Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Belly Full of Shamanic Energy and Hearty Russian Food

Can you feel the Shamanic energy?
Our first stop in Russia was Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world, and we had resolved to spend our first few nights in the peaceful setting of Olkhon Island, a 72-km long island located in the middle of the lake.
Damn, Russia is big.
Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal
But first we had to get there, and so unfortunately, after a 36 hour train ride from Mongolia, our initial impressions of Russia involved haggling for a taxi from the Irkutsk train station to the bus station, and then wandering helplessly around the bus station trying to figure out how to get to Olkhon Island.  In a land where all signs are in Cyrillic, all people speak only Russian and all (well, most) transport is by rundown, un-marked minibuses, this was no easy task.  Luckily we had our destination written in Cyrillic and by showing this slip of paper to about two dozen people, and after a small detour to a ticket office that sold tickets that apparently we couldn’t buy and running back and forth across a busy road a few times we finally found a minibus headed to Olkhon Island.
It's business on the outside, but I can assure you it was all party on the inside.
This fringed, velour-leopard-print seat-covered, techno-blasting minivan, piloted by a middle-aged, skin-tight tanktopped, yellow-tinted-shooting-glasses-wearing driver with a need for speed, would be our home for the next five hours.  Dave set off in search of food for the bus and discovered the joy of Russian convenience stores: a giant wall of beer, a giant wall of cigarettes, and about three packets of crackers.
Scenes from a Russian bus station convenience store
Not pictured: food (because there was none)
Dave then found a cafeteria and proceeded to buy a half roast chicken, which he gnawed on it in the parking lot while we waited for the minibus to fill up.  Yup, that’s my husband.
Want a bite?
Uh, no thanks.

Once we got to Olkhon Island, five hours of driving and a quick ferry ride later, things were looking up, especially given the fact that we had survived.  (We’ve been in many vehicles driven by maniacal drivers over the past year, but this one seemed like a special exercise in tailgating, swerving and speeding.) 
The ferry from the mainland to Olkhon Island
Olkhon Island is gorgeous: rolling grasslands to the south and sheer, dramatic cliffs to the north, and all of it surrounded by sparking, crystal-clear blue water.  In some directions it was water as far as you could see; in others, snow capped mountains dominated the horizon.  Wooden houses with sharply pitched roofs (exactly how I had pictured Siberian houses to look) were interspersed with gers in the small main settlement of Khuzhir.
Just a taste of the spectacular scenery
Typical Siberian house
We stayed at the “famous” (famous in Olkhon Island circles, I guess) Nikita’s Guesthouse, a small compound of wooden buildings.  Our room was oddly large yet cozy (except when it rained and the roof leaked), the bathrooms were outside, shared, and smelly, and the showers were also outside, shared and cold.  I was fine with cold showers when we were in the tropics, but in the 50 degree weather of Siberia each shower was a special kind of torture.
Our room at Nikitas:
The honeymoon special: four twin beds - two to sleep in, two to dump our stuff on
Our room had its very own sink. Note that the sink is not connected to anything.
You use the bucket of water on the left, and the water lands in another bucket under the sink.
(well, hypothetically you use it, it was too ice cold for us, and also, ew, gross standing water, no thanks)
[DSM: I assumed they just switch the buckets once most of the water has moved from one bucket to the other.]
Meals were included, communal and hearty, and they were quite tasty if you like fish balls (no), fish cakes sneakily masquerading as pizza (no, and that was a horrible surprise), beet salad (yes) and carbs (yes!).  I still dream of their thin, crepe-like pancakes and their dense, sourdoughy-ryey bread.
Live "entertainment" in the Nikita dining room.
Stew over carbs
Carbs on carbs on carbs
Carbs over stew
Privyet, delicious pancakes
Privyet, delicious bread
We also got our first taste of Russian hospitality from the girls in reception and excursions. Ha!  I joke.  We were all terrified of their withering looks and harsh words.  We cringed in fear every time they deigned to speak with us. Any questions we had they answered with a curt "nyet" and slammed a door (proverbial or actual) in our face.
The hospitality of the Russian pups at Nikita's, however, couldn't be beat
Too cute for words
Even the kittens were warm and welcoming
Olkhon Island is considered one of the five global poles of shamanic energy by the Buryat people and we spent a fun afternoon with some new friends and some of the dogs from Nikitas climbing up and around the island’s Shaman Rocks.
We also enjoyed long walks on the nearby beach, littered with rusting boats and empty vodka bottles, and boasting a Russian banya in a beachfront trailer.  More on this later.
Rusty boat #1
(there's the banya in the distance)
Rusty boat #2
Rusty boat #3
Rusty boat #4
Remember the chicken Dave bought at the bus station?
The leftovers (in the bag) bought him a new loyal companion.
[DSM: this was actually a vicious stare-down]
An excursion with a minibus full of Russians took us through densely wooded forests to the north of the island.  Attached to each of the sights documented below is a Siberian folkstory or a Shamanic legend.  We know this because each time we stopped, the bus driver would regale the spellbound passengers with stories and information, in Russian, for five to ten minutes.  Then an English-speaking Russian passenger would turn to us and explain, “He says this is famous rock.  You have fifteen minute for photo.”
Our van was obviously previously used by the Dharma Initiative
The scenery was dramatic
The people-watching was entertaining
We missed the explanation of this thing
And this had something to do with an elephant
We never learned why all the Russians were posing in this spot in a Warrior 2, but we went with it
(and added a double peace sign wassup).
But the gorgeous landscape needed no translation
Did I mention that we had just discovered the panoramic setting on our new camera?
The lunch was simple yet delicious.  It felt like ages since we'd seen fresh vegetables.
[DSM: These were, unquestionably, the best tomatoes I've ever had.  Ever.  Amazing.]
We also appreciated the fact that there were trees to pee behind.
[DSM: Look close, there's J in the lower left. Sniped!] 
The bus ride back from Lake Baikal to Irkutsk was your typical crap Russian minibus.  Initially, however, it seemed that our friends Brian and Erin had gotten lucky.  They had the entire back seat to themselves!  They spread out, they lounged, they looked at the rest of our smugly (me and Dave weren't even sitting next to one another).  It wasn't long before the driver pulled over in the middle of nowhere and picked up a random dude.  A random tall dude.  Brian and Erin shifted around, but things were still ok.
Fairly happy (ok, not-pissed) faces from Brian and Erin in the back seat.
And then?  The driver pulled over yet again, in a field, and picked up another lady.  Erin clearly is not pleased.
Other things of note:
1. How swarthy is Dave!
2. We've been driving for 10 minutes and all the local people are already fast asleep.
3.  Me, on the left, in my special place. See photo below.
You may remember the awful minibus ride from Mandagolbi to Ulaanbaatar, when I was wedged between an obese Mongolian woman and a giant rusty nail.  I put my headphones in, I closed my eyes, and I went to my special place.  Well, that day was too hot for a sweatshirt.  But Siberia? Definitely not too hot for a sweatshirt.  It is here that I would like to give a resounding shout out to my Lululemon sweatshirt.  He has been with me since day one, and although I have appreciated his convenient zipper pockets, cozy thumbholes, stretchy material and longer fit, it is the giant hood that I value most.  This giant hood: (1) is cozy when it's cold; (2) stops my hair from flying around in a high wind; (3) is an important layer of protection between (a) my head and (b) disgusting surfaces; and (4) acts as a blackout shade.  And when things get bad, say on an unpaved road in a tiny non-reclinable seat located behind a reclinable seat (I know, it blows my mind too), a blackout shade can really take you one step closer to that special place, and one step closer to retaining your sanity.
Me, my ipod, and my giant hood.  All I really need out there (plus toilet paper and purell).
 You must be wondering where Dave was during this minibus ride:
Enjoying his bacon-flavored Lays of course! 
It seems any place with bacon is his special place.  Men are so simple.
If You Go:  State buses leave from the Irkutsk bus station a few times a day, but the minibuses are more frequent, faster and only about ten rubles more expensive.  You pay the minibus driver directly (500 rubles per person, including luggage (about $17)).  We stayed at Nikita’s Guesthouse, where around $60/night got us a private room (but with shared bathrooms and showers) and full board.  The French cafĂ© on the premises had pretty good coffee, and a tomato and cucumber salad that looked fantastic.  Our day-long excursion to the north was booked through Nikita’s and cost $20 per person.  Make sure to visit the banya down by the beach – it’s definitely an experience, and I definitely would never have braved the icy waters of Lake Baikal without it!  Warning: there are no ATMs on Olkhon Island, and although Nikita’s says they’ll change money, they rarely had any rubles available to do so.  Bring cash! 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Weeks Forty-Five, Forty-Six and Forty-Seven Daily Journal

Week 45

Friday, August 5
Vientiane, Laos

After packing up our apartment and running some last minute errands we went into VFI.  They had a nice little going-away party for the three of us (me, Dave, Steph), with some snacks and nice speeches.  We took a bunch of photos and said our goodbyes.  It was sad – we really enjoyed our time there and everyone was so nice.  They all especially liked that I was wearing my Laos skirt!  See post, Expat Me Up!  Afterwards we ran some more errands, made some last-minute purchases, returned the bike, etc.  And then we started a really long travel day.  We got picked up at 3pm by a van.  We picked some other people up, and then drove to a train station about 40 minutes outside of Vientiane.  There, we cleared customs and then sat around and waited for the train whcih left at 5:15.  The train ride took about 20 minutes and we arrived in Thailand.  We cleared immigrations in Thailand, which took forever, grabbed some food and boarded our sleeper train to Bangkok.  It obviously goes without saying that we were seated across from a raucous group of Thai teenagers.  Other than that, and the fact that they never turned the train lights off all night, the ride was fine.

Saturday, August 6
Hong Kong, PRC

The train arrived in Bangkok at around 6:45am.  Dave, on the lower bunk, had a peaceful nights sleep.  J, on the upper bunk, had the train lights in her eyeballs the whole night.  Anyway, from the train station we took the MTR and then the airport link to the Bangkok airport, where we killed about five hours before our 2pm flight.  When we arrived in Hong Kong we took the really nice airport express train right to the station that was attached to the mall that was attached to our hotel.  The $140 hong kong dollars (about $20 US) for the airport train really hurt, after paying 60 baht ($2) for the airport train in Bangkok.  We were staying on Starwood points at the W Hotel, which, as are W Hotels around the world, was really cool and trendy.  We did a quick turnaround (has a shower ever felt so good?) and then hopped in a taxi to go to Da Ping Huo.  It was an “underground” restaurant (like a puerta cerrada) run by a husband/wife team serving authentic Schezuan food.  The 12 courses were a mixed bag – we liked the chicken in a kind of mole sauce, the super spicy mafu dofu (tofu) and the dumplings.  At the end of the meal the wife/chef comes out and sings Chinese opera.  It was nice, but a little awkward, as I was sitting directly in front of her.  See post, Hong Kong Food Tour. Our waitress showed us the way back to the subway station.  We slept so well that night – the W bed is one of the best yet. [Note from home:  W Bed - Purchased! And as good as remembered.] 

Sunday, August 7
Hong Kong, PRC

Between sleeping on the train the night before, the incredible comfiness of the bed, and the blackout shades, we slept in.  We grabbed some food at Jade Garden in the mall before going back to the hotel to deal with some upcoming stuff (travel insurance, Mongolia tours, etc).  We checked out the pool for a little bit and then headed out to Tim Ho Wan, famously the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world.  We were told it would be a two-hour wait (we had heard it could be up to 4 hours!) but it ended up only being about an hour.  It was a tiny hole in the wall restaurant serving up delicious dim sum.  The highlights were the baked bbq pork buns and the steamed shrimp dumplings.  We also tried: bbq pork wrapped in vermicilli noodles, fried meat dumplings, steamed spinach and garlic dumplings, steamed pork dumplings and spareribs.  After we rolled on out of there Dave bought sunglasses (he had lost his) and then we took a bus down the famous Nathan Road.  I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been in Laos and Cambodia for so long, but the hustle and bustle and consumerism in HK just seems to overwhelming.  Everywhere you look it is wall to wall stores, or malls full of stores.  We ended up at the pier at Victoria Harbour and walked around a little and people watched.  Then we took the ferry across from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island.  Then we kind of wandered around until we stumbled upon the bus station to The Peak.  It was a long, nauseating thirty minute drive up, but once we got there the views of the city, with the buildings all lit up at night, were spectacular. (Of course, this being Hong Kong, The Peak is not just a nice view – it’s a major complex with malls and restaurants).  And eventually it was time to go down.  In order to avoid the bus ride, we waited in an incredibly long line – about 40 minutes – for the tram down.  Despite it being a narrow roped line we were constantly being cut by Chinese people.  Fiiiiinally we got down and hopped in a taxi to Causeway Bay, where we were looking for a restaurant that Dave had read was famous for its char sui (roast pork).  It was called the Fu Sing Shark Fin Seafood Restaurant, so of course it was known for its pork.  Anyway, it was true – the char sui, and the lightly stir fried bok choy were delicious.  Finally it was back to the hotel where we sat in the aggressively trendy bar and people watched until we were tired.

Monday, August 8
Hong Kong & Macau, PRC

We spent the entire morning attempting unsuccessfully to buy train tickets to Beijing, and eventually had to buy plane tickets.  Then we had lunch with a work connection at the IFC Mall.  After lunch we walked around a bit and then went back to the hotel to lounge and to pack up.  We took a cab to Mak's Noodles, a famous (so famous it's in wikipedia) wonton noodle soup place, and then next door to Australian Dairy Co., a famous egg custard place.  Then we picked up our luggage and took the ferry to Macau.  We checked into the Westin where we were staying on points.  The people at the hotel were super nice, but the hotel itself could really use a renovation.  They had upgraded us to a giant suite, which was nice.  We had dinner at Fernando’s, a Portuguese place near the hotel.

Tuesday, August 9
Macau, PRC

It was gray and rainy all the morning so we hung around the hotel and went to the gym.  In the afternoon we headed out to the Venetian.  We walked around the mall and tried the famous egg custard (or as Dave calls them, egg creams) at Lord Stow’s and then had a drink at McSorleys (which, as it turns out, is modeled after the McSorley’s in NY but is totally unaffiliated).  Then we played and lost $20 HK in slots.  Popsy had told me to play 26 in roulette so we went to the lowest stakes table we could find - $25HK.  We had a $50 so I put one chip on 26 and one on 17 for Dave’s birthday.  Dave kept telling me to put it on 23 for my birthday but I refused.  And then it hit – 17!  The dealer and the pit boss were shocked – I watched the pit boss’ jaw drop and his arms fly up in the air.  I had won $900 HK, $115 US.  So we took it straight to the Morton’s in the Venetian and turned it into a steak to share.  Yum!  See post, Macauza!

Wednesday, August 10
Macau, PRC

It was even grayer and rainier today but we forced ourselves out and took the shuttle to the ferry to buy our ferry tickets for the next day.  Then we went to the Grand Lisboa, the oldest casino in Macau.  It was extremely ornate and oddly laid out on multiple levels.  The lobby boasted rare jewels (like a giant diamond and a giant emerald) and antiques.  We took many photos of Chinese people taking photos.  Next we headed to the old town area of Macau, where we looked at some old buildings and then went on a mission to find a particular no-name extremely small dumpling shop.  This was a less-than-pleasant endeavor as it was pouring rain.  But when we found the shop, it was sooooo worth it.  These were potentially the best dumplings ever.  We ate a couple right there on the street and then bought a box and took it to McDonalds so that we could enjoy them with a fountain soda diet coke.  Then Dave went back and ate more dumplings.  Then we mad eour way to the iconic Macau structure – the facade of the old church.  The rest of the church is destroyed, but we did visit the crypts before heading to the Macau Museum.  It was a pretty good little museum.  It had stopped raining so we wandered the streets some more, and found ourselves some more snacks – Dave had an egg custard tart, and I had some coconut ice cream.  We wandered the little lanes and alleys of Old Macau which was cool, and then we headed back to the hotel.  That night we had dinner at another famous Macau restaurant, Galos.  It was just okay, although the location, Taipa Village, was very cute. 

Thursday, August 11
Beijing, PRC

We took the shuttle bus to the ferry, terminal, and then a ferry to the Hong Kong airport.  They certainly make it convenient - you can check into your flight, and check your luggage, right at the ferry in Macau.  Also -- two thumbs up for the Hong Kong airport food selection.  We had some delicious sashimi (not something I would normally get in an airport) and noodle soup.  By the time we landed in Beijing, braved the horrific traffic, and arrived in our ridiculous suite at the St Regis (or, as we affectionately refer to it, Regers) where we were staying with points to celebrate our 4-year wedding anniversary, we were beat.  So, we did what any normal Regers guest would do, and asked our private butler to help us order Dominos.  We ate it on the couch in our living while we watched TV.  Heaven.

Week 46

Friday, August 12
Beijing, PRC

An amazing breakfast buffet at the Regers (one of the best wonton soups I've ever had, and wonton soup for breakfast? Yes please).  We spent the afternoon at the National Museum, where we went to a Louis Vuitton exhibit and another exhibit on modern Chinese history. We checked out Tienanmen Square and marveled at the fact that the last time we were here was in 2002 - almost ten year ago.  For dinner we had Peking duck at Dadong.  See post, Taking Photos of Chinese People...

Saturday, August 13
Beijing, PRC

I got the flu, we hung around the hotel all day.  It sucked.

Sunday, August 14
Beijing, China

I was still sick, and stayed at the hotel. Dave went out to book his Great Wall tour and to hit the night market.  Touristy and unimpressive.

Monday, August 15
Beijing, PRC

I was still sick, although feeling a little better, so I went down to breakfast and met the Georgetown basketball team.  Those boys are tall!  And according to the guy at the waffle station, they love the Regers waffles.  Can't blame 'em.  Delicious waffles, although I do prefer the wonton soup.  Dave climbed the Great Wall. See post, Great Wall of China...

Tuesday, August 16
Train 23, Beijing-UB

Our train was really early, 7:45.  We shared our compartment with an 85 year old Australian man (he was traveling with a group and they were all in 1st class, we felt sad for him) and a Mongolian women who loaded many crates of fruit into the compartment.  We spent the day hanging in our compartment and in the dining car, with some new Australian friends.  Around 9pm we stopped at the border for a few hours while they changed the bogies.  We entertained ourslves taking photos at the various empty customs desks.  We finally got back on the train and went to sleep, only to be woken constantly by first Chinese immigration, officials, then Chinese again, then Mongolian officials a few times.  See post, C'Mon Ride the Train.

Wednesday, August 17
Ulanbataar, Mongolia

We arrived in UB in the afternoon to sunny blue skies and checked into Nassan Guesthouse.  After going to the Ger to Ger office to get everything arranged for our trip (see post, To Ger or Not to Ger), we had a nice Italian dinner at Veranda

Thursday, August 18
Ulanbataar, Mongolia

We spent the day getting ready for our Gobi trip – renting a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pads, buying snacks, etc.  We met Ellyde’s friends Kara and Chris, and our friends from the train at an Irish pub for quiz night.  We won the "creative writing" question with a little bit about zombies, ninjas and plants. 

Week 47

Friday, August 19
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

The day started at 7am as we scrambled to get packed up in time for our 8am bus.  As buses go this one was pretty good – it had cleanish, non-broken seats, decent A/C and only two people per twozer.  In some circles (Nepali buses) this is known as luxury.  We even had prime front-row seats, all the better to see out the front window how insanely the driver was driving the bus and how close we were constantly coming to dying.  The bus station even sold pretzels and clementines, perfect bus snack foods. We were basking in our good fortune when we noticed Dan, an American who was joining us on the trip, wandering around looking lost.  Dave hopped out to get him and some unscrupulous Mongolian took the opportunity to snatch Remy right out of Dave’s pocket.  We had heard UB was notorious for pickpocketers, but we had heard that about lots of places and this was the first time we’d actually had anything stolen.  We were most sad because Remy had non-downloaded photos from the Beijing-UB train on him.  The next 7+ hours consisted of driving due south on a series of snaking dirt tracks.  The bus driver was an absolute maniac and a Mongolian variety show and Mongolian pop videos were played at full volume through the speakers directly above our head.  At the lunch stop we tried kooshur, a fried mutton empanada of sorts.  It was bad but not the worst food we would have by a long shot.  The scenery- rolling hills and bright blue skies, only change with respect to the shades of brown and green.  It looked like a PC desktop background.  At the bus station in Mondalgovi we switched to a jeep (actually a minivan) and drove another hour to our first ger, Mr. D. Sugar’s family.  For the rest of our day, see post, To Ger or Not to Ger, Day One.

Saturday, August 20
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

See post, To Ger or Not to Ger, Day Two

Sunday, August 21
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

See post, To Ger or Not to Ger, Day Three

Monday, August 22
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

See post, To Ger or Not to Ger, Day Four

Tuesday, August 23
Ulanbataar, Mongolia

See post, To Ger or Not to Ger, Day Five

Wednesday, August 24
Ulanbataar, Mongolia

We spent the day returning our rental stuff, visiting various police stations, and buying replacements for what had been stolen, largely at the State Department Store.  We had dinner with Kara and Chris at an Indian restaurant.  Spices!  Foods other than mutton!  Amazing!  See posts, Cr-Ulaanbaatar and Pickpocket Police.

Thursday, August 25
Ulanbataar, Mongolia and Train to Irkutsk

Ww spent the day in UB buying a camera, snacks for the train, laundry, internet, packing, before our 9:10 PM train to Irkutsk.  We were in a car with all young Mongolian guys, shirtless, loud, watching Nadaam hightlights on their computers and playing video games on their ipod.  Luckily the two guys in our compartment were nice, and although they didnt speak English, we all got along.  See post, Young, Shirtless and Loud.