July 22, 2008


To get from Vietnam to Mongolia we had to return to Korea for a day. The Trans-Mongolian train route traditionally starts/ends in Beijing but the Chinese government had requisitioned all the trains from June til September for the Olympics. It’s ironic that although China is the root of much East Asian culture and also on many westerners’ minds this year, we’ve skipped over China this time. Instead we’ve visited other Asian countries and seen different variations on Chinese-influenced themes.

The day in Seoul just reconfirmed a lot of things we had already experienced – ie smog, grey weather and Koreans who were either 100% helpful & friendly or 100% unhelpful & unfriendly. Getting to Mongolia really felt like something new though, starting with the big poster of Chinngis Khan at the airport and the fairly small-town feel of Ulaanbaatar. It looks a bit like Dunedin.

Mongolia turns a lot of Asia on its head: it’s not crowded, the houses don’t have Chinese-style roofs, it’s warm but not humid & rainy in summer, and they don’t grow rice or eat with chopsticks. With fewer than three million people in a country almost five times the size of New Zealand, it makes home look crowded. Mongolia has the kind of big wide sky we’d experienced driving across Australia in 2005, with endless rolling hills covered in short grasses and herbs and only a few isolated patches of trees or occasional rock formations. The country smells of sage, thyme and livestock. Goats, sheep and horses were a frequent sight though the bulk of the land was simply empty. We saw some large black & white cranes and a couple of huge eagles with two metre wingspans.

Our guide Chim-ge was very helpful and friendly and spoke good English. We also had a driver whose name sounded like Reggae (we had fun trying to explain what reggae music is) who spoke no English but was very good at avoiding getting stuck in the mud. After a seven-hour drive across mostly dirt roads, we got to the ger camp where we were staying for the next two days. A ger is a round Mongolian tent house built around a central fireplace, with a south-facing door (the winds come from the north).

Mongolian nomads dismantle their gers and move home four times a year. That system allows the land to regenerate from grazing. The animals are the families’ livelihoods, providing income, food and even fuel for fires ie dung. We spent a couple of hours ‘picking up shit’ to help out, and also took a turn at milking the goats. We filled a fifth of a bucket between us in the time the mother and grandmother of the family filled two each. The other job was mixing the barrel of arrig, or alcohol made from fermented horses’ milk. We were presented with two bowls on arrival - it tasted like a sour yoghurt.

Mongolian food is almost entirely based on meat and dairy products and not at all spicy. They put some onion and carrot in our food but that was really a tourist concession. I found a native spinach plant growing nearby as a diet supplement – strangely the Mongolians don’t make use of that or the various herbs available. Many traditional nomads believe that vegetables are bad for you. They burn off all the protein and fat by working long and hard outdoors – in the city there were a lot of fat Mongolians however.

On the second day we had a side trip to Karakortum, site of the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia and Chinggis Khan’s royal court (one turtle statue is all that remains). Each Buddhist country has a different style of artwork – the Mongolian style is influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and seemed to emphasise demonic looking creatures such as the blue-skinned three-eyed sharp-fanged ten protectors. Listening to the red-robed monks chanting their sutras was fascinating, much more polyphonic than the Korean minimalist style.

The monastery buildings had Chinese-style roofs but overall there was much less Chinese influence in Mongolia than I’d imagined. If anything we could see bits of Russia creeping in, especially back in town - for example the language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. It was very interesting the feeling of Asia gradually fading away.

After a couple of days out in the country enjoying the smog-free air and the sounds of goats and sheep rather than traffic noise, construction work and hard-sell advertising, we headed back to Ulaanbaatar. We had timed the trip to coincide with the Nadaam festival (translates as ‘fun festival’), which is the big annual event consisting of wrestling, archery and cross-country horse racing. It celebrates Mongolian independence from 200 years if Manchu rule. We were most interested in the opening ceremony, which was a feast of colourful costumes, dancing and Mongolian music which, as several locals said, evokes the feel of wide open spaces, galloping horses, cold winter nights and mountain passes.

A group of Korean tourists sitting nearby added an ironic counterpoint with their identical lime-green ‘I love Mongolia’ t-shirts, taking photos of each other, adjusting their makeup, talking on cellphones and seeming to take no notice of their surroundings. After 15 months in Korea, we can spot Koreans easily.

We got our fill of Mongolian music over the next two nights, seeing both a smaller traditional ensemble and a big-scale stage show with a full Morin-Khuur orchestra. The morin-khuur is a kind of two-stringed cello with a rhombus-shaped body and a horse’s head carving at the top of the neck. They come in various sizes up to double-bass size and were surprisingly cheap to buy in the shops (about $80NZ – too big to travel with unfortunately and would need a case). Both shows were amazing, with costumes, dancing, musicians accompanying contortionists, and longsongs and throat-singing.

In all Mongolia was a definite highlight so far. I’m now in Moscow, after spending four days on the train across from Siberia. I’ll write about the Russian leg of the trip when I next get a chance – we also have a hundred or so photos to upload and hours of video to sort through…

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July 12, 2008


I’m sitting in a hotel room in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia. We’re approaching half way through our journey to Europe. It’s 12.30am and a massive half-hour fireworks display, part of the annual Nadaam celebrations, has just finished. Mongolia’s a real gem - it’s great to see there’s more to Asia than smog, stressed out people and monetary obsession.

This month is the payoff for fifteen months in South Korea, by the end of which I was getting back pains from tiny chairs, unfit and flabby from unfresh food and smog-induced lack of exercise, and still had an ear infection from swimming at Haeundae Beach last September that the doctors had done little to cure. I also gouged open my right heel in the last weekend, slipping on the wet stairs moving bags out of the apartment to an impatient taxi driver. It’s healing OK now but I’m probably in for a scar.

So it was a great pleasure to get to Vietnam. There was a stopover in Hong Kong airport – out the windows I could see glass apartment towers, hillsides eroded from deforestation and a polluted green harbour. Then on to Vietnam, a fertile countryside of rice paddies and fruit trees with sudden rock formations rising out of the plains. Everywhere hundreds of Vietnamese in cone-shaped coolie hats were at work in the fields from dawn to dusk… it’s definitely the land of the cone heads. The hats are an elegantly simple design that protect from the sun and rain.

Although poorer, the Vietnamese people overall seemed healthier, happier, and more stylish, industrious, humorous and better looking than the average Korean. I enjoyed the fusion of old and new on display, whereas Koreans keep their traditional things quite separate from their modern life. There was also a refreshing absence of the usual celebrity stooges’ faces everywhere, and no McDonalds restaurants to be found. Instead they had communist-style posters of good workers and Ho Chi Minh. The atmosphere was never dreary or oppressive though – it’s a vibrant, colourful country.

Hanoi, the capital, was full of motorbikes, their horns a constant soundtrack. The traffic is busy but not especially fast – to cross a road you just walk out at a steady pace and the traffic all somehow avoids you. It’s a much better system than in Thailand where you wait for a gap and then sprint across. Catching a motorbike ride with Vietnamese locals is a good way to get around and definitely part of the experience.

The slightly unsatisfying aspect was being on a time limit and being on the tourist trail for some of it. Prices were cheap but not that cheap and there were always locals around trying to sell something, and many small-time scams to get extra money. It’s hard to begrudge them though – they’re doing a great job rebuilding from the American war (one-legged mine victims the most visible reminder) and finding their place in the world. The newspaper headlines were mostly government propaganda (it’s a one-party state) and one that stood out was their goal to become an average income nation by 2020. That contrasts with Korea’s frantic industrial development (at the expense of their own culture and environment) and their new president’s unattainable election promise of 7% growth every year.

Highlights included Cuc Phuong national park where we explored a bat-filled cave where stone-age people had lived 7500 years ago; the national water puppet theatre, a great Vietnamese art-form with live music, carving, action and splashes; a night drinking on a boat on Halong Bay with kiwis and aussies; and the sights and general ambience – there was an overall sense of optimism in the country.

In all, I’d love to go back to Southeast Asia another time with an open itinerary and no time limit, and see Cambodia and Laos as well.

Tonight it's time to get on the train to Siberia, so I'll write about Mongolia when I get a chance...

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