Monday, 15 July 2013

horses, home

Over a rise and around a corner Ulaan Baatar surprised me, literally, and I finished my cycling a day earlier than expected. There were none of the indicators I've come to expect of a metropolis. It's rare to meet a capital city without ringroads, that creeping sprawl or even signage; just suddenly there amongst all the space. Apparently the city's history involves about 28 relocations so perhaps no wonder the siting feels arbitrary (the central square finally settled where a general's horse took a lucky piss). I found a hostel and wondered how I'd spend a fortnight without plan or destination. A Portuguese man accosted me to see if I'd join his tour group for nine fifty-dollar days of 4x4s, lakes, horses and festivals. I thought on that but was soon poached by a larger group for eleven days of similar. In turn I recruited the Portuguese fella. I was anxious about being so organised but excited for the group dynamic, having missed that stuff. I left the bicycle uncoupled and debagged in the hostel cupboard, a little ambivalent about having finished with it for now.

Land is not owned in Mongolia. Routes are improvised, roads divergent, fences almost completely absent. There is a special joy in that kind of unfettered space and passage. I'll leave the views to the photographs, and my Portuguese friend, Luís. There are over ten horses to each person. As a tourist I was given four, daily faster, and discovered an unexpected equestrian enthusiasm; quickly finding my peace at gallop and, slowly, my taste for mare's milk. On the third horse day my wrestling-champion driver bestowed me the honour of his robe, just for a bit. I felt lucky with the group, especially blessed by the English couple; one soon misses irony. We rode around and above the Khovsgol lake - sistered to Baikal, pristine and drinking-clean - slept in gers and played inane games throughout the four van-days. A nice time, happily distracted. I've never been on such a tour with itineraries, guides, three daily meals... It occurred to me that I've been producing my own experiences for ages, often without a clue as to what ought go in them, so a welcome change to instead consume some well-informed, packaged ones. We were lucky to catch the annual Naadam festival, celebration of those Mongolian masculine imperatives, wrestling and riding. Any sense I'd garnered of the natural horseman quickly quashed while watching a five year-old (obviously brotherless) girl winning a fifteen mile bareback race.

Now a couple of days back in the capital to find a box for my bicycle and a present for my mother. I'll try to avoid recourse to the cliché and statistic that seem to be the temptation when ending such a document.... So, thank you for reading along. If you've been touched or inspired, as I've been, by the boundless hospitality and care shown me in the last 15 months, please consider making a donation to the Julian Trust Night Shelter in Bristol; they work entirely on donations and voluntary time to provide food and beds for those without.

we were all a bit in awe of driver Dawa

and all charmed by guide Baska

5 year old winner


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

from Ulaan Baatar

I got here on Tuesday unhurried. I leave tomorrow, in company, on a tourist-tour without bicycles. After that I'll put something proper here.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

transitional mode

In Ulan Ude maybe half the people look distinctly Asian. They are Buryat, a Mongolian minority with an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. The Siberian city is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Russia. They also have the world's largest Lenin's head in 42 tonnes of bronze which I neglected to photograph. I stayed with Dennis, a nominally Islamic Chechyan from Grozny. He showed me videos of that city and explained without English that it is a safe place. It struck me how similar it looked to my imagination of Azerbaijan. And how similar he felt to the Iranians and their desire to impress safety and hospitality. And how close his home was to the mountains I was cycling beneath back in December. And how vast Russia is spatially to be able to accomodate such a breadth of my trip, and culturally such different minority cities-entire. Accomodate is perhaps the wrong word for Grozny, but in Ulan Ude the fascinating gulf is harmoniously bridged.

Dad emailed me about lake Baikal. About stories from deep in the Turkish national identity of Turkic forefathers coming from that lake. And I was struck yet again by the travel of those original Turks, by their slow transition across space and time leaving bits of identity and language everywhere. The treat cherry drink of my Istanbul infancy, visne, has the same name in Russian. In Kazakhstan I added Lonon gin to it in a meadow, beneath a regional border sign offering the Kazakh (Turkish) hozgeldiniz (welcome) in Cyrillic script and then also neglected a photograph.

The road South from Siberia tracks another transition, from a cultural influence predominantly recent and Soviet to one I suppose ancient and something - many things - else. I'm not sure what! I suppose if I kept on past Mongolia I'd experience something akin to the gradient I felt between influences Islamic to Soviet, the intriguing segue and overlap of histories in faith and tyranny as I bore slowly North from Iran to Russia. Alas I shan't continue further than Mongolia; I speculate. Still there was even before the border here a change. Buryatia is Asian, no doubt. I'm curious to see what feels Asian beneath the cracked ex-Soviet veneer I expect still in Mongolia. Shamanism, nomadism... In fact there seems to be an awful lot of stockbrokers amongst Ulan Batar's CouchSurfing profiles! I've anyway my own looming transition to fade into, although it'll be far more abrupt than any of this. I Skype called a lady in Moscow airport to confirm my bicycle on the plane. I Skype called a lady in Norwich train station to confirm my bicycle on the train. Perhaps Aeroflot serve gin and visne, although I doubt it; Anglian Rail certainly don't.

I crossed the border this morning, in fact a day ahead of my visa. It's nice not to have to hurry anymore.

waiting for Dennis

Ulan Ude

Ivolginsky Dansat

sisters showed me the temple, and lunch


first Mongolian place, Sukbatar