The long journey home

Route home from Ulaan Baatar31 hours. That’s how long it took to get from Ulaan Baatar to Ottawa. The day (what day is it?) started at five o’clock in the morning with a bus ride from our hotel to Chinggis Khaan International Airport (ULN) in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. The airport scene there was a disorganised zoo and we departed late. More than six hours of flying later and we were at Sheremetyevo (SVO) airport in Moscow. Luckily, our connecting flight to Frankfurt was also late, so we caught that. Count on Aeroflot for being consistently late. But then we got to Frankfurt (FRA), and came up against a flight that departed on time. We just missed the Air Canada flight to Ottawa, and watched the aircraft leave without us. Lots of scrambling later, and we were on an Air Canada flight to Toronto instead. While waiting, I used my magic Elite card to get Robin and I into the Lufthansa Senator lounge, which is all done up like an orbiting space port for luxury travellers of the future. Nice multi-fruit juice there, and a fat network pipe to connect to the ‘Net, so I was less unhappy than I might have been, having missed what should have been our last flight. Instead, we flew to Toronto — and were lucky to do that, as we could only get on the standby list. In Toronto, I was amazed that our bags showed up, but somehow Robin and I got separated in the slightly less disorganised zoo that is the the Malton Airfield (a.k.a. Pearson International Airport — YYZ). Robin and I got on different shuttles to Ottawa (YOW), but made a rendezvous here, complete with bags.

Of course I have no idea what time I think it is. In Mongolia it is mid-day, but here in Canada I should be in bed like any good honest citizen. It is unfortunate to have had such a gruelling end to what has been a fabulous holiday, but we’re home safe and that’s the main thing. Many unbelievable memories (and pictures!) remain, and I hope to recollect and present more of them soon — once I have sufficiently recovered.

Day Two of Naadam Festival

Michael before ger at Hotel MongoliaThis is me in front of my very own ger[6], that I stayed in at the Hotel Mongolia — not quite as rustic as you think. I’m ready to face the new day, herding yak (as is my wont).

Today we saw ankle bone shooting, archery, and wrestling. Together with horse racing, these are considered the “four manly sports” that make up the Naadam games. The Mongolians make the claim that Naadam is the second oldest sports festival in the world, after the Olympics from Greece.

In the afternoon, a small part of our tour group visited the Bogd Khaan[5] Palace Museum, which gave a fascinating insight into the effect that Buddhism has had on Mongolia. Our whole tour came to an official close with a farewell dinner of traditional food in an enormous ger. There, our United Nations of travellers said our goodbyes. Some folks are going on a tour extension to the Gobi desert, some are going to China, but most — like Robin and me — are flying home.

Naadam Festival

Musicians before the Naadam Festival opening ceremonyI’ll try a bit of live blogging. This photo is of some of the musicians waiting for the start of the opening ceremony of the Naadam Festival in the Central Stadium. We are here celebrating the 805th anniversary of the Great Mongol Empire and other national historic events. I’m wearing my English football-style scarf, in the colours of the Mongolian flag, that I bought outside the stadium.

These are some young musicians outside the stadium, holding the traditional horse-head fiddle. There were hundreds of these during the opening ceremonies for the Naadam Festival. I was particularly impressed by the many horsemen dressed in costumes from different eras of Mongolian history, who paraded around the stadium and then exited at a full gallop. The President of Mongolia[4] gave a short welcoming speech — dressed in national costume and not a Western suit — and presided over the parade and performances.

In the afternoon, we drove well west of Ulaan Baatar, to the finish line of one of the most prestigeous horse races. This was the 30 km race with 6 year old and older horses. The jockeys are all boys (for light weight), and it was quite something to see the horses come over the hills on the horizon, with clouds of dust kicked up by the following pace cars and TV camera cars. The finish was right in front of our viewing stand. The top five finishers (out of 580 horses that started the race!) win prizes, and the trainers earn great prestige. No cash or laurel leaves for the child jockeys, though!

Kickapoo Joy ColaWhenever I’m in Mongolia, I have got to get a drink of Kickapoo Joy Cola! What do you think the drawing represents? I think it is two drunken Mongol warriors jumping into a cauldron of boiling water, which has been launched into space from the Earth. Nothing says summertime refreshment more than that…..

Ulaan Baatar

Monument before National History MuseumTo judge from the language of our local guide, compared to the guides we had in Russia, there is no ambiguity in Mongolia about what the fall of the Soviet Union means. Mongolia was a client state of the U.S.S.R. from the 1920s to 1991, and for them that meant national subjugation and political repression. Now, they are proudly independent and noisily and chaotically democratic — it is wonderful! Outside the National History Museum there is this monument against capital punishment — after all, what free citizen would tolerate giving the state the power of life and death over him? I was delighted to hear our Mongolian guide refer to her political leaders with a sense of humour and light contempt, which is something I never heard in Russia.

Today, we saw the Janraisig temple in the Gandan monastery complex, which has an enormous standing Buddha statue. It felt strange to shuffle along in a line of tourists right next to the praying and chanting monks, but it was all quite normal to them. After a whirlwind tour of the National History Museum, we drove out of the city of Ulaan Baatar to Terelj National Park. Many Mongolians are now encamped all around the countryside, setting up their gers (round tents) in the wide-open spaces in anticipation of the Naadam Festival. Inside the park, I had the chance to ride a horse. I even got Baghii, our guide, to persuade the fellow leading the horses to let me gallop for a bit. For that brief moment, I was a Mongol horseman, thundering across the grassland in the home of Genghis Khan.

Into Mongolia

Mongolia flagCrossing the Russian frontier into Mongolia was not without a moment of theatre. We were to stop in the town of Naushki, just on the Russian side of the border. As we approached, there were cattle all along the track, and we could hear frantic whistling from the locomotive. Then we stopped suddenly, short of the Naushki station. You don’t need to guess what had happened — we had hit a cow, and in fact had run over it with the locomotive and first two carriages of the train before we came to a stop.

Robin and I saw the unfolding drama from both sides of our carriage. On the right side, the train crew and the engineer were assessing the damage to the bogie. They didn’t care about the cow, as that poor creature was now past being an object of care. Then a man rode up on a horse with a bridle but no saddle. I think it was his family’s cow. Attempts were made to dislodge the remains, but I was too squeamish to be a first-hand witness to that.

Sad as this scene was, a more comic one began to unfold on the left side of the train. A beat-up old Lada trundled along, driven by a young man with an older man in the passenger seat, and a boy sitting outside on the trunk of the car (until he bounced off of it). The older passenger I would guess to be the patriarch of the family, and he cradled a bottle of vodka in his lap. When he stepped out of the car, I would say that that bottle was not his first of the day. He stood silently, expressionless, looking under the railway carriage, clutching his bottle. Then the matriarch of the family came along, riding a bicyle of all things, and immediately set about doing the most practical thing under the circumstances; she had come prepared with a long wooden switch, and proceeded to shoo the remaining herd of cattle away from the train tracks (thus protecting her family’s remaining assets). This, to me, was an object lesson in why the best-run Russian families are matriarchies, and it was taught to me right outside the windows of a railway carriage.

We were informed at dinner that there was damage to some of the carriages, and the wheels were flat. I didn’t know that the steel wheels of a railway carriage could “get a flat,” but it makes sense. Luckily for us, Naushki has a substantial rail yard, and they were able to take the affected carriages away (including our own) and fit them with new wheels. We lost no time at all, as we were stopped in Naushki for Russian border control in any case. By 2 a.m. on July 10 we had cleared Mongolian customs and were rolling through the night towards Ulaan Baatar.


Old BelieverThis lady is from the village of Tarbagatay, near Ulan-Ude in the Buryat Republic of eastern Siberia. The people here are “Old Believers” who were exiled to Siberia by Peter the Great for their refusal to adopt the new rites of worship that were introduced into the Orthodox church at that time. We were treated to samples of their singing and other traditions, which go back to their time before exile in the less forbidding environs of Ukraine and Poland. The Old Believers are called “people of the family” by other Russians, partly as a reflection of the multiple-child families that used to be common among them.

Ulan-Ude is an unremarkable, smallish city, apart from an enormous statue of the head of Lenin which looms over Soviet Square. The idol of their (former) ruler really is the Big Giant Head, which made me think of the old American sitcom, “Third Rock From the Sun.” An absurd association, but absurd as well is keeping a memorial to a dead and disgraced revolutionary 20 years after the collapse of the state he brought into being.

Now we are aboard the train, making our way laboriously towards the Russia-Mongolia frontier, where excessive bureaucratic formalities await.

Lake Baikal

Lake BaikalLake Baikal is the world’s deepest and oldest lake. A staggering one-fifth of the non-frozen fresh water on the surface of the earth is here. I know it is very fresh from my own experience, as I started the day with a swim. The train stopped along our route, poised between mountain cliffs and the steeply dropping shore of the lake, and a few of us hearty souls braved the frigid waters. I was warned that the water temperature was a mere six degrees Celsius, and it turned out to be painfully cold. I foolishly dove right in, and tried to swim underwater for a bit, as I would back home. But after a few strokes my survival instincts kicked in, and I scrambled out of the water fast. A shot of vodka was waiting for me on dry land, and now I’ve earned bragging rights, so perhaps it wasn’t a completely crazy thing to do.

Today is a new holiday in Russia, St. Fevronia Day, a day for family love and friendship. Many newlywed couples were having their pictures taken in the outdoor architectural museum, a short way downstream on the Angara River from the lakeside village of Listvyanka, where we saw examples of traditional Siberian houses, chapels, schools and other buildings.

OmulThis fish is an omul, a species native to Lake Baikal. He’s very tasty, and I know that from the barbeque we had at the end of the day. The train crew set up grills at the end of the train on the platform at Port Baikal, and we feasted on shaslik and omul while watching the sun set on Lake Baikal at the inlet of the Angara River. It brought to mind the old song, “When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day.”[3]


Irkutsk coat of armsThe armourial bearings of Irkutsk are meant to be a tiger with a sable in its mouth, but because the local, archaic, name for a tiger — бабр — and the word for beaver — бобр — sound similar in Russian the heralds got a little confused in their depiction of the animal on the coat of arms. Although whatever animal this is does not exist in life, the people of Irkutsk liked it, and kept the design. The “350” is for the number of years since the founding of Irkutsk by the Cossacks, which is being celebrated this year.

Our train is at the rail station on the left bank of the Angara river, and we are now touring Irkutsk for the whole day. One curious feature of city life I have noticed here is the preponderance of passenger cars with right-hand drive. Apparently, second-hand Japanese cars are very popular to buy, even though they drive on the right side of the road (as they do throughout Russia).

The highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the museum to the Decembrist revolutionary of 1825, Prince Volkonsky[2], who was exiled to this city. We were treated to what I would describe as a salon society concert with a pianist and soprano and baritone vocalists.

Now I’m in a nightclub, waiting to hear a band play Cuban music, ’cause what says Irkutsk, Siberia more than that, right?

Crossing Siberia

The Yenisey River at KrasnoyarskThis is a view of the Yenisey River at Krasnoyarsk, on a rainy July 6 morning. Like all great Siberian rivers it flows north to the Arctic Ocean, and the Yenisey bisects the territory into western and eastern Siberia.

Today was a day for train travel only, without a major stop and with the opportunity to see Russia from the carriage windows and from the station platforms of a handful of small towns. I found the countryside to be reminiscent of the Canadian prairies, with some fields stretching to the horizon. But those fields were always irregular in shape, and we passed through gently rolling hills that were much more heavily forested, predominantly by poplar and birch. Also, there was little sign of intensive agriculture; the disaster of Stalin’s forced collectivisation of farms is still felt 80 years on, and even 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union sensible laws for land ownership have yet to be passed by the government.

Bar carAboard the train, Robin and I mucked in and took a Russian lesson in the bar car, pictured here. At one point, the whole group was guided — somewhat painfully — through the words of the folk song “Kalinka.” Here, my former life caught up with me, and I was snagged to sing the solo part, standing beside the pianist (this train has a baby upright grand piano aboard, how ’bout that?). I did my best, and filled the car with my voice in imitation of sentimental Russian opera fashion. Robin whispered to me that we should probably not tell our hosts that every Canadian knows the melody to “Kalinka,” as organists at hockey arenas love to play its accelerating chorus just before the puck drops. A crowd yelling “Da-da-da-dum da-dah … CHARGE!” at the end I now realise is almost sacriligeous to a lovely little Russian folk song. “Калинка, калинка, калинка моя!”[1]


Prison carriageA prisoner who was sent to Siberia might have done so in a cell in a railway carriage such as this one. This photo was taken at the outdoor railway museum in Novosibirsk, a city that owes its existence to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Novosibirsk had only the briefest existence as the imperial Russian city “Novonikolayevsk” before its life as the Soviet hub for Siberia, and it left the impression on me that it is only with the greatest of reluctance that the city leaves its Soviet past behind. Lenin statues and Red Army streets and 26th Congress of the Communist Party factories abound, and aren’t being torn down or getting a name change any time soon. This is the third “third city of Russia” we have seen, by the way, and it has been decided by our bemused tour group that every city in Russia that is not lucky enough to be Moscow or Saint Petersburg deserves that honourific.