted up whilst they changed the wheels underneath so we could continue our journey. It was interesting to watch, and seemed to bring out the hidden railway geek in a lot of passengers.

The next morning, we awoke to our first views of the Chinese countryside. At first there were quite a few similarities to Mongolia – it was quite arid as I think we were still in the Gobi desert region. We had been given free breakfast and lunch tickets for the restaurant car the night before and it was fun sitting at the little tables with the tablecloths and fake red chrysanthemums watching the scenery. Lunch was a hard-boiled egg and toast – white bread and very sweet. But free! We saw areas of land cut into little terraces for growing crops, craggy granite peaks with tunnels for the trains to pass through and rivers at the base – it was starting to look like the China we had seen in traditional paintings. A Chinese man in a carriage a little way down from ours was stood at the window, beaming. I asked him if he was pleased to be back in his country, and he said emphatically that he was very happy! It is not very often you come across a stranger expressing their joy as patently as this man was; it was lovely to see! He said, ‘welcome in China!’ and smiled and smiled. Just before twelve, we pulled into Beijing. We were extremely excited to find out what lay in store for us.

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Last day in Mongolia – we nearly empty our bank accounts; my hair is Destroyed.

We had several housekeeping things to do on our last day; posting letters and parcels and the task of drawing out enough money to pay the hostel for our trip. This proved to be the most difficult, as we were unable to draw out all the money from an ATM, so we had to go to a bank. Mongolian money is all bank notes, and the conversion is such that a moderate amount of English cash translates to a huge wad of notes in Tugrik. We needed to draw out over a million Tugrik. We showed the bank the figure we wanted to get out, and they seemed surprised, but happy to help and told us it would have to be done in three transactions over their card machine and we would be charged for each transaction. We didn’t really have a choice, so started the process. After the second transaction I realised the currency was in US dollars, not Tugrik, and alarm bells started to ring. We had already drawn out more than we needed, but thankfully they hadn’t read the quantity by the million, they had added a decimal point! The upshot was that we got the money we needed in Tugrik, and the surplus in Chinese Yuan, which we needed anyway. We left with two thick wadges of bank notes in a plastic bag, feeling a bit shady and suspicious as if we had just robbed the bank.

My next errand was to get my hair cut, and where better then ‘DESTROY HAIR AND BEAUTY HAIR SALON’?! Daniel had spotted it the previous day, and I couldn’t resist taking the risk. It had been over two years since my last haircut in France, so I was definitely overdue for a spot of foreign language hair cutting. I find it adds a frisson of excitement to the salon experience – you never know quite what you’re going to get, and you can avoid all the awkward small talk conversations and simply stare benignly in front of you as you play the dumb tourist. I walked into DESTROY and pointed at my hair and made scissor gestures with my fingers. The lady took my coat and marched me to a sink and quite militantly began to wash my hair. She then bundled my hair up in a tight towel and sat me down in a chair. She placed a ring of tissue paper dog collar style around my neck and then a leopard print wide plastic shoulder covering (a nice touch, I felt). I was then draped in a voluminous white papery shroud, ready for my imminent destruction. She combed through my hair with difficulty (slightly embarrassing as I hadn’t brushed it for a couple of days), then made length gestures with her hands at intervals from mid bust upwards to eyebrow level, with a questioning expression. I indicated that just below shoulder length would be fine. She drew an imaginary straight line, and then an imaginary curved line, which I presumed meant, did I want a straight across cut or some layers. I shrugged, to indicate, do what you like, I trust you! She then proceeded to cut my hair. At one point she stopped, and peered at my scalp as if she had found something disgusting and looked questioningly at me. I have no idea what she might have found; possibly camel dung, but it didn’t hold her back for long! After it was cut she mimed, did I want curls or straight, and I replied in mime, why not have curls, it’s not every day you get to have curls, eh? (I am great at mime). So my hair was blow dried and waved and I came out looking like a Disney princess, but in more scrubbery clothes. So, if you’re ever in UB in need of a haircut, visit DESTROY HAIR AND BEAUTY, and be pleasantly surprised!

The rest of the day was frittered away at the hostel trying to organise things for our China trip, and despite thinking we had plenty of time to do this, we still ended up going to bed really late. We made our goodbyes to Sally, Jeff and Daniel, who were planning to head north together on a trip to visit the reindeer. As always, it was sad to part company, but I’m sure we’ll stay in touch. Perhaps we will visit Daniel’s restaurant in The Hague one day!

Day 12 – back to UB

Our final day was spent travelling back to UB. We stopped for lunch at a café and had horribly fatty soup – big chunks of fat as well as the meat and a layer of grease on top – which I didn’t eat much of as it made me feel queasy! Baggi left us partway and we swapped cars (into an inferior 4×4). He was going straight on another tour – I couldn’t believe it, he must have been knackered! We were sad to see him go. Back at our hostel, we bid goodbye to Bilguun, and made plans to go out for pizza that evening, something we had all been dreaming about. We met up with Daniel again and had a lovely time stuffing our faces with pizza, drinking beer in a pub close to our hostel and reminiscing about our trip.

Day 11 – Erdene Zuu monastery

Daniel left us to catch a bus back to UB, whilst we meandered our way back more slowly over the next couple of days. We stopped at Erdene Zuu monastery along the way. The town had a market which we had a brief look around. Most of the stalls were housed in metal containers, the kind that are used for transporting goods. We found it especially interesting because some of the stalls were selling parts to build a ger – you could kit yourself out on this market with all your wooden struts, trellis and ger paraphernalia. Imagine going to a market and buying a DIY house!

The monastery was beautiful. It had also been part destroyed in the Communist purges, but there were three main temple buildings that survived. These were located centrally and had beautiful curving oriental style roofs with brightly painted carvings. The whole complex was enclosed by a high wall, lined with white stupa, and there was a wide grassy area just within the wall. The doors had fantastic knockers with oriental style lion faces. Towards the back there was a building where the monks lived, and we saw some of the younger monks receiving tuition and some of them fooling around! We went inside the temples to look at the statues of the Buddha and the protection gods. The protection gods are pretty scary looking (although they have 72 different forms, some of which are less scary). They all have a little row of skulls on top of their heads and have blue faces. There is one protection goddess, and she rides a horse and carries the hide of a man she has skinned and has her baby between her teeth as she had to eat it as it was sired by the skinned man who was evil. Something like that! You wouldn’t want to mess with her! There were passageways leading around the inside of the walls of each temple, with a gong hanging over the top left part just inside the entrance. You are supposed to bang the gong with your hand and then walk clockwise around the passageway.

After this, we entered the semi Gobi and spent the night in Elsen Tasarkhai, a flat landscape with a few camels. The kite, which had been a work in progress, was completed – after several tweaks to form and function. We established that it could fly, but sadly the wind wasn’t strong enough any more for us to fly it properly. We found an antler, presumably from an antelope, on the ground and used this to wrap the string around. We also made a small raft and sailed it for a short distance on a river; it’s marvellous what you can do with a ball of string and some sticks! That night we shared the ger with two German men who were also nearing the end of their tour. We had seen them at a distance and played guess the nationality. Luke won the prize! The beds were pretty uncomfortable! My bed wouldn’t lie flat, but Sally definitely drew the short straw – she elected not to sleep on it, which turned out to be a wise decision, as when she sat on it in the morning a plank fell out of the bottom!

Day 10 – Tsenkher hot springs

The following day was quite a funny one. We had planned to go to the Tsenkher hot springs, and spent a very long time driving over bumpy roads to get there. We arrived at a deserted tourist camp, with people dismantling gers, and lots of bare pipework. Baggi and Bilguun ambled off, hands in pockets, to try and find someone, and we watched them with growing amusement walking around buildings, peering in windows, before they returned to tell us sheepishly what we had already figured out for ourselves – the hot springs were closed to tourists and we had had a wasted journey. We had always known this was a possibility, so found it funny rather than annoying. We weren’t able to bathe in the springs or sleep at the camp, but we did go to have a look at them. It wasn’t really as I had envisaged. We had to navigate through a network of pipes, crossing little streams on planks and ducking now and then. The springs were encased in concrete cladding with large, ugly pipes to carry the water to the hot tubs. The water temperature where the spring bubbles up is around 90°C, so it is piped overland to cool before it is emptied into a hot tub. Steam was rising and there was a sulphurous smell like noxious fumes from a cauldron. It was interesting to see, but a pity that the site looked so industrial. The water was indeed very hot, and you could sit on rocks that were warmed by the current running underneath.

After this, a plan was made to go to a nearby town, have a hot shower at a bath house and spend the night in a town ger. As we made our way towards the town, we had to cross a bridge over a river. We realised just at the approach that it was broken in the middle, but Baggi simply sped up the Pergon, there was a bit of a bump, and we were safely over the other side. The shower was very welcome after two and half days on horseback, and it was quite a while since we had had a good wash. The ger that night was on the outskirts of a small, but smoggy town. We passed through some gates into a small yard – there was a bungalow in the centre and to the left of this was our ger. There was a mother cat in the yard with two small kittens, which looked to be about 6 weeks old. Later in the evening, I fed the kittens the meat from my dinner which I still couldn’t face and they got braver and came into the ger with us, so we all got to have a bit of a cuddle and before they fell asleep by the stove whilst we played cards. We had to throw them out at bedtime so they could have their milk for afters. That night the town dogs barked unrelentingly, like a scene from 101 Dalmations!

Day 7-9 – horse trekking to the eight lakes

The next morning we rose early and were kitted out with our horse riding accessories. We had been told it would be extremely cold and so all wore several layers, including thermals. Our calves were protected by leather gaiters, and we were all very excited to find that we were going to be wearing traditional Mongolian overcoats. These were very warm and long – the length was mid-calf, and the style was such that the material wrapped right around you, with the right side fully overlapping the left to fasten at the neck and the hip with pretty beads. You then fastened a sash around the waist to complete the look. The men wore browns and beiges, but Sally and I had fancier varieties. Hers was a fetching chartreuse green with purple trim; mine was a regal purple colour, somewhat faded, with an orange sash. Baggi fastened me into my overcoat and pulled the sash super tight around my waist, so I felt like I was being sawed in half! I had to loosen it later on for comfort. Thus kitted out like Michelin men, we mounted our trusty steeds. Mongolian horses would probably be called ponies in England – they are quite small with short, sturdy legs and are very hardy. The horses didn’t have names, so we gave them our own. Mine was a chestnut with a red mane, so I rather pretentiously decided to call it after the Mongolian word for autumn (which I promptly forgot). Later on, after I had learnt a little more about his personality (a bottom biter – pity the horses in front of me), I privately christened him Terrence the Terrible. We were introduced to Dash, who was to be our guide for the journey along with Bilguun. Baggi was to stay behind and have a well-earned rest.

We set off on our two day journey to the eight lakes. We found that our many layers were not necessary as it was very sunny, and we were soon sweltering. It is worth noting here that our horse riding equipment did not include a helmet, but once we got going, we stopped worrying about this so much. It was wonderful seeing the Mongolian countryside from horseback and we gradually grew in confidence as the hours wore on. To get the horses to go faster, you had to shout ‘choo!’ or something that sounded a bit like that…however, Luke and I found it hard to get the right response from our horses – perhaps we didn’t have the right tone of authority, or perhaps they could just sense we were push overs. The horses certainly responded to Bilguun and Dash though, for after several minutes of futile ‘chooing’ from us, one ‘choo’ from them and our horses would be galloping across the plains with us bumping about on their backs and clinging on for dear life. Once we got used to the motion, we became a fraction more elegant and really started to enjoy ourselves, especially when we were close enough to listen to Dash singing Mongolian songs – he had such a gorgeous singing voice. We stopped for lunch at our halfway point for the day, which Bilguun cooked on a camp stove. All our bags and food were being carried by one horse with saddlebags over its back that was being led by Dash behind his horse. It was a stoic little black horse, and so strong! I had to keep reminding myself that a lot of the bundles were sleeping bags, but it must have been really heavy nonetheless.

In the afternoon we reached our first ger camp. There were two little boys who looked to be about 3-4 years old; they were real rough and tumble little individuals; very cute and mischievous with rosy red cheeks. We had great fun playing with them and the littlest one had a go with my watercolour paints. He had very good manners and would pass me back the brush after he had gently used it when he felt it was my turn to draw something. I enjoyed drawing animals, so he could shout out their Mongolian names for me.

Dash and Bilguun then had a series of wrestling matches. Bilguun put up a pretty good fight, but Dash was better. Wrestling is a national sport in Mongolia. Jeff, Daniel and Luke all had a go at wrestling the pair of them, but none of them stood a chance! After dinner, we played pontoon with Daniel’s vitamin pills for gambling chips and I was very jammy and won. Luckily I didn’t have to take all the vitamin pills!

That night we were woken by the howling of the dogs and some other howling from further away. I wondered if they were wolves. Bilguun told us the next day that they were, but that the family weren’t concerned as they could tell by the sound that they were only young wolves. It certainly made it more exciting going to the toilet late at night!

The next day was more of an arduous ride. We left the plains and headed into the forest, where the path was rocky and began to climb steeply. To add to the fear factor, there was a good covering of ice on and around the rocks, which the horses had to pick their way through carefully. The steep woodland trail was pretty long and slow going and somewhat nail biting. At one point, Daniel’s horse slipped and fell sideways – he came off and landed with a thump, but luckily both he and the horse were unscathed. My horse had been behind him and got skittish and decided to wander off the path and into the trees, where I couldn’t get him to turn around. Bilguun had to come to my rescue, and soon we were back on the trail, though we were all feeling a little more nervous, especially poor Daniel, whose horse was a bit wilful. After our lunch stop, the path started to go downhill, and after going through some marshy land, which Dash tested out first so we could follow in his footsteps, we reached easier ground again.

We reached the ger camp in early afternoon. It was in a wonderful location, in front of one of the lakes known as ‘bellybutton lake’ because of its shape. There was a little lamb tied to a post outside our ger – I presume its mother had died and it was being bottle fed – it was very cute! There were two very friendly dogs, who were both really soppy, one like a small German shepherd, and one larger stocky dog with silky black fur and chestnut markings around the face and legs – a breed we had seen a lot on the camps, though I don’t know what it was. Later that evening the goats and sheep came in from the hills and I swear I saw an adult sheep run up and suckle a female goat!

We went for a ride that evening to visit a few of the lakes in the surrounding area – we saw three of the eight lakes in total. After a rest, and perhaps because of the cooler air, the horses really seemed to enjoy the trip and our chooing worked to great effect for a change! We had a wonderful time cantering through the grasslands, and got back just as dusk was falling. We were accompanied all the way by the larger of the two dogs. When we went through another family’s land, their dogs all came out to chase us, but our dog stayed behind and fought them all off! When we got back we treated him like a bit of a hero, which he loved.

That night I barely slept – I seemed to ache all over. I couldn’t tell if it was stomach ache, back ache or something else and I felt awfully full and faintly nauseous. Images of goat and noodle soup kept floating up before my eyes and I found myself longing for daylight so I could stop worrying about tossing and turning and disturbing people. When morning eventually did arrive, I was feeling truly dreadful. Unfortunately, we had quite a long ride planned for that day, back along the route we had come to our first ger camp of the trip. I climbed up onto my horse, utterly exhausted and feeling like I couldn’t trust my stomach. I was alternately shivering and sweating as I sat passively on the horse and plodded along behind the others, with Luke nearby to keep an eye on me. The morning was very cold and there was a lot of ice on the ground. I was finding it difficult to concentrate and keep a watch on where we were going, and every time my horse slipped slightly I would jerk out of my stupor and wail pathetically! It wasn’t long before I said I had to get down and Bilguun kindly led both of our horses, while we meandered slowly with frequent toilet stops. It was a long walk and luckily for everyone else, they didn’t have to ride down the steep section either, instead leading their horses as the ice made it too dangerous. As we walked, I gradually started to feel less feverish and more human, and I reminded myself of the trials the Chinese women in Wild Swans had been through to put things into perspective. I had prepared myself for another couple of hours of walking, when who should we see, but Baggi, with the beloved Pergon van! I was so relieved! I flopped down on the grass whilst the horses were passed on for their trek back.

The dog that had joined us on our trip the previous evening had followed us all the way with the horses. At this point, we thought he would turn around and follow the horses back, but instead he ran after the van for miles and miles, tail wagging happily all the way! Once he crossed another dog’s territory, but he was bigger and unfazed by the chasing and lolloped through without a problem. He was very persistent and seemingly tireless, but eventually we lost him after we drove through a river. We thought he would have been good on a Duracell advert.

Later that day, after a little rest, we took a short walk to the Red Waterfall, the biggest waterfall in Mongolia. The pool the water cascaded into is 15ft deep. It isn’t a Niagara Falls, but good to see all the same. The others all climbed down the rocks to the water’s edge, but I was content relaxing in the sun at the top.

I didn’t eat much that night, sticking to rice and vegetables, which was a shame as it was barbecue night, and any other day I think I would really have enjoyed it! I went to bed very early and slept like a log.

Day 6 – Orkhon Valley, near the Red Waterfall

We spent a very long time travelling and passing the time reading as we left Gobi desert territory on our way into Western Mongolia. I finished Wild Swans, an epic book I had been desperately trying to finish before arriving in China, where it is banned. It is an extraordinary, moving true story spanning three generations of Chinese women and I feel it has given me a valuable insight into 20th century Chinese history, of which I knew virtually nothing beforehand. Read it if you haven’t already! Every now and then we would stop and kick the ball around for a bit, but the day was pretty arduous and surprisingly tiring given we were sitting down for most of it!

In the afternoon we entered the Orkhon Valley and arrived at our ger camp for the night. There was a large friendly dog to greet us, who liked to flop down outside our door and have his tummy rubbed. Given we had had so much wind in recent days, Luke and Jeff decided it would be a great idea to make a kite and went off in search of wood. Whilst they were foraging, I saw the sun was dipping lower in the sky and spotted a hill I could climb towards the end of the camp from where I could watch the sunset. It was glorious and peaceful; from up there I could see the tiny ger camp below me, cradled in the valley and spot the members of team blue going about their business. (I should mention here that 4 out of the 5 of us had blue coats – Jeff was a renegade and so not in team blue). The hillsides in Mongolia have quite characteristic shapes – a bit like they used to be pointy and sharply ridged, but all the edges got worn off. Just as the sun disappeared below the horizon, Daniel reached my viewing point and we decided to walk along the ridge to the forest at the end of the valley, as we hadn’t seen trees in such a long time! It was still light, but greying by the time we reached the forest. It was quite patchy inside as trees had been cut down for firewood (no dung fires out here!), and in places large trunks were lying on their sides in great contorted shapes. We started to run back along the valley bottom so we would reach the camp before dark fell. Daniel stopped to go to the loo and told me to go on ahead; I imagined he’d catch me up pretty quickly as he had been virtuously going out for runs every morning, but I reached camp without him. Jokingly, I said to the others that I hoped he hadn’t sprained his ankle. About twenty minutes later, he hobbled in, having done just that! Luckily, after a mysterious ointment that Sally had acquired in China and an ankle support bandage, he felt much better come the morning, and even went for another run, the nutter! As for the kite, the wood was collected, but no manufacture had been attempted so far. We all repacked our belongings into smaller bags ready for our horse trek that was due to start the next day and turned in for the night.