Tourist Relay in Tomsk

Ah, Tomsk. If for some vanishingly unlikely reason I was forced into exile in Siberia, I would live in Tomsk*. It’s the Bath of Siberia I think – well, not really, not in any meaningful way. But it’s a small, comfy, laid-back university town with lovely distinctive architecture. 



(Forgive the crap photos. At some point on the train I started fiddling around with the settings on my camera, and it took me ages to get them right again afterwards.)

However, unlike Bath, Tomsk is quietly falling apart. A lot of the buildings we saw back in 2012 are probably gone now. Its traditional Siberian architecture, featuring elaborate, decorative wooden ‘lace’,  is gradually being destroyed.  These old wooden buildings are particularly vulnerable to fire, and sometimes these fires are deliberately set by owners who would prefer something more modern to live in, or more profitable to rent. Those buildings that haven’t been wilfully destroyed are often in a state of neglect. Large parts of the city have an abandoned, forgotten feel.



At the same time, Tomsk is a cheerful, friendly city, and home to some of the best oat biscuits in the world. Our new home, the 8th floor hostel, was right round the corner from a lovely bustling street market selling all manner of fresh produce, smoked fish, and a staggering variety of the aforementioned biscuits.


Everyone we met in Tomsk was almost absurdly welcoming. At one point we were venturing off to visit a church on top of a hill, as instructed by the Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook. We flagged down a tram round the corner from our hostel and I laboriously asked whether it went to the church. Several people fired back quite a lot of Russian and then, when it became clear I had no idea what they were saying, they beckoned us on board.

One of the passengers took charge of the situation. She went round the bus until she found someone who spoke English, and got them to translate the fact that none of the trams went to the top of the hill, but that this one would get quite close, and then we could walk. When we got to our stop a couple of other people got off at the same time. The lady who had taken charge of us gave them some instructions then packed us off the tram in their care. We followed them along a street until they flagged down some other passers-by who were heading the right way, explained where we wanted to go, and transferred us over to them instead. As Chris pointed out, it was like being the baton in a relay race. This new set of people led us up the hill, deposited us in front of the church we wanted to visit, then went on their way. It was all done in a fabulously matter-of-fact way, as if the local people of Tomsk played Tourist Relay with each other all the time while walking around the city.

For our first night we were the only people at the 8th Floor Hostel, so we had the run of the place. It’s a really homely, friendly place to stay. On our second night we were joined by one other person, another English man called Tom. Yes: we met a Tom in Tomsk. He was from East London, near where my aunt lived at the time, but by some extraordinary coincidence he was now living round the corner from where Chris and I live: Finsbury Park. Even more strangely, he worked for Haringey Council, the local authority for whom my boyfriend David was then a councillor. He was the only other tourist we met in Tomsk, and we could easily have bumped into him at home instead.

Considering the fights, knife threats and forest fires we had to get through to make it to Tomsk, it would have been a tremendous disappointment if the city hadn’t been worth the journey. But it more than repaid the heroic effort we needed to get there. I would like to visit again, sometime when the countryside around it isn’t burning, shrouding the city in smoke. The photo below gives you a taste of the city’s strange sense of humour: Chekhov visited once and made a disparaging remark about Tomsk in a letter, so the city has repaid him with this statue of the writer from the point of view of a drunk peasant lying in a ditch. I mean, where else in the world would you find a literary monument like this?


*Or maybe Irkutsk.

Knives and Forest Fires: The Rest of the Journey to Tomsk


When we woke up the next morning Victor was gone. After a while we were joined by a young mother and her two children, a ten year old girl and an extremely lively five year old boy who ended up entertaining himself by playing Slap The Englishman with Chris. They were good fun, though quite demanding.

Everything was going quite smoothly until the train ground to a halt in the middle of a field for an hour and a half. This was the only journey we had that involved a remotely tight connection, so of course it was the only train that was significantly late. After a while it became apparent that we were going to miss our train.

Once we had sat there long enough to ensure that we were beyond all hope of catching the Tomsk train, we started moving again. Outside the train, the usual landscape of birch trees and wooden houses was gradually obscured by a thick yellowish pall of smoke. A massive forest fire was burning somewhere in the region. When we arrived in Taiga the air smelt of burning wood; you couldn’t see from one end of the platform to the other. We got off the train and began to investigate our options.

By now it was getting on for ten at night. Was there another train to Tomsk? Not until the next day. Was there a bus? Nope. Anywhere to stay? Not visibly, but then we couldn’t see much within the smoke, and we didn’t want to venture too far from the station in case we got lost. A taxi driver began to follow us around, asking where we were going, and we negotiated a price with him. As I can only count up to the early teens in Russian these negotiations were done with fingers, scribbles on paper and speaking individual digits, but we settled on “two-nul-nul-nul” or 2000 rubles for the ride.

We got into the taxi and drove to a nearby petrol station. Suddenly our driver said the price was three-nul-nul-nul, around £60. I objected to this, which was hard, because I could only speak in the present tense.

“You say two-nul-nul-nul in station. Why now THREE-nul-nul-nul?”

He said stuff about the price of petrol. We had a bit of a row about it until Chris pointed out we had very little option but to pay him the extra grand, and that it was still well worth it. He was right, but even so, I was angry at the man for being so underhanded about it. Chris said he needed to go to the cashpoint to get the extra money, and began to grope at his passenger door. It wouldn’t open. I was still half-heartedly arguing with the driver. He argued back, and suddenly pulled out an enormous knife.

“Jesus, that’s a great big knife!” I hissed. We had both become very quiet and compliant all of a sudden. Still muttering about the cost of the fare, the driver leaned over and used the knife to jimmy open Chris’s door. I stopped arguing, and Chris and the driver disappeared into the petrol station.

Chris came back with a bundle of money, and gave some of it to the driver – he wanted the whole fare up front, but we said we would give him the rest in Tomsk. This rather meaningless concession made us feel marginally better. Our driver used his advance to buy petrol and some toxic-looking cans of the Russian equivalent of Red Bull, because the best thing to introduce into a tense situation involving a knife is a load of caffeine. He tuned the radio into Russian pop songs, cranked up the volume and we sped off into the dark, smoke-covered Siberian forests.

“He could kill us both and bury us in the forest and no one would ever know what happened,” Chris said. Somehow we both found this thought quite funny. Still, I was gripping hold of the handle of the door so hard I found that after a while I couldn’t unclench my fist. Chris started worrying that we were driving in the wrong direction, but I didn’t have enough space left in my brain’s anxiety tank to think about that – it was all taken up by the knife. We drove really fast, often over 100 kph, the car rattling with the effort and sometimes nearly taking off over some of the road’s more severe bumps.

Eventually, in the middle of the night, we arrived in Tomsk. We found the right road quite easily, but finding our hostel itself proved far harder. Our knife-wielding taxi driver grew increasingly impatient, flagging down drunk passers-by to ask them where it was. After a while, to our intense relief, he found it. We paid him the rest of his well-earned three-nul-nul-nul and said goodbye. To be fair to the driver, it was a long way. He could have kicked us out in Tomsk on the right road, leaving us to find the hostel by ourselves. But he saw us right to the door, carrying my backpack, and stayed long enough to give our host a bollocking about how difficult the hostel was to find.

We were the only people staying in the hostel that night, so we had a room to ourselves. We made up our beds and turned in, thankful to be in Tomsk after all we had encountered on the way.

Terror on the Trans-Siberian


We returned to Irkutsk as happy travellers. Relaxed from our time on the beach at Lake Baikal, and beginning to feel that we were getting the hang of this Trans-Siberian thing.

Naturally we were wrong. The world had lulled us into a false sense of security, and we were about to be flung into the most terrifying two days of the entire trip.

It all started well enough. We took the bus back to Irkutsk, had a Siberian pizza then went back to the station to get our train. We were venturing off the main Trans-Siberian route, heading north towards Tomsk, and you could tell the difference straight away – absolutely no one spoke a word of English.

To my absolute delight, one of our compartment-mates was a small cat called Lyusha. She was very self-composed and spent most of the time asleep on her bunk, although she did allow me to pat her in between naps. Her human companion was on her way to visit her Mum for an extended stay, so she had packed the cat.

Sadly they left a few hours after we boarded. Things began to deteriorate rapidly after that. The man in the bunk above them moved down into the lower bunk and started chatting in a friendly enough way, but then he drank quite a few cans of Baltika beer. Baltika beers are numbered, seemingly in order of strength, and his was a relatively high number. He got very glassy-eyed and drunk very quickly, and kept trying to make conversation, though his slurring drunk Russian was well beyond my understanding.

The trouble started when Victor arrived, very late, just as we getting ready for bed. Victor, a young man around the same age as me, had booked himself the lower bunk, the one recently vacated by the lady and her cat. However, the drunk man decided he wanted to sleep there. At first the drunk man yielded, but then he changed his mind and sat back down on Victor’s bunk.

It was around midnight. We all just wanted to get to sleep. The drunk man, slurring and staggering about, began to shove at Victor to shift him off the bunk. Victor defended himself. A fight broke out, and they ended up rolling around on the floor between the bunks, kicking and battering at each other.

Victor definitely had the upper hand in all sorts of ways. Firstly, he had a ticket which entitled him to the disputed bunk. Secondly, he was strong and well built, and clearly not afraid of a fight. Thirdly, he wasn’t blind drunk. Unfortunately the other man was so far gone he wouldn’t have either noticed or cared about these points. Even though Victor kept subduing him, pressing him to the floor with his arm twisted behind his back, the drunk man would just start up again as soon as Victor let him go. I was shouting at them both, but they completely ignored me. The drunk man went for Victor again and they both burst out of the compartment together, tripping over, and the drunk’s head fell with a horrible crunch against the wall of the corridor outside.

Up until then I had effectively been trapped in the compartment with two wrestling men between me and the door. Chris was likewise trapped in the bunk above me. Now I jumped over the men and into the corridor.

Never in my life have I more wanted to be able to speak Russian. I didn’t even know what the word for help was, let alone “Help, my compartment mates are beating the living daylights out of each other”; instead the only Russian I could bellow was “Provodnitsa! (carriage attendant) There’s a problem!”

Still, this had an amazing effect. People began to pour out of every compartment in our carriage. A heavily-tattooed, wiry little man from the next door compartment waded in and separated Victor and the drunk. They both went back into the compartment and sat down, and the tattooed man grinned at me. “Eta Russiya,” he told me – this is Russia. He wasn’t the only one to say that to me over the next hour or so.

As soon as we had returned to our compartment an enormous, blonde, terrifying force of nature swept in. This was the provodnitsa. She started laying into both men with such verbal violence it put their scrap on the floor to shame. Everyone was cowed. Then she turned to me.

“And you!” she said, and something else I didn’t understand. I held up my hands in abject surrender.

“I’m English!”

She wheeled back to Victor and the drunk. “And you do this in front of the foreigners! Shame on you!” She launched another few minutes of verbal water cannon at them, then swept out. We were all stunned.

The drunk man packed up his things. I thought he was going to be moved to a different compartment, but then we pulled into a tiny little station in the middle of nowhere and two policemen got on to talk to us. They spoke to the provodnitsa, then I gave the world’s worst witness statement: “This man- (pointing to Victor) – good man. No problem. This man – (pointing to the drunk) – lots of beer.” Even the terrifying provodnitsa snorted with laughter at this and relayed it to audience of fellow travellers in the corridor.

They ripped Victor and the drunk’s side of the compartment apart, searching it thoroughly, but didn’t touch anything of ours – they didn’t even ask to see our passports. Then they escorted the drunk off the train, and we set off again.

I lay down on my bunk, trembling. Victor got into his bunk opposite, and we started talking – both of us were far too wired to sleep. Somehow the adrenaline unlocked a load of Russian vocabulary I’d forgotten I had, and we managed to have quite a long conversation about all sorts of things, politics, Putin, the lack of jobs in Siberia. Victor spoke very slowly and clearly, finishing sentences for me when I got lost in them and correcting my grammar and pronunciation in a very kind, encouraging way. Eventually I nodded off, feeling safe and rather proud of my linguistic efforts.

It was now at least two in the morning. I thought our troubles were over. Yet, around twenty hours later, Chris and I would find ourselves speeding through the forests of Siberia in a taxi driven by an angry man with a very large knife. But I’ll save that story for my next post.

A Concert on Olkhon Island


The next morning we woke on the train to find we were already at the border with Russia. This border crossing took ten long and dull hours, during which time we barely moved. We spent the day reading, sleeping, drinking lemon tea, playing backgammon and cards, and trying to chat to our travelling companions, one of whom bravely tried to teach me a bit of Russian.

Early the next morning we arrived in Irkutsk, the so-called Paris of Siberia, a grand old town with a surprising number of pizza joints. After a long search for somewhere to have breakfast we went to the Decembrist Museum, and were bossed about by a number of babushkas, one of whom followed us around, muttering, from room to room.

The next day we were on the move again. We went to the central market place to pick up a bus to Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Baikal. The trip took all day, squashed into a minibus with our bags strapped to the roof. We met a Belgian lady called Tine, who was on her way east towards China. The distances in Russia are humbling, especially for someone from the UK, our tiny speck of an island. After several hours we arrived on the shore of the lake and transferred to a ferry which took us out to Olkhon Island. Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest, largest and deepest freshwater lake, and contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water – a mind-boggling statistic. We were staying in Nikita’s Homestead, a backpacking hub in the island’s biggest village, Khuzhir. Tine stayed with us in the yurt we had booked, up the road from Nikita’s, which is a little village-within-a-village, full of wooden huts and a canteen where everyone eats together three times a day. As you can imagine, it’s a real international meeting place, and everyone soon gets chatting to everyone else.


Chris was happy because he spotted a piano in the canteen. He had been practicing a lot in China and had previously mentioned that he would miss playing while we were on the road, so now he went off to find out whether anyone minded him playing while we were there. He came back shortly afterwards with a stunned look on his face and announced that he would be giving a concert that very evening. Nikolai, the man in charge of musical entertainment at Nikita’s, had somehow talked him into it.

We went to the canteen straight away so Chris could practice. As, somehow, he hadn’t anticipated that he would be giving any concerts while we were travelling, he didn’t have any sheet music with him, so we both racked our brains for things he might be able to play from memory. We came up with some Joplin which he ran through a few times, then Nikolai appeared, playing the accordion, and dragged us off to a little wooden concert hall for the show.

Nikolai warmed things up on the accordion, accompanying two ladies singing Russian folk songs. Then Chris banged out a few Scott Joplin rags, very fast, to rapturous applause. He gave another performance a couple of days later, and played an impressive amount of Beethoven’s Pathetique from memory. His practice sessions in the canteen also reaped some unexpected rewards. The ladies serving food in the canteen were really quite strict about portion control and rarely handed out second helpings, but whenever Chris went up to ask for more he came back with a loaded plate.

We spent a couple of days on Olkhon Island lying on the beach, exploring the island, and generally enjoying the Siberian summer. Chris went off to play football a couple of times – Nikita’s has a regular fixture of travellers versus local schoolboys. A good, quiet, friendly few days. Every time I’ve heard that terribly famous bit of the Beethoven since then I’ve been transported back to that little sawdusty concert room at Nikita’s, in a muddy village in the middle of the lake, under a huge, starlit sky.


In Which I Almost Fall Off a Horse and Lose Chris


Our last couple of days in Mongolia were by far our most eventful. After passing a fairly noisy night by the river, trying to the sleep to a chorus of sheep, goats, rain, barking dogs and whining mosquitoes, we saddled up the horses again and set off. Our first challenge was to get across the river, and then across another one after that. The first crossing easy enough, and the horses made it through with very little protest, although they made sure we all knew they would have preferred to stay away. But the second crossing was a far more complicated affair. The river was deeper, with a faster current, and it was hard to tell where the deep bits were going to be.

We had been camping within sight of a group of gers, and one man from that family came along to help us cross the river. Our new friend borrowed Chris’s horse Wolfgang and crossed the river easily enough, as Wolfgang didn’t seem to mind getting wet. Together they found a path for us to take.

Then it was our turn. Sinatra was none too pleased with the idea of crossing the river and made sure I was aware of his opinion. I could hardly blame him – at one point he was up to his chest in the water. Once we got to the opposite side I had to stop and pour the water out of my boots. My trousers and chaps were soaked through, although they dried quickly enough as the day progressed.

From that point on, however, Sinatra was in a filthy temper. The flies and bees were tormenting the horses and it was hard work getting them to go anywhere, even though we were trying to get away from the river, where there would be fewer insects. Sinatra was constantly kicking and shaking himself, all the while aiming snorty horse-curses in my direction. We got to another river, too wide and deep to cross, and rode down it for a while looking for a bridge. The horses hated the idea of a bridge even more than they’d hated wading through the water – in the end we all had to dismount and lead them over a few at a time.

On the other side all the horses were quite twitchy, biting at flies and skipping about a bit. Suddenly, without any warning, Sinatra lost his cool completely. He skittered around then sank to his knees, preparing to roll over. His wild thrashing threw me out of the saddle, and I slid straight down his neck until he froze, as if suddenly remembering I was on his back. There was a moment of terrible confusion when I thought he was going to roll over completely, crushing me underneath, and then Bayanmunhbat hopped over and helped me down to the ground.

After that I decided to walk for a bit. Ruby, who was suffering with a cold and a bad back, walked along with me: I was very grateful as I’d gone a bit trembly, and it was good to have her company. We met the others in a beautiful glade with trees and had lunch in the shade. A man called Eagle came to meet us in a car, and brought beer and chocolate, but took Ruby back to UB with him. We were sad to say goodbye. Margaret decided not to ride in the afternoon, so I took her horse, Blondie, as Sinatra and I were still not on speaking terms.

Riding Blondie was a completely different experience. He was the most placid and laid back creature you could imagine, who only complained when we went uphill. We even managed a short trot together before he decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and we slipped back into an easy walk. That evening we had our first campfire, and sat around chatting and melting the soles of our shoes.


The next day was our last day of wild camping. We woke up early and Chris went off for a run  again, warning me that he might be a while. He took my watch and compass with him. I went back to sleep for a bit, then woke again and got up to chat to Margaret and Richard. Chris had been gone for at least an hour, but he said he wanted to go for a decent run so I wasn’t worried. After a while Chris still hadn’t reappeared so we decided to go ahead with breakfast. I began to feel a little nervous as the hours passed. Most of the horses were missing too, as they had been loosely hobbled overnight and had wandered off, so Bayanmunhbat went off to find them. Amaraa decided to round up Chris at the same time. I was a little worried that he’d injured himself, but oddly not too worried – I knew that if he had been hurt we would find him, or else someone else would, and he would be okay in the end. Someone would take care of him. Things seem to get lost in the steppe quite often, and looking for them is a part of life. On our second morning in Mongolia we met two men in a 4×4 who were looking for some horses, and Amaraa told us about a cousin who went off in search of some camels, spending days travelling across the steppe and into the desert, staying with whoever he came across along the way until he tracked the camels down again.

Amaraa saddled up Ruby’s horse, Rowdy, and went off in the direction we thought Chris had taken. The rest of us decided to have another coffee. I was vaguely wondering what I’d say to Chris’s parents and his sister, who we were due to meet in Moscow, if I had actually mislaid him on the steppe. I thought it might make for an awkward conversation.

After half and hour or so, to my relief, Amaraa rode back into sight with Chris jogging alongside him. Amaraa had assumed that Chris was running along a ridge that stretched away from where we had been camping, and set out riding fast down the ridge to catch up. After a while Rowdy’s ear started to fix on something to the right of them. Shortly after, the whole horse started to pull in that direction. Amaraa looked over and sure enough, there was Chris in the distance: the horse was the one to find him.

So, reunited, we all set off for our last day on horseback. Chris rode on his new friend Rowdy and I had Blondie – Margaret had decided to go in the van. It was a blissful ride, mounting higher and higher up the hills until we had a spectacular view over the steppe below. We came across a family in a ger and they invited us in for a bowl of airag, the fermented mare’s milk which is the traditional drink of Mongolia. It is very mildly alcoholic, and tastes like thin, fizzy yoghurt. I’s a bit of an acquired taste. Luckily Richard loved the stuff, and he ended up knocking back several bowls of the stuff as we all tasted it then passed the remainder of our cups to him. We went outside to see the family’s herd of horses, and watched as they milked one of the mares, and tried to put a one-year-old horse in hobbles for the first time.


Then we set off for a challenging ride up through mountainous hills, up and down rocky inclines, through silver-green grasses and shimmering lilac hills. Hearing the thump and clink of the horses, their hooves kicking up the scent of crushed wild herbs. And then, too soon, it was time to stop for lunch.

To be honest, I had mixed feelings. Part of me wanted to go on for days, riding on into this seemingly endless stretch of open space, enjoying the simplicity of a life containing nothing other than sleep, food and horses. But another part of me wanted a shower, a clean set of clothes, and a mode of transport that didn’t come with a such a strong personality. We had lunch on a high hillside, then said goodbye to Bayanmunhbat and the horses, and watched as they rode off towards UB.  Then we packed ourselves into the van and set off in his wake. Often the road was so bad we drove parallel to it, or cut a path zigzagging towards the city, on and off the official road and approaching the city in eccentric circles to avoid the muddiest and most flooded routes in. At one point we reached a bit of road so submerged underwater we couldn’t tell whether we could drive through it until Richard volunteered to test it out on foot. 

Eventually we made it to the ger camp where we spent our last night. Chris and I stuffed nearly all our clothes in the laundry. We went around our ger exclaiming at the luxuries it contained: Real beds! Pillows! A dustbin! A door! Then went for a shower and there, in an extremely basic cubicle in a campsite shower block, I had something approaching a religious experience. Considering it’s such an ordinary, everyday thing to do, it’s difficult to describe how blissfully brilliant a warm shower is when the closest you’ve come for a week is an antibacterial wipe and a dip in a river with a herd of sheep in it.

When I reappeared, a changed woman, I found Richard and Margaret stationed on the terrace with some beer and a bottle of Mongolian vodka. Chris and I joined them and we drank a toast to the horses.

The next day was largely a case of killing time before we caught our train. We said goodbye to Richard and Margaret and drove back to UB, visited an internet cafe, a supermarket and the National Museum with Amaraa and Eagle, then went back to the station to catch our train on to Russia.

Mongolia is like no other country in the world, and I hope it retains its unique charms. There’s no other place where you can skirt so close to the capital city without seeing a single house, road or even a car for hours or days on end. Its openness extends to its people, who have a calm, generous friendliness I think can only come from having access to such wide, free, abundant and beautiful space.

Where Was I?


Oh yes. Mongolia. Summer 2012. Given that a certain amount of time has passed since my last efforts on this blog I will ease myself back into things by copying from the notebook I kept during the trip.

13/07/12 – Day 23

I’m sitting at the table in an idyllic camping spot by a slow, flat, meandering river on a wide open stretch of the steppe. Blue hills in the background. The sun is setting.

Chris and I woke up early today. Chris went off for a run, and I went for a walk up to the top of the valley, as everyone said it was worth a look. The grass was tall and lush, dotted with beautiful wild flowers – blue spikes, yellow buttercup-like things, tiny white & red flowers. Grasshoppers jumping out of the way as I went. The view from the top of the hill was stunning. Wide open land stretching away as far as you could see, rising and falling in close-cropped green hills without a hint of a road or a house or even another camp site.


After a leisurely breakfast we set off on horseback again, up and down hills, across gentle valleys. Sinatra, my horse, was reasonably biddable, though he made it plain through snorts, sidelong glances and impatient flicks of his ears that he thought very little of my skills as a rider. Having hardly ever ridden before I was quite happy that Sinatra was on a lead, attached to Bayanmunhbat’s horse who I called Farty for loud and smelly reasons. Sinatra adores Farty and tries to stay in close contact with him as much as possible, which meant my knee was frequently wedged up Farty’s arse. But other than that I felt I was getting the hang of things a bit.

It got hotter and hotter. We rode on across the steppe, hearing no other sounds apart from squeaking saddles, clinking stirrups, and the snorting, clomping horses. You say ‘tchoo!’ to get them to go faster, although Sinatra mainly chose to ignore my feeble urgings.

We had lunch in a wide open valley in the searing heat. Apparently it was nearing forty degrees, but the heat was so dry it wasn’t particularly oppressive, and there was a bit of a breeze. After lunch we got back on the horses. Sinatra was now in a very grumpy and stubborn mood. He kept dropping back, ignoring my tchooings, or else walking so close to Farty my knee was constantly driven into his arse. It was like trying to steer a particularly awful shopping trolley across the steppe. Eventually I gave up and just left him in charge; that way I could concentrate on the scenery.

The hills receded, and we found ourselves crossing a wide, stony plain. I was chatting to Margaret and Amaraa when suddenly Sinatra rocked hard. I stood up in the stirrups automatically, and Margaret told me Sinatra had aimed a kick at her horse Blondie. A little further down the road he tried it again a few times. He was clearly fed up, and it made it difficult to relax, to say the least. In the end Margaret, Ruby and I hitched a ride in the back of the van to our current campsite.

As soon as we had put up the tent and grabbed our bags Chris & I went for a dip in the river. I haven’t had a proper shower since Beijing, three days, one incredibly dusty overnight train and several horse rides ago. It was very shallow, cold and fast moving, but very clear. My enjoyment was only slightly dented when Chris pointed out that there was a small herd of sheep upstream, around a bend in the river. Still, I think I came out marginally cleaner.

Getting Back on the Horse (Part Two)


We arrived in Mongolia during the Naadam Festival, a yearly contest of the ‘Three Manly Sports’ of wrestling, horse racing and archery. Richard, Margaret and Ruby had seen some of the wrestling the day before, at the stadium in UB, but by the time we arrived and had lunch it was more or less too late to see the archery, so we elected instead to drive straight to the camp site. This meant that, for Chris and I, the horse racing was the first and only bit of the Naadam we saw.

It was magnificent. The ‘field’ in which the event was taking place was heaving with people. The term ‘field’ is a bit misleading, because it wasn’t a fenced-in space; it was just the bit of the steppe where the horse racing was taking place. Thousands of people milled about – friends, families, gangs of young lads on horseback, kite flyers, horse archers in magnificent costumes; mounted policemen and army types. The atmosphere was fantastic: everyone smiling, excited to be there, enjoying the holiday.  Naadam races are really long – this one was a cross-country gallop of thirty kilometres.

While we waited for the race to reach us we were entertained by a display of horsemanship and archery on horseback. We all squeezed into one of the stands to have a look. All the seats were taken, so we ended up packed into the space between two of these stands, jammed in extremely tightly; it was difficult to see anything, especially as the show itself was quite far away. Still, the bits I did see were impressive. Men galloping past, standing up on the backs of their horses, or dropping down so that it looked like the horse was riderless; shooting various targets at high speed. At one point a line of horsemen all made their horses lie on the ground then stand up again, with riders still attached; another group, dressed in military uniform, gave the crowd a wonderful formal salute whilst standing on the back of their horses, as sure-footed and upright as though they were on solid ground.

After this we moved up to get a good spot for the horse race itself. There was a fair amount of hanging around, as there often is at these sorts of events, but we secured a great front-row position and settled in to wait, chatting to one of the stewards, who stood in front of us guarding the wire line that stretched between the crowd and the course of the race (‘racing track’ is too strong a word to describe the latter area). Then a cloud of dust kicked up in the distance: the race was approaching. People  began to hurry towards the wire. Those of us at the front row crouched down so that the people behind could see.

Soon the race was upon us. As with the earlier displays, there was still a fair gap between us and the race: none of my pictures of it are particularly impressive. It was fun to watch, though, and to be a part of the happy, excited crowd. I especially liked the riderless horses who were still going hell for leather, convinced they were still in with a shot of winning.

Once the race had thundered on past us we made our way back towards the van; it took an hour or so to find it amid the chaos of the field. Eventually we were reunited, only to spend another age battling our way back on to the open road. We had lunch at our campsite, and decided not to go back for the rest of the afternoon’s Naadam events: instead we all had a long siesta before it was time to saddle up ourselves.

Before arriving in Mongolia I had only been on a horse once in my life. I’ve been on a fair few donkeys and camels, but the only horse ride was a short one in Jordan, on the way to Petra, and it wasn’t a complete success. I mounted easily, but the damn horse wouldn’t move. The rest of my group all started off on foot towards the entrance to the siq, the narrow chasm that leads to the ancient city of Petra. My horse just stood there as though it hadn’t the faintest idea what was expected of it as I urged, prodded and cajoled it to move. Eventually the man who had rented it to me noticed that I hadn’t got anywhere, and turned back. He raised an eyebrow at it, and the horse trotted forward very smartly. Luckily no one else witnessed this little debacle; instead they saw me trotting past as though I knew what I was doing.

This was the sum total of my horse riding experience by the time I came to be standing in the steppe, eyeing up the stocky beasts in front of us. Mongolian horses are quite small, but they seemed big enough to me suddenly. Chris had a little more experience, having had a few classes as a child; Richard and Ruby had both owned horses in the past, but Margaret was another absolute beginner.

L-R: Richard, Margaret, Amaraa, Ruby, me, Baynmunh, Chris, and our driver

They assigned us all horses and clapped us in riding helmets and chaps before we hauled ourselves on to the horses. Mine was a medium-sized brown fellow. They all had rather boring names like ‘the one with the stripe’ or ‘the black one’, so we each re-named our mounts; I called mine Sinatra, as he had startling light blue eyes, and Chris called his Wolfgang – you’d have to ask him why. Ruby was given a horse she had ridden before, as she’d been in the country for longer than we had: she’d called it Rowdy Brown. Richard and Margaret were mounted on Blackie and Blondie respectively. Amaraa’s horse was called ‘Amaraa’s horse’, and Baynmunh had a dapple grey horse which I was soon driven to name Farty. All of them were geldings.

At first I was led by Amaraa, but his horse and mine immediately started sniping at each other until Baynmunh told us to stop and swapped Sinatra and I for Margaret and Blondie: apparently Amaraa’s horse and Sinatra were not on friendly terms. We set off across the steppe at an easy walk; Baynmunh was now leading Chris and myself. Sinatra kept turning his head slightly, surveying me out of the corner of his eye; he didn’t seem very impressed with what he saw. We learned how to urge the horses on – ‘tchoo! tchoo!’ but mostly they chose to ignore us. Sinatra liked to walk as close to Farty as possible, so that my knee often ended up wedged into Farty’s arse – not a fantastic place for it to be, but it seemed as though I had little choice in the matter. Despite this, the ride was brilliant, especially when we went downhill, standing up in the stirrups – great fun.

After about twenty minutes we stopped high up in a beautiful silver-green valley, and decided to camp there for the night. I was disappointed – I wanted to go further, ride for longer. The van appeared, and we started to unload everything, setting up the tents and the dining table. I chatted to Amaraa for a bit and was amazed to hear that the twenty minute ride had actually lasted two whole hours – I could hardly believe it.

Our second camp

Each evening the horses were hobbled for the night, but they could still wander off quite far – “just a couple of kilometres”, as Amaraa put it. Some were tied together – Wolfgang and Sinatra were always a pair – while others were left alone. Richard’s horse, Blackie, was the leader of our little herd.

Mongolian horses have a fair amount of freedom. The following morning a 4×4 appeared over the ridge above our camp, and two men stopped to ask if we’d seen their horses, which were lost. Amaraa told us about his cousin, who once spent a couple of weeks in the Gobi Desert looking for some camels  – moving from ger to ger, hosted by whichever family he happened to meet on his way. Often, in the mornings, Baynmunh would spend a long while looking for our horses after they’d strayed off in the night, carried away by their ongoing mission to eat the entire steppe.

This post is getting a bit long, so I’ll leave it there for now, even though there’s plenty more to report. Coming up (as they say on the news): Sinatra and I have a falling out, and Chris goes missing during a morning run. Stay tuned.

Getting Back on the Horse (Part One)


If you should happen to glance back at my previous posts from the Big Trip you’ll notice that I’ve updated them with some pictures. You can now see the Forbidden City and Rahul’s family and the street dogs of Kathmandu and stuff like that. Email subscribers: you lot will need to visit the blog site itself if you want to see these treasures.

But anyway. I was last seen leaving Beijing on my first Trans-Siberian train. We were lucky enough to have the whole 4-berth compartment to ourselves, which was a bit of a luxury. The day passed in a haze of lounging on the lower bunks, snoozing, looking out of the window and playing cards. The train ambled along at a gentle pace, creating a soothing rocking movement that acted like an anaesthetic; one nap blurred into the next. This was just as well, as we approached the Chinese-Mongolian border in the evening and the intricate process of passing from one country to the next meant that we didn’t get to sleep properly until after one in the morning.

The Border Boogie (as I began to refer to it in my head) is a complex process at the best of times, but it was made more complicated by the fact that the countries of the former Soviet Union have a narrower gauge of railway tracks than the rest of the world. This meant that our train was shunted into a shed, separated out into its constituent carriages and hoisted into the air so they could change the bogies. We could have got off and waited in the station, but Chris and I were both curious about the process, so we stayed on board as our carriage was slowly lifted up about ten feet into the air – so slowly you could barely sense the movement – then the wheels rolled out from beneath us, and new ones rolled in. It took about an hour. Before that some Chinese officials had come round and taken our passports – it’s amazing how readily you submit to having such important documents taken away for upwards of an hour at a time.

After we were lowered back down and reconnected into a train the border guards handed back our passports and we shuffled on a few hundred yards into Mongolia. Here we stopped again, in a dim and half-deserted station in the middle of the night, where a line of Mongolian military types stood to attention outside, ‘welcoming’ us into the country and making sure no one made an illegal break for outside world. In a sleepy haze, we handed over our passports again then were woken an hour or so later when they were returned, and we finally started to roll on through the dark steppe.

The following morning we woke up to a glorious view: the beautiful golden-green grasses of the Gobi Desert, underlaid by pale sand, streaming past the window. In the first few minutes after I woke up I saw horses and gers (the Mongolian equivalent of yurts), but the emptiness was the most breathtaking feature of the view: beautiful nothingness.

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar at around lunchtime and were met by some people from Horse Trails Mongolia, with whom we had arranged to go horse trekking. I had also arranged for someone to meet us with our train tickets for the Ulaanbaatar-Irkutsk leg but, much to our consternation, she didn’t show up. This created a problem that grumbled on throughout our time in Mongolia, but as we got hold of the tickets in the end and the story isn’t that interesting I’ll say no more about it.

It was lovely to meet our guide, Amaraa, and our fellow horse trekkers Richard, Margaret and Ruby. Richard and Margaret are from Byron’s Bay in Australia, and Ruby is a stand-up comedian who lives in Los Angeles. There was a thirty-odd year age gap between Chris and I and the rest of our party, but no gap at all in terms of enthusiasm or energy; we all got on well from the outset, and I feel really lucky to have met them all. Our time in Mongolia wouldn’t have been half as fun without them.

After lunch we inched our way through the dreadful traffic in Ulaanbaatar and out into the steppe. From then on until the afternoon we left, we didn’t see another town, shop or advertisement. We hardly even saw any houses or roads, for that matter, and when we did come across what passed for a road often they were so bad that cars drove along parallel to them rather than chancing their suspension on the bumps, potholes and enormous puddles. The above picture shows our accommodation for the first four nights of our stay; our last night was spent in a ger camp near UB.

This was the ‘field’ we camped in on the first night; it was quite crowded by Mongolian standards as there were a few other families within sight, all camping in anticipation of the Naadam Festival’s horse race that was due to happen the next day. The weather was lovely  – a dry heat that was far more pleasant than the humidity of China and Nepal. But the temperature plummeted as the sun went down, and the first night was quite cold – I unpacked my fleece for the first time, and slept in it. Having spent the last twenty four hours on a train I arrived in the country already craving a shower, only to find that we would be without such luxuries for the next few days. The only bathroom facility was the open steppe. You strode off into the distance ‘until you’re a speck’ as Ruby put it, and everyone looks the other way. Wet wipes and bottles of well water provided the only kind of wash. It took me a while to get my head round it.

But I loved the steppe. The wide emptiness gave me a feeling of freedom that I’ve never experienced anywhere else in the world – the feeling that you could wander for days and days on end and never be turned away, never find yourself fenced off or be called a trespasser. The grasses of the steppe, close-cropped by hungry sheep, goats, camels and horses, give off a glorious scent when you walk, and more so when they are crushed by horses’ hooves; the ground is covered in a type of spicy, minty wild thyme that we eventually identified as the source of the scent. Ruby found tiny bright shoots of rhubarb near us as well, and wild flowers grew everywhere.

The steppe is inhabited by a hilarious species of grasshopper, one of evolution’s best jokes. It has a double-butterfly wing system, cumbersome and inefficient; you get the sense that they have hardly any control over their flight at all. Their wings come in lovely delicate shades of pink and lilac. Walking through the steppe stirs up waves of the creatures ahead of you, rising with a whirring click; they land a few feet ahead only to be shooed on further when you reach them again. Apparently later on in the year they grow so large and fat they can’t fly at all, and then are crushed in vast numbers.

Thanks to Richard and Margaret for this photo

After we arrived at our first camping site our horses appeared, led by two horsemen, one of whom (Baynmunh, on the left) stayed with us for the whole trek. We didn’t get to ride them until the afternoon of the next day, though: the morning was spent at the horse racing field of the Naadam Festival, which I will describe in my next post.

Fear not, you won’t have to wait so long for the next instalment. Chris and I are due to have a little ‘Bloggers’ Ball’ lunch next weekend to celebrate our return, and I’ve been told most categorically that if I don’t update my blog properly by then I’ll be uninvited from my own welcome back party, despite the fact that it’s happening at my house. So I intend to have the whole of Mongolia written up by next weekend, to be on the safe side.

Two countries ago

The Summer Palace in the mist

This blog is now running two countries behind my actual location. I’m in Russia now, writing this in a yurt on Olkhon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal; who knows when and where I’ll post it. Before Olkhon we spent twenty-four hours in Irkutsk, and before that was Mongolia.

Beijing already seems like it was months ago. Over on Chris’s blog you can read about his hellish morning spent trying to get a Mongolian visa, a nightmare I was blissfully unaware of at the time. While Chris was dashing back and forth across Beijing I was asleep at the Red Lantern House, recovering from my horrible flights the day before. I woke up late, had a lovely hot shower and had just started work my last blog post when Chris burst into the room in a dreadful panic, updated me about his visa tribulations and galloped back off again.

We met up a bit later, after his passport was safely handed over to the Mongolian embassy, and went to Tiananmen Square. It was much as I remembered it, although it had a more relaxed feel. This was it for that day. Chris was experiencing an emotional hangover from the stress of the morning and I was still full of cold and recovering from the aforementioned flights; we took the rest of the day off.

The next day we went to the Summer Palace, a place I strongly remembered from my last time in China. It certainly lived up to my memories. In the heavy heat haze the place looked incredibly beautiful as views across the lake appeared and disappeared out of the mist. We spent most of the day walking around the lake, then had to get through the crowded palaces at quite a clip when we realised that it was almost time for the last boat back to central Beijing; in fact we ended up missing the boat, which left at a stupidly early 4pm.

That evening Chris and I went to a street stall for dinner that he had already visited when he first arrived. It was run by a very friendly couple who recognised Chris as ‘the English teacher’ as we approached. We sat down and I was astounded to hear how well Chris could speak Mandarin. We stayed there all evening, drinking tea and gossiping like old friends – or rather, with Chris talking and me nodding and occasionally miming things.

The following morning we got up early to visit the Great Wall; we were booked on to a tour organised by our hostel. I had quite dim memories of the Wall from my last visit – all I can really remember was the surreal experience of being mobbed like a minor rock star by Chinese tourists who had never seen a Westerner before. People would shove their well-wrapped babies at you and take a photo of you holding them. When we were at the Forbidden City this time round people were still trying to take photos of Chris and I, either overtly or by rather unsubtle covert means. But last time on the Great Wall it happened far more often.

We arrived at the Wall and decided to take advantage of the cable car up to the top, which was pretty expensive but left us with more time on the Great Wall itself. Again there was a heavy heat haze that obscured all but the faint silhouette of the Great Wall, up on a ridge above us. It was such a familiar sight it was difficult to realise that I was actually there.

Up at the top, the Wall stretched away endlessly in both directions. We picked one section and headed off up the steep, uneven steps. Chris skipped off ahead, as sure-footed and sprightly as a mountain goat while I panted and trembled along in his wake, feeling terribly unfit and convinced that I was about to lose my footing. After a while I grew a bit more confident and began to take in my surroundings, though it was still difficult to believe I was walking on the Great Wall of China. We had been taken to a slightly more distant section so it wasn’t as crowded as other parts can apparently get, especially towards the beginning. The crowds had begun to build by the time we left.

By the time we had been to the end of the first section and back my legs had stopped trembling out of fear of falling off the wall and started trembling with exhaustion instead. Chris still looked fresh, so I told him to head off on to the next section without me and we arranged to meet back by the toboggan run, which was to be our means of getting back down from the hillside. As soon as he’d bounded out of sight, muttering about ‘testing himself,’ I began to doubt whether he would be back at the time we had arranged and mentally moved our meeting time back by half an hour, accepting that we would be late for lunch.

Meanwhile I went for a far more gentle stroll along the other section of the Wall, taking a good many photos. I found a particularly good vantage spot and sat down, feeling like I was waiting for something other than Chris, though I wasn’t sure what it was. About ten or fifteen minutes later I worked it out – I was waiting for myself to realise that I was on the Great Wall. The realisation came at the same time, and I asked a passing tourist to take a photo of me to mark the moment. After that I sat there for a good while longer, soaking it in.

My estimation of Chris’s lateness proved to be fairly exact. He arrived looking apologetic and soaked in sweat, almost half an hour late. I genuinely didn’t mind as the humid heat had destroyed my appetite for lunch, and he looked really satisfied at having run to the point he had set himself as a target and back. We got the toboggan down the hill – I had been a bit nervous of the idea at first, but it was brilliant fun, although you couldn’t go very fast as there was quite a lot of traffic on the run. There was still plenty of time to have lunch before we got back in the minivan, and we got to know the other people in our group – a lovely English family who lived in France and two other women, one of whom had been teaching in Nepal.

When we got back to Beijing there was still quite a lot of afternoon left, so we went around a Confucian temple – a very atmospheric and serene place, although I am none the wiser about Confucianism for having been round it. Then we went on to dinner in a street that seemed to be Beijing’s answer to Dalston – full of hipsters and good but bloody expensive trendy restaurants. We ate in a brilliant vegetarian place with a great short menu from which it was almost impossible to choose your dinner as everything sounded so good. It was strange, though perhaps not terribly surprising, to find that hipsterdom is uniform in its expression across the globe. Although I liked the restaurant, I didn’t like the weird feeling that I could be in any trendy part of any town around the world.

The next day we went to the Forbidden City, where I was supremely disappointed to discover that the old audioguide tour, voiced by Roger Moore himself, had been replaced by a crap new one narrated by a Chinese woman who didn’t really inject any sense of life or personality into the palace. I was completely knackered and so was Chris, so we walked around in a bit of a daze. I bought a jade bracelet – I’ve decided to get a bracelet from every country I pass through on this trip. The afternoon was taken up with various dull-yet-important bits of preparation for our first Trans-Siberian train. In the evening we went for a late dinner at a Beijing roast duck restaurant where we were both pleased to discover that it wasn’t too different from the duck you get in Chinese restaurants in England, although it was far juicier than any I’ve had at home, and far less expensive.

Thus went my second trip to China, in a blur of sightseeing, eating and bureaucracy. The next morning, at the crack of dawn, we went off to the station to catch our train to Ulaanbaatar. I left the country in a less than stylish manner. My stomach has always reacted to extreme humid heat with sudden bouts of sickness, and this finally hit home at the station, just as we were about to get on the train. While Chris worked out which carriage we were in I threw up several times down the gap between the train and the platform, then got on the train, then jumped straight back off to throw up again right in front of our carriage attendant, who gave me a sympathetic, wary look every time he saw me after that. The last bout made me feel a lot better and I sat back in relief as we pulled out of Beijing, wallowing in the excitement of being on my first Trans-Siberian train.

Ahead lay Mongolia, wild camping, the Naadam festival and days of horse trekking, but that will have to wait for another post.