Monday, 27 October 2008

aborted safari precipitates premature return to 'genghis khan' guesthouse UB or 'all's well that ends well'

At the end of the third day of our adventures the jeep failed to start, half-way up a snowy mountain. Fortunately we were on horseback at the time, having just visited a monastery high on a peak, where the renowned Zanabazar meditated in the C17th, and changed the face of Mongolian Buddhist art. The jeep abandoned, we trotted back to the 'ger' where a friendly nomad family had given us a shelter the previous night, lost travellers in the dark. A couple of hours later two Russian micro-buses full of New Zealanders hurtled us back to Karakoram, and safety.
Mongolian landscapes are awesome, and indescribable. I have taken a hundred thousand digital images, so do come and watch them some time.
Watching the constellations shift across the sky through the large hole at the top of a 'ger', as you lie on your couch under many layers of insulation is a marvel. Deciding you need to get up and have a pee in the sub-zero dark outside is equally a marvel, of denial, reluctance, acceptance and eventual fearful exit from the safety of the ger, having first to step over the sleeping bodies of our two drivers and very handsome host. The starry, starry night is dizzying. Are the overfriendly Mongolian hounds asleep, and is it safe to remove one's tackle?
The day after our rescue we return through more awesome scenery to UB, in the company of a handsome elderly couple, wearing the very beautiful traditional silken coats, done up with a cummerbund of contrasting colour, a couple of adorable tiny twins, swaddled in swathes of pink and blue, and assorted others. En route we stop at a roadside hostelry for a hearty mutton soup (we have long since given up trying to be vegetarian in these mountain wastes) which must have half a sheep in it.
Returned to UB we spend a night back at the station hotel, and then remove to our present quarters near the centre, in the most charming guesthouse. David and Joanna have bagged the double room, but I am quite content in my shared dormitory, inhabited at present by two beautiful Buryat girls from Ulan Ude, and their older protector or uncle. From the look of their huge bags they are traders, but who knows in what. 'Uncle' plies me with vodka, which is very welcome after our ordeal, which aids bonhomie and smiles, but does not help linguistically. Genghis Khan guesthouse must be the cleanest and friendliest in all of Mongolia.

Facts and figures: Mongolia's population is 2.8 million. One million live in the capital, 100,000 in Erdenet, and the rest are scattered in a landmass the size of Western Europe! Awesome indeed. The people are charming and friendly, and goodlooking.

Today we will visit a museum of political persecution - Mongolia has a shady communist past, dominated as it was by the Soviet Union. Then we go shopping. Love to all.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

pre-safari nerves

Last night, late, as I finished my previous blog it began to snow. Severe cold is forecast. We have been lucky so far. The snow we experienced in Ekaterinburg, a while back, was joyous but momentary, and wildly premature. All through Siberia we basked in relatively balmy weather.

We spend the day in desultory shopping, and a lingering malaise. What DO you take for off-piste jeeping in sub-zero temperatures?

Monday, 20 October 2008

coals to newcastle?

Yesterday morning was all fear and hysteria (on my part) at the prospect of giving our talks later in the day. Coals to Newcastle? Hubris finally punished in Erdenet?
We had lunch at our local Chinese, and then played snooker for a while to vent our manic energy.
We arrive at the Cultural Centre with plenty of time to spare, and set up. The hall is not a giant one as I had feared, but still sizeable. People arrive in dribs and drabs. At last around 40 people have turned up (not the hordes that invaded my dreams) , and we begin. It goes very well. We each talk for a quarter of an hour about our experience of Buddhism in the West; I lead a 20 minute meditation, and we have questions and answers. The audience are charming. Oiuna has borne the brunt of the evening, having to translate us as we go along, not something she has attempted before so publicly. She is excellent, and we are very grateful to her. We leave the building after fond farewells to our audience, and look up to take a last look at the huge poster of ourselves ( which secretly we would like to take back with us to London) - it has already been removed! The bubble of celebrity has burst.
We spend the evening watching Tom and Jerry, to unwind.

This morning we were given a tour of the copper mine, by a charming young man called Nassa, who had studied in the States and spoke passable English. Its a stupendous business extracting copper, and here everything is on a vast and superlative scale. I have seen nothing like it before, and find it very moving. Nassa is disarmingly frank about the health hazards of working here, and it seems as if health issues have not been uppermost in managers' minds until recently. We are invited to lunch at the office workers' canteen. Noticeably, there are Caucasian faces in abundance, as many Russians work here. We have become so used already to being surrounded by Mongol physiognomies. Copper is widely used in electronics, and you probably would not be able to read me now , with such ease, if not for gigantic and life-threatening operations like these at Erdenet.
We return to our flat dazed by the experience, and flattened by the copious lunch, and sleep awhile. Too soon, a taxi comes and whisks us to the outskirts of town, to the University. We are to address a class of Business students. ( Business, because they are the ones, we are told, who request outside speakers). Its a giant class of 150 youngsters, and again it goes very well. We talk very much off the cuff, and I lead another meditation, which for them is a very novel experience. Although they think of themselves as Buddhist they have no real experience of meditation, which to us seems very strange. I glance out of the window. Beyond the road that skirts the building is a great, featureless, brown hill. I imagine it in a few years' time, covered in streets and buildings as Erdenet advances inexorably into the landscape. It is already Mongolia's second city after UB. The University throbs with youth and energy.
Hardly recovered from lunch, we are invited to dinner by our two host monks, who have arranged our program here. We can hardly refuse. We are soon in a private room of a restaurant, lined in gold wallpaper, politely trying to consume our meal. The younger monk is the head of the monastery, perhaps thirty. He is the archetypal doer, and fundraiser. He has the build of a rugby player, and wears resplendent and rather flashy robes, and is constantly attending to his mobile phone, between mouthfuls. The older, and altogether gentler soul, has gently frayed cuffs, and a lovely quiet manner, with a hesitant smattering of English.
Later, and alone, we flop down to Tom and Jerry.

Tomorrow is our last day here, and then we go on safari to the wilds, in a jeep manned by Ouina's brother and brother-in-law. We will be mostly off metalled roads, and will visit the ancient Mongol capital at Karkoram and various Buddhist temples. I may be out of cyberspace for at least a week, until we return to UB.
A huge thank you to Ouina for her hospitality. Its been a huge privilege, and pleasure, staying here.

A plea for emails : I would love to know how you all are . I am aware there is an economic crisis and you are busy counting your shekels, but I want to know how things are at Goldsmiths and Edinburgh. What's up in Bow and Bethnal Green? What's happening in Devon and Kirkby Lonsdale? How are things in Primrose Hill and High Hurstwood? Blaendol House? Tayport, Fife? If you are shy to write to the blog, try me at
Happy birthday to you today, Rosalind. I think about you, and would be pleased to have news.
Bon voyage Kieran! See you next in Morocco perhaps!
Thanks 'Ronny' for your message, but who are you? Roman from Irkutsk? If so best wishes from us all!

Saturday, 18 October 2008

travelling trio hit the small screen in Erdenet

Last night we were whisked into a television studio, with a friendly local lama and our hostess/interpreter Oiuna, and interviewed LIVE on a local TV channel. This was an hors d'oeuvre to our public appearance tomorrow night at the local Palace of Culture where, before a possible audience of hundreds, we will give our thoughts on Western Buddhism. On the front of the building hangs a poster, half a mile high, with our faces on it!

But backtracking a day or two to our last afternoon in Ulan Ude.........
I spent it alone, first visiting a local Photography Museum, all abustle with a party of primary school children, full of early images of the city which grew up from the C16 on the banks of the Selenga, a mighty river which flows down from deep in Mongolia into Lake Baikal. It was a trading post on the Tea Caravan route from China to Irkutsk. Outside, an accordeon plays in the street, and I am transported into an aural/visual ecstasy. I drop my last roubles into the accordeonist's hat - 'mon semblable, mon frere'. (For those of you who do not know me too well, I play the accordeon, indifferently perhaps, but certainly with great enthusiasm). Back out on the streets I soak up the glorious late-afternoon light, and snap away with my digital camera which I am at last making friends with, after years of older technologies which I have relinquished reluctantly. I make a friend of handsome young Sergei, who, too, is snapping away , he as part of his job for an advertising agency, me as indolent tourist. He is curious about me, and engages me in conversation, in pleasantly fluent English. He turns out to be a Jehovah's witness! Siberia is full of surprises.
The next morning long before dawn we are back on the train, and chug away into Mongolia after an 8 hour wait at the border, where nothing much happens. We have masses of time to watch our single train carriage, alarmingly alone, locomotive-less, marooned at the platform. We walk into the village and have soup in a hostelry, and then back out in the street watch a crowd, a hundred yards away, coalesce into a funeral procession coming our way. We withdraw to the verges of the main street, a dusty track, as the procession straggles towards us. The whole village is out. A man leads the way with a yellow flag, and then with an electric shock we see TWO coffins, side by side and open, all draped in shocking pink and preceded by equally frilly and gaudy coffin lids. After the walking mourners have passed a truck passes from which a man throws fronds of pine onto the roadway, and then a slow cavalcade of trucks and private cars. This is a desolate place to live, and to die.
Back on the train we have another twelve hours' slow progress to Ulan Baator - henceforth UB. We sleep a couple of hours at the station hotel - our windows look straight out onto the bustling platforms. And then Oiuna comes up to greet us. Oiuna lived recently in London for four years, where she came into contact with the West London Buddhist Centre. Although an ethnic Buddhist from home, she knew little about Buddhism or meditation till she hit Ladbroke Grove! We have been in email contact for a few weeks, but have never met. She whisks us around UB, and its vast plazas and teeming streets. Its the most chaotic place we have seen so far. We pass the burnt-out premises of the Communist Party, torched only a few months ago in riots following allegations of rigged elections. The fire alas spread to the neighbouring Art Museum. No great loss architecturally, as it was the most hideous 80's building this side of the Urals, as its charred remains proclaim, but it was full of priceless and irreplaceable artefacts, gone up in smoke at the whim of the crowd. We go to various agencies to change our rail tickets to Beijing so we can stay an extra week in Mongolia. We make plans for expeditions into the outback - Oiuna's brother will take us. We have an excellent cappuccino in a cafe I'm sure we'll frequent when we return to town full of travellers' tales.
Later that night we get back on the train with Oiuna and travel for 12 hours to the town of Erdenet, NW of UB. This is where Oiuna lives, in a copper-mining town, which sprang into being amongst the desolate hills only 30 years ago, when the precious metal was first detected. Now its one of the world's biggest mines, and the raison d'etre for this town. From the station we pass miles of mined hillsides and massive installations, and then suddenly there we are in photographic splendour,our images hanging across the facade of the biggest civic building in town! Even Oiuna is taken aback. All we can do is sit back in our taxi seats and giggle.
Erdenet is a rough and ready place. For its coming 30th anniversary civic pride is bursting into action. A huge Buddha will be built on a hillside, up from a massive fountain. The town has doubled in population in the last 7 years, and stands now at 100,000. Everywhere new appartment blocks are under construction, eating away at the virgin landscapes around.
Oiuna has very kindly let us her flat for our stay here; she will stay at her brother's down the way. We feel incredibly privileged to be here. After a short sleep ( we are getting used to these strangely dislocated days and nights) we go out for a Chinese lunch, and then taxi it to a monastery up on the hill, where we converse with lamas, and make preparations for our television appearance later tonight. Next to me, petioners of all degrees come up to a table where a monk sits and chants, to order, for them. One petioner's mobile phone goes off in the middle of this transaction; she has a long chat with a friend while the monk chants on, seemingly oblivious of any interruption. Conversation concluded, the lady folds her palms again in rapt attention to the monk. A while later she leaves the temple already noisily engaged in another telephone conversation. Above Oiuna's head hangs a giant poster advertising the different mantras available, and next to them their prices. Not surprising perhaps that it was only in West London that Oiuna could connect, in a heartfelt way, with Buddhism. But the lamas are charming, and later drive us to the television studios. We enter from a desolate carpark, through a back door, into the razzmatazz of showbiz . Aquariums, potted plants, bright lights, technicians. We are in a daze of delight. We all sit at the desk, nervously sipping complimentary water, watching the monitor in front of us.....the Russian cartoon gives way to the opening credits of our live broadcast, and then there we are on screen! Oiuna is a modest but excellent interpreter, and through her we engage with the Mongolian 'grand public', sharing our thoughts on Western Buddhism and our plans for our stay in their lovely country. It seems to go very well and, after, I have my picture taken with the diminutive, giggling girl presenter. I look like a hulking bearded giant, in my moment of fame. Anything to get the crowds in tomorrow night, but to be honest I'd rather stay at home finishing Colin Thubron's excellent "In Siberia". ( I'm falling way behind with my reading, so busy and full of impressions are our days and nights.)

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

from russia with love, for the last time

We arrive in Ulan Ude at 6am and have a long walk in the freezing cold into town. I have almost given up on David's navigational skills (we seem to be about to engage with a motorway) when our hotel surges up improbably in the middle of a vast shopping centre. We rest for a little, and then head for town for our rendez-vous with Natalya who was our companion on the train. (Hello, Natalya! It was lovely to meet you, and many thanks for looking after us! Thanks too to Alex in Krasnoyarsk, who met us improbably off our 6am train - yes, another one - and took us to our appartment - happy ballroom dancing!. Thanks also to Roman in Irkutsk who helped us decipher a menu in a moment of need, and became our almost constant companion for a couple of days. Roman, you have no excuse now not to attend your lectures at University!) We meet at the foot of the largest Lenin head in all the Russias, a Lenin with decidedly Asiatic features. Another beautiful sunny day, shirtsleeve weather, spent wandering around this attractive city, capital of the autonomous Buryat republic. Asiatic faces in greater abundance. Funny how I feel more at home than with unsmiling Caucasians. We all go out of town to an open-air ethnographic museum, which apart from a desolate little zoo, is full of interest and a typical Buryat townstead, all timbers and stockades.
Yesterday we take more 'mashrutka' little buses right out of town to the Ivolginsk Datsan, a complex of Buddhist temples, and the centre of Siberian Buddhism. Shown around by shy hesitant apprentice monks with rudimentary English. In the 30's Stalin destroyed all the temples in the area, and thousands of monks were sent to the gulags. In the capricious way of demogogues and lunatics, Buddhism was allowed to resurface in 1945, when this temple complex was first built and now flourishes. At once strange and familiar, being surrounded by Buddhist iconography, in this vast plain ringed around by curious shallow hills. We rattle back to town on more buses. In the evening we dine excellently in a Buryat restaurant, surrounded by handsome Asiatics. Flop down in our spacious hotel room with all modcons.

Tomorrow we leave for Mongolia on the morning train. We are all sad to be leaving Russia, which has been full of surprise and delight, not at all like our earlier imaginings. Last impressions - endlessly tall and attractive girls in high heeled boots, four-wheel drives clogging up the roads from Minsk to Pinsk, sophisticated shopping centres full of everything we take for granted in UK, but which here still seems a surprise, excellent restaurants with smiling service, boys with beautiful cheekbones, endless pot-noodles on the trains, Siberian plains full of turning birches, and brooding ambiguously over it all, Lenin in his marble mausoleum, deathly pale against black and red marbles. What does he make of it all? Next posting from Ulan Baator.
Greetings to all.
ps. Kieran please write - I don't think I have your current email.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

quickie from Irkutsk

Waiting for the train, back in Irkutsk
We had a few glorious sunny days
on the banks of Lake Baikal. Baikal, be warned, will one day split Siberia in two to become the world's fifth Ocean!
Today is hot in Irkutsk, but we have had snow flurries and hard ice in the mornings.
More from our next destination, Ulan Ude.
I am starved of the Guardian, so please someone write and tell us how things are back home!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

news from Irkutsk

I wept through the first act of Coppelia - not a ballet usually eliciting tears, just a confection of froth. I weep at the strangeness of it all, and the music touches the heart. Half the old city was rased in 1930 to make space for the largest opera house in all Russia, and a gigantic Lenin Square. Classical ballet, descended from the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, survived and even flourished through the ghastly Stalin years, and here we were in a vast auditorium, ringed by classical statuary(I saw at least two armless Venus de Milos) and surrounded by balletomane children, and their doting mums.The music speaks across the cultural divides. The main waltz tune is one I often whistle unconsciously, and drive people mad, and can even play on my accordeon.
As soon as the final curtain is down we sprint across Lenin Square to pick up our bags and bundle into a taxi bound for the station. However, as soon as we have loaded all our bags into the boot, the taxi spontaneously self-locks! The driver seems as surprised as we do. Murderous thoughts fly up unbidden, and we jam his skinny arm through a tiny crack in the window till bruisedly he can reach the keys.
We travel through the night to Krasnoyarsk in the company of a banker with Societe Nationale, on his way home to Chita. In this city we have our own little appartment in the centre. We spend a pleasant day roaming in a National Park, Stolby, full of volcanic peaks and charming nuthatches and tits that eat calmly out of our hands. Our guide is a rather fearful Natalia, who speaks excellent English, but is rather scared of bears and has brought her athletic younger brother along for protection. (We saw on the previous night's news that a bear has been seen on the outskirts, and attacked a pensioner.)
We travel on to Irkutsk where we arrive at 6a.m. and wait in a daze for a taxi to turn up. Miraculously it does and transports us to our homestay with a family and their pets,a dog, a cooing dove and white rabbit.
Rested, we venture out into beautiful sunshine and charming streets. We stroll along Lenin and have lunch on Karl Marx. We search out a synagogue mentioned in our guide, long-since closed it says and transformed into a furniture store. We turn a corner and there it stands, but spanking new paintwork, and signs of building. We go in and there are JEWS in debate! We are warmly welcomed and Rita, an elderly lady with excellent english and many gold teeth, shows us around proudly. She is originally from Baku at Azerbaijan, but things got tricky there in the 90's and she emigrated here with her husband and daughter. I shed more tears.
In the evening we go to a Russian circus in purpose built arena, and see more animals than at a zoo - bears, pelicans, horses, racoons, camels, doves, monkeys, ten breeds of dogs inter al. I watch it all through an asthmatic haze, wheezing and sneezing. Is it the animals, or an ancient fear of being dragged up on the stage by a sinister clown, which dogged my chilhood in circus and pantomime?
Tomorrow we leave for Lake Baikal.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

more of lenin

Scarier than the ghost ride at Gorky park funfair the previous day was descending into the Leader's mausoleum on Red Square. We descended into a penumbra down dark marble steps. At corners lurked motionless soldiers in those ludicrously large caps, who came into action as we approached, ushering us round corners and further into the gloom, chastising us if need be for talking too loudly. Then we ascend into a large airless toplit hall full of unearthly light, and lined in darkest marble, the gloom slashed by a red marble flash that streaks like lightning around the walls - more vivid admittedly in the postcard than in the fact. At the centre a huge catafalque on which lies Lenin, unearthly pale, in a black suit, one pale hand in a fist, the other open. Although later Joanna claimed she saw glass around the catafalque, I saw none, and was amazed at the 'presence' of this corpse and that it existed in the same space as me. I lingered too long, jaw dropped open, and was shooed along by the was a relief to come out into the fresh air and the present tense. Opposite the mausoleum stands the palace that is the GUM department store, now full of western franchises and labels. Here you can shop till you drop on Versace and Hugo Boss inter al. We contented ourselves with a cappucino and marvelled at the shopping crowds. How Russia has moved on. Our fears , born of growing up in the Cold War, begin to melt. People are very friendly, and are no longer the ogres of our fancy. There are some stunning lookers too, with legs 6 foot long and slender as young birches.

Yesterday Joanna had her dark hair cropped short and bleached. She looks like Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle where she played the gangster's companion opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo. She was the prototype for many 'gamine' girls in the 60's. Neither David nor I quite have Belmondo's looks, but it gives us a frisson to accompany her down the boulevards. My own hirsute efforts are directed at growing my beard like the last Czar's - but perhaps that's not too auspicious. I read a few years ago that Seberg was found gassed in her own car on a Paris boulevard.

In Ekatarinburg we came across a lovely Photography Museum in a little wooden palace, that had been a photographers shop for over a century, as old pictures of the town attested. Piaf was playing to accompany the exhibition of Robert Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson, and more local photographers, and the charming lady on the desk spoke Polish; for a moment it felt as though the Urals had melted away and Europe was not so far away.
Tonight after the ballet we go further East to Krasnoyarsk, a 12 hour ride, our shortest yet.
We will be sorry to leave Novosibirsk, a great city that started out as a station by the Ob just over a century ago, in the middle of nowhere.