Friday, 28 September 2007

Top 60 Trip Photos

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The Lands of Mongolia

As I write this I'm sitting in student flat in Wales looking out the window at the rain clouds, the wind, and the multitude of people milling about. A stark contrast if ever there was one to the vast expanse of the Mongolian countryside. It's strange to think back to the endless stretches of grass, and sand reaching to the horizon on all sides, dotted with the sporadic home tents of nomadic locals (called Yurts we learned!). And then to consider the British countryside when one is never more than a stumble away from the nearest settlement, or at least the nearest Pub!

Without much to offer to the casual tourist, the capital city of UlaanBator is a friendly place with a population of merely 800,000. The locals seem to take great pride in the capital as the centre of civilisation and development in a nation traditionally considered to be full of a bunch of wandering country folk. UB (as it is referred to, thankfully, as UlaanBator is both hard to say and spell, I saw 3 different spellings in Mongolia itself!) served for us as a night stopover to get a shower, eat some quality fodder, and join a tour to the rural lands. The shower was required due to being on a train for 2 nights without facilities previously and then heading to live in tents for 5 days without washing facilities either. So in the interest of all mankind we dragged our carcases to the bathroom and spruced up before we headed out for a slap-up meal at one of UB's most highly regarded restaurants (worst travellers ever! Avoided the ever present temptation of McDonalds throughout though... proud of that!).

It's within the fields of Outer Mongolia that the true beauty of this country lies, with it's sprawling landscape forever providing breath-taking views and mind-blowing panoramic visions. Over the 5 days we spent out in the sticks we travelled around by converted military jeep with dubious suspension, lived in Yurts with singing and dancing nomadic families, and ate local food which provided the largest bout of the "squirts" any of us have ever experienced... Mongolia didn't know what had hit it... to say we left our little bit of England in Mongolia would be an understatement! (My apologises to my mother for talking about such subjects publicly, but I felt people should know the truth, and it'd help paint a picture, of which thankfully there are none on this particular subject!) The food was indeed nice however, but we all agreed the Mutton failed to successfully disguise itself as a Lamb, credit was given for effort though.

For the scenery (and the enormous birds!) Mongolia was truly a spectacle only going there yourself could describe, one of those places on the map we all say we'd go back to in a shot if the opportunity arrived. Unfortunately, as in the wise words of Nelly Furtado, "All good things come to an end", and thus we had to pack up our little model Yurts, miniture flags, and warm salty milk before boarding the last and final leg of the trip in the direction of the 2008 Olympic Games, China's capital city, Beijing!

**(This was written as we left UlaanBator in the middle of September, but unfortunately i've not had chance to update the internet until now, sorry!)**

Lake Baikal (Far Eastern Russia)

They said the world was flat, they said beating the sound barrier was impossible, they even said eating bread crusts would make your hair go curly. So it’s understandable that we borderlined on sceptical when this infamous they informed us that Lake Baikal was in fact the worlds largest fresh water lake, volumous enough to consume the contents of all America’s Great Lakes, and vast enough in area to cover the entire of England. However, when we stood on the edge of this gigantic aquatic spectacle it became apparent that the omniscient they may have finally potted the black with this one.

We stayed on an island within Baikal called Olkhon Island, an island highly regarded within the Shamanic religion as a place of great positive energy. There even resided the odd holy stone or pillar which would grant the gift of good energy to any person whom threw monies at it. With promises uncannily similar to those of Powergen we couldn’t resist casting a couple of Roubles into this mystical power meter and waited with baited breath for our Ipods and Mobiles to recharge… once again following Powergen’s business traits the goods never arrived, and the helpdesk failed to help. We were left dejected and without battery life.

Our residence for the 4 days we spent on Olkhon was with Nikita’s Guesthouse. Nikita himself is an ex-Russian table tennis champion, and currently coaches the national team (or so they told us anyway!) And his guesthouse is a Mecca for everyone who travels the area, and it appeared to be frequented throughout the day and night by persons from all over the island for drinks, chat, and tours. It was with a ramshackle collection of nationalities (from within the former USSR, and as far a field as New Zealand) that we enjoyed numerous days fishing, trekking, and generally chilling around on beaches.

Our exploits with the fishing rod failed to reap the kinds of rewards our campfire and rumbling stomachs craved, but it was still an enjoyable 4 hours spent sitting at leisure on rocks and outcrops with the sun on our backs and the cool calm waters tickling our toes. After a couple of false starts and the usual novice errors handing reels and hooks I got underway and set about putting John Wilson to shame. Unfortunately other members of our work detail ran into a couple of hiccups, and spent the majority of their time untangling irreversibly tangled line, cutting the offending line, tying a knot in the line, and then promptly retangling the line again… and so the cycle continued until the American contingent of our team lost his hook and weights somewhere in the deep, dark abyss (reaches a Mile deep in parts!).

All in all though, we agreed that Lake Baikal lived up to expectations and ticked all the right boxes. So with boxes ticked and expectations fulfilled we made our way back to Irkutsk to catch our 6AM train to Mongolia… which we managed to miss in spectacular fashion, so we caught a later 8:30PM train that same day.

So its good bye Russia, and hello Mongolia, it’s been emotional.

**(This was written as we left Baikal at the beginning of September, but unfortunately i've not had chance to update the internet until now, sorry!)**