Wednesday, July 28, 2010

subsidiary statistics

I weighed myself on arrival, and after a shower, and more recently. Pleased to report that weight loss during shower was within experimental error, and since have discovered a rather awesome burger joint in town.

Yesterday seemed rather patriotic as I tried to get documents in order to organise a postal vote from Kamchatka (is that a record) for the federal election, and made anzac biscuits, which work rather well even without all the ingredients.

Today I visited several museums, the highlight of which was the permafrost research institute, where a cute grad student named Sasha showed me their large walk in freezer. It's actually a series of tunnels carved out of the permafrost 12m underground, where the temperature is always -10C. The biggest surprise is that permafrost (in this area anyway) is only 5% water by mass, about 30% air, and the rest silicates and organic material (ie dirt). That means that, while frozen, it is not usually solid and can actually be dug, etc. I suspect permafrost on Mars is similar, if only due to aeons of sublimation.

In the afternoon Yulya and Anya found a piano for me in a disused room of a night-club, and I played the pieces I could remember for them, sometimes wearing a moose costume hat. Why? You will have to wait! I played Cataract of Lodore, Day 5, SHM, Alkan's Barcarolle, Danse Macabre, and parts of Godowsky's transcription of Chopin Op. 10/12 (which I could remember). I also sang parts of west side story, old man river, and the first 10 bars of Vaughan William's Songs of Travel. It was, apparently, well recieved. For a country that produces so many excellent pianists, I have met very few musicians.

Anya and Egor work for Sakha Internet, and live in a friendly, fun office environment. They constantly run promotions and competitions, for instance, to name two rats that live in the office. The current front runner names are 'Bruce' and 'Peter'. I think. Not sure about Peter. Another promotion is to film something silly, so after the piano we went to the Yakutsk city park, I dressed as a moose, ate flowers, and was destroyed by Anya (dressed as the girl from Kick-Ass) wielding a katana and pistol. Obviously everything was sufficiently fake, except the water pistol, which was real. (It shot real water).

After I'd got nabbed by the police for running through flower beds and eating flowers and stuff, I met some friends of friends, one of whom was a tattooed professional 'bich' or aimless man (so he said) who was riding a quad bike from Vladivostok to Anadyr (including >1000km of roadless driving) as part of the celebrations of 65 years since the end of the Great Patriotic War (or WW2).

On the internet this evening I found I had received Russian Bride spam, which I thought was particularly hilarious.

Now I must buy 2 weeks supply of sugary biscuits to get me through to Magadan. The best information I have is that the trip can easily be accomplished in a week, so I'll probably spend a few days making side trips to places of interest. I have little desire to spend 10 days in Magadan!

For those of you wondering where on Earth '...tsk' is, I'll make a map for you:,+%D1%80%D0%B5%D1%81%D0%BF%D1%83%D0%B1%D0%BB%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%B0+%D0%A1%D0%B0%D1%85%D0%B0+(%D0%AF%D0%BA%D1%83%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%8F),+%D0%A0%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D1%8F&ll=62.021528,129.814453&spn=23.559573,93.076172&t=h&z=4

Aren't I clever!

Additionally, attempts to disable the flash on my camera to preserve power (the unit is faulty) have been unsuccessful, so I purchased 14 batteries.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Half way and stats

Today is, I think, the halfway point of my trip. 39/77. So far I've covered a lot of km, mostly by plane to Beijing.

To update the blog, yesterday I went back to Anya's to cook dinner for her and some friends, but her mother strongly discouraged me from leaving and cooked a wonderful dinner instead. Today I will attempt anzac biscuits, since they requested Australian food. Today I visited the Yakutsk museum, which is actually pretty good. There's a whale skeleton out the front, maybe a whale swum up the river one day? The only other excitement was sending a postal vote request to Moscow for the upcoming election, during which time I'll be in Kamchatka. I have not found another Australian to verify my identity, but apparently this is not necessary under difficult circumstances. I think mine qualify!

Travel statistics: (Some...).
I took 10 trains in Russia, average time about 10 hours, average distance 600km. Slow trains are cheap trains. Total cost was about $284 Australian dollars, which shames long distance trains in the US and Australia! For nearly every leg I had a sleeping berth with bedding, though no door.

BAM stats! As promised, here's the details everyone has been hankering after. The BAM project was to link the Lena river port of Ust-Kut with the Amur river port of Komsomolsk-na-Amur, with short branch lines from Tynda north to the coal mine at Neryungri (and by 2020 maybe Yakutsk!) and south to the Trans-Siberian Railway at Chita. (I think).

Total length: 3097.6km (mostly single track)
Length of sidings, yards, and passing loops: 445km
No. of urban cites: 100
No. of cities built: 3
No. BAM workers (not including the military) in 1981: 40000. In 1988: 60000.
Percentage of workers under 30 in 1984: 75%.
Length of embankments: 2446.9km
Length of embankments higher than 12m: 59.9km
No. of embankments built on swamps or marshes: 640
Length of excavations deeper than 12m: 112.2km
Length of excavations in permafrost: 196km
Length of excavations with angle greater than 1:3: 122km
No. small bridges: 844. Total length: 17.7km
No. medium bridges: 638. Total length: 31.3km
No. large bridges: 113. Total length: 22.8km
No. tunnels: 6. Total length: 31.7km. NB. The cape tunnel at Baikal is actually four closely spaced tunnels.
Greatest altitude of line: 1300m
Deepest permafrost: 600m.
Total number of structures built excluding bridges: 2600
Quantity of earth moved: 570 million cubic metres
Number of vehicles supplied 1975-1977: 13000 large trucks, 1100 excavators, 2000 bulldozers, 1200 mobile cranes. Most were scrapped after a single season due to maintenance costing twice the cost price!
Total budget (according to soviets) US$11 billion (1984 dollars).
Estimated actual cost of labour, materials, etc in a market economy: $30 billion (1984 dollars).
In the original budget, 10% was set aside for unforseen costs, and 15% for rebuilding shoddy or permafrost affected work. 25% budget pad!

As it happens, building on permafrost is really tricky, as it moves a lot! Under pressure it liquefies and subsides, and in spring and autumn can squeeze dirt everywhere. The native Yakuts have many words for the peculiar formations that can occur.

I have had difficulty organising a hydrofoil as part of the trip, which is too bad. I think I'm still doing okay on the luck stakes. I attempted to upload photos, but while the internet is okay, the net cafes are quite difficult to use. Since my last upload (half way through Mongolia), I have taken around 2000 photos, though!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Big trucks, the first kitch-hitch, and the worst road in the world.

My last post left me sleepless in Tynda at 5am as the day's first light began to show. I made a brief return to the blue metal chairs to try and sleep, even going so far as to prop my wallet under my ribs for cushioning, thus attempting to sleep on a big pile of cash. Obviously I was too poor, because I didn't sleep at all. I bought a small potato and cabbage pastie from the cafe for breakfast, then packed and prepared to explore the city for a few hours with Katya, the geologist I had met the previous day.
It being 6am I wasn't sure who we would meet. Tynda is a town built on a hill top, in which the usual soviet apartment blocks serve to create wide avenues. Climbing one of these we met two slightly wired people who said 'travellers!' and immidiately offered us a smoke. After a quick chat, we continued past Arbat market (Tynda was built by Moscovites, and if that makes no sense, too bad). Soon we were passed by a slightly tipsy man on a very shiny bicycle, wearing pinstripe suit pants, dress shoes, and carrying a box of cat food. We later had a chat - he was rather friendly. Soon enough we found our objective, a large steel statue of an androgynous rail worker with an enormous sledgehammer. We clambered all over the plinth to get photos in the early morning light, then were greeted by a rather fat man who introduced himself as an ex-journalist. He told us that the foundations of many factories (icecream, amongst other things) could be found in the fields outside town. These green-field sites were abandoned in favour of existing industrial sites in European Russia during perestroika, and the town has shrunk ever since. He wore on his shirt a pin with the face of Kim Il Sung, the deceased but continuing president and great leader of the DPRK. He was an adherent of the slightly zany philosophy of Juche, which stresses self reliance, the ability to control and improve ones destiny through allegiance to the leader, etc. I am no expert.
Returning to the station we found a see-saw disguised as a matroshka doll. The train was late, I finished my nutella, and we said farewell. I took the train to Neryungri, a coal mining town. I slept heavily on the train, then found the next compartment had a french couple (the woman was Russian, but spoke French). My french is pretty aweful, but that didn't stop us from speaking in Frussian for a while. The man bore a passing resemblance to a well known french film director currently 'residing' in Switzerland, though I was not entirely sure why they had travelled from Paris to Neryungri.
I arrived, and with the help of the French couple, found a cheap hotel (the guide being thoroughly out-of-date, then walked around town. At the NW end, I snuck into an apartment block and climbed to the top to get a view over one of the largest coal mines in the world. The open pit mine is up to 300m deep, though there are about 5 peripheral smaller pits and an underground section as well. I took a taxi to the entrance of the mine, darted off to the side, and in rather... functional... russian explained to the guards that I'd come to see the mine truck maintenance shed. After a short wait I was given a red helmet and ushered through the door. They told me that they earned about 1AUD/hour to guard the entrance. Being hot, their shirts were unbuttoned, but that was no concern. Soon I was walking on ground regularly trampled by 200 tonne mining goliaths. The dim of the workshop (about the size of a large aircraft hanger) contrasted with the light outside as several trucks in varying states of disassembly or repair seemed to hunch in the shadows. The mine uses maybe 1000 large vehicles, mainly Russian Belaz, American Drosser, and Japanese Humatshi (?). I climbed all over them, had a good look at the controls, and otherwise fulfilled every last remaining boy-hood fantasy. This was seriously cool. The drive train is actually electric, so they're hybrid cars, which means I get tax breaks if I drive them in California. Hehehehe!
Turns out 'from Australia' is the best free ticket I've ever had.
I hitched back to town (all roads lead there), then made contact with a friend of a friend who lives there. Soon enough I was hungry, and offered to cook him and his family dinner, which I did, thus performing the first kitchen-hitch of this trip, but hopefully not the last. I should learn the Russian for 'I have ingredients, but need a kitchen - do you want dinner?'. I had to rush away to meet the French couple at a club in town, where they helped me crash a wedding going on. Everyone was dressed up and having a good time, this town is one of the most prosperous I have seen so far. The music was loud, but the food was excellent, and soon enough the man took a microphone and crooned several French classics, which was somewhat bizarre. Following more than enough smoked salmon and disco lasers, I departed to the hotel, where I had a bed and a hot shower, but no locking door (cheap!). Some day I'll manage the trifector.
Next morning I woke before six, checked out, and walked to the station. All the taxis were already there waiting for a coming train, so I arrived too late to organise a lift to Yakutsk, and caught a train to Tommot instead. The train was inhabited by a strange old red-headed man (actually very nice), and several insolent screaming children, which put a damper on my plans to sleep some more. They got off at Aldan, so the last 2 hours of the trip, while slow, were at least quiet.
I arrived at Tommot in pouring rain, found a bus going the right way, and got on. The ride from Tommot to Yakutsk is on the M56, a road publicised widely a few years ago as the 'worst road in the world', owing to its unpleasant habit of liquefying in wet conditions and swallowing tens of vehicles without a trace. Aside from a few pinches where the road was being rebuilt, it was one of the best roads I've seen this trip, and certainly the best sealed one. 10 hours of sparse taiga drifted by either window. We stopped in Tommot town for non existent passengers, in Amga for chocolate, in Uluu for borscht (my first, I think, and rather nice), and in Kachikatsy for more passengers before taking the ferry. At the ferry the sun was setting (about 11pm), we were the third last vehicle, so departed rather quickly. I found the Yakut girl who had got on spoke reasonable english, so we chatted about school, uni, and life in the far-east.
At about 1:30 in the morning we arrived in Yakutsk (I thought the driver had said the hour of 9 or 10 (ie pm), but he probably said 9 or 10 hours. The difference is about one letter.). Anya, the CSer, was awake, greeted me, showed me a bed and hot water (no locking door, luckily), and even heated up some dinner for me. I think I landed in heaven!
This morning I awoke to find her mum had cooked me soup for breakfast (yum!). I also found the hatch to the roof open, so climbed onto the top of an unfenced 8 story apartment block to look around. All the buildings in Yakutsk are built on pillars to try and preserve the integrity of the permafrost. It was founded in 1632, so is one of the oldest, largest, and coldest cities I've visited so far. Today it was only 32 degrees!
I wandered around the city, met Anya and some friends for lunch, and then skimmed broken concrete on an industrial tailings pond next to the river. With some success, I might add. Soon, I'll return home to cook dinner. Unfortunately the man in Neryungri knows Anya and warned her about the pasta, so I'll have to cook something else. Oh noes!!!
In the next fews days I'll explore the city, museums, etc, then depart for Oimyakon.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

sneaky 24 hours in sydney time

Well, I'm back in Sydney time! A lot has happened in the last 48 hours, so
this post will be very dehydrated!

I left Severobaikalsk in Obschiy (unreserved train), in this case an old
kupe carriage, mainly with locals over short distances and railway workers.
Opposite me was a man with an interesting tattoo and large scar on his face
who looked a bit scary, but turned out to be very friendly. I was
microsleeping, so lay in the top bunk to watch Baikal disappear. The train
went up over the mountains and eventually I fell asleep. I awoke twice in
the night - once in the Severomuisk tunnel (a 25 year building project just
finished, 16km tunnel), and once as we passed a large forest fire, visible
for quite some time and very interesting.

The train arrived in Novaya Chara and terminated, I got off. I found the
hotel booked out, so wandered around town in my backpack, sneaking into
half-built apartment buildings populated with broken glass, the abandoned
hospital, and visiting the museum (with exhibitions on animals, including a
deer with fangs, the indigenous people, gulags, BAM construction, what the
town might have looked like, etc). In the street I saw a man amble towards
me, a large (but healing) wound above his right eye. Anatoly was surprised
to hear I was a solo traveller, 22, from Australia, and gave me an apple,
which was pretty good. I later found all the fruit in the shop was black,
so I probably had the best apple in the valley. Thanks Anatoly!

Returning to town I found a new(er) hospital, and had a look around. Their
dental equipment was modern. The main attraction in Chara (and the reason I
stopped there) is a mysterious set of sand dunes about 6km from the station
(built by Kazakhs, incidentally), in the middle of Siberia on 600m of
permafrost. I set off in a westerly direction, but after an hour of walking
on a dirt road in 35 degree heat decided to cut my losses and try a
different route. Walking back to town along the train tracks, I met two
guys in a workers car on a freight train, with whom I had tea and discussed
the merits of Russian women, helped by several large visual aids decorating
their kitchen area.

Back in town I went to the hotel, and found they could find me a room, but
would charge a lot of money. I decided the excess was worth it for a
shower, ditched my bag and dictionary, and caught a cab East to Staraya
Chara, a sleepy town left over from Stalin forced collectivisation. Summer
frosts ruined that plan, but the taxi left me next to a narrow track that
wound SW through swamp, taiga, and across a (crotch - 5cm) deep river,
adorned with frogs, mosquitos and butterflies to the sanddunes. They were
amazing. The view to the kodar mountains (impossibly craggy, like some
non-differentiable functions I have known and loved) was obscured by
bushfire smoke, giving the impression of being in a genuine desert. After a
while I strapped my sandals back on and returned, feeding only about 2L of
my blood to mosquitos who haven't heard that DEET is a neurotoxin for

I hitched back to Novaya (new) Chara and headed straight for the shop,
availing myself of some liquid diabetes (orange in colour), and surveying
more than a few boxes of unsalable food... back outside I saw a man
swearing in English, who turned out to be a Chilean mining engineer, with
about 7 others (also geologists) developing a copper mine (udokan) in the
region. Including an Australian (Mike). I hung with them for the evening,
which was great fun. They thought I was crazy, probably in general.

I returned to the hotel at about midnight (it was starting to get dark) and
realised for the first time in 35 days I had a room with a door with a
lock, so washed some clothes and had a shower. In this case the hot tap
ran, but hot was purely in the mind. Maybe it was half a degree warmer? Had
a pleasant sleep in a bed (another novelty - I write this at 4am in Tynda
railway station), before waking the next morning and packing. At this point
I realised my migration card was missing. This is unlikely to cause
problems for me until I leave, but cause problems it did for the women at
the counter (who had so gleefully named their price the day before).

Later on the train I unpacked everything and found the wretched postage
stamp sized form, so was the fright worth the inconvenience to some of the
few people I've found willing to enjoy legal robbery? Definitely. Overall,
a killer 24 hours.

I settled in on the train with a railway worker and his 2 year old son (our
Russian skills were roughly comparible... :( ), and at a 45 minute stop in
Khani, ran into another traveller, this time wielding a camera (dead
givaway). Kate was a geologist freshly graduated from Moscow, going to feed
mozzies at a Tungsten/Molybdenum ore site for a month. Bizarrely, we had
several friends in common ( and spent the better
part of the next 14 hours talking. Right now she's sleeping. I was feeding
mosquitos, so sniffed out some internet instead. Soon I'll explore Tynda
before taking off north into Sakha.

The rest of the train trip was uneventful. For the first time this trip, a
rainy day. Endless forests, rivers, and mountains, spectacular scenery, and
hobbits frolicking to and fro (I hoped...).

When I said the BAM had hundreds of tunnels, I didn't realise the number is
closer to six, though one is a group of 4 closely spaced ones next to
Baikal. A future post will contain a summary with lots of numbers for those
so inclined.

Particular highlights - sand dunes. WTF! Mind blowing. NB: the phrase 'eyes
dropped out' doesn't translate into Russian.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


A lapse rate of 1/6th of a degree a metre corresponds to 166 degrees a km, not 600. Senior's moment... This is only a factor of 16 more than the naturally occuring rate.

I forgot to say

It was a long post! I left some stuff out.

Because of ground subsidence problems, all the buildings in Nizhneangarsk are wood and 2 stories, the town is very long and skinny, maybe 20km long and 200m wide on the narrow strip between steep mountains and marsh. Also, the center of BAM building moved to Severobaikalsk (previously meant only as a temporary worker's settlement), and it's now a large city. At first glance, the soviet blocks appear like any others. On second glance, they resemble those of central asia. Built with lots of corners to withstand powerful earthquakes, they also lack adaptations to cold climates (central asia is hot) such as a balcony to store food in in winter. Many places have small window boxes to store stuff in, but I imagine if you had a fishing line you could get a free dinner from the floor below. The whole city was only built since 1976, and largely finished by 1984 probably.Apartments are built to enclose large central courtyards with play equipment. In winter less snow accumulates. There are short stairs to nowhere for people to throw their garbage into the back of the truck.

I can't remember if I forgot anything else.

Lakes east and west

Following my last update, this is what occurred:

I stumbled from the darkened internet cafe in Taishet following a rather large and excellent dinner. Their names reminded me of the old joke; did you ever meet Volga or Nastya? They were two girls from Siberia (and these are actual names). Once you got to know them, Nastya was actually rather vulgar, though Volga was nastier than Nastya. I could go on...

I sat in the waiting room and waited for it to get dark so I could go outside and look for Venus (easy), Saturn, and Mars, all of which are in a line. Unfortunately at this latitude and time of year, it never gets dark, so I have to rely on 'Thunderf00t' on youtube for important information. Outside the temperature fell to 16 degrees as freight trains rattled past, mosquitos buzzed around, and a TV blared a Russian dubbed version of 'The Island' (the crappy 1980 horror film, not the one with Scarlett Johansen). Eventually (4am, as scheduled) the train turned up and I found my berth, made the bed, and fell asleep. This time the obligatory corpulent woman apparently drank coke and something serious in her sleep, and was probably incontinent, judging by the smell. Usually the platzcart carriages take a few days to really stink, but this one had only come from Krasnoyarsk, about 9 hours away (I think).

No matter, I was too tired, and slept well. Woke up in the morning, made some breakfast (biscuits and chocolate), and about midday arrived in Bratsk. I had some difficulty contacting the couchsurfer there, so I bought a ticket that evening, and walked out (with my bag) and caught a bus towards the suburb of Energetik (hard g) and the dam. I went too far, but caught a bus back, getting twice the view. Once again, I walked back to the spillway, which is at least 100m high, maybe much higher. It was difficult to judge. The Bratsk sea itself is hundreds of km long. I crossed the road, dodging broken glass in my chinese sandals, and made my way down to the beach. Tiny dogs are very popular in Bratsk, and there were a few at the beach. Also, it seems, topless sunbathing has at least a few adherents, but again, not enough to make me homesick! Some way further down the beach, I was savaged by a dog that was about 10 inches long (tickled a bit), and as I was walking past 5 schoolgirls, finally someone said hi. Normally I only speak Russian on trains (captive audience) or to ask questions, but these girls were quite chatty, and with minimal dictionary work we chatted for about half an hour. The thing I found most difficult to understand (linguistically, at any rate) was their supposition that I looked like an actor. I thought not, but was flattered. Later, they asked if I liked twilight (pronounced doalit in Russian) and when I said 'my sister does', they then made the connection. They had thought (presumably from a great distance) that I was Robert Pattinson. I don't know if that's a win or an FML? I skimmed a few obligatory rocks, then turned back towards the buildings.

I wandered through the city between large prefabricated Russian apartments (fitted together like Lego) and eventually a technition explained that I was using the wrong number for phones on a different provider, etc etc etc. I fixed some numbers and got in touch with the couchsurfer Dasha, who it turns out, lived in central Bratsk, about 30 minutes away. No problem, I was an old hand at Bratsk marshrutka's (private buses licensed for public routes and cheap!!!). Soon we met. Dasha thought that I needed more walking in 35 degree heat carrying my backpack, so I got a tour of a new (50 year old) designed industrial town complex carved from the taiga, seeing many monuments, fountains, and other fancy stuff, and occasionally finding some shade to rest in. If I hadn't been covered in the grime of 3 trains, I would probably be very badly sunburnt. Also, I had cleaned up a bit, even shaving on the train with hot water from the boiler and a mirror made from an old hard-drive. So ghetto. Like when I sewed up my jeans, the provodnitsa was slightly bewildered, but also impressed.

Soon enough time expired and I made my way back to Padunski Perogi station. The marshrutka driver stopped, said the name of the station and vaguely pointed in the right direction. Having previously remembered the location of the station with respect to a timber mill and its two distinctive smoke stacks, I was okay. All I had to do was cross about 12 sets of tracks in the shunting yard then walk about a k down the line to the station. Lucky trains only leave 10 times a day! There was plenty of room to dodge as well. Once at the station I charged my phone, bought a rather uninspiring packet of Lays chips, and waited for the train. This time I was in berth 44, which is a short one next to a window across the corridor. Opposite me was a family of Uzbeks from Tajikstan, the father of whom works in textiles in Tynda. He and his wife, though of normal height, were rather slender - they slept side by side in a single berth without falling out.

Next morning I woke in time to stick my head out the window as the train wound up between very tall mountains, forest, and rivers, and then down towards Lake Baikal. As an engineering achievement, the BAM is on par with the English Channel Tunnel (maybe even better), and involves hundreds of tunnels, passes, river crossings, building on permafrost, etc etc. Finished just before Perestroika, it will probably not reach full utility for some time. Today I saw a slogan on a railway building shed in Severobaikalsk which said something like 'BAM, the building is each our biographies', probably with a connotation of immortality and legacy as well. Most of the people who live in the area now came here to build the railway, and have stayed despite the lack of work since. Different sections were built by different ethnic groups, many from central Asia, so each station has its own special architecture, normally in a fairly heroic style. Severobaikalsk station resembles a breaking wave.

I arrived, met the couchsurfer (and his charming girlfriend), and went back to their place. I took a shower (oh sweet relief), washed some clothes, etc. There was enough hot water to lather my hair, but not quite enough to rinse. Fortunately, I'm very tough. I went to the shops and bought ingredients for the usual dinner, which I cooked that evening to universal acclaim. Somewhere in between I talked my way into a kiddies music school (currently on holidays), located a grand piano and played as much as I could remember (alas not much), the first piano since Beijing (and that wasn't much good). There was enough for me to have fourths! In the meantime, however, we took a quick trip to the beach, where I skimmed rocks. This was besides the point, however, as I was standing knee deep in the largest, deepest, oldest, etc body of fresh water in the world. The sky merged with the surface of the water, right down to my ankles. Visible on the opposite shore was a chain of large mountains, easily 60kms away, but clear as day, seemingly floating in space. At that height, the horizon should be about 10km away, but the opposite shore was visible. Today, I crunched the numbers for this, but more later. The beach was lovely, and the outlook spectacular. Okay, so I haven't seen an ocean in over a month (today marks 32 days on the road), but still. Did I mention the water was mirror smooth, until I started throwing rocks in. One rock got 15 skips, but my technique has been a bit off ever since Lake St Clair in Tasmania last January. If it was ever on.

That evening we talked until 1am, and exhausted, fell into sleep. I slept on the floor (as usual), but this lino was the hardest yet. Did I mention that cooking was a challenge because the kitchen is rather under equipped - just one spoon, knife, and fork! This morning we awoke at about 10am (when travelling, every night is a Friday, every day is a Saturday), and I cooked a breakfast of omelette with 7 eggs, every spice in the kitchen, and saltanas. We left, I bought mobile credit, then found the cultural palace, in which I hoped to find a piano. No luck, but I found a large greenhouse (winter garden) with a wide variety of unlikely plants to find in a town only 30 years old in the middle of Asia, like American cactuses and banana palms and stuff. Also, the BAM museum had relocated to the same building and I recieved an incomprehensible tour regarding tunnel building, propaganda, lake baikal ecology and geography, and no mention of lives lost on the endeavour.

After this I took a marshrutka to the nearby town of Nizhneangarsk (which means bottom of the Angara). This is odd, as it's at the point where the angara flows into Baikal, later it continues via Irkutsk to the Yenisey, and thence to the Arctic ocean, part of the fifth longest river in the world. This town was planned as a middle point of the railway, so that it could be built in both directions without waiting for the link from Bratsk. To this end, a large port was built and several large buildings started. In a good example of an epic fail, the railway line arrived at the port from Bratsk as the port was finished, and the large prefab lego concrete buildings began sinking into the marshy delta almost immediately. I found the hospital building, abandoned in 1993 after it sank too deep in the marsh. I had a wander through the ruined vandalised building. It seems it functioned also as a tuberculosis sanatorium. Following the closure of the hospital, it moved to the hotel, and as I thus had nowhere to stay, I had to find a bus back to Severobaikalsk. The bus to Nizhneangarsk was memorable for the fantastic view and there being at least 10 emergency exits in a bus with only 8 rows of seats. The bus back (after a few hours of trying to find it) was memorable for a woman sitting at the back with a black and almost entirely hairless (except for whiskers and ends of ears) tiny dog. Wow.

Arriving back in Severobaikalsk, I bought some juice to recharge water and sugar, chilled for a while (reading my dictionary for kicks - only word I don't know so far (in English) is plaice. I know what it is now...). I walked to the beach, skimmed some rocks, sat and watched the lake. It occured to me then, about the crazy effect of the other shore being visible. What happens is that cold air near the surface of the lake is denser and has a greater refractive index, bending the light in accordance with the curvature of the earth. A back-of-the-envelope calculation is quite easy. The path length difference is directly proportional to the ratio of the respective radii. That is, for light at the surface and one metre higher, the path length ratio is 1/6000km, or one part in 6 million. The refractive index of air (according to Wolfram Alpha) at 23 degrees is 1.00026543 and at 24 degrees is 1.00026451. The difference is about 1 part in a million. Thus to achieve the required degree of curvature, so that the ground appears flat and the horizon at infinity, the temperature lapse rate should be 1/6th of degree per metre, or 600 degrees per km. The natural lapse rate, due to adiabatic expansion in tropospheric convection cells, is about 10 degrees/km, but if the earth's atmosphere were just a bit different, maybe the world really would look flat. Of course, near the surface of the lake, this lapse rate is more than achievable, and is responsible for, in effect, a reverse mirage occuring. In antarctica, the effect is well known, and if objects are on the ice for reference, the ground sometimes appears to curve upwards like a giant bowl. Distant ocean far beyond the natural horizon sometimes appears in the sky, often greatly distorted. Back to Baikal - with this in mind, I used wind ripples on the surface from a good vantage point nearby - the surface of the lake really does appear convex, and as the lapse rate is not perfect nor uniform, multiple images of the beach on the opposite shore exist at different heights and in different directions. My brain hurts.

Yura (CSer) reappeared and began to cook dinner. 3 hours later I think it is nearly ready. Tomorrow I will catch a train to Novaya Chara and explore the area between the Kodar mountains. Unfortunately the Akulan gulag is beyond my public transport capabilities to reach, so I'll have to track one down later in Kolyma. There are abandoned cities there which once had 20000 people (or 15 large soviet blocks, a bus station, a mine, and wooden temporary housing), I look forward to finding them. Likewise, I'll take a hydrofoil up the Aldan river.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Since my last post, I wound things up in Novosibirsk and headed for the railway station. On the way I had an expensive meal of microwaved chips for dinner (just like central) and stuck my head inside the foyer of the Hotel Novosibirsk, which confirmed plenty of Kitsch, and not much else.

The train was platzcart and I nailed berth no 35, the shortest in the train (about 5 feet), and next to the toilet. No matter, I slept well. In the morning, I arrived to a sunny 30 degrees in Krasnoyarsk, a city I last saw about 3 and a half years ago in the middle of winter. I ran around trying to get a ticket on a train to Bratsk (engaging in the unique soviet art of strategic queueing) in the marble palace that is the Krasnoyarsk Train Station (Vokzal). Assertaining that there were no places on train no 78 to Neryungri, I caught a bus into the city center (bag and all), and made a quick circuit of the hotel (no devoid of adopting americans), the opera theatre, the bridge, the Egyptian Revival Architecture state museum, and even snuck into a church in my shorts and thongs, before being unceremoniously asked to leave. The river (the Yenisey) is, as I remembered, enormous, possibly 1km across or more even thousands of kms from the sea, and naturally fully navigable!

Soon enough time was up and I took a bus back to the station, then, after finding no spoons in the various souveneir shops, made my way to the appropriate platform, located the head provodnitsa, and taxed my Russian to the limit to find a berth on the train to Taishet. I had since discovered that this train goes to Neryungri (a big coal mine where I'll be in a week or so) via the little BAM, not the big BAM, and Bratsk is on the big BAM. (If you don't understand BAM, google it. Possibly Baikal Amurskaya Magistral might get less porn). Luckily the provodnitsa said 'da' and I was found a place in Kupe (four share compartments) for the 8 hour trip to Taishet. In my compartment was the obligatory corpulent middle aged woman, an old man who was shirtless (displaying 3 or 4 nipples amongst other possibly benign melanomas) and smelt worse than me (woohoo, I'm in the clear), and an overweight middle-aged man with one of the first cold sores I've seen so far on this trip. Last time (in winter) about 1 in 4 people had them.

For lunch I attempted to make rice two-minute-noodle-style, with limited success. I ate about half a bowl of rather crunchy rice (like little teeth, or micro biscuits, I tried to imagine), then washed it down with a bowl of tea, and finally, a packet of biscuits in nutella (now that's a winner). It turned out the old guy (shirtless) was a maths lecturer from Irkutsk university (so the unwashed-ness fits), supposedly in the area of complex functional analysis. He seemed baffled, however, by my loving rendition of the Reimann-Zeta Function, and even an integration of a Gaussian. In the 60s the Russians were inventing solitons... Later, the two men in the compartment got into a heated discussion about politics, but my language skills precluded understanding or participation, so I walked to the end of the compartment and stuck my head out the window for about 10km. The landscape was rolling hills, regrowth forest, and dual electrified track (all 9000km of it). The smell was vernal, just lovely. A huge contrast from the last trip. The train rolled on, occasionally passed by freight trains carrying wood, coal, oil, or containers, sometimes more than 200 carriages. I lost count.

Eventually the train rolled into Taishet, I said my goodbyes, and set about finding the timetable and ticket office. The timetable was on an antiquated (red and black) digital display board in abbreviated Russian, so it took a few minutes to decypher. About 3 trains a day leave the station going in the direction I want, and the next one was in 9 hours. Or so I thought. I went to the ticket office, remembered the Russian word for next (byudyushchiy) and got a ticket on the train for the next morning. I even nailed berth number 35 again. w00t! (The upper berths are a little longer as one can stick one's head into the window recess for two extra inches.) As the office was not busy I had a quick chat with the girls in the window, using my passport as a prop to demonstrate Australian animals (best foreign policy decision ever - to print the passport like that).

Following that I threw my bagpack on and walked into town. Taishet was built on the transiberian railroad, and now is the junction with the BAM, so is relatively trafficked. It seems populated entirely with gopniks, so on average they're quite nice. I watched a pretty good volleyball match for a while, swatted mosquitos, and walked further from the setting sun. The town's two traffic lights blinked orange perpetually, and nothing seemed to have been built for at least 10 years. All towns on the transsiberian were built at about the same time, and almost all peaked at some point in the distant past. Thus, decay aside, a trip along the railroad is a timewarp to the time that economic development (driven largely by rail construction) ceased.

As I attempted to cajole my dying camera into capturing yet another spectacular siberian sunset (which, no doubt, I will upload by 2015), I was immediately set upon by three adolescents, who spoke vernacular russian with incredible speed, and seemed determined to talk, despite my understanding at most 4% of what they said. We established early on I was dirt poor (my phone is held together with tape), so I wasn't robbed. Nevertheless, there were obvious signs of FAS and siphilitic retardation in all three boys, who looked about 12 despite being 16 or 17. This is West Side Story territory! I had enough and walked away, but was followed. One boy spotted my passport pouch (under my shirt), but was put off by my implications of it being a firearm for long enough for me to get within dashing distance of a restaurant. I walked in and thankfully was left behind. Business was not booming, but the waitress soon appeared and struck up a lively conversation. I didn't comprehend much of the menu, so asked for something good and wrote my journal for a bit. While swatting mosquitos, 4 courses appeared in quick succession (salad of tomato, radish, dill, cucumber, onion, and chives, bread, mashed potato and fried egg, and barbequed meat), together with tea. The teaspoon was spectacular, and again taxing my Russian to the utmost I asked if I could buy it for my sister's friend's mother who collects such rare things. I have no idea if she understood but when I left she gave it to me, so awesome! The dinner, needless to say, was my token good meal for the day, from here it's back to biscuits and nutella, for as long as my nutella supply holds out.

I walked back to the station, at about 11pm (it was still twilight) and did not feel in any particular danger of being robbed. There were single women wandering around, most looked pretty scared of me. Tomorrow I will arrive in Bratsk, hopefully meet a couchsurfer there, and thence to Severobaikalsk.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Novosibirsk by car

The day before yesterday the couple from Belarus made an excellent dinner and I washed up, also singing some songs for my CS host.

Yesterday I spent time with a couple from Belarus on their way to Altai, and uploaded some photos. In the evening, I went to the house of some relatives of friends in Australia (thanks for the tip!), and we had the most amazing dinner. Baked potatoes and chicken, tomatoes with eggs and cheese, more tomatoes, dill, and cucumbers, olives, beef and pork, and then fruit and coconut icecream with chocolate and wafer for dessert. My goodness me. Their house/flat is very tastefully renovated, and we discussed all sorts of stuff. They are highly trained professionals and seem to be making a good living! After dinner, the son, who is a few years older than me, drove me around to Rayon Lenina to see the river bank, the bridges, the river, and the war memorial, all of which were very interesting. On the way back, he told me about the phenomenon of the 'gopnik'. A gopnik is a man who wears cheap tracksuits, sits on his haunches rather than a chair, eats sunflower seeds and beats up weak people for alcohol money. We then drove to the other side of town, keeping an eye out for gopniks. We agreed that my less than flashy appearance would be good insurance against them!

Today after a slow start I went to drop keys off to my host, who is leaving for Moscow this afternoon, and then walked to the Novosibirsk zoo. It is, by reputation, the best in Russia, with over 4000 animals. Particular highlights were the many cats, polar bears, other types of bears, many monkeys, and other strange things which inhabit these parts. The aquarium was quite small, and the 'night world' section remains a mystery to me, as my ability to see in the dark is limited. Somewhere in the middle were a couple of wallabies - my first fellow Australians in some time. They seemed rather confused as to how they'd wound up in the middle of Siberia, rather like me. I think Taronga is probably better still, though I haven't visited for about 10 years.

After a while I'd seen most of the animals so I left - walking back towards the house (and net cafe). During this walk, I reflected on what I'd been told the previous night about driving in Novosibirsk. The drivers seem quite adept, yet crashes are frequent, with an average of 4 or 5 pedestrian deaths a day. Yesterday this was very nearly me, as a car shot out of a driveway unseen, finally giving me the sort of shave my 2c bic razors had fantasized about for weeks. Later on this walk (it's about 5km), I actually witnessed a crash, which I would classify as a 'serious fender bender', with noone seriously hurt. Such occurences would account for the fact that many cars here lack bumpers, probably having lost them in minor crashes. Replacements from Japan are, I'd imagine, pretty pricey.

I have uploaded a BUNCH of new photos, taken through Mongolia at least up until our arrival in Olgii, the westernmost large town. After this we spent 10 days in the mountains, but I don't have time to sort 700 photos right now. Try the link in the previous post.

Tonight I'll be taking a train to Krasnoyarsk (which I previously visited in mid December 2006), and hopefully thence to Bratsk the same day.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Some photos are up
This is to about halfway through a hike I took with Jon over Bogd Khan Uul.

1/3 of the way?

Since my last post I took a train to Novosibirsk. The first day I walked around the city, saw the sights, lamented that the opera house is shut until October, etc etc. The train station is shaped like a giant steam engine. By giant I mean 5 stories high, about. Maybe bigger. I tried to take a photo but it doesn't fit in my camera. In the evening I cooked dinner for my CS host and had a grand ol' time.

Yesterday, on the other hand, was slightly more interesting. I took a marshrutka (taxi-minibus) to Akademgorodok, the academic city, and checked the place out. I snuck into a few buildings, including a very classy dorm for visiting academics and a few of the physics institutes. I found it interesting that the students were quite easy to detect - we have a dress code which, it seems, stretches the world over. I also walked down to the beach. The beach? I hear you (all my 2.5 readers) cry. Indeed. In the middle of Siberia, the crafty Russkis built a very large dam, with a beach at one part for the people to come in summer (it was nudging 30C) and strut around in bikinis. Well, the men, not so much. Still, it was a bit of a surprise.

Later that evening I went to a concert in the philarmonic hall. Most of the numbers were performed at a standard I'd associate with middle-highschool (I think they were students from the local conservatory?), but towards the end a man walked out with a piano accordian and wowed us for about 20 minutes, then later two girls played selections from Porgy and Bess (Gershwin) on Violin and Piano. It was pretty extraordinary.

That evening, we were joined by two more CS guests from Belorus, who cooked dinner (yum) and entertained us with their chit chat about travelling to the Altai to meet the traditional villages and shamans, etc etc.

I bought a ticket to Krasnoyarsk. It will be interesting to visit in summer and see how much has changed. Unfortunately I can't spend too much time in this part of Siberia, so I will probably have to skip Bratsk, and maybe Tynda. I plan to spend a few days at Baikal, though.

Also, yesterday was (I think), the point at which I have completed 1/3 of the trip (by time). I think I am a little more than 1/3 of the way through photo memory, and a little less than 1/3 of the way through my money, which is probably the preferable circumstance. My Russian improves, but glacially.

It occured to me, though, that wandering the streets of Novosibirsk I probably look enough like a foreigner that the locals know, but enough like a Russian that other tourists don't know, and don't say hi. I haven't talked to a native English speaker for maybe a week, and I haven't seen an Australian since I left (I think). Bizarre.

This morning I walked into a pet shop and they had, inter alia, budgies and a cockatiel for sale. They call the cockatiel a corella, but I was unable to explain why this is wrong... damn!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Some more photos

Added some photos to the Beijing section. Next will be a short album of the train to Mongolia. Sorry, I travel 5 times faster than I upload photos.

No photos, sorry

There's a very fast internet connection here, but there's some compatibility issue and it's 3am. So sorry. In partial recompense, I captioned most of the photos that already exist. Here:

Russian Sunday

Slow wake up today - 12:15pm. Ate breakfast of potatoes and cabbage soup (pretty good), bought some food and a railway ticket to Novosibirsk, then went with my couchsurfer to her parents' place, where I had more soup, chatted with people, and helped remove micro strawberry stems for making jam. At about 6pm we returned to the flat (which is rather nice, I might add), and waited for the other CSer, then with yet more friends (Alex, Sasha (boy), Evgeny, me, and Elena) drove to Evgeny's mother's house in the country (a dacha), and hung out there for the rest of the afternoon. The sun sets at about 10pm at the moment. The dacha was pretty nice - even the barking dog showed an appropriate level of respect when I pointed my camera at him. We searched the garden for ingredients to add to the dinner, but first, the banya!

Before the banya, however, we walked down to the river (a fast flowing tributary of the Ob, and even here, 2000km from the ocean, much larger than the Murray), and had a quick swim. That is to say, the crazy Russians swum in the barely liquid water, I skimmed a few stones on the uncannily smooth, but rolling, water. Meanwhile I spent much time trying to understand the variable nature of Russian plurals. Shivering, we walked back to the house and prepped the banya. This banya was a shed in the yard with a stove in it (and some wooden benches). The stove had a tank of water above it which was kept close to boiling, and the procedure began. First sit in the heat to acclimatise, then pour some hot water on some heated stones to steam the place up a bit. Or a lot, depending on your perspective. The temperature was probably about 60C, though it felt like the surface of the sun. Later, (after several breaks for beer, dried fish and calimari), we took bundles of birch twigs which we had previously ripped from some unsuspecting tree and proceeded to whack each other with them. The procedure, which is carried out under excruciatingly hot and humid conditions, is, bizarreness aside, quite refreshing.

Soon enough (after maybe an hour), the banya ended, we washed off, dressed, and returned to the house. I quickly set about making my amazing pasta with eggs and tomatoes dinner (whose principle virtues are simplicity, taste, and celerity), and before long we were sitting around a table completely covered in food. After the pasta course, a course of potato and cabbage (kartoshka i kapusti) soup, dried nuts glued with honey, coffee, cucumbers, bread, and a million other nice things, and endless conversation about funny stuff conducted in a mixture of Russian and English. Earlier, we had speculated about the manner of walking in Australia (on our hands, obviously), and later we had a conversation about the merits of the LHC. I assured everyone present that it was unlikely to produce a world-killing black hole, but that so many governments could build something so expensive without the capability for killing people or waging war, was a wonderful thing.

Time flew and come midnight we piled back into the car and drove back to the city (Biysk) and all said our goodbyes.

If you haven't already been, now is the time to go to and join up. One of the biggest difficulties with solo travel is the loneliness or lack of company. Couchsurfing generates instant company, and combines it with free accomodation. FTW.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Crossing the border

This is a blog post in 3 parts.

The first concerns my adventures the day before yesterday. I awoke at 5am, strapped on my bag, and walked to the market, where I eventually found a van going to Kosh-Agach, the Russian border town. We set out, getting a free tour of the town early morning as we picked up some middle-aged business women, a bunch of (mostly) empty fuel cans and a rather fat man. The van took off, at the usual pace of about 40km/h and soon we had stopped, jacked the rear axle, wiped some oil from the rear hub and one of the women was car sick. Good start. Later, we followed earthworks of a new road being built to the Russian border from Olgii, which entailed some excitement as the road periodically ended in a chassis breaking ditch. Usually we escaped via some miracle. Eventually we made it to the Mongolian border town, where I had 5 botz (mutton dumplings) and the fat guy had about 30, one per bite. The staff pulled the 'extremely slow change' trick while the van drove away, but I waited (for about $15 worth of change on a 50c meal), then walked down the road to find the van stuck in a queue that would define the rest of the day. Despite there only being about 12 vehicles crossing to Russia that day, they were all held up behind two antiquated buses stuffed with undocumented Kazakhs migrating from Mongolia to Kazakhstan via the Altai Republic. After about two hours, we got to customs, where division of labour took place. One woman took the passports, the rest carried the luggage to be xrayed for illicit material.

Soon, we were back on the trusty dirty road heading towards the Russian Mongolian border post. Again, we were stuck behind the Kazakhs, this time for about an hour and a half of staring at nothing in particular, even the sign held up by vodka bottles has disappeared. I took the opportunity to fulfil a life-long dream and took a leak on the border. Once again, we passed through. In Russia at last! 5 metres beyond the border the road became tarmac and the dust began to settle. Mongolia, a country largely without running water, roads, and where most vitamins are gained through the ample dirt content of food (which I actually didn't mind), was behind us.

We rounded a corner and faced Russian border control and customs. After a while a man appeared and sprayed our wheels to disinfect various livestock diseases that run in the area, but again, 100 Kazakhs without passports, ID, or birth certificates had the effect of twice the LD50 of Imodium on the whole place. We waited, 20m from Russia, for 3 hours. While crossing I ran into four Irish men who were driving a 4WD to a rally in Mongolia, and very nearly got confused with them and sent back! Also at the post was a tall Russian soldier with a wicked sense of humour (he chatted to a few truckies for a while) and the most amazing Russian accent I have ever heard and hope to emulate at some point. Meanwhile the fat man has progressed from attempting to get me to buy him cigarettes, more food, a jar of pickles and beer, to eating my food, trying to steal my water, and offering on my behalf for me to pay a $100 bribe to speed things up. Needless I found such a corpulent lack of self-control utterly revolting. At customs he managed to piss off the business women by hovering around the queue then jumping it at the first available opportunity. For what? We were stuck there until the entire car was cleared. He was treated to a good lesson in sophisticated English invective. I am still alive, so I assume he didn't understand it.

At last, in Tashanta, the first true Russian town. To be fair, it was a nicer than average border town; it had one nice looking building. We stopped at gas station and reversed a previous trade in which we crossed the border with one less fuel can and one more pair of Kazakh sandals - presumably there's a quota? The road continued, straight as an arrow, for another 50kms (during which time the Uaz van threatened to approach 80km/h) to the more substantial town of Kosh-Agach. Here, I knew things were going to improve because when I asked a woman where to find a Bankomat (ATM), she sent her two 5 year old kids to show me; I gave them a toy koala each! With roubles in my pocket, nothing could stop me. I found a cheap looking guesthouse, and checked in. I was charged 3 times the going rate, which came to about $10. In a ger out the front was a Danish motorcyclist, who with any luck I may meet again in Vladivostok, and also in the guest house were two lovely girls from Novosibirsk (and their parents) with whom I had a highly amusing dinner, evening, and breakfast the following morning. I then slept in a bed for the first time in about 3 weeks (overrated, I say).

All up crossing the border took 8 hours.

The second part concerns the events of yesterday.

Next morning I sorted out a working sim card for my phone (in Russia), and began to try to flag down passing trucks to go to Biysk, 570kms further down the road (a big hop, but there is only one road!). Soon enough a car stopped and I got in. I sussed pretty soon that it was a commercial venture, but I could afford the price, and this man drove slightly faster than the average Russian Kamaz truck. In fact, the previous day 80km/h seemed an elusive prospect. This day, 80km/h was elusive also, but from the other direction. Early on I stated my intention not to die in a flaming car accident, and he assured me he had driven the route for 5 years, which would account for his complete ignoring of lines on the road, like a racing driver. We touched 155km/h (Toyota Corolla). He then told me it didn't matter, as he had lung cancer (hardly surprising, given his cigarette consumption). Great! Later, he pointed out a few places where he had crashed. :S Technically, speed limits were adhered to, but only after they had been doubled. Needless to say the ABS system was never not used.

All was forgotten soon enough, as I began the long task of memorizing the Russian-English dictionary, and the road opened out before me. It is no exaggeration to say that the Chuyskiy Trakt (M-52) is the most amazing road I have ever been on (and I've been on a few). The road winds along next to a river (for the most part), sometimes at water level, sometimes on narrow rock ledges far above the raging torrent. We were never once overtaken, but overtook every car we saw. Trucks were left far in our wake. On occasion passing a truck on a tight chicane bend the closeness of the passage and relativistic doppler shifting made it possible to see the whites of the eyes of the oncoming passengers. Above the river were endless forests of larch butting into reasonably large, vegetation encrusted mountains, where only the sheer faces were uncovered rock. Meanwhile clouds hovered at several different heights. My photos (taken with the last dying electron of 2 week old batteries) will not fully convey the 'avatar'-like feeling of wonder. In between times we slowed to let herds of cattle cross the road - in considerably better condition than accross the border. In Mongolia, the lack of trees leads to a high surface temperature and most rain evaporates before hitting the ground. In Russia, it was much wetter.

The overall time for the drive was 8 hours, so I arrived in the early evening. Travelling by truck I'd probably still be grinding up some hill half-way along, so IMO cash well spent. One minor hitch. As I paid for the trip in two parts, (to help buy petrol), the driver and I disagreed on how much I had paid the first time. Fortunately, the difference came to about $8 (maybe 6% of the total cost), so not as major a loss as it could be. There's a possibility it was a genuine error - he was not a young man, nor did he have my slight obsession with numbers.

At length we arrived in Biysk, I departed at the bridge across the river, called my couchsurfer, wrote my journal, and then went to the rather nice flat of another CSer, and the three of us ate dinner. This is the third part of the adventure. Somehow we ended up discussing, with our somewhat limited mutual intelligibility, how a laconic and self-deprecating sense of humour is a necessary precondition to enjoying travel. Eg FML, LOL, and other stuff. Well I enjoyed the conversation, and we're all scientists of one sort or another. Later, we talked of food, sport, and other stuff in which it is easier to communicate unambiguously one word at a time.

Overall, 20 hours in cars, one slow, one fast. A new country, a new currency. New friends. A new language. In one day in Russia, I've come to realise that probably 95% of the Russian I know from my previous trip is flawed in at least one major way. While comprehensible, I aim to speak in a correct and recognisable way over the next two months. At this rate I'm learning ~10^1 words a day, plus a bunch of grammar. I feel it is a good start. Already I'm far beyond where I was 48 hours ago! If I can maintain this rate of improvement, I'll proof-read Dostoyevsky in a couple of weeks (yay exponentials).

Now it's 2:30am. There is some chance of some photos (probably of China and Eastern Mongolia) tomorrow.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Border zone fishing

We spent one day in Olgii, farewelled Michiel, then visited the black market (bazaar, oddly enough) to buy provisions. This time it was much warmer weather, but the cows were still wandering around. We packed the Russian jeep (UAZ), now looking empty with only 3 people in it. Maximum is about 20.
We took off into the hills, this time driving up a smoothish gravel road on the floor of a deep canyon. Eventually we emerged from a tributary into a wide valley of Ulaankhus. Green valley, square mudbrick buildings, white gers, blue sky, white fluffy clouds, grey gravel pans, and in between a kaleidoscope of mountains of every colour of the rainbow. We continued into the wilderness.
The road followed a valley up, and with one eye on the oil temperature I was surprised when our driver pulled over without the familiar cabin smell of melting plastic. "Spring!". We walked back down the road towards a non-descript rock, and sure enough from beneath it flowed a substantial amount of icy subterranean water. Apparent oil-slicks nearby (composed of Iron oxidising bacteria) confirmed the water had been underground for a long time. It tasted pretty good. (Though very cold! Major potential for icecream headache.)
We continued on, now the road became (and remained) incredibly bumpy. Even with Russian leaf springs, tires, and a padded ceiling, the jeep bounced around quite a lot. With 15 people on board it bounces less. On one occasion I nearly swapped seats with the driver. This would have been problematic, as he would then have been in the back seat. The top of my head became well acquainted with the roof!
We continued past a gold mine to a couple of gers belonging (like almost everything else) to part of our drivers extended family. A few calved wandered around and we parked the jeep. About 12 children emerged from inside, we entered, drank tea and ate fried flour cookies. Later we had the traditional Kazakh 'meal of five fingers', (which refers to the method of eating, not the contents), which was fried pancake and 10 month old dried meat. Apparently mutton and horse - the horse had a strong flavour. Various condiments offered with cookies included curds, yoghurt, milk, cheese, dried cheese, and so on - all made from combined sheep, goat, camel, horse, and cow milk. Not much fun for lactose intolerance, but otherwise amazing.
We unfurled our sleeping bags and slept soundly on the floor, but not before slipping outside to watch a couple of shooting stars, one of which cruised from horizon to horizon in about 10 seconds.
Next morning we packed, gave some gifts, and drove on. Soon enough we bumped our way (even the bumps have bumps. The roads were heavily corrugated, but these aren't even felt...) past surreal mounds of post ice-age moraine and ancient burial mounds to the lakes district. Here we stopped briefly at the army outpost to register our presence in the border zone. Fortunately someone was on duty, or we may have had to wait for a while, possibly in prison.
One hair-raising wooden bridge later and we were at our somewhat mosquito infested campground. I once again found a way to hang my hammock, by driving the starting crank under a rock and belaying the webbing over the top (maybe I'll upload a photo?). The driver assembled his fishing rod, walked to the water's edge, and began to pluck fish out at the rate of about 5 a minute. This rate continued unabated for some time!
Once in camp we settled into the usual routine. For dinner we had several boiled fish, about as fresh as it is possible to be.
On the next day, my travelling companion John was ill, so unfortunately we were unable to hike all day to the Chinese border (so what we planned to do there will remain a mystery, although suffice to say it depends on maintaining adequate hydration...). Instead I calculated the angle from north that the sun would rise and set at any given day of the year, and wrote a song based on 'FML'.
The next day I slept in in wondrous warmth and comfort (yay, hammock), John was better, and we turned around and came back. The trip back was much the same, except we hit even more bumps. At one pinch point where the road crossed a ravine, the technique depended on bunny hopping the jeep side ways for about 2 metres on exactly the right sized rocks. Everything in the back was rearranged, something went 'crack' in my neck, and the driver's milk became a milk shake. Battling an intermittent problem with the fuel pump, we drove through Sagsai (the second richest sum in Olgii Aimag - most people lived in mudbrick huts rather than gers), and stopped at a settlement populated mainly by yet more extended family. One fellow in particular made a living by hunting with an eagle. This eagle was something else. Somewhat larger than the peregrine falcon favoured in the near east, the Mongolian eagle has about a 3 metre wingspan. The hunter rides a horse with the bird on his arm, they usually catch foxes, dogs, or small wolves. This particular one won several prizes at the national level, even though it was only 3 years old.
We were permitted to hold it using a special glove - the a strong wind its wings remained outstretched (wait for photos). Its claws were about the size of my little finger, and while hooded it declined to let go. I was the only person present not to get a scratch!
After that we retired to the ger, drank tea, ate home-made bread (the best in Mongolia by far), then drove back down the ravine to Olgii. We celebrated our return with a quality 3 dollar meal at the swankiest restaurant (Turkish) in town.
Hopefully tomorrow or the next day I'll find a lift to Russia.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Location of glacier

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Mongolia, a land untouched by road building.

In Hovd, I teamed up with an American and a Belgian to hire a jeep for 50US a day and drive to the ends of the Earth. Well, almost. The remote far western part of Mongolia is the most authentic home of Kazakh culture, and we spent 2 days crawling on dirt barely-roads, camping on land-slide scree slopes above perfect lakes and impossible mountains, watching 3 hour sunsets, and shivering in snow and sleet as the temperature rarely snuck above 10C. My tent of choice is the hennessy hammock (google or die!), but it is uniquely unsuited to Mongolia, a country with about 10 trees, and none within sight of another. So I tied onto the jeep tow point and a  well positioned rock, unrolled my absurdly over-engineered sleeping bag, and slept wonderfully as small animals froze to death while trying to nibble me.

After 3 days we climbed above 2800m along a glacial valley, the river's partially melted icebanks and sprinting marmots combining with sporadic gers and grazing goats and yaks to give the perfect picture of a land untouched by time, except that every ger (white felt tent) had a solar panel and sat-dish for Chinese TV! We stopped at a few for tea and biscuits, as our driver spoke Kazakh, Turkish, Mongolian (all related), English, and Russian. Well qualified.

We prepared a dish of Mongolian mutton stew, played bartok, and went to sleep. The next morning we packed our bags and set off on the forbidden (to cars) border road towards the Tavan Bogd (five saints) mountains on the corner of Mongolia, Russia, and China. 17kms along muddy roads we exceeded 3000m and were rewarded with a 180 degree vista of pointy mountains vanishing in cloud and a majestic glacier in between. Stopping briefly at base-camp for tea and a chat, we climbed over a mountain of moraine and ventured onto the ice itself. We walked out, hopping narrow and transverse crevasses (not really dangerous - only 10cm wide) to find some Japanese scientists disassembling a weather station in the middle. They told us the ice was about 100m thick at that point! Due to all the dirt we thought it was maybe 10cm... only out by a factor of 1000 - that's PRL territory for astronomy.

Soon enough the weather came in and we had to scramble back over the moraine, composed of rocks and quicksand in a semi-frozen jumble of instability, and then went cross country to cut about 2km off the return trip. Our shortcut took us (inevitably) through dozens of high-altitude bogs (Tavan Bogd = Tavan Bogged...), leading to the useful scientific discovery that the water-proof-ness of my left shoe is no longer a running concern. With one final look over our shoulders at craggy snowy peaks towering 1000s of meters above us we trekked back for four hours to our base camp, ate 2-minute noodles, played a Mongolian war card game, and did some Mongolian restling. That night I mis-hung my hammock and woke at 4am to find I had ejected myself onto the ground.

Following breakfast we packed everything back into the trusty Uaz Russian jeep and high-tailed it, over impossibly rough and bumpy roads, back to Olgii. On the way we were rewarded with a dust devil, more flat valleys and high peaks, hundreds of mummified animal corpses from a particularly harsh winter, rocky, semi arid plains and rocky, semi barren hills. Russian jeeps operate optimally at an oil temperature of 60C, and above 80C begin to stop and start. We overheated about 6 times, the last on a high saddle with a view over the plains through clear air to our destination.

Arriving back in town we unpacked, drank tea and headed into town. Still wearing woolen thermals we walked unimpeded into the swankiest Mongolian restaurant in town, ordered the 3 (of about 20) things on the menu which were actually available, and ate. I had to walk across the road to get a soft drink as they only sold beer (and pretty terrible beer at that). We then checked into the soviet-era shower house, washed away 5 days of dust, grime, and ghosts of receeding glaciers, then checked into a mud-brick internet cafe (with CRT monitors!) on the way back.

One final thing - to get valid security certificates and check my mail, I had to reset the computer clock, which was marked January 2002.

Not a bad way to spend 5 days!