Just under a year ago, I returned from St Petersburg. A year studying in Singapore and months of travelling had undoubtedly changed me. For starters, I had a tan, which was something of a first, but more importantly I had matured. Aged might be a be a better description—I’m fairly certain solo travelling halfway across the globe is to blame for some of my fine lines—but matured sounds far more graceful and elegant and so shall be my word of choice. Having never been a wild child of flighting fancy, I do not know how obvious my transformation was to those around me. However, I could feel the change in my bones, the way I had finally settled into my skin and was no longer unsure of myself.
During the past I year, I have faced challenges that have made me doubt that self-assurance but ultimately, I have come out stronger—and with a degree in physics—from them. Until a month ago I had planned to join the Royal Navy as a Hydrography and Meteorological Officer. This had been my intention for a little over two years but a series of events within the Bristol University Royal Naval Unit led me to the conclusion that to do so would be a mistake. Unsurprisingly, changing your career plan of two years just before graduating can leave one in something of a muddle.
I found myself looking at long lists of Careers That Would Suit X Personality Type and despairing over ever finding something that appealed, only the list of definitely not career choices seemed to get any longer. I knew that meteorology and project management interested me, as did oceanography but finding a job that didn’t require a PhD seemed impossible. I still don’t know where I will end up, so will just have to see how my applications go and keep searching until I find something.
There is one tiny spanner in the works of this grand plan.
You see, when I was still convinced I would be joining the Navy, I signed up to two months volunteering at a horse ranch in South Africa. I worked on the theory that if I passed the interview board I would have months to kill before finding out if my application was successful and if I failed… well two months away from everything would probably be welcome.
I am aware that there is a reasonable argument for cancelling my two months away. After all, how can one job hunt when they’re in the wrong hemisphere? However, given that I am writing this in Heathrow Terminal Three, it is pretty apparent that I am not about to back out. My reasons for this are threefold:
It is absolutely not in my nature to renege on a commitment or promise.
I have wanted to volunteer at Horizon Horseback ever since I first visited six years ago.
I had already bought the flights.
Will it make job hunting harder? Yes. And will I potentially lose out on a job because I will not be able to conduct a face to face interview? Yes. (Although, given I live in Guernsey, it is unlikely I could have attended many face to face interviews in the UK anyway.) However, this will be an amazing experience in which I will no doubt mature further and gain valuable experience and memories (and won’t that sound good on my CV).
Therefore, dear reader, let me tell you a little about Horizon Horseback and how I came to know about it.
Someone once told me that wherever you are, you’ll always find an islander. Hence, in true Guernsey fashion, my mother and I first heard about Horizon from the brother of one of the owners, who is originally from Guernsey. It is a horse ranch that offers horseback safaris out into the South African bush and it was to be a once in a lifetime trip. So naturally, we were back a year later with my brother in tow. We’re not the only ones who keep going back either, Horizon is a place that continuously pulls guests back, many year after year. The whole ranch is seemingly shrouded in a sense of peace and tranquillity that is more powerful than any drug. The community of guides and volunteers are like an ever-changing family that one is welcomed into for the duration of one’s stay.
From watching the herd of 80 odd horses run across the dam in time for the afternoon ride, to riding across a plain filled with zebra, a sense of something magical infuses every moment. The occasional surprise second breakfast or sipping a G&T whilst watching the sun set can never be forgotten and certainly never captured in photos or words. How could I resist going back? This time will be different of course. I will be working. However, I do not believe that this will detract from my experiences of Horizon in any way. It will be different, but change is not a bad thing and this one will merely reflect the changes in me. I’ve grown up. I enjoy the newfound independence of adulthood and the responsibility it brings. I look forward to the responsibility of working in the office and hosting guests, of being a part of the team that makes Horizon so special for so many people.
Sadly all good things must come to an end and for me my adventures came to an end in St Petersburg. I think it has taken me so long to write up this post due to a weird kind of denial. If I don’t write about the end it can’t have happened. Right? However, it would be unfair to just disappear into the mists without a wave goodbye and a final tale.
Thus we find myself standing on the pavement having just disembarked from what was was the most luxurious commuter train I have ever had the pleasure of riding. Orienting myself, I begin the hike to my final hostel, Polosaty, which really deserves more of a mention than most hostels since it had a different breakfast every morning and did the laundry for free every evening not to mention being wonderfully decorated in bright colours.
My first foray into St Petersburg took me along Nevsky Prospekt to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood because with a name like that, how could I not go? The church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in March 1881 by political nihilists. To me though, it was a beautiful building with delightful domes and complementary colours. Personally I would say it averages on a level with St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. I prefered its exterior, but the fantastically colourful mosaics were a little too imposing for me and I prefered the quieter, soothing corridors of St Basil’s.
Continuing to the end of Nevsky Prospekt after sushi and sangria by the canal, I visited yet another the cathedral, this one by the less imposing name of St Isaac’s Cathedral. It’s appearance on the other hand, was far more intimidating with sharp corners and towering columns. The interior, normally open as a museum, was equally grand and to my mind the most stunning pieces were the artfully decorated upper reaches of the walls and ceiling.
After a jaunt through the Alexsandrovskiy Gardens to see the bronze horseman I turned my head home, pausing for a moderately awful coffee at a place called the coffee bookshop (with a name like that I couldn’t give it a miss, even if all the books were in Russian).
The evening saw me pairing up with another hostel guest to go out for drinks. On the advice of the hostel staff we headed to Ulitsa Belinskogo, a road with plenty of watering holes to choose from. We ended up in a cocktail bar that had the most mouthwatering of old fashioneds I have ever had the pleasure to drink. From there we strolled through the streets and parks of St Petersburg, admiring the city by night. It is extraordinary how different a place looks with sodium and neon in the place of sunlight.
Rising in time for porridge, I braved the trolleys to get to the Hermitage at the opposite end of Nevsky Prospekt. This was a lot less intimidating than I thought it was going to be. I just found the person in a hi vis vest and handed over my 40 rubles in absolute silence. On a side note, clearly I have the Russian expressionlessness and dress code down pat as people kept asking me for help in Russian, not figuring me for a tourist. It definitely needs a little more work however, as it would seem my five foot one of pure glower is not powerful enough and I am still “approachable”.
The Hermitage was what I expected it to be, a museum with lots of artwork in it. I had been assured it was different to most museums and that I wouldn’t be bored. This was only half true. Aside from its sheer size it was the same as the vast majority of art museums I have visited. What lessened my boredom fractionally was the fantastic architecture and decor of the museum, which was quite stunning.
Having rested my feet for a bit at the hostel, I dress up and with much excitement caught an Uber to the Mariinsky Theatre. I have expressed my love of The Ballet before so you can understand there was no way I was going to miss a trip to watch Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in Russia. To do so would be heathen. With the Bolshoi in Moscow on it summer break, I had been forced to wait until St Petersburg. Fortunately the wait was most definitely worth it. The performance was impressive, although I was not expecting the less used, more traditional ending in which the prince breaks the spell, enabling him to marry Odette.
The biggest drawback was that I had to share the theatre with other people, many of whom had merely come for the kudos points they would earn. People were continuously chatting, on their phones (including taking photos and videos) and being generally disruptive. This lack of respect for the dancers was horrifying and even more shocking was the vast exodus that occurred even though the curtain call had barely started. The constant grind of absent respect-since I’ve no doubt this was a regular occurance-had definitely taken a toll on the quality of the performance, but honestly who can blame the cast when faced with such a disrespectful rabble every night?
My holiday drew to a close the next day with a trip to the gardens of the Summer Palace, made cheaper by the wonders of a student discount. I wasn’t prepared to spend the extra to see the interior of the palace-there is only so much gold moulding a person can see before they get bored-but the gardens were well worth the visit. The numerous fountains and waterways were captivating and I wandered aimlessly through the gardens, stumbling across them now and again until I found a good spot to perch and alternate between people watching and reading my book until I caught the hydrofoil home.
Thus this adventure of mine has come an end and reality returns once more. From here I have one more year of university and then will have to face the real world, and won’t that be an adventure in itself?
There is a silence that is unique to cathedrals. It pervades the stones and muffles the chatter of tourists. Even the echoing harmonies of a men’s choir fail to fully pierce the blanket of peace, instead they only enhance it. The towering ceilings stretch high above the painstakingly decorated chapels and the connecting tunnels wind amongst them, creating an intricate maze.
This slice of silence in the middle of Moscow was St Basil’s Cathedral and well worth the steep entry price. It was a place of truly marvellous architecture, saturated with the feeling of spiritual presence. With the Red Square closed and some stadium inhabiting most of it, my first tantalizing glimpse was of the tallest dome alone. As I walked closer, I had to crane my head to take in all of it, squinting against the morning sunlight and jostling against various other tourists all trying to get a photo from the best angle. The interior was simply gorgeous and by far my favourite when compared to the other cathedrals I visited. The aforementioned men’s choir’s voices wound through the entire cathedral in a beautiful touch that completed the atmosphere.
With Lenin’s Mausoleum seemingly inaccessible, I headed around the corner and spent two hours queuing for tickets into the Kremlin. The actual access ticket that allowed one to see the cathedrals took only fifteen minute to get however, I really want to look around the Armoury museum and the queue for this was much longer due to limited tickets and because the two ticket booths seemed to alternate breaks such that only one of them was open at a time. With the vast crowds of tourists packing their interiors, the cathedrals, which are the main sights of the Kremlin, became a very unappealing spot to linger. Unfortunately, this meant I spent the same amount of time looking around the Kremlin as I did queuing for it, even including my look around the Armoury with its fantastic collections. Most notable were a number of historical gowns which had the most ridiculously tiny waists.
The next day, I decided to pick up a few gifts and continue my hunt for a nice furry hat. Hence I ventured once more into the beautiful metro stations of Moscow. I emerged next to the Izmailovsky Market. This was a strange world of plyboard facades creating the illusion of a fairytale castle with empty stalls crowded below. I expect that come the weekend these stalls would be crowded with furry hats and matryoshka dolls however, now most were silent and empty shells. Fortunately I was able to pick up my gifts and found a suitably fluffy hat for myself so I was able walk along the touristy Arbat Street on the other side of the city centre without diving into every other souvenir shop.
From Arbat I strolled down to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, passing through a sort of mini renaissance fair on my way. An incredibly imposing building on the Moskva River, I elected not to enter the cathedral, deciding that I had seen enough overly crowded cathedral interiors at least for a few days. Instead I crossed the river and wandered through the scenic Gorky Park, eventually stopping to rest my feet and read next to a pond.
The next day I visited the planetarium, which turned out to be rather disappointing. Despite having an English version of their website, the only English within the museum was a couple of exhibit labels such as “sextant” and “telescope”. It was only by trial and error with a lot of pointing at a Russian program that I managed to book a ticket to see Incoming! a short film about asteroids and comets within the solar system.
With my plans to browse the museum scuppered by the lack of English, I amused myself with the cafe’s WiFi until I could make my way up to the large star hall and trade in my driver’s licence for an English audio set. The full showing consisted of two parts, The Sky Above Us and Incoming!. Both were very good and almost made up for the disappointment of not being able to read anything in the museum.
My final day in Moscow I opted for some retail therapy and visited a couple of second hand stores and fabric shops as well as the GUM department store off Red Square . This was a nice way to just chill and relax, although I did shed a couple of tears over the £8 Louboutins that were just too small and some gorgeous organza that was £95 per metre.
While I took little to no interest in the football world cup, I cannot deny that its recent presence in Russia has been of significant advantage to me with a clear and present effort to make each of the host cities welcoming to non-russian speaking visitors. In Kazan this was apparent in the pop up tourist information tents around the old city and the handy “Nightlife of Kazan” booklets at my hostel. The latter were particularly good, suggesting sights to see and various eateries in addition to live music venues and a few vouchers.
With only a day to explore the city and having caught up on my sleep with an early night, I got and early start, wandering up Bauman Street to the Kazan Kremlin. Coming to see the beautiful Qolşärif Mosque was my main reason for stopping in Kazan and having caught a glimpse of it from the taxi the day prior, I was buzzing with anticipation as I wound through the old buildings of the Kremlin to see it. The cyan roofs stretching toward the sky atop glistening white towers did not fail to impress and stole my breath as I craned my head back to admire them.
By comparison and given the lack of English signage (the World Cup accessibility boost fell short at translations in museums) the rest of the Kazan Kremlin paled. This is not to say it was not good, the view over the Reka Kazanka was spectacular and the domes of the Annunciation Cathedral were suitably elegant, it is just that the Qolşärif Mosque is the type of building whose elegance and architecture are so magnificent that it takes several days for the memory to fade and before most other buildings can compare.
Having finished my exploration of the Kazan Kremlin and resisted the urge to get a horse and cart ride around the city, I found myself heading to the Soviet Life Museum. This turned out to be a bit disappointing as all the English was outside and once one got into the museum there were hardly any Russian descriptions and no English ones. Overall the Museum also had the air of a jumble sale from forty or fifty years ago rather than that of a museum.
Unfortunately, with the departure time of my train to Moscow drawing closer, I had to finishing my sightseeing of Kazan at this point and grab dinner before walking to the train station. This final leg of my Trans Siberian journey-I shall not count my commuter train to St Petersburg-was the shortest, and does not merit its own post as very little can be said about sleeping soundly on a train for eight hours. The train itself was very smart and new. Indeed both third class carriages I have stayed in have been rather nice and a whole lot better than I had been led to believe. That or as a student backbacker, I just have very low standards and am easy to please.
I struggle to keep my eyes open as I slouch in the waiting area. While it isn’t so late as to be early, days of travelling and rising early have convinced my circadian rhythm that anything much beyond 10 o’clock is unacceptable so that as we begin to board at 11:40, I am hard pressed not to full asleep standing up. This did have its advantages because, as we finally crept from the station, I was able to quickly fall asleep and not get jerked awake by the train.
My first day on the train passed quietly and I was finally able to finish my book. This was both good and bad because on the one hand plot progression and story arc conclusion but on the other hand I now have to wait for the next book to come out, which will undoubtedly be in a few years time. Since then I have been working my way through the first few books of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series which, while different from the writing styles to which I normally isolate myself, has so far proved itself to be an enjoyable read. The only real disturbances to this blissful peace and quiet was the videos the small boy opposite me was watching and a very odd Chinese lady who was almost continuously leaning across me to charge or check her phone.
The second day trickled through the sand timer of life in much the same way as the first. I was awoken at six thirty and then again at seven by the Chinese lady kneeling on the edge of my bed and leaning over me to plug her 77% charged phone in and later check on it. I also had a small audience eating my lunch as everyone wanted to know what the mayo was and we spent five minutes trying to explain it to the Chinese woman. After that, the young lass in the bunk above mine seemed to pick up the courage (with some encouragement from Mum) to practice her English with me and I spent a large slice of the afternoon trying to remember what sort of vocabulary secondary school languages teach and asking relevant questions such as “what is your favourite subject” and “do you have any hobbies”. This was pretty fun and with Google Translate murdering our respective languages, we just about manage to cover any vocabulary holes.
The third and final day of this leg crawled by as it always does when one is anxious about not missing their stop. A large contributor to this was also that the clock kept going back an hour until we eventually reached Moscow time, three extra hours in total. As well as chatting to a few of my fellow passengers, I had a portrait drawn by a gentleman at one end of the carriage. Considering I struggled to write smoothly on the train, I was most pleased with the finished piece. Although, baring in mind I barely recognise myself these days, especially without glasses, I have no idea if it actually looks like me.
Arriving in Kazan, I bit the bullet and agreed to the ridiculously overpriced taxi, deciding one and a half hours walking was too far even for me. I suspect the extortionate rate was further compounded by leftover football fever from the World Cup since Kazan did host one of the stadiums.
Several days in Irkutsk saw me doing embarrassingly little. With the end of travels looming on the horizon and the exitement of horse riding in Mongolia over, I was not feeling in the most adventurous of moods. The fact that I had an extremely good book that stole away hours of my time the moment I ventured into its digital pages was an additional diversion.
After a good night’s sleep-my hostel had delightfully comfortable beds-I set out into the city, following the tourist walking route. The hostel desk had a stack of city maps with the route printed on them but when I reached a road on the route, I discovered a green line had been painted to mark the route. Hence I was easily able to wander the city and see each of the 30 sights the line snaked passed, reading the plaques that marked them. Had I been in more of a sightseeing mood I may have also entered some of the museums or churches but as it was, I was content with stretching my legs and seeing a little of the city. The plaques were a tad dry, being of the factual nature but I still enjoyed reading them and discovering the history of Irkutsk, it was interesting to see just how many of them had been damaged in a huge fire that took place in 1879.
At this point I would like to insert an aside to extol the virtues of having a walking route fully marked out on the road in addition to the more traditional “here is a map with a line drawn on it” method or the occasional “signposted when we remember” approach. For starters, tourist maps are notoriously terrible as they have an unfortunate tendency to forget the existence of many roads. Furthermore, they cannot be used if there is even the slightest hint of rain and in both the case of map and signpost, one inevitably ends up feeling lost due to a lack of suitable signage giving directions or road names. On a personal level, I enjoyed the opportunity to walk without having to stop and consult my map every minutes. All in all I think more places should adopt this sightseeing approach though perhaps they could include amusing anecdotes and local lore in addition to who built what and when.
Accompanied the next day by looming clouds and a steady rain, I caught the bus to Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal. For a drive that takes between one and two hours I was happy to discover it cost a mere £1.60 each way. Before I eventually gave up at peering through the continuously steamy windows-somewhere between here and Singapore, condensaton switched back to forming on the inside of windows-I was surprise by how quickly the city ended and we returned to the countryside.
Lake Baikal is the largest lake in the world, containing some fifth of the world’s fresh water, and it certainly gave that impression as I stood on the shore and strained to see the other side. With the low cloud cover, this was not initially impossible but after I had warmed up with some borscht and coffee in a quaintly maritime themed cafe, the clouds had cleared enough for me to make out the faint smudge of land. This was only possible because Lake Baikal’s true size lies in its length of 636 kilometres while its maximum width is only 79 kilometres. Due to my short stay in Irkutsk, I had decided not to visit the more scenic section of the lake around Olkhon Island because of the time constraints involved and given the grey weather I think this was indeed the best option as I doubt hiking around would have been that enjoyable and scenery is only good if you can see it. Instead, I nosed around the small market for a bit and sat on the shoreline enjoying the sound of waves as I delved back into the pages of my book.
My finally day in Irkutsk was spent lazing around the hostel and buying some food for the next leg of my trip along to Kazan. I settled on porridge sachets for breakfasts, instant noodles for dinners and then some bread and cucumber with salami to make sandwiches at lunchtime.
After a few days of recovery from riding and several glorious hot showers, I set off on the next leg of my Trans Siberian adventure. The morning before I left, I stocked up on food. With less than twenty four hours of travelling, I managed to avoid instant noodles, instead opting for a loaf of bread, a cucumber and some tomatoes along with some snacks to stave off any nibbles I might catch.
Boarding the train was easy and I quickly found my bunk. In the cabin of four, I was sharing with a Korean couple and an Israeli. With the couple on the bottom bunks I mostly spoke to the Isreali who had been travelling around Mongolia and China for a few months. Needless to say, I was rather jealous of how long he had had in Mongolia. As we chatted I could hear the distinctive tones of an American and Brit drifting throughout the carriage as they chatted away to their various companions. It is amazing how certain accents carry above others.
Our border crossing was painless in that nothing went wrong but at the same time seemed to drag on forever on both sides. With the late hour (we didn’t leave the Russian side until 0145) everyone got a little grumpy and there was some screaming and crying from the aforementioned Brit although this was quickly stopped with some stern Russian words.
As always, I slept well once we set out from the border, even if it was for far too little time since we pulled into Ulan Ude around 0600 and the Isreali disembarked, sadly waking me up despite his best attempts to be quiet. I think the sun was halfway to waking me up anyway. I dozed fitfully for a little longer before giving up and staring out at what I could see of the scenery from my position on the top bunk.
We eventually pulled into Irkutsk, my first stop in Russia, and I set off towards my hostel ignoring offers of a taxi, instead choosing to walk and see a little of the city.
The past two weeks have been some of the best in my life. I can think of only a few other occasions that have been so full of laughs, 360° scenery and adventure for such an extended period of time. Ever since hearing my grandmother’s description of Mongolia, I knew I would eventually find my way to the Steppes and this summer seemed like the perfect time to go. Rather than a quick foray into the wilds before returning to Ulan Bator in a matter of days, I booked a seventeen day horse riding tour in the Zavkhan Province. Not all of this was riding, the first and last were more bookend days in Ulan Bator with welcome and goodbye meals and we also had a number of days of driving in the ubiquitous UAZ vans.
On the long drive out to Tosontsengel in Zavkhan Province-this took several days-we stopped at the Erdene Zuu Monastery which contains what is probably the oldest Buddhist temple in Mongolia. This was really interesting because-since it belongs to a sect of Tibetan Buddhism-there was a lot of influence from other religions, notably shamanism. In particular the demon statues and paintings were simultaneously mildly terrifying and very cool. The presence of a rainbow and mountainous hills (when does a hill become a mountain?) stretching up beyond the plains further excited me and all I could think was I can’t wait to be riding through this.
The first couple of nights before we met up with the horses and cook tent we stayed in tourist ger camps and enjoyed the last showers we would be experiencing for a while. The first one held a traditional Mongolian music performance by local students in the evening, which was enjoyable and I am still amazed over the throat singing and the sounds it produced. The second camp was next to an extinct volcanic crater, the rim of which we climbed up to and were rewarded with yet more spectacular views.
The next day was when we finally got to meet and ride some of the horses in what I will refer to as speed dating for riders. This was so Haldi-our trip leader-could assess our riding ability and confidence so he could pair everyone off with suitable horses. I was surprised that one of our group had never so much as sat on a horse before and as the trip progressed, was increasingly impressed with how well they took to riding at all speeds. Trying an ex-race horse was a fun experience as he was very quick to canter which I will confess to letting him do, although I have a sneaking suspicion we weren’t supposed to be going any faster than a trot. Whoops. A couple of other horses amused me with their ability to go in only one direction: towards camp. I mean it is not as if we were going in a fifty metre circle anyway.
As the sun rose, waking up everyone along with it (black out tents should be a thing), we devoured our porridge and finally got to find out which horse we would be riding. My horse was one of the ones that hadn’t been ridden the previous day and as I managed to haul my vertically challenged self into the saddle from the ground (lets ignore that I had the shortest horse and that Mongolia horses are short as it is), I was informed he was “fast”. As we started off a a short walk to become acquainted with our horses, he certainly lived up to this, pulling towards the front of the group. Other than this, everything was fine until we spotted some wild horses on the opposite side of the valley.
I could tell relatively quickly that he was getting excited about something as we kept pulling ahead. My plan of attack was circle back into the group and tuck in behind someone else. Unfortunately for me the soon to be christened Demon Horse had other ideas and we cantered off. Here Haldi’s advice of steer uphill came in handy and we eventually drew to a halt. From this point on I spent the ride trying not to ride off in a cloud of dust. Even if Demon Horse was slightly better behaved after our snack break, possibly we were headed down a steep incline, I knew he was just biding his time… waiting.
And indeed he was as I found out as I tried to mount after lunch. This took multiple attempts as with my less than tall nature and the awkward cushion saddle, I struggled to get on quickly and he kept trying to run off when I was halfway on. I felt a small amount of vindication when even the wrangler had the same issue but after he had proved it was possible to get on Demon Horse I was hoisted into the saddle and we set off. The gentle ride quickly devolved into a battle of wills. With me arguing that staying in the group and walking was a good idea and Demon Horse of the alternate view that a nice trot or canter would be far more preferable. I began to suspect that Haldi and I had a different definition of “a little challenging” (I’ll admit to not miding his definition), despite reassurances that Demon Horse would calm down in a couple of days. That said I was enjoying myself immensely. Not only was the scenery delightfully stunning to ride through but Dagii’s food was absolutely delicious and everyone was blown away by how much she could cook on the wood stove-later on in our trip she made bread on it!
The next day we set out from our base camp and began our actual trek out into the Mongolian wilderness. Demon Horse was very well behaved and by the time we returned to our new camp from the short afternoon ride-cantering and galloping across sand dunes-he had been downgraded to Rascal which remained his name for the rest of the trip.
From then on we changed camp location each day with a long morning ride and took shorter afternoon rides to explore our surrounds. Along the way we experienced the warm hearted hospitality of a number of local families, sharing food and drinking (lots of) vodka. From the Mongolian “quick lunch” to cream and dried yoghurt we were plied with food and sampled multiple batches of home made milk vodka. Something the student stereotype in me was excited to discover was the tradition that a bottle must be finished once it has been opened instead of being dipped into now and again.
In the evenings we tried a variety of games and activities, including archery (I suddenly understood why all the female archers at my club used to wear chest guards) and knuckles which Dagii beat us at thoroughly. Playing white bone one night was amusing as it is also played in Scandinavia (by a different name) and since we had one Swede and two Norwegians, I was left with the distinct impression it is the Monopoly of lawn games, with no one quite agreeing on the rules. There was also cake on a couple of nights as we celebrated two birthdays, a most unusual occurrence according to Haldi as apparently there are normally only a couple every season. The only downside was having eaten so much of Dagii’s food we barely had room for it.
All the support team were wonderfull. I’ve mentioned Dagii’s cooking, I still can’t decide if her noodles or fried bread was best. The drivers transported the camp in the UAZ vans each day, having it set up by the time we arrived. A couple of days off roading at the end of our trip to reach the airport, proved their driving prowess and care for the cars. One of our wranglers was nicknamed the man, the myth, the legend and later on part time wrangler, full time badass for the way he would lounge on the floor of the gers we visited and during snack breaks when he would immediately light up. His brown deel was complemented with a trilby and tinted sunglasses. I am fairly certain he and Haldi had an unspoken contest to lounge in the coolest way and spot at each snack break. Halfway through, the wrangler disappeared from the group in a cloud of mystery and while we found out it was due to an argument, this didn’t stop us inventing stories of his adventures.
After lasting most the trip unharmed, we had something of a massive pile up during a long canter. Fortunately, aside from some nasty bruises and a little shock, there was no lasting damage. This did however, signal for everyone else to start injuring themselves in minor ways and were lucky to have a trainee nurse with us, who really should be given a discount since they patched us up so well. I almost came off in the pile up but managed to cling on. It was only later as we were mounting back up that I came off because my saddle had broken, the cushion partially coming off, and Rascal was feeling flighty so took off before I had got my leg over his back.
We wrapped up the trip with some bare back riding (extremely painful on a skinny horse) and trying to pick things up off the ground from horseback. Picking things up was unsurprisingly hard and we all practised on Pumba who was the oldest and most steady of the horses. I was amazed to later see in the Mongolian music videos (playing at the front of the UAZ van) people picking things up at a canter. #lifegoals me thinks.
My words are insufficient to explain the magic of crossing open plains, hills looming ahead as birds wheel in a pristine sky. I can not articulate the emotion of standing atop a mountain and gazing across rolling hills of verdant green and realising the only sign of humanity is those who stand with you. Through valleys and over mountains, climbing rocks and ducking tree branches nothing can compare to the uplifting freedom I felt and the knowledge of belonging on this little blue dot to explore and appreciate its beathstealing beauty. Mongolia is truly an amazing place to visit and seeing it from horseback a humbling experience everyone should seek.
The superstitious may consider my trouble reaching Ulan Bator from Beijing a result of travelling over Friday the 13th. However, the real culprit was much more mundane. The Naadam Festival in a Mongolian national holiday which stretches from the 11th July to the 15th July. By all accounts it is a lot of fun to go visit and I know a lot of tours will digress from their normal route to attend for at least a day. Unfortunately for me, the Festival also meant that the China/Mongolia border was closed.
My travels started out smoothly. On the morning of the 12th I had gone to Yongdingmen Bus Station and purchased my sleeper bus tickets for 180 yuan (£20). After lazing around the hostel for the day and enjoying some potatoes and skewers for lunch at a little shop in the Qianmen area, I returned to the bus station and boarded the bus. So far so good. It was smooth travelling the entire way to Erlian on the border and aside from being rather hot (all modes of transit in most of Asia are either roasting ovens or competing to host the next winter olympics) I had a good nights sleep.
This good fortune came to abrupt halt when I returned to the bus stop having got some more cash to be told “border closed. No bus, no car, train tomorrow” via phone translator. Ah. Now that could be a problem. Just a tiny one. Interestingly it seemed that no one realised the border as closed until we arrived in Erlian and there was no mention of it anywhere online. Thankfully I didn’t have to worry about my visa running out – I still had a few days on that front – and I still had a number of days before my Mongolian tour started.
I’d just go to the train station, book my ticket, and find somewhere to spend the night. Simple right? Not so much. When I tried the most obvious ticket office they sent me off, saying that I would have to buy the tickets the morning of the following day at a different office in that direction. Deciding to try and find the office in advance, I went next door but they waved me off further down the road. My exploration of “100m down the road” yielded a couple of maybes but no concrete ticket offices (no English signs here). It was only later in the day when I ran into another foreigner that they were able to show me which building to go to.
I spent the night in a 40 yuan (£4.50) a room night that, had I wanted to use the shower (considering the lack of door, I didn’t) would have cost me an additional 80 yuan). Waking up the next day with a few new bites, I set out to the ticket office two hours before it opened to ensure I was at the head of the queue.
It was just as well I did. Over the next two hours more and more people arrived, many determinedly shoving themselves in the front, until the front of the queue resembled sardines in a tin. This didn’t stop a couple of small fist fights from breaking out ahead of me. Think of the US’s black Friday sales. Eventually the door opened. And I mean door. The entrance may have had double doors but the crush of bodies forcing their way through was so great that the moment one was opened outward, there was no way the other could be opened. After stopping everyone from crushing a small Swiss lady whose bag was caught, against the door frame, I dashed up the stairs and began the queuing process all over again.
Fortunately it wasn’t as tightly packed. Instead there was lots of shouting and even more fisticuffs. Oh joy. Mercifully I was able to buy my Erlian to Zamiin Udd ticket (66 yuan, £7.50) and my Zamiin Udd ticket (233 yuan, £26) with little issue. The only downside was having to leave my passport so I could collect the second ticket later in the day. This was considerably cheaper than I had been expecting as the only online prices I had been able to find were for the official Trans Siberian from Beijing to Ulan Bator so I been expecting the price to be somewhere between £80 and £135. I think the difference was than this train was travelling from Hohhot rather than Beijing so had more local prices.
I spent the rest of the day with the swiss lady I previously mentioned and an American expat who works in Ulan Bator since they were both waiting for the train as well. This was a blessing as not only was it good to have someone to talk to, but the American had a wealth of infomation regarding Ulan Bator. We eventually boarded, my penknife getting confiscated as we went through security. After an interminable wait to get moving in Erlian and an even longer one for passport checks in Zamiin Udd I was ecstatic when the train finally began to move onward to Ulan Bator.
The next day, after three days of travelling I finally made it safely to Ulan Bator, only a few more insect bites worse for wear. Upon reaching my hostel, I luxuriated in a hot shower and treated myself to a nice meal at the Veranda restaurant before catching an early night.