Our arrival into the Mongolian capital was of stark contrast to our drive from the border with its rolling green hills, peaceful Gers and scenic steppe dotted with grazing animals. The suburban sprawl of the city creeps up the surrounding mountainsides as we approach to see the haphazard concrete urban jungle before us. We were able to get an extremely close look at the city centre as it took us two hours to cross it; gridlocked, noisy traffic, dust, fumes, aggressive driving and people attempting to dodge the bumper to bumper vehicles… on the main street ironically named ‘Peace Avenue’.
Staying slightly out of the centre we decided to attack the city in a full-on tourist onslaught in one day and set off early to Gandan Khidd, our timely arrival rewarded with the morning ceremonial chantings. Monks gathered within one of the few remaining temples, almost all of the original 100 temples were destroyed in the Stalinist purges of 1937. Sitting amongst the hypnotic chants amidst brightly painted thangka paintings and hundreds of ornate statues it is hard to believe that Buddhism was only openly practised here again since 1990. A magnificent 26m high copper and gold statue of the Buddha of compassion stands majestically in the main temple; the original statue was melted down and rumoured to be made into bullets for the Russian army. A huge pair of golden feet stand defiantly amidst hundreds of spinning prayer wheels.
Despite several spins, the weather had now taken a turn for the worse and grey clouds gathered over the city, producing a relentless drizzle. We braved the backstreets, dodging muddy puddles, motorbikes and disgruntled dogs until we reached the Natural History Museum, an impressive building with a maze of exhibition halls containing everything from giant stuffed bears, reptiles in formaldehyde, glassed dioramas of various Mongolian habitats, numerous impressive dinosaur skeletons from the Gobi Desert and a marine display of over 40 inflated puffer fish complete with stick-on googly eyes. One room was a proud display of Mongolian human achievements, including the spacesuit and personal effects of Mongolia’s first man in space, first to summit Mount Everest and first to the South Pole.
Balancing precariously along kerb edges and flooding streets we navigated a main road (being splashed by less than considerate drivers) until we reached the main Sukhbaatar square, flanked by impressive government buildings, stock exchange and ballet and opera theatre. The square was the location of the violent protests in 1990 which eventually led to the fall of communism, but today presents a peaceful scene with a scattering of waterproof-clad tourists and groups of locals in traditional, brightly embellished, Del dress, all overlooked by (a rather obese-looking) Genghis Khaan statue. We sidestepped into the cultural palace and stopped for a much-needed lunch at a North Korean restaurant (a culinary first for both of us). A slight over-ordering brought a delicious array of spicy noodle soup, stir-fried chicken and beef, marinated potatoes and aromatic salads- a welcome change from greasy mutton and heavy dumplings.
Re-fuelled, we hit the Mongolian National Art gallery, a beautiful fusion of traditional and contemporary art, both clearly influenced by cultural heritage of traditional nomadic ways of life. Braving a heaving mass of traffic, with seemingly no rules, we crossed Peace Avenue and in true British style stopped for tea and cake at the Grand Khan Irish pub, conveniently located next to the National Academic Drama Theatre. We bought two tickets for the evenings ‘Mongolian Culture’ performance and, after a slight seating confusion, found ourselves centre stage in the front row. The show exceeded all expectations; an entire dance troupe in the most amazing colourful costumes, folk singers accompanied by strange, traditional flute, harp and Surnai and a contortionist who could literally wrap her legs around her head whilst spinning round on one hand. No Mongolian performance would be complete without the deep, haunting, reverberating throat singing, which was followed by a Tsam dance of monks and huge mask-clad depictions of Buddhist protectors. The Mongolian State Orchestra produced an awesome finale, a powerful, moving ensemble of only Mongolian instruments.
Time for a quick nip back into the Grand Khan pub for a couple of opportune pints of Chinggis Beer and then a late stop to the Mongolian Barbeque (sightseeing is hungry work). An entire sheep’s head (complete with teeth and all skull contents) and an assortment of customary meat/flour combos, washed down with Mongol Ale rounded the day off perfectly. All the stray dogs, beeping horns and clattering trucks in the entire city could not have woken us from our rooftent slumber that night.
It’s hard to tell if Russia has benefitted from the fall of communism in anyway, as outsiders we have no benchmark to compare it to. Our first impressions were of a country that was slowly falling apart; the roads are appalling, buildings are subsiding and according to Time magazine, Russia is ranked fairly high in the world’s most corrupt economically developed countries.
One thing that is apparent having spent time there is that Russia is a country of extreme contrast. The freezing winter temperature often hits -40°C, whilst we have experienced sweltering summer temperatures of +37°C with, surprisingly, not a furry hat in sight!
Many major city centres have started rebuilding roads and restoring great buildings, but the outskirts are still drab depressing suburban tower blocks that are slowly falling apart at the seams. Westernization (good or bad) is slowly setting in, Macdonald’s is a regular feature and some cities even welcome tourists in a somewhat ‘novice’ kind of way.
Outside of the big cities it is not unusual to see woman tending fields in a style evocative of the 17th Century whilst Mercedes race past on perfect motorways that can turn into dirt tracks without warning.
The countryside is vast and can be a little overwhelming; on our first day we drove for 8 hours straight, through hundreds of miles of forest that enclosed the road. In that time we didn’t pass one house. The landscape didn’t change much for the first week. On attempting to camp we were continually greeted at every track into the forest by huge piles of rubbish; this was typical of the entire country were seemingly it is ok to ruin the natural beauty of a place by playing excessively loud euro-trance from your car and dumping rubbish.
The country as a whole is very beautiful but it wasn’t until we travelled further east that the forest dissipated and a slightly more interesting landscape opened out before us. The Lake Baikal area was a real highlight. The Ural Mountains (hills) were a real disappointment.
As visitors driving through the country we encountered a large cross section of the population. Generally speaking, Russian’s are very serious people with a rude temperament; occasionally they will let you past their tough exterior and be friendly, warm-hearted and sometimes even smile. Normally this unusual phenomenon is fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption, which seemingly is a large problem in Russia. Alcoholism coupled with the language barrier made it hard for us to understand situations; often we were left feeling a little uneasy, as it seems the Russian’s have a fiery temper and it was hard for us to know if we’d upset them.
Sadly, it is said that in Russia a person who smiles too often is generally classed as insane. The deadpan facial expression is common and can leave you a little bemused. Mostly, Russia is filled with the unwelcoming stern-faced Russian who answers ‘nyet’ in a deadpan monotone to every question. This type of Russian normally sees everything in black and white, with no room for negotiation, especially with a foreign tourist. Occasionally we were met by the opposite end of the spectrum; a new, younger Russian, who seemingly understands the importance of allowing foreigners into Russia, and is very proud of their country and will go above and beyond to help.
Our experience of Russia was initially one of ‘oh god what have we let ourselves in for’, once we got to grips with the language (a little) and the culture the old phrase ‘judging a book by it’s cover’ became very apt. Despite cultural differences (mostly alcohol related) we really enjoyed our time in Russia and met some truly great people. We can’t wait to return when we pop back through from Mongolia to get into Kazakhstan.
Our first glimpse of the world’s oldest and deepest lake came after we had left the city of Irkutsk 70km behind us; bumping over the brow of a hill this ‘Pearl of Siberia’ twinkled in the valley below stretching endlessly towards the horizon. If you look at a world map and trail your eyes East across Russia, the scale of this enormous water body is evident. Geographically, it is extremely impressive; a maximum length of 395 miles, maximum depth of 1,642 metres and over 25 million years old. In the winter it freezes over and you can drive a car across. Its Ecology is equally extraordinary; of the 1,085 species of plants and 1,550 species of animals, more than 80% are endemic- found here and nowhere else in the world. However, even in the knowledge of these facts and statistics, it is still the sight of Lake Baikal that is the most striking and notable. The expanse of pine forested shorelines, pebbled beaches and water, which stretches as far as the eye can see, is simply stunning.
After 6 weeks in Russia without seeing another fellow ‘camper’ we were met on the Southern shore of Baikal by what resembled a Russian lakeside Glastonbury. During the summer months, this area of the lakes perimeter is a playground for urban-weary Russians who descend en-masse and construct huge temporary canvas settlements along its shoreline. Tired after travelling, we were lucky to find a small spot to camp, only to be woken a couple of hours later by new neighbours 2metres to the right who started their fire and tunes around midnight. This in addition to the railway line only several hundred metres behind us, with cargo trains of over 60 containers taking over a minute to thunder past what felt like inches from our heads.
We left the Southern shoreline hurriedly in search of calmer waters and didn’t need to travel far; within hours we found a stretch of shoreline with only a few families dotted amongst the woodland. We spent several days in this idyllic spot; the water is crystal clear and perfect for swimming (if a tad refreshing!). The weather in this region is much more changeable and a foggy morning would be followed by blazing sunshine, then a torrential downpour with thunder, only for the clouds to clear and the sun to burn through again. From our hammock swung between the trees, you can watch chipmunks jumping from the branches and waterfowl bobbing past on the lake surface.
A local fisherman dropped by each morning on his motorbike with fresh Omul caught from the lake. A relative of Salmon, this native fish species tastes amazing smoked, with delicious soft, white flesh that just falls off the bone. We befriended the Russian family camped in the next clearing and despite language barriers, shared our evening meal and a few beers, using a ‘point it’ book to communicate and showing photographs of home.
Venturing even further north along the east coast, the area becomes quite uninhabited; here we had an entire stretch of sand and pebble beach to ourselves, the roar of the railway had long gone as the tracks snaked away south towards Mongolia and China. Watching the sunset, the whole landscape turns a warm orange and the only sounds are the cries of gulls and the gentle waves lapping at the shore. This was a perfect end to our time in Russia, possibly the most beautiful place we had visited and a time to relax, reflect and prepare for the next stage in our journey.
Hours of journeying on fast, busy, noisy motorways, slowing down only temporarily to circumnavigate the choked outskirts of sprawling cities, had started to take it’s toll on us and we yearned again for a quieter journey and to experience rural areas away from the clamour and chaos of the highway. We decided to take a detour that would allow us to witness the magnificent Kremlin of Tobolsk, then follow the Irtysh River as it flowed southeast, bypassing the huge cities of Omsk and Novosibirsk and re-joining our route towards Tomsk in the East.
The road bends, winds and dips following the watercourse as it meanders serenely southeast through Siberia. Our grumbles about the state of the main ‘red’ highways paled into insignificance as we quickly downgraded on the map from yellow roads ‘with covering’, white ‘without covering’ to grey ‘un-surfaced’. The roads are in terrible condition; potholes, ridges, gravel, mud, sand and dust. If you are unfortunate enough to get stuck behind a slow-moving truck, the clouds of dust it kicks up reduce visibility to almost zero, rendering it almost impossible to overtake and necessitating the windows to be kept tightly shut, increasing the in-car temperature rapidly. Progress was ‘leisurely’ but allowed us to observe our surroundings off the beaten track.
At several points on our 1cm=30km map, where the road ‘crossed’ a river we were met, not by a bridge, but by an array of ageing ‘boats’; some that can only be described as rusting, floating wooden platforms nudged, shoved and arduously towed by a small, underpowered motorboat throttling under the strain and belching fumes as it struggles across the water channel. With no sense of urgency, these ‘ferries’ wait until they have enough vehicles to warrant the 150m crossing, and so it was we spent an hour with no shade in the sweltering Siberian heat until ourselves, a milk truck, a pick-up and the obligatory Lada were loaded via a precarious ramp from the beach and positioned to balance our vessel for the 8 minute voyage.
Agriculture is on a simpler, smaller-scale; gone are the characterless, machine-rolled hay bales of the highway fields and in their place traditional haystacks, laboriously piled high by hand by gangs of farm workers with pitchforks. Farmers dawdle along the roadside on ancient-looking horse and carts and families bump along the gritty tracks on motorbikes with children balanced not in a sidecar, but some kind of homemade platform. Pockets of woodland are dotted amongst meadows with huge swathes of pink wildflowers, the clover so fragrant you can smell it as you drive past. On one occasion, our camp was visited by a group of young red foxes, a male sniffing and investigating the car as we watched from our roof tent vantage point.
Upon entering a village, the road forks in several directions. The small wooden houses, almost all of which suffer from subsidence and sit awkwardly at uneven angles, display the most intricate, blue and white painted carved edges around the window and door frames. Piles of wood are meticulously stacked in preparation for the long winter ahead and groups of cows, horses and sheep amble through the sandy streets, with as much enthusiasm as the man pumping water from the well or the young girl pushing her buggy over the corrugated mud road.
Entertainment is limited for young people in rural Russia; this was made evident at 2am one morning when we realised our idyllic campsite overlooking a stunning river vista was actually the favourite nightspot of the nearest village youth population. Excessive drinking, crass, banging, distorted Euro-pop and fires lit with several litres of petrol encouraged us to evacuate camp and head into the fog-filled night.
Our quest to sample the local food of Russia continued in Perm, a city in the North of the Ural Mountains. We heard that a regional speciality came in the form of small, tortellini-like stuffed dumplings. Due to our tight budget (and inability to understand or order from a menu!) we opted for one (randomly selected) of the many frozen varieties we had seen for sale in supermarkets, with the added bonus that staying in a great new hostel meant we had access to cooking facilities. The hostel staff viewed our attempts with bemusement but were impressed at our efforts so invited us to join them in making homemade pelmeni the following evening.
Exhausted, hot and sweaty after a full-on tourist day sightseeing in Perm, we arrived back to not just the ingredients laid-out ready for us but also a film crew and presenter from the local news channel to record the momentous occasion. The arrival of the hostel’s first ‘foreign’ guests and their interest in local cuisine was clearly a novelty.
The ingredients are pretty simple (try at home if you fancy a taste of Russia!)
· 1 egg
· 1 cup flour
· 1 cup water
· 300g Pork mince
· 300g Beef Mince
· Salt and Pepper to season
Beat the egg in a bowl and mix in the flour- add water, mixing well, until a firm dough is formed. In a separate bowl, combine the pork and beef mince, season and knead well using your fingertips. Roll out the dough thinly then cut out small rounds (we used a vodka shot glass!). Roll each dough round again until 1-2mm thick.
Place a teaspoon of mince in the middle, fold the dough over the meat (to make a semi-circular parcel) then pinch the edges firmly to seal the parcel. Finally, take the 2 corners of the semi-circle and ‘twist’ in opposite directions to form the tortellini shape then pinch together. Add the finished Pelmeni to boiling water for approximately 10-12 minutes and serve with a tomato or mushroom sauce or simply ketchup and mayonnaise. Delicious and extremely amusing to witness our Russian-dubbed selves the following evening on the news.
We would like to thank the staff of Hostel P for making our stay truly memorable- Maria, Julia, Dasha, Irena and Jenya.