Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Monday, July 30, 2007

Naadam: A quintessential Mongolian experience

When we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the city was buzzing with excited chatter about Naadam, the country's biggest sporting event, which was due to begin in a couple of days. Naadam is a bit like an annual Mongolian Olympics, with contests in traditional wrestling, archery and cross-country horse racing. The multi-day festival draws thousands of Mongolian and foreign spectators, making it either the best or the worst time to visit, depending on one's tolerance for crowds and interest level in traditional Mongolian sports and culture. In our case, arriving just in time for Naadam was intentional and we soon joined the scramble for tickets.

Spectators assembling outside the Parliament Building in Ulaanbaatar, before the official Naadam parade

"Naadam" is derived from the word "naad", meaning play or rejoice, and has been celebrated in Mongolia since 1641. Provincial Naadam contests take place all over the country while the national Naadam is held in Ulaanbaatar (or UB, as the locals call their capital). While there's plenty of sporting action to be seen in the provinces, the most elaborate opening ceremony is held in UB. Naadam actually began for us before we arrived at the stadium. We happened to be wandering around near the Parliament Building behind Sukhbaatar Square as an elite group of soldiers mounted their horses to parade the official Naadam banners to the stadium.

Escorting the Naadam banners is apparently a great honor for the Mongolian soldiers who are handpicked to perform this honorable duty.

We followed them as they escorted the white horsehair banners through the dusty, potholed streets of UB. We had to run to keep up, which resulted in a twisted ankle for Jason. 'No pain, no gain' for the photographer! Thankfully, he did get some great shots which seemed to take his mind off the pain for a few hours.

Cloudy skies threatened a wet start to Naadam, but we managed to stay dry.

Stadium seating had been grossly oversold, so we were a bit squashed, but well situated to observe some interesting crowd behavior. In the front row an aging pair of foreign tourists insisted on having their view-obstructing umbrella up in spite of the absence of sun or rain, much to the disapproval of those behind. A young Mongolian forced himself into a non-existent gap between two seated spectators which put at least one of them at risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis, although the victim was too polite to object. Then there was the tourist sitting next to Jason who didn't look up from his Tom Clancy novel from the moment he sat down. In fact, he was still reading it two and a half hours later when the ceremony ended. It must have been a gripping read.

The VIPs. There's no marching without the marching band!

The opening ceremony soon distracted us from people watching, commencing with a patriotic marching band who accompanied the mounted soldiers as they paraded the horsehair banners around the stadium. The banners were finally displayed on a platform where they would take pride of place for the duration of Naadam. Next came a colorful string of traditionally clad dancers, flag bearers and archers. The flag bearers moved in a carefully choreographed sequence while traditional Mongolian songs were performed by a traditional singer. After a speech by Mongolia's President, which was great to witness in spite of being totally incomprehensible to us, we enjoyed folk dancing brought to life by elaborate costumes and masks.

Folk dancers dressed for the occasion.

Mongolian beauty queens (can you imagine a national parade without them?) with flag bearers in the background.

The grand finale was a performance by a long haired Mongolian rock star who circuited the stadium with a fleet of motorcycles, in total contrast to the traditional presentations. The ceremony was a colorful and interesting one, although we were quietly relieved when it was over, as eighty per cent of the crowds filed out, leaving us to watch the first round of wrestling in peace.

Rock on, Mongolia! This rock star waves a Mongolian flag from the bike.

The wrestlers came in all shapes and sizes and wore distinctive embroidered knickers and cropped jackets with heavy looking leather boots. The rules were minimal and the objective clear, the loser being the first to touch the ground with anything other than hands or feet.

Wrestlers are pictured here warming up and fighting. The gentlemen in blue robes are the referees.

The contests we saw lasted anything from a few seconds to several minutes, and we'd cheer each winner as he circled the horsehair banners with arms raised in the traditional victory "eagle dance". The wrestling turned out to be a particularly exciting event this year as the long time champ was defeated in the early rounds, conceding the prestigious title to a young upcoming wrestler.

This wrestler circles the horsehair banners in the eagle dance for victory.

The festivities continued outside the stadium where vendors grilled kebabs and crowds milled around from one event to another. Our next stop was the archery, where we watched male and female masters of the bow and arrow demonstrate their skills in brightly colored outfits. Interestingly, there were no conventional concentric circle targets involved. Instead, the archers aimed at rows of cylindrical cans on the ground. Nonetheless, their precision and power was impressive.

The archery field

We were wooed away from the archers by the sound of monotonous wailing. The wailing was coming from the nearby venue for anklebones, Naadam's newest sporting event. Several anklebone contests were in progress simultaneously, with spectators gathered round each group of contestants. Contestants would take it in turns to flick an anklebone at a target board about six feet away, earning points for accuracy. Each contestant had a team of supporters seated on the sidelines, 'singing' (or wailing) to bring good luck. The concentration and precision of the competitors were amazing, and the wailing certainly added to the atmosphere of this intriguing event.

All eyes are on this anklebone contestant as he prepares to flick the bone.

On the second day of Naadam we drove 30 km into the countryside where the cross- country horse racing was taking place. We watched the end of the 'Ikh nas' race for 6 year old horses, as the lean muscular animals crossed the finish after racing for 27 km across open steppe.

This guard makes sure we don't get too close to the race.

It was incredible to see such powerful horses ridden by tiny jockeys, some of them younger than the horses, and most of them not much older. There was a mix of male and female jockeys, wearing bright colored pajamas with orange numbered vests. Many wore colorful paper crowns, most rode bareback and hardly any wore either shoes or helmets. We were shocked at the young age of these riders and the multitude of health and safety hazards involved in the event, as well as awed by the skill and speed of the race.

Here comes the winner, furlongs ahead of the competition

Interestingly, the jockeys (even the winners) were barely congratulated at the finish line, while the horses were showered with attention and airag (fermented mare's milk). This speaks volumes about how important horses are in Mongolian culture. The 'horse worshipping' is even more profound with the 'Soyolon' (five year old horses), the most venerated group. Mongolians believe that coming into contact with the sweat or dust from a winning Soyolon horse will bring them good luck.

This jockey checks out the kites on sale.

Naadam was undoubtedly a unique experience. Having been initiated at the national event in UB, we fancy checking out a provincial Naadam next time for a more up close and personal experience. Maybe we'll even find ourselves showered with sweat and dust from a winning Soyolon horse!

Next on Donkey Crossing: chilling out in the Gobi Desert

Sunday, July 29, 2007

My name's Ulaanbaatar, but my friends call me UB

After several days on Olkhon Island, followed by another long haul train journey through Siberia, we were excited to arrive in our first Asian capital city: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I was particularly excited to visit UB, as I had got to know many Mongolians during my five year tenure with my former employer, Intrax International Institute-Chicago. Our Chicago school attracted numerous Mongolians, and at any given time there were at least 10-15 Mongolians enrolled at Intrax.

We had a very pleasant welcome to UB, as we were once again met by our hotel manager at the train station. There's nothing better than getting off a long haul train and being picked up at the station by a friendly local. On arrival, our top priorities were finding a few good restaurants, a room with a reliably hot shower and cheap internet access. UB delivered on all of these.

Although many Midwestern American families think authentic Mongolian cuisine is an all-you-can-eat stir fry buffet, the real Mongolian BBQ is prepared like this mutton.
An image of Chinggis Khan can be found in nearly every corner of Mongolia; however this gigantic statue on the steps of the new parliament building is far more impressive than any other.The new facade of the parliament building from the far end of Sukhbaatar Square.
The physical impression of Mongolia that for so long had been in my mind was of grassy, open steppe for as far as the eye can see. Although this is true for the vast majority of the country, UB is surprisingly surrounded by pleasant green mountains. A view from the rooftop of our accommodation: Gana's Guest House

The most negative aspect of UB was by far the traffic and conditions of the sidewalks. With the absence of anything resembling a crosswalk, and motorists having no regard for pedestrians, we found ourselves in a cruel, real-life version of Frogger. As for the sidewalks, one truly needs to memorize the missing manhole covers during daylight, because with virtually no streetlights, walking the streets becomes a hazardous pursuit at night.

The story behind this photo is that I twisted my ankle earlier in the day en route to the Naadam Festival. The severe pain took a few hours to kick in and we realized it was time to find some ice later in the day. Since ice is commercially unavailable in Mongolia, we searched for a cold pack instead. After being shut out by our third pharmacy, and limping toward a taxi, I stepped on a manhole cover and it flipped open, landing directly on my previously uninjured ankle. Thankfully Rachel ignored the laughing public surrounding the incident, lifted the manhole cover off my leg and waved down the nearest taxi to the scene.

A major highlight of UB are the historic Buddhist buildings that have been restored since the fall of Communism in the early 1990s. The city is full of traditional temples and statues, the most important being the Gandantegchinling Monastery.

This 26 meter statue of Migjed Chenrezig is the focal point of the monastery, although we found the praying and chanting monks we saw in some of the smaller temples just as interesting.

Thousands of these tiny Buddhas are lined high and wide around the grand statue of Migjed Chenrezig.

This structure, along with dozens of ornate stupas, are located around the monastery. Visitors can witness scores of monks and lay people circumambulating, focusing all their attention on their practice.

We certainly enjoyed everything UB had to offer, from the Eastern & Western restaurants, the abundance of cheap internet access and the Buddhist culture. The main reason for visiting, however, in mid-July is for the Naadam Festival. Our next posting will take a look at our experiences at Mongolia's annual sport and culture phenomenon.

A big thanks to Rich, Matt and Chris for posting comments on a couple of our previous postings. Although we hear from many loved ones via personal e-mails, it is very exciting to receive a comment or two on Donkey Crossing!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Farewell Russia, Hello Mongolia

After the peaceful bliss of Olkhon Island, we had one night back in Irkutsk prior to boarding an early morning train to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We were excited our new friends Andy and Jane would be on the same 3o hour journey, but slightly apprehensive that we had second class tickets and our cabin mates could be anyone from quirky backpackers to drunken military personnel. We thought it would be a lot easier to bunk down with Andy and Jane, but Russian trains are quite strict with utilizing the cabin designated on your tickets and there's no messing around with Russian Rail staff.

The #4 service from Moscow to Beijing, via Ulaanbaatar. We planned to continue on to Beijing two weeks later.

A classic Russian scene on our way out of Irkutsk: the active smokestacks of a factory.

We were excited our train was scheduled to leave Irkutsk in the wee morning hours (5.40 AM), as it meant our train would circle the south coast of Lake Baikal just in time for sunrise. Many trains traveling in the opposite direction travel this part of the route at night.

Train #4 circling Lake Baikal just after sunrise. We enjoyed the views of Lake Baikal from our shared cabin for a few hours before heading further east into Siberia, then south toward Mongolia.
Oh, right, that shared cabin. As written in previous posts, we had been very lucky to travel through Russia all the way to Lake Baikal in a first class, private cabin. Since we were traveling the next leg of our journey during the highest of high seasons, and only a few days before Mongolia's famous Naadam Festival, all we could secure were second class tickets. Knowing this can be a great way to meet people, and share an epic travel experience, we were eager to meet the two lucky individuals fate would connect us with for the 30 hour journey. Upon waiting on the platform for our train at 5.20 AM, it could have been any of the fellow backpackers we noticed, or the dodgy looking geezers passed out in the waiting hall or, as luck had it, the lovely Belorussian mother and daughter team traveling to Ulaanbaatar to visit grandma and grandpa. We knew as soon as we entered our cabin and met Yana (aged ten) and Larissa (her friendly mother) we got lucky and wouldn't have to worry about a knife wielding drunk sleeping in the bunk above us.

Yana and Larissa pose as we roll along the Trans-Mongolian Railroad.

We were pretty sure Yana and Larissa were also relieved having us as their cabin mates and we immediately became friends. All communication was done with either gestures or through Yana, who had just enough English skills to make her mother proud and us pleased. The four of us shared our food during each meal, played card games, shared photos of family and kept each other's spirits up during long and hot border crossings. Rachel and I felt very touched when we woke up from a snooze and were presented with a freshly smoked olmut fish, courtesy of our new Belorussian friends. A smoked olmut, a native fish of Lake Baikal, is by far the most delicious piece of local cuisine for sale on the Russian Railways.

While our train hugged the southern shore of Lake Baikal, Yana and her stuffed pig, Harussa, gazed out the window.

A gorgeous slice of Siberia as our train took a right-hand turn heading south toward Mongolia.

As with previous long-distance rail journeys, nothing passes the time better than gazing out the window with a fresh breeze on your face.

Having our new friends Andy and Jane on the same train made the 30 hour journey to Mongolia fly by even faster. We enjoyed visits to their cabin for games of Uno and a trip to the restaurant car for a few beers and a chat about League One English football. Jane commented how impressed she was to meet an American who knew anything about League One (its actually the third league after Premiership and Championship) football. I mentioned how I've been a supporter of Huddersfield Town since my first visit to Yorkshire and tend to check the standings and results from time to time.

Andy, Jane, Rachel and I at the Russian-Mongolian border.

This vendor had neither meat dumplings nor smoked olmut and was therefore deemed not a viable recipient of our final few rubles.

There's always plenty of security personnel on a Russian train platform.

Rachel teaches Yana the classic card game "Memory". I believe Yana won the three games I witnessed and probably would've won more if I hadn't dragged Rachel away for an Uno rendezvous with Andy and Jane.

We had mixed feelings about leaving Russia. We were going to miss the well-operated rail system, inexpensive cheese blinis and the monstrous Soviet structures you see in every city. We, however, hoped warm lager would be a thing of the past and Mongolia would provide us with a few more English speakers, smiles and ice cold beverages.

Our Chinese cabin attendant (conductor #232 according to his badge) enjoys a quick toss of the frisbee while we waited for nearly five hours to clear the Russian border.

Next on Donkey Crossing: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and the Naadam Festival, Mongolia's annual culture extravaganza focusing on the national wrestling, archery and open-steppe horse racing championships.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island

We'd broken the long train journey from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, at Irkutsk so we could visit Lake Baikal. This unmistakable patch of blue on the vast map of Siberia is the world's deepest lake, containing more water than all the Great Lakes of North America combined.

Siberia's famous Lake Baikal

We chose to base ourselves on Olkhon Island, a long, skinny island on the northwest side of the lake, reached from Irkutsk by minibus then ferry. Jason sat in the front of the minibus and managed to make friends with the Russian driver, the mutual desire to communicate and some creativity on both sides overcoming the language barrier. Meanwhile, I made friends with both Russian & foreign passengers in the back.

I met Anya (left) in the minibus from Irkutsk. Thankfully her English was excellent, although I managed to exchange a few words in Russian with her sister Elena and her mother, with whom she was traveling.

The first stop during our six hour drive was at a roadside shrine. We all got out and threw coins, a tradition apparently originating from the indigenous Buddhist people of Siberia. The second time we stopped, our rubles went towards a plate of slimy Russian dumplings stuffed with mincemeat; very typical of the region and tastier than they sound.

Prayer flags dangle from branches at this roadside shrine

On arrival at Olkhon Island's "Camping Tourist Sunny", we all clambered out of the minibus, eager to check out where we'd be staying. The place looked great on their website, but was rather different in real life. Evidently the person who created the website wasn't overly concerned with presenting the facts, and had possibly never actually been here. In fact, the 'stunning lake views', '24 hour hot water', 'log fires in every cabin' and several other advertised features turned out to be completely fictional.

A view of Khuzir, Olkhon Island's only town, with Lake Baikal in the background. The view from our cabin wasn't quite as picturesque.

However, our rustic cabin came equipped with four walls and a bed, which was all we needed. Besides, we had new friends to hang out with and Olkhon Island to explore, so the accommodation situation was more comedy than tragedy really.

Our cabin, a.k.a. 'The Shed'

Meal times at "Camping Tourist Sunny" were especially amusing and often involved a lively debate amongst our friends from the minibus about what we might be eating. We typically reached the consensus that there was probably fish on our plates in some form or other, a deduction based more on our location on the shores of Lake Baikal than on taste, texture or appearance. Breakfast tended to be an equally confusing affair, consisting of some variation on a theme of white carbohydrate goo served with a bowl of fried, soft centered cheesy blobs which tasted slightly fermented.

These roadside pit toilets were actually far more pleasant than the ones at "Camping Tourist Sunny". Not surprisingly, they didn't mention the dodgy toilets on their website. Men on the right, women on the left, in case you were wondering!

Even though we couldn't see Lake Baikal from our cabin, walking a few meters from camp opened up views of the magnificent lake, with a wild but pretty beach to the right and a striking rock peninsula to the left. Looking inland beyond Khuzir, the tree covered hills and grassy steppe stretched out invitingly across the island.

This hill, just outside the confines of "Camping Tourist Sunny", was the perfect spot for taking in views of Baikal and the beach, and for playing frisbee.

For sunset fans, Lake Baikal is a treat

Intent on discovering the secrets of the island, we rented mountain bikes and set off to explore. Having exited Khuzir via the town's unofficial rubbish dump (an experience we've unfortunately notched up in several countries), we headed for the hills. Cycling up the sunny steppe proved a lot more demanding than it looked, but we eventually felt relief in the shady forest, and found ourselves cycling through stunning valleys reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, and across pretty meadows garnished with bright wild flowers.

One of Olkhon Island's delightful 'Alpine' valleys

It was a fantastic day of biking with memorably beautiful scenery, challenging climbs and exhilarating downhills. The only glitch was getting lost and having to repeat a tough 15 km stretch after we'd already decided we'd had enough for the day. There was no time for frustration though, as a thunderstorm loomed ominously between us and Khuzir and we had no choice but to force our tired bodies to press on. Then the rain came, at which point it began to feel more like a military exercise than a joy ride. We made it back to "Sunny" damp but basically unscathed, and we don't regret the two wheeled adventure that gave us a unique view of the island.

Our map proved useless. Gut instincts and a compass got us home in the end.

Tired smiles as we returned to Khuzir

We spent the following day resting our weary biking legs by the rocky peninsula, which is apparently considered a shamanic energy center. We certainly felt energized after a day there, though I'm inclined to attribute that to lying in the sun, gazing passively at the metamorphosis of the clouds. Our picnic feast of smoked Olmut, a delicious Lake Baikal fish, also gave us a tasty boost.

The dramatic shamanic rock jutting into Lake Baikal

Smoked Olmut, about to be devoured

We enjoyed our evenings on Olkhon too. The first was spent strolling on the beach and paddling in the freezing lake waters with Gerben and Veerle, a Belgian couple we'd met on the minibus. We chatted about our shared passion for Belgian beers and good cuisine, and Gerben entertained us with stories about his unusual job as a producer of cooking shows for Belgian television.

Veerle (left) and Gerben

The icy Baikal water was great for chilling our beer, but a bit harsh on the feet. We were back on dry land within seconds of this photo being taken.

We spent the evening of the 4th of July with Andy and Jane, a British couple also staying at "Sunny". They turned up at 'The Shed' with beer and balloons, and we celebrated American Independence Day in Russia accompanied by Bruce Springsteen on the iPod. Another lovely couple we met were Kristin and Carlos. Carlos is from Majorca, Spain and Kristin is, coincidentally, from Wheaton, IL, Naperville's neighbor to the north. We hope to bump into both of these couples as we press forward through Mongolia and China.

Jane and Andy on the ferry, heading back to Irkutsk

Lake Baikal was a delightfully tranquil place to conclude our time in Russia. We left with new friends, a good dose of natural beauty and a few souvenir bruises and scratches from the mountain biking.

Back in Irkutsk, we prepared to say our farewells to Russia. We would leave the next morning on our Trans-Mongolian train journey to Ulaanbaatar.

Farewell, Olkhon Island

Coming soon on Donkey Crossing: leaving Russia on the Trans-Mongolian Railroad and our time in Ulaanbaatar for the annual Naadam Festival.