Monsoon Tourism

Namaste!

I made it to Nepal just in time to catch the end of monsoon season.  Pedestrians, cows, and drivers calmly go about their days next to flooded roads.  I challenge North Face and Patagonia to make monsoon jackets – waterproof doesn’t cut it.

Kathmandu has great temples and neighborhoods to explore.  Thamel has shop after shop of authentic (ahem) sports gear for great prices.  I most enjoyed strolling around the old palace area and the “Monkey Temple.”  Many sights are shared peacefully by Buddhists and Hindus.

I’m headed off to start the Annapurna Circuit Trek tomorrow.  I might not be able to post many pictures until I come back, but I’m hoping to post a few brief updates from the mountains.  Thanks for reading!

Ulaan Baatar is not Pedestrian Friendly

Despite almost being run over multiple times per day, I had a great time exploring UB.  In the middle of the fish room at the Natural History Museum there is a stuffed crocodile from Cuba.  You might wonder what it’s doing in a Mongolian natural history museum.  Well, it was a gift from Fidel Castro in 1970.  I hope this fact (verified by an English label!) convinces you to visit this museum.  From the camel room, to the dinosaurs, to the Cuban crocodile, it’s definitely a highlight of Ulaan Baatar.

Another site mentioned in guidebooks is the Winter Palace.  It’s worth a quick visit for the colorful treasures hidden behind weeds and fading paint.  For more relics of the vast Mongolian Empire, visit the National History Museum.  There’s more socialism than Chinggis, but it’s a fascinating place with a lot of English signs.

If you want to see the construction site that UB has become, climb the 300 stairs to the Zaisan Memorial.  Wonderful Russian mosaics and views await you.  I loved mingling with the couples and families who had made the climb.

The Zaisan turned out to be my favorite part of UB.  It can be so easy to get lost in the honking horns and uneven sidewalks of the city.

The Suburbs of UB

You might want to visit the Chinggis Khan statue and Terelj National Park.  Okay, so the real suburbs of UB are more like the Ger District, but these places are close by and pretty cool.  The Chinggis statue is HUGE and definitely the shiniest building in UB.  Inside the statue, the larger-than-life theme continues with a giant Mongolian traditional boot.  I didn’t pay the fee to go inside, but you can get a decent view from the windows along the base of the statue.

When tourists stop in Mongolia for just a few days, they get shipped directly to Terelj.  The park has approximately five million tourist ger camps, billboards, and horse ride brokers.  But I visited after the summer season’s official ending (September 15) and found it to be a peaceful escape from UB.  It’s easy to pick a mountain close to your ger and start a great hike.  The farther you go into the park, the nicer it becomes.

Where the Dinosaurs Were

Bayanzag – known as the Flaming Cliffs to archaeologists or, as decided by my tour group, the Mongolian Grand Canyon.  Many dinosaur eggs and fossils have been found around these beautiful red rocks.

Alas, no dinosaurs roam the Gobi Desert today.  For eggs, bones, and fossils, visit the Natural History Museum in Ulaan Baatar.  The museum also has entire rooms dedicated to horses and camels.

Horses filled the landscape right up to the sand dunes.  I’ll add this, along with too many sights to photograph and stunning moon rises,  to the list of ways I’ve been completely spolied by Mongolia.

And when we reached the dunes, it was obviously time for a sunset camel ride.

Ger Means Home

After staring out the window of a rugged Russian van for six days, I’ve returned to Ulaan Baatar completely mesmerized by the Gobi Desert.

Where can I begin?  It’s hard to process the vast, gorgeous landscapes of southern Mongolia, much less represent them in pictures.  In this post, I’ll share the places I called home on the tour.  First up: the trusty vehicle.

Six of us sat in this van for six days.  It was not the most luxurious ride, but we safely maneuvered many roads that were not roads.  Lesson: When the asphalt ends outside the city limits, the real fun begins.

Lonely Planet’s 14 Top Experiences for Mongolia ranks”Staying in a Ger” as the #2 experience and “Mongolian Hospitality” as #6.  Often just arriving at a ger in a beautiful setting was enough for a peak experience.

Sometimes there were souvenir shops inside the gers.  Sometimes there were adorable children.  On the fifth morning of the trip, I drank airag, fermented horse milk, while warming up by the stove in the center of a ger.  Somehow sleeping in a hostel doesn’t quite measure up.

Buryatia is the Best

Сайн байна уу from Mongolia!

After twelve hours, two border crossings, and infinite cows and horses, I’m happy to say I’ve arrived in Ulaan Baator.  I’m excited to start planning a trip to the Gobi Desert, but I’ll miss Russia and its particular charms.

I ended my time in Russia in Ulan Ude, capital of Buryatia and home of the largest Lenin head statue.  In a country of infinite Lenin statues and Lenin streets, this Lenin head is king.  Ulan Ude is also close to Igolvinsky Datsan, the center of Russian Buddhism.  I visited the Datsan with my friend Juan (from Madrid).  Later, we walked around the Ethnographic Museum.  It’s a huge open-air space with wooden buildings from all over Siberia.

But the real winner in Ulan Ude was my last dinner in Russia.  I feel all warm and fuzzy after spectacular Buryatian hospitality.  On the train from Moscow to Irkutsk, I met a young opera singer, Sankirov, from Ulan Ude.  We took a route taxi (the best!  I’ll miss route taxis!) to his house where his mother  was preparing a huge feast.  Most notably, I ate multiple fresh meat dumplings, the national dish.  We listened to recordings of his arias and I shared my brother’s music.  After dinner, we walked to a fountain and listened to comedic songs being performed as part of Ulan Ude’s city day.

I feel so lucky to have been welcomed into their home on my last night in Russia.  It’s a wonderful change from standing on the metro platform in Moscow, too nervous to ask for directions.

Beach Weekend, Siberia Style

Hello friends!

This weekend I left Irkutsk to have a look at beautiful Lake Baikal.  Kylie – a new Australian friend – suggested a hike from Bolshiye Kotey to Listvyanka.  As you may notice from the picture, the trail runs quite close to the water.  This was not a problem…except for the time I dropped my camera and it almost rolled into the lake.  Oh yeah, and the time when it started raining halfway into the hike and didn’t stop until we reached the hostel!

But the rain only added a new dimension to our experience of Lake Baikal.  After six hours hiking along the shore, it was difficult to imagine the entire lake frozen over.  The rain obscured its distant borders and the wind turned its glassy surface into waves.  Kylie and I repeatedly made deep observations to each other: “Wow – that’s a big lake!” and “Are you sure this isn’t an ocean?”

After the hike, I spent a relaxing day in Listvyanka.  Baikal Dog Sledding Center was my favorite place in this popular, tiny village.  It was so fun to run around petting the 45 dogs in their multi-colored houses.  I really wanted to sneak one of the puppies into my backpack.

Thanks for sticking with me through these first two weeks.  I’m nearing the end of my time in Russia and looking forward to sharing my experiences in Mongolia with you.  If you have any advice on Mongolian tour companies, please do leave a note in the comments!

Пока!