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Ow ow ow

(Here we are! Podcasts are here and picture gallery is here)

Well my legs are quite sore.

This was from the horse-riding yesterday, through the snow covered fields and hills around the Ger camp we stayed in the last two nights.

We are in Ulaanbaatar, the capital (in Mongolia) for tonight and then we board the train to Beijing early tomorrow morning.

The train ride from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar was quite an experience - especially boarding it. Unfortunately we walked out on our tab at the hotel lobby bar, leaving it for a couple of English tourists we met in the hotel.

Basically there was a huge amount of Mongolian traders who, as it turns out, bribe their way on board along with their mountains of wares to sell along the way to the border. Most of them get off before the border, before going back to Moscow. It was quite a sight to see these guys sprinting up the platform, laden with goods, even though the train hadn't yet arrived. The provodnitsas (carriage attendants) had to hold them back so we could board successfully.

We quickly made friends with the only other people who PAID to be on the train, Bart and Estrella (Es) who are both from Holland. After the first day, we made friends with Aagii, a Mongolian student on his way back from Moscow. He moved in with Bart and Es to escape the traders.

After that we kind of settled into life on the train. All up we were on the train from Wednesday night (2135 14/02/2007) to Monday morning (0805 19/02/2007). We brought about R2100 of groceries with us (including three bottles of vodka!). We had no idea if we'd be able to get food along the way however this turned out not to be a problem. The provodnitsa posts a timetable of stops and how long each stop is for; the traders jump out and ply their wares to the people who know they are coming, and we (the people who PAID) jump out and go find the shops on the platform.

Yes, there are shops on the platform at 3am, open, selling everything from pot noodles, bottled water, to BEER (yes took advantage of that quite a few times). We even spotted a wee can of IRN-BRU on sale in one window!

Running around in kilts on the train was a success, we even did some dancing on the platform (quickly). Whiling away the time became a struggle after the 2nd day. The last day is composed of lots of waiting at border checkpoints and trying not to bust while waiting for the toilets to re-open. (Three hours each at either side of the border)

Arriving in Ulaanbaatar, our guide (Baagii) picked us up, along with four other travellers (Ellie, Simon, Alistair and Jez) and dropped us off at a hotel to take our much-needed shower.

Strangely enough though the hotel was a Japanese one and so were the showers. If you've not had one before this involves sitting on a stool in a huge communal shower room and showering yourself. Nice way to get introduced to 3 guys we had never met before (separate rooms for boys and girls!).

After that we had a quick breakfast and were then whipped around the city trying to find someone to change our Roubles into Tugruks. As it is a national holiday (Mongolian New Year, celebrations can go for a month) nothing was open. In the end we pulled up beside this guy and just jumped in our tour bus, pulled out a shopping bag full of money and changed all our notes. Surreal.

After that we were whisked off to our Ger camp, about 50km outside the capital. But really, about 10km out from the capital and you already feel like there is nobody but you in a vast, vast area. Our driver happily drove off the bitumen/whatever it was they used, and simply headed for the hills. A couple of hills later (snow country now) and we arrived. I'll upload a bunch of pictures, as a text description just won't suffice.

Much grumbling from Paul about the thunderbox (the guidebook promised "European style" toilets; these are apparently only open in the summer), which was of the chinese squat long drop style. Lets just say nobody really wanted to go in the middle of the night. The plummeting temperatures didn't help.

The Gers themselves are really, really cosy. We visited a few other family Ger camps in the surrounding hills, had quite a few Mongolian specialties: Dumplings, dumplings and more dumplings. On Mongolian New Years, it is customary to meet as many neighbours as possible and eat dumplings with them. Also Mongolian tea (described as: "We put water! and salt! and butter! and fat! and sometimes - tea!), very difficult to do more than sip. Same with the fermented mares milk, an alcoholic drink the men make. Very bittersweet, kind of a cross between milk and lemon juice. I passed my bowl to one of the Mongolians and he promptly swallowed half of it.

Our guide told us how the men sometimes play a drinking game with it. They'll fill up a bowl with two litres of the stuff, and have to drink it in one go. They can go through up to 80 litres of the stuff in one sitting. Apparently you are considered a "good" drinker if you manage to vomit outside.

Oh and they love their vodka too. Mongolian vodka, not that Russian stuff.

Back to the start of the post, and we had some horse-riding on the second day. Jess loved it, and I had a blast, but oh god are we sore from it now. My horse was simply dying to gallop about the place, so for a good 20 minutes or so I was just standing in my saddle and streaking off into the distance. Afterwards the guide told me they had given me a retired race horse (retired last August - and the last race he ran in, he won). They're not really horses though, they're ponies, very shaggy. Semi-wild, too. We were meant to start at 11:00am but was told "they're still out running, maybe 1?". After getting the saddles off they promptly scratched their own backs (rolled around in the dirt) before running off again.

Thats pretty much up to date, I will try and post these podcasts as well (fingers crossed esnip works a treat, it looks good). Got some great stuff in there about the border crossing from Poland - Belarus, first impressions of the Trans-Mongolian when we boarded in Moscow (well worth listening to!!) and of course a bunch of stuff about Mongolia when we arrived.

Also I'll upload a bunch of pictures before I shoot off this afternoon.

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