A Travellerspoint blog

Russia - Siberia and the East

Vladivostok to Irkutsk

Detailed Description of the East

For the full photo gallery for Russia visit http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/Russia/

Another little town in Siberia

Tiny wooden houses clustered in a valley. Each with a picket or paling fence, surrounding a large garden, sheds and many massive wood heaps.

There are no made roads and very few cars. The roads are full of potholes and are mostly used by people walking. Well-beaten paths cross vacant ground, run along beside the railway, head to the nearest fishing spots and over all kinds of little timber bridges. People seem to walk long distances, and we've often seen them making their way along the railway lines, stepping on the sleepers, where there is no road or path.

The houses are weathered timber, with blue or deep aqua window frames and shutters, which are decorative, with curved details and swirls. Of solid logs or slab built, they are mostly simple rectangle shapes with a single gable roof.

Further east, from Vladivostok, the fences were very lightly built – there were no animals being kept. We've now travelled 3000 km in three days, and today we saw more and more cattle, which roam or are herded (sometimes by a person on a bike) in the open areas around towns. There aren't fences to contain them, instead, the garden fences here are taller and stronger, to keep them out.

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At first, the gardens were full of quite well-grown potato plants, but not much else. Every family has quite a few spud beds, up to an acre or so, all hoed by hand. Then we began to see some other veges, like leeks and cabbages, and even lettuce and raspberries, and the most amazingly imaginative homemade glasshouses. Then today, as the train crossed the mountains east of Ulan-Ude, there were heavy snow falls, and the baby potato gardens looked very sad.

We're not in Japan now....

Almost everything in Russia is not like Japan, and the trains are a great example.

They travel much more slowly, they are heavy duty old things, there is no platform – you walk across tracks to get to your train, and getting a ticket takes hours and is actually almost impossible. But they are punctual and smooth like Japanese trains and they are a lot of fun, once you actually get on one.

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We have travelled platskartny (third class) which is very cheap and very sociable. There are two levels of beds, with linen and blankets and pillows supplied. There is a samovar at the end of the carriage for making drinks and noodles and (in our case) porridge. The carriage is run by a pair of provodnitsas, women who keep everyone in line, make sure we get back on the train after stops, hand out the bed linen, keep the carriage clean and tidy and if you are lucky, even make meals for you.

The highlights of the day are when the train stops for 15 or more minutes, and the provodnitsa undoes the door and puts down the steps to let us out. Most people rush out and smoke, but we head for the row of tables, shopping trolleys and ancient prams which are used by local women to sell delicious homemade food. We've had salads of potatoes, coleslaw kind of stuff, meat pastry things, steamed dumplings, fish, cabbage rolls and wild blueberries.

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On the last train, where we travelled for about 50 hours, we were lucky to have a really lovely provodnitsa. She spoke to us all the time in Russian, and we worked out a few things, but mostly we got by with gestures. She made us chai (her own blend of herbs), put blankets on us at 3:00 in the morning, and cooked us some borscht with tomato, meat and lots of sour cream, in her tiny room. This morning she suggested that I get something from a little shop on a platform, but I took too long. She came running in, grabbed my wallet and threw the money on the counter and dragged me back to the train, laughing. We learned to say bal'-sho-e spa-si-ba (thank you very much) to her, often.

Everyone else on the train was Russian, and we got lots of stares. We don't exactly know how we stand out, but it's obvious that we do. It was great to make some good friends, play cards and laugh at how badly we are speaking one another's language. We were really sad to say da svidaniya (goodbye) to Pasha, a really bright and curious 11-year old boy who has learned heaps of English in the past two days.

He would say “Werry good”, whenever we got something right, and “Yezs” in the most correct and earnest tone, when he understood something. I got him to understand “excellent” - he loved using it, and being told his pronunciation was excellent. We taught him and his babushka how to play “Set”, a favourite card game from home. Great fun. It is absolutely incredible how much we all found out about each other with only a few words we understood for sure. Marina, a lawyer going home to Ulan-Ude and Abdul, from Tajikistan were really interested in details of Australia, and especially how expensive it is, and can we surf? We handed out contact details to lots of people – a mechanical engineer called Ilya and his viola playing wife from Vladivostok were really keen to visit Australia.

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Siberia is incredibly beautiful, endless forests, spectacular wildflowers and gorgeous streams and enormous rivers.

It is also over-logged, has sad, deserted villages, and a terrible history of dispossession of native peoples (of which about 30 different groups still remain), wars and the horrendous treatment of political exiles over a couple of centuries. So many people really do look very poor, and fit the Lonely Planet description of the national character very well - “unsmiling gloom and fatalistic melancholy”. But it goes on to say that this is a foil to a dry sense of humour, which we've discovered, and also that, if you make a connection, the smiles and warmth really flow easily.

In public places, there is quite a threatening air, with many men standing in small groups, looking like they are up to no good, and staring. Women eye us very critically and even small girls like one 7 year old in our carriage, are experts at never smiling and rolling their eyes judgementally and haughtily at others. Interesting.

People go to buy their train tickets in a very combative frame of mind, which is necessary, because the ticket lady, who speaks into a microphone from behind glass can be cross and impatient and offers no assistance or information at all. The transaction always takes at least ten minutes, with inordinate amounts of arguing and shouting, and people storming off to try another ticket widow. There are huge queues, and windows shut suddenly, leaving you to start all over again! We have had trouble at Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Ulan-Ude, and we still don't know if there are really no tickets, or we haven't asked the question correctly. Often we have been backed up by a group of locals who do their best, and who are essential in us ending up with a ticket.

In Ulan-Ude, we are staying with Tatiana, at Olga's homestay. She is our hero, because last night she came to the station with us, to get our next ticket. She was bold and courageous, and even she had to ask lots of people, go THREE times to the ticket window and twice to the information window. She stood her ground and pushed into queues and argued with people, and buttered them up, and we ended up with our 2 tickets to Irkutsk. Yay! We all did a little dance and skipped out of the station.

Our second favourite form of transport is the marstruyky, which are tiny little minibuses which run all over the place, are very frequent and very full. You just jump in and pass your money to passengers near the front, who pass it to the driver, who passes back your change, while he is driving! Today we had drivers who drove along the lines in the middle of the road, forming a third lane, drove diagonally through busy, pot-holey muddy carparks full of people walking, and launched across 9 intersecting lanes of traffic and 2 tramlines at a huge junction with no traffic lights or road markings, without changing down a gear. Awesome.

Here is a typical example. IMG_1157.jpg

Hils buying water at a kiosk in a park – it looked like it only sold vodka and cigarettes.
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Hils noticed that a third to a half of all traffic in Ulan-Ude are marshtrutky, since few people own cars. At pl Sovetov, where there is an absolutely gigantic Lenin head,

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they pull in and out every few seconds, dropping people off and whisking them away constantly. It is an incredibly efficient system, and it's great not having big buses in town. Interesting that we have hardly seen anyone on bikes, another big difference from Japan.

Lynda is loving the timber architecture, check out these windows in Ulan-Ude.

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Running commentary day by day

21 June 2009: The train from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk is going along the edge of Lake Baikal for 200km. Stunning blue with huge pointy snow capped mountains to the South - spectacular. Sharing a compartment with an old bloke and a young bloke. They are playing cards and being friendly and chatty. Sunny. Silver birch forests, streams, occasional small village or town. We are happy.

19-20 June 2009: We are crossing the Yoblonovy Mountains. The temperature can go to -62C in winter and right now it is snowing!!

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We are cosy because the provodnitsas love us and make us lots of chai. White everywhere. No English speakers on the train (all locals) - we are learning lots and having a ball. Very crowded. Very social. Extremely wild! We have arrived in Ulan Ude and are staying at Olga's home stay. Much like Zaya's guesthouse (in Mongolia). We are heading down to get tickets with our new Russian friend Tatyana. Ulan Ude is much like Ulan Baator (says Hilary). Got tickets, although it was still a big drama. We are on our way to Ivolginsky Datsan (monastery near Ulan Ude) - more snow on the hills.

18 June 2009: On the Train to Ulan-Ude: Picture this: We are in our beds, looking out the window from our upper bunks, so tricky to get into and out of without annoying the surly young slob below. All of our stuff on a shelf 20cm above our heads. Hilary is mounting a carefully planned campaign to make us porridge at the samovar. Spent hours learning/teaching Russian/English with gorgeous 11 year old Pasha from Irkutsk. Lots of drawings with arrows. He is here with his babushka who is exactly my age! Nearly at Magdagachi. Sunny. Train is going to get so hot today. Flowers outside. This is so good - too many things to tell. (via SMS)

17 June 2009: Khabarovsk: Got off in bright sunshine at 20:50 at night in Khabarovsk and it looked beautiful. Then we had two hours of hell trying to buy our next ticket. A crowd of locals gathered to help as best they could, as we got shouted at some more. Another hour spent not finding somewhere to stay and we were knew we were in the middle of one of the lows that make the highs so good. Eventually crashed at the station after midnight.

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Can't leave until 18:00 tomorrow. Problem is that people (in hotels and hostels) hang up if you can't speak Russian. Other travellers are friendly. Having a look around today. We are OK but pretty tired.

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This morning we have put packs into lockers (much gesturing and assistance required) and have come out to look at this gorgeous town. Stunning 19th century buildings in pink, pale green, etc and metallic blue domed church. the Amur river is huge.

16 June 2009: On the first train!! - Got up early to get to the train. Hello from seat 8, car 3, Train 031 to Kabarovsk!

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Again got told off by the two provodnitsa, who were young and very enthusiastic. Once the train got going, they made us tea. The train was old but very sturdy, wooden windows, a samovar like a small steam engine, and 54 beds in our carriage. We had a lovely time checking out little timber farmhouses with extensive gardens and picket fences, fading into open steppe, punctuated with woods. Further north, their were outrageously prolific and very large wildflowers, things like daylilies, peonies, irises, asters and so much more. Incredible.

Then we pulled into a station and saw hundreds of soldiers waiting. Wanted to take a photo, but too nervous. 100 of them piled into our carriage, so Hils and I were sharing with three of them. Took a hundred km to get "chatting" , their names were Artem, Slava and Radmir. They were from Ufa, near Yekaterinburg. They all got off again at Bikin, and we chatted with a lovely bloke from Vladivostok, called Ilya, and his 18 month old son, and viola playing wife. They reckon they are coming to visit us one day.

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Beautiful open country, deciduous woods, lush grasslands, many streams and rivers. Tiny cobbled together houses, big vege gardens.

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15 June 2009: Vladivostok - Arrived at Vladivostok airport, which felt a bit like Funafuti (Tuvalu). The plane trundled in and pulled of to one side, like parking a car. We all got "inspected" by a customs official in a crimson velour outfit and very bouffant, blonde hair and terrifying face. Customs etc was a bit scary, but only took an hour or so. Got besieged by taxi drivers, but headed for bus 107, a really old number with pretty curtains, which was very full. Checked out lots of interesting farm houses, falling down buildings and half-built places on the 50 km trip to Vladivostok. The city is spectacular, all on hills like San Francisco (or North Shore, Sydney) Lots of trees, wooden buildings amongst Tsar era grand architecture, beside the water.

Found the Amursky Zaliv hotel, which was tricky. It is AWESOME. 1980's bizarre outside, 2009 lobby and our room is 1950's. Looking out to sea.

Headed out again into 7 degree temperatures to buy train tickets - a big challenge with no Russian. Took about an hour and a half. Everyone looks nervous when they try to buy a ticket, and it seems to take a minimum of 10 minutes, with lots of arguing and computer keyboard tapping, stern expressions from the attendant. We got into so much trouble, but at least she was laughing, too. She just shouted everything that we didn't understand (EVERYTHING) louder.

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Spent the evening in the very modern lobby of the hotel, using computer and eating chocolate with very dodgy blokes in black suits and skivvies, pointy shoes and expensive watches. Something was going on, but we have no idea.

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14 June 2009: Seoul - All is OK, except for the air quality, which is BAD! Slept like logs at the Incheon Hostel, then woke up to study the trans Siberian book. Feeling a bit daunted, mostly excited!

Posted by hazelnutty 18:01 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Japan Week 3 - The Alps and North Honshu

Travelled through the central alps in Honshu and then the North before returning to Tokyo.

sunny

13 June 2009: From Tazawa-ko to Tokyo..... our last day in Japan.

We woke up at the beautiful Tazawa-ko, a caldera lake surrounded by wooded mountains, famous for hiking, climbing, skiing and some of the most gorgeous onsen in Japan. We didn't do the fantastic Japanese breakfast any justice, as we bolted it down, to race for the 7:00 am bus. There were ten little bowls at the end of the meal. We had rice and fish, tofu custards, pickles, eggs, sulphut tasting beans, seaweed, miso soup and yoghurt.

Today was all about the much anticipated "Chagu Chagu Umako" horse festival. It is held in Morioka, a lovely city in Northern Honshu, which has three rivers running through it, and sits below the stunning, snow-capped Mt Iwate, a volcano.

Horses are much loved, and used for farming in the area, and it is a 200 year-old tradition to bring them to the temple for blessing. We got to town in plenty of time, and saw some great dancing and drumming groups in fantastic costumes, leading the parade.

Then came the horses, one hundred of them, very big, solid work horses from 16 -18 hands high, with strong necks and big, feathered legs, long manes and really gentle temperaments. Many of them were mares with foals, and there were also quite a few stallions, all were very obviously working animals who didn't put a foot wrong. Each one was all dressed up in really elaborate and colourful gear, from nose to tail. They wore hundreds of bells, and sounded amazing as they walked - apparently this is where the "ChaguChagu" name comes from, and Umako refers to a love and respect for horses.

On top of each spectacular animal, on a gold saddle, sat a child - most of them were very small, some just toddlers. They waved and smiled, and the crowd loved it all. The best bit was the end of the day, when after many hours of walking, the parade ended at a Shinto temple, and all the horses were tied up, and we got to wander round and meet them all. They had gorgeous kind eyes, and we got some great photos of them and their owners.

Afterwards we headed to the station, and caught the Komachi Shinkansen back to Tokyo, where we are staying for one night before going to Vladivostok for the start of the Russian adventure.....

11 June - Nagano and on to Tono Valley

We have decided to head to Tono Valley today after many hours of research. So we are just leaving Nagano (Northern Alps) where we stayed at a hostel in a temple. Wandered down the hill with the monks, all dressed up, who had already been at the big main temple since 4:30am! Great healthy rotemburo last night, good (but slightly spooky) sleep. Nagano is completely surrounded by mountains, very beautiful.

10 June - Our 47th train

We are getting great value out of our JR Rail pass. This morning we are on our 47th train since arriving in Japan almost three weeks ago. Considering we spent a whole week at the Umeki's farm at Minamioguni, that's quite a lot of train miles, timetable searches, and navigation through unspeakably complex railway stations, in just two weeks. In fact, it has a been a source of huge satisfaction, to find the best path from one place to another, with minimal train changes.

So often, we have lugged our packs on to a train, heaved them into the luggage rack, and sunk into the very comfy seats, grinning happily, just as the train slides quietly out of the station.

The trains all have names, strikingly different “noses” and decor. They are extremely punctual, clean and very well patronised. Very fast and very smooth. Hilary is writing in her diary as we travel at well over 200 km per hour.

Very elegant attendants bring a trolley of food and drinks, smiling graciously and turning to bow as they move on to the next carriage. Business men tap on laptops or sleep. Older women look all neat and sensible and well-groomed and eat snacks prepared at home. Most people either read (little books or manga) or sleep. Groovy young things watch movies on their phones, or use their time to adjust their mascara. Try doing that on a V-line train without getting it all over your face!

Pulling into a station now, and seeing the usual wide rage of people waiting in orderly lines. Outrageously attired teenagers, an older couple smartly clad in very “tweedy” travel outfits, men in suits, a woman in a kimono and zori sandals, another with a baby on her back and arty types who look like film producers or writers (they could be librarians, I suppose).

The stations are often enormous, with many lines intersecting and people going everywhere. There are ticket offices, information centres, huge department stores and dozens of shops where you can buy Japanese sweets, beautifully presented and wrapped, for taking as a gift when you visit anyone.

We have spent a fortune at coin lockers, where we leave our packs when we stop at a place during the day, before moving on to stay elsewhere. We can just fit them both into a 600 yen locker, if we put Hilary's in first, then mine upside down, on top of it.

Now we are flying through a relatively open landscape, with rice fields, low wooded hills and little villages every one or two kilometres. We have seen spectacular mountain scenery over the past three days, in the Northern Alps, the never-ending urban areas of the Sanyo line, from Kobe to Hiroshima, quiet little valleys, and small towns. Big cities like Osaka, with really fantastic modern architecture, miles of neon signs and a youth hostel on the 10th floor, to historical wonders like Takayama, where the hostel was an ancient temple inn, with just a few rooms, looking onto a garden, beside the main hall.

It is a fantastic way to get an appreciation for the amazing variety of Japanese places and lifestyles.

Every day we see astonishing things, but we love the things that are getting familiar, the patterns repeated. We LOVE that we can check out thousands of vege gardens every day, and the way they are always right beside houses and roads, and people stop and chat whoever is working there. In most towns, the riverside flats have a bike path and baseball fields, the station is where you can hire bikes and the bus ticketing system is the same everywhere.

So, the train, the JR Pass and the “Lonely Planet” books are great, but it's great to get off, after a couple of hours, and wander the streets, get directions from locals and enjoy the sights and special local feel (and food) of their town.

9 June - Takayama Staying in Osaka on 7 June then travelled by train to Takayama, in the mountains of Western Honshu. What is very exciting is the place where we are staying is in a temple! We came in through the torii gate at the front, into a courtyard garden, and entered through beautiful timber doors. It is very old, with all the rooms facing onto a garden. Ours is huge, has tatami mat flooring, incredible carpentry everywhere, and paper screen walls. I am looking at an alcove with beautiful little arty things arranged on low shelves, with a 2 metre piece of calligraphy hanging behind. The monk who showed us around had made up two futons on the floor. He showed us the main hall, where ceremonies are held and said we are welcome there any time. There is a staircase under the alter that you can go down, into the dark, leading to a corridor. If you can find a door, and touch it's key, all your dreams and wishes can be fulfilled!

On the trains Everything is incredibly interesting, and we feel pretty clever getting ourselves around, because there is not much English to guide us. The stations are absolutely unbelievable, with many lines coming together, JR lines, subway lines, and in bigger places, shinkansen lines as well. The trains are ALWAYS on time, clean and incredibly frequent. We have been on literally dozens of them. We were on the platform at Himeji when a shinkansen went through at full speed. Amazing. Not loud, but just a kind of force field effect. We were on the Hikari when it was doing 285 km per hour.

Previous travels and photos are in Japan Weeks 1 & 2.

Posted by hazelnutty 23:40 Archived in Japan Tagged animal Comments (0)

Japan Week 2 - On the organic rice farm

Spent a week on an organic rice farm on Kyushu as willing workers on an organic farm.

Japan Travel Map

Click on this Japan map link to see the detailed route and the main towns. http://www.travellerspoint.com/member_map.cfm?itinid=189101&tripid=189101

Bye to the Organic Farm

It was a wonderful time with gorgeous happy, generous people and we did a lot of laughing. The work was easy, very varied and really interesting. They run a restaurant on the farm, so the food was ridiculously good, and they took us to an onsen (three different ones) every night, so we could get really clean, soak our weary muscles, and go home to sleep like logs. We were incredibly sad to say goodbye to ourgorgeous new friends. Had a totally unbelievable dinner on the last night (7 June) followed by a rotemburo (outdoor bath) at a fantastic ryokan. Set in a forest and garden with beautiful old style timber houses, natural rock and laterns in the trees. Bliss. One week of heaven for nothing....

How to Plant Rice

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Head on down to the rice field with the mob of happy planters P6040153-sm.jpg

Say hello to TOTORO on the way P6040155-sm.jpg

Get 'nude' feet P6040165-sm.jpg

Listen to Mattchan's very comprehensive tuition for planting rice in Japanese, followed by a condensed English version: 'Roots' *pretends to poke roots into soil. 'Unh' P6050170-sm.jpg

Then watch Grandma, who was 60 years of experience, to get the idea. P6050002-sm.jpg

Basically, the job is to fill in any gaps left by the rice-planting machine. P6050179-sm.jpg

(Don't rely on the slack farmers- they're just chatting on the phone and smiling for the camera!) P6050183-sm.jpg

Take a tray of seedlings and get started! P6040164-sm.jpg

Slip into the warm, soft mud P6050175-sm.jpg

Walk along the rows and fill in the gaps P6050003-sm.jpg

Follow the beautiful curving rows P6050198-sm.jpg

You poke this much in P6050199-sm.jpg

Look back and admire the day's work P6040163-sm.jpg P6050200-sm.jpg

Pile into the back of the ute to head home P6040160-sm.jpg

Cook up a storm P6030144-sm.jpg

Tempura platter P6030147-sm.jpg

Have an Enkai 'banquet' to celebrate the end of the planting P6030148-sm.jpg

Relax your weary muscles in a local onsen- sorry, no pictures of that bit!

More Photos from the farm

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4 June 2009 - at the farm: Lynda and Hilary have been in the fields planting rice in bare feet!! They are filling in by hand areas that the machine cannot reach. Apparently the grandmother (in her 70's) is a legend at rice planting and gardening. They seem to spend a lot of time at the local onsen (hot baths) where they scrub up each evening. Only limited internet access (one computer, many potential users, apparently).

3 June 2009: It is basically a party here now. Heavy rain so no rice planting for the moment. Lots of people visiting, all going to the onsen before dinner. Japanese people are SO FUNNY! We are being driven by a girl named Sayori, a sort of Japanese version of Ana (Rob's friend). She smiles a lot and she just said "I am a safety driver"!! (sent by SMS). Lynda said there is a 17km canal that bring water to the forest and farm that was built many years ago. It is very wet and grey in Fukuoka - it rains a lot!

1-2 June 2009 - at the farm

We caught a bus to Minami Oguni, where we were collected and taken to “Applemint”, where we will spend the week WWOOFING – (working on organic fams for food and board) with Shiochisan and his wife Kyokosan, and workers Mattsune, Shiori (Hilary thinks she is a Japanese version of Ana) and Umi. People are extremely happy and friendly and the place is peaceful.

Very keen to hear about Australia, lots of language swapping and laughing. Also very elderly parents who are expert gardeners and speak a strange local dialect Hilary cannot understand. They are so kind and friendly and happy and easy going. They grow rice, herbs, blueberries and veges, and they have a restaurant, make their own preserves, package their own rice and make rice wine, have a little farm shop and work extremely hard. And all it's all organic. Fantastic. (Take that, Walkers!) Our first jobs have been sorting husks out of red rice and brown (wild) rice, and weeding long beds of ginger. Tonight after an incredible home grown and cooked meal in the family kitchen, we all went to a local onsen for a bath and gave the women there plenty to talk about!

I am now sitting on the verandah of the restaurant, surrounded by the sound of water flowing down the mountain, into the channels which feed about twenty terraced rice fields, stepping down the hillside. There are blueberry bushes all around, little paths between vegetable and herb gardens and no other houses in sight, just range upon range of forested mountains, of the most amazing shapes. Spent the day going with Kyoko san to Mt Aso, an active volcano with a huge crater, spectacularly bright bluey/yellow bubbling water with steam rising in clouds and willy-willies. It is the rest day, because the weekends are busy in the restaurant. Tomorrow we will be planting rice!

Lynda described the farm as a series of rice paddys terraced down a hill and surrounded by forest. Water is continually pouring out of the forest and into the paddys. They are living in shipping containers surrounds by what sounds like a million frogs!! The farm has been in the family for many many generations and grandparents, parents and kids all live there.

1 June 2009 - Beppu to the farm

A very early start to catch the Trans - Kyushu Limited Express train. Loving how even the newer trains feature beautiful timber, this one in it's beautiful floor and seat-back tables. The “Sonic” has overhead lockers like a plane, all in timber. Passes 30 – 40 people on bikes at each level crossing, waiting patiently, as Japanese people are exceptionally good at doing. The train climbed through stunning scenery, forests and terraced rice fields, tunnels and bridges taking us high into the centre of the island to the Aso area, the largest volcanic caldera in the world.

Posted by hazelnutty 05:16 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Japan Week 1 - Temples and Trains

Covers arrival in Tokyo and travel to Kyoto, Nara and other towns on their way to Kyushu during their first week in Japan.

31 May 2009 - A day of stuff-ups: Kurashiki to Beppu

Woke up in the Youth Hostel on a hill at Kurashiki, organised for our bags to be taken to the station, and set off through yet another graveyard for a 2 km stroll through town that took us several hours. The canal district was where rice used to be stored and then shipped out from old timber granaries, which are now houses and shops. They were beautifully made and housed really good art galleries and craft shops. It's a lovely town with huge pride and a strong arts community. The hostel owner's daughter kindly brought stuff we'd left behind. Arigato ........... Whoops. On the train to Kyushu, Japan's third largest island, we didn't really get the information we needed from our maps, and made an unnecessary trip to Fukuoka and back. Lucky we have a Japan Rail Pass, and the shinkansen was doing 285 km an hour! Finally got to Beppu and spent too much time and bus money and a 2 km walk up a steep hill getting to a free onsen (natural hot water spring bath) that turned out to be empty. AARGHH! Back in town, went to a 100 yen bath, in an incredibly old and well-worn timber and stone building. It was frequented by locals, who helped us with onsen tips, and it was really hot!!! Staggered out, bright pink, with weak muscles, to find dinner. A fantastic meal at Toto.... near the station. We ordered sashimi and tempura, and the little bowls and plates of veges and fish and rice and sauces and pickles just kept coming. Yum. Beppu Guest House is very cheap and kinda dodgy, but 5 minutes from train.

30 May 2009 - Koya-san

Many changes of train and a cable car ride got us to Mt Koya – a Buddhist monastery town on top of an absurdly steep mountain range. Beautiful lush forest surrounding 117 monasteries and temples. Saw a group of golden-robed priests walking along in two rows, with bundles of colourful cloth??? Sometimes we wish we were in a tour group, so we could know what is going on! Bought a combined pass and saw the sights, a really enjoyable afternoon. Then ventured to a graveyard amongst cedar forest, with tens of thousands of carved stone markers, many very old. All lining a path that we followed for a couple of km, and didn't reach the end of. Getting dark and really eerie, as we wandered back, with stone lanterns and candles lit along the way. Really Dianne's cup of tea. Stayed at the most beautiful old hostel, our own tatami mat room, paper screens for walls and the best hot bath yet. Oh, and totally unexpected wi-fi, so that Hils spent a couple of hours on Skype, talking to Kane.

Back down the mountain, through Wakagama, Osaka and Kobe (swine flu central) to Himenji. The castle here is an enormous stone one, overlooking the town. Put our packs into coin lockers, and skipped through town, light as feathers. Passing through endless baileys and massive stone walls and wooden gates, we climbed up many stairs to the top of the tower, to look out over the city. Constant thoughts of how we could never face samurai, in their terrifying armour and masks, in these dark, scary corridors. Shivers. Visited a nearby garden, with waterfalls and teahouses, ponds and covered bridges in nine separate gardens. Had the best-ever ocha (green tea) icecream, and got back on the train to Kurashiki.

29 May 2009: Yamanobe-michi

The Lonely Planet guide to “Hiking in Japan” led us along this very ancient pathway. It's 13 km, but we got lost and distracted many times, so we took all day. Heaven for anyone interested in food growing. It winds through forest and farmland and tiny villages. We listed dozens of fruits and vegetables we saw growing, and they were just the ones we could identify. Little farms, lots of terracing, rice fields, persimmon orchards, citrus, kiwifruit, thirty kinds of veges. Fantastic. Polytunnels with red, aromatic strawberries. Neat gardens of tomatoes, corn, cabbages, zucchini, cucumbers, etc. Trellising, bird covers, flood irrigation – all sorts of techniques that are clearly working very well – it was incredibly productive. Could recognise the season – tomatoes flowering, corn just getting going, snow peas finished. Like late November in our garden. Have to mention a snack we loved, freshly made and sold in a classic covered arcade. Like two pikelets with scrumptious sweet bean filling. Yum.

27-28 May 2009: Nara by bicycle

After a big farewell by all at Kiyomizu (including neighbours, “sayonara”) Short local train trip to the smaller city of Nara, which was the capital of Japan in the 700's. Beginning to recognise so many different subcultures. One is the young men/boys who have beautifully shaped eyebrows and 70's rock star hairdos, and wear nail polish and tight t-shirts, like the kid who served us lunch and made our teppanyaki at our table for lunch today. There are so many ways of dressing; people's individuality is entirely accepted. Hired bikes again and rolled along paths in the deer park, where we visited the Todia-ji Temple. It is the world's largest timber building, and is a 1700's rebuild, 2/3 the size of the original. The Buddha was enormous, too. Apparently he has lost is head a few times, in earthquakes and fires. Then rode uphill, through woods and parkland, so we could roll down again. Bought some fresh fruit in a tiny shop and the lady was astonished by Hilary's height. She kindly gaurded our bikes with her life as we searched for some dinner nearby.

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26 May 2009: Kyoto on foot – our fourth day

Finally strolled 2 minutes up hill to “our temple”. Kiyomzu-dera is set high above Kyoto, backed by forest. It's main building is a massive timber structure, with verandahs projecting out in mid-air. Springs feeding ponds in the gardens, astonishing stone work supporting terraces. Not too many visitors – swine flu is great for us! ......, then the “Philosopher's Walk”, a very pretty stroll under cherry trees, along a canal, to Ginkaku – the Silver Temple. (We did laugh later when we saw a hotel named “Flussefers”!! – (Philosophers) - nearly right...) Great gardens with beautiful maples, and mossy ground in dappled sunlight. Kyoto Handicraft Centre, then a bus across town to Ashikara area, famous for a stunning “Bamboo Forest” another place we got to in fading light – made it even more lovely. Bamboo fences along winding paths, dense stands of huge bamboo. Simple and gorgeous.

25 May 2009: Lynda's Birthday in Kyoto

Hilary thought it would be a great idea to hire some bikes. It was my birthday, we had heaps of temples and gardens we wanted to see, and Kyoto is a busy city, with sites spread all around the edges, backed by beautiful wooded hills. 17 World Heritage sites, plans for a special dinner – we needed to be mobile. So we eventually found the “Kyoto Cycle Tour Project” and headed off into the traffic on a couple of very sturdy 8-speed numbers built for people a fair bit shorter then us.

We were pretty tired to begin with, after travelling the day before from Tokyo on the shinkansen, and then spending 5-6 hours walking and getting acquainted with the layout of our neighbourhood of Kiyomizu. It's an incredibly rich area of shrines and winding alleys of traditional houses near the Geisha district of Gion. In fact, we had amazing good fortune to catch maiko (apprentice geisha) leaving their final performance of the season. They appeared at the door of the theatre, bowed politely, then ran like rabbits (geisha-style) through the crowds on Pontocho-dori. Their kimono, hair and make-up were perfect. We couldn't believe our luck.

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Anyway, using the “Kyoto Cycling Map” - an absolute treasure that showed slopes and stairs and had dotted lines indicating roads”good for cycling”, we rode north through downtown Kyoto. The woman who had hired the bikes suggested that “In Kyoto, we ride on the footpath”. Good idea, and we did, on the busier roads, but most streets are so narrow that there is just a strip of road surface with a line painted about 60cm out from the front of the houses and shops. It is shared by bikes, people walking dogs, shop displays, old people shuffling along, little delivery vans, and is otherwise full of plants in pots. So we diced with traffic and pedestrians, weaving our way through the fantastic machiya districts.

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Set right on the street are traditional timber townhouses, beautifully constructed with tiny courtyard gardens. In between are many shrines and temples, some large temples, with stone walls and gardens, others are tiny shrines, decorated with flowers.

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We came to an inner city corner with huge department stores – one called “Hankyu”, written in exactly the same font as Harrods in London, exactly the same”H”. Interesting. Other shops of every upmarket European brand imaginable, beside local shops selling beautifully packaged local sweets or kitchen utensils or kimono.

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The Imperial Palace Gardens looked great on the map – wide traffic free avenues. It was very beautiful, with thousands of huge old trees in an enormous park, but the deep gravel on the drives was seriously hard work. The locals all rode the same path, making skinny tracks that we followed around. Massive walls surrounded the Palace and stretched for many hundreds of metres.

Turning west on more little back streets, were again in amongst the daily life of the city. More crooked streets of very old houses took us to a shrine market, where thousands of people were having a great time searching for treasures amongst antiques and old stuff of amazing variety. I would have loved to have bought some of the bundles of antique fabric – I could imagine an incredible quilt.

In this quieter corner of town we found people tending tiny vege gardens. It was easy to recognise the exact season - cucumbers in flower, tomatoes leafing up, corn one foot high,snow peas and broad beans just finishing – like late November at home.

We've been having great fun asking people for help, and they are all so excited when Hilary uses Japanese. An older gentleman helped us with directions to Ryoanji Temple, with a great combination of gestures and “reft, light,reft, reft, four hundred metres”.

The grounds at Ryoanji include a significant Zen garden set in a courtyard with earthern walls, where fifteen rocks are arranged in a sea of white gravel. The pond garden outside, and late spring foliage were also very beautiful.

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Back on our bikes, we headed up hill towards Kinkaku-ji (the Golden temple). It's amazing and so nice to see Japanese kids walking home from school. The littlest ones must finish early. They were wandering along, alone or in little groups,dawdling and chatting and having a great time. We got stuck behind a six-year old boy and girl arguing and laughing just like Rob and Hannah used to. No big school pick-up traffic jams here – hardly anyone drives, and kids are safe to walk ride. Interesting that there aren't any bike helmets, or crossing ladies - but then everyone totally obeys traffic rules. Even groups of extremely cool looking boys wait patiently for the lights to change. No-one jaywalks. It's amazing how quickly we got to flying across pedestrian crossings without looking (like everyone else) because you know you are safe.

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The Golden Temple looked stunning in the afternoon light, sitting in it's beautifully landscaped pool and gardens. The sun reflecting from the water's ripples made flashes of gold under the curved beams of the overhanging roof. Hils was convinced they were lanterns. We met a north american guy who was on a treasure hunt left by a friend. He had clues to follow, and was looking for a message left somewhere in the grounds. He had already been to Nara – another town of temples. We told him he was lucky to have such a great friend, but it didn't seem very Zen to be rushing so much.

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After Kinkaku-ji came a fantastic gentle downhill cruise through backstreets to the river, which took half an hour or so. It was just fantastic. Sights, smells and sounds so familiar to local people were just so interesting and weird to us. There was never than five metres from one side of the road to the other. I loved seeing a little old lady buying a piece of timber from a merchant in a tiny timber shop. More kids, playing in the streets. Fruit shops, noodle shops and fish shops, people sweeping the road, lots of people of all ages on bikes. A man making bonito flakes and someone else smoking fish. Little vans delivering veges. We got used to bowing on a bike, as you do when someone makes way for you in a tiny space.

The river was Hils' favourite part of the day. It was late afternoon, and everyone was out to relax and play. We rode for about five kilometres right through Kyoto, from north to south, along a wide path between the Kamo River and wide grassy flats. There were baseball games, frisbee training sessions, and over the whole length of the trail, hundreds of musicians practicing their instruments in the open. Trombones, saxophones, clarinets. Guitars and people singing. Violins and instruments we only vaguely recognised.

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People were fishing, walking dogs, reading, sleeping. Couples were rolling in the long grass, grannies walking with toddlers. Little boys playing swords with sticks. Teenagers being very cool. The light was beautiful on the lush green of Spring foliage and grass, and the river dropped over little weirs. Lots of water birds – cranes and ducks and egrets and cormorants. There were spots where huge stones made stepping stone crossings and office workers on their way home leaped energetically from one side to the other, including one very elegant woman in a suit and high heels.

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When the bike path ran out, we climbed a ramp and plunged into the very busy narrow streets leading to Fushimi Inari which we had trouble finding. We got there in time to see the hundreds of deep orange torii gates leading uphill into the forest, in the last of the daylight. It was spectacular, and at that time of day, really eerie.

It was a dash to get back to the Station to drop off the bikes by 7:00. After a further hour of walking back up the hill to Kiyomizu, a long hot bath was just the ticket. Definitely a birthday I'll never forget. Thanks Hilary!

24 May 2009: Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto

An amazing two and a half hour trip (515km) to Kyoto. Eventually located the very beautiful Kiyomizu Youth Hostel, with the help of Gramps getting online, back in Drouin. It was just off “Teacup Lane” (we called it bloody teapot street) on the hill leading to one of Kyoto's most incredible temples, Kiyomizu-dera, but none of the shopkeepers could help with directions. The hostel was stunning, quite new, but traditional, all timber and tatami. Hilary made a few major etiquette blunders in the first 5 minutes, but the owner was very kind and we loved our three nights there. Headed out into tiny streets lined with traditional timber machiya buildings. Caught a glimpse of several Maiko (apprentice Geisha) leaving the final performance of the season. Incredible. Their make-up an hair was perfect. Their kimono were all different, beautiful fabrics, colours. They appeared at the door of the theatre, looked at the assembled crowd, bowed politely, and bolted off down Pontocho-dori in their wooden shoes as quickly as they could. We were incredibly lucky to see them. A few more hours of walking, seeing many temples, 700 year old camphor trees and more ancient neighbourhoods.

23 May 2009 - Tokyo

Spent on the incredible Tokyo Subway system, using a “Passmo” card. Found a post office to send stuff home, to lighten our packs. Doing this involved getting help from many people, all very enthusiastic and polite, who assumed that Hilary could really speak Japanese. Tricky. Visited the Edo Museum, recording the history of Tokyo, learned that it was largely destroyed by and rebuilt after 150 Allied bombing raids in WW2. Saw huge crowds leaving the Sumo Stadium after a big match – the train station was a bit like Richmond after an AFL game. Patience, respectfulness and manners are standard, and even the busiest train station in the world (Shinjuku – 3 million people each day) felt calm and worked perfectly.

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After further eager assistance, we went to Akihabara to get a camera cable – techno city! Anime Centre, where we got incredibly cute Totoro things. Then across town to Harajuku, where there were some outrageous outfits amongst the hordes of teenagers out to show off on a Saturday night. Finally went to Shibuya, to see the famous four-way intersection where thousands of people surge onto the road at once, when the lights change. Joined in, walked the streets snapping photos of the massive neon signs. Back on the Yamanoto line, which circles through Tokyo, to the lovely Andon Ryokan.

22 May 2009: Narita (yes - near the airport!!)

After arriving at Narita airport, I had a day to fill in, while waiting for Hilary to land, after her three weeks in Mongolia, on a “Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppes” expedition. I caught a train to the small town of Narita and found the amazing temples there. They are set amongst beautiful gardens, lakes and woods, and were very busy, with people visiting all day. It was a massive and very exciting culture shock to be on my own, the only western visitor, amongst people so much at home. I watched people arriving at a temple and scooping handfuls of smoke from an urn over their heads and onto arthritic joints. Praying, chatting, enjoying a day out. Back at the airport, it was great to see Hilary come through the doors. Headed for Tokyo, to stay at the very small, groovy and affordable Andon Ryokan. Had a great meal of udon and hit the futon.

Posted by hazelnutty 22:00 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Mongolia


View To Japan & In Mongolia & To Mongolia on hazelnutty's travel map.

Arriving in a strange land

Ulaan Baator (locals call it UB) is like a different world to anything I've seen before. Partly due to poverty, partly because of their cultural heritage. Indian-style trills are integrated into their songs, city buildings are of Russian style architecture from the country's Soviet days, people generally look Chinese, although they are often more robust in build, and many people have Russian facial features too. Hints of many different cultures can be seen in Mongolia, but I suspect this is just because westerners know a lot about Russia, India and China and relatively little about Mongolia. Mongolians have a rich culture which should rightfully be considered just as much theirs as any other cultures'.

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With a lack of road signs, it took Sven quite a while to find Zaya's hostel. It is 100m up some tiny alleyway - a big orange construction fence obstructs the alley's view from the road. Over the course of several phone calls between Sven and Zaya, we did finally get there.

Zaya is a very kind woman with a Russian accent- everything she says is executed with such emphasis that her voice breaks- she sounds as if she is having an argument sometimes! But her hostel is beautiful and very peaceful. Thus far I have met a Norwegian couple who come to UB each year to help out at an orphanage, 4 Finnish girls traveling east along the Trans-Siberian railway to Beijing, an English couple doing ditto, and a guy from Alaska who is traveling to the middle east. They all seem to have pretty inspiring stories to tell, and plans ahead of them!

Earthwatch and the Expedition to Ikh Nart Nature Reserve

The Earthwatch team went out for dinner together, and we left UB the following morning. Some traveled in the 4WD, but Amelia (19 year old from America- we have a LOT in common) and I opted for the Russian van Experience! Our dear Russian van gave me an electric shock at least once per ride. We are good friends nonetheless.

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Leaving the long stretch of gers (yurts) and small wooden houses of UB, we headed south through the mountains. Goats and cattle crossed the roads as they pleased- there are no fences in Mongolia. We saw a herd of about 100 horses being herded by a horsemen- it was such a picturesque moment- the memory nearly seems more precious because I didn't manage to get a photo!

Along with Amelia and I, there were also 6 Mongolians in the van- 5 researchers/students and a driver. We were quite shy at that point, but as Travis told us, 'you guys are all going to be great buddies by the end of these two weeks'. And so right he was.

Amelia and the students played cards, I drifted off to sleep. When I woke, there was nothing to see but open plains that stretched all the way to the horizon. We passed a dozen horses stading knee-deep in a spring- another of the many beautiful memories that I would leave the trip with.

The Earthwatch centre is inside the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve. The project was initially concerned only with the protection of the endangered Argali Sheep, but over the years, the Sheep's entire ecosystem has become Earthwatch's radar. Buyana was the Small Mammal researcher, Travis (from Denver Zoo) was responsible for Cinereous Vulture research, Cindy and Dave (both from Denver Zoo) were involved with Argali and Ibex tracking.

Website for the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve: http://www.ikhnart.com/home.html

Website for the Earthwatch Expedition: http://www.earthwatch.org/australia/news/headlines/news_story7_3july08.html

The Earthwatch camp consisted of 5 gers, (men and dining ger, women and office ger, kitchen ger, researcher ger and the coordinators' ger. There was a shower cubicle- we used solar water bags (during cold weather, we all got smelly), 2 toilets and 2 industrial containers for all the scientific equipment. And a basketball ring.

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Our daily schedule looked something like this:
- 7:00am- scramble out of bed, get into car and check small mammal traps.

We had 100 traps in a 100m^2 grid. We threw millet seed in them each night, and by morning we would have captured about 6 victims. They were mostly Midday Gerbils, but we also caught a Gerboa, Desert Hamsters, Dwarf Hamsters and the occasional confused lizard. The animals had ear tags put on, and were weighed and measured. The hamsters are so slow and docile, we had a lovely time playing with them, before letting them trundle off across the sand. Fecal tests were a major part of the expedition, and I was deemed worthy of being rodent poo collector. I had to use tweasers to put gerbil, hamster and gerboa poo pellets into their respective jars. Rock on Poopy Girl.

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- 8:30am- breakfast

Our lovely cook, Tzoomo, made us a sloppy porridge-type of thing each morning, only we had rice instead of oats, and the milk has far more kick than western cow's milk. I loved it. We also had a selection of jams, biscuits and bread. And chocolate. But no fruit in sight. We made cheese and salami sandwiches for lunch each day- if we had run out, it was cookies ad biscuits for lunch. Goodbye fruit and vegies, hello starch, fat, sugar, salt and protein!

- 9:00am- head out into the field.

We did radio tracking of Argali sheep and Ibex most days, in groups of 3-6. We would be out under the harsh Mongolian sun for about 6 hours each day, simply walking and keeping an eye out for a set of ears poking out from behind a rock on the horizon. We had to be inconspicuous; wear brown clothing, talk in whispers and keep behind boulders where possible. On some days, we would only see a few animals standing on mountains several kilometres away. But that only made the 'good' days more exciting.

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Newborn Argali lambs are unable to run- should danger arise, the ewe will stamp her foot, signalling to the lamb to lie flat and not move. Dave's prime focus was to catch an Argali lamb- they are essentially the only way to get blood tests of Argali, a key factor in understanding this rare species. Each morning he would rise a 5:00am, and spend 3 hours roaming the valleys, convinced that a lamb had just been born around the next corner.

Cindy was the 'poop-doctor'. Each night, in our ger, she would do tests on fecal samples found in the day- on everything from Dwarf Hamsters to Argali Sheep and horses- even the wolves' poo was checked out. She put the sample in a solution, and then identified all the bacterial life under the microscope. Amelia and I became accustomed to falling asleep with the smell of poopies drifting around the ger.

Alternatively, we would go with Travis and driver, Toovshen. Those two got on like a house on fire. Despite Toovshen's limited English, he managed to have us in stitches for most of the day. In May, the Vultures are laying, incubating and some chicks have hatched. Our job was to go around the park and check the nests marked on the GPS. Vulture nests are about 5 feet wide, 1-3 metres high, and made of sticks, but even so, they blend in well against the brown cliff-faces.

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We would classify the nest as 'chick', 'incubating', 'empty' or 'destroyed'. If the bird was incubating, it would lie flat in the nest to avoid being seen. If there is a chick, the parent (parenting is equally mum and dad's job) will occasionally stand up to cool the chick down, and croon it's neck. We never approached a nest with a bird in it- Mongolia's winds are often very cold, and a chick or egg could be killed if the parent is barred from the nest for too long.

However, we sometimes needed to check inside the nest to confirm it's status- if there was a bird around, we wanted to be as efficient as possible, so we would sprint towards the nest, climb up the rocks or cliff-face and see what was inside, and run back to the van. Sometimes we would have to run 2km in total, if the nest was in a rocky valley, so even vulture days were hard work.

- 4:00pm- get back to camp, maybe have a shower if it was hot, relax

- 6:30pm- Dinner

Every meal had either beef or goat meat. Yes, goodbye vegetarianism too. Not a lot grows in Mongolia- grass manages, and livestock can manage to consume enough of it to survive. Humans cannot live on grass desert, so it makes sense that meat is such a significant part of their diet.

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We had token carrot, gherkin and capsicum slices, but again, it was mainly starch, fat and protein. That sounds pretty unhealthy, but luckily we were doing enough work that getting fat wasn't a great concern.

- 8:00pm- Go to the Small mammal traps and open them. Throw in more millet. Watch the sun set over the desert.

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So, that's more or less what we did each day, but there were a few hiccups and highlights too:

- On the first Thursday night, a wind picked up, and at 3 am I woke to find a spoke from the ger roof had fallen on me. At 6am, Rob (volunteer from Melbourne, English but got Aus. citizenship the week before coming here) came in and started packing up Cindy's equipment. Dave then burst in the door and said 'pack your things- hurricane force winds are arriving'. The men's ger had collapsed during the night, so we all crammed into kitchen ger. The wind howled outside, and the temperature dropped to near-freezing very quickly. I tried to run to the toilet and found myself running on the spot, sand blasting into my face. We spent the whole day crammed in Tsoomo's ger- she kept making us porridge, toast, stews and soups. She likes feeding people.

By 4o'clock, it was snowing, and the little fireplace didn't seem quite adequate any more. Even Donald, the 'Wiltshire-born Scot', who normally didn't feel the cold, returned to the ger from a quick toilet break shaking uncontrollably. We amused ourselves by playing dress-ups, cards, and laughing like lunatics as the ger began to dance. The wind so strong that our little fortress began to tear and leap around. The rock in the centre of the ger that was tied to the ceiling, holding the ger down, was replaced by a whopping big milk-can. The ger's spokes splintered under the pressure. Despite being in the middle of a desert in a foreign country and being at risk of losing our homes, I was never scared, because the people around me had come from being strangers to dear and trusted friends. I knew that we would tackle whatever happened to us.

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- After spending an entire day walking, and seeing nothing but a single pair of Ibex ears in return, Dave's dream came true. An Argali ewe stared at us from the rocky moutain slopes- the fact that she was standing her ground suggested that she had a motive to stay around; they usually run away at the scent of a human. We searched for a lamb for about 20 minutes, and just as we were heading down the slopes, defeated, Toogii found it. The lamb was so small, virtually nothing but skin and bone. I got to hold it while it was weighed, measured and blood-tested. It was very quiet and soft- so tiny. Toogii dubbed it 'Donald'- the other volunteer in our group that day. Not many people have held an Argali lamb before, and what a precious moment it was.

- Another day, we managed to sneak up on a massive herd of Argali. We were hidden by a line of boulders. Perhaps startled by us, an Ibex bolted through the herd, and about 20 of them ran straight past us. There were about 200 animals in total, many ewes with young lambs at foot. A herd of that size bolting across the plains was spectacular.

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- In the same spot as we found 'Donald', a more sobering incident occurred. Again, a ewe stood on the cliff faces, staring us down, before leaping away. We were hoping to find another lamb to blood test, and we did find the lamb. A trail of blood showed where it had been dragged- the wolf paw-prints leading away from the lamb revealed whodunit.

- I took a book of photos from Australia, to give everyone an idea of my homeland. Tzoomo, our beautiful Russian cook is learning English (turned 37 while we were there), so I got her to read it. By the last page, 8 Mongolian faces had gathered behind us, all amazed by such a foreign land. It was such a special moment- it was the end of the trip, so we all knew each other well. All those wide eyes and smiley faces.

- We had a Khorhog, a traditional Mongolian barbeque on the second last day. We bought a goat from a nearby nomad, it was slaughtered (very humanely) and cooked for several hours. Everyone from the Earthwatch team came- the food was beautiful, and afterwards, the Mongolians sang some songs for us. They all have the most brilliant voices- they sing all the time- and their songs are so eerily beautiful. After our food had settled, the basketball games started (2 per team, one hoop), and as the sunset, researchers, zookeepers and volunteers were all rolling around in the dust, wrestling and cheering- I wished that project would never end.

We travelled back to Ulaanbaatar on the night train. What an experience that was! There were 6 people sleeping per 2m length of the train. It was such an exciting night- I was so at peace because I was with a group of people who now seemed like family, and in a carriage with hundreds of people, all with their own stories. The repetitive clunk of the railway was soothing as the train rolled on through the night. The bed was too short for me to stretch my legs out, but so narrow that bent knees stuck out into the corridor. Our dear friend Toovshen came to pick us up from the freeform carpark (there is no such thing as parking spaces, or lanes, in UB).

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That night, we went to a cultural performance showcasing Mongolia's music and dance traditions. There were contortionists, male and female dancers and singers, strings, horns, and the myserious throat-singer. Throat-singing is incredible- their voice seems to break into several different keys, so a single man can sound like a distant choir of men- it is a very eerie sound indeed.

After all the other Earthwatchers had gone back to their homes in New Zealand, Melbourne, California and Denver, the only two left were Donald and I. We both wanted to see the wild Preswalski horses, and so hired a driver to take us there for 2 days. We saw such an amazing range of flora and fauna; miniature artichoke, miniature rhubarb, a million foreign little flowers, cranes, elk, marmots, polecats, magpies (wierd- not REAL magpies!), vultures, and the wild horses themselves. Donald and I climbed a mountain while we waited- we had 3 hours before the horses would all go down to the water to drink. I spotted 3 Tahki (P. horses) down in the valley, and so we crept behind a rocky spur and down to where they were grazing. We got so close, they eyed us both and continued grazing, clearly not too concerned by our presence. We stayed in a traditional ger, surrounded by hundreds of talkative sparrows that filled the air with life. Gers are beginning to feel like home.

You can all the photos from Mongolia:

http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/Mongolia/

Posted by hazelnutty 04:53 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

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