Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fish, fish and more fish ...

The contrast between Japan and Mongolia couldn't be starker.

Perhaps not more so than in the toilet department. Whereas in Mongolia "where the toilet?" was greeted by no more than an arms wave across the surrounding landscape - in Japan they have surely the most technically advanced toilets on the planet.

Most of the toilets we encountered had at least 3 different bidet functions, heated seats, blow dryer & all with user adjustable digital temperature controls.

Our base for the week was Shiodome - like the Canary Wharf of Tokyo - a futuristic world of skyscrapers, underground plaza's all perfectly connected together by a network of pedestrian walkways and elavators - with bullet trains, monorails, metro's gliding above, below and around you.

Mostly we spent our time just soaking up the atmosphere of this incredible city, and enjoying top-notch food prepared with an enthusiasm and passion I've experienced nowhere else in the world. The seafood in particular was superb and the Japanese have no qualms about serving up raw fish with most meals. Even breakfast.

While the star of the show was undoubtedly the food, other highlights included Tsujki Fish Market (above) - the world's largest where you can see the ingredients for your evening meal being traded at frenetic pace & the Ginza Lion Beer Hall - a genuine 1930's German beer hall in the heart of Tokyo's glitzy shopping district.

We ended the week with a traditional English weekend.

Friday night we hooked up with fellow brit Ed who writes Slow Travel and his pal Joe who lives and works in Tokyo. Joe shared some fascinating insights into Japanese culture, not least the expression "lets persevere together" - words that would come to mean a lot to me and Mel in the coming days ...

Then on Saturday, my first soccer game of the trip, Kawasaki Frontale versus Kashiwa Reysol at the Todoroki stadium. The standard wasn't exactly great, but the atmosphere had all the enthusiasm of a Buenos Aires derby match so I had a really enjoyable afternoon.

Finally on Sunday we left Tokyo, planning for a nice walk en route to Kyoto ...

Japan is reputed to be one of the most expensive tourist destinations in the world. What we found in Tokyo was a city considerably cheaper than New York or Paris, with better food, better transport & surely the most polite and helpful people you could wish to meet anywhere. Against my expectations of an overcrowed, overpriced urban jungle - I think we've discovered a new favourite.

Just a brief footnote for those of you expecting to see all my photos from Tokyo. I hadn't managed to name and organise them before leaving Japan - now sat here in China I find that flickr images are censored (as is my blog ... clearly I am a dangerous subversive).

It will probably be 2/3 weeks before I can rectify the problem and bring you all the photos from Tokyo and Mt. Fuji. The photos from Kyoto onward will be fine, as I can work around it if the images are still on my camera ... I just need to catch up with the writing first.

Welcome to the Amazon ...

No, we haven't suddenly skipped across the pacific to South America (not yet anyhow). I've added a few new elements to the site, so you can see what I'm reading or listening to - and if you want to you can link to the reviews (or even buy it) on Amazon. I plan on keeping the affiliate stuff pretty low key - but this offer looked quite good so I thought I'd share it. We did a similar thing before leaving the UK with Love Film and it worked well - although it wouldn't really suit us right now! Anyway hope you like the new stuff - feel free to comment.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Route to the Rising Sun ...

Not wishing for a repeat of the Pot-Pasta incident, this time we'd come prepared for our 30 hour train journey to Beijing ...

We hit Chinese immigration at midnight, where the only holdup was changing the bogey's - otherwise known as the wheels - as China runs on a different gauge to Russia & Mongolia. Well it would, wouldn't it. At we sat in our compartments the whole train was literally uncoupled, and each carriage simultaneously lifted up while the wheel units were replaced - quite a sight.

As we progressed through China we began dropping through a series of dramatic gorges before reaching Beijing in the early afternoon - after just a couple of hours exploration we headed to the airport where we'd spend the evening before our flight to Japan.

We'd had only had the briefest taste of China - but the cheap delicious food and the incredibly amusing signs in Chinglish everywhere (more on that later) all filled us with enthusiasm for a more lengthy visit in a couple of weeks time.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The road back to civilisation ...

The snowstorm delay meant we faced a choice - either extend the trip by another day, or drive late into the night to get back on schedule. The lure of unlimited hot showers and decent grub was simply too much for us, so we decided on the first option.

I think we must have forgotten about the state of what passes for roads in Mongolia, and pretty soon we were being thrown around the back of the Jeep even more violently than usual as we hit several times the number of ruts and bumps full on. Then about 11pm in pitch black darkness, disaster struck. The jeep lights went out. Permanently.

Eventually we came up with the solution - the Petzl headlight - we fixed a humble LED headtorch onto the bonnet to provide just enough light to get us to the next building some 15km away.

After a deeply uncomfortable 5 hours spent sleeping on the floor of mud-track side cafeteria, we made an early start for our final destination, Ambersaygalant Monastery - where we sat drinking Mongolian vodka "Russian style" (shots, with coke chasers) well into the small hours to celebrate the end of our trip ....

So as the first leg of our adventure comes to a close, it just remains for me to say a big well done to Mel - as of last week officially Mel Starrs MBA (as well as all the other ones I can't remember)

And finally here's a link to the homepage of Mel's friend Georgia, who, along with her friend Yasmin will be driving a 1.0 litre Nissan Micra to Mongolia in the Mongol Rally this July. If anyone is interested in sponsoring her they are supporting some good causes ... I look forward to hearing how the Micra fares on these god-awful roads !

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The real Mongolian BBQ ...

As we sat watching the snow start to fall, wondering just how long we'd be snowed in for we we're treated to a genuine Mongolian BBQ.

Baiscally the ingredients are hot water, meat, potatoes, carrot - hot stones are added to the wok, then it's sealed with wet tea towels and left to cook on the ubiqitous burner found in all Mongolian countryside homes (thankfully we were in wood, rather than dung burning country now). After 30 minutes it emerges with a strong smoky flavour - certainly one of the better countryside meals we had.

This is what it ends up looking like
Mongolian BBQ

I don't think I can give an accurate account of our visit to Mongolia without some further comment on the food.

There were some nice restaurants in Ulan Bator, however outside the capital the food was at best uninspired, at worst bloody awful or unsanitary. Our experiences seems to hit both extremes in equal measure.

In the countryside dried meat (mainly unchewable), home made noodles, carrot & potato form the basis of 99% of meals - with 2 choices, either wok fried or in soup form. Whichever you go for it will have far too much salt. Guaranteed.

In Central Mongolia we were offered putrified sheeps head - apparently the pinnacle of this delicacy is the roof of the mouth. I think we managed to decline without causing too much offence ... but it also became apparent that our disgust at unusual foodstuffs cuts both ways.

On being asked what we wanted for dinner one evening I jokingly said "lobster" (as if we had a real choice anyway). Being completely landlocked most Mongolians have never seen a shrimp, much less know what a lobster is, so out came Mel's very useful Point It: Traveller's Language Kit book and we explained.

It was just after the part where you drop them alive into boiling water that our driver, Ochiro, turned green and had to leave the Ger for a breath of fresh air. Also in the point it book we're frogs - "do you eat those too?" our guide asked incredulously. "No, only the French eat those" we explained. At least there was one thing we all agreed on.

A few days after this our guide unearthed an unexpected can of seafood cocktail as we stopped in an aimag (regional) capital for fresh supplies. Excited at the prospect of a decent meal I provided simple instructions on how to make a simple seafood spaghetti (garlic, onion, tomato sauce). It arrived back with beef in it. Enough said.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Khovsgul horse trip ...

After 2 days of driving north we arrived in Khovsgul aimag (region) and the lake that is Mongolia's premier holiday destination.

It was simply great weather during our 3 days of horse riding along lakeshore and scaling the surrounding mountains. Loads of fantastic scenery - and also some of the best food of our trip as we dined on fresh fried fish which I'd helped a local family pull out of the lake.
3 days of riding and camping later and we returned to the village more than slightly sore - just as the weather turned to icy rain. Just 2 hours later and it had turned to blizzard drifting the snow waist deep in places.

The sudden snow stopped us leaving until much later the next day - but we knew we'd been lucky - had we still been out by the lake with just tents and horses it could have been far worse ...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Heading for the hills ...

Our first stop in Central Mongolia was the soviet-era sanatorium and hot springs at Hjiirt. The whole place has an spookily erie air to it, as the patients shuffle along the corridors at about the pace of your average tortoise.

First we had to for our medical examination - where we had our blood pressure taken and chests checked with a stethoscope. Finally we were given permission to take a shower in the sulphurous waters - but no more than 7 minutes mind you, because apparently the effects could be powerful.

In reality it was exactly the same kind of hot sulphurous shower you get in most hotels in Reykjavik - only with less water and in slightly slimy 1950's shower block. I suspect the medical examination was little more than a placebo to work alongside the supposedly healing nature of the springs ... however after the previous 10 days without access to showers it was extremely welcome all the same.

That evening we camped at Tovkhon Khiid Monastery, just below the 2100m summit of a mountain in the nearby National Park. After a very cold night we awoke to a strange swooshing noise outside our tent - on closer investigation we discovered the reason, it was covered in 2 inches of snow which had started sliding off.

After the tricky 4WD descent back down the now slippery dirt track, our next stop was Kharkorin - site of the ancient capital of the Mongol empire Kharakoum and home to one of the architectural highlights of Mongolia, Erdene Zuu Monastery.

We stayed the night in the Ger district of the city, and the pleasure of being entertained by a local musician. I use the term loosely, as he was bloody awful, we later found out his main occupation is as air traffic controller at the airport - unsuprisingly this was just a hobby and "a little business" for him as he put it.

Our final stop in Central Mongolia was 2 nights at Terkhi Great White Lake - and an opportunity for the first horse riding of our trip. Our preparation had been a series of strictly regimented 30 minute lessons, this was more like getting your hands on Dad's car keys after passing your driving test.

After the 2 hour trek out to the rim of a nearby volcano on our "half-wild" horses, our local guide stopped to chat with one of his mates & just waved us off in the general direction of our camp. At the call of "Choo, Choo" (Mongolian for giddyup) our horses knew exactly what to do, and soon we galloping along with the wind in our hair (well Mel's hair).

The only downside was losing most of our ability to walk for the next few days. Just enough time to recover for our forthcoming 3-day horse trip ... we hoped ..

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The biggest Ger in the world ...?

Our time in the Gobi brought us some interesting new experiences.

On the second day of our trip we dropped by the local monastery during morning prayers, before calling in on the Chief Lama in his luxurious Ger. Suprisingly we found him surfing the net on a Dell laptop ... quite the contrast with the previous evenings dung-fuelled experience.

The have what they claim is the biggest Ger in the world .. you can see a quick video of the interior here. I subsequently came across at least 2 similar claims - but who am I to question the integrity of the next Grand Lama of Mongolia?

The next few days saw us progressing hundreds of kilometers into the Gobi region via the cliffs of Tsuran Suvarga, before reaching the spectacular Yolyn Am a gorge that remains filled with ice all year round. After camping for the night, we attempted the more adventurous route out through Dugany Am, a valley which lonely planet decribes as "impassable" until July - well not if you tackle it like this ...

After a lunch of Camel crispy fried pancakes, we made it to Khongorin Els sand dunes where we stayed with a local family. After a very cold night in the Ger we got up good and early for the difficult climb to the top. We were glad we did, as when we got up there the windspeed started building - sending plumes of sand high into the air. We made it back down literally sandblasted and covered in tiny scratches. 2 hours later back in the Ger we were sitting out a vicious sandstorm - you can see the video here.

At last, at about 8pm the storm subsided to give us a truly great sunset to conclude the Gobi leg of our trip in style ...

Friday, June 08, 2007

Jeep Jenga & the road to the Gobi

So the morning of our departure & the stack of gear (tents, food, kitchen equipment, backpacks) waiting to be packed for the journey looks much smaller than our Russian Military Jeep. After a fair bit of head scratching and with every available space filled (under seats, sharing my seat with our water butt) we finally roll out toward the Gobi.

We have 2 staff on our trip - Tuul our guide/translator/cook and our driver the irrepressibly good humoured Ochiro .... about 3 hours into our journey a herd of antelope ran right in front of the Jeep and almost instantaneously he had us in hot pursuit across open countryside ....

Apparently later in the year when they are a bit fatter, you can chase them like this for about 10km and then as they slow down, exhausted, you hit them over the head with a stick out of the drivers window. Nice.

We also got a brief instructional on hunting marmot, just wave your arm up and down and they'll stand there mesmerised while you shoot them. Equally pleasant. Both Tuul & Ochiro insist blowtorched marmot is delicious, while our copy of Lonely Planet says it's responsible for regular outbreaks of bubonic plague. Thankfully it's out of season so we didn't have to put it to the test.

Our first destination was the old monastery at Baga Gazrin Chuluu - undiscovered during the soviet purge, mainly I guess because it's the size of a gnat and competely hidden within the considerably more spectacular rock formations surrounding it.

We stayed with a herdsman family on the first evening. Upon entering their Ger we were immediately provided with gifts of a bowl of their dinner (dried meat, noodle and veg soup), and several shots of Chinggis Vodka. We then spent the next hour helping to bring their herd in for the night - you can see me helping here.

I won't say what they were using as fuel in the burner that cooked dinner and kept us warm, suffice to say it's brown and sounds like a bell. Oh yeah, and it comes out of a goats backside .....

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A spot of Cak-Bum

No, not a comment on the state of our personal hygeine after the expedition - rather the curious name of a fizzy orange drink here in Mongolia.

We arrived back in UB (Ulan Bator) on Monday night after an exhausting 3 weeks covering 3500km of surely the worst roads on the planet, and we have a welcome few days rest before we hit the road again bound for Japan.

Thanks for all your comments on the blog, they've kept Mel & I amused over the last 5 weeks of travelling. The posts from our expedition should be published over the next couple of weeks, and following a marathon uploading session over the last couple of days (thank god for 35p an hour internet access) there are loads more photos on flickr.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Join the Mongolei Millionaires Club ...

Just a quick post from Ulan Bator - we were met from the train by our charming hosts from the Khongor Guest House who will also be our logisitics partners for the forthcoming 3 week expedition. The money here is simply crazy .. I've just exchanged a perfectly reasonable amount of dollars into a cool 3 million togrig in a wad several inches thick. But don't worry, you too can be a millmionaire in Mongolia ... for the princely sum of just 450 English pounds! Already we love this place, the people are fantastically welcoming and although UB is a city the size of Leeds it's pretty laid back and we're enjoying re-acquainting ourselves with real food, laundry and stocking up on supplies before our expedition proper. So see you later ... it's off to the Gobi Desert in the morning!

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