After our time in Ulaan Baatar, we were eager to get out in the countryside and desert, because everyone said the best part of Mongolia was outside the city. Not hard to believe! Our 7-day trip seemed to cover a good mix of the country, not just lake like some did, not just Gobi desert like most others did. I knew it would be roughing it, but I was okay with that, because I figured it’s still a tourist company and they’ll make sure we at least have our basic needs covered. Also, I went to overnight camp for 9 years, so I’m a champ at roughing it.
Against all odds, Mongolia's capital city is well-nigh a wonderland for vegans. Ulaan Baatar, despite being in a country that literally eats mutton at every meal and in every dish and frowns upon vegetables, has more all-vegan restaurants than London, and some better ones too (or at least some that I would love to have in London...or at least I've been traveling so long that I thought they were better than what we have in London). From Buddhist temple centers to veggie-friendly chains to nearly a dozen outposts of our beloved cult Loving Hut, UB (as everyone calls it) will let you eat extremely well - as long as the restaurants decide to be open when you go.
Once we decided to do the Trans-Mongolian instead of the Trans-Siberian (Mongolia and China instead of just lots more Siberia? not a hard decision), we knew we had to line up our dates so that we landed in Mongolia in time for Naadam, the most important festival and event in the Mongolian calendar (I mean it’s the only festival and event in the Mongolian calendar that I know, so I could be wrong about that but I’m probably right). The three-day festival is like the country’s own Olympics, celebrating the Three Sports of Men, or the Three Sports of Chingis (Genghis) Khan, something like that. In our English language pamphlets handed out in the stadium it says “Three Manly Sports” which is hilarious so let’s say it’s that one. Those three exalted sports are wrestling, archery, and horse-racing. Seems straightforward enough, right? Ha!
Our first stop and only city visited in Mongolia (also the only city in Mongolia, from what I saw of the rest of the country), Ulaan Baatar improved upon the food in the eastern-Asia part of our trip, continued the sad tradition of incredibly polluted air, and worsened the car traffic situation so far. It’s hard to say no to this city since it has so many Loving Huts and even better other vegan restaurants (I know! In Mongolia! So many!), but I think the annoying parts of it outweigh my ability to have good food. Luckily, we were there for Naadam, the national annual festival of the Three Sports of Men, dedicated to Genghis (pronounced Chingis here, and ya know what, I’m gonna call him Chingis because that's the real Mongolian way) Khan. Naadam (for a separate post) was interesting and something big and fun to do. Without it, Ulaan Baatar is a dilapidated city with some temples and monasteries and museums but I quickly got tired of it. Exhausted, really. Maybe because I couldn't breathe.
Dear little laptop diary,
I didn’t think I’d need to write to you on this train. It was supposed to be barely 9 hours, just a get on-go-to-sleep-get off-in-Mongolia one, as we left Ulan-Ude. But Real Russia, the company that booked most of our Russian train tickets (we didn’t want to risk missing our preferred dates and routes if we did it ourselves) made a mistake with our agenda, and told us our train was at 8:47pm tonight, when it was really at 3:47pm today. (Someone I bet added five hours to get Moscow time (which all trains in the country run on) instead of subtracting. Idiots.) So instead of getting another day to explore Ulan-Ude as we wanted, we rushed around to check out, see a final museum, and walk in the heat to the train station. It was a soul-crushing walk for me, as I have more weight in my pack than ever (stupid good vegan nonperishable food finds I keep finding and buying and then needing to pack!). Well that part was just spine and neck crushing. The soul-crushing part is how nervous I am about the Mongolia border crossing. It can take well over 4 hours, with the train stopped and bathrooms locked. I can’t go for more than 2, and I can’t do anything about it especially in a room with two strangers, so I’m just dehydrated and super g-d nervous. I told myself that as soon as we got on the train, it would be okay, I would sit, and use the bathroom, and make my bed, and relax and read as I learned from our previous trains.
We left Irkutsk after our time on Olkhon Island at about 9pm and got on a baby-sized sleeper train (we are such pros now!) - we literally got on about 9pm ish on Thursday, went to sleep (I mean pretended to), and disembarked at 6:30am. I didn't even have time to write a diary entry! Just waited to take my contacts out (using bottled water of course; I like having the gift of sight too much to use train juice) before getting maybe an hour of sleep. Our roommates were two Chinese women (female roommates are so much better...and rarer) who didn't speak any other language, so Z showed off with the two phrases he learned in Mandarin to prepare for this trip - "Do you speak English?" and "I speak a little Chinese." It was so funny and they loved it. I didn't love that the window in this cabin didn't even open. Remember when I complained about old Russian lady closing the window? THIS ONE DIDN'T EVEN PHYSICALLY OPEN. ughhhh it was so gross and stuffy. Thank god it was short. At 6am, the attendants shouted for everyone to wake up - we were almost at Ulan-Ude, which is our last stop in Russia! Well, until we return from the southwest on our eastward Silk Road journey in September, but that's years away and not part of our Trans-Siberian adventure! Trans-Mongolian, whatevs. So really, Ulan-Ude marked the end of this first part of our journey! Already! It's going so fast. To mark this auspicious occasion, we surely would do something very special once we dropped our bags at the hotel.
After three weeks of exhausting, nonstop activity in our big summer travels, we planned for four days of just pure relaxation in a presumed idyllic spot, Olkhon Island on the famed Lake Baikal, a tiny fishing village that is hard to reach and so we simultaneously assumed two incongruous thoughts: 1) that we would be two of very very few visitors (pretty true) but 2) that even so the island and village would be equipped to deal with visitors (hahah no). Can't have it both ways. Really, parts of the island, like the lake itself and the cliffs and rocky terrain along the northern parts of the island, are beautiful, but getting there and for the most part being there is too stressful to allow for any relaxation, or, honestly, to allow me to recommend a trip here.
After the three days of train of the last post, during which I went just a little batty (silly spoiled me judging the Russian trains so harshly so the universe decided to teach me a lesson because I had NO idea what was coming with the Chinese trains), we landed in Irkutsk. We were truly in the heart of Siberia now, spending one day in Irkutsk before bussing up to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal, promised to be an idyllic, beautiful site and the time we get to relax. Lol.
June 29 - July 2
Dear little baby laptop diary,
I titled this post after one of the most random Broadway plays I’ve ever seen, “Three Days of Rain”, with Julia Roberts making her lackluster debut, Paul Rudd just being our universal boyfriend, and a not-very-famous Bradley Cooper, whom I knew from Alias and was super excited about. Who knew that in a few short years he would be the biggest star of the bunch! Anyway, it was a kind of boring show, and that’s all I remember, which is a shame because I am currently on a train with two days and two nights left to go, and I would like to be thinking about a play instead. How is it going so far, you ask? Let’s just say if I didn’t want to talk so much about Broadway whenever I had the chance, this post would have simply been called Three Days of Pain.
After the 24 hours on the train that you read about in the previous post, we had crossed the Europe-Asia border and landed in Yekaterinburg, capital of the Urals. The Urals are the mountains that effectively make up the border between the continents, though it’s rough considering it’s all still Russia and kind of nebulous. But it counts! We’re officially in Asia! That means, we’ve crossed into Asia by air (when we flew to Thailand and Cambodia, which I promise I will finally write about after this trip...so...November?), by water (when we took a ferry in Istanbul to the Asian side of the city (which I promise I will finally write about after this trip and after I write about Thailand...so...December?), and now we’ve crossed into Asia by land. So fun! I was so ready to get off that train that my expectations for what kind of city to expect were super low, and I didn’t care. So I was surprised by how much I liked Yekaterinburg, at what a nice place it seemed like, with beautiful vistas and open spaces, good food, and a nice vibe. But, of course, it could just be because of the hotel.