Beautiful Baikal

Since we first picked up a Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook in a bookstore, I have been captivated by Lake Baikal. During our journey across Russia, I just had to stop there. The Trans-Siberian passes by the southern edge of the lake, but we wanted to see it for more than a few hours, so we got off in Irkutsk, the traditional jumping-off point for Baikal adventures.

Irkutsk was bizarre. In Russia, things are done a certain way, and we weren’t used to that– but it was also weird in its remoteness. It probably would’ve seemed even weirder if we hadn’t just come from Ulaan Baatar. For such a big city that’s also a regional center, there were few shops, supermarkets, or restaurants. We had wanted to try Russian food on our first night in town, but the only reasonably-priced restaurants we found were Italian and Japanese. We didn’t yet know how Soviet-style canteens worked. To complicate matters, we had arrived on a Sunday, when many businesses are closed. We ended up sharing a pizza.

The next morning, we left for Olkhon Island, which is in the middle of Lake Baikal. The journey, by bus and ferry, was rather harrowing. The roads deteriorated the further we got from Irkutsk, and once actually on Olkhon, are nonexistent. I was happy we’d decided to stay five nights on the island, so we’d have a few days to recover before doing that journey again. Happily, from our guesthouse, it was only a few minutes’ walk down to the beach.

It’s hard to convey the size of the lake. It’s so big that the Chinese, Mongolians, and Russians used to refer to it as a sea, not a lake. On a north-south axis, Olkhon is in the middle of the lake, but on the east-west axis, is very far west. The gap, at its narrowest, is was only about 20 minutes by ferry from the mainland. The strait then widens, but compared to the eastern side, this body of water is so narrow it is called the “Little Sea.” Yeah. I’ll say.Lake Baikal

It is the world’s oldest, deepest, and most voluminous freshwater lake. For the record, its beauty is also superlative. We took a jeep tour out to the northern tip of the island, Cape Khoboy. Bob joked that it was called that because when you get there, you take one look and say “Oh boy.”Cape Khoboy

The area seemed to exude calm energy. There were several jeep tours that arrived at the same time, as well as Russian tourists who had driven themselves. People laughed and talked as they climbed up the cliff, but fell silent as soon as they arrived. While I was taking pictures, I noticed something strange: just about everyone was sitting down, staring out at the water. It was as if the lake had some mysterious pull, forcing contemplation from all its onlookers. People contemplating at Lake Baikal

From here, it’s hundreds of miles north through frigid water to reach land. Imagine: during winter, the entire thing freezes, so thick that vehicles can drive across it. Endless Lake Baikal

Spending so many days at the lake revealed many different aspects of it. There are some parts that, when the sunlight hits it, look like a tropical sea. Tropical Lake Baikal?

When it was cloudy, the line between mountains and lake blurred.Sunset, Lake Baikal

The lake is reputed to have mysterious powers: the local Buryat people believe that it’s one of the spiritual poles of the earth. Russians say that if you put your hand in the lake, an extra year is added to your life; your foot gets you two years; your head, five; and immersing your whole body gets you an extra TWENTY-FIVE years. That is, if you don’t freeze doing it. The water temperature, at the hottest time of the year, is maybe 60 degrees Fahrenheit. We took our chances.

Bob tests out Lake Baikal

The best way to do it is just to run in, immerse yourself, and get out as quickly as possible. Bob swimming in Lake BaikalImmersion in Lake Baikal I had said I wouldn’t do it, but after Bob did it, I had to give it a try. LET ME TELL YOU, it was cold. And I hate cold water. Katie in Lake Baikal

I told Bob, “The only reason I’m doing this is for an extra twenty-five years with you.”Katie in Lake Baikal


It is important to travel when you are young…


“It is important to travel when you are young: you travel light and cheap, and your heart is like a sponge. The paths across the world make up a school which tempers the character and reinforce tolerance and solidarity. You learn to give and to take, to keep the doors open in the house of spirits and above all to share. You learn to enjoy small things, to value what you have, to be happy in the times of scarcity and celebrate abundance. You learn to listen, to watch, and to love.”

–Ana Briongos, Black on Black

Trans-Mongolian Railway, Part 2: Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk

This train ride was less eventful than the last, probably because we were sleeping for most of it. Our train departed Ulaan Baatar at 9 p.m. and after traveling for a night, a day, and another night, was due to arrive in Irkutsk around 7:45 on the second morning. We were traveling by second class again, but this time there were only two of us (Liz and my mom had left a few days prior.) It turned out that of the two carriages bound for Irkutsk (the others would be detached at Sukhbaatar, on the Mongolian border,) most berths had been booked by foreigners. Our carriage, with the exception of our compartment, was full of people on a guided Trans-Mongolian tour, bound for Ulan-Ude. We shared our compartment with a friendly Scottish couple who had booked a Trans-Mongolian package, including transportation and accommodation but no guide. It seemed we were the only ones who were traveling completely independently.

Ulaanbaatar Irkutsk map On a map, Ulaan Baatar and Irkutsk don’t seem so far apart. Though the journey time is similar, the distance covered isn’t nearly as far as the Beijing- Ulaan Baatar leg. After our first night on the train, we discovered the reason for the drawn-out timetable was the border crossing. We didn’t have to change rail gauges this time (thank goodness,) but the time spent waiting at the station far exceeded our expectations.

We pulled in to Sukhbaatar station around 5 a.m., but the immigration officials were not yet at work. Sometime a few hours later, our passports were collected. It didn’t take long to get them stamped and returned, since there were only two carriages. Our cabin attendant, a Russian man, told us that we’d have a couple of hours before departure at 11 a.m., so I got off in search of fresh air and a mailbox. I had forgotten to mail two postcards before leaving Ulaan Baatar, so I walked all around the station and tried to ask the ticket vendors where to go, waving my postcards in front of the window. They pointed away from the station, but I was afraid of venturing too far, so eventually I gave them to a receptionist at the station hotel, gesturing that I would be so obliged if she could send them for me. Hoping they’d get to their destination, I hopped back on the train for the short ride to Naushki.

The Russian border procedure was similar to entering Mongolia—we handed over our passports, had the compartment inspected for contraband, filled out a customs form declaring how much money we were bringing into the country, and had our passports returned. Most of our time was spent waiting for officials to arrive at our compartment. They weren’t slow about their work, but they weren’t exactly fast either, and while the train is off, the AC is also off. Each minute felt longer and sweatier than the last. Finally we were allowed to get off the train and wander around Naushki, a dusty border town if there ever was one. I even saw tumbleweeds blow through.

Considering that international trains pass through Naushki on a regular basis, there seemed to be very little commerce. We made our cup noodles on the train and carried them off to eat, and were we glad we did. There was one mini-mart, where everything was behind glass cases and only obtainable by asking a grumpy Russian woman, and a small market with five or six stalls, where there was some candy for sale among the clothing. After determining that there was nothing tempting in Naushki, we headed over to the park in front of the station and planted ourselves on a shady bench for a couple of hours, waiting for our 4 p.m. departure.

Returning to the train, we saw that extra carriages had been added, but we still weren’t sure why we had stopped for so long. Crossing from Mongolia to Russia, we put our watches ahead (due to Russia being on Daylight Savings,) but even allowing for that, over the past ten hours, we had progressed maybe 20 kilometers. I can see why some travelers opt for buses over trains on this section. The best theory we came up with to explain the delay was “so we don’t get into Irkutsk in the middle of the night.” Which I admit, I am grateful for.

We had traveled through northern Mongolia in the middle of the night, so we hadn’t been able to watch the scenery, but between Sukhbaatar and Naushki, we had seen real, tall trees: a suggestion of the scenery to come. After departing Naushki, the landscape became even more green and lush. The colors and the barrenness of the hills beyond still reminded me of Mongolia, but we were moving out of the desert. Siberia

Even more shocking, we saw a river. I had not seen such a large body of water since… I don’t know, maybe Chengdu?river in Siberia

Perhaps most shocking of all was all the houses. After the emptiness of Mongolia, I was surprised to see so many signs of human life. They were just small cabins, but there were so many of them. They were probably summer homes for people who live in towns or cities. It’s very common for Russians, especially city-dwellers, to have a small summer home, called a dacha. Siberian dacha

When we weren’t looking out the window, we played cards and chatted with the Scottish couple. I wanted to stay up to see the first view of Lake Baikal, but as everyone else predicted, I fell asleep (and it was too dark to see anyway.) Early in the morning, I woke up due to the sunlight streaming in my window, and rolled over to go back to sleep, but Bob told me to look out the window. Wow. There it was. I was too sleepy to get my camera out, but I knew I’d have plenty of chances to take photos in the upcoming days.

I couldn’t sleep for much longer, though. Our train was due to arrive early, and I knew I had to get to the bathroom before it was locked. The carriage attendant stopped by again to hand back our tickets. Seeing that I was still under the covers (I was getting dressed under there,) he waved his arm and repeated in insistent Russian that we were going to arrive in Irkutsk very soon, looking disdainfully at this lazy foreigner who was still in bed. I told him that I was just getting dressed, but he rolled his eyes and left. On the whole, though, he was much nicer than the Chinese carriage attendants, and actually did his job properly.

Shortly before 8 a.m., we chugged across the Irkut river and into Irkutsk station. We bid our Scottish friends farewell, promising to find them on Facebook, and went off to start our Siberian adventure. Irkutsk and river Irkut

Erdene Zuu Monastery

Most Mongolians are Tibetan Buddhists. This seemed strange to me at first. Tibet is pretty far from Mongolia, and most people living in between the two regions don’t practice the same form of Buddhism. I was really curious about how this had happened. The story goes like this. Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia by Tibetans in the 16th century. The Mongols originally believed in shamanism. Though the Buddhist doctrine had been spread across all of Central Asia, it had not been very successful in Mongolia, until one Mongolian leader wanted to use religion to unite his people. He invited a Tibetan Buddhist abbot up to Mongolia to hear what he had to say. He converted to Buddhism, and bestowed the title of Dalai Lama on the abbot who had come. The word “dalai” is actually a Mongolian word.

Erdene Zuu monastery was built shortly after these events. Legend has it that, after his conversion, the Mongolian leader was instructed to build a monastery in a river valley that was also near mountains. Coincidentally (or maybe not,) it’s near the ancient city of Karakorum, which was the capital of Mongolia way back in the 13th and 14th century. Whatever the reason, it’s a stunning setting.

Prayer wheels, Erdene Zuu

Parts of the temple have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, then during the Soviet years, most of the temple was destroyed, as were most religious buildings in Mongolia. The Communist leaders wanted to eradicate religion altogether. During purges in the 1930s, over 10,000 monks were murdered, and more were exiled to Siberia. Religious activity, which had been a huge part of Mongolian life, became nonexistent, and would be so for sixty years. The only two exceptions to the assault on religion were Gandan Khiid monastery in Ulaan Baatar and a section of Erdene Zuu, which was allowed to keep operating as a museum only. While many temple buildings were destroyed (there had been dozens,) a few of them did survive, as well as the surrounding wall.

Wall, Erdene Zuu monastery

In Tibetan Buddhism, colors are of special significance: I can’t remember which was which, but the five colors white, red, yellow, blue, and green each represent one of of the five elements. Temples are always decorated with these colors, so they’re very bright inside.

Buddha statue Like in Mahayana Buddhist temples I have visited, there were guardian king statues near the doorway of the temple buildings. They’re always fierce-looking, but this was the first time I’ve seen a guardian riding a donkey (?), using a gutted human body as a saddle.

Guardian king

Things have changed a lot since the Soviet days. Religion is thriving, and most other visitors we  saw at the temple were Mongolian. It’s a working monastery again, so monks live there, without fear for their lives.

Monks at Erdene Zuu

For foreign visitors as well, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mongolia. The country has incredible natural beauty, and there are many opportunities to get outdoors, but due to its nomadic (and recently turbulent) history, there aren’t many places to experience Mongolian culture, or imagine its past as an empire. Erdene Zuu is one of those places. There wasn’t much we could see of the old town of Karakorum, but, at our driver’s insistence, we did take a detour to see one stone tortoise statue near the monastery. Later, I learned that this was one of four stone tortoises that guarded the north, south, east, and west boundaries of the city. Stone tortoise, Karakorum

I have to admit that, before going to Mongolia, I was primarily interested in outdoorsy activities and didn’t care about visiting any temples. I only went because my mom wanted to go. But Erdene Zuu was enthralling. Though it’s hard for any attraction to compete with the beautiful scenery, I forgot all about it, just for a little while. IMG_1820

What’s new?


August 2011: The theme of the blog has been changed, and I’m starting to put up more pictures. I’m not putting up ever photo I’ve taken (nearly 10,000 so far,) but I’m trying to choose some of my favorites and some of the most representative photos so you armchair travelers can get a feel for a country. So far, the Mongolia pics are up. Check them out!

What’s in a Ger?

Mongolia is one of the strangest places I’ve ever visited. It still boggles my mind, for example, that in a country with fewer than three million people, about half of them live in one city. Outside of Ulaan Baatar, there are only a few towns. There are a couple of provincial centers that could be called small cities. But the difference between life inside and outside of the capital couldn’t be starker. Outside of UB, most people are nomadic or semi-nomadic, living at least part of the year in a ger. They herd sheep, cows, yaks, and goats, and move their homes and livestock every few months.

Fun Fact: A ger and a yurt are the same thing. “Yurt” is a Russian word, while “ger” is a Mongolian word.

Tourists to the Mongolian countryside can experience the nomadic lifestyle by staying in a ger camp. These are basically campgrounds with permanent gers erected on concrete bases. Before I went, I thought it sounded gimmicky, but this is really the only place to stay in the countryside. There aren’t any hotels out there.

Plus, they’re actually really cool inside. On the outside they’re always white, but on the inside they’re quite colorful. Traditionally, an entire family lives inside one ger. The beds are arranged in a circle around the edge of the ger. Some of them also had cabinets next to the bed, others had drawers built into the headboard and footboard. IMG_0406In contrast to the greens, blues, and browns of the Mongolian landscape, ger furniture is always painted bright orange or vermillion, and embellished with curlicues and cloud designs.The floors are carpeted; traditionally it’s probably wool. At the places we stayed, the walls were covered with  an extra layer of fabric—usually cotton. DSC01086-1I wasn’t sure if this was for extra warmth or for decoration—probably both. In the center is a wood-burning stove and a table with stools. The stove is particularly important because Mongolia, for most of the year, is a chilly place. For guests at ger camps, fire-starting service is provided by the staff. If they’re really good hosts, they’ll do it twice: once before bed and once in the early morning.

At one camp, we arrived when a ger was being erected. It doesn’t require many pieces, and apparently they are available for sale at the Narantuul Market in Ulaan Baatar. I started to seriously consider taking up residence in a ger. If only they could be shipped cheaply to the US. Here are all of the pieces one would need: IMG_1878IMG_1880

On the left: the center columns, a roof, a couple of supports for the roof, and felt and canvas coverings. On the right: a door and a piece of the wall. The walls are made of several accordion-like wooden pieces that can be easily folded or extended. First, these are assembled by tying them together in a circular shape. IMG_1879 It’s nice if you have a lot of friends to help with this part. IMG_1881 Next, the two center columns are put up. I asked our tour guide how the guys knew where to place the columns; if there were markings on the ground or something. She said no; they just eyeball it. IMG_1885 After that, the roof can be raised, two supports are secured, and the door can be put in place. IMG_1886 After the door is up, some ropes are tied around the walls, to keep them in place. Next, additional supports have to be put in place. The felt and canvas roof coverings are very heavy, so there are a lot of supports. On the inside, they’re brightly painted, so it’s also important to make sure to lay them properly. IMG_2029 Without the cover on, a completed ger looks like this: IMG_1887 At this point, the guys building the ger took a break. Also very important. The next step would be to cover the entire ger with a giant felt blanket. The blanket has a slit in the center, creating a flap. Once it is on, the flap is usually folded back, so natural light can enter the ger. Also, this is where the stovepipe goes, which, as I said, is an essential fixture in every ger. Finally, a canvas cover goes on top of the felt, for added warmth and probably also to help preserve the felt. Extra ropes are tied around the outside of the ger, possibly to keep the whole thing from falling apart. It reminded me of butchers’ strings tied around pot roast. IMG_1783

And you’re done! When a nomad family moves house, they complete this whole process (dismantling, traveling, and rebuilding) in just one day. In the past, the ger pieces were transported by yak-drawn carts, but nowadays they drive cars and trucks. To think, every time I’ve moved, I’ve struggled to get all my stuff packed up; I didn’t even have to take my house apart or put it together again.

Fun Fact: Everyone who has ever been inside a ger has hit their head on the doorframe.

Gers are short. I mean really short. Take a look at Bob here:  IMG_1789I imagine it has to do with the weather: Mongolia is cold and windy, so the best kind of dwelling would be one that is short and squat. It’s really a clever design. I came up with that theory when I was trying to distract myself from thinking about my throbbing head.

The gers at the tourist camps have electricity, as do the ger neighborhoods around Ulaan Baatar and in small cities, but none have running water in the ger itself. As in the tourist camps, in the ger neighborhoods there are shared toilets (often pit toilets) and shower facilities. Out in the countryside, the people can wash themselves in rivers or streams when they have the chance, but that’s about it when it comes to bathing. Washing clothes regularly is also impossible. Cooking is done over the stove in the center of the yurt, but I think that would be really difficult since the space is so small. On the upside, there’s very little cleaning to be done.

Considering all this hardship, why would anyone want to live this lifestyle anymore? Because you can open your door, look outside, and say, “This is my backyard.” IMG_1659