Sunday, September 27, 2009

Happy Anniversary to the Adventure.

I don't usually post twice in one day, but today is special. Today marks one year since I left the United States of America to begin this trip. Since that time I've hit six continents, and depending on how you count them, some 35 countries. And I'm not done yet.

I know I told some of the people reading at parties before I left that I would travel either for a year, or until my money ran out, whichever came first. I guess I was wrong. I left with the intention of hitting at least six of the seven continents, (really just a concession that Antarctica might not be realistic, but still). I've hit my goals. By all rights, I should be looking for a train and ferry into London and then getting a flight home from Heathrow. Set down the backpack, pet my cats, put my watch back on, slip an iPod back into a jeans pocket and stay put like someone normal for a change. I'm not saying that's not going to happen. But I will say it's not happening today.

So here's the game plan from here. I said six continents, that's true, but only one of the seven continents was ever optional, and it was not Africa. I have plans to meet several people here in Europe, including my parents, brother, sister-in-law and oldest niece, and then, with any luck, I'll head across Turkey into the Middle East, drop into Egypt, and see how hard and far I can get from there. Any advice about getting around Africa, internal flights, overlanding, anything, would be most welcome. I've got contacts now in Uganda, Namibia, and South Africa, and am always looking for more elsewhere.

Last but in no way least, a million thanks to all the friends, family who have been so generous and patient with this crazy kid wandering around all the other sides of the world. This has been everything I've hoped for and a lot more besides, and thanks to your support, it's not over yet.

Oktoberfest and Amsterdam

I've spent the last week surrounded by just about every vice in the books. Luckily for my eternal soul, I'm on a budget. So I kind-of-sort-of-not-really stayed out of trouble. Mostly.

What's this you see to the left? This my friend, is a liter. It comes in liters. Yes, you're getting one. That's what you do at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. Rule of thumb: keep your wits about you in any country that sells its beer in the same amount that it sells its gasoline.

At a party, I had a German living far from Germany describe Munich's Oktoberfest pretty succinctly:

“Before the first beer, you think this is all kind of stupid, but you have one anyway. After the first beer, it's actually not that bad, and maybe you'd like another. After the second, you join in the singing, because, why not? After the third, the people around you are your best friends ever in your life, and by the fourth you're standing on the tables, kicking over glasses and plates while you dance.”

The set up is fairly simple. They start with engineering a line of big “tents” a couple weeks beforehand. Because this is the Germans doing the engineering, these “tents” are wooden two-story affairs with electricity, gas for the fully equipped kitchens with massive lines of rotisseries, and plumbing for pissoirs the lengths of school buses. Each tent has a bandstand and lines of benches and tables. At the benches and tables sit friends, families, and strangers sharing huge heaps of meat and potatoes, pretzels, silly hats, and of course, one-liter mugs of beer. The women wear outfits that would make a teenage boy drown in his own drool, and the men wear outfits that make them look like oversized extras in The Hobbit.

Outside the tents is a full-blown carnival, complete with games, rides, stores, ferris wheels, roller coasters, and the most brilliant kids game ever to throw at a crowd of hundreds of thousands of drunks: bumper cars. I think if anything ever drives me to alcoholism, it's probably going to be a readily available place with bumper cars driven by other drunkards. Genius.

My friend Zach flew out to meet me for this and a trip up to Amsterdam. It was his first time out of the country. We took on the place as a double act, the fast-talking, wisecracking, skinny guy from Seattle with the appetite of a horse, showing off a chock-full passport without really thinking about how easily it could be stolen, and the fast-talking, wisecracking, goateed guy from Atlanta with stories from working in CNN, belting the Miami Dolphins fight song.

On the way to the Oktoberfest parade I told Zach about a few things that were different here than they were from home. Even the things that originally came from the US were a little bit different.

“For example, another thing you'd like,” I said as we rode an escalator up from the U-Bahn, “If you go into McDonalds here, you can order beer.”

He cocked his head to one side.

“Germany intrigues me, and I'd like to subscribe to its newsletter,” he said. “I think it has some good ideas.”

Now here's the kicker to all this. I'm not a big drinker. I don't even really like the taste of most beer. But if we were out in the town and there was a lull in the action, or we ended up outside a museum that had been shut down (this happened at least twice), we both knew exactly where to head to redeem the day. Back to the fairgrounds. Thank God we both eventually made it back to our hotel each night. It wasn't always our fault that we did.

Then if that wasn't enough, we caught a night train to Amsterdam. What we found there was a lot of beautiful canals, very skinny houses leaning at odd angles because of disintegrating pilings, more bicycles than several countries I could name combined, and some very, very stoned tourists. As Robin Williams says, these are the people that eat kitty litter and say “that's real crunchy!”

Drugs in Amsterdam are sort of like the Statue of Liberty in New York. The tourists all flock to it and the locals either never have or don't make nearly as big a deal of it. After all, there's plenty of other things happening in town. Our list included two of the musts: the Van Gogh museum (no mention of his ear anywhere), and the house of Anne Frank (quotes from the book placed on the walls right where they hit effect to the bone). There's a huge English speaking expat community. All the pubs within in a three block radius of the central train station advertise “English breakfast.” Irish Pubs are all over the world, but here they're more common than mailboxes. And Zach and I ended up at an American improv comedy show by a bunch of Chicago expats showcasing the differences between the Netherlands and the USA. Finding the Dutch in Amsterdam takes effort.

The Red Light district is probably not the place to start. This is where the window shopping takes place. Yes some of the girls are pretty, but if you so much as touch your camera in the district, both you and it will be thrown into the canal. It's hilarious to see how many hundreds of guys come to this street from all over the world only to walk up and down it and pretend they're not looking at anything. All part of being raised something other than Amsterdam Dutch, I guess. What I still want to know is with all this sex, drugs, (and rock and roll) legal or generally accepted there, what do local teenagers do to rebel? We may never know.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Actually, You Forgot Poland

This continent is tiny. I'm used to going through big places where people explain to me that in this region or that region, the people are so distinctive that they could make their own country. Well, in Europe, they went and did it. If I'd wanted, I could have hopped on a bus in St. Petersburg and gotten off late the next day in Munich. I'm used to covering that distance in a bus. I'm not used having that mean I'd cross through four or five different countries without stopping. There are so many distinctive places packed into such a small area, feeling like you actually know a place becomes near impossible.

My problem with Europe is that I still haven't found a place in it that I don't want to check out. I've spent the last year meeting other travelers, at least half of them from Europe, all of whom will tell me all about where they're from. Am I going there? Sure! Of Course! I'd love to see them in Scotland/Italy/Austria/Portugal/Switzerland/WhereverelsetheysayIneedtosee! I've heard so much and it sounds amazing!

So I'm covering the same distance at the same pace as usual, but I'm passing through a lot more countries, each with their own languages and cultures. It feels like trying to have a coherent conversation with a multiple-personality-disorder case. In one 24 hour period I start at one in the morning seeing a horde of Russians swarm a duty-free shop and refuse to budge there until someone is rousted out of bed to sell them their vodka. At dawn, I pull into a bus station in Estonia, and wander the streets of cobblestone old town. Midday I'm in a modern shopping mall, looking for shirts. That evening I end up in a wine bar in Latvia, listening to a live band while somebody plays the original Super Mario Bros. on an NES in a corner. That's one day.

After hunting for 16th Century cave graffiti (carved coats of arms left by bored hunters) scarfing loads of Blinis and sour cream, I headed to Germany. I wanted to see Poland, but I ran out of time for this pass, because I'd forced myself to slow down in the Baltic states enough so that I could actually see something in all of them. All I saw of Poland this time through was the inside of the Warsaw central train station. It has WC signs that don't point to a WC, hotel signs that point away from hotels, an information booth that couldn't give information, and ticket windows that couldn't sell tickets. Gee guys, wonder which side of the iron curtain you were on.

After bargaining passage with a train conductor at midnight and short 5am scare where it had looked like we overshot my station by a few hundred km (Quick tip: the town of "Frankfurt (Oder)" is on the other side of the country from the city of Frankfurt), I got to Berlin. Never before have I been to a city where underpopulation is a problem. The streets do feel a bit empty sometimes. One guy explained it as a city built for 5 million, currently populated by 3 million. It doesn't look it, but it's one of the poorest cities in Western Europe. I was told unemployment is getting to 20%. Squatting on empty lots is legal as long is it's open to the public.

Every place has history of some kind but this is a town where you can practically feel it pulsing in the cobblestones. The Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe in the center of town is just down the street from the Brandenburg gate and the commemorative brick line in the ground from where the Berlin wall once stood, all in view from the open glass dome of the new Reichstag. Some parts of the wall still stand today because of the artwork on them. As I write, the original artists are doing restoration work on their pieces. In fact, the arts in general here are doing very well. There's a pulsing music scene I only just grazed the surface of in town, and I'd love to see more.

Now, after lots of currywurst, several museum visits, and peek backstage in the biggest stage in Europe (thanks to the resident mezzo soloist with the Duetsche Oper Berlin and her hyperactive 8-month old puppy), I am headed to another party. I'm writing this from the autobahn, sitting in the middle of the back seat of a VW Golf with four gears. We're headed to Munich. When we arrive, I'm meeting up with a good friend from college to see this annual event they have in town. It involves beer. Maybe you've heard of it?

Check out this entry's Photos.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Shots of Russia

I only saw her three times. Once behind her desk at the hostel, and once dressed up and in a hurry to get to the Kremlin. The time in between, was a gorgeous morning drive in her Peugeot down the streets of Moscow with the smallest peek behind what's left of the iron curtain. My specialty was in politics, hers was journalism. We swapped stories.

"In Russia, you have to be careful what you say in journalism," she said "especially if you're a woman. You've heard of Anna Politkovskaya, of course." I admitted that I hadn't, and she explained that it was journalist who, as she put it, "named a few names high up." A few days later, she was mysteriously killed. Her killer was never found. There were rumors about who was behind it all of course, but no one was ever charged.

She also explained how Putin gained popular support and why Medvedev was losing it: strength. "The Russian people only respect someone who appears to be strong. Putin was strong. Medvedev doesn't seem to be the same way. If you have a less strong president following a strong one, there will be problems."

She dropped me off, offering to send me a couple articles she and her friends had written. I'm not sure she'll follow through-- she wasn't very happy with me for leaving town so soon, but if I'm lucky she'll see past that.

Just a couple hours later, I had a quick chat with a Russian returned from years in Germany. I told him a story to see if I could get one in return. I got it.

The story I told was from when I was just a kid. My father and I were driving home, coming towards the Fremont Bridge, Queen Anne Hill in full view. I don't remember what prompted it, but he said "I'm not sure if you ever got a full picture of what a nuclear weapon could do if dropped on Seattle." I agreed, and he explained that it would destroy everything we could see at that moment and a great deal more besides. And he said that during the cold war, it was half expected to happen at any time. It was hard to imagine. But every once n a while afterwards, I tried. Just a few weeks ago I was wandering around Irkutsk, Russia, thinking that not so long ago, the fathers of the guys my age were wondering if at any minute this land, these people, and this town I was now walking around was going to be destroyed without warning by the United States.

The Russian said they didn't really expect that to happen. In fact, he told me that a lot of the things that concerned us in the West didn't register in the USSR. The Cuban missile crisis, for example, was hardly noted. "Maybe there was a little story saying missiles had been installed in Cuba." He told me "That was it."

He also told me something about Moscow, that it had changed immensely over the last four or five years. I asked what it looked like before.
"What is the word, in English, where you take all of the rubbish in your car and throw it out?"
"A dump?"
"Yes. That's it. It looked like dump."

It certainly doesn't anymore. The metro stations with the mile-a-minute escalators descending further than you can see from the top look like they'd come from a French palace, aside from the red stars and communist imagery everywhere. I'd seen clean, well-running subways, but they didn't have tiled ceiling, painted frescos, or chandeliers. Above ground the city feels grand. It's big enough with wide streets yet still has the old European architecture. Everything is expensive there. The police cars in the middle of town are sleek black sedans with a single blue light perched at the jaunty angle of a mobster's fedora. The women walk in stiletto heels the span of my hand, and the men wear suits shiny enough to use as emergency airplane signals. The high school kids are kicking around hacky sacks next to red square, and posters for the massive theater scene are all over town.

I could hardly believe it was the same country as the Siberian town I'd been walking through before. There, in Irkutsk, the city bus system was a set of converted minivans with paper signs in the windows. They went slow enough that instead of taking one, I simply followed it on foot to my destination, actually arriving a couple minutes before it would have. The long distance bus station was a dilapidated stone and sheet metal building out of a post-apocalyptic TV series. And the only cop car I saw was a frightening black military vehicle that looked like it had rattled it's way back from the the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

St. Petersburg was again different. The city center was a beautiful set of five-story architecture, canals, and cathedrals. But when I got to my couch surfing host's place by bus, I had to make my way through to weeds and rubble to the front door, go up an elevator with no lights, and enter a crusty apartment on the eighth floor with chunks of floor, ceiling, and walls missing, and a door to a balcony, but no balcony. This is how the starving artists live in Russia: post soviet style.

It was the first country in months where I could blend in and look like a local, as long as I didn't smile. To us, it looks stern. But to them, the smile seems to be a fake veneer, whereas the default expression of a Russian in the street is an honest one.

There is a lot of treasure to be found, like in the Kremlin's jaw-dropping armory chamber filled with jewels, gold, and carriages with doors that could be unhinged and hung in the Louvre. Then the amazingly inappropriately named "Hermitage" museum in the middle of St. Petersburg, one of the biggest museums in the world. But the thing that really struck me was the growing art scene, especially the posters for theater everywhere. I was expecting the ballet, but not the spoken work. My Russian is nowhere near good enough to take it in, but I think if you do, this is going to be a place to watch for more performing arts very soon.

After leaving it, I spent a little time sitting in a cafe in Estonia, munching on a marzipan-covered rum ball in old town, and looking up a few things. Anna Politkovskaya is not alone. According to Journalists without borders, Russia ranks as the third most dangerous country for the profession behind only Iraq and Afghanistan. The claims are disputed, some of the "unsolved" mysteries in fact have had people arrested and charged with murder now behind bars. But it still makes me wonder. I'll still be waiting on those articles.

So I'll be leaving the place behind along with memories of mountain biking in Siberia, watching home videos of Russian summer camps, and having a traditional Russian accordionist unexpectedly play "summertime," leaving me the only one in the room who knew the words. Then there was the classic goodbye of crossing the border seated next to a drunken sailor who kept offering me swigs from his enormous bottle of Bailey's, and watching most of our bus pour out at 1am to rush the duty-free shop and refusing to move until someone was fetched to open it. The sailor covered me up with his leather jacket as I slept and gave me a somewhat unexpected bear hug before leaving after we pulled into the EU at sunrise.

And that's the start of the next region: the European Union.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Good Morning, Trans-Siberian

Sleep isn't coming. My left earplug's come out again, and I'm putting both of them away. While I try to rearrange the covers on my upper bunk with my feet, I shove my pillow to one side to see out the compartment window a little better. At first I think we're going through a tunnel, but then realize the sun still hasn't risen. I fumble for my pants, and pull the cell phone out of my pocket to check the time. 3:37am. Maybe. We'd crossed one time zone yesterday morning and then yet another in the afternoon, and figuring out whether we'd done it again would have taken effort. My phone hadn't automatically updated its clock since Australia, so I'd just set it to Moscow time. I realize water is in order, reach down for my Nalgene knock-off and drink.

Two hours later, I wake up again, still not knowing what time it really is. I take a quick survey of the compartment. Across from me in the upper bunk, the 26-year-old Russian father is asleep, shirtless without any covers, and making an odd squeaking noise with his mouth I'd only heard one or two people pull off, conscious or unconscious. His 22-year-old wife is asleep on the bunk below him, as was their 3-year-old son, who is buck naked. Across from them on the bunk below mine is the new guy, fully clothed, no covers, asleep on his face. He looks like just like stereotypical drunk out of a Charlie Chaplin movie. I can no longer smell him on account of having been in the cabin far longer than the 5 minutes it takes for the human nose to ignore existing smells. Same with the smoked omul fish. propped open by toothpicks on the table for the last three days, though we might have eaten all those last night. The fish, not the toothpicks. Actually, after the amount of vodka consumed by all present, I can only really speak for myself on that point.

Where did my shirt go? I switch to clean underwear under the covers, pull on my pants and clean socks and start digging around my bunk and the crawlspace at the end where I'd stashed my bag and food. I'd already had one t-shirt disappear on me in the last couple days, and had left another shirt with a couchsurfing host to dry who then couldn't return it (though she's going to meet me with it in Moscow on her way to Turkey). This means I have only one shirt left, the one I've been wearing. I guess I could go with my sweater if... where did my sweater go? I find the shirt under my bag and behind my last couple packets of noodles, but the sweater isn't anywhere so obvious. The shirt isn't smelling so good, so I get my drain plug, laundry detergent, and towel, and pat myself on the back again for having the sense to pack quick-dry clothing.

On my way to the bathroom, I run into Gareth, an engineer living in Holland. He is normally a fun and overwhelmingly positive guy. He does not look fun or overwhelmingly positive this morning. He tries to say good morning and ask how I am, and succeeds on the second or third try. "Dude, I really have to go to the bathroom." he says. The bathroom is occupied, but when it opens up, I let him go in first. Afterwards, he gets out a "later man" and goes back to the compartment with his other Portuguese friends to nurse the hangover from the Russian hospitality we were poured last night, mostly by the family of three.

I go in, scrub the bathroom sink a bit, plug it, fill with water, add detergent, take off my shirt and drop it in. I sit down to actually use the toilet while the shirt soaks. Someone raps sharply on the door. I rap sharply back. I think I know who it is-- the enormous lady cabin attendant locks the doors of the bathroom a few minutes before we stop at each station, and the train might be slowing down a bit. A minute later, I'm not quite done, and someone shakes the handle. I shake it back. I hear the attendant shouting something in Russian. The lock turns. I jam my foot in the door and turn it back, angrily yelling a two of the few words in Russian I learned from a play in college- pazhaulsta (please) and padazhdee (wait), adding a few choice phrases under my breath in English and Spanish. I flush, wash my hands, and start trying to rinse the shirt. The door is unlocked from the outside again, and this time since I have pants on, but no shirt, I allow it to open a crack. My favorite attendant yells something more at me in Russian, and I ignore her. I wring the shirt out, ignoring more yelling, and finally step out, shirtless, into the hallway, rolling the shirt up in my towel to dry, thinking of a very short list of words that rhyme with "witch."

I put the shirt back on, only a slightly damp, and walk back to my cabin to hang the wet towel up above my bunk. I get my Tupperware container, oatmeal and jam. I look around for the spoon and realize it's in the cup they were using for vodka, then beer. I'm not sure what they've done with it while I'm gone, so I first search for the one spoon I packed deep in my tool kit with the vague idea it will be useful. Nowhere to be found. So I take the tiny plastic fork that came with a large bowl-of-instant-noodles. There's a tap on my shoulder. The father is offering me a bottle of beer. Again. I break Russian protocol and turn it down. Not for breakfast, thank you. I put some oatmeal and jam in the container and exit to the hallway again.

I fill the container with boiling water from the samovar at the end of the cabin, and go to say hello to Allison, a traveler from Hawaii, standing in the hallway. "That lady is mean!" she said, nodding at the attendant's cabin. I agree, and wonder aloud why the train company hires an attendant who is as wide as the train hallways. Allison tells stories of her trying to read in the hallway when the attendant walk up and down, squeezing past and touching a lot of things she didn't want to touch.

The sun has just risen and the train has just stopped at this point. I feel another tap on my shoulder, and am a little surprised to see another doctor and nurse behind me. Rita, one of the four Portuguese travelers, got sick yesterday, and despite our telling them that, Alice, another one of the four, was a doctor, they insisted on calling a doctor to be at the next station, who came in, speaking only Russian, and throwing everyone else out of the compartment. This happened twice. Gareth yesterday said he thought it was remarkably thoughtful of them and showed excellent service and attention. But this time, with the doctor rapping on the door at hangover o'clock in the morning, I don't think he, or anyone else inside, is quite so happy.

After the fourth tap the compartment door slowly slides open and the doctor says dobbrey ootro (good morning). Then comes a lot of talking in Russian.

"Izviniche! (excuse me)" I call to the doctor, "Nipanimayu paruski! (What I thought meant They don't understand Russian  and really means I don't understand Russian)" I am ignored. More talking in Russian.

"Joel?" Gareth calls over "Can you translate some Paruski for us?" I come over and repeat myself. The doctors then turn to me and start speaking very fast in Russian. My skill with the language comes from a play I did in college where half my lines were in Russian, most of which I've forgotten, and much of the rest not being very useful, like "your flock" and "I have a Russian soul." My vocabulary fits on half a piece of paper, I checked. So I have no idea what the doctors are saying. But when they start pointing from bunk to bunk, I hazard a guess.

"I think they want to know who was sick." Gareth points to Rita, and I step back. A few seconds later, everyone except the patient is thrown out. First Gareth, leaning against the wall, then Alice, staring out the window, still wearing eyeliner from yesterday, and then João, stepping out with his classic deadpan expression, wearing a polo shirt, socks, and boxers with sharks and yellow fish. I want to take a photo, but I'm not that mean.

The doctors leave a couple minutes later, satisfied. Gareth comes over with his big smile,

"Okay, I'm awake now! Before, I wasn't doing so good, but no I can talk to somebody again!" I look from Alice, who is still staring out the window and not responding to noises, to Rita, still slightly sick, to her boyfriend, who still has no pants, and wonder which one feels like talking with Gareth.

The train begins to move. I go over to the samovar to get boiling water to wash out the Tupperware container, then back to the other end to the bathroom. It's still locked. So I exit the car and crouch on the space between the two cars, swishing the boiling water and scraping off bits of oatmeal, dumping the mix onto the moving tracks between cars. The attendant attendant opens the door, and gives me funny look number five million and sixteen before closing the door again.

Back to my compartment. The whole family is now awake. The mother gives me a huge smile, says dobrey ootro, and the kid resumes his favorite game of grabbing me by the pant leg and giggling. I say dobrey ootro back, get my toothbrush and toothpaste, gently detach myself from the kid, and go back out towards the bathroom, finding Alice waiting outside.

She asks me if I won the poker game I'd been pulled into with the Scottish, Spanish, and Australian guys late last night. My mouth is full of foam and toothpaste, so I just gave her a thumbs up to say yes. After the bathroom opens, I spit and clarify that I was in the final four when the restaurant staff had reclaimed their pile of bottle caps, leaving us without any chips. But still, I'd done pretty well.

On my way back, I run into someone in the hallway, I forget who, and they ask me if I'm going back to sleep. I tell them no, I am going to get my laptop and write up what had just happened in the morning for my blog.

And that's exactly what I do.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Little Yurt, Big City

Actually, around here in Mongolia, they're called "gers." While we're at it, they also call the guy on all their money, storefronts, and liquor bottles Chinggis Kahn, not Genghis. The standard food is mutton, potatoes, milk, and maybe some rice and shredded carrots or pickles if you're feeling exotic. According to a couple guidebooks, vegetables are considered either "too Chinese" or "just not healthy." The local firewater, aside from beer and vodka, is airag, fermented mare's milk.  One traveler I met claims everything, even the people, smell of the grass, horses, and the beautiful rolling hills of the countryside. Another says everything and everybody smells like "overcooked mutton." I don't have much of a sense of smell, so I can't comment on that one.

All it took was the train ride to the border, and a glimpse of a Mongolian horse running wild over the grasslands, to make me decide that if I spent all my time in Mongolia is the city of Ulaan Baatar, the capital, I'd have seriously messed up. But I hadn't reckoned on my host in town.

We were friends in high school. While I was down low, boxing people out as a forward for the basketball team, he was up top, as a guard and our ace three-point shooter. Half our basketball team was exchange students from Asia. He was the only Mongolian. He also went to college with me in Chicago, though we didn't see each other much. I looked him up again when I decided on going to Mongolia.

When he called and said he was "sending a car," I was impressed. But just in case he hadn't impressed me enough the personal driver rolling up in a BMW, he also got to show off his two-story penthouse apartment (his, he emphasized, not his parents'), his two Lexuses (Lexi?), and some of the expensive toys he asked his personal bodyguard to move from one to the other so he could show me around town before dropping me off at his dad's hotel. Not the one his dad is staying at, the one his dad owns. We stopped by his dad's department store and cashmere outlet on the way, passing one of the offices he now held after going into politics a couple years ago.

I couldn't help but smile though, as when were in his apartment with the best view in the city to the left of the biggest flat screen TV I'd ever seen, his cook served us lunch: chopped mutton and rice. Just like everybody else.

My time in UB was spent bouncing back and forth between the upper crust of Mongolian society, and then wandering into a ger (the one in the picture, above) and having a couple old guys teach me the proper way to rip mutton meat off a bone with my teeth. I was given a bowl of airag (once again, fermented horse milk), and watched an old man in a cowboy hat dip his ring finger in, and flick it in each of the four directions as a blessing before drinking. Very cool. I wasn't too keen on drinking the stuff though. Not drinking would have offended them, but drinking would have offended my digestive system. My digestive system eventually forgave me, but not until a couple hours later.

I did make it out to the countryside eventually, hopping a bus to Terelj alongside a Colombian-American lawyer-turned-CEO who liked to spend her time between a top law firm in NYC, Stanford business school, and work in Silicon Valley doing things like climbing mountains in Nepal. That was a learning experience. That and a pair of Welsh brothers I hung out with a few times who, among other things, when biking from UB to Terelj, managed to get caught up in a shaman ceremony in which they were "flogged with sticks" and had to give away the only thing they were carrying, a snickers bar, as a "sacrifice".

We stayed in gers in the valley, and spent the days hiking, relaxing, and riding horses. Horseback riding in Mongolia is like walking anywhere else. Kids start learning how around age three. The top jockeys in the national race each year are teenagers. So having a tiny little Russian saddle (the normal Mongolian ones are wooden) and stirrups that were way too short shouldn't have surprised me. But not figuring out how to make the animal go faster was a little frustrating. He wasn't used to my Western saddle commands, nor my friend's English saddle style. There was a funny "tchuo" noise that our guide made that seemed to work, but we couldn't replicate it at all. So it was a nice, slow walk on horseback over the hills of Mongolia for us.

And that was a little of Mongolia for me. It's a largely untouched country, much less tourism than just about anywhere I've been. There's a lot of pristine wilderness out there to be found in a huge expanse of land that houses only 2.5 million or so (more than 1 million of them in the capital city). Many of them are still nomads, still very hospitable, and still live their old way of life, not because they know people want to see that, or because they feel it needs to be preserved, but just because that's how their life works. That's become more and more rare in the world.

I've moved on again. I'm writing this from a Russian train that just finished passing the deepest lake in the world, and this is the first leg of my biggest railway journey. This is the longest railway in existence. This is the Trans-Siberian.

Check out this entry's Photos.