Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Madness Persists...

I have no idea WHAT Alison has blogged about regarding our recent Mongolian experiences, but Oi! have we had an adventure. Again, I'm racing the clock here at Za Internet on Peace Avenue, but let me attempt to fill you in.

Upon arriving in Mongolia, Alison and I realised that while some of the older folks speak a bit of Russian, we were now on similar playing fields. I was no longer the dumb foreigner who didn't understand what was going on--we were BOTH the dumb foreigners without a clue! Fabulous, because that's exactly what I'm used to.

What was most liberating for me was the freedom to deal with male attention or interactions as I saw fit. In Russia I left a lot of that up to Alison as she spoke the language and I didn't neccesarily feel right about stepping over her. Here in Ulaan Bataar when a man lunged after one of the four 1.5 litre bottles of water that I was struggling to haul back to our guesthouse, I snatched it back and shot him a nasty "NO!" and booked it up the road...granted the man was poor and seemed pretty innocent, but my past dealings with men in Morocco programmed me to be quite harsh and agressive. This little incident might seem pretty trite, but it gave me confidence to protect my space in the way that I saw fit.

When Alison and I saddled up on our sad looking horses out in the Mongolian countryside ready for a full day's ride, the guide looped our reigns around his fist and lead us for 20 minutes like kids at a petting zoo. We laughed and joked for a bit, but when he stopped at a viewpoint he tied up the horses, pointed to the large rock we were supposed to photograph, and then went and sat in a car with four buddies and smoked for a while. I was fed up. Alison and I were freezing, we weren't impressed with our pony ride, and we were quite aware of the fact that the guide and his friends were making fun of the 'dumb tourists'. I had enough. Alison and I decided that we'd rather walk back and go for a hike so I marched up to the car full of Mongolian men and using the most ridiculous actions and body language, announced that we were walking back and that we no longer wanted to ride 'attached' to each other. The men giggled and laughed at my wild and crazy gestured but I made our point clear. We strode off and minutes later the guide came after us with the horses and let us ride on our own for the rest of the trip. All in all we had a great time and had the chance to see some beautiful scenery and definitely filled the afternoon with photos and laughter. Fully satisfied, we returned to our yurt and warmed ourselves by the fire.

With traffic too, I feel a lot more bold about being agressive than I did in Russia. Here, traffic is a lot more chaotic and lawless, which is fun and I get quite a kick out of swerving through 4 lanes of (slowly) moving traffic. It's the only way to cross the street here, and standing in the middle of downtown rush hour traffic trying to cross to the next lane is such a rush and reminds me of Morocco. I've missed the insanity.

And speaking of madness. On the day Alison and I arrived hours before the Chinese embassy opened, (to try and accquire a visa for her entry into China next week) we wound up fairly close to the front of the line. 30 minutes after the embassy was scheduled to open we were still huddled around the front door, only now we were bracing our elbows and practicing menacing looks in hopes of warding off those who refused to queue up. As the solid metal door opened to let the first batch of visa-hopefuls enter, we were sure we'd make it indoors on the first round. BAM! The door slammed shut just as Alison and I tried to squeeze our way in. We caught the pitiful glances of the other Europeans ahead of us who we'd allowed to go ahead of us because they'd initially been in line before us. Polite Canadians that we are. Just keeping up our reputation as travel-savvy, polite Canucks for our fellow backpacking countrymen. After that though, we through patriotic duty to the wind and when the door opened again we squeezed in, triumphant. Out, out,, no, no...only those picking UP visas were allowed in doors. Again, sheepish looks from the Aussies, Brits, Americans, French, and Germans all cozily awaiting their turn to step up to the application counter. The guard ushered us back OUT of the embassy waiting area. "Are you SURE???", Alison asked, incredulity dripping from her voice. "SERIOUSLY???", disdain oozing out from mine. BAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We reduced to giggles there on the steps in front of a hundred onlookers. Again, and again, and again, the giant metal door clanged shut inched from our faces. BAM! BAM! BAM! Eventually we got in. Eventually Alison's visa application was accepted (with no problems unlike a lot of others...thanks for all the prayers!!! Can't emphasise that enough!!!) and FINALLY a few days later, in the shadow of Ghengis Khan in the middle of Sukh Bator Square Alison received her Chinese visa and Canadian passport. What a crazy epic and odyssey into the world of the Chinese bureaucracy that has been over the last few months!

Despite the madness, there has been glorious respite found in North American-style restaurants, Irish pubs, a jar of Nutella, our new host Galina (another friend of April French's!) and her fabulous friendship & hospitality (just like Natasha's in Irkutsk) and the beauty of the Mongolian countryside. People here are incredibly friendly, directions are easy to obtain, and good grief things are cheap here! A 20 000 Togrog bill is worth less than $20. And there's no use of coins here. Alison has also found some relief from the effects of carbo-loading in Russia and my cold is finally easing up (for the second time!). Alison has caught a bit of my cold though...inevitable I suppose after sharing such close quarters for a month, however neither of us have gotten on each other's nerves. We've again had the pleasure of photographing in/performing for a local Mongolian church fellowship, and Alison even received an encore which was pretty funny/awesome!

Two more days and we're headed to China for the last leg of our journey...hard to believe it's coming to a close soon. But of course, there's so much more to experience so we're not looking at the final days yet. I am however, dreaming of a hot shower as I haven't had one in quite some time!

From the land of Ghengis Khan...and onto the Far East,


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

ABC's of Russia Travel: A Summary

I have 15 minutes to write a quick blog while sitting in an internet cafe in the middle of Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia and want to sum up our three-week trip across Russia. Right, that's pretty impossible. So here's what I'm gonna do...

A is for the All-Mighty Dollar. The US buckaroo. Greenbacks. Or as the Russian like to say "Bucksov". No matter how down-in-the-dumps Americans are feeling about their economy, let me just remind you that the US dollar still holds rank when it comes to currency exchange in Russia (or anywhere else I've traveled to for that matter). I'm always amazed at how much sway one can hold when flashing a little bit of American greenery. Not that we've really had to thus far, but it's always close at hand in case a 'fee' needs to be paid or a form signed...

B is for Borsch-sometimes with beets, other times just cabbage, always fatty and NEVER without loads of sour cream.

C is for Cool People: Backpacking, train-hopping, drink-swigging Europeans who befriended "The Canadians" on each leg of the journey; warm, hospitable, GENEROUS locals who gave us beds to sleep in and meals to eat all the way across the largest nation on earth; the North American expats living in Russia or the odd Canadian/US traveler who decided to hop the pond and then another continent just like us and who understood that life just isn't as good without peanut butter.

D is for Debit Card. Which I stupidly left in an ATM in Moscow before the trip had barely begun. I've never done anything so dumb on a trip and was pretty peeved at myself. We've been making do by using my Visa to pay for train tickets and then Alison pays me back in Rubles, now Togrogs (in Mongolia).

E is for Excrement. You got it. No blog of mine can be left without tales from the toilet. I never talk about the Life & Times of My Bowels at home because it's really not a major event in my day to day affairs, but on the road clinging to that fine balance between constipation and the runs has been very high on our list of priorities. What we eat, the water we drink, etc. etc. all determines how the digestive system functions and we try to maintain this mantra: What goes in, MUST MUST MUST come out.

F is for Flags. I really wanted to purchase a couple Soviet flags while in Russian and never found one. Quite disappointed, but what can you do. Go back again I guess..which I'm sure I will.

G is for Gulags. Or at least of the few remaining gulags semi-preserved and utterly desolate in nature. I visited Perm 36 with an American girl who hired a car to drive us two hours out into the middle of the foothills of the Urals (don't worry it was through a travel agency, not some random dude off the street) in order to visit this aging forced labour camp. Pretty depressing and slightly creepy seeing as how we were the only visitors. *Shudder*

H is for Homesickness. Got to talk to my family and Will for the first time while wrapping up our last few days in Russia and was overwhelmed with love for them and with gratefulness for their support, encouragement, financial assistance, and emails. What did long-distance travelers do without the INTERNET. Columbus, Lewis & Clark, John Franklin...good grief. I'm glad that as a 21st century wannabee 'explorer' I have the comfort of calling home. To quote Martha Stewart, "It's a Good Thing". (I have NO idea why that popped into my head).

I is for Inflation. No matter how well prepared I thought I was for this trip, I was not expecting prices in Russia to be over double what the guidebooks' most recent editions proclaimed. Inflation due to rising oil prices etc. etc. jacked up train fares to the point where Alison and I couldn't afford the first class, two-person berths we were counting on. So we settled for traveling in the Kupe class with the possibility of bunking with two other strangers. Fortunately we had our berth to ourselves on the first and last trips, and shared our berth with a lovely Russian couple on our 3-day jaunt from Perm-Irkutsk.

J is for Yours Truly. I am a grubby traveler. Next to Alison I'm a walking germfest and all because she cleans her feet and face at night, flosses religiously, and paints her toenails. I need to make perfectly clear that she's NOT a priss (and that's not because she's sitting beside me and will eventually read this) but she does these things because she likes the feeling of being clean. Me, I take great pride in ticking off how many days it's been since a shower and how black my feet are before climbing into my sleeping bag. To me it's kinda like camping and the more grubby I am the more rugged a traveler I appear to be/feel. But who am I kidding, the moment I get wind of a hot shower coming my way I am all about conditioning these locks and pulling out the mascara.

K is for Khazakstan. We keep bumping into immigrants from the 'stans'. Khazaks, Uzbekis, Tajikistanis, (really not sure HOW to label them all correctly) the whole lot of them are wildly fascinating to me and this trip has increased my desire to one day visit all the 'Stans'. "Here a stan, there a stan, everywhere a stan, stan..."

L is for Lenin. He's everywhere...kinda like Elvis, but not. Streets are still named after him, statues commemorating his ideals grace squares across the nation. Even here in Mongolia there's a bird-pooed-on version of the bald man himself standing in the middle of the city centre. And of course back in Red Square he's embalmed in wax and chemicals. Just bury the man by his mum already. (It was his dying be buried next to his mother in St. Pete.)

M is for Men. Russian Men. They really love Alison...and she could tolerate their advances because she could speak the language and flash a nasty full-on Russian "Don't you dare mess with me" look. For those of you who know Alison, you know what I'm talkin' about. I on the other hand have no such safety net, so I try to look pretty-stone cold, pull out my poker face, and regularly flash my two travel engagement worn on my left hand (North American) and one worn on my right (Russian). I've been waiting YEARS to be able to wear an engagement/wedding ring while on the road....THANK YOU WILL!!! Even better will be the day when I get to travel with my that's the ultimate deterent!

N is for Natasha, my friend April French's old roommate in Irkutsk, capital of Siberia. She was so much fun to hang out with, lavished us with hospitality, and bent over backwards just to make sure we were able to do the things we needed/wanted to while in our last Russian city on the itinerary.

O is for Odour: Fish, body odour, vodka, and cigarette smoke. Stand in a crowded hallway with a few dozen strangers for a few days and let this aromatic combination overwhelm the senses.

P is for Photography. I've been able to do church photography and portrait work in a few different places and that's been a huge blessing for others as well as myself. My eyes have been really opened to the need for more creative/technical/media tools and teaching within the Russian church community.

Q is for Quiet Time. I swear falling asleep to the sway of a rumbling train and the breeze of the pine-studded Siberian wilderness is the way to go. A little like stepping off a boat after a few days, the sway and rythmic chug-chchugg are still with me and I miss falling asleep to the lullaby of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

R is for Russian--as in the language. Which Alison has been masterfully translating for me. Really, she's quite good and we've had a lot of fun with her eavesdropping in on Russian conversations and then surprising them with her fluent Russian.

S is for Siberia. Prettier than you'd think and featuring Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake containing 1/5th of the world unfrozen fresh water. Remote, stunning, and vaguely similar in looks to the Pacific Northwest--not Siberia, just the lake.

T is for Toilets. Train toilets. I love them, think they're somewhat humourous, and enjoy the challenge of trying to pee while squatting above a swaying metal toilet that opens up onto the tracks. I'm weird, I know, it's the honest truth.

U is for Ulaan Bataar...our current destination and the last stop on our Trans-Siberian train route. What a difference from Moscow!

V is for Vodka! Alison and I bought cool shot glasses with Soviet symbols emblazoned on the glass along with a small bottle of the ubiquitous Russian drink and toasted our 10-hour border crossing from Russia to Mongolia with shots at 1 am in our cozy little train compartment.

W is for Weddings. I got to photograph a full-on Russian Christian wedding....woooweee was that a cultural experience or what. There are very few words to describe, so I'll just make you wait until you can view the pics for yourselves!

X is for XXX which is actually for the amount of bras we've seen through shirts, black thongs we've seen under tight white pants, and curves we've seen spilling over or falling out from under various clothing choices. And that's just regarding the ladies' apparel... Lotsa giggles and sneaky photos.... lol...

Y is for You ask a Question. I've got Y and M to go and I'm feeling lazy. Period.

Z is for Red Tape. Because I used up the 'R' and it's really essential that I include this, because there's no getting around it and it's provided us with both frustration and humour. And really how the heck was I gonna incorporate a zebra into this posting.

So, that took longer than 15 minutes but if you made it to 'Z' I'm pretty sure you're glad I took the time.

Come visit again with more tales from Mongolia...Alison and I are heading out tomorrow on a 3-day trek into the countryside for some horseback riding, hiking, a two-night stay in a traditional ger (or yurt) with a nomadic family. Pretty excited! Reminds me of my trip out into the Sahara with mom!

All right...that's all folks!!!